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

Sunday, August 23, 2015

SARATOGA: History, Horses and Healthy Business

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 23, 2015—It’s Travers week and, barring any untoward occurrences during American Pharoah’s scheduled trial this morning, there promises to be a hot time in the old town come Saturday.

A victory in the storied Derby of Midsummer always has historical implications, especially when a champion shows up. Participation and victory for the sport’s 12th Triple Crown winner will enhance his legend, probably to disproportionate levels. Time does that.

An historic celebration will assure the 2015 Saratoga meet aesthetic success of epic proportions, whatever the average fan’s feelings toward current management. And give them this: they are pushing the right buttons here and the numbers prove it.

The efficacy of the metrics traditionally used by the industry are considered outmoded by some, but until something better comes along, conventional wisdom will have to do.

Double-digit handle increases on and off track are impressive, with daily averages of $4 million and almost $16 million the envy of any sustained meeting anywhere in the world, including their cross-country turf-and-surf rival.

Field size at the Spa is also strong with nearly 9 runners per race. I can’t remember the last time that’s happened here. Obviously, the weather has been very good for business--although it doesn’t rain all that much in San Diego, either.

The number of turf races lost could be counted on two hands, amazing considering that yesterday was the fifth Saturday of the session. Rain has come either at night or on dark days.

This probably doesn’t augur well when measured against the law of averages and the enormity of next weekend’s program. Parenthetically, no one in attendance will ever forget the Birdstone Travers.

The racing has been uniformly excellent, top heavy in talent and competitiveness, and the riding has been superb.

Irad Ortiz Jr. needs no introduction, of course, but he’s been a revelation here despite several uneven performances. He’s been leading rider at NYRA tracks but never Saratoga, and this is the one that everyone wants.

Johnny is Johnny and Javier is Javier, but Luis Saez has riding the turf courses like he owns them and Jose Ortiz is speeding bullet away from the barrier. Joel Rosario has emerged from a mini-slump.

Kendrick Carmouche is showing he belongs here and young Eric Cancel continues to be wise beyond his years. Jose Lezcano and Junior Alvarado continue winning regularly for their loyal clients.

It’s been the Todd and Chad show at the top of the trainer ranks, to no one’s surprise, considering their talent and numbers but many others are having terrific meets.

Kiaran McLaughlin’s horses have looked good and have run even better. Bill Mott owned the first quarter of the stand. Jeremiah Englehart and must be pinching himself every morning.

Tony Dutrow and Wesley Ward have come alive this week, the former in a big way. George Weaver and Gary Contessa both got their fifth wins yesterday and good to see Jimmy Toner’s horses running very well.

Saratoga seldom fails to fire but Del Mar may be reflecting the general malaise that engulfs California racing these days. Between the TOC’s greed and the out of touch stage of the CHRB, the karma in America’s second biggest market is bad and the numbers reflect that.

On the biggest day of the Del Mar meet in which the mare Beholder made Pacific Classic history, Saratoga’s 11-race Alabama card out-handled Del Mar’s program by nearly $5.8 million. That’s stunning.

And considering the betting tastes of these equal yet disparate destination meets, California continues its love affair with the Pick 6. Yet through the first 28 days of the meet and despite four more carryover days than last year, Pick 6 handle is off $2 million.

Want to know what’s interesting about that? The Pick 5, with its fan-friendly takeout rate and popular fractional betting unit, continues to grow, a fact that’s also spilled over to a small increase in the Pick 4, where a one day handle reached a record $1.4 million.

Here’s some more A-B-C type information for greedy horsemen’s groups and or racetracks to consider. Yesterday, both the P5 and P4 at Del Mar out-handled Saratoga by $200,000+ and $300,000+, respectively.

However, exacta handle at Del Mar with its excessive 22.68% takeout rate was $2.8 million compared to Saratoga’s $5.4 million featuring an 18.50% hold. Will myopic, unknowing executives and horsemen ever learn that excess never equals success?

Del Mar business if off $2 million year over year with their biggest day in the history books. With one less day of racing, business is down a staggering $32 million from 2013.

If California racing continues its present policies, its popularity will continue to erode and it should expect the bad news to continue. And that would be a damn, senseless shame. California racing and its fans deserve much better.

