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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

Monday, September 03, 2012

The New “King of Saratoga”

September 2, 2012—We’re not be facetious or mean spirited, although inevitably some will take it that way, that the final day of Saratoga 144 comes as a relief.

It’s what happens when about 47 days of racing are condensed into “only” 40. But it is what is and what it did was, despite the questionable quality of the fare on many days, produced damn good finishes race after race on many days.

And whatever the supposed “quality,” or lack thereof, it boils down to competition, and good competition makes for good betting, and good betting’s good for business.

The handle locally, whatever the final numbers say, would have been higher if the racing office didn’t wear out its customers about every other day.

But all-sources handle keeps climbing because the Saratoga brand is virtually indestructible. Spa regulars may be disappointing in the quality of the racing but, on balance, it’s still the best anywhere.

The graded stakes have been excellent, alternately creating or confirming stardom, and some terrific two-year-old have been on display—not all of them owned by the estate of the late Jess Jackson, an outfit that’s had quite a Saratoga.

Not as good as the Godolphin/McLaughlin team, who still has a major player in the Hopeful. Of course, when Fortify broke its maiden impressively it was for Darley Stable; on Monday it moves up to the varsity.

But, ultimately, the meet belonged to Ramon Dominguez.

One might wonder what would have happened had newly minted Hall of Famer Johnny Velazquez rode the entire meeting, just to see how many winners the great Ramon would have had.

You’d have to guess less than the record-making 66, achieved by winning six races on the today’s program, including a 10-1 upset of the G3 Glens Falls with Unbridled Command. But that's completely academic.

The fun won’t stop there; Dominguez’s scheduled to ride in all 11 tomorrow. The record of 65 was previously held Velazquez, the only other rider ever to win six in one day at Saratoga.

Until today.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (4)

Sunday, September 02, 2012

To Honor And Serve Redeems Himself in Woodward

September 1, 2012—Very seldom does a horse race live up to the hype, and very seldom do two horses who met as babies meet again for much of the marbles in a Grade 1 at Saratoga.

Actually, this is the fourth time that To Honor And Serve and Mucho Macho Man have met. Advantage To Honor And Serve, by a count of 3 to 1.

To Honor And Serve was always the more precocious; Mucho Macho Man was from Day 1 the promising late developer who would mature into the big horse, figuratively, to go along with his height of 17.3 hands tall.

They always put on a good show. THAS beat MMM twice at 2, in the Nashua and Remsen. Then MMM laid it on THAS in the Suburban, with mucho gusto.

As the field for the Woodward turned into the stretch, Johnny Velazquez on To Honor And Serve, having gotten Trickmeister to put just enough pressure on Rule to keep things honest, made his move, surged to command with three-sixteenths of a mile remaining, and braced for the challenge that surely would come.

Mucho Macho Man could have been luckier, a lot luckier.

Breaking about a half-length slow, as big horses sometimes do, he wasn’t helped when Gourmet Dinner came out soon after the start and bumped him, temporarily finding him last in a compact field of seven as the group approached the first turn.

Mike Smith moved him swiftly around Gourmet Dinner to secure rail position but this guy wants to be out there free running, speedily stalking a rival. But in the end there were no excuses. The Macho Man had every chance to get by but didn’t.

The 4-5 favorite rallied on the far turn while saving ground, angled out for room just as his rival surged to command, reached even terms, but failed to successfully look To Honor And Serve in the eye.

The winner drifted about three paths wide under the punishing left hand of Velazquez, which carried his rival out, but no contact was made.

For Mucho Macho Man, it was his chance to get his Grade 1 and possible move to the top of next week’s NTRA poll. In the end, however, all he lost was a photo, none of the stature he had going in.

But for To Honor And Serve, it was redemption for the Met Mile and Suburban defeats, especially the latter, and now he’s back in the hunt for end of season honors.

“I knew he had it in him,” said trainer Bill Mott. “I told my story the last time about how the heat had him agitated.

“He didn’t do very well in the 97 degree heat that day and just threw a real stinker. But he did come back today and prove he was a pretty darn good horse.”

Fall may be approaching rapidly, but the Eclipse battles are just beginning to heat up.

...And the 'Trainer of the Meet' Is...

Can it possibly be anyone else than Kiaran McLaughlin?

Of course, the buzz all meeting long was could Chad Brown, who’s having a completely break-out meet, saddle enough turf winners to catch Todd Pletcher, armed with a barn full of 2-year-olds?

But let’s count the ways that McLaughlin earned the recognition of the HRI Trainer of the Meet: Travers, Grade 1; Alabama, Grade 1; Coaching Club American Oaks, Grade 1; Forego, Grade 1.

Parenthetically, not that anyone can remember, but there will be four jockey statues at the entrance of the clubhouse adorned in Godolphin Blue.

Of the four Grade 1s, all Alpha did was make history with his courageous late surge to dead heat with Golden Ticket. And all Questing did in the CCAO and Alabama, and Emcee in today’s Forego, was dominate the opposition.

The speedy Unbridled’s Song colt won the Forego the way you might draw it up in McLaughlin’s barn office:

Break sharply, stalk the speedy Pacific Ocean, pounce when ready, draw away in 1:21-flat for the seven-eighths and win by 4-1/2!

