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 30, 2015

Travers 146: Keen Karma

SARATOGA SPRNGS, NY, August 30, 2015—The second lesson a trainer takes from his Horsemanship 101 manual, after “he couldn’t be doing any better” is “they all get beat.”

Horseplayers and fans would also do well to keep in mind that dictum. The disgrace is in not showing up; not running on gallantly for second in a losing effort.

They all get beat is the truest of all axioms, of course. That’s the way it is with flesh-and-blood things. Like humans, animals have their good days and bad days. American Pharoah had a good one, just not the great one he needed.

For the Triple Crown champion of 2015, the 146th Travers was an effort somewhere in between. Bob Baffert said it best to a national television audience moments after the race: “He didn’t bring his ‘A’ game. We thought he would have a little more in the tank.”

Now maybe people understand why Baffert was reticent to run in this spot.

Pharoah’s B+ game was pretty damn good, however, in part reminiscent of Seattle Slew in the Jockey Club Gold Cup of 1978, coming again gallantly only to be beaten by a one-run, perfect trip rival, Exceller.

American Pharoah dug down to the bottom and found courage, but no reserves. While clearly fatigued, he still resurged to defeat his Travers shadow, the couldn’t-be-doing-any-better Frosted, soundly defeating him by open lengths at the end.

But it was the fresh, specifically pointed to the Midsummer Mile and a Quarter who won the day beneath expert handling from his human connections. And the good karma surrounding them proved too hard for the champ to overcome.

Jerry Crawford, founder and managing partner of the eminently successful Donegal Racing partnership, believed in his horse and the game’s future--the children, distributing free Dairy Haus ice cream—Keen Ice Cream cones—to celebrate his colt’s participation in the Travers.

“I have a suspicion that promotion may be extended a few days,” he would say hours after the race.

At a charity event Travers eve at the Fasig-Tipton Pavilion for Senior Services of Albany, trainer Dale Romans auctioned off his own paddock pass—“what are they going to do, prevent me from saddling the horse?” and it was the event topper, attracting a bid of $5,000.

“It’s one of my favorite charities,” Romans afterward. “Meals on Wheels really improved the quality of my grandfather’s life, giving him a hand while allowing him to enjoy his independence late in his life.”

It is rare when good karma is rewarded almost instantly, and it was from the moment the Travers field was sent on its way. And before the term rabbit gets thrown around re Frosted’s tactics too loosely, Kiaran McLaughlin’s horse was under a tighter hold first time by the stands than was American Pharoah.

Jose Lezcano--who replaced Joel Rosario, unseated earlier in the G1 Forego, did not sustain serious injury but will be off his Sunday mounts, too--did nothing wrong.

Lezcano’s horse was super-sharp and rather than choke him down, he brought the race to the rival the whole world believed was the horse to beat.

And so the table was set for the Graveyard to claim its latest victim, thanks to a hotly contested pace and the coming of age of Keen Ice, who developed beautifully over the summer for Romans.

Fractions can be deceiving going 10 furlongs. Going the distance on a contested lead is always difficult, especially with a middle half-mile in 46 seconds, but Keen Ice was set for a breakthrough performance, a resume that only figures to get better with each subsequent start.

We have said, and have written previously, that Keen Ice showed signs of becoming a man in Oceanport when he sprinted home for place behind a geared-down Triple Crown champion in the Haskell Invitational.

Keen Ice, this week, when asked about Travers favorite

Photo by Toni Pricci

Keen Ice continued to train in improved fashion during his time at Saratoga and Javier Castellano, winning an unprecedented fifth Travers, liked what he felt beneath him the only time he worked him.

While McLaughlin hoped Frosted would be in fifth position in the early going, his colt was super sharp and Lezcano brought the race to American Pharoah, to the detriment of both as it turned out.

Conversely, the connections of Keen Ice wanted their horse in the game earlier, and that’s exactly the trip Castellano gave them.

While the long-striding colt was well back early, he did ask Keen Ice to get closer when the real running began at the far turn following that grueling middle half-mile.

But, too, it was Romans’ patient approach with classics-type runners that ultimately paid dividends for the Donegal group and their colt going forward. He will continue to improve and, with added development, should make an excellent 4-year-old.

