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

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Saratoga 2017: A to Z

When Saratoga Race Course opened for business in August of 1863, the race meet was four days long.

Now it’s 10 times that, but its impact on the community and horse racing in America cannot be measured in any conventional manner, even if tradition is part of its fabric.

That’s because, like its polar opposite, Las Vegas, what happens here stays here, too. Like, say, the Travers Stakes has for 148 years.

But Saratoga is also like big city America, places such as New York or New Orleans. Visiting the Spa is more than a diversion from mundanity: Saratoga is a place you can feel.

Whether in person or viewing what happens between the fences from afar, the racing season passes in 22 and 44-flat. It arrives and then, poof, it’s gone:

Here are some takeaways of images left behind:

ASMUSSEN: Steve Asmussen is a confident guy; sometimes brash, sometimes cocky, almost always clipped. But the “big horse” seems to have altered that. His bigger, stronger chestnut gives him confidence, the kind of confident assurance that humbles in the presence of greatness.

BAFFERT: Love him; hate him; envy him. There’s enough of all three to go around and in the face of it all, he’s one horse-trainin’ sonuvabitch. He had Spa-loving Drefong on point for a second straight year.

Bullet Bob’s sure-handed patient development of West Coast was, like his handling of another lower tier 3-year-old last year, was good enough to vault his colt to the top of the class, however tenuous that assessment may turn be. Right race; right time, right horse.

CHAD: No record-breaking training title this year—missing by only one—but he has gotten to first-name-only recognition quicker than you can say Elvis. Yes, he has quality numbers at his disposal. Then you have to deliver and seemingly he gets optimal results with every last one.

DOMINGUEZ: Could not be happier that Ramon is enjoying life safe and sound on the ground but saddened because none of us can begin to imagine what the turmoil within is like every time he watches a horse race.

A red jacket might not have the same cache in sports as a green one, but it’s the best we have in the best possible place. Ramon should wear it with pride because he earned it by being among the best we’ve seen in the past half-century.

This one, Chris Kay got right.

Finished with a rush and had a breakthrough meet despite a big O-fer to start the session, in the end the young rider going photo-for-photo with the deepest jock’s room in America. Manny Franco is a star on the rise.

GUN RUNNER: With help from Disappointments from Del Mar, he went from bridesmaid to Best in Show, enjoying one of the best months any horse has ever had, taking two of the most prestigious races run in this country. He parlayed a Whitney tour de force by doubling-down in the Woodward. Tactical speed and kick; attributes of a champion.

On balance, took it on the chin. If it weren’t for a slew of winning favorites over the final four-day weekend, bringing the percentage of winning choices up to a respectable 31%, consistent form--horses for courses notwithstanding--was exceedingly hard to find. We believe this happenstance was surface related.

INJURIES: As above, we believe this happenstance was surface related. Catastrophic injury was not the result of poor maintenance but rather of poor planning. Slower tracks do not necessarily make safer tracks. If clay is not well integrated into sand and loam, bad things can happen. Go organic in advance of 2018.

JUDGES: Some fouls are easy to call, and some are so close that compelling arguments can be made on both sides. On balance, the tough ones come out 50-50. But the decision to not allow Ron Paolucci to enter a pacemaker for his Woodward entrant—as is done routinely in Europe, and was prevalent here back in the day—comes with poor political optics. All anyone requires from any of this is even-handedness and consistency.

“KING OF SARATOGA”: That sobriquet was once the exclusive province of Angel Cordero Jr. and now belongs to a young Puerto Rican man he welcomed into his home three decades ago. His tutelage produced the current King of Saratoga, Johnny Velazquez, winningest rider in Saratoga history.

Johnny V rode a remarkable 46 winners—third overall--from far fewer mounts than the meet’s leaders. JR’s smarts, expertise and stealth allowed him to win far more than his fair share of photos. Long live the King.

LADY ELI: Because dirt racing is America’s game, grass specialists termed great come with a kind of invisible asterisk. But not this mare. Given what she has overcome and her accomplishments after beating laminitis, she is one of racing’s all-time great Thoroughbreds. Period.

LEADING OWNER: In the modern era, several have had a good run at the title; the Ramseys had more than their 15 minutes, as did Mike Repole. But NYRA Board member and racing philanthropist Michael Dubb, et al, has been Saratoga’s dominant owner the past four years.

With an array of equine talented spanning many class levels, and with the help of some of the most prolific winning trainers in the game, Dubb had his picture taken on 15 separate occasions, two more than Team Klaravich.

METRICS: Handle figures have given way to revenue when it comes to measuring business success but it still remains a solid measure of popularity. Record handle for a Saratoga race meet was set by Sunday’s second race with nearly two full cards remaining. In the last three years, Saratoga handle fell less than $28M short of reaching the $2B mark. A mind-boggling number by any measure.

ORTIZ x 2: Like love and marriage, you can’t have one without the other and that includes divorces, such as was on display yesterday when Irad claimed foul against baby brother Jose. In the end there was no denying Ortiz the Younger his second straight Spa riding title.

Jose’s 58 winners were five more than brother Irad. Notable victories came aboard a pair of Grade 1 3-year-old fillies; Elate in the Alabama and American Gal in the Test. Among other attributes, Jose catches more flyers out of the gate than any jockey in America.

PORTER: Owner Rick Porter is not only a profile in courage but candor as well. While various segments of media argued whether too much was being asked of Songbird’s lofty reputation, he knew she was not the same filly at 4 than she was at 2 and 3.

Coincidence or not, reaching the bottom in her titanic battle with older Beholder in the 2016 Distaff, she was never the same, after taking a long time to make her seasonal debut. Thank heavens Porter acted on the observation of assistant trainer Christina Jelm during the Personal Ensign post-parade and her subsequent narrow defeat. He retired her promptly, avoiding a tragedy that laid in wait.

TODD: After being dethroned as Training King of Saratoga, Pletcher, with the help of assistant trainers at Belmont and Monmouth Park, returned with a vengeance to win the title back from his arch rival, tying Chad Brown’s record of 40 winners in the process.

New York’s two leading trainers went at it from the very first race of the meet to the final day, with the latter falling one win short of a tie. It was the best leading-trainer battle we’ve ever witnessed, anywhere.

Four victories in six weeks in this day and age, entering the same rarified Saratoga air as Native Dancer, was the topping on this Saratoga confection. Given Spa legend, the 3-year-old’s name has a certain symmetry to it, even if 65 is not that old by Saratoga standards.

Saratoga horses-to-watch notwithstanding, the number of bets we intend to make at the upcoming Keeneland meet. We will be watching the races with interest, of course.

Written by John Pricci

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