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

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Wise Dan’s Finest Hour

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 30, 2014—At this stage, it’s amazing that certain Thoroughbreds can still provide chills and thrills to fans, bettors and everyone in between.

But betting wasn’t necessary to have an interest in the Bernard Baruch, not when two-time defending Horse of the Year is making his first start since Derby day, enduring colic surgery in between.

It’s no secret that we wished that at some point in the last two seasons, that the connections of Wise Dan would take the highest road possible; there was no question as to turf mile supremacy. So why not one run for the ages?

On a simply gorgeous Saratoga afternoon, Wise Dan returned to work, attempting to win the Grade 2 Bernard Baruch for the third consecutive year off a series of seven workouts while having to spot seven rivals anywhere from 8 to 13 pounds.

After 29 races, 21 lifetime victories, multiple championships and $6.8 million later, the 56th running of the Bernard Baruch turned out to be Wise Dan’s finest hour.

So anxious to compete, in fact, the normally well behaved gelded 7-year-old pulled a Hi Ho Silver in the starting gate, parting company with Johnny Velazquez, was eventually harnessed by the assistant starters behind the gate, Johnny remounted, and the race was on.

As turf races go--a surface normally producing bunched-up fields with horses checking and steadying all over the lot—this one was cleanly run, the eight horses stretched out and going comfortably with the champ neatly nestled in fourth position.

Morton Fink and Charlie LoPresti could not have drawn up the scenario any better. But there still was a race to be won and this field was running hard all the way. With Five Iron setting realistically fractions over a firm course, every quarter was run in less than 24 seconds.

By the time the free running speedster was approaching the sixteenth pole, the mile was clicked off in a snappy 1:33.20, but by then Johnny Velazquez was grinding his way forward, confidently and un-aggressively.

Inside the final half-furlong, Velazquez reached back and gave the champion four right-handed raps on the rump, Wise Dan stretched out to the wire, opened ground, appeared on his way—remarkably—when Optimizer, nursed back to top health by Calumet farm manager Jose Fernandez, the team hit the wire together.

The champ, for the 22nd time in his illustrious career, proved the most photogenic, holding off a fierce rally by an equally impressive Optimizer was also was overcoming his issues.

The time of 1:39.08 was a mere 17/100s off the course standard belonging to the “Sultan of Saratoga,” Fourstardave.

“He showed today why he is the two-time Horse of the Year,” said a relieved LoPresti. “Too overcome what he’s overcome…"

“When I got past the sixteenth pole he was giving me everything he had,” Velazquez said, “and [Optimizer] was coming from the outside. There was a little bit of doubt, he was getting tired.”

“I wouldn’t have been disappointed if he was beat today, it would have been a good race to build on,” LoPresti explained.

“What happened to him, training to come back, and run with 127 pounds, that’s incredible,” his rider said.

“That’s the amazing thing about him,” said his trainer. “God willing he comes back good and he’ll build from this race. He’ll be way tougher next time.”

Is there any doubt?

Plesa and Paco's Lucky Day

The headline race of the day, the Woodward, looked like a two-horse race on paper and that’s just the way it came out.

Moreno, as expected, set the tempo, shadowed closely by the newly blinkered Itsmyluckyday, who deserved to earn his long sought-after Grade 1 title.

Great work turned in by trainer Eddie Plesa with Paco Lopez giving a textbook demonstration on how to ride the stalker in a two-horse race successfully to the finish.

Both horses raced very well, and Prayer For Relief came back with a much improved to finish third without seriously threatening the leaders, who were engaged in a bumping match right to the finish.

The stewards rightfully decided that Lopez and Junior Alvarado were equally guilty.

As one reflects on the Woodward card, the speed biased nature of the surface should not disparage two other excellent performances; one by Stonetastic in the Grade 2 Prioress and the other by maiden graduate El Kebeir.

Breen Filly a Stone Runner

With most of the major competition turning back from the Grade 1 Test, the gray daughter of Mizzen Mast simply ran a hole in the wind to take the Prioress impressively.

Paco Lopez shot to the lead from an inside slip and when no one was able to challenge, she was gone, running three-quarters of a mile in 1:08.88, drawing out to win by 8-1/2 lengths at the end.

Favorite Miss Behaviour was the runnerup, saving the place by a neck over Southern Honey.

The victory was a tad bittersweet for trainer Kelly Breen. “This is a week since my father passed away, and he’s here with me. It means a lot. It’s been a tough couple of weeks.

“She was running fine earlier this year but she was very immature. We sent her home to grow up,” said Terri Burch, racing manager for owner Stoneway Farm.

