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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, August 31, 2012

NYRA’s Auto Pilot, Sophomoric State Rule, Fails Again

August 30, 2012—How much of a hit did the state’s coffers take today because, parimutuelly speaking, someone was asleep at the switch?

Check that, this is the new NYRA, where the game’s on automatic pilot: No one was asleep at the switch prior to today’s featured Grade 2 With Anticipation Stakes; there was no one AT the switch, or didn’t know where the switch was.

Very likely, the switch-thrower was halfway down the Thruway on their way back to Belmont Park.

There was no superfecta wagering available on the Grade 2 for juveniles, a 10-horse field. Why? Because of the asinine state rule prohibiting superfecta wagering on races containing coupled entries.

You know, as if horseplayers can’t count to five.

The thing is that when superfectas are lost due to insufficient entrants or a preponderance of races with couplings, the mutuels department generally adds a superfecta here and there, in stakes races and even in some smaller fields.

There were three stable couplings in the With Anticipation. However, two were entered Main Track Only and the other a very late scratch, which is permitted in stakes up until 45 minutes to post time. Sonofasamurai, the #2B, was that very late scratch.

Resultantly, there were 10 entrants with no couplings, and a superfecta could have been added, even under the silly rule, but wasn’t.

In the previous race, the 10-horse Equalize Stakes, there was no Super wagering because of a stable coupling. The race was won by Miami Cat, which many believed was the weaker half of the entry. It’s just such a waste.

But it will all get better soon. Just you wait and see.

Sophomore Class Takes Another Hit

The 3-year-old division took another hit this morning when it trainer Chad Brown announced that Street Life, who was vanned off after finishing last in the Travers, had been retired.

The winner of his Curlin Stakes Travers prep in his penultimate start, his stakes season began with a win in the Broad Brush Stakes at Aqueduct last winter.

But it wasn’t until he finished third in the G2 Peter Pan that he gave some indication he was coming into his own and become a serious race horse.

And now he’s gone, off to the breeding shed following the lead of last year’s juvenile champion, Hansen, and the winners of all of 2012 Triple Crown events, Belmont winning Union Rags and Derby and Preakness hero, I’ll Have Another.

Finally, after waiting several days for the soreness to calm down, it was determined that indeed he had ruptured a ligament in his left front pastern.

“[The injury] is not unprecedented but it’s new to me,” said Brown, “I’d never had that happen before.” And having studied at Cornell before apprenticing with Shug McGaughey and Bobby Frankel, he should know a thing or two about equine anatomy.

“To not only lose the race but lose the horse for his career, a horse that I felt had a tremendous amount of potential and could have gone on to accomplish great things, is harder to take.”

Amen to that, for it was his Curlin victory that indicated he might have broken through. Even though he added blinkers for the Peter Pan and wore them while finishing an interested fourth in the Belmont, it wasn’t until the Curlin that he demonstrated the kind of acceleration that separates a good horse from a very good horse.

And now we’ll never know. At least his contemporaries had a chance to show what they had at the highest levels. It’s its fashion that makes it even worse.

Gets Those Winter Book Bets Down Early

But not to worry; we’ve seen the future, “the fastest horse in the world.” Now let’s see what Archwarrior, who debuted in today’s third race, can do when he meets seasoned winners.

Lest anyone get the wrong impression, “the fastest horse…” is a little cheeky, but he was impressive and his next start will be anticipated with great interest.

Having missed the post parade, we picked up the binoculars with about four minutes to post and the juvenile colts were on the backside.

Through the looking glass, he was what you’d expect; four legs a mane and a tale.

On a serious note, he appeared to be a bit short-coupled and built a tad downhill, not quite but reminiscent of a sprinter type.

But for a colt who worked in :10 2/5 at the Ocala breeze-up sale, and reportedly outworked last year’s Travers winner before today’s debut, he rated kindly down the backside, content to follow the very speedy second-starter, Transparent.

Approaching the quarter-pole, Johnny Velazquez asked the Todd Pletcher trained son of Arch, from the Seeking The Gold mare, Winner’s Edge, to engage the leader in earnest.

He went about his business, as the racetrackers say, drawing out to break maiden in 1:10.03 by 3-1/4 lengths over a strong finishing fast-working newcomer, Malachite: As to the running time, the fast track was no speed highway.

