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

Friday, July 26, 2013

Now, Where Were We?



We’re looking forward to racing’s second season which begins in earnest with next month’s Midsummer Derby, and the racing offered today through Sunday’s Haskell should provide a good line on what the fall will look like and whether this sophomore class will prove the equal of their elders.

The two local preps, Friday’s Curlin and Saturday’s Grade 2 Jim Dandy, are both open events. Horses are returning off layups, shipping in from different precincts and doubtlessly are prepping for the big dance. But some will need to run very well to prove to their connections and everyone else that they are legitimate Travers contenders.

Sunday’s G1 Haskell is all about Verrazano, who many still believe is America’s most talented three-year-old. But even if he wins the million-dollar nine furlongs in a big way, he won’t get that kind of lofty respect until he takes on the division’s best at 10 furlongs.

Here are some long overdue impressions on what has happened between the fences in the last fortnight. Time has finally come for us to fire up the stable mail and dive headlong into Saratoga 150:

SATURDAY, JULY 13: That’s no typo; this was the final Saturday of racing at Belmont Park. BALANCE THE BOOKS earned his path to my inbox with an excellent performance in the Solar Splendor overnight stakes. Chad Brown trainee was forced to angle out sharply at headstretch and finished strongly down the middle of the course. Some of the Chad Brown 2012 babies have not developed as hoped but this guy could reverse that trend.

FRIDAY, JULY 19: Saratoga opens. Luis Saez won the first race of the historic meet with an amazingly artful run from last in a huge field on the Mellon Turf with Hardest Core after breaking from post 12...A high-class run from state-bred turf mare HESSONITE, running over the top of rivals with humongous strides for Donk-Velazquez team. Not that it was going to matter but SHAKEIRA was absolutely eliminated, sawed off on the fence several times through the stretch; note… BRAZEN PERSUASION and BAHNAH put on an exciting dead heat show in the Schuylerville. The latter, with dead aim, was somewhat disappointing, but not so Brazen Persuasion who took on all comers and still gutted it out for the shared victory. See replay: Race 9.

SATURDAY, JULY 20: John Kimmel removed STRIKE ACCORD’s blinkers and she finished like a runaway rocket through the lane; likely to leave this condition next out; bet back… Late developer SCAM certainly has a big late engine. Trailing 11 rivals, he leveled off beneath Javier Castellano and came roaring down the center to save the show in a remarkable effort. Follow closely… Todd Pletcher, who swept all three stakes on the program, was correct in that it’s unlikely that PRINCESS OF SYLMAR will be disrespected again. She overpowered her Coaching Club Oaks rivals despite a soft pace that favored runnerup My Happy Face, a game but not- in-same-league as the Kentucky Oaks winner over a distance of ground.

MONDAY, JULY 22: A couple of interesting baby fillies going a mile and a sixteenth on the Inner Turf. KITTEN KABOODLE has quite a bit of size but weaved her way nimbly through fillies in the lane; all Wayne Catalano’s filly needs is experience. CANDY KITTY was going very well down the center of the course late and won’t remain a maiden for long; note.

WEDNESDAY, JULY 24: MUCH STRONGER was a perfect trip winner of the opener but was a powerhouse through the lane. Colt is likely to handle a class rise for Jacobson barn that has not shown signs of slowing down at this stand. We’ll see if that trend continues… The two sophomore fillies with the best kick put on a show in the G2 Lake George. WATSDACHANCES got the drop on stretch beast KITTEN’S DUMPLINGS but her rider never took advantage of that. It might not have mattered since she was no match for her rival’s late momentum, Joel Rosario timing it perfectly. It was a good try by TAPICAT, taken out of her speed game when runoff Midnight Watch did just that; Bill Mott-trained filly will benefit and should be a tough out next time; bet back… Reports of MOMENT IN DIXIE’s demise were premature. Old schooler Jimmy Toner deserves credit for getting her ready to tackle stakes company once again; likely to do just that in G1 Ballerina next month.

THURSDAY, JULY 25: The only one word to describe debuting OUR AMAZING ROSE’S performance: freaky. After getting outrun from the gate by the well named ZIP ON, Johnny Velazquez asked Pletcher trainee to make contact with the leader. As Tom Durkin said, Our Amazing Rose inhaled her rival under no pressure approaching headstretch, drawing out with long, professional strides. She’s certainly no one-race speed wonder; this is one top class baby. She ran 3/5s of a second faster than male stablemate CORFU, who took on all comers and repulsed a final stretch bid in an uber game performance… Little Al Stall gets Trainer of the Day props for having CENTRAL BANKER ready for his return in the Quick Call turf sprint. The colt is the fourth horse to win next time out of the Delta Jackpot. “He doesn't break that great,” said Stall [but] “he sure got on his feet pretty quickly after that."

FRIDAY, July 26: The Johnny Velazquez all-time Saratoga record breaker must await another day. JR was blanked in three rides, none of which were favored to win.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Greatest Gift

SARATOGA SPRINGS, July 24, 2013—
Nana Handicapping at the Spa
Photo by Linda Pricci
Nana Handicapping at the Spa

On the racetrack, surprises are as common as sand and loam, but I’ve never experienced a Saratoga season that ever began like this one: Nana died on opening day.

