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

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Cocoa Beach Is Back--Maybe

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 5, 2009--

5:12 P.M.: After a lengthy investigation into the objection, the victory of Cocoa Beach was allowed to stand in the day’s featured De La Rose Stakes.

At first blush, it appeared that the odds-on favorite was at fault but later determined that the problem was caused when the pressure came from the inside out, causing a chain reaction in which Grande Annee--whose rider Jose Lezcano claimed foul against the first two finishers--took the worst of it.

There was some question as to whether Cocoa Beach was the same filly at 5 as the one who won the G1 Matriarch at Hollywood Park last year after finishing second to Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic.

Well, she improved on her terrible season’s debut in the slop at Belmont Park but the question remains valid: She was life and death to beat moderate class stakes rivals after getting a perfect trip beneath Ramon Dominguez….

Saturday’s storied Whitney has drawn a field of seven with the venerable 8-year-old gelding Commentator drawing the outside post and was made the 8-5 early line favorite.

He will be seeking his third victory in this Saratoga fixture and, if successful, would join to other racing legends, Discovery and Kelso. Discovery won three straight, from 1934-36 while Kelso won it every other year, 1961, 1963 and 1965.

Commentator with Johnny Velazquez will share the 121-pound highweight assignment with Asiatic Boy (6-1), runnerup in the 2008 Dubai World Cup, repeating that result in this year‘s Stephen Foster and Suburban.

Other major challengers are Stephen Foster winner Macho Again (7-2), winner of the Jim Dandy on this track, at the Whitney distance, last year and Smooth Air (4-1), winner of the Gulfstream Park Handicap and second in the Salvator Mile at Monmouth Park prepping for this last month.

This race always requires an extraordinary performance from the eventual winner. This renewal will require no less.

4:24 P.M: Once upon a time, the A.P. (Paddy) Smithwick Memorial Steeplechase Stakes was the ultimate prep for the Grade 1 New York Turf Writers’ Steeplechase at meet’s end, but that’s no longer the case.

The Smithwick, Thursday’s opener and feature race, is now a Grade 1 with an increased purse of $100,000. Horsemen are not looking for an easy bridge race this time. Rather, it's an opportunity for any repeat winner to get a major leg up on this year's Eclipse championship.

The early line favorite, Slip Away (5-2), is seeking his seventh straight victory but if he’s to accomplish that it will need to be done vs. the toughest competition he has ever seen. He’s worth trying to beat.

Two horses, last year’s Turf Writers’ champion Dark Equation (3-1), and Planets Aligned, an uncoupled mate of Slip Away and also trained by Tommy Voss (7-2), are both coming off excellent training races over the course on open house Sunday here, July 26.

These non-betting events have proven to be a harbinger of good form at the meeting and today’s 2-1/16 miles should prove no exception to that rule. Course lover Planets Aligned comes from a G3 score prior to the training race and seeks his fourth win over the course.

But the champion looks all dressed up for this. In his only recognized start this year he was a fast closing second in the 2-½ mile G3 over soft ground, not easy given those conditions. With that effort under his belt, plus the good training race here 13 days ago, should enable him to make amends for his second-place Smithwick finish last year….

Easy Ashley sped away from the field to take a starter allowances for state-breds on the turf, but it was the late finishing Precision Farming on which you’ll want your money on next time. Linda Rice trainee would be aided by a drop into “non-winners of 2 lifetime;” note.

2:35 PM: The mutuel machines on the backside for the first and second races were humming. Owner trainer Roy Lerman won the second race with Essex Ferry at 17-1, getting Eibar Coa off the duck.

But judging by the amount of people watching the closed circuit feed on the monitors over the mutuel bay, you would have thought the maiden filly was 4-5. High fives ensued, some dancing, too….

Meanwhile, the news disseminated by the NTRA on the leading economic indicators [read handle] was not good. With each passing month, wagering on U.S. races declined once again.

A percentage change of -13.40 percent was the biggest monthly decrease recorded this year, resulting in purse cuts of 7.35 percent. While the number of race days has declined by 1.92% this year, handle losses have mounted to 10.90 percent, resulting in 7.35 percent less money available for horsemen…..

Last year, the IEAH Stable, headed by dual classics winner Big Brown, was riding high. This year, not so much. After investing seven figures for a half interest in I Want Revenge, they watched him win the Wood Memorial impressively despite a very troubled trip. Easy game.