“When we put her back in training she had a giant growth spurt so we had to go slow and wait for her to come around. [Now] I think we are looking toward the Breeders’ Cup.”

And why not? In her seven-race career, Stonetastic has sprinted only three times; the Prioress was her third victory.

This Baby Can Fly

El Kabeir made a loaded maiden field of juveniles look bad as he went to the front and improved his position, winning by 10-3/4 lengths in 1:09.81.

“[The horse] made me enter him,” said trainer John Terranova. “This horse is doing very well and I don’t know if we want to wait until we get back to Belmont,” Terranova said to owners Ahmed and son Justin Zayat.

“They’re babies,” said jockey Irad Ortiz, and last time he broke a little slow. He was in front easy [today]. He’s a nice horse.”

“We have the Champagne in mind,” said Terranova.

Linda Rice, the Palace Queen

Linda Rice became the first female trainer to win the Grade 1 Forego when her former claimer Palace, who’s holding his flesh and form remarkably well, won his second Grade 1 of the meeting, which makes Rice the first woman to win two Grade 1s at the same meet.

The only horse to come from off the pace on the main track all day, busting through on the fence with just over a furlong remaining, which helped his cause immensely, and drew off from rivals that were finishing evenly.

That is all but the favorite, Clearly Now, who was absolutely awful in defeat. Palace finally must get his props as the best sprinter on the East Coast.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, August 29, 2014

Welcome Back Champ; Welcome Back, Visitors

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 29, 2014—In the past, we have been critical of the connections of two-time defending Horse of the Year champion Wise Dan for taking a road less sporting.

But as to the remainder of Wise Dan’s 2014 racing schedule, which commences in Saturday’s Grade 2 Bernard Baruch with the storied gelding seeking a three-peat, trainer Charlie LoPresti is properly impatient when it comes to questions regarding a title defense.

"I don't know how many people have said, ‘You need to do this,’ or ‘You need to do that’ to get Horse of the Year’” LoPresti said to a NYRA press staffer on Thursday. “I'm not even thinking about that right now.”

Nor should he have to.

After seven workouts following his return to training after having colic surgery—to repeat, colic surgery—the 7-year-old Morton Fink homebred, a winner of six Eclipse Award titles in his career, will be spotting eight to 13 pounds to seven turf rivals in the 1-1/16th miles Grade 2 beneath 127 pounds.

“I'm thinking how lucky we are to get him back to the races, have him out [there] breezing, getting the chance to get him back in a race... I'm just glad he's back in training and has a chance to run. Horse of the Year is the furthest thing from my mind right now.”

Amen. First things first; let’s see how it all goes at 3:15 p.m. tomorrow

Happy Holidays

Could it be that finally a longer Saratoga meet will come to fruition, possibly as soon as next year?

That eventuality might have been trial-ballooned yesterday and it has not, according to reports, officially been seriously discussed by NYRA’s Board of Directors.

The Fourth of July to Labor Day schedule was something the Diary suggested about two decade ago in Newsday, claiming that a bad attendance day in Saratoga is better than an average day on Long Island—these days, much better.

As usual, the knee-jerk has been predictable. Too much of a good thing? Well, Saratoga hasn’t been the “August Place to Be” in some time, giving way to the “Summer Place to Be” since the schedule crept into the last week of July.

The leak, published in the Troy Record, quoted a hotel general manager as saying that the Saratoga market has reached a saturation point in terms of the number of hotels needed.

Maybe so, but they keep building them, and the high-priced condos put up in downtown Bonacio Ville have not been sold given the crazy asking prices, but that hasn’t stopped realtors from writing short-term leases rather than have the spaces remain empty.

It is true, modern day Saratoga is not the one-horse town it once was, but it still generates far and away the greatest amount of revenue and puts Saratoga on the world class map.

Concerts and ballets are great, but they don’t do that. And neither do they command world class prices for a relatively short period of time. Many of the locals have retired on what their properties have sold for, particularly in the last decade.

Yes, Saratoga is now one of the world’s biggest small towns and expansion is inevitable. The only question that remains is when.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, August 23, 2014

Son of Giant Killer Goes 1-2 in Travers 145

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 23, 2014—Going into the 145th Travers Stakes, Javier Castellano was the only jockey in the 10-horse field who had won the Mid-Summer Derby, and he did it three times.

On a muggy, partly cloudy afternoon, he won his fourth by a desperate nose over his stablemate, Wicked Strong, giving trainer Jimmy Jerkens his own personal exacta and kept him an undefeated 2-for-2 in the Travers.