Toni and Cathie’s mother was 97-years-old so, yes, she did have a rich, full life worth celebrating but the fabric that stitched a family together is gone. Never, however, will it ever be in danger of being forgotten.

Aida Bresha, nee Codraro, a.k.a. Nana, was born in the small town of Milazzo, Sicily. Loving and strong-willed, she never forgot she was a lady, but one with a devilish sense of humor.

And so it wasn’t surprising for her to insist that on the day she is interred the family goes out and makes a party.

You bet, Nana.

For all her old school ways, Aida knew how to have fun and, aside from time spent with granddaughters Jennifer and Linda, she never had more fun than when she was gambling. To me, she was Action Nana.

Aida’s gambling came in different forms and she enjoyed them all, whether it was accompanying her family to the racetrack or often as the lone female member of the Codraro clan at the poker table after the Christmas dishes were cleared away.

In 2011, her granddaughters made the drive north from Gotham and the Jersey Shore for her 95th birthday. Her actual birth date was in September, after the track season ended, and that wouldn’t do. She wanted to celebrate on the porch at Saratoga Race Course.

So all of us, including my brother-in-law Oscar, Nana’s “other son,” gathered at a table on the third floor of the clubhouse for a betting brunch. I’m not sure any family member made a score that Sunday afternoon but it was a day Nana always remembered.

Tom Durkin walked over between race calls to wish her buon compleanno. Her favorite jockey, Richard Migliore, also came by to do the same. She liked to tease him: “Your name is pronounced ‘mill-ee-or-ee’,” she would say.

Good-natured Sam the Bugler came by the table and played a few verses of “Happy Birthday,” and Nana was very pleased that Jason Blewitt and Andy Serling interrupted their analysis of the day’s seventh race to “wish Nana a Happy 95th.”
Grace Hall -- Sharp break, sharper finish
Photo by Linda Pricci
That's What I'm Talking About

I was especially proud to be a racetracker that day.

Nana honed her handicapping skills when she accompanied the family to Saratoga every summer. The deal was that I get her clubhouse reserved seats and drive her to the track each day in return for putting the kids to bed every night.

Saratoga is, after all, a summer camp for adults or as Paul Moran often likes to call it, “twisted Mayberry.”

Downstate the routine was similar. Whenever Toni and I needed to get away, Aida was always Nana on the Spot. She’d jump into her Toyota and drive to Syosset from her home in Kings Point. The girls handed us our hats on the way out the door.

But Nana just didn’t take care of the girls; she took care of the adults, too. One weekend in October, after trekking to Grantville, Pa. for Penn National’s World Series of Handicapping, we came home to find our laundry neatly folded on the bed.

“Mom, I put in a wash last night so you wouldn’t have to do this,” Toni said. “Yeah, I know, there were only a few pieces in the hamper so I stripped the beds and made a wash.” She was always doing things like that; she was incorrigibly helpful.

Toni and I moved from Long Island to Saratoga a dozen years ago and it wasn’t long afterward that Nana drove up for an extensive visit, about three months. In those days, “The Sopranos” was appointment-TV every Sunday night at nine.

One Sunday there was an especially graphic episode that knew no video and audio boundaries. All the poles at the Bada Bing were occupied by 'dancers'--“that’s disgusting, I wonder if their mothers know what they are doing?” The episode was quite violent, as well.

As was often the case, this episode’s language was extremely course and unrelenting in its delivery. Nana, ever the proper lady, said nothing.

Finally, when the program ended, she rose slowly from her easy chair, walked towards the downstairs bathroom and said. “I think I’ll brush my f**kin’ teeth and go to f**kin’ bed.”

Toni and I were stunned, but only for a moment. A minute later our sides cramped up from laughing, tears rolling down our cheeks.

The crying this weekend was of a different nature but that didn’t last long, either. There were just so many recollections from Nana’s family including Dawn, her “third daughter,” that it wasn’t long before sobbing turned into smiles.

There’s some symmetry to the fact that Nana’s time on earth ended just as the celebration of 150 years of horse racing in Saratoga was beginning.

Aida made a life in places named Hoboken, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Long Island, Queens, Long Island again, and, finally, in the land of history, health and horses.

She began her journey in Milazzo on 911, albeit 97 years ago, became a United States citizen in 1927, on December 7, and passed on Saratoga’s Opening Day, 2013. That's quite the trifecta: Action Nana, moving like a winner.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Vox Populi and Streams From the Subconcious

September 4, 2012—Perhaps you were expecting consciousness, after 46-½ days of racing?

I know, only 20 more races were run at Saratoga this year than in 2011. Of course, last year there were 39 days of racing, one less than 2012.

But when compared to a typical downstate race-week, five days per week with 10 on weekends—Saturdays, anyway—it was as if 7-1/2 weeks were condensed into 6-1/2.