“I worked him behind horses,” said Velazquez, “so it’s not he’s been on the lead in the mornings. I knew I could rate him. He’s not very quick away from the gate.

“He’s not going to win by 10 or 12 lengths,” the newest Hall of Famer continued. “He’s just kind of steady. He should run all day long.”

And, as for his next start? “We’ll play it by ear and see how he comes out of this,” his trainer said.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Saratoga 2012: Dark Days for The Spinner

Saratoga Springs, NY, August 29, 2012--Time to face facts. This meeting has had its ups and downs; good and sometimes great racing; bettable cards but yet many unbettable races, and racing days that never seemed to end.

Too much of a good thing? You bet. In fact, according to the calculations of my former Newsday colleague, Paul Moran, there will be an extra week of racing this year after you add up all those 10, 11, and 12 race-cards.

The association gets a pass for August 25, though; on Midsummer Derby Day, anything goes. Will the handle reflect that extra week? Do bears really use Charmin?

But there’s one local group that will be especially sad to see it end, even if it was the darkest period in their history. However, the assemblage has a final chance to leave the track smiling. It happens this Sunday, the final premium giveaway of Saratoga 2012.

We are, of course, referring to that special breed of individual who comes to Saratoga only on those premium-giveaway days. He is androgynous, neither male nor female, neither horseplayer nor tourist. In the vernacular, he is called The Spinner.

Hopefully this Sunday, the Spinner will not reprise his final act of 2008, when he voted with his feet, essentially telling the association that it could take its stadium seat and, well, shove it.

Indeed, gone are the halcyon days of the much coveted portable folding lawn chair, fondly remembered as the acronym P.F.L.C.

At first blush, it’s hard to know a Spinner from a horseplayer. But unlike that solitary individual, the Spinner often travels in packs, sometimes cleverly disguised as a family, a social unit that uses children as beards to collect its free-gotten gains.

The Spinner knows what he wants and recognizes value when he sees it, like on that afternoon five years ago when he came in droves, 72,745 strong, his eyes squarely on the prize: the PFLC.

And if you believe he doesn’t take prizes seriously, think again. The Spinner is no fool. When only a seat cushion was offered, 26,905 fewer Spinners flipped the turnstiles and reported to the multiple-admissions area.

Because many professional Spinners don't usually stay for the racing, don't infer that they’re anti-social. He is the antithesis of the Squatter--one who queues up at admission gates before dawn, pays his admission, then hurdles fellow Squatters to snatch the choice picnic tables closest to the horses, or a shade tree, or a self-service betting terminal, a machine they call SAM.

But the Spinner can't afford to expend his energy like the Squatter. If he is to make a score, he needs patience, conditioning, and needs to time his move perfectly. If not, he’ll stand in line for hours, sometimes five or six deep.

Then he must queue up all over again and, at long last, he finds the redemption area: Spinner Ground Zero.

If he were a race horse, the Spinner would need what horsemen call scope. The good Spinner is never built downhill, though he does need tactical speed. The Spinner’s game is neither for the short of wind nor faint of heart.

When the Spinner came in record numbers in 2007, he had to stand in three lines for the PFLC. The first line got him into the building, the second to a coupon booth, then, at long last, redemption. Praise the Lord.

I’ll never forget the Sunday afternoon several years ago in this historic place when I first encountered the Ultimate Spinner. He was resting alongside a herd of Squatters on the grassy knoll hard by the fence lining Union Avenue.

He sat contentedly on his PFLC, using the seat cushion for ballast: Waste not, want not, is the Spinner’s creed.

On the northwest corner of a red Saratoga stadium blanket, he was resplendent in his classic Saratoga Tee, circa 2003, and a red 2007 Saratoga baseball cap, upgraded this year to a Grade 2 offering.

Then, almost on cue, he clandestinely lifted a cold one from portable Saratoga ice cooler, stealthily concealed inside a tattered Saratoga sports bag, surreptitiously sipping his brew from the versatile Jerry Bailey beer stein, which doubles as a world class pencil holder.

