|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 HorseRaceInsider.com.
Friday, August 03, 2012
Do You Know the Way to Al-Ba-Neigh?
AUGUST 2, 2012—If you think that Tuesday’s work tab for Saratoga’s Oklahoma Training Track was shorter than usual, there was good reason for it; training hours were over by 9 a.m.
Poor track conditions or hurricane type winds? Well…no. The transmission fell out of the water truck just above the sixteenth pole and they could remove it in time? Sorry, you’d be wrong again.
The reason why Tuesday workouts at Oklahoma were truncated is because there were no ambulance drivers available in case there was an emergency. Why? Well, you had to go back to racing the previous day.
At that time, a valet got hurt in the paddock during racing hours. He was hurt to the extent that it was decided to take him to the Albany Medical Center, a.k.a. Albany Med.
Despite the fact that the driver was a local, he got lost going to Albany Med. Let me repeat, an ambulance driver got lost on his way to a hospital. Clearly, bold action was needed.
It was time for a trial run, figuring which was the most efficient way to get to Albany Med, a little tricky if you’re from out of town, but a local?
So rather than wait until, say 11 a.m., a decision was made to begin the trial run a 9 a.m., on a dark day. Obviously, I cannot divulge my source on this. But the trainer works his horses at Oklahoma.
Besides, who could make this up?
Up, Up and Away
If it weren’t for the NYRA quotes after the race from Danielle Hodsdon, I never would have known that she left the employ of Jonathan Sheppard after many years as a #1 assistant and stable rider.
If I were Sheppard, I would be thinking about the one that got away.
Hodsdon, the only woman to own the distinction of riding the winner of a steeplechase race and a flat race on the same Saratoga program three years ago, won the Grade 1 Smithwick Memorial on 25-1 chance Spy in the Sky, surviving by a nose over strong finishing Left Unsaid.
“I hit the lead a little sooner than I wanted,” Hodsdon said, “but being he’s an older horse (eight-year-old) you don’t want to leave [the winning move] too late.”
The winner made a long, sweeping run to contention before taking the lead in the 2-1/16 mile affair soon after entering the straight.
“I have never been that wide on the final turn but for a little horse he’s got a big stride and you don’t want to check him. I just thought it better to keep his run going,” she explained of the tack taken.
It was an important win, the Smithwick being one of two Grade 1 chase races at the meet, events that can go a long way in determining the steeplechase champion.
Hodsdon knows something about championships. She and Blythe Miller Davies are the only females ever to win a steeplechase riding title.
“It means a lot [to win this race]. I worked for Jonathan Sheppard for a really long time,” said Hodsdon. “I’ve moved on and am doing some things on my own. It’s nice to know that I can come back and sit on a horse for somebody else and still do it.”
This might be precisely what Sheppard was thinking after the horse he saddled in the Smithwick, Divine Fortune, finished fifth as the 3-2 favorite.
Suddenly, It's Zito En Fuego
It began with a 13-1 upsetter of a Todd Pletcher-trained mega-dropdown in the Wednesday finale with Sinorce and the roll continue when Nick Zito-saddled Tuvia’s Force, owned by the Lucky Shamrock Stable, won the 3rd race, a.k.a the Mid-Summer St. Patrick’s Day Race with News 10 ABC and Celtic Tours purse.
The wise guys might have called it the third at nine furlongs for “beaten 20 claimers.”
Clearly, there’s no racing promotion like one that advertises the name of the winner right there in the track program. Plus you get 3-1 and Rosie Napravnik, too?
The relatively subdued winners’ circle following the race was very unlike Wednesday evening’s, when Zito blew kisses to the crowd encircling the winners’ enclosure for nearly five minutes, hugging a television reporter [female], Rick Pitino [basketball coach], Tim Poole [assistant trainer], and others.
It was fun to watch, unless, of course, you were one of only six people alive in the Pick Six with Dan And Sheila.
Written by John Pricci
Wednesday, August 01, 2012
Can’t Throw Money at Horse of the Year Titles
Tuesday’s news from the Jersey Shore via Del Mar was not good, at least as far as the Travers is concerned: The impressive Haskell winner spiked a fever and his appearance in the Derby of Midsummer is in jeopardy.
There must be some weird case of the sniffles going around the Bob Baffert shedrow. First Bodemeister and now Paynter that’s suffering from elevated temperatures. The treatment for it is antibiotics, as it is with humans.
