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 HorseRaceInsider.com.
 

Saturday, September 01, 2012


Handicapping Spa Features 2.0: The Art of the Mulligan


August 31, 2012-Today’s featured two Grade 1 stakes offers an excellent handicapping study is to the art of applying the mulligan.

Horseman say throw the race out, or strike a line through it, but whatever it’s called, it needs to be part of the betting arsenal, if for no other reason than to maintain mental health.

The subject is apropos because I’ve been a fan of Mucho Macho Man since the day he finished second behind To Honor And Serve in the Remsen in the fall of 2010.

The time to give Mucho Macho Man his mulligan was before he ran in the Suburban earlier this summer, after he had run such a disappointing race in the Alysheba at Churchill Downs.

It’s not that he ran terribly that afternoon; he didn’t. It’s just that when you’re expecting a wow! Effort and find your horse sitting in pluperfect position ready to pounce, only to finish up one-paced, it’s hard to accept.

I realize that it was Successful Dan, who absolutely freaked on the day, that won the Grade 2, and a horse called Fort Larned, the eventual Whitney winner, finished second, six lengths in front of MMM, but it was tough to take nonetheless.

Even though trainer Kathy Ritvo gave MMM nearly two full months after his career best effort in the Gulfstream Park Handicap, apparently it wasn’t enough.

Then when he showed up in the Suburban at 5-1 with a new partner, SoCal Smith, it was an omen.

Prophecy, ignored.

Ironically, the horse we thought couldn’t lose the Suburban was his nemesis, To Honor And Serve, coming off a tough trip effort in the Met Mile.

Well, he never showed up in the Suburban, won by Mucho Macho Man most impressively in 1:46 2/5 for 1-1/8 miles, and it might not have mattered if he had.

After nearly four decades, I still don’t completely trust my eye but THAS looked fretful in the paddock pre-race, a bit headstrong, just something I hadn’t noticed before.

The next day Bill Mott talked about how the colt was “agitated,” perhaps adversely affected by the extreme heat and humidity.

Well, Mott’s in the Hall of Fame, I’m not, but was happy to have whatever my suspicions were confirmed and, unfortunately, the horse ran to his looks that afternoon.

Now it’s his turn to get a mulligan; a horse that had a legitimate excuse. These are, after all, cold-weather animals.

But then you look at the big picture. ‘Macho Man’s’ 4-year-old campaign has been carefully managed, allowing the 17.3 hands colt to grow into that frame, having turned 4 on June 29—way late.

And his Equiform energy figures keep marching, incrementally. You couldn’t draw it up any better.

Then To Honor And Serve is faster on his ‘A’ race and switches to a rider that won on him the last time he was asked to race 1-1/8 miles at Saratoga; Hall of Fame Johnny.

What to do?

What’s worse is that 30 minutes earlier in another Grade 1, there are two mulligan horses; Jackson Bend and Shackleford.

The former is a horse that loves to run inside of horses and lost far too much ground in his prep, the James Marvin, which he won last year en route to a Forego romp.

But is he the same horse at 5 as he was last year? I don’t know that yet, either way. And, if he starts, Nick Zito will change the karma by making a switch to Junior Alvarado.

Meanwhile, Shackleford had several excuses for his poor AG Vanderbilt; a distance at which he’d never been successful and the inside of a drying-out muddy track that stuck to his shoes like glue, a true mulligan.

But his career best performance, a gut-wrenching nose victory in the Met Mile, stretched him as straight as a string. Was it too enervating? Did it contribute to his awful Vanderbilt performance?

Not that he needs the exercise or the conditioning, but he’s worked only once in the last month since the Vanderbilt, a soft half-mile in :50 4/5. What's that about?

This process is not meant to be easy and some days are tougher than others. But like the game itself, knowing when to use the mulligan is an art and not science. Sometimes the gut knows what the mind can’t.

Speaking of art, perhaps paddock and post parade observation will offer some clues.

Written by John Pricci

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