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 24, 2013

Karma Chameleon

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 24, 2013—Luis Saez is no long the King of Calder.

The journey that led to the most important victory of his career came last winter at Gulfstream Park when suddenly “the Calder jock” was beginning to lay it on the big boys, and horsemen were beginning to notice.

In the winners’ circle one afternoon, Phil Gleaves, once Woody Stephens #1 exercise rider and now a successful Florida horseman who once won the Travers with slop loving Wise Times, gave me a scoop.

“This kid is coming to New York this spring and he’s going to take the place by storm,” Gleaves said. “He’s one of the best riders in America that no one’s ever heard of.”

Until today.

Fitting Jim Dandy runnerup Will Take Charge perfectly and riding him masterfully after being named on the colt just 72 hours before the 144th renewal of Saratoga’s Derby of Midsummer, the team got up in the last jump to nail Jim Dandy third, Moreno, on the line.

Kentucky Derby winner and Triple Crown combatant Orb ran a winning race making an inside rally—not his favorite spot—and looked like the winner of his second “Derby” this year but tired in the final hundred yards and settled for third.

Jim Dandy winner Palace Malice was close behind in fourth and, from a trips perspective, might have been best. Stumbling at the start while breaking flat footed, he was sloughed in the first 50 yards when Transparent was angled inside by Irad Ortiz and, with War Dancer holding a straight course from inside those two, made themselves a Palace Malice sandwich.

Up front, meanwhile, not much was happening. Moreno went to the lead as expected, but a lot slower than anyone thought possible—a half-mile in nearly 49 seconds over a lightning fast track.

Favorite Verrazano was stalking comfortably, although a tad farther back than anticipated considering the soft pace. Orb was racing close up inside of horses while Romansh was on the pace battling between leaders.

The race began in earnest on the far turn. Ortiz finally asked Moreno for a little more speed and he got it. In fact, the second half mile, which carried the field to the top of the stretch, was faster than the first half--:48.51 as opposed to :48.88.

Ortiz allowed Moreno to drift into the three-path, Orb came through with an inside two-path rally, Palace Malace, who had one horse beaten after the first six furlongs, commenced a wide rally that carried him nearly six wide at headstretch.

The winner, meanwhile, reserved under a relaxed hold, began his drive that carried him into the four-path with a quarter mile remaining. Then he began grinding it out; fifth, then third, while Orb seized a short lead from near the fence.

Moreno was resurgent off his measured pace, Orb was beginning to tire and Palace Malace was finishing relentlessly, although never looking the part of a winner.

Will Take Charge’s longer nose was the difference between consecutive Travers’ dead heats. Moreno was 3/4s of a length to the good of Orb, who lasted for third by a nose over Palace Malice, who wound up beaten a length with what was for him, completely unorthodox circumstances.

“At the three-eighths pole, I thought we’ll get a piece of it,” said Wayne Lukas, who can add the name of Will Take Charge to Thunder Gulch and Corporate Report, his first two Travers winners.

“I changed up a [few] things. I took a chance on an up-and-coming rider.”

This was the second time Will Take Charge won a stakes this season after changing riders and the fourth time in as many races that a change was made. It was Saez’ first ever Travers mount.

Junior Alvarado was aboard Will Take Charge for his Jim Dandy placing and did nothing wrong but also rode Optimizer for Lukas in last week’s Sword Dancer. After racing wide throughout, Alvarado eased Optimizer and he was beaten off. The horse walked off the racetrack in no obvious distress.

"It's not anything; I just think sometimes the karma is wrong," Lukas said after Wednesday’s post draw. "I've had good luck with certain riders. I didn't feel real comfortable with where I was at with Junior, so I made the change."

“Last time when he finished second,” Saez said, “I saw the replays and I knew how to ride him. I tried to ride him like he runs.

“I want to say thanks to God, Mr. Lukas and everyone who’s coming here to see these champions,” all 47,597 who helped contribute to a record all-sources handle of $41,363,760.

That’s a lot of karma.

The Old In-Out in the King's Bishop

There are different kinds of race horses: champions, nice horses, also-rans, morning glories... Then there's the ever popular in-and-outer. Sorry, but that's as clever as it gets when Capo Bastone finishes like a rocket to take the Grade 1 King's Bishop, reeling in the very speedy Mentor Cane who out-sped all the speedsters signed on.