Bets n’ Pieces:
Johnny’s milestone 800th Spa victory was quintessential Velazquez. Giving Run a Dubb Dubb a perfect trip, he moved aggressively when another rival got first run, putting his horse in the game and got the job done with a punishing left hand before riding out his mount to victory…

That was quite an Alabama performance by Embellish the Lace, but will some three-year-old filly finally step up and take charge of this division? Meanwhile, Tony Dutrow's confidence and preparation was like some old page from Charlie's or Woody's book. Well done...

Beholder was absolutely amazing, becoming the first female winner in Pacific Classic history…I know I’m getting well ahead of myself here, but American Pharoah vs. Beholder in the Breeders’ Cup Classic would be the kind of sensation not seen since Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra once graced racing’s stages...

Just like the old Keeneland and the old Monmouth do not resemble their clichéd reputations of years ago, neither does the old Spa. You still need the ability to run fast but not from in front. Haven’t seen many races stolen this season and while the rail may still be the shortest way home, it hasn’t been the fastest way, either. But the current state of the surface has added a dimension to the competitiveness one expects from the best extended race meet on the planet…

Joe Sharp has done great work with Troy-winning Shore Runner, an amazing turf sprinter who just comes to get you no matter what the dynamics are…Horses To Watch: Sheikh of Sheikhs can really run. Rated very well in front by Eric Cancel who engineered an even sprint-type pace in 22.71, 46.06 and getting 6 furlongs in 1:10.14—right, a last quarter in 24 seconds; not bad for a debuting baby. Runners-up Portfolio Manager and Gift Box, both trained by Chad Brown, won’t be maidens for long [replay worth your time]…

looked like a turf horse in paddock and post parade then went out an proved it; nice colt, follow progress! Runner-up Life Imitates Art was too sharp in his new blinkers although he still raced greenly. Despite Irad Ortiz’s herculean efforts, he never got him to switch to his correct lead and just missed in a very game stretch performance. Show finisher Hunter O’Reilly trailed in 10th throughout, angled out for a lane on the far turn, angled wide into the stretch and closed very determinedly, beaten two necks for all of it [see replay].

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, August 16, 2015

Jerkens and Nerud: Legendary Horsemen; Greater Men

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 16, 2015—It was only appropriate that if the seemingly indestructible John Nerud had to choose his time to step off the stage for good, it would be the week the New York Racing Association hosted a tribute in remembrance of H. Allen Jerkens.

Like most young people, I was way too smart to appreciate how great a man and horseman he was. It was only after he actively retired from training and got deeply involved in the marketing of Breeders’ Cup, which he co-founded with breeder John Gaines, did I get to know and value him personally.

Gaines and Nerud envisioned a season’s-end championship series and that’s exactly what they got. It might not have realized the same stature as the Triple Crown but don’t tell that to the bettors. They bring fistfuls of cash to the fray. Like the horses; they either win big or lose bigger.

Jerkens and Nerud were cut from the same horse blanket; only differently. Jerkens, as Saturday’s touching day-long tribute that featured still photos, video of his horse’s greatest victories and affectionate remembrances of the racetrack lives he touched everyday proved--he never stopped giving.

When Jerkens passed this winter in Florida, Gulfstream Park held a memorial service in their second floor Vegas-style theatre, the appropriately named Sport of Kings. Despite short notice many hundreds attended looking for a reason to smile, for a sport without Allen Jerkens was unacceptable.

As invited speakers told their Giant Killer stories, emotions swelled within the large South Florida gathering. To say goodbye in such fashion seemed an honor. On Saturday in Saratoga, it was more of the same, but different. New York is home.

And “Saratoga is,” as Allen Jerkens Jr. noted in a touching family eulogy from inside the winners’ enclosure, “well, Saratoga.”

Allen Jerkens Jr. is the spitting image in the Chief's favorite chapeau

Horsemen like Jerkens and Nerud are revered, exalted, held in awe, their names enshrined forever across from the Race Course on Union Avenue in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

On Saturday the Chief came home to Saratoga and will be there every time a trophy bearing his name is presented to the meet’s leading trainer. Accomplishment and circumstance make men great but only a soul can make a man beloved. In the end Jerkens killed the biggest giant of all; self-interest.

