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, July 28, 2014

Big Weekend Everywhere

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 27, 2014—With apologies to any venue that puts up a million dollars for a Grade 1 event, and to call the William Hill Haskell Invitational a prep for the Travers is more than a little cheeky but many fans regarded Sunday’s War at the Shore as round three of Travers prep weekend.

What was supposed by many to be a triumphant victory by a sensational filly over males, or a competitive race rich in talent, turned into a romp for the brilliant Bayern, giving Bob Baffert a record seventh victory in this race and jockey Martin Garcia a record-tying third.

In the process, Bayern ran himself out of the Grade 1 7-furlong King’s Bishop on August 23rd here. Does that mean a run in the Travers off this devastating 7-1/4 length score in 1:47.82?

This was a Breeders' Cup Classic “win and you’re in” event, not by definition a stepping stone to the Travers. All Baffert would say after the race was: “I don’t think I’ll back him up after this.” Who could blame him

And while Steve Asmussen didn’t say it, I don’t think he or his connections want any part of Grade 1 colts anytime soon, although Untapable did get bumped at the start then raced wide throughout, legitimate excuses. But neither did she truly fire.

Rachel Alexandra? Can we officially stop the madness now?

What was so impressive about Bayern, even if the track was kind to speed later in the day, the surface was not aberrantly fast [the Monmouth Cup went 1.23 seconds slower than the track record for 1-1/16 miles; the Teddy Drone sprint 1.55 slower and Bayern 1.02 seconds off Spend A Buck’s 1:46.80] and the winner made two moves on the lead, arguably three, as the hickory third-finisher Wildcat Red tried him twice from close range but each time the winner repelled his bid.

The guess here is that Bayern returns to home base and races once between now and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. We shall see…

BACK TO SPA BUSINESS: One thing we can confirm is that if all goes well, the first three out of the Jim Dandy will be back; Wicked Strong, Tonalist and Kid Cruz. That final furlong should be, well, a dandy.

The hot duel up front and Rosie’s soft hands helped Coup De Grace find the Grade 2 Amsterdam winners’ circle. Three-year-old chestnut is now 2-for-2 for Larry Jones. With a couple of heady turf rides previously, it seems that any rust Ms. Napravnik endured since being grounded by injury is officially gone…

Indeed, that was quite a debut by Competitive Edge, apparently a well named juvenile that cost about five times the average Super Saver at the Keeneland fall sale (the freshman sire had another winner Sunday)…

“Every time we did something with him it was impressive,” said Todd Pletcher of the colt’s morning trials. “He did it pretty easily,” said Johnny V of the 10-1/4 length winner in 1:09.89. “It was definitely impressive.” Next up will be the Hopeful on closing weekend…

Lost in the Jim Dandy headlines created by Wicked Strong and Tonalist, Kid Cruz was a excellent third, going in the right direction at the finish. Close up to an early pace, he dropped back, as if the race was over for him, then came on again. This type of Z-pattern will augur well when he stretches out another furlong in the Travers...

While it is highly likely that maiden breaking Competitive Edge will be the Hopeful favorite, the day might have produced another future Grade 1 favorite in the King’s Bishop on the Travers undercard, such was the manner of The Big Beast’s allowance victory in 1:09, winning by a short pole after making a good field look completely overmatched. Tony Dutrow’s horses are simply running out of their skin.

C. Zee, second in the Amsterdam, ran too good to lose; note…Celebrated Talent appeared in need of his return from a layup and suffered through curious handling. Perhaps a stretchout next time, perhaps not, but bet back in a logical spot…Poppy’s Watching is another who should benefit from his return from a layoff, placing gamely; note.

It’s an amazing streak for Hall of Famer with Jonathan Sheppard; saddling a Spa winner every year for 46 consecutive years. The victory came on the flat but, appropriately, in a turf marathon at 12 furlongs. Only 10 more and he’ll tie Joltin’ Joe. Kudos!

Spa Business Booming: For the weekend, more than 63,300 fans clicked the turnstiles, 31,000+ both Saturday and Sunday.

On Saturday, 31,812 bet $5.7 million on-track, with total receipts of $23.3 million nationwide. The following afternoon, the first wet day of the meet, attracted 31,561 customers who bet $2.7 million live, with total receipts of $9.9 million. This was after 48 program scratches and no turf racing. All but eight of the scratches were weather related.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Prep Killer

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NT, July 26, 2014—With “the Chief” somewhere in Hallandale Beach looking on, the “Prep Killer” emerged with a huge weekend.