On Travers eve, Jerkens was accepting a ceremonial “Red Jacket” for special achievement for his father, the great Allen Jerkens, plying his trade these days with a few horses in South Florida.

A day later, the “Son of Giant Killer” Jerkens was accepting the Travers trophy on behalf Magalen O’Brien, owner of V.E. Day, a turf specialist that is now 3-for-3 on the main track, including the Curlin Stakes here on July 25.

For Jerkens, it’s been a storybook meet, winning at a 38% rate going into Travers Day. The photo finish camera, getting a strong workout all meet long, was never more telling than in Saratoga's premier event.

This might be a good time to refer to V.E. Day as a former turf specialist, one that can run all day over any surface. Check the replay and watch his stride lengthen when he reaches the finish.

Travers 145 has billed here as a Battle of the Big 3-1/2, yesterday’s runnerup and third finisher, Tonalist, the favored Haskell winner, Bayern, and Belmont Derby winner Mr Speaker, a winner at the Travers distance on Belmont turf July 5th.

As for the favorite, it just wasn’t his day, finishing last of 10 after setting a strong pace, dogged determinedly throughout by Tonalist. Clearly, Joel Rosario did not want the favorite to steal away and he did the hard work, chasing the pace for all 10 furlongs. He helped neither the favorite nor his own horse in the process.

Wicked Strong, racing close-up, too, but in the catbird seat, third, made what appeared to be a winning move on the far turn. Into the stretch, he was in a battle with Tonalist, dispatching him and opening what appeared an insurmountable advantage, but the pace started taking its toll on him, tool.

When Wicked Strong won the Jim Dandy, wearing blinkers for the first time, he ran straight and true down the stretch. Saturday, after acting up a bit at the gate--a quirky habit--he attempted to win the race immediately after entering the straightaway.

This time, however, he was bobbing and weaving in the final sixteenth while tiring and his mate nailed him right on the line under superb handling from Castaneda, who also won the Grade 1 King’s Bishop with an identical late surge aboard The Big Beast.

As for Bayern: “I was hoping they’d go in 48 and change,” trainer Bob Baffert said by telephone from Del Mar. “But when he turned for home, he was out of gas. We were hoping to steal it, but the secret was out.”

“I wasn’t sure it was V. E. Day, he had so much mud on him” Jerkens said of the stretch-running winner. “[But] when I saw the silks I knew it was him. I said ‘man, what a feeling. I know I’m going to win the Travers; I just didn’t know with who'.”

“He beat me,” said Wicked Strong’s rider, Rajiv Maragh. “That darn Jimmy Jerkens, you can’t beat that guy,” Maragh said with mocked indignation.

Of Tonalist, Joel Rosario said: “It looked like there was one horse with speed and then me and Wicked Strong. I tried to get my position; he can run like that, so I was happy where I was. We were just third best today.”

“I was very happy with what my horse did today,” said Castellano. “I’m happy for Jimmy; he’s a great horseman. We’ve had good experiences in the past, winning the Travers [in 2010] with Afleet Express.”

Castellano had other good experiences on the day as well, sweeping the late Pick 3, giving himself four victories on the day to go with his fourth Travers trophy.

What is clear now is that V.E. Day cannot be taken lightly and belongs to be included with the division’s elite. Undefeated juvenile champion Shared Belief is the early line favorite to defeat older horses in Sunday’s Pacific Classic. Divisional-leading dual classics winner California Chrome is scheduled to return in the Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 20 at Parx. The Jockey Club Gold Cup goes the following weekend at Belmont Park.

Supporting Stakes Set the Tone for Future Stars and Upsetters

The 46,557 didn’t lack for entertainment, not with Abaco coming from the back of the pack in a paceless edition of the G2 Ballston Spa for older fillies and mares on the grass. Under well- timed handling from Jose Ortiz, the score gave trainer Shug McGaughey’s his second win on the card.

The grass event was a good start for Pick 4 players who were able to beat the odds-on favorite, Filimbi, who stalked the pace to no avail, finishing last of seven.

Castellano rode The Big Beast with confidence, coming from off the pace, using slightly different tactics than those that won a preliminary allowances here earlier this meet. It was the kind of effort that compelled trainer Tony Dutrow to try Grade 1 company.

“I learned from my days with Bobby Frankel,” said Dutrow. “When your horse is [doing] really, really good to not waste a race.”

New York breds were well represented in the Grade 1 Ballerina by three very talented fillies but when it was over, Artemis Argotera was in a class by herself, winning by open lengths a tick or two faster than it look The Big Beast to win the King’s Bishop.

Written by John Pricci

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