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, July 19, 2014

Dream Weavers

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 19, 2014—It is not so much that I’m conflicted as much as I’m a little distracted.

Here I am, with a front row seat to the best thoroughbred meet on the planet, and I’ve got harness horses on the brain, actually one juvenile trotter in particular.

Charles ‘Chip’ Foster lives in the condo next door, approximately 12 feet from my door.

About two months ago as I was preparing to leave for some big race on Long Island, Foster told me he had a nice trotting prospect who was a lot more advanced than others if his ilk at the harness track a quarter mile down the road from both of us.

I told Chip that once I get back from Long Island, I’ll come over to the qualifiers on Friday mornings and check him out. From that first Friday, I have yet to see him get beat.

On the Friday after the Belmont, Royal Deceptor, by RC Royalty from the Malabar Man mare, Art of Deception, took his qualifier under wraps in 2:06. The time wasn’t fast but his professionalism and his manners were.

The following week, the $11,000 Morrisville yearling purchase gave a virtual repeat performance, going a little faster, 2:05 3/5, before just ambling back to the barn like some old gelding that had just finished jogging.

Finally, with debut rapidly approaching, it was time to get a little more serious and the colt obliged, showing a speed dimension for the first time, taking the lead with a quarter-move and kept right on going like some energizer bunny of a trotting horse.

Stopping the timer in 2:03 flat, he took the lead and improved his position, as racetrackers say, winning by a ridiculous 22-length margin and coming his final half-mile in 59 2/5.

Finally, he was ready to race but no one, including his trainers, the husband and wife team of Cheryl and Mickey McGivern, who also drives him, knew exactly what to expect. All McGivern knew was that his colt “never gets tired.”

His parimutuel debut was at Buffalo Raceway, a half-miler but looking more like a track at some county fair, despite all that VLT money that was being made right next door.

Buffalo’s first turn is quirky, which is a kind way of saying it has very little banking. Consequently, many young horses keep going straight instead of turning left as they should.

With McGivern taking no chances, Royal Deceptor raced to the lead and once again improved his position. By the time it was over, he was 3-1/4 lengths clear and stopped the timer in 1:59 3/5, the fastest clocking for a juvenile trotter on a half mile track this year. Not a bad debut.

“I think that’s the last time I’ll see 5-2,” I said to Chip.

Friday, the New York Sires Stakes series moved to Tioga. At odds of 35 cents on the dollar and again leaving from the rail, this time McGivern appeared bent on teaching him something, settling the colt down in third down the backstretch run.

Making a quarter-move once again, his lower-first-turn brush was the trotting equivalent of Secretariat’s move in the Preakness. And the fact that he would go on to win by 7-3/4 lengths under no pressure in 1:58 2/5 was almost beside the point.

When this young trotter gets into high gear, he has the look of a Currier & Ives print come to life; flawless and powerful, churning and churning and, like the man said, he doesn’t get tired.

In a year when the Meadowlands Pace was won by a $3,000 yearling, and the Kentucky Derby by an $8,000 home bred, just maybe lightning will strike thrice.

In any case, the owners; Foster, Mike Sentiwany, who works in the mutuels department at Saratoga Harness, and Mike James, the IT person there, are living the dream. Who can blame them?

Meanwhile, at the flat track…

The Grade 2 Sanford for juvenile colts was a rough house of an event through the stretch, so much so that the stewards lodged an inquiry.

What they saw was the runnerup up who made the most trouble, not the winner.

After Chocolate Wildcat and Cinco Charlie set up things nicely for a late runner with a cutthroat duel of 21.65 and 45.17 to the top of the lane.

At that point, it appeared that the victor would be either Big Trouble, who rallied into contention three wide on the turn, leaned in briefly to tighten things up on the other likely winner, Mr. Z, or the latter who was reserved neatly behind the hot pace.

But soon after straightening away, Corey Lanerie bulled his way out of the box, pushing Big Trouble out of the way but in the end, the scopey Tiz Wonderful bay found another gear with a winning late surge to win by a neck in the shadow of the wire.

A very game Cinco Charlie was 1-1/2 lengths farther back in third. The winner, trained by Tony Dutrow and timed in 1:10.64, will be nominated to the Hopeful or might await the Belmont Fall meet.

The Grade 1 Diana was ultra-competitive going in and it turned out that way on the turf course, too, with the first three finishers; Somali Lemonade, Stephanie’s Kitten and Discreet Marq, separated by two necks.

The strange thing about the event was the number of rank horses racing into the clubhouse turn. But that’s what happens when a talented field of headstrong fillies are, to recall an oldie but goodie Durkin-ism, “muzzled and suppressed” in the early going.

Over a firm turf course, Grade 1 fractions of 24.37, 49.84 and 1:13.96 were, recalling a revered Hatton-ism, desultory.

