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 06, 2016

Final Saratoga Diary of 2016, and Then Some…

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, September 6, 2016—So many stories, so little bandwidth:

Economic Indicators Down in August: Despite the renewal of this country’s two most impactful boutique race meets, handle metrics were down significantly. With 6.08% fewer races, handle was down 9.37%.

Maybe there’s only so much betting money to go around, or: Could it be that high degree-of-difficulty horizontal wagers—the only type the game seems to promote (are you reading this, TVG?) ultimately takes more money out of circulation than it brings in?

Rabbit Redux: The use of rabbits in horse racing is nothing new and is quite routine around the world which makes it easier for the super-stables to dominate individual races. In the Sword Dancer, jockey Aaron Gryder did his job, albeit carelessly.

My thought? Did Javier Castellano have to ride America’s best turf horse as if he were astride some no-hope price shot, needing to save ground at any cost?

Saving ground wins grass races, of course, but was it really necessary to do so to such an extent in a short field with a strong pace? Poor execution, we believe.

Who knows? Maybe the real reason Roman Approval’s trainer objected--and subsequently his owner, too, on appeal--is because super-stable’s domination of the entry box yields a disproportionate and unfair advantage.

Flintshire’s trainer Chad Brown had three separate entrants in the seven-horse Grade 1.

When Gryder got off the fence with Inordinate to allow Flintshire through, he came back in and forced Maker’s Roman Approval to check.

Roman Approval was in no danger of pulling off the upset, but Gryder’s careless tack arguably cost Roman Approval a larger share of the purse.

The stewards were right not to alter the winning order of finish. But had Gryder received, say, a three-day suspension, it would have sent a message worth sending. I’m in favor of uncoupled entries with separate ownership interests as field size does matter.

But it’s disingenuous when bettors make a big deal of betting on large fields but argue for stable couplings. On second thought, I might be wrong about uncoupled entries. Maybe it is time to revert to trainer couplings, certainly a more equitable choice.

Rosario’s Woodward Ride Frosts Bettors: It was not Joel Rosario’s finest 1:48.92, far from it. Then neither was it Frosted’s, who entered the race off an unbelievably fast Met Mile--earning the fastest Thoro-Graph performance figure ever—followed by a visually stunning, dominant and rapidly run Whitney score.

Coming off consecutive top efforts is reason enough for a dull performance. The dye was cast at the start when Frosted left the gate with his head held high, but if Rosario’s body language is the measure, the rider was egregiously overconfident to the public’s detriment.

Settling in sixth behind an extremely moderate 48.43 was fine, but then to only hand ride his mount while very wide on the far turn, showing no urgency, and thinking it was OK to rally eight across the track while still under mild urging is heavy-fine worthy at least.

Given Rosario’s contemptuous handling, my first thought was maybe the big gray is empty and the rider didn’t want to hurt the horse’s lofty reputation in defeat. Frankly, I didn’t know what to think.
After straightening away, Rosario allowed Frosted to drift in on his left lead, doubtlessly hoping that seeing rivals would produce a surge of energy from Frosted, which it did.

But approaching the sixteenth pole, while still under no serious urging, Frosted continued to drift inward. Javier Castellano, saving ground and horse throughout, surged inside for the victory as Frosted’s mate, Mubtaahij, was saving the place from between horses.

The fact that Frosted resents being whipped in well publicized. But had Rosario gotten down on his belly sooner and “showed” Frosted the stick, the 2-5 Woodward favorite might have gotten the message clearly. As for the visuals, the optics were awful.

The King Is Dead, Long Live the King: Spa-record setting trainer Chad Brown 40 victories enabled him to dethrone Todd Pletcher after six consecutive leading-trainer titles and 12 in all.
The great horsemanship is apparent when one sees how their horses are turned out, but their dominance, like Bob Baffert’s in Southern California, is not good for the greater good of the game going forward.

The time has come for U.S. tracks to follow Hong Kong’s lead and limit stall allotments. “Acting in racing’s best interests” has never stopped tracks from taking unilateral action via “house rules.”

Like the bettors cited in the example above, the game cannot have it both ways by allowing powerful stables to dominate the entry box for fear of costly restraint-of-trade lawsuits.

Like many suggestions that ostensibly are good for the game, we’ll bet the “under” when it comes to implantation and leveling the playing field at tracks everywhere, not just in New York and California. The fly in the ointment, of course, is that mega-stables can ship horses in from training centers elsewhere.

The sport can no longer afford catering to barns that are too big to fail. Of course, well healed owners could stop sending super-trainers top prospects by taking them away from other able horsemen who helped develop them in the first place.

John W. Phillips Latest to Join WHOA: His Darby Dan Farm has been breeding quality horses since forever, dating back to founder John W. Galbraith in 1935. Owner/breeders who do it the old fashioned way are to be celebrated, as should his trainer, Jimmy Toner.

“There is an old saying,”
commented Phillips, “that if you take care of the horse it will take care of you." To that I add the corollary "if we don't take care of the sport, we will have no horses to take care of… I support WHOA given its bold and rational support of HR 3084…”

On Tuesday of get-away week, I ran into one of the charter members of the Water, Hays and Oats Alliance at a restaurant. “I don’t make it a practice to talk shop at dinner, but what is your reaction to a 3-year-old going wire to wire in the first sub-two-minute mile and a quarter in Saratoga history?”

“I have no comment on that,” he said. “But I will say there simply is no appetite for drug reform within the industry in this country. My operation is going to concentrate on international racing from now on.”

The Secret to Jose Ortiz' Success: By riding 65 winners, nine more than brother Irad, the 24-year-old Ortiz put on a dazzling display during the final week of the meet to win his first Spa title. And the reason for his overnight success?

Just as California horses enjoy a significant tactical edge when meeting Eastern rivals, Ortiz’s success is based on his aggressive style. In California, the game is played at a faster pace which gives those runners a tactical competitive advantage.

Eastern riders don’t send their horses away from the barrier as is done out West. Empirically, it seems as if Ortiz catches more flyers out of the gate than any of his more celebrated, “name” competitors.

Ortiz is the best “speed rider” we’ve seen since the heyday of Patrick Valenzuela and Bob Ussery. And like many of today’s great practitioners, great speed riders often are the difference between victory and defeat.

Numbers, We’ve Got Numbers:
Yes, Virginia, racing is about more than Saratoga and Del Mar. Opening Saturday at Kentucky Downs, on-track handle jumped by 50% and 26% from all-sources… On the same after at Gulfstream Park, the second leg of its Florida Sires series, handle was up nearly 47% year over year. The first two parts of the three-day series are up a combined 35%.

Thirty percent of polled fans polled believed that both Inordinate and Flintshire should have been disqualified in the Sword Dancer… Rule 163.255, regarding “jail time” for recently claimed horses, was waived by the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission “in the best interest of horse racing in the Commonwealth.”

Regulators failed to elaborate on what “best interest” meant—another favorite wins.

Under this year’s budget, Nassau County Off-Track Betting will be allowed exclusive rights to 1,000 slot-like betting machines at the Aqueduct Racetrack’s casino.

None of the money from the machines will go to NYRA, an apparent violation of NYRA’s franchise agreement with New York State that will cost the racing association an estimated $25 million.

Which brings to mind a song, with apologies to the late John Lennon:

“In the middle of the lane…

“In the middle of the lane I call your name…

“Whoa Cuomo, Whoa Cuomo…

“Your greed won’t turn me on...”

Written by John Pricci

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