Patience was a lesson Romans learned from one of his mentors, the late, great Allen Jerkens. They had been friends for decades and they spent a lot of time over dinners this winter in Florida, just before “the Chief” passed.

“After today’s race I kept waiting for him to call me,” said Romans wistfully back at the barn Saturday night where Keen Ice finished his dinner by about 8 p.m. When he later posed for photos with the Romans family, he appeared bright and fresh, almost as if he had never run.

The current plan is to train up to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, just as will be the case with American Pharoah, who was fine, albeit tired, on Sunday morning.

Parenthetically, that makes sense for Pharoah but perhaps not so much for Keen Ice, who has both the constitution and the body to benefit from another Haskell-style prep.

Whatever tack Romans takes it will be well considered and, like late Saturday afternoon, the original Giant Killer will be somewhere, smiling.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, August 28, 2015

Pharoahtoga: The Christmas Place To Be

SARATOGA SPRINGS, Travers Eve, 2015—Since 1977, my first full racing season in Saratoga, I have seen many strange things, but this was different—in a good way.

Put another way, I live virtually across the street from the race course and it took me about 25 minutes to get inside the gate this morning.

Welcome to Pharoahtoga.

NYRA racing analyst Richard Migliore said a month ago that if Monmouth Park could draw 6,000 fans to see American Pharoah gallop that, because this is Saratoga, you could get 20,000.

I’m thinking The Mig might have ridden 4,450 winners but what does he know about this?

I’ll be damned but his guess was a lot better than mine. The crowd seemed more like a weekday at the races or, as Jerry Bossert put it, “there were more people here this morning than will be at Aqueduct all winter.”

My spies--colleagues Bob Ehalt and Ed McNamara--have been around the oval more than a few times. Ehalt, observing from the winners’ circle, guesstimated the front-side crowd at about 15,000.

McNamara, who watched the gallop from the backside, thought there were about 3,000 fans back there. The NYRA guesstimated the crowd at 15,000. Nobody questioned it.

I watched the gallop on cable TV in my living room. That’s right. In Saratoga, you can stay home and when American Pharoah shows up, you can watch Tuesday’s post draw and this morning’s gallop on Time-Warner Cable News, Ch. 1.

I probably had the best seat to observe the gallop and nothing I saw indicated that he will not be at his best at 5:46 p.m. tomorrow.

His stride was fluid, his energy level was high, and he didn’t want to be pulled up, always wanting his head.

“He liked the track,” trainer Bob Baffert said. “He galloped around there like he usually does, whenever he has his ears up. I feel very happy about the way he went today.”

In a Man on the Street feature in a local paper, fans were asked to complete this sentence: “American Pharoah coming to Saratoga is as big as…?”

“Derek Jeter getting his 3000t hit,” said one. “The President coming; it’s a piece of history,” said another. “Secretariat,” said a racing fan. And my personal favorite: “The Grateful Dead Fare Thee Well Tour.”

And when the 146th Travers field curls into headstretch, 50,000 fans will hope to see history as American Pharoah keeps right on truckin’, like the do-dah man.

The View From the Porch

It started early. By 7 a.m. the red light on Nelson Ave. was backed up on Union Avenue 10 Victorians deep. Every parking spot, normally filled by noon on a racing day, was taken.

Occasionally, a savvy driver would make a U turn and take the back route. Too bad; Nelson and East Avenues didn't look any better.

Some came by foot carrying the furniture and groceries they'd need for the day. A beautiful morning for a walk; a beautiful day for the races at Saratoga Race Course.

American Pharoah is galloping this morning and thousands are coming to see him. These early pilgrims are fans for whom the Triple Crown winner IS the Super Bowl. And Thoroughbred Racing is the winner, today anyway. Hopefully tomorrow, too.

They are smiling as they walk by with the anticipation of a child hoping to see Santa on Christmas morning.

That's when I saw him: Glorious as ever, slowly rolling east on Union. Recognizable in denim or in his iconic red suit, Saratoga's resident Santa Claus can be spotted anywhere as he goes about his daily life.

And today, Santa came to see Pharoah. Only in Saratoga.

