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

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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Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Favorite Saratoga Moments? Two Words: Dead Heat

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September 4, 2013—Even after giving the matter considerable thought, I still hadn’t decided whether a Top 10 Performances, or the Top 10 Spa Stories of 2013, was the most appropriate ending for our 36th Saratoga Diary.

I have decided to go with my Top 10 Spa 150 Moments instead. (And if you’re thinking the headline refers to the double dead heat on closing day, think again. Although very rare, there were several of far greater import).

#10: THE PRINCESS OF ALABAMA: She was so dominant in the Coaching Club American Oaks, but then to come back and underscore that victory with her second Grade 1 of the meet to secure an Eclipse championship with another high energy tour de force performance was a sight to behold. “Maybe Todd should have run her next week,” I uttered to former Newsday colleague Paul Moran as Princess Of Sylmar cantered across the finish line. At the time, I didn’t know I’d be so Travers prescient.

#9: THE KINGS OF SARATOGA: You know you’re getting old when the sight of Angel Cordero Jr., Jerry Bailey and Johnny Velazquez at a podium to accept a plaque representing their domination of Saratoga racing, era after era after era, requires wiping a tear from you eye. But considering their legendary achievements in a place where legends are commonplace was a true Saratoga moment. As you looked up at the men on a makeshift stage, you realized it was the best three decades that a racing life could have.

#8: TIP ON A DEAD-HEATER: One of the first things I learned in Section 3P at Aqueduct in the 70s was that dead-heat winners never repeated. Over the years, I realized that sometimes nonsense can provide elements of truth. And it sure looked that way for Alpha who had been having a terrible 4-year-old year, until Labor Day weekend, that is. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin pushed two buttons (third time off the layup; blinkers on) and voila! Alpha leads the Woodward field on a merry chase. A job very well done by a nice horse and a very good team.

#7: JONATHAN SHEPPARD or TIP ON A DEAD-HEATER, PART II: What did it matter that Sheppard already is enshrined in the pantheon across Union Avenue and long since had won a race at Saratoga for the 45th consecutive season. But when he won the New York Turf Writers Cup Handicap for a record 14th time, it earned him another distinction befitting his Hall of Fame status. Fourteen is exactly the same number of victories posted by the late Charlie Whittingham in Santa Anita’s San Juan Capistrano turf marathon. It’s the Turf Writers without fences. This Charlie guy must have been pretty, pretty good.

#6: TWO TRAINERS MAKE THE GRADE: In what easily was a career meeting for both, George Weaver and Leah Gyarmati each got their first Grade 1 victories with Lighthouse Bay and Sweet Reason in the Prioress and Spinaway, respectively. Weaver had been flying under the radar, doing excellent work since 2012, and Gyarmati had been all but invisible. Not anymore. In all likelihood, it will be difficult for Weaver’s filly to duplicate her Grade 1 effort in the Breeders’ Cup F & M Sprint November 2. But if Sweet Reason takes to a dry track the way she handles slop, there’s no telling how good she might be. Juvenile Fillies here we come.

#5: JOHNNY ALL-NOTE: Like his famous agent, and like the man he dethroned as the leading rider in Saratoga history, Johnny Velazquez finds the sweet spot in almost every race he rides. With a stalker, he’s close, but not too close and hardly ever at a loss of serious ground. When riding the rails, he always seems to find a way to extricate himself before steadying and checking become mandatory. The greatest of riders are often passengers aboard the “best horse.” But aside from his ability to leave the gate quickly and cleanly, to rate speed horses without discouraging them, and to finish up with strength and style, it’s JR’s ability to get out of the way on the best horse is his greatest strength.

#4: SARATOGA TWO DEW: I’m wondering this: When The Chief, a.k.a. H. Allen Jerkens, got Go Unbridled to duplicate last year’s winning performance in the 2013 renewal of the Saratoga Dew, was it more emotional than seeing his former assistant, Gyarmati, win the biggest race of her career? The best thing about getting his mare ready to repeat were those old school signature works of his—the long, slow, tightly spaced breezes—that he employed with Beau Purple, Prove Out, Onion and all the rest to get a job done. Suddenly, you’re back in college cutting afternoon classes to get out to the Big A just in time for the feature, always the seventh on a nine race card.

#3: YEAH YOU’RE MY, ME OH MY, DELTA LADY: Saratoga sure loves its fillies. It wasn’t quite Rachel Alexandra’s Woodward because it was more a romp than a race, but to hear applause as Mike Smith geared down Royal Delta in the final strides of the Personal Ensign, followed by hoots and hollers as she was being led into the winners’ circle was a moment that racing fans reserve only for the great ones. And to think she might return as a 6-year-old to defend this title, and possibly run in this year’s Classic? Priceless.

#2: BE MY LOVIN’ BABY: Three juveniles to follow this fall and beyond are, alphabetically: Havana, Honor Code and Strong Mandate. HAVANA won his 5 ½-furlong debut in 1:02.64, missing the track record by 13/100s; comes from the same nursery as I’ll Have Another. HONOR CODE came from as far back as any 2-year-old I’ve ever seen, ever, winning a 7-furlong debut. His blend of talent and professionalism was scary. Once again, Johnny will have to choose between Todd and Shug. STRONG MANDATE beat a strong field in the 7-furlong Grade 1 Hopeful, and he beat them mercilessly. Already proven on wet and dry surfaces; he’s 2-for-2 since blinkers.

#1: MOMENT OF THE MEET A DEAD HEAT: It’s not like it was our first Wayne Lukas winners’ circle scenario, but never on his 78th birthday and in such a big spot. In the final three weeks of the meet, to go from a duck, to the centerpiece Travers, to the final Grade 1 of the meet? This is a guy who everyone had buried, the Hall of Fame guy who revolutionized his game… And, in yet another winners’ circle ceremony, to see Ramon Dominguez, flanked by his former peers and the family of Mike Venezia, receiving an award for good citizenship and his Eclipse as the leading rider of 2012, was as warm and as filled with pathos as any moment ever witnessed here in 150 years.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, September 03, 2013

You’re Never Too Old to Dream

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September 3, 2013--So, what, only Bill Mott can win races on his birthday at the Saratoga meet.

It's hard to believe now that after the halfway mark, Darrell Wayne Lukas was on the Saratoga duck. No winners, nada, zero.

Then he put a pair of blinkers on a second-time starting 2-year-old named Strong Mandate and the colt went to the front and improved his position, finishing strongly with an excellent display of energy distribution efficiency.

In the Hopeful, over a sealed muddy track, Strong Mandate did it again, only this time he demolished the strongest field of juveniles assembled at Saratoga this year.

And the Coach added to his legend. Happy 78th. Burgoo for all my friends.

Recapping, then, on the morning or August 17, Lukas is on the duck. On the morning after the historical meet closed, he added two more Grade 1s to his Hall of Fame career, the centerpiece Travers and the once and forever iconic Hopeful Stakes.

Sometimes, the Hopeful doesn't measure up. Yesterday it lived up to its name.

The bad news, perhaps, is that the Tiznow-Clear Mandate colt might not be seen in action at Belmont Park which reopens Saturday.

"I'd like to try to find a two-turn race for him," Lukas said post-race. "The race at Santa Anita, used to be called the Norfolk."

It would appear whatever prep Lukas chooses, his colt will show up. Apparently, neither sleek nor slop will stop Strong Mandate from completing his appointed rounds.

"Of course, we were always working backwards from the Breeders' Cup." Hopeful, indeed.

Written by John Pricci

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