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 01, 2015

Travers Aftermath Deserved Better From Espinoza

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September 1, 2015—Victor Espinoza embarrassed himself. Maybe he began to take himself a little too seriously after becoming the first Triple Crown jockey in 37 years, or becoming a “Dancing With the Stars” celebrity.

Rather than accusing Jose Lezcano of “trying to hurt American Pharoah,” he should have taken a page from the Zayat’s book, or Bob Baffert’s, for that matter, who all handled the loss graciously, as crushed as they must have been at the time.

To their credit, they didn’t look for excuses, never came close to making one up the way Espinoza did. Ahmed Zayat spoke only of his horse not performing “like the American Pharoah I know.”

Baffert had it right, too, when, in the heat of the moment, he said it right--which is a lot different than saying the right thing, a.k.a. spin what really happened. “He didn’t bring his ‘A’ game today. His tank wasn’t as full as we thought,” he said immediately port-race.

And neither did he say what he might have suspected but couldn’t prove, the reason why he was reticent to run in the first place. He worried about the spacing from the Haskell to the Travers and from the Travers to the Classic.

In a scheduling context, the Travers was no man’s land.

He knows all too well that the Derby of Midsummer is never won easily, never stolen on uncontested leads. Saratoga didn’t earn its deserved reputation by making things easy for “the best horse.”

And whatever instructions Lezcano may have gotten from Kiaran McLaughlin, he brought the race to the favorite because he felt that was the best way to beat him at that moment in time. Lezcano was on his back, no one else.

If handicappers were completely honest they would admit Lezcano was a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t spot. No one knows whether Pharoah would have won had he not been pressed hard, but it’s difficult to imagine Frosted would have beaten him from behind. Been there, failed at that—twice.

Horseplayers hate conspiracies, who doesn’t? Except when events conspire to allow them to cash a bet. Hey, maybe I should get some credit from getting the champ beat. The Travers was the first time I picked him all year; stopped him cold.

But there it was, the middle half-mile in under 47 seconds that eventually got him beaten. If it hadn’t, then it would have been said American Pharoah bottomed-out the field on his way to victory.

American Pharoah was as gallant in defeat, as courageous as any non-winner of a race can be. Seattle Slew’s Jockey Club Gold Cup loss to Exceller comes to mind. No, Pharoah’s resurgent effort wasn’t nearly as dramatic as Slew's in 1978, but it was pretty damn good.

Good enough that Pharoah came back all the way back, vanquishing a super-sharp challenger by 2-1/4 lengths, a Grade 1 winner who dogged him right down to the bottom, passing him briefly at headstretch but unable to put him away.

To the contrary, Frosted was farther back at the finish than at any point of the mile and a quarter midsummer classic. Lezcano tried to beat American Pharoah, not “hurt” him. I can’t believe any jockey, especially those competing at this level, would ever harm a horse intentionally.

Even if jockeys weren’t animal lovers, which most are, horses provide the least talented among them with an excellent living. Why jeopardize that?

In one thoughtless, selfish moment, Espinoza’s charge undid much of the good will created by the colt and the people around him. For a jockey to suggest that another would purposely harm an animal, to win at any cost, is the kind of damage the sport doesn’t need.

The Mother of All Undercards:
If Saturday’s supporting card wasn’t the best I had ever seen, it was pretty damn close. Bettors must have agreed, sending in nearly $50 million from all-sources on the 13-race program…

Private Zone was stunningly triumphant, turning the Forego into a runaway once he engineered an opening gambit of 23 2/5 seconds. So, will it be the Sprint or the Dirt Mile. In either case, he will be a very tough out.

The King’s Bishop never fails to elicit blazing exhibitions of speed for what can be a grueling 7 furlongs. But a Pea Patch exacta? Really? Runhappy? Well, he’s appropriately named. And Limousine Liberal completing an Ellis Park two-speed-number sweep? Wow..!

I was never a big fan of the G1 Sword Dancer. Well given the Breeders’ Cup “Win and In” incentive, I can get used to seeing more high class Euros such as Flintshire. Double wow! Only where was he when I needed to complete a Breeders’ Cup multi-race sweep? Arrrggghhh..!