Immediately following were the comments/questions from three of the HRI faithful that were posted here on Labor Day weekend, edited for context and length.

From Denny M: “Saratoga has lost that special feel for me. I’d be happy with five days a week [plus Labor Day], nine races a day [maximum] on weekdays, 10 on weekends and 12 on Travers Day…

“…Can anything be done about the turf course rails obstructing the view of the main track on the turn? I’d actually like to see which horse is which when [I’m] watching on TV and, in particular, when there in person.”

Most New York regulars, especially local fans and service businesses, restaurants and bars, would love to see the downstate schedule instituted upstate.

If 10 and 11-race cards are the tradeoff, most probably would settle for that, according to the results of informal crowd canvassing we conducted on closing day.

But when racing concentrates on serving two constituents; the state and the horsemen, fans finish what racetrackers would call “a bad third.”

Build it and they will come no longer is axiomatic, although Saratoga has a way of bucking those trends.

For the most part, despite one additional day this year, attendance was flat.

But we were dead wrong about the projected handle. It’s the sense we had by watching people leave the track in significant numbers two or three races before the finale.

This, in a sense, underscores the beliefs of many wagering theoreticians that there’s a finite amount of betting money to be spent in any one session, whether that time frame is nine of 12 races long.

Trust us that handle increased in direct proportion to winning favorites. Favorite players tend to bet larger amounts in the straight pools and they will “churn” that money all day long.

And it’s no accident that this country’s largest racetracks in New York, Kentucky and California have on average the lowest takeout in the straight wagering pools of about 16%.

Now imagine, all you state regulators, of what would happen if churn and lower takeout were combined? I’ll save you the time; more churn, more handle, higher revenue. But I digress.

All-sources averages (read predominantly simulcast handle) were up significantly at $14.7 million daily, a 9 percent increase, which makes complete sense.

Simulcast wagering is always a “compared-to-what” experience. Saratoga is not only bullet-proof but continues to gain in popularity.

The brand, as it should be, is the strongest in American racing, no matter how much quality is diluted at every level but the highest class levels.

Adds Denny: “Ramon is great but how many would [Angel] Cordero have won with 47 days’ worth of races? [Manuel] Ycaza?”

The presumption would have to be as many, given their extraordinary talents. The other presumption is that, as long as Ramon remains healthy, he is on course to be considered one of the greatest of all-time, if he’s not there already.

The best part is that Ramon is a complete gentleman and both he and his agent, Steve Rushing, give all outfits a chance.

And any family man that wins as many races and big pots as Ramon Dominguez and still drives a Honda is emblematic of how unaffected he is by his success and fame. In a game where megalomania rules, Dominguez is the antithesis.

As far as the outside turf rails are concerned, the view of the horses on the far turn is indeed obscured. Perhaps the problem can be addressed by 2013, and perhaps not. The condition did improve, however, when the hedges were trimmed back.

Now with all this money, it would be great if the association would address the sound system. I watched about a dozen races from the press box roof at the meeting, about 50 feet from the announcer’s booth. Tom Durkin’s calls were inaudible.

Shameful, really.

Said Nickie: Dennny…we had to rely on Mr. Caposella to tell us where our runners were...I still get chills listening to his call of Buckpasser, referring to him as “the big horse!”

Said Framarco: “Just a note to thank you for another year of your Diary… However, I do not wish to jump on the anti-Saratoga bandwagon. I came up three times this year and it NEVER fails to deliver.

“…When I no longer get “chills” as I enter the Exit 14 ramp for Route 9P (Union Ave. for the uninitiated), I will know that Saratoga has run its course. Oh, I’ve only been coming up here every year since the Travers of ‘78.

“The only caveat is…what will Prince Andrew do? One can merely pray that the Prince is intelligent enough to stand aside and let the professionals do the work…

“I’m afraid that Albany politics will “kill” the golden goose. “We’ve never seen those criminals fail to steal from the public trough even when they know everybody is watching.”

God willing we’re all back to open Saratoga 145.

Bets 'N Pieces: If Kiaran McLaughlin keeps this up and wins a few more Grade 1s in big spots, why can’t he win an Eclipse Award as Trainer of the Year? Last year Bill Mott compiled his Eclipse resume on one huge afternoon. That could happen to McLaughlin…Kudos to Todd Pletcher on his third straight and ninth training title overall. It’s one thing to have the horses; another to know what to do with them…

Of Chad Brown’s 29 Saratoga winners, all but five (or six) have come on turf. We’re saying that that’s an all-time record turf victories at one race meet. I’d call the Elias Sports Bureau to verify but--it just has to be, right...? In its way, maybe the dead heat wasn’t as singular a Travers event as the Jaipur-Ridan head-to-head epic of 50 years ago…

Could someone place the Travers canoes in an area of the pond that everyone could see next year...? Not a bad first complete meet for Rosie, finishing eighth behind Ramon, sandwiching a couple of graded stakes for 2-year-old between winning the first and last race of Saratoga 2012.

Written by John Pricci

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