As it turns out, Todd Pletcher, had the race surrounded. There was favorite Forty Tales, a winner of the Amsterdam prep for this; Overanalyze, the Arkansas Derby winner that might have been worth a flyer on the turn-back, and Capo Bastone, who just missed winning the G3 Derby Trial. Capo Bastone, who never hinted at being a Grade 1 talent beyond his juvenile season; Capo Bastone, the in-and-outer.

In his three year old season, it was good race, bad race, good race, bad race, then yesterday.

Beneath Irad Ortiz Jr., who with brother Jose Ortiz have had a Saratoga to remember, Capo Bastone roared down the center of the course and blew passed Mentor Cane in the shadow of the finish line. Central Banker came from well back himself to finish third.

Forty Tales, without regular partner Joel Rosario, who shattered his ankle in an incident Friday. Leparoux, who won the Test, filled in ably but could finish no better than fourth on the multiple stakes winner.

The Test a Real Lu-Lu

I’m sure there will be a consensus among the wise guy clan that the Test didn’t turn out to be a true Grade 1 event because speed was holding in sprints all day and the final furlong was timed in little than a glacial 13 2/5.

Those are the facts, of course, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Those kinds of facts seldom do.

But for the undefeated Sweet Lulu to extend her undefeated career to four straight without defeat, she had to survive a strong first half-mile challenged from the bullet-like Baby J, withstand the late running co-favorite My Happy Face, and out-gut the perfect tripping speedster Wildcat Lily.

And did we mention it was her first lifetime start on God’s dirt?

"She trained on dirt as a two year old," Hollendorfer said post-race.

The victory, engineered by the California-based Hall of Famer Jerry Hollandorfer and jockey Julien Leparoux, not generally known as a partner of speed types, was well earned.

The tandem sat off the speedster until the right moment to present herself in front, was challenged from the outside through the lane, but dug down deep to pass the eyeball test.

That makes four wins on three disparate surfaces, Cushion Track, the closest synthetic there is to dirt, and Del Mar’s Polytrack, and four different distances.

"I was a little concerned when she got headed, then Julien rode hard, she came back, fought back, and won."

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Rider’s Race: Post Draw to Dictate Travers Strategy

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 21, 2013—With regard to Thoroughbred racing’s handicapping puzzle, there sometimes is a tendency to overblow the importance of post positions.

All know the obvious caveats: You never want the rail or extreme outside post in baby races; the fence can intimidate or trap a horse, and inexperienced youngsters often bear out from an outside post, taking away most strategic options.

No one wants the extreme outside with a short run to the first turn over any surface; particularly going two turns on grass, and the connections of horses with tactical speed generally want to draw outside major speed rivals to better facilitate a winning strategy.

In Saturday’s mile and a quarter Travers Stakes, the importance of the post draw is somewhat mitigated by a long enough run into the first turn as to give rival jockeys options, a poor start notwithstanding.

But don’t play down the importance of post positions to Todd Pletcher who will saddle the first two betting choices—Wood Memorial and Haskell winner Verrazano (2-1) and Jim Dandy and Belmont Stakes winning Palace Malice (5-2)--in what figures to be a highly contentious 144th renewal of Midsummer’s Derby.

There was one dramatic interlude in this morning’s Travers post draw. Two posts remained, #3 and #7, and Verrazano’s name was yet to be drawn from the entry box. “Number 7 is War Dancer,” which left the 3 to Verrazano, a position inside the very speedy Moreno in slip #6.

“The post does matter,” said Pletcher when asked about the draw. “I would have wanted 7 on the outside. Ideally both horses are stalkers, but Johnny [Velazquez] knows him and it looks like there’s an honest pace in here.”

It was the last phrase which indicated that Pletcher was not about to give away the strategy both favorites would use on Saturday. All that’s at stake is a possible three-year-old championship no matter how racing this fall shakes out.

One notion can be inferred from the Travers draw. Successful Jim Dandy prepster Palace Malice, having drawn #8, will be positioned off Moreno’s right hip in the run to the first turn.

