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 01, 2014

“Tom-my Dur-kin, Clap-Clap, Clap-Clap-Clap

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September, 1, 2014—What can you say about a legend?

“No words,” is an expression we’ve heard often recently, but usually it marks solemn occasions, such as the sudden, unexpected loss of Robin Williams. The moment is so profound that erudition is overmatched.

Legends are found on the silver screen or television, like Williams, or the stage, the baseball diamond or the gridiron. For the average American, knowing or loving a legendary figure is an unattainable fantasy.

But most people don’t feel that way about Tom Durkin. He is approachable, responsive, and racing fans have reached out to button-hole him virtually every day this meet, telling him what his calls, his words, have meant to them.

There’s a sign as you drive down Nelson Avenue toward High Rock Ave., propped up against a house on the corner. It says: “Arrrrh, thanks for the memories, Tom, you will be missed.”

Mayor Joanne Yepsen talked about Durkin’s presence and accessibility in the first of two ceremonies: “You are not only an icon in the racing industry but an icon right here in our great city.

“For Saratoga race fans, your voice was a familiar and reassuring presence, one of the sounds of Summer in Saratoga. [Your] warmth and generosity have earned great admiration in our city and many Saratogians are proud to consider [you] a friend.”

Her Honor spoke those words inside the announcement that proclaimed Sunday as “Tom Durkin Day.”

“You’ve got my vote,” responded Durkin over the track’s public address system.

Congressman Paul Tonko acknowledged Durkin’s contributions to the sport of horse racing via an official “Proclamation from the United States House of Representatives.”

Durkin later received a key to the City of Saratoga Springs from one of its leading citizens, NYRA Board member John Hendrickson, during Sunday’s public ceremony following Durkin’s last call, the 123rd running of the Spinaway.

And finally, it was Durkin’s turn at the microphone for the last time since he first became the voice of New York racing in 1990.

Acknowledging and thanking all the people responsible for his career would be impossible, he said, I would need to be at the podium thanking people until opening day in 2015, then he said this:

“There is one person that is completely and entirely responsible for this wonderful life that I’ve had the privilege to live in horse racing, and I’m happy to say that that person is right here in Saratoga today.

“He’s in the back yard, on a picnic bench underneath a pine tree, probably looking up at this very image right now, and she’s at the top of the stretch leaning over the rail, in the clubhouse, in a box seat, in a TV parlor in Syracuse, at a track in Ohio, in front of a computer terminal in California.

“And that person who I owe an inexpressible gratitude to is you, the racing fan, the horseplayer, thank you, thank you for it all, thank you for everything…

“And now it’s time to say one last thing into this microphone, and I’ve chosen these words very carefully, they are these: ‘Long live horse racing, and long live Saratoga’.”

And long live the man who this month was celebrated with the Jockey Club Medal of Honor for long and distinguished service, honored in the second annual ceremony of “Red Jacket” for his contributions to the sport and Saratoga Race Course, a saddlecloth from the jockeys, a #1, with the inscription ‘You Are the Man.’

Indeed, Tom Durkin has provided the soundtrack of our adult lives and created a template which many in his trade have followed, a primer for every would-be race caller to study carefully.

But to those in the industry lucky enough to call him a friend, his generosity of spirit, and depth of love for life, and for the living, dwarf his considerable professional skills.

Tom Durkin is one of those rare lights that if you’re fortunate enough to rub up against it, improves the quality of your life, a feeling which he has given to all those that have shared intimate moments.

He is a man who has an untold number of best friends, and he makes you feel that you are the only person in the room that has his complete and undivided attention.

Sunday brought the curtain down on a brilliant, legendary career. He burst on the scene as if it were yesterday, a 43-year career than can be described best in one word: “Splashtastic.”

And that’s that.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (12)

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

Comments (6)

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

Comments (20)

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