The regimen works but one of its side effects is listlessness. Being listless makes it extremely difficult for racehorses to do their thing and, at this level of competition, anything less than an A-game performance just won’t get the job done.
The last time this same scenario occurred was two years ago when Haskell winner Lookin At Lucky spiked, was forced to skip the Travers, and didn’t reappear until October’s Indiana Derby.
Baffert mentioned the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby in late September is a viable alternative should Paynter miss the Travers, in which he would have been favored. Same case at Parx, only the odds will be much lower.
So, do you go for the “easy money” or a possible Horse of the Year championship? In this instance, it’s extremely unlikely that you can have it both ways.
The 2010 Indiana Derby didn’t toughen Lookin At Lucky sufficiently to defeat his elders in the Breeders’ Cup Classic; the Pennsylvania Derby doesn’t figure to get you there the right way, either.
To beat the absolute best most horses must reach somewhere near the bottom of themselves: Ideally, only tough races with stout competition can achieve success at the highest levels of the sport.
Running the table is something the Zayat family knows it must do if they want to claim the sport’s ultimate honor. A Travers, a Grade 1 prep vs. elders, and a Classic victory certainly would achieve that goal.
It would all add up to four Grade 1 wins including two over older horses. What could go wrong? But maybe Bill Mott has the right thinking on this:
You win the important races as they come up and the championship will take care of itself. At least that was the opinion he expressed in regards to his older runners on Tuesday’s NTRA-sponsored national conference call.
It will be interesting to see how all of it shakes out.
It's Only Money
The defending double Eclipse riding champion, Ramon Dominguez thus far is helping his mounts run away with the Saratoga riding title. Of course, it’s still very early in the game.
Winning titles is nothing new for a man who already owns 18 New York meet championships. But Saratoga is special, so special that Dominguez will ride in Saratoga on Saturday rather than fly to West Virginia and take his seat aboard a 3-5 shot for $900,000.
That odds-on favorite would be Hansen, last year’s juvenile champion that will meet nine other 3-year-olds, including stablemate Morgan’s Guerilla, the late developing Bernardin, and Hero of Order, shocking winner of the Louisiana Derby in late winter.
On yesterday’s call, Dr. Kendall Hansen said that trainer Mike Maker told him the colt is the best he’s ever been, and both he and his trainer are looking for top class redemption in the Travers.
“Mike feels he hasn’t proven that he can’t get a mile and a quarter.
“Would I want to run against Paynter or Bodemeister and every month? No,” answering his own question. “But would I like to prove we can beat the horses people are talking about.”
Hansen will have a new partner in Hall of Famer Mike Smith, who called Hansen’s connections personally to ask whether he could ride the colt on Saturday. Hansen, the handicapping doctor, sounded happy to have him.
It's the Fractional Wagering, Stupid
There are some handle comparisons between Saratoga and Del Mar circling the Internet the past few days, the point being made that the high takeout at Del Mar is hurting its handle while the lower rates are helping Saratoga. The point is valid, of course.
The New York Pick 6 has a takeout rate of 15% on non-carryover days; Del Mar’s is 23.68% every day. The rake and the large, competitive fields have attracted more than its share of Saratoga handle.
But the average serious bettor does not jump into that pool often because he can’t afford it, knowing, too, he cannot possibly hope to match the investment of big bettors who can throw dollars at the sequence in order to have a better chance to win it.
Instead, the average serious bettor invests in sequential wagers with an easier—not easy, but easier—degree of difficulty. But how do we know it’s the fractional wagering that’s making a sizable contribution to the handle?
Intuitively, the Pick 3 easier than the Pick 4. While the takeout in all three-tiered wagers in New York is too high at 24%, wagering in the Pick 3 with its $1 minimum is down .4% year over year, according to data supplied by the Horseplayers Assn. of North America.
However, handle in the Superfecta pools with a 10-Cent minimum is up nearly 25% and will continue to grow as bettors become more comfortable with the added permutations and realizing that, on balance, Super payoffs are roughly four times that of Trifectas.
It’s the same with the Pick 4 which has a 50-Cent minimum. P4 handle has increased by nearly 14%. Yes, larger fields, 8.73 on average, the highest it’s been in three years, have helped.
But as difficult as these sequences are, would Pick 4 handle have maintained, much less increase? Very doubtful and, please, do not suggest that a guaranteed minimum pool makes this increase possible.
Granted that it provides positive publicity as a reminder of just how much money is up for grabs. (New York tracks have different minimums at various times of the year).
