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 HorseRaceInsider.com.
 

Sunday, July 31, 2016


Upsets from Coast to Coast, More In the Offing?


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, JULY 31, 2016—

Dear Diary, The differences between trainer Eric Guillot’s 2014 Whitney winner, Moreno, and yesterday’s Jim Dandy hero, Laoban, are subtle ones.

Moreno rolled into Saratoga two years ago as a non-winner once removed, coming off a huge maiden score on the Belmont Stakes undercard. The other difference was a bit more dramatic.

And that's because Laoban was threatening to do what he did yesterday--win a graded stakes for three-year-olds--going back to last winter in Queens. And, with the help of a pronounced inside speed bias, he nearly did just that, nearly stealing the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes over Aqueduct’s winter track.

Over a surface that was far less cuppy Saturday than it has been all meet long, and with the rail a little less dead, Laoban, with the assist of speed ace Jose Ortiz and a lackadaisical bunch trailing him, he sauntered through splits of 24.56 and 49.07—forty-nine!—and rolled from there, beating a pair of near Belmont Stakes dead-heaters and a once divisional leader in the process.

Showing his class, Laoban responded with a final five furlongs in 59.32 seconds, stunning his rivals with nine very solid furlongs in 1:48.39, winning the local Travers prep by 1-1/4 lengths over Governor Malibu.

The talented runnerup, getting into a similar jackpot that encumbered his Belmont rally, wound up saving all that ground to no avail. But his effort was still good enough to get him to the line a neck in front of Destin.

The latter, for a brief twinkling at the furlong pole, looked like he would run past Laoban, but not in those late splits. Appearing a tad short and dullish, Destin should be all set for the August 27 Travers.

Truthfully, the first three finishers all ran well, efforts that should see them advance nicely toward the Derby of Midsummer, including that of Laoban.

Despite a stumbling beginning that virtually eliminated race favorite Mohaymen from any chance of winning, especially given Saturday’s dynamic, it is now abundantly clear that he has not stepped it up since taking two brilliant Florida Derby preps this winter.

The Jim Dandy was supposed to be Mohaymen's reemergence--his Travers, so to speak: He was fresh and was pointed to a target by an outfit that’s been sizzling hot at this Spa stand. To boot, he was training brilliantly.

The only thing that failed him pre-race was not looking as if he filled out his light-framed body. We thought he had a legitimate excuse yesterday, even if the man on his back disagreed.

Junior Alvarado, riding extremely well at Saratoga, and whose remarks about Mohaymen have always appeared to be forthright, made no excuses:

“I didn't think [the stumble] mattered at all,” said Alvarado. “He just wasn’t following the race…doing things I’ve never done with him before. He wasn’t the same horse.”

“It looked like he was out of horse at the half-mile pole,” said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. That was about the same time Ortiz was gaining confidence: “I was really confident by the half-mile pole,” Ortiz later said.

McLaughlin was troubled by Mohaymen's lack of effort. "It's a big concern. We'll scope him and look him over.”

It’s situations like these in which horsemen hope to find a little something to put a finger on and correct. But if May foal Mohaymen has indeed peaked, it could be a long remainder of 2016 for the three-year-old and his connections.

TURF FIRM, TRACK CUPPY: Yesterday at Saratoga was reminiscent of any Saturday when racetracks, virtually all of them, speed up the surface on big race days.

From opening day, the track maintenance department, perhaps overreacting to criticism that racing at Saratoga is tough on horses, loosened the cushion to such an extent that it was as cuppy as any racetrack we've ever seen, including downstate's Big Sandy.

But don't take my word: Go back and watch replays from July 22 and look at the amount of kickback.

Long-striding horses are badly compromised when they can't extend themselves comfortably, slipping and sliding when the ground breaks away beneath their hooves. The effort tires them out before they can finish their rally. When asked to comment about their horses in television interviews, most trainers referenced the "tiring track."

We’re all for safe racetracks; goes without saying. But there’s a relatively easy fix: Try watering the damn thing a little more between races. And, please, no weather-report spins on this.

This condition is unfair to players. Why? Because like it or not, public handicappers, whether they work independently or for house organs, have followings and have an influence on the betting public.

Public handicappers not expecting a serious change in atmospherics will handicap the next day's races to reflect the way a track has been playing. Opening week, the "Belmont Balcony" move was very productive..

Combined with a dead rail, it makes it difficult for horses and, by extension, bettors to win. On Saturday, the rail was improved and the track appeared noticeably less cuppy.

