Pricci's Saratoga Diary
For the next 40 days of New York racing, Executive Editor John Pricci will provide his insights on all things Saratoga for the 35th consecutive year in his original "Saratoga Diary." It debuted in 1977, the year Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown and Jatski was placed first in the Travers Stakes following the disqualification of Run Dusty Run. So keep up with the cold exactas, hot issues, and build your own stable of live horses, all from John's unique perspective, exclusively at

Saturday, August 28, 2010

That’s a Photo Finish!


August 28, 2010

Dear Diary,

No, that wasn’t Colonel John and Mambo in Seattle. Nor was it Forty Niner over Seeking the Gold, and definitely not Conquistador Cielo and Victory Gallop. It might not have been Jaipur and Ridan, but it was still pretty damn good.

But say this for the three-year-old class of 2010; they know how to put on a show, too. And they do like to keep you guessing, right to the finish of a Midsummer Derby.

And while the division’s leader, Lookin At Lucky, is in SoCal getting some R & R and hasn’t even had one workout since his Haskell victory a month ago, a new player emerged in Afleet Express.

Six months ago in Florida, as the Triple Crown horses were beginning to warm up for the show, Afleet Express was struggling to get out of his preliminary allowances condition.

Then, as the horsemen like to say, a light bulb went off when he got back home to Jimmy Jerkens’ shed on Long Island.

A week after the Preakness, Afleet Express ran a hole in the wind, beating a small but solid group of older sprinters, drawing off to win by nearly eight lengths in 1:21 3/5. That’s when Jerkens decided to go on a mission.

The trek to him to the Jersey Shore, when the son of the legendary Allen Jerkens introduced his horse to a second turn for the first time in the G3 Pegasus Stakes. After stalking the early leader, he took command in midstretch to win by nearly two.

After came his Travers prep, the G2 Jim Dandy, in which he was third despite having some difficulty negotiating the stretch turn before altering course outside, rallying boldly to pass more than half the field, settling for third.

But the real meaningful exercise didn’t occur until the race was over when, within another sixteenth of a mile, he galloped out passed the winner by several lengths.

“It wasn’t until I saw what he did in deep stretch that gave my confidence to start in the Travers,” Jerkens said earlier this week.

Javier Castellano, who’s been alternating with Johnny Velazquez for the Saratoga riding title all meet long was likely the nose difference between Afleet Express and Fly Down, who took a wide path into the Saratoga stretch--his preferred style is running outside of horses--as Castellano saved all the ground.

Clearly, he had a game plan as the field left the barrier, breaking his mount cleanly but instead of allowing him to drop back, he held his position, floating several riders wide into the stretch turn which is precisely where he dropped over to the fence.

Castellano saved ground throughout, stalking a realistic pace, stayed inside, asked him to engage shortly after entering the straight and got through cleanly to take the lead at the furlong pole.

At that point, Fly Down’s momentum was carrying him ever closer and the two really hooked up in earnest just passed the sixteenth pole. The momentum appeared to favor Nick Zito’s colt, but Afleet Express had his head down as the wire came up, winning the 141st Travers by the narrowest of margins.

Post race, it was a bit curious to learn that Jerkens didn’t think he would make it to the Breeders’ Cup with this three-year-old.

Jerkens trains the son of Afleet Alex and Expanse for the partnership of Gainesway Stable and Martin L. Cherry, so there may be a breeding shed somewhere in his near future. We shall see.

Haskell second Trappe Shot and Kentucky Derby winning Super Saver were, first and co-third favorites, respectively, were rank disappointments.

Third finisher First Dude, 6-¾ lengths behind the exacta finishers, is now stakes placed in five consecutive Grade 1s.

Outsider Afleet Again, one of three sons of Afleet Alex to race in the Travers, finished fourth. Afleet Express needed 2:03.28 to negotiate the distance and paid $16 to win.

Will Rachel Have the Answer?

Finally, the reigning Horse of the Year returns to Grade 1 competition, at an unfamiliar distance over a surface upon which she’s very much at home. The distance isn’t the only question mark.

We know that Rachel Alexandra doesn’t resemble the three-year-old filly that beat males thrice, including classics colts and elders, en route to the ultimate title via the most ambitious campaign waged by one of her age and sex in the modern era.

No, this model is more mare than filly, but with the same pretty face, undeniably feminine. But the ultimate question is: Is she the same filly?

Sunday’s Personal Ensign looks like the third segment of her season. In the first, the sense was that last year’s Woodward might have been her Dubai--an effort that extracts a toll. After those first two starts, the question was would there even be a third.

Then came her tour de force Fleur de Lis and a comprehensive, albeit puzzling, victory in the ersatz Lady’s Secret at Monmouth Park. Who did she beat? Shouldn’t she have been more impressive? Although it’s probably better than winning an eponymous Grade 1.

Not if Sunday’s race is the real start to her season. Not if she beats a mare the quality of Life At Ten who rolled into Saratoga on a six-race win streak and owns enough gas to take the fight to the champion.

And one more thing: Her success at the trip.

Last year, when Rachel-mania filled the air, even her supporters secretly wondered whether 10 furlongs was beyond her scope. Guess the Preakness in May at a sixteenth shorter just wasn’t good enough.

It was good enough, but it wasn’t proof enough. That’s what 5:56 PM on Sunday is all about. Ultimately, it’s about a Classic, one for the ladies, the other open to all comers.

Uncle Mo's Bandwagon

You always hear the stories. Just after a maiden of some promise wins at first asking, the steam says there’s one in the barn that’s even better. Of course, it never works out that way.

Well, comes Travers day and leading trainer Todd Pletcher had already saddled 13 juvenile winners en route to his seventh Saratoga training title. And in the fifth race, there he is, “Pletcher’s best two-year-old,” 2 $220,000 Indian Charlie colt called Uncle Mo.

Mike Repole, himself in a battle for leading owner with Gary and Mary West, named the horse not for a family member, as he so often does, but because the karma is good right now.

“It’s really from a sports term for momentum,” Repole explained, as in Uncle Mo’s in town. “I hooked up with Todd this year, things are going well now so I thought it was time.”

Well, how’s this for time: 1:09.21? How’s this for margin: 14-¼ lengths? And how about that all the pace was his, posting splits of :22.20 and :45.67 along the way, like breaking so many sticks.

Hyperbole? Report directly to the replay center and see for yourself.

Written by John Pricci

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