Where the guarantee does help is on bad weather days where a bevy of late scratches, especially from turf races, significantly can affect handle adversely. Fractional wagers bring more people into the pools. Isn’t that what everyone wants?
Written by John Pricci
Monday, July 30, 2012
From Maiden to Horse of the Year Without Winning a Three-Year-Old Classic?
July 29, 2012—It will be interesting to see how the NTRA Horse of the Year Poll shakes out on Tuesday after this weekend’s 3-year-old action.
While some of the nation’s top older horses will be on display in Saturday’s Whitney, and with the Pacific Classic and Woodward upcoming next month, it will be interesting to see how this week’s poll shakes out.
Last week, seven voters still had the retired dual classic winner I’ll Have Another ranked #1, reasoning that no other horse accomplished as much--three Grade 1s and 4-for-4 on the year—thus far.
Those votes, as well as some others that place him in the Top 10, was good for a #7 ranking overall, down from #6 a fortnight ago.
As for that, the conjecture is that some voters, by leaving the Derby-Preakness winner out of the Top 10 entirely, are more interested in punishing the connections which is, of course, not fair to the horse.
Hopefully, the news won’t reach Japan.
Following today’s Haskell, won impressively by Paynter, the Derby of Midsummer, a.k.a. the Travers Stakes, becomes pivotal, especially if the runner can go on and win something important en route to the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Fans of the sport should be rooting for some sophomore to have a big second half, a possible epic battle that would turn the Classic into a…well, classic.
The question is which colt will it be?
Recalling Friday’s Curlin, that colt is unlikely to be Ever So Lucky, a colt that hasn’t had much good fortune since making a juvenile splash last fall at Churchill Downs. He finished in the money two days ago but highly likely ran his way out of serious Travers consideration.
But not so Street Wise, who showed his turn of foot earlier than he had in recent races in which he finished third and fourth in the Peter Pan and Belmont Stakes, respectively.
The Chad Brown runner powered up to take command just above the three-sixteenths pole and completed nine furlongs as if to say I’ll have another--no word play intended. The question is whether he will have enough brilliance against the division’s heavy-heads.
Not so Alpha, who lived up to the hype of winter and early spring, and then some. Speed was a new dimension for the Jim Dandy winner and, yes, while he got away with a soft pace, the sealed wet surface appeared demanding late Saturday afternoon.
Runnerup Neck N’ Neck loomed a serious threat at midstretch. Ramon Dominguez went to work and after holding the challenger safe, he drew off as he was reaching the wire, winning in full stride.
So that’s a new dimension, strong visible suggestion that another furlong will not be an issue, he loves the surface and has the all-important race over the track when he meets the impressive Haskell winner.
And make no mistake; Paynter was impressive. Fact is this is a very impressive animal, so much so in fact that his trainer, Bob Baffert, was saying this spring he thought this colt was better than Bodemeister.
His career has been nothing short of remarkable especially after putting today’s Haskell performance in perspective. But the story is HOW he got to this point in his current occupation, that of stone cold runner.
After a 5-1/2 furlong maiden win in February, he moved up dramatically in class and distance, to the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby and was beaten less than four lengths by the subsequent Derby winner 48 days later after beating non winners.
Three weeks later, he was turning back to a one-turn mile in the G3 Derby Trial, chased a strong pace and finished a game second, beaten a length and a half.
Twenty one days after that, it was off to Pimlico where he freaked in an allowance race on the Preakness undercard. And three weeks after that, he lost the Belmont by a neck when the rail opened up for Union Rags.
That’s a lot of accomplishment considering that the modern racehorse is hardly stout when it comes to pressure-packed competition, yet in 164 days, less than a half year, he’s run six times, won half his starts with two seconds and, if his Haskell tour de force means anything, when he returns from California it will be as the Travers favorite.
The nuts and bolts are a 3-3/4 length victory in 1:48.87 after he stalked and crushed Gemologist, making his first start since his Derby debacle. Now it’s debacles back to back. Needing a race is one thing; finishing last of six, 15 lengths behind the winner, as the 2-1 second choice is another.
For sure, Paynter will break into the Top 10, perhaps knock stablemate Bodemeister out of 9th, or even higher.
So, if he proves to be this country’s leading 3-year-old by duplicating his Haskell effort four weeks from now, just where does that leave a horse such as I’ll Have Another, and all the rest for that matter.
Written by John Pricci