Then everything started to unravel. Stardom Bound, last year’s juvenile filly champion, failed to make a transition at three, then was forced to scratch the early line Kentucky Derby favorite after he came up with an ankle the morning of the race. Subsequently, their relationship with David Lanzman, who retained a half interest in the colt, began to unravel.

Now, I Want Revenge’s trainer Jeff Mullins has asked New York’s Racing and Wagering Board to help him recover more than $31,000 from his share of the $750,000 Wood purse, plus expenses. It is also alleged that IEAH owes jockey Joe Talamo expenses of over $3,300. Stay tuned….

Paracaidas was a game maiden breaker in the third race but I can’t help shake the feeling that this crew was not all that. Favorite Film Charm was a good second but without an excuse; note.

Dean’s Kitten made a winning two turn debut after repulsing pace pressure throughout but it was Paddy O’Prado who made the most favorable impression. Long-striding Dale Romans trainee--his horses are running well--finished boldly and nearly won the two-turn turf test for juvenile maidens beneath hard riding Miguel Mena. Won’t be a maiden long; bet back.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, August 02, 2009

Meanwhile, Back on the Racetrack…

5:09 PM: One thing about sprint races at Monmouth Park: They're very popular and never fail to fill. A bad track doesn't hurt that much either. Only one scratch out of the Teddy Drone, and it was Fleet Valid's mid-race move that got it done in a rather sprightly 1:08.77 by 3/4s of a length over Keep Laughing, who whittled down the lead but ran out of.a sharpness. But maybe it wouldn't have mattered, anyway. "He loves Monmouth Park and he likes a wet track," explained trainer Scott Volk. He had it his way today...

No matter what happens an hour from now, Todd Pletcher and Johnny Velazquez won't go home empty. The Taylor Made Matchmaker was rescheduled to the main track and was won by a horse that had never run on dirt before, much less on wet dirt in a Grade 3. But this much was known: South African-bred Captain's Lover is a good mare. You don't win six of 11 starts in group company if you're not. No surprise either that the Captain Al filly got heads-up handling from Velazquez.

"Once she got comfortable and started striding smoothly, she just race her race," the rider said. "She's trained so good over [the main track] in the morning but any time you have a horse that's never run on it, you're a little nervous," said her trainer. But as she increased her two length mid-stretch advantage to seven at the finish, those fears melted in the rain.

3:38 PM: Between the next two races, two with a good deal of history, we could only muster seven horses--total--for both races. Just seems like the Jersey Derby and Regret deserved better.

In the Derby, Endymion wasn't all that anxious to get involved early, but did he come running late! Joe Bravo rode him out to a 1-3/4 lengths victory over well named 2-5 favorite, Despite the Odds.

"Mr. [Christophe] Clement makes you look good," said Bravo. "I was real confident [because in his] last race he showed that he is really maturing."

One thing's for certain. The tank was by no means empty as he crossed the finish line; note.

The Regret sprint for fillies ands mares was as exciting as a three-horse race can get with D'Wild Ride wearing down Fearless Leader in the last two jumps for the head victory in 1:09.52. How close was it?

"I wasn't sure about the finish," said winning trainer Joe Orseno. "I turned to Brian [owner Brian Miller] and asked if she won."

"This filly really proved her class today," said jockey Carlos Marquez Jr. "I wasn't sure if she was going to go by that horse. It's not often a horse comes from behind in a three-horse race."

2:31 PM: Fabrizio Jiminez, who was thrown when his fourth race mount, Ballado Alert, appeared to clip heels and went down, was taken to the Jersey Shore Trauma Center where it was determined he suffered a fractured right hip,, right tibia and fibula, and a possible fractured right ankle.

Jiminez also suffered a laceration to his scalp. Awaiting word on Cotto. He was sent by Dr. Chinnici to the Trauma Center for X-Rays of his back and abdomen.

Actin Good was a desperate and thrilling winner of the overnight Majestic Light. "We've been pointing for this race all along," said trainer Bobby Dibona.

Hey, Bobby, how about giving me a call next time. I live in Saratoga. I'm in the book.

Meanwhile, good job by Kent Desormeaux, getting Actin Good to switch leads in the shadow of the wire and getting the job done.

2:13 PM: Not good, Part II. A second horse went down, this one in the fourth race, this one on the dirt, and this one more calamitous than the first. Tale Of Victory suffered a catastrophic injury and was euthanized. Pedro Cotto Jr. was the second rider of the day taken back to the room in an ambulance.

The jockeys were polled, and it didn't take them long to decide: the remaining turf races at Monmouth Park will be run on the sloppy main track, including two graded stakes.