Shading him from the harmful ultraviolet rays was a red-and-white striped Saratoga umbrella. The moment is as indelibly etched as Jaipur and Ridan, Affirmed and Alydar

That was the year fortunes were made on E-Bay, the PLFC going for $19.95 per. Shipping was included, I recall, if you were among the first 50 to order. Those were heady times in Saratoga Springs for the Spinner.

But like so many in the country this election year, the Spinner has fallen on hard times. Oh, the beer glass was nice enough and so, too, the G2 baseball cap, emblazoned with Saratoga front and back, so you could be seen coming and going.

But at what cost the decision not to offer the Spinner’s staple, the trusty Saratoga Tee, handsome enough for wearing outside of a pair of red cargo pants but with the utility of a buffer to help insulate the wearer from the harsh Saratoga winters.

And, of course, it is essential sleepwear for all seasons.

Sadly, the karma is not likely to improve this Sunday when the Spinner comes to gather his fleece blanket, his shield against the crisp autumn breeze just around the corner.

The NYRA marketers tempted fate this year and paid dearly for not offering the premium Tee. An umbrella might have saved the day but, alas, not even a slicker to provide shelter from the storm. No money will be made on E-Bay this year.

Several years ago, HRI suggested a way to not only bring back a popular discontinued notion but also as a means for the association to show its appreciation for the unique contribution made by all Spinners to the fabric of this meet.

A likeness of the typical Spinner, something for the mantle place that says I’m proud to be a Spinner and I support my local racetrack.

How fitting would it be to have the loyal Saratoga fan spin for his likeness in all its bobble-headed glory? Nothing says thank you for coming quite like your own immortal image. The Spinner deserved better than he got this year.

But then that’s the kind of season it’s been, the highs and the lows of the Thoroughbred world. No one ever promised that the Spinner would be sheltered from 2012’s cold reality.

And so, when the Spinner exits the turnstile never to return this year, his head will bob only in disappointment. All he can do is mark the days until the 2013 premium-giveaway items are announced.

For now, all the Spinner can do now is look back and remember what it was like in the best of times, knowing that tomorrow’s premium giveaway is guaranteed no one.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Travers Day 2012: History Made at the Old Spa

August, 25, 2012—August, 25, 2012—Where’s Solomon when you really need him—you know, the cut the canoe in half?

Because what could be better that a Travers winner than TWO Travers winners?

So, never before in Travers history had there been two horses reach the wire, sort of. In 1874, Attila and Acrobat finished so close the race was declared a dead heat. A runoff between the two was ordered and Attila won the runoff. But today’s result was the first “official dead heat” in the race’s history.

But no Travers in the modern era ever finished in a tie although nine have come close, like the year when everyone thought Mambo In Seattle beat Colonel John in a photo, only it was the other way around.

Interesting, too, that today’s Travers marked the golden anniversary of perhaps the most famous nose decision of all, when Jaipur and Ridan put on a match race-within-a race, hooking up for the entire 10 furlongs.

And that’s when Fred Capossela, with distinctive nasal tones but never with an emotional outburst, said “and it’s…Jaipur, by a nose. He never hesitated.

But there was plenty of hesitation when Golden Ticket, who not only hadn’t raced since Derby Day at Churchill Downs but failed to win his “a other-than” condition, reached the finish line right next to Alpha, charging up on the outside beneath Ramon Dominguez.

To almost everyone in the press box, it looked like Alpha had won it, although I thought Golden Ticket might have won it on the re-bob.

Alpha was in front a foot before the wire, and a foot after it, but at the line he had company.

So Kiaran McLaughlin did become the first trainer since Carl Nafzger to annex the Alabama-Travers double, although for some reason he didn’t appear to be enjoying the moment with the Travers favorite.

Although he did allow “at the sixteenth pole I thought we were second-best…at the last lunge or two I thought we got there. The photo indicated a tie and I said ‘we’ll take it’.”

Dominguez and David Cohen, who rode a great race aboard longshot Fast Falcon, were both happy:

“When we both realized it was a dead heat, we were pretty relieved and pretty happy at the same time,” said Dominguez who has all but clinched the Saratoga riding title.

“On the gallop-out, Ramon and I spoke to each other and neither one of us knew if we won,” said Cohen.