Looks like the connections have finally figured it out: Unbridled Forever wants to be a stretch-running sprinter. And that’s where Dallas Stewart is taking her, to the Filly & Mare Sprint; seven-eighths sure looks like her best go…

Maybe now, Sheer Drama will get her due. Just like their younger counterparts, the Eastern-based older fillies and mares are looking for a leader to challenge Beholder—if that’s even possible. David Fawkes has done a great job developing her, ditto Joe Bravo in the boot…

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Travers 146: Keen Karma

SARATOGA SPRNGS, NY, August 30, 2015—The second lesson a trainer takes from his Horsemanship 101 manual, after “he couldn’t be doing any better” is “they all get beat.”

Horseplayers and fans would also do well to keep in mind that dictum. The disgrace is in not showing up; not running on gallantly for second in a losing effort.

They all get beat is the truest of all axioms, of course. That’s the way it is with flesh-and-blood things. Like humans, animals have their good days and bad days. American Pharoah had a good one, just not the great one he needed.

For the Triple Crown champion of 2015, the 146th Travers was an effort somewhere in between. Bob Baffert said it best to a national television audience moments after the race: “He didn’t bring his ‘A’ game. We thought he would have a little more in the tank.”

Now maybe people understand why Baffert was reticent to run in this spot.

Pharoah’s B+ game was pretty damn good, however, in part reminiscent of Seattle Slew in the Jockey Club Gold Cup of 1978, coming again gallantly only to be beaten by a one-run, perfect trip rival, Exceller.

American Pharoah dug down to the bottom and found courage, but no reserves. While clearly fatigued, he still resurged to defeat his Travers shadow, the couldn’t-be-doing-any-better Frosted, soundly defeating him by open lengths at the end.

But it was the fresh, specifically pointed to the Midsummer Mile and a Quarter who won the day beneath expert handling from his human connections. And the good karma surrounding them proved too hard for the champ to overcome.

Jerry Crawford, founder and managing partner of the eminently successful Donegal Racing partnership, believed in his horse and the game’s future--the children, distributing free Dairy Haus ice cream—Keen Ice Cream cones—to celebrate his colt’s participation in the Travers.

“I have a suspicion that promotion may be extended a few days,” he would say hours after the race.

At a charity event Travers eve at the Fasig-Tipton Pavilion for Senior Services of Albany, trainer Dale Romans auctioned off his own paddock pass—“what are they going to do, prevent me from saddling the horse?” and it was the event topper, attracting a bid of $5,000.

“It’s one of my favorite charities,” Romans afterward. “Meals on Wheels really improved the quality of my grandfather’s life, giving him a hand while allowing him to enjoy his independence late in his life.”

It is rare when good karma is rewarded almost instantly, and it was from the moment the Travers field was sent on its way. And before the term rabbit gets thrown around re Frosted’s tactics too loosely, Kiaran McLaughlin’s horse was under a tighter hold first time by the stands than was American Pharoah.

Jose Lezcano--who replaced Joel Rosario, unseated earlier in the G1 Forego, did not sustain serious injury but will be off his Sunday mounts, too--did nothing wrong.

Lezcano’s horse was super-sharp and rather than choke him down, he brought the race to the rival the whole world believed was the horse to beat.

And so the table was set for the Graveyard to claim its latest victim, thanks to a hotly contested pace and the coming of age of Keen Ice, who developed beautifully over the summer for Romans.

Fractions can be deceiving going 10 furlongs. Going the distance on a contested lead is always difficult, especially with a middle half-mile in 46 seconds, but Keen Ice was set for a breakthrough performance, a resume that only figures to get better with each subsequent start.

We have said, and have written previously, that Keen Ice showed signs of becoming a man in Oceanport when he sprinted home for place behind a geared-down Triple Crown champion in the Haskell Invitational.

Keen Ice, this week, when asked about Travers favorite

Photo by Toni Pricci

Keen Ice continued to train in improved fashion during his time at Saratoga and Javier Castellano, winning an unprecedented fifth Travers, liked what he felt beneath him the only time he worked him.

While McLaughlin hoped Frosted would be in fifth position in the early going, his colt was super sharp and Lezcano brought the race to American Pharoah, to the detriment of both as it turned out.

Conversely, the connections of Keen Ice wanted their horse in the game earlier, and that’s exactly the trip Castellano gave them.

While the long-striding colt was well back early, he did ask Keen Ice to get closer when the real running began at the far turn following that grueling middle half-mile.