Nerud was the same, but different. Unlike the Chief, John Nerud was not shy and retiring. His speaking voice while high-pitched at times more resembled a bark. His aura demanded respect and once the intimidation factor was eliminated, his honesty demanded respect and admiration.

When Wayne Lukas was inducted into the Hall of Fame a decade ago he was surrounded by the protégés he taught; Todd Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin, Mark Hennig, to name a few.

For that, “the Coach” became known as a Trainer of Trainers. But his branch of the horsemen’s training tree began with Nerud, who also launched the careers of Scotty Schulhofer and Carl Nafzger.

Like Nafzger, Nerud came to racing via the rodeo circuit and was a groom, jockey, jockey agent--for Ted Atkinson, no less--trainer, owner and breeder, a renaissance horseman. He also played a role in developing the first synthetic racing surface with his client, William McKnight of 3-M fame. Remember Calder’s Tartan Track?

For McKnight, Nerud was brilliant enough to purchase an unknown sire named Rough n’ Tumble. One match in his first crop was a mating to the mare Aspidistra which begat a colt named Dr. Fager, the only Thoroughbred to win four in a single season; the Handicap, Sprint and Turf divisions including Horse of the Year.

I didn’t know Delegate first hand, Nerud’s first “big horse,” but I remember Intentionally’s name from the entries in the NY Daily Mirror when I first started following the game in 1959 at 15, two years older than Nerud was when he first became a rodeo cowboy.

Kiaran McLaughlin's Mutin is surrounded by Jerkens admirers.

Nerud also trained another all-time fave; the brilliant, highweight-carrying Ta Wee, often defeating males and winning consecutive sprint titles in 1969 and 1970. He also trained Gallant Man of Shoemaker-Derby-Gaffe fame, who later set a stakes record in the ‘57 Belmont until Secretariat’s world-record 2:24 in 1973.

In 1985, owner Nerud won the GI Breeders’ Cup Mile with his homebred Cozzene, trained by his son, Jan, the horse later becoming an influential sire. Nerud’s genius as a breeder can be found today in the bloodlines of two top sires; Tapit and Unbridled’s Song, and the race horses Shared Belief and presumptive Horse of the Year American Pharoah.

Like Jerkens, Nerud will be remembered as a man who championed the little guy. He has helped many backstretch workers and gave lots of jockeys a chance when no one else would. He was respected and well-liked by every racetracker he came in contact with.

At a time when the sport needs horsemen of influence, it has lost two of its greatest practitioners in history and two of its very best people.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, August 14, 2015

Time Marches in Different Directions

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 1, 2015—Call it whatever you wish because it cannot be gauged accurately but perhaps American Pharoah’s Triple Crown exploits were in the subconscious of buyers at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion Monday and Tuesday nights.

The accent is always on quality here and 145 yearlings walked in and out of the ring with price tags averaging more than $322,000 per head for a worth of nearly $67 million, the average a 10 percent bump year over year.

If business were any better they would have had to rename the place the Donald J. Trump Pavilion. Hey, there’s nothing this man can’t do.

There were three million-dollar babies among sold and Sheikh Mohammed bought the sales topper, a Street Cry colt for $1.4 million. Completing the top three were a Malibu Moon filly for $800,000 and a Tapit filly for $750,000.

Indeed Tapit had the three sales toppers on Monday, the first of two sessions, and only 15% failed to reach their pricey reserves. Was there a 2017 Derby or Oaks winner among them? All will be revealed between the fences in the spring after next.

The Midsummer Question: Let’s face it. If Bob Baffert had his druthers he wouldn’t be within 3,000 miles of Saratoga come August 29.

Of course, there are many dynamics at play here. There was the arduous road to and through the Triple Crown and then the Haskell. And while he won the latter geared down, fast races take a toll no matter how the job was accomplished; an effort is an effort.

Thankfully the Zayats want to see their colt run again, as do a handful of racetracks and millions of racing fans. But for Baffert, until he delivers the colt safe and sound to breeders at season’s end, it’s all pretty much downside. Who knew pressure would mount after the fact?