--Words and File Photo by Toni Pricci

Saratoga's Santa in Residence, Fred Clark

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Pharoah’s Chariot in Rarified Air

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 27, 2015—This town, the whole Capital District in fact, never ceases to amaze in terms of its enthusiasm for whatever is scheduled to take place at Saratoga Race Course.

Before thinking this is provincialism its worst, Saratoga no longer is our full time residence; it’s South Florida now. But Saratoga is, to me and many others, like New Orleans; it’s a place you can feel. And that vibe extends beyond the course on Union Avenue.

It’s one thing to say that the Albany area boasts only one major league sports attraction—the flat track, as the locals call it—and that would be correct. But true enthusiasm cannot be manufactured, it’s an expression that comes from within.

Sipping a cup of coffee trackside Wednesday morning as the horses filed past to enter the main track for whatever was in store; timed workouts, gallops, jogs or just standing quietly, a report came over the television sets that rest atop the backside food stand.

The pronouncement was that “the big horse” would be landing in a matter of hours at Albany International, bound for trainer John Terranova’s barn on the Saratoga backstretch after first making a stopover to pick up a horse called Funny Cide.

Of course, Funny Cide was the local equine that made good as a Dual Classics winner, the gelding literally born up the road from the racetrack. The 15-year-old will be feted at the track. Everything that’s done here relates to how much this place “gets it” about horses.

As I sipped my coffee no less than three guided tours passed in front of me and, even though there wasn’t a tall building within three hours of here, many of the visitors kept looking up and around wanting to take in the entire scene.

Most faces were adorned with an expressive mix of joy and wonder, happy to be here to see and feel a place where, as the signs remind you, “horses have the right of way at all times.”

The plane carrying the sport’s 12th Triple Crown winner and Derby and Preakness hero of 2003 would arrive at 2 p.m. the reporters said, which turned out to be exactly right give or take a few minutes.

Some clever promoter dubbed the plane “Air Horse One” and I thought that I wish I came up with that myself but this game keeps you humble, even on days when you don’t bet.

There was this great image on the six o’clock news of the plane landing in Loudonville, exit 4 on the Northway which comes immediately after exit 2 as one drives north. One day I’ll have to find out why that is.

Was it some frenzied exacta bettor screaming “no 3, no 3!?”

American Pharoah’s energy level was high as he de-planed, ears at full attention. He then stretched his legs with Baffert assistant Jimmy Barnes tethered to the other side of the lead shank, holding his head held high after his walk was done.

Cameras clicked and whirred, the colt fully attentive to his surroundings and, not to anthropomorphize but he sure seemed to be quite proud of himself. For certain, he enjoyed all the attention--a lot.

Anywhere within a hundred-mile radius it was impossible to ignore American Pharoah’s arrival. He was on every network, as if POTUS had just arrived in town. The on-air talent was as excited to report about him as those who showed up to greet him.

The champ and all the Travers horses will be on the track Friday morning from 8:45 for 20 minutes as they jog and gallop around the main track. If there were 6,000 in attendance on the morning before the Haskell in Oceanport, NJ, you should probably take the over here.

That is so especially since the Travers crowd as been capped at 50,000 and this is, well, Saratoga. This event is so exclusive that NYRA even capped the press box attendance at 60.

Weather reports for Saturday are good—sunny, temps in low 80s--and with 13 races, six on turf, with six Grade 1s which drew sizable, competitive fields, a new handle record likely is in the offing.

Not all the news was great, as far as we were concerned, anyway. Catching a breath of air between takes this morning, Ron Nicoletti of Gulfstream Park rolled by on his two wheeler.

Nicoletti brought us up to speed on Tropical Storm Ericka, now scheduled to arrive in South Florida Monday. Toni and I are scheduled to return home on Tuesday, so we might be able to finagle a few more days out of this racing sojourn. It’s out of our hands.

Should the storm hit, Gulfstream Park will have to evacuate its barn area. Any place east of U.S.1 is considered an evacuation zone. With Calder stalls no longer available, it will be Palm Meadows and points north here we come.

Restaurants in town were slow Wednesday night and that trend could continue since there will be no walk-up admissions available on Travers day. For those holding admission tickets and restaurant reservations wishing to valet their car, it will cost $50 to do so.

But not to worry, this only happens about every 38 years or so.

Written by John Pricci

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