|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.
Sunday, August 12, 2012
Day 20: Half Way Home, No Time to Weaken Now
August 11, 2012—We’ve hit the halfway mark; 20 days down and 20 to go before Saratoga 144 gets put in the books.
At this point, the overwhelming question on everybody’s mind is, will God give me the strength to make it to Labor Day?
Already this meet has been a marathon and everyone seems to be complaining about it. Happy Hour? Forget it, not if you’re staying for all 10 or 11 races—10 most days, 11 on weekends, mostly.
And if you’re very desperate, and the racing office doesn’t run out of beaten 20K claimers, and you have a big race to justify the excessive programs, there’s an even dozen.
Scheduled final post for today’s Grade 2 Fourstardave is 6:45. If one of Saratoga’s most popular runners were around these days he wouldn’t be nearly as popular. Half the crowd would be out the door long before post time for the old Daryl’s Joy, a Fourstardave would call his own.
On Sunday, fans get to do it all over again. There’s a very attractive juvenile stakes doubleheader on tap with the Adirondack for fillies and Saratoga Special, both Grade 2 and both at the hybrid distance of 6-1/2 furlongs.
While the babies will be sprinting, the fans had best be prepared for a marathon. Scheduled post for tomorrow’s 11th event is 6:46 p.m, which is fine. That leaves plenty of time to work up an appetite, if you’ve got any dinner money left.
The NYRA can’t take the hit on this one. This is what happens when you follow the advice of overpaid consulting firms to provide an answer that the $2 bettor could tell you if someone bothered to ask:
Get more racing on TV, and do it by 1990. But I kid “America’s Best Racing.” You’ve got to start somewhere--start all over again.
But those who bother to tune in to the broadcast who are not as familiar with Wise Dan, Corporate Jungle and Get Stormy, a kind of latter-day Dave, as most racing fans are, are bound to learn something, it is hoped.
The immediate problem is that not many American sports fans outside Saratoga know that Fourstardave won at least one race a year here for eighth consecutive years, from 1987 to 1994.
DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak and Woody’s five straight Belmonts might be eclipsed before any horse challenges ‘Dave’s’ record.
During his racing days, ‘Dave’ was in demand, showing up at an occasional party or ground-breaking, such as the day a pole was inserted into the ground outside Siro’s, the famed watering hole and restaurant outside the gate, and a signpost bearing the name Fourstardave Way was inserted into the ground.
“The Sultan of Saratoga,” as he was called, earned his money the hard way. A turf specialist, 15 of his 21 wins came on the grass. He made 99 lifetime starts—what’s that, about six or seven times more than the average Thoroughbred of today?
The winner of yesterday’s renewal was more dirt horse than turf horse. But Wise Dan, ranked in the NTRA Top 10 Poll virtually all year, destroyed a field that included G1 grass winners, and he did it by five with a final quarter of :23.97 over boggy ground.
But the symmetry belonged to the rider, newly minted Hall of Famer Johnny Velazquez whose father-in-law, Leo O’Brien, trained Fourstardave.
It was a good way to end the first half of the 2012 Saratoga race meet. The second half will start with a sizable carryover and the rains have abated for a while; perhaps we’ll get all the grass races in tomorrow.
But pace yourselves, the features are the 10th and 11th races, and maybe those tuned into the NBC Sports Network will get a glimpse of a 2013 Kentucky Derby or Oaks favorite, or not. There’s still a whole lot of good racing left.
Try to ignore the fact that the program will run almost six hours, including five maiden races—three are for non-claimers, anyway---and don’t eat your betting money or bet your dinner money.
Tell the family when you leave for the races in the morning that you’ll see them around 7:30 or 8 o’clock for dinner. If you’re going out, make late dinner reservations. In addition to the racetrack and the state, remember that merchants have to eat, too.
Written by John Pricci
Saturday, August 11, 2012
Hall of Fame Day: All In the Family
August 18, 2012—In the end, one of the gifts that has allowed John R. “Johnny” Velazquez to transition from the Eddie Belmonte Jockey School in Puerto Rico to Thoroughbred Racing’s Hall of Fame, his cool, dispassionate grace under fire, betrayed him.