Racing For Cover
Racing For Cover
Photo by: Toni Pricci
1:31 PM: Not good. The skies opened to a deluge just as the turf field for the fourth race was loading into the gate. Entering the backstretch, Ballado Alert appeared to clip heels and went down, throwing Fabrizio Jiminez heavily to the ground. Corredor's Song with Channing Hill was forced to alter course severely,

Hill lost his balance and was pitched. He walked away. Jiminez was taken away in the track ambulance. The horses appeared unhurt. There are two graded turf stakes today. Chances of their remaining on that surface don't look good. The track has been downgraded to sloppy (and sealed). Lightning and thunder has arrived.

It's like we never left Saratoga.

12:26 PM: Was saying to NTRA’s Eric Wing five minutes before the opener: “Don’t understand why the #6 is 2-1, should be even money. Obviously, I was invested.

I got my answer during the running. I’m figuring that the wise guys knew that Eddie Castro would stalk five wide all the way around with Clear Faith while Deep Run Doon and Channing Hill would hug the fence throughout. The wide trip even cost Clear Faith the place.

They Must Be Giving Something Away
They Must Be Giving Something Away
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Life got good: Sphynx Key got a great ride from Jeremy Rose; excellent use of restraint despite the mare being a little rank early, ground saving, threading the needle and finishing with a flurry late: $27.80.

No red board here as we made the note in the comment section under yesterday’s Free Race Analysis section. I’m still a little in shock. Wendell made a pick at Saratoga; sixth race, check it out.

Track fast but sealed for the third. No pronounced bias. Just usual speedy, stalky Monmouth Park. Was told maintenance took a little of the cushion off the top in anticipation of the rains.

They say the Philly Park rail is completely under water. The hope is the system moves East first, instead of straight up I-95.

Calm Before the Storm
Calm Before the Storm
Photo by: Toni Pricci

10:50 AM: You know what they say about bad luck, the one about having no luck at all, otherwise. That’s Monmouth Park.

Hyperbole? Two words: Breeders’ Cup.

Right now, it’s humid an overcast. Has been since 7 AM at least. But, as the day progresses, 30 percent chance of thunderstorms, 40 percent, 70 percent.

And post time for the 13th (that’s no typo) is scheduled for 6:15 PM.

Should they even bother to run the Haskell? And it’s not about Rachel. No need for last names here. Like, you know, Madonna.

Last year, Big Brown.  This year…?
Last year, Big Brown. This year…?
Photo by: Toni Pricci

Rather, it’s about her trainer. Five years ago, Todd Pletcher was THE dominant force. Now, it’s Steve Asmussen.

What kind of week is he having. The opening day Schuylerville with Hot Dixie Chick; the Jim Dandy with Kensei in a worthy 1:47.90. More on this weekend later.

Asmussen got Kensei to peak in the Dwyer, a real breakthrough performance. Yesterday, he repeated.

Now I know he had the table set for his Soul Warrior in West Virginia. Usually, 23-1 chances do need a little help.

Two guys told me Mine That Bird looked a bit short of condition. Haven’t seen it for myself yet, but I am a little surprised, even though the ultimate target is the Travers.

I’ll be very curious to see not only the W. Va. Derby replay but the training regimen Chip Woolley has planned for his big hoss.

I’m starving, must be the ocean air.

Or the fact that I woke up this morning. We’re back.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, July 31, 2009

Saratoga Diary, Day 3

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 31, 2009--Momma always said: Dark Day, Don’t Play. Thing is, what do horses to watch mean on a day like today, unless some horse freaks and the world sees it, anyway. Even the Grade 2 Lake George is off the grass.

Tomorrow is forecasted to be sunny. And Vic Zast will take my seat tomorrow as I’m driving to the Jersey Shore where it’s also expected to be sunny. The bad news? Prospects for a sloppy Haskell Invitational. Here’s a glimpse at this weekend.

1:28 am: Triple Crown prep season notwithstanding--when would-be divisional leaders are hoping to run their way into a Kentucky Derby berth and beyond--there’s never been a weekend like this.

What separates the summer races from the spring is that the three-year-old class is a known quantity now. And, star power aside, there is an established pecking order among the division’s elite.
There is one facet of this weekend that’s quite similar to what happens on any given spring weekend: Never mind Louisville; been there. All roads now lead to Saratoga.

Providing they do not go off form or, heaven forbid, come out of their respective races not completely healthy, roads in Chester, West Virginia and Oceanport, New Jersey lead to upstate New York, where the home team will be in waiting.