The pace played to the winner’s strength as her tactical speed enabled Luis Saez to maintain a covered-up, tracking position while saving ground, Saez seizing the day:

“When we came to the three-eighths [pole],” said Saez, “I had so much horse that when I got clear, she responded and won.” It was as simple as that but not so for runnerup Stephanie’s Kitten who came with a flying late finish.

“There wasn’t much pace,” said Frankie Dettori. “It was draw 9, that was the trouble. Unfortunately I had to lose ground the whole time. They got three lengths on me and I ran out of stretch.”

Since giving Somali Lemonade her head after blinkers were added, she’s become a better filly and now is a Grade 1 winner at Saratoga.

“I don’t know if it was the blinkers, I don’t know if it was the maturity. I don’t know what else to say about her. She’s better now at 5 than she was her whole life.”

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, July 18, 2014

Saratoga 146 Opener in the Books

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 18, 2014—Nothing like getting punched in the stomach on opening day at Saratoga.

The New York Daily News, taking a page from their competition, the New York Post, called Jerry Bossert into the office on Saratoga 146 eve and fired him, leaving New York City without horse racing coverage.

Newsday is now the only paper in the city metro area to cover the sport.

Last year, before the Belmont Stakes, the New York Post fired trackside reporter Ed Fountaine and handicapper John DaSilva.

Bossert, a handicapping specialist who covered racing at the News for nearly two decades, is expected to free-lance for the paper later on at the meet.

What does this mean for Thoroughbred racing in New York? The same think it means for the NBA and NHL those seasons when the Knicks and Rangers stink.

Well, this stinks! Bossert is to be married this October…

Another Opening, Another Show

The two big games at Saratoga each summer are, of course, juveniles and turf racing. Well, opening day features all-turf late Pick 4 and the second and third races were for 2-year-old fillies including the traditional opening day Schuylerville.

The heavy favorite, Fashion Alert, won as expected, stretching her record to 2-for-2, both stakes, but she certainly didn’t win like a 1-to-5 favorite.

After leaning in at the start and bumping another rival soundly, the very fast Take Charge Brandi was able to scoot away to a clear lead. Johnny Velazquez asked the favorite to join the leader and the two fillies duked it from the seven-sixteenths pole to the wire.

The favorite fought Johnny through the stretch, tilted her head outside while encouraging her with the left hand. She won by a length and a half in 1:11.79, all out at the finish.

It was an excellent effort by the Lukas-trained runnerup who tried to come back leaving the eighth pole by the favorite’s momentum carried the day. Figure that ‘Brandi’ has a stakes with her name on it in the near future; follow.

It was 7-3/4 lengths back to Tulira’s Star, a private purchase by the Team Valor people following her open lengths score at Arlington Park in June.

The race before was a special-weights event at 5-1/2 furlongs and the first two finishers did the best running--by far. By the Moon came down the center of the track to draw off late in a very professional effort, giving Jose Ortiz a sweep of the early double, but it was runner-up Ring Knocker that was more impressive.

Asked to move prematurely approaching headstretch by Jose Lezcano, she swooped the group but began to tire from those exertions leaving the sixteenth pole. It was a sustained bid and the filly dug in right to the finish; will not be a maiden long; note. She’ll be a lot shorter than 24-1 next time out.

It was an eventful trip for Saratoga first-timer, legendary European rider Frankie Dettori, especially vexing since the airlines lost all of his tack, including his stirrups.

The incident cost him the ride on the well meant, debuting Vinolicious in the second race after missing the first aboard Successful Brothers. His next scheduled mount is in the 7th aboard Tiz Sardonic Joe.

Dettori took the mount who finished a very game second to gifted-leader Joe’s Blazing Aaron without the benefit of a front shoe thrown during the post parade.

NYRA should be commended for making the announcement that, because of this incident, the horse would race for “purse money only,” fair to the connections and the bettors.

Shoe or no shoe, no one was catching the odds-on leader after very soft early fractions. Third finisher Monument Hill, completed the exacta in a useful effort and third and fourth finishers, Where’s Danny and Emkanaat, outran their odds to complete the Tri and Super. Both are worth following in the proper spot next out; take note.

Next up, a 5-1/2 furlong turf sprint and…Frankie wins! Known for his patience and strong finish, he won this one on the engine for Aventure Love, a two-moves-on-the- lead winner, looking very much like a repeater. Ballerina Belle closed strongly for third; should be all set next out.

Dettori returned playing to the crowd, and they played to Dettori, demanding that he show them his signature flying dismount. He did, and the crowd loved it.

Next up was the entertaining Sir Cat for 3-year-olds going a mile on turf and a star might have been born or, at the very least, the next time Tourist makes an appearance it will be in a graded event. Mark it down.

Joel Rosario took no prisoners. He brought the race directly to graded-stakes dropping Storming Inti, took command, set solid fractions and had plenty left for the drive. And Mott got him there in typical Mott fashion; with patience, through conditions.