Had Oxbow not been relegated to the sidelines with a season ending injury, this Travers would have been in the conversation as the best ever run.

It certainly could give the 1987 renewal, regarded by many as the best of the modern era, featuring Java Gold (1st), Cryptoclearance (2nd), Polish Navy (3rd), Gulch (4th), Bet Twice (5th) and Alysheba (6th).

Parenthetically, Gulch went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Sprint the following year and dual Classics winning Alysheba, despite his Travers defeat, was still voted 3-year-old champion and the following year won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, giving him the older horse and 1988 Horse of the Year titles.

The remainder of Saturday’s field, with post position and early line odds, includes Curlin Stakes winner via disqualification 1-Romansh (12-1); Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby winner 2-Orb (4-1); Derby runnerup 4-Golden Soul (20-1);Rebel winner and Jim Dandy runnerup 5-Will Take Charge (10-1) and Curlin first finisher 9-Transparent (10-1).

From post 3, Johnny Velazquez will still have some options to play it off the break, his position being far enough away from the fence so as not to get him jammed up inside.

With his speed, it’s likely that Pletcher and Velazquez would prefer to break sharply, taking some sting out of Moreno in the run to the first turn before allowing him to take the lead so that he can move Verrazano to a position outside the likely frontrunner.

Meanwhile, Mike Smith and Palace Malice will not be far away. The captivating moment will come when Smith puts some pressure on Verrazano to go after Moreno, forcing him to take the advantage or get caught between Moreno and Palace Malice’s momentum.

This is a likely scenario on paper but the drama will play out between the fences and not on the printed page.

Orb from his inside post—“like Todd, I wanted to be outside,” said Shug McGaughey, likely will be tucked up inside but will also want to move out for clear running. Orb showed watchful Triple Crown observers his propensity for racing outside rivals.

Most of America’s best three year olds are getting together in Saturday’s mile and a quarter but, even at that, Travers 144 looks more and more like a rider’s race.

“You would hope they wouldn’t get in each other’s way,” Pletcher said last weekend when asked about the similar running style of his pair. But Verrazano also appears to be more comfortable racing on the outside.

After this morning’s post draw, little has changed in that regard. Position and style are just two more elements that make Saturday’s renewal so compelling.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, August 16, 2013

Chris Kay Getting Off to Fast Start

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 16, 2013—On Thursday, Paul Post of the Saratogian wrote a news story, the contents of which might be the best news a New York Thoroughbred racing fan have read in a very long time.

It’s clear that that while President and CEO Chris Kay might not have known a great deal about Thoroughbred racing when he got the job a few short months ago, he’s smart enough to know what he doesn’t know and finds a way to fix a problem while getting on-the-job training simultaneously.

Under Kay’s direction, the new New York Racing Association plans to fill a newly created position of executive director of racing position this fall. NYRA already has issued a request for proposals for an executive search firm to lead the selection process and recommend potential candidates.

Considering that his time on the job dates all the way back to July 1, Kay has gotten out of the administrative starting gate with 22-44 type speed. This might not be your father’s NYRA after all.

The new executive racing director would oversee the daily racing program and advise NYRA from a racing frame of reference how to best re-brand and promote the game at its downstate properties, Belmont Park and Aqueduct Racetrack.

One way to improve the product and create interest in what was once regarded as the industry’s clear leader: Shorten the racing season slightly by reducing the number of racing days per week and number of races carded on weekday programs.

Quality New York racing would return and field size would grow immediately. Trolling the lower classes for parimutuel fodder hoping that a gateful of lower class horses will be good for business turned out to be a temporary fix to a permanent problem; the mainstream decline of interest in Thoroughbred racing.

Other issues on Kay’s first agenda include maximizing property usage in the same manner that baseball’s Cardinals are proposing to build a “Baseball Village” to enhance the fan experience; customer surveys to help management make informed decisions on the kind of entertainment sports fans want when they enter a racetrack.

In short, Kay wants to know who his customers are, what they like and don’t like, why they came and why they might or might not return. “We need to understand who our customers are and why.” First it must make sense financially.

Horse of the Year? Who Cares?