There is the matter of the plate in American Pharoah’s left foot, which he’s been racing with all season, and the management of an under-publicized high-suspensory issue that is disquieting for all those tethered to America’s 12th Triple Crown champion.

Churchill Takes Step in the Right Direction: Owing to criticism from horsemen and certain segments of the media alike, including HRI staffers, CDI has doubled the point values of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile across the board.

The Juvenile winner will now earn 20 points which would place him at least on the cusp of the final field, in all likelihood demanding merely an in-the-money finish in a points-qualifying event for the Kentucky Derby.

This tack should draw one or two players off the sidelines on this side of the Atlantic and another European qualifier that merely finishes fourth in the UAE Derby, worth 10 points. A total of 30 all but assures entrance after the usual prep season attrition.

Ed Martin: Friend of Horsemen; Enemy of Sport’s Future

“While the Jockey Club is to be commended for its commitment to the sport and its efforts at promotion and marketing, its departure on some significant issues from a cooperative effort with industry regulators as to how to address equine welfare and integrity challenges is most unfortunate,” stated the American Racing Commission International president Martin in a release.

“…Equine welfare and integrity challenges should be addressed holistically, working with the entire community of regulators. The Jockey Club possesses no regulatory authority other than as a breed registry.

“The collection of data in Jockey Club computers that is not seamlessly integrated with regulatory data system, potentially undermines the benefits to be achieved from these efforts.”

In other words, let we regulators continue to work with this patchwork quilt of states and woefully inadequate, underfunded testing laboratories so that we can buy another two decades of kicking this can down the road.

Contextually, it’s useful to recall his defense of clenbuterol before a congressional sub-committee investigating racing spurned in part by the catastrophic breakdown of the filly Eight Belles in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.

Recall, too, how he insinuated himself into the Rick Dutrow case in 2011 by orchestrating a suspension of Dutrow’s license in Kentucky which was used in his meddling into a case before New York’s State Racing & Wagering Board with the aid of then SRWB chairman John Sabini.

Martin worked extremely closely with Sabini who simultaneously serving on the Board of Directors, Executive Committee, and as chairperson of the board-elect of ARCI, making Sabini effectively judge, jury and executioner in the case.

“…I formally request the Board to commence a proceeding and issue a notice to show cause as to why [Dutrow’s license] should not be revoked given what appears to be a lifetime pattern of disregard for the rules of racing, wrote Martin to the SRWB.

“…In considering Mr. Dutrow’s suitability to continue his participation in racing, the Board is urged to take into account his adherence to rules in all jurisdictions he participated in…” On that same day, the RCI issued a press release to that effect.

The following day, Lisa Underwood, Executive Director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, sent an email to RCI Chairman Willie Koester, copying Sabini and questioning whether actions taken by Martin “were authorized by any directors of the executive board?”

“I think it was totally inappropriate for Ed [Martin] to send the letter and issue a release,” Underwood continued in an email. “I would be furious if he ever interfered with a Kentucky matter.” As it turned out, it was only the beginning of Martin’s involvement in the Dutrow matter.

All Hail Status Quo: In a separate but related matter, the Thoroughbred Racing Associations Board of Directors at their annual pre-Jockey Club Round Table meeting in Saratoga reiterated their firm commitment to the implementation of uniform medication policies with a sense of urgency throughout the United States.

Indeed, the TRA has assisted and has supported the adoption of the RCI uniform rules on the controlled therapeutic-substance schedule, accreditation of testing laboratories, third-party administration of Lasix, and uniform penalties for multiple medication violations.

The TRA Board supports an initiative to find an alternative to Lasix for treating exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. It states further that by the end of 2016, the TRA expects at least 35 of its 38 member tracks in the US will be operating under the RCI’s Uniform Medication Policy.

Will it ever end?

Racing’s policy wonks have been talked about these fixes for years, albeit more extensively since Congress began looming, and progress has been made. However, this flies in the face of objective oversight and the goal of eliminating race-day medication.

It’s ironic that all the alphabet groups combined are likely favorites to win the day, based on industry PPs. Never mind that rhetoric and tweaked policies won't get the job done in any substantive way that represents meaningful reform.

Written by John Pricci

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