“The Prep Killer,” a.k.a. “Peanuts” in the barn where he was growing up into a top assistant to his legendary father, H. Allen Jerkens, Jimmy Jerkens took a page from dad’s book and slew a pair of heavy favorites in Saratoga's two Travers preps this weekend.

But it had to be the victory of Wicked Strong, he of the occasional wicked will, that must have been the most gratifying of all--considering the addition of blinkers and all.

And, oh, what a difference a change of equipment made.

Jerkens has dealt with the temperamental colt in the run-up to, and through, the Triple Crown series. Crowds made the colt antsy, he tended to run very spottily in his races, turning himself off and on whenever it suited his fancy.

It was time to find out if a set of blinkers would work; get him in the game earlier, help him focus throughout a race.

In the G2 Jim Dandy, the blinkers carried Wicked Strong with a rush into contention despite a wide post draw, allowing him to reach near even terms with the speedy Legend soon after the leader entered the backstretch straight.

From there, Wicked Strong, under stout restraint from regular partner Rajiv Maragh, kept the leader in his sights, stalking him throughout, and when Tonalist loomed up alongside approaching headstretch, the winner came out to greet him and the real running began. In the end, the Belmont winner could not match strides with the Wood Memorial hero.

This week, trainer Christophe Clement said his colt would be fit enough to compete and compete him did, finishing 2-1/4 lengths behind Wicked Strong but 3-3/4 lengths ahead of third finishing Kid Cruz who, it must be said, was going in the right direction after the winner posted a clocking of a very solid 1:49.16.

“It might be my imagination but he always seemed to be running with his head cocked to the other side in his other races,” Jerkens explained. “I didn’t really notice that today. I thought he ran straight and true.”

“With the blinkers he wasn’t loafing down the backstretch,” said Maragh. “He was running into a nice rhythm and didn’t go on and off the bridle, which he was doing in his prior starts. He was more focused today, and more aggressive.”

“The way he works in the morning,” said the awed Jerkens, "I don’t think Secretariat worked any better than this he does. It know the talent’s there. It’s just getting him to put it all together.”

Clement had no immediate reaction after the race, was contacted back at the barn, and said that he needed to “spend some time with my horse” before assessing just what happened with regard to yesterday and next month’s Travers. Aside from finishing second, it was a good race to grow on.

As for Jerkens, he might also run Friday’s Curlin Stakes winner, V.E. Day, in the Derby of Midsummer. “We’re going to think that way,” he said. “V.E. Day has improved with leaps and bounds with each race. Those kind of horses usually have a lot of quality.”

Having learned from the best, he should know.

Depending on Perspective, No News Is the Good News and the Bad News

The unceremonious firing of NY Daily News handicapper and reporter Jerry Bossert, in virtually the same manner the NY Post handled its racing people last year, inspired much conversation both off and online.

Most opinions went something like: It’s symptomatic of what’s happening with to thoroughbred racing; the mainstream media doesn’t care except for four days a year-- which essentially boils down to two; Kentucky Derby day and Belmont Stakes day when a Triple Crown is on the line.

Q: So, what’s an industry to do about that?

A: Absolutely nothing; they like it this way.

It might be instructive to recall that it was Bossert’s Daily News piece exposing Aqueduct for the unkempt eyesore that it had become, despite all that VLT largesse. Were these mutually exclusive events? Who knows?

There is no way of knowing what the exact policy with respect to working press is in New York, or anywhere else for that matter, but there does seem to be a pattern at work.

Last year, when a hard-hitting column was written in the Saratogian at the conclusion of the meet, a top NYRA executive, accompanied by a local NYRA Board member, visited the newspaper to personally complain about the opinion expressed.

When the Post racing writers and handicappers were fired on the eve of the 2013 Belmont, one of them at the time was trying to broker negotiations between NYRA and Post executives, the goal being to recover advertising that was pulled following the critical story.

Earlier at this meet, the popular “Saratoga Special,” which never has written anything negative, ever, was pulled from areas around the racetrack where it previously was available.

The incident became a non-issue quickly when an agreement was reached, making the magazine-style publication available on track once again but in mutually agreed upon area.

Without objective coverage, what passes for reportage these days often is rewritten press releases, that is when industry media bother to make the effort at all.

Internet news disseminators have joined this bandwagon, learning to follow the money—their own—and tend not to trumpet any commentary that could be construed as controversial, thus becoming part of a problematic trend.

Prior to this stand Saratoga handle figures were included in a nightly recap. It still is available in the press box after the races but is not disseminated online. So much for promises of transparency made earlier by the current quasi-state controlled association.