But, too, it was Romans’ patient approach with classics-type runners that ultimately paid dividends for the Donegal group and their colt going forward. He will continue to improve and, with added development, should make an excellent 4-year-old.

Patience was a lesson Romans learned from one of his mentors, the late, great Allen Jerkens. They had been friends for decades and they spent a lot of time over dinners this winter in Florida, just before “the Chief” passed.

“After today’s race I kept waiting for him to call me,” said Romans wistfully back at the barn Saturday night where Keen Ice finished his dinner by about 8 p.m. When he later posed for photos with the Romans family, he appeared bright and fresh, almost as if he had never run.

The current plan is to train up to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, just as will be the case with American Pharoah, who was fine, albeit tired, on Sunday morning.

Parenthetically, that makes sense for Pharoah but perhaps not so much for Keen Ice, who has both the constitution and the body to benefit from another Haskell-style prep.

Whatever tack Romans takes it will be well considered and, like late Saturday afternoon, the original Giant Killer will be somewhere, smiling.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, August 28, 2015

Pharoahtoga: The Christmas Place To Be

SARATOGA SPRINGS, Travers Eve, 2015—Since 1977, my first full racing season in Saratoga, I have seen many strange things, but this was different—in a good way.

Put another way, I live virtually across the street from the race course and it took me about 25 minutes to get inside the gate this morning.

Welcome to Pharoahtoga.

NYRA racing analyst Richard Migliore said a month ago that if Monmouth Park could draw 6,000 fans to see American Pharoah gallop that, because this is Saratoga, you could get 20,000.

I’m thinking The Mig might have ridden 4,450 winners but what does he know about this?

I’ll be damned but his guess was a lot better than mine. The crowd seemed more like a weekday at the races or, as Jerry Bossert put it, “there were more people here this morning than will be at Aqueduct all winter.”

My spies--colleagues Bob Ehalt and Ed McNamara--have been around the oval more than a few times. Ehalt, observing from the winners’ circle, guesstimated the front-side crowd at about 15,000.

McNamara, who watched the gallop from the backside, thought there were about 3,000 fans back there. The NYRA guesstimated the crowd at 15,000. Nobody questioned it.

I watched the gallop on cable TV in my living room. That’s right. In Saratoga, you can stay home and when American Pharoah shows up, you can watch Tuesday’s post draw and this morning’s gallop on Time-Warner Cable News, Ch. 1.

I probably had the best seat to observe the gallop and nothing I saw indicated that he will not be at his best at 5:46 p.m. tomorrow.

His stride was fluid, his energy level was high, and he didn’t want to be pulled up, always wanting his head.

“He liked the track,” trainer Bob Baffert said. “He galloped around there like he usually does, whenever he has his ears up. I feel very happy about the way he went today.”

In a Man on the Street feature in a local paper, fans were asked to complete this sentence: “American Pharoah coming to Saratoga is as big as…?”

“Derek Jeter getting his 3000t hit,” said one. “The President coming; it’s a piece of history,” said another. “Secretariat,” said a racing fan. And my personal favorite: “The Grateful Dead Fare Thee Well Tour.”

And when the 146th Travers field curls into headstretch, 50,000 fans will hope to see history as American Pharoah keeps right on truckin’, like the do-dah man.

The View From the Porch

It started early. By 7 a.m. the red light on Nelson Ave. was backed up on Union Avenue 10 Victorians deep. Every parking spot, normally filled by noon on a racing day, was taken.

Occasionally, a savvy driver would make a U turn and take the back route. Too bad; Nelson and East Avenues didn't look any better.

Some came by foot carrying the furniture and groceries they'd need for the day. A beautiful morning for a walk; a beautiful day for the races at Saratoga Race Course.

American Pharoah is galloping this morning and thousands are coming to see him. These early pilgrims are fans for whom the Triple Crown winner IS the Super Bowl. And Thoroughbred Racing is the winner, today anyway. Hopefully tomorrow, too.

They are smiling as they walk by with the anticipation of a child hoping to see Santa on Christmas morning.

That's when I saw him: Glorious as ever, slowly rolling east on Union. Recognizable in denim or in his iconic red suit, Saratoga's resident Santa Claus can be spotted anywhere as he goes about his daily life.

And today, Santa came to see Pharoah. Only in Saratoga.

--Words and File Photo by Toni Pricci

Saratoga's Santa in Residence, Fred Clark

Written by John Pricci

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