First, the maiden breaker at Gulfstream this winter, put him away until June when he came back to win a preliminary allowances in 1:33 1/5, then returned today in an overnighter and missed the course record by 14/100s.

Dettori doubled up in the finale (Johnny had two, Jose Ortiz tripled).with an aggressive, yet, come-again winner aboard New York bred Jet Majesty, also for Spa weekend sponsor, Wesley Ward.

The main track played honestly for the most part, but was a little cuppy, nothing that a little more H2O wouldn't cure.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

History, Health, Horses…and Humanity

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 17, 2014—“History, health, and horses,” the sign promises, as you approach downtown Saratoga Springs from South Broadway.

The Battle of Saratoga, historians will inform you, was the turning point of the Revolutionary War.

At last, the British forces had been captured, New England no longer was isolated, and there would be no aggression coming south out of Canada.

The French then took this opportunity to join the fray, wisely choosing the home team, and young America was on its way.

Long before Native Americans were casino entrepreneurs, they lived off the land and the local Mohawks drank and bathed in the mineral waters here, believing in its restorative and curative properties.

They called it Serachtuague, or “place of fast moving waters.” After settlers arrived, new worlders started calling it Saratoga. George Washington even tried to buy one of the springs here.

On Friday, the race course on Union Avenue will open its gates and conduct a thoroughbred meeting for the 146th time. Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell gambled here.

That completes the Spa trifecta.

People get older but racing in Saratoga never gets old. Horses love the place; they thrive here, physically and mentally. The atmosphere lends itself very well to their life as racehorses.

In Saratoga, crafting stories is not so much a job as it is a privilege. But personal history discomfits me this season, dear diary, my original and faithful companion of 37 years.

Maybe it’s because for the first time in nearly three decades, when I take my place in the press box, Paul Moran will not be sitting alongside.

Three years ago, we were there together, flanked on our right by Ed Fountaine and John DaSilva. But the New York Post, of all newspapers, doesn’t care that much about racing anymore. They are missed, no matter who sits there.

Lining the back wall about 30 feet away is an area where Joe Hirsch once worked. No one has dared to fill that space, some years not even on Travers day when space in this quaint, rickety observatory is at a premium.

In other years passed, I’d look to my right and see Rick Lang, and Jack Kelly, younger than I and also no longer with us. Others have gone, too, via retirement or attrition.

I have no idea what opening day will be like this time; I am haunted by history.

This world extends beyond the front-side. I began thinking about this after Pat Kelly saddled a winner for the estate of Thomas T. Kelly on closing Saturday at Belmont Park.

Lasix, blinkers and a bug boy, coming from last at 21-1, losing all the ground, finishing on the wrong lead, and up by a neck—much the best! That’s what condition will do for a 4-year-old race horse vs. 3-year-olds. Real old school stuff and, hopefully, somewhere “Pop” was cashing.

A.k.a. “Turnpike Tom,” Hall of Famer TJ Kelly will be among the missing on the backside, just like he was last year. No one knows who will be cutting the carrots for the feed this time.

“The Chief,” meanwhile, thankfully is still with us, but he’s Florida-based now.

I will not forget a Saratoga morning a decade ago when a reporter eavesdropped on both, listening to stories about the great horses they trained, their idiosyncratic owners, and their rapscallion handlers.

And, a year later, I’m still in denial over the passing of Cary Fotias, a loving, brilliant man and cherished friend for whom there will be a memorial service here on the Monday of Travers week, just as there will be one for Paulie this Sunday.

There will be no more bias updates and “whispers” from me to report, no more last minute price plays from Cary, whose legacy includes a hundred close friends he left behind, leaving a void that can never be filled, truly.

Oh how Cary loved this place, not only for the great gambling but for the fact that his childhood friend, Kit, would give him a blow for a week from crafting his beloved Equiform figures, the greatest handicapping tool I have known.

As he did not believe that his energy figures could be automated, Kit was the one man Cary trusted to get the variant just right because numbers making was always more art than science.
The automated, imitation version that’s out there now would be precise about 70% of the time, according to Cary’s close friend and fellow figure maker, European expert Nick Mordin. More cause for moving on.

But I know the original Equiform would have helped immensely to make sense of Saturday’s Diana, a 9-furlong Grade 1 for fillies and mares on the turf in which at least six of the 10 entrants truly have a big shot.

But Cary, and perhaps as many as 30,000 others, will have enjoyed trying to divine its winner, just as they will tomorrow when the Schuylerville kicks things off.

Buoyed by an overnighter for 3-year-olds on the turf and a rare appearance by a legendary European rider, Frankie Dettori, with a little help from trainer Wesley Ward, will be looking to make a flying dismount at least a few times on opening weekend.

It’s an unhappy reality that many good friends and family will miss the opening of Saratoga 146. And I’m a little sorry for myself, as the old Spa, for all its history, never again will be quite the same, will it Nana?

Written by John Pricci

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