Handle figures are still available but only by calling the communications office to request them. Generally, however, when the numbers trend upward, they are made public more readily.

Not releasing handle statistics was started by Churchill Downs Inc. not that long after the private company went public; bad publicity does little to enhance shareholder value, nor does it help racetracks scheduled to go up for bid in the future.

It will be interesting to see whether the subtle pressures that journalists occasionally face from the industry is a temporary development or the new normal.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, July 25, 2014

V.E. Day at the Spa; Lezcano Wins 2000th

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 25, 2014—As far as Travers preps go, today’s Curlin Stakes probably raised more questions than were answered, although it seems likely at this point that the first two finishers will return on August’s penultimate Saturday.

Coming from absolutely last and from as far back at 10 lengths between calls as the leaders entered the final turn, V. E. Day, making his first career start on dry dirt in his fifth lifetime run, rallied strongly down the center of the strip to win the restricted 9-furlong event by a head over Charge Now.

Protonico, making his second start this year and only fourth start in life, and a tepid 3-1 choice in a field reduced to nine with the program scratch of Commanding Curve, was a nose farther back in third, the mile and an eighth going in a solid, albeit unspectacular, 1:50.51.

Another lightly raced colt, Viva Majorca, finished even faster than the winner and was reaching the front three but ran out of racetrack.

A convincing case can be made that the Tiago colt, making his first start beyond 7 furlongs and around two turns, was the best horse given the race's dynamics.

It’s not often when you see runners come from absolutely last in a two turn dirt race that featured a legitimate pace that was somewhat on the moderate side. But after breaking slowly, Jose Lezcano, reaching a personal milestone with the victory, guided his mount to the inside, tipped wide gradually leaving the quarter-pole, then gamely prevailed over two rivals.

“He settled into a nice ground-saving trip,” said winning trainer Jimmy Jerkens, who will tack up Wicked Strong, the 2-1 early line second favorite, in tomorrow’s Jim Dandy.

“He’s bred top and bottom turf but he trained so well on the dirt I wanted to give him a chance,” Jerkens explained. “On paper it looked like there would be a ton of speed in there and we were tucked in behind, saving ourselves.”

“My horse did everything so easy to the quarter-pole,” added Lezcano. "He saw the horses and he kept running. I saved ground the whole way and when I asked him he gave me a kick.”

Bill Mott, trainer of the runnerup, was disappointed but encouraged enough to take the next step. “I thought it was a great effort. He was a little green when that horse went by him and he came back again.” Then he added, “we want to win the Travers, anyway.”

It’s unknown at this point whether the third finisher will go on to the Midsummer Derby. “For his first time going a mile and an eighth and only his second start this year, I thought it was a good performance,” said trainer Todd Pletcher.

“He learned a lot today,” jockey Javier Castellano added. “I think in the future he’s going to appreciate [added distance] because he was always on the lead but today we stretched him out. I thought it was a great effort for him."

As for Viva Majorca, beaten less than a length after rallying wider and faster than the winner in the final sixteenth of a mile, he appeared to have no chance to win at any point. Despite the fact he was coming out of sprints, he had only two horses beaten for much of the race instead of getting into the game from the start.

Further, he was steadied by Julien Leparoux after hesitating to run up inside horses approaching headstretch, then was shifted outside over rival’s heels, eventually reaching the 6-path with a furlong remaining then flew home, albeit too late. Like the winner’s run, his was a remarkable effort.

The top four finishers might not be ready for prime time just yet, but the second half of the sophomore season has only just begun.

In earlier races, Silver Union took the opening maiden claimer in a manner suggesting he will repeat if spotted properly by George Weaver, who saddled his first of two winners on the day.

Starting an early double for Johnny Velazquez, he was in hand late while drawing off; bet back in the right spot.

In the 7th, Castellano cut it a little too fine, waiting, waiting, then waiting some more with Hope Cross, finally tipping out with less than a sixteenth of a mile remaining and finished like a rocket to just miss catching Sumba Sunset.

Trainer Michael Matz and Luis Saez continue doing good work on the Saratoga turf course but bet that Hope Cross will not be a maiden for long.

After some confusion on the tote board, the stewards got it right in the finale when they disqualified runnerup Angel Choir and placed him third.

Bearing out under Jose Ortiz’s left handed urging, he bumped the eventual winner, Fresh Feline very hard, starting a chain reaction into original third finisher, Jolene. The incident cost that one either first or second position and the 24-1 chance justifiably was placed third.

Written by John Pricci

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