If there’s a good thing to acknowledge about polls, it’s that the consensus of opinions provide a snapshot to those who may be interested in the pecking order of things, but do not have the time necessary to follow a given situation in earnest.

Consider the NTRA Poll for Top Thoroughbred. A pair of six-year-old geldings have won all four of their 2013 starts. They are thisclose to each other in the voting for first place but tower over the remaining American Thoroughbreds in captivity.

The top point setter is Wise Dan, an emphatic winner of the Grade 2 Fourstardave at one mile on the grass under a steadying 129 pounds, spotting 11 pounds to a sharp, loose-leading and still developing New York-bred rival, King Kreesa. It was an excellent performance.

The effort was so good, in fact, that I reversed my exacta from the previous week, placing him in front of Game On Dude instead of the other way around. I did it grudgingly because of the nature of the accomplishment but couldn’t in good conscience deny its worthiness.

However, if last week’s poll were to be the one determining my preference for Horse of the Year 2013 it likely would go a a horse that distinguished itself on dirt over a distance of ground or a turf runner that was more accomplished a traditional route distances.

Last week in the Racing Post, noted turf writer Sam Walker had some unkind things to say about the campaign being waged by owner Morton Fink, the decider, and trainer Charlie LoPresti, the adviser. This is, of course, the natural order of things.

Much of what Walker wrote was accurate in our view. Unfortunately, much of it came across as arrogant and mean spirited. Not that I find anything wrong with a little well-placed elitism, but a modicum of temperance is always appreciated, albeit dated these days.

“U.S. turf racing is second tier,” wrote Walker. “It doesn't take a great horse to excel in that division and the situation is nothing like being the best miler in Europe, or the best sprinter in Australia - positions which carry global significance.

“Turf horses in the U.S. have their own separate categories at the Eclipse Awards because they are a side dish. Dirt horses don't require separate awards because dirt is the main course. It's the surface everyone wants to win on; the surface they were all bred for.

“Being the best turf horse in America is like being the best harness, quarter horse or show pony. It's commendable but largely irrelevant in racing circles unless you also happen to be top class on dirt.” Not sure why Walker had to disparage harness racing or quarter horses to make his point.

But a show pony? A little cheeky, eh mate?

Walker did give Wise Dan his due, saying that he is top class on turf, dirt and synthetics. “And that is exactly what he built his reputation on. Not simply by being the best horse on the U.S. turf, but by being the most versatile.”

That’s the part of Wise Dan’s talent that Fink either doesn’t appreciate or chooses to ignore. And while Walker was not temperate in some of the things he wrote, it wasn’t as if Fink and LoPresti were respectful in consideration of Eclipse tradition.

“I don’t care at all [about Horse of the Year],” said Fink the morning after the Fourstardave. “I could care less about Horse of the Year,” said LoPresti. In its way, that’s almost as disparaging as comparisons to quarter horses and show ponies.

The possibility remains that Wise Dan is the best horse in America on any surface. In fact, he has run faster performances figures in a synthetic track and his best race last year came in a losing effort on dirt—a narrow, tough-trip, weight-spotting run in the G1 Stephen Foster.

Walker makes the point properly that it is Wise Dan’s versatility that sets him apart and that this should be featured in his campaign. It’s what Wise Dan’s fans and critics are longing to see.

Instead, it will be the path of least resistance, not the road that leads to the kind of immortality reserved for sporting owners who sought challenges and not the safety of specialty racing.

Some have argued that Wise Dan is a Horse of the Year by default because a lack of domination elsewhere. But 2012 started with three top-class performances on three disparate surfaces. Versatility is Wise Dan’s milieu; it helped kame him a star.

But the 2013 campaign lacks versatility of any kind. Not only are the future targets softer and more familiar, but those challenges will come at scale-weights.

Wise Dan could still make history, of course: There hasn’t been a walkover since Spectacular Bid in the 1980 Woodward, which could have been a target had Fink placed his horse in historical context, not the softest spot.

"We've got so many honors, it's unbelievable,” said Fink last weekend. “All we care about is do the right thing for the horse. We're not trying to make it harder and harder on him. What does he have to prove?”

That will be for history to decide, not the bottom line.

Written by John Pricci

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