The smiling on Alan Garcia’s face in the winners’ circle said it all: “Thank you, boss.”

What he really said was: “All I wanted was for him to break good and take it from there. He did it the right way.”

Said McLaughlin: “It’s an honor to train for Godolphin. To have such quality horses makes my job easier. I have a great team behind me and it’s been an unbelievable meet. It’s hard to believe. It will take some time to sink in.”

Pace [Doesn't] Make This Race

There were a lot of pedigree wise guys waiting for Dominus to make his turf debut, being a classy son of Smart Strike, from a Lord At War mare.

But who needs pedigree when you can engineer a half mile in :48.63 and 1:12.26 going 1-1/16 miles on a super-firm course.

Sorry, it’s not exactly hard but it sure has been speed favoring most of the meet.

Anyway, after that halfhearted excuse for a pace, who needs a hard course? However, the sprint home was very, very strong.

Turf times are not always written in stone, but it’s certainly possible that a horse of Dominus’ stature could throw a :22.23 at you, forcing you to spin your wheels to catch up.

Then, just to seal the deal, a final sixteenth of :05.83 will get that job done with lengths to spare.

“I would have been disappointed if he’d gotten beat after the [:48 half],” said his trainer, Todd Pletcher.

And that was no equine tomato can; it was the gifted Data Link who made his customary late run but, given the fractions, couldn’t make a dent.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (2)

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Handicapping Spa Features 2.0: The Art of the Mulligan

August 31, 2012-Today’s featured two Grade 1 stakes offers an excellent handicapping study is to the art of applying the mulligan.

Horseman say throw the race out, or strike a line through it, but whatever it’s called, it needs to be part of the betting arsenal, if for no other reason than to maintain mental health.

The subject is apropos because I’ve been a fan of Mucho Macho Man since the day he finished second behind To Honor And Serve in the Remsen in the fall of 2010.

The time to give Mucho Macho Man his mulligan was before he ran in the Suburban earlier this summer, after he had run such a disappointing race in the Alysheba at Churchill Downs.

It’s not that he ran terribly that afternoon; he didn’t. It’s just that when you’re expecting a wow! Effort and find your horse sitting in pluperfect position ready to pounce, only to finish up one-paced, it’s hard to accept.

I realize that it was Successful Dan, who absolutely freaked on the day, that won the Grade 2, and a horse called Fort Larned, the eventual Whitney winner, finished second, six lengths in front of MMM, but it was tough to take nonetheless.

Even though trainer Kathy Ritvo gave MMM nearly two full months after his career best effort in the Gulfstream Park Handicap, apparently it wasn’t enough.

Then when he showed up in the Suburban at 5-1 with a new partner, SoCal Smith, it was an omen.

Prophecy, ignored.

Ironically, the horse we thought couldn’t lose the Suburban was his nemesis, To Honor And Serve, coming off a tough trip effort in the Met Mile.

Well, he never showed up in the Suburban, won by Mucho Macho Man most impressively in 1:46 2/5 for 1-1/8 miles, and it might not have mattered if he had.

After nearly four decades, I still don’t completely trust my eye but THAS looked fretful in the paddock pre-race, a bit headstrong, just something I hadn’t noticed before.

The next day Bill Mott talked about how the colt was “agitated,” perhaps adversely affected by the extreme heat and humidity.

Well, Mott’s in the Hall of Fame, I’m not, but was happy to have whatever my suspicions were confirmed and, unfortunately, the horse ran to his looks that afternoon.

Now it’s his turn to get a mulligan; a horse that had a legitimate excuse. These are, after all, cold-weather animals.

But then you look at the big picture. ‘Macho Man’s’ 4-year-old campaign has been carefully managed, allowing the 17.3 hands colt to grow into that frame, having turned 4 on June 29—way late.

And his Equiform energy figures keep marching, incrementally. You couldn’t draw it up any better.

Then To Honor And Serve is faster on his ‘A’ race and switches to a rider that won on him the last time he was asked to race 1-1/8 miles at Saratoga; Hall of Fame Johnny.

What to do?

What’s worse is that 30 minutes earlier in another Grade 1, there are two mulligan horses; Jackson Bend and Shackleford.

The former is a horse that loves to run inside of horses and lost far too much ground in his prep, the James Marvin, which he won last year en route to a Forego romp.

But is he the same horse at 5 as he was last year? I don’t know that yet, either way. And, if he starts, Nick Zito will change the karma by making a switch to Junior Alvarado.

Meanwhile, Shackleford had several excuses for his poor AG Vanderbilt; a distance at which he’d never been successful and the inside of a drying-out muddy track that stuck to his shoes like glue, a true mulligan.

But his career best performance, a gut-wrenching nose victory in the Met Mile, stretched him as straight as a string. Was it too enervating? Did it contribute to his awful Vanderbilt performance?

Not that he needs the exercise or the conditioning, but he’s worked only once in the last month since the Vanderbilt, a soft half-mile in :50 4/5. What's that about?

This process is not meant to be easy and some days are tougher than others. But like the game itself, knowing when to use the mulligan is an art and not science. Sometimes the gut knows what the mind can’t.

Speaking of art, perhaps paddock and post parade observation will offer some clues.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (7)

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