Nick Zito was happy, but who could blame him. He came within a half-length of winning the King’s Bishop with 14-1 Fort Loudon and within a neck of taking the Travers trophy with 32-1 Fast Falcon.

Ken McPeek, who almost pulled off a Travers stunner a decade ago with the well regarded Repent--coming off a similarly long layoff in the same year he won the Belmont Stakes with Sarava at 70-1--and who shocked today’s crowd of 46,528 with his training acumen, was over the moon.

“I’m thrilled we finished in a dead heat. It couldn’t work out better for the two of us,” McPeek said with some grace. Kiaran is a great guy. We all work our tail off.”

Other major contenders didn’t fare as well, Second favorite Nonios was a one-paced fifth; Neck n’ Neck an even sixth; Liaison never got untracked and finished ninth.

Street Life, trained by the meet’s second leading trainer, Chad Brown, finished last, appearing off in his left fore, according to Dr. Celeste Kunz, the on-call veterinarian.

There were no obvious injuries to the horse and he was taken by van back to the barn for further evaluation.

Travers Day was great for business. Attendance was up year over year by 8 percent, on-track handle was up 7 percent and all-sources handle totaled $36,597,173, an 11 percent gain over 2011.

Formful Beginning

It’s Travers Day, the sun was shining (a minor miracle); Ramon Dominguez has a riding triple (a minor miracle if he hadn’t); nine races have been run and, as I write these words, it’s still 70 minutes until post time for the Derby of Midsummer.

And could this be an omen, that it was Dominguez getting his third aboard Grade 2 Ballston Spa favorite, Zagora, for trainer Chad Brown, his 21st winner of the meet.

If there is to be a second one on the day, he would prefer it come with Street Life in front of the hometown fans. I’m sure Dominguez, however, would love to win his first Travers aboard Alpha—Ramon giveth, Roman taketh away.

Summer Soiree set realistic, albeit sustainable, fractions, even if it was her season’s debut. She was stalked from afar by Thundering Emilia and Tapitsfly virtually throughout and had no difficulty holding them safe until passing headstretch.

But that’s when Zagora beneath Dominguez made a bold move into contention, took the lead with a furlong to go and drew off as a strong finishing Hungry Island gave futile chase.

Don’t hold that against the runnerup, not when the winner got her 1-116 miles in 1:39.07, a new course record.

It was a formful beginning to the all graded stakes Pick 4, a pool that attracted $1,837,082, over 11 percent more than was bet on last year’s sequence.

California Gas

Only a SoCal-based filly, a Bullet Bob Baffert-trained filly, could be taken out of her speed game, get a 21.49 and 44.09 thrown at her and , despite a hesitant start--enathema for a speed horse--finish up a take a Grade 1sprint, the Test Stakes, in 1.22.47. That's a final furlong in a pokey :13.41 for this level, but who's counting?

Gypsy Robin, on the hard chase all the way, while Contested was patiently handled in third by Rafael Bejarano after he caught up to the leaders within a quarter-mile, did well to hold place in front of late finishing New York-bred Beautiful But Blue.

Any Given Saturday

On Wednesday he won the New York-bred Albany Stakes wire to wire by a short pole. On Saturday, here comes Willy Beamin, not with Jamie Foxx, but Alan Garcia, whose new agent, Jimmy Riccio Jr., secured the mount for his rider on the 3-year-old owned by Riccio's father, James Riccio Sr. Way to keep it in the family.

Trained by Rick Dutrow, known for his success with quick turnarounds, entered Willy Beamin back in the G1 King's Bishop and if he ran well enough, cooled out fast enough, and earned a performance figure didn't didn't put him over the top of condition, he'd run the gelding back on two days rest.

While the rapid Trinninberg set a strong, pressured pace, 2-1 favorite Currency Swap, undefeed in three starts at Saratoga, sat the pocket in fourth.

Meanwhile, Willie Beamin, named for the phenom pro quarterback in Oliver Stone's "Any Given Sunday," had one horse beaten after the first quarter mile, was covered up under a hammerlock inside at the half-mile pole, began to angle out approaching headstretch, split the seam beautifully from the 6 path and he rolled down the lane at 11-1.

It's the reason why they call it gambling.

Written by John Pricci

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