But it was fine because his wife Leona, by his side for much of his meteoric career, was there to stand by her man who checked and steadied, choked with emotion.
“I’ll hold your hand like I always do,” said Leona, joining Johnny at the podium during his acceptance speech for becoming the 96th jockey in history to be enshrined. It was a tougher, tighter spot than anything he ever encountered across the street at Saratoga Race Course.
Johnny V was last to be inducted, following fellow honorees from yesteryear, jockey Anthony Hamilton, the race horse Planet, who trained for his races on the trot, and his contemporaries, the late trainer Robert Wheeler, 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper, and legendary Canadian Hall of Fame member, trainer Roger Attfield, who saddled three Canadian Triple Crown winners, including the Queen’s Plate a record eight times.
But Velazquez, known for his pre-race preparation, wasn’t ready for what was to come once he began thanking all the people in his life that made this day possible. It started with his mother, who was in the audience and was just as emotional.
He said that once she got passed the idea of her son riding horses for a living, his mother’s support was unwavering.
He apologized virtually to everyone he’s ever known in racing, just in case he forgot anybody, but the special thanks were reserved for those who really had a profound effect on his life; his own family and that of Angel Cordero’s. Cordero, of course, was Johnny’s biggest supporter, became his mentor, and then agent.
But it was Cordero’s daughter Canella, then a toddler, who Velazquez thanked in a special way, recalling that she sat with him to watch ‘The Little Mermaid,’ “every day for two months. That’s how I learned to speak English.”
And he then thanked Marjorie Cordero, who died too young in a traffic accident, but treated Johnny “like a son…but she was too young then, so like a brother.”
He then thanked the wily Michael Dickinson for giving him the mount on Da Hoss in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. “He walked the course. He told me be here at this point, be there at that point, pointing to places on the racetrack.
“And I want to thank Nick Zito for showing confidence in me. I was still an apprentice and he had me work this two-year-old in Saratoga. I worked him three times. Later he broke his maiden at Belmont Park. The next year, Strike The Gold won the Derby.
“Nick, it took me 21 years to finally win the Derby,” he said to his fellow Hall of Famer, who also was in attendance.
But it was the early years--“tough times”--he called them, that Velazquez could not forget.
After losing his apprentice allowance in 1992, “I thought about going back to Puerto Rico, I thought my career was over.” But then he reconnected with Ralph Theroux Sr., who handled Velazquez’s business when he was an apprentice.
“Would you like to work for me?” Velazquez asked the veteran agent. “‘I can start right now,’ and he walked over and picked up a condition book.” Just then, he got emotional again. “I think I should have stayed home,” he laughed.
Even the normally unflappable Todd Pletcher, standing behind him, both figuratively and literally, seemed to catch himself as he made the introduction. “He’s not only a great rider but he’s a role model, a great family man,” Pletcher said.
And so the 40-year-old rider, who owns 22 New York riding titles, who added another winner to the 4,841 he had through Wednesday, adding to his career earnings of $268 million, which places him third all-time behind Pat Day and Jerry Bailey.
If he, Pletcher, and his other clients get hot from now through Labor Day, he could end this meeting as the winningest rider in Saratoga history, trailing only Bailey.
And know that he’ll be looking to add to his 11 Breeders’ Cup wins at Santa Anita in November and, come next spring and summer, a second Kentucky Derby—he thanked Graham Motion, too, of course--and a third Belmont.
Johnny starting thinking about the 5,000 win plateau the day he reached 4,000, he said earlier in the week, and he’d like to be Saratoga’s all-time leading rider because “it was so important to Angel,” who Bailey eclipsed almost a decade ago.
But at the end of this day and the ones remaining, he will go home to Leona, ever the class act, still standing by his side as the ceremonies ended.
Of his family time, he said “I missed a lot of birthdays, a lot of graduations,” indeed flubbing the grade of one of the commencement exercises.
“I just had a concussion so I’m a little confused,” he laughed. And the crowd laughed right along with him, those who were not honoring the occasion with tears of joy.