Some influential trainer with “a big horse” might have whispered in management's ear, or this was just a business-as-usual Saturday. I know many horsemen who have complained about consistent lack of water on New York surfaces.

Being a track superintendent is a tough and thankless job, like being the morning-line maker. People only notice when mistakes are made.

We’re not calling this a mistake. Erring on the side of caution and safety is never a bad idea. It’s also why it’s called gambling.

Atmospherics is one thing but not putting enough water on the surface between races to tighten it up is another.

All that horsemen and horseplayers demand is a level playing field whenever, wherever possible. That's not a big ask, is it?

For now, there will be no Pick 5 or early Pick 4. I'm no whale, but that can't be good for business.

THEY ALL GET BEAT:
That’s the phrase you hear often from racetrackers because it’s true.

Yesterday at Del Mar, the unbeatable Beholder (123 pounds) was beaten by a very good four-year-old named Stellar Wind (121), Victor Espinoza out-dueling Gary Stevens in another titanic stretch battle like they had last weekend.

Taking nothing away from either rider, or racehorse, but what was Beholder doing on the lead throughout? Stevens said she was comfortable there; the fractions for her were reasonable, which is true.

Both Stevens and trainer Richard Mandella were very complimentary of Stellar Wind and her trainer. John Sadler. Stellar Wind, who ran a great race, can be a major divisional now that she's beaten the queen.

So what does this portend for Beholder’s defense of her Pacific Classic title vs. California Chrome and Dortmund? One of two things:

Either Beholder got the perfect speed prep in the Clement L. Hirsch and will revert to her typical stalk and pounce style late next month, or chinks are beginning to develop in the armor of the mighty six-year-old mare. Handicappers have a month to come up with the right answer.

BETS ‘N PIECES: Wasn’t it interesting how Johnny, aboard Curlin Stakes winner Connect, invited Javier up the rail with Gift Box and kept him pinned down on the fence? "I was just trying to hold that horse in there,” said Velazquez. "It was definitely my choice… It seemed like every time you're on the rail all day long they don't finish very well.” Diary, they haven’t all meeting long--until Saturday...

IMPERTINENT QUESTIONS: Can today’s Haskell, wet track notwithstanding, produce a race dynamic similar to Saturday’s Hirsch in which Stellar Wind stalked and pounced on her way to a hard fought victory..? It sure appears as if Gun Runner will stalk rail-drawing Nyquist, or slip into a catbird-seat trip if someone else takes up the chase..? And isn’t the loose Spa surface, which Exaggerator didn’t handle to Keith Desormeaux’s satisfaction, the reason he will prep for a share of a million-dollar purse rather than train up to the Travers? That and the promise of a wet track, too… My heart can’t wait to see Tepin vs. Lady Eli in the Ballston Spa, but my head sure can. If I’m the trainer of either filly, do I want to see this battle now, with Tepin not 100% recovered by her ambitious early-mid season schedule vs. Lady Eli, after having recovered from a year-long battle with laminitis? If I’m Mark Casse, I’m taking a few extra weeks and Breeders' Cup prep in the Woodbine Mile, her best go, even if against males. If I’m Chad Brown, I’m looking for a softer spot for my filly’s return. Alas, it’s not my call to make, clearly being way above my pay grade.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, July 24, 2016


Saratoga Diary XXXIX: No Graveyard Blues for Songbird


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., July 24, 2016--

Dear Diary,


Maybe I should have had Broadway John chronicle what opening week of Saratoga 148 looked like and felt like. Per usual, good news and bad, mostly bad, but the best thing to report is the racing this first weekend of the cherished Saratoga season.

You might not care about the rantings from some loon from Queens. Lest I remind you Diary that it’s been a pretty good week for loons from Queens.

The saving grace is, as always, the horses and the competition, four-legged and two, with storylines ever where you turn. But as people in my set know, we insist on sharing bad news immediately. Here’s the notable and notorious events of the week:

Foremost, the horrific apparent suicide of a 37-year-old female trainer in Seattle? I have daughters her age; it's unspeakable, there are no words.

Her career, her life, was just starting and, by the numbers, it was good one. But digits almost always seem to lie when you need them to be right the most. And, from every source, Monique Snowden was all about her horses.

And the loss she felt after her colt took a bad step is staggering for racetrack lifers, deeply painful in a manner not dissimilar to how people feel when they lose “family pets.” Devastating.

Snowden had developed a very promising juvenile than prompted the owners of Mucho Macho Man to fly out to Seattle to see if The Chilli Man would win his stakes debut after breaking maiden by a short pole on debut.