The headlines say Rachel Alexandra is odds-on to beat the boys again in the Haskell Invitational. Her last three races include victories in the middle jewel of a crown and two wins over her peers, at the Haskell distance, by an aggregate 39 lengths.

“I’m not making any predictions, but I think we’ll give Rachel Alexandra a run for her money,” said Summer Bird’s trainer Tim Ice. Of course, trainer and horse made their bones in the Belmont.

“He’s very sharp right now,” said Chip Woolley Jr. of Mine That Bird on a national teleconference Tuesday, alluding to the fact that his plan for the West Virginia Derby might include taking the usual step beyond the 80-percent prep message. Woolley fully expects to win.

We know where these Triple Crown campaigners will be on the weekend of August 28. But what about the Superfilly? Where will she be? Actually, she’ll already be here. What race she runs in is another matter. She has options.

Everyone wants to see her in the Travers, of course. But even if she wins the Haskell with energy in reserve, the Midsummer Derby might not be in her best interests. Besides, a victory on Sunday gives her wins over both Triple Crown race champions.

I won’t be holding my breath a Travers start for Rachel. Of course, that’s only one man’s opinion.

Rachel Alexandra is the most probable winner of the Haskell, but this race will be far from a walkover.

Second choice at 3-1 is Munnings and he holds the key to the entire race. Does Johnny Velazquez ask his colt to look the filly in the eye and, if he does, will he be able to stay with her long enough, setting the table for Summer Bird’s rally?

Rachel figures to stalk the expected pacesetter, who is as fast as the filly on the Equiform scale, and who also stepped out of his division by beating elders in the G2 Tom Fool at Belmont Park, convincing Todd Pletcher to take a shot here.

“He deserves to run in a race like this,” said Pletcher at the Haskell draw. Indeed, he does. His pedigree accents speed, however, so that’s the big question with Munnings.

Meanwhile, Summer Bird has trainer Tim Ice crowing a bit, such has been his preparation at Monmouth Park, two of the workouts coming over wet tracks, expected to be the surface conditions Sunday. Pity that, for all concerned.

If Munnings is able to soften Rachel sufficiently, it will leave Summer Bird in the catbird seat. And making only his sixth career start, the Belmont winner still owns considerable upside potential.

Saturday’s West Virginia Derby has drawn six entrants, five betting interests, and it boils down to the Kentucky Derby champion vs. the very talented Big Drama, the controlling speed who’s finished first in seven of nine lifetime starts.

And if the Soul Warrior half of the Asmussen entry winds up part of the pace, for the benefit of stablemate Sunday Sunrise, it should be noted that Big Drama is not run-off speed. You can take a semi-light hold of him and get his best effort.

Mine That Bird will be making his first start since his third-place finish in the Belmont Stakes, in which he made a premature run to the lead. Mike Smith, of course, replaces Calvin Borel.

Smith’s Preakness familiarity will help, and his freshness is likely to find the gelding closer to the leaders than usual, even if taken under restraint.

Weight will be a mitigating factor. Under the allowance conditions, Mine That Bird will be spotting Big Drama 11 pounds, 122 to 111.

That’s a significant spread, especially considering Mine That Bird beat Big Drama by 4-½ lengths in the Preakness at scale weights after the speedster was pressed throughout by the uber filly.

Still, despite prepping, Mine That Bird is likely to prevail. At the very least he’ll complete the exacta with Big Drama. Woolley says his gelding’s “dead-ready.”

Tactically, the most interesting race of the weekend is the Jim Dandy, the traditional nine furlong Travers prep, which drew a field of seven.

The race features four late developers that have improved this mid-season, namely Kensei, Charitable Man, Warrior’s Reward and, to a lesser degree, Convocation.

Kensei, yet another talented Jess Jackson-connected runner, came into his own with a breakthrough performance winning the Dwyer, a race in which Warrior’s Reward practically fell down at the start, finding himself daylight behind the field before making a very strong late run.

Kensei is there now. The question is whether he can replicate his last effort going a bit farther and around a second turn.

But Warrior’s Reward is on the come, his nightmare Dwyer experience moving him forward physically and mentally, according to trainer Ian Wilkes. With him, it’s the mental part that’s most important.

Charitable Man is threatening to break through himself and is being pointed to the Travers. Tomorrow he will need to begin living up to Kiaran McLaughlin’s high expectations. Obviously, he’s very talented. Whether he’s all that, however, remains to be seen.

Written by John Pricci

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