Written by John Pricci
Friday, August 10, 2012
Diary, Day 18: Rulemakers, Officials, Need to Put the Player First
August 9, 2012—It was a confluence of events; an obstreperous race horse, a poorly constructed rule that governs Pick 4 wagering, and a judgment call by the stewards that considered horsemen first and bettors second, incurred the ire of several players who button-holed us at a Saratoga watering hole Wednesday night after the races.
Unhappy horseplayers are more plentiful than fun seekers on Caroline Street these days, but in this instance beleaguered bettors had a legitimate beef. Hopefully, the events of Wednesday can shine a light on the process of creating the rules of racing.
As the field for Wednesday’s ninth race, a $67,000 allowance event for 3-year-olds and up on the inner turf course at a mile and a sixteenth, left the paddock, the #10 horse, Roaring Contest, unseated Javier Castellano twice. After the second flying dismount, Castellano refused to ride the horse, citing an injured thumb suffered in the fall.
At the time, Roaring Contest was favored to win the wide open grass event. However, no attempt was made to find a replacement rider in a jock’s room that on balance is the most talent-laden it has been in the modern era.
While Roaring Conquest headed back to the barn, the rest of the horses were in their pre-race warm-ups, and the concern was that a delay might upset one of the remaining members of the field, an explanation that on its face seems hollow.
Commonly, horses are delayed on the backstretch in national events in order to accommodate last-minute bettors as post time draws near, the race starting several minutes after scheduled post time.
“The stall” is fairly commonplace, especially on big event days when tracks attempt to siphon every betting dollar available. Horseplayers understand it’s a business and are not unusually put out by this.
Nothing is more frustrating than getting shut out, or being unable to watch a race you bet on.
Wednesday’s incident occurred on the penultimate race of the day, so any inconvenience caused by a delay to find another rider for Roaring Conquest would have been minimal, especially considering the alternative.
Today’s betting menus are constructed for the simulcast market at considerable inconvenience to the on-track patron. Economically that tack makes sense since nine of every 10 dollars are bet away from the track.
But the track experience is the only way to create a racing fan. Otherwise, it’s just another kind of video wager; attendance will continue its inexorable decline.
With respect to Wednesday’s incident, most players would prefer to see the start of any race delayed when an important simulcast event is in conflict. Fans will always prefer to see both races if possible.
On Wednesday, the stewards ordered Roaring Contest scratched without much ado. If the concern was for the jockeys and trainers of the remaining horses, then no consideration was afforded the owner and trainer who were sending out the favorite in search of the lion’s share of a $67,000 pot.
Castellano was viewed icing his injured thumb in the jocks room after the incident, but was sufficiently healed as to accept four mounts on Thursday’s program.
A racetrack executive in town for meetings this week said he would make any jockey that took off a scheduled mount due to injury would be required to see his primary care physician in order to get a note clearing him to ride.
At least, the executive said, it would be an inconvenience that might discourage jockeys from feigning illness or injury the next time he puts the bettors and the track in an untenable position, costing the venue and the state money.
Historically, the NYRA has a good record when it comes to making late-scratch decisions that protect the betting public.
But in the event of a late scratch in the Pick 4, or Pick 6, bettors by rule are switched to the post-time favorite. This does not serve the public well. In sequential wagers “form horses” often anchor the play; not always, but quite often.
What sequential bettors want, above all, is coverage, not two tickets on the favorite. To the sequential bettor, favorites are a necessary evil. Bettors try to beat them, not embrace them.
Not that it colors the argument either way, but Wednesday’s 2.20-1 post time favorite, Hysterical Cat, checked in fifth after setting the early pace.
There was a time when the NYRA permitted alternate bets in sequential wagers by introducing bet slips on which players made alternate selections in the event of a late scratch. It wasn’t all that popular an alternative but that was the Pick 6, which doesn’t draw nearly as many players as the Pick 4.
Now that the Pick 4 is commonplace, more people have been, and will continue to be, negatively impacted by the “post-time favorite” rule. I don’t know what the best alternative is, but I do know it’s not the rule presently in place.
Whatever change the Racing and Wagering Board might consider in this scenario, perhaps they should try to emulate what a bettor with a strong opinion might do: Put the horseplayer on top.
Written by John Pricci