The Reeves’ had plans to vet him out after the race, purchase him, and bring him back to South Florida. But a bad step made all that depressingly moot. Prayers, dear diary, for Monique's family, friends, and the Emerald Downs racing community.

Sadly, bad news got worse: The new normal terrorist-attack du jour, sponsored or otherwise, played against the backdrop of a political convention which featured a new theme for the times; ill wishes to men of good will.

In fact, so comfortably hostile was the vibe in Cleveland that Laura Ingram was moved to salute the supremacists in the crowd, Der Fuhrer-style.

Hope all those people get their America back, diary, I’ve already lost mine.

There are other issues we wanted to speak to: Steve Crist’s retirement is a huge deal on many levels, such was his influence on the sport. We’ll get to that another time, diary, having no time to give this development justice at the moment.

We also have a take on Jeff Platt’s letter to the Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency and Jesus Castanon’s magical mystery tour at Ellis Park, stories that also broke last week. As for Crist, HRI Horseplayer contributor Indulto has Crist’s future all mapped out for him: (Sorry, Steve, no rest for the wicked).

OPENING DAY: Main track was cuppy and tiring; perhaps sprinkling some of that famed Saratoga water over the surface might have tightened things up a bit. Wherever you stand on bias, you can do worse, diary, if you want to upgrade opening-day speed horses when they race next…

If the 4th, Sentiero Italia made a great return to the races, showing her signature turn of foot, winning in reserve; great race to build on… Sweet Loretta, everyone said, beat little at Monmouth in debut. Todd Pletcher said shortly thereafter he had two fillies for the Schuylerville. He chose ‘Loretta’, who steam-rolled impressively late, even if the dynamics flattered her style…

Dairy, I had my doubts about undefeated Ancient Secret at the longer two-turn trip. Chad Brown’s filly probably had her doubts for my betting against her. So Todd takes the stakes lid-lifter; Chad Brown answers: It’s on!

Saturday, Bitumin announced himself to the world in the G3 Sanford. No speed from the gate? No problem, I’ll do it from right down the middle of Broadway. Trainer Eddie Kenneally and Javier Castellano were impressed after the race. Can’t blame them…

Jimmy Toner lost a thisclose photo attempting to win his fourth Grade 1 Diana with the tough luck Recepta but course-loving sprint-finishing Dacita proved narrowly best at the line, a race that didn’t deserve loser.

The Diana was amazing drama but, given the national attention and anticipation, the most compelling stretch run of the day had to be California Chrome digging in, not allowing loose-leading quality frontrunner Dortmund re-surge to victory.

Both look they will benefit from the San Diego Handicap and move to the Pacific Classic better for having the prep. Now it will be The Big Three, should behemoth Beholder do her job next weekend prior to her scheduled Pac Classic defense.

Sunday was all about Songbird putting her reputation and undefeated record on the line in her toughest test as a three-year-old, with a Grade 1 Ashland winner, Weep No More, and the faster multiple graded stakes-winning Carina Mia sitting off her right hip.

Did we say faster? Did we say it would matter?

Julien Leparoux rode Carina Mia perfectly, moving just at the right time, approaching the quarter-pole, hoping to stick his head in front into the straight. But Mike Smith reached down and the champion dug down deep. She repelled the challenge, vanquished her rival, drawing away at the end.

Who's gonna' beat her in the Alabama? Damn, diary, who's going to have the stones to go first over?

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, September 08, 2015


Saratoga: Meeting and Exceeding Expectations


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., September 7, 2015—Strange, posting this first ever Saratoga Diary from the Sunshine State. Ironic, too, since daily summer storms here are running to form while the Spa atmospherics were unusually remarkable; clear days with hardly a trace of humidity.

Quickly: Name another extended race meet in which only 10* turf races were rescheduled to the main track?

NYRA bashing is a popular sport, one that goes with the territory. And while I can nitpick with the best of them, I did not see a multitude of major faults to bitch about; not even the well-publicized cap on Travers day attendance.

Complaining about the current NYRA administration comes easily, especially when racetrack language is generously peppered with corporate speak, but they hosted a very successful season by any measure.

Yes, compared to other years, prices were exorbitant. But when likened to other major sports—and Saratoga is a world class sports venue--prices were in line, even if $5 for bottled water on Travers day was excessive.

For anyone attending the Travers, the “guest experience” was enjoyable. One could move about the crowded facility with relative ease and clubhouse betting queues were not inordinately deep--at least on the three or four occasions we left our press box sanctuary.

Simply because the brand says Saratoga doesn't mean the race meet will be memorable. But in 2015 it was. The racing was spectacular, even many mundane weekday programs necessitated by the expansion of Mega Racedays.

If persistent whispers are accurate and Executive Vice President of Racing Martin Panza does not have his contract renewed this fall, he certainly saved his best for last.

But this is an imperfect world and horsemen complained to us on occasion that Panza’s condition book is written on a three-week cycle.

This favors powerful stables because, the argument goes, they've got numbers to spread around both condition books; smaller outfits wishing to run back cannot because there are fewer similar spots to re-enter.

In case no one’s noticed, this game is tough and no place on this continent is it any tougher to win than at Saratoga. Just ask the majority of horseplayers, some excellent practitioners, who were humbled at this session.

It is said that bettors want big, competitive fields, and in the main that’s exactly what they got. What’s that expression, careful what you wish for? Imagine how much better handle might have been had players been able to churn back their winnings?

Between the fences and on the backstretch, there were some truly remarkable achievements, defining moments, and career-making seasons. The list of achievers and over-achievers were great. Here, then, some observations on the best extended race meet the planet has to offer:

Jockeys:

Irad Ortiz Jr.: has been leading rider before, but this was his first Saratoga title. It won’t be his last. He rides for many of the best outfits. He has patience and excellent timing, rides with extreme confidence, even when he had some uneven moments.

Javier Castellano: Ortiz won the title but no one had a better meet than Javier. Six Grade 1s in 40 days is DiMaggioesque. There were 17 G1s, with two over hurdles, and winning the Whitney, Woodward, Alabama and Travers is extremely unlikely to be duplicated.

Johnny Velazquez: Per usual, JR won more races with his head than he did with his athleticism. He's talking about scaling back his daily schedule next year, concentrating on big races and special client relationships.

Jose Ortiz: Day to day, demonstrated why he’s consistently best away from the barrier, an excellent rider of speed horses.

Luis Saez: HRI predicted success in NY for Saez when he left Florida several years ago. With 35 wins at the meet, it was his Big Apple breakthrough moment.

Eric Cancel: With 18 winners at America’s premier meet, a stand that doesn’t offer apprentices many opportunities, Cancel ranked eighth in the final standings. The mutuel payoffs averaged over $20!

Kendrick Carmouche: Ranked ninth with Jose Lezcano behind Cancel with 16 wins, but Carmouche just might have earned himself a permanent spot in this talented colony.

Trainers:

Todd Pletcher: Face it, he is racing’s 1927 Yankees. Uncharacteristically coming from behind, it was Pletcher’s sixth straight Saratoga title and 12th overall. It’s one thing to have the stock, another to deliver so consistently—and this was following a record Belmont spring-summer meet.

Chad Brown: Hard to imagine you can have a breakthrough Saratoga with 31 winners and not win the title. Still, a career meet for the Mechanicville native.

Bill Mott: His meet was the training equivalent of a Z-pattern. Started fast, idled in mid-meet, but finished strongly.

Kiaran McLaughlin: Had an outstanding meet with 13 winners, finishing sixth among trainers. Indeed, Kiaran trains quality stock but it was horsemanship, not number of starters, that was responsible.

Jeremiah Englehart: Talk about career meets? Had 11 winners with few short-priced horses among them.

Barclay Tagg: Pointed to the meet--uncharacteristically with maidens and younger stock--and killed it with seven winners and a strike rate of well over 30%. (Meet favorites overall were only 29.5% efficient).

Notables:

Outstanding Meet Performance: Flintshire winning the G1 Sword Dancer

Outstanding Debut Victory: Jess’s Dream, who might have been farther back than Honor Code was when he broke his maiden here, and at two turns yet.

Outstanding Horse: Rachel Alexandra who, as colleague Tom Jicha noted, was the only three-time winner at the meet.

Outstanding Owner: Michael Dubb, repeater.

Outstanding Horsemanship: Dale Romans

Outstanding Moment: Chris Antley, posthumously entering the Hall of Fame

Outstanding About-Time Moment: King Leatherbury into the circle

Outstanding Bad Beat: Tepin, twice.

Outstanding Betting Favorite: Saratoga v Del Mar

Outstanding Life Celebration: Hail to The Chief

Outstanding Sportsmanship: Ahmed Zayat

Outstanding Morning Trial: American Pharoah

Outstanding Afternoon Trial: American Pharoah

*correction made 090815, 3:48 p.m.

Written by John Pricci

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