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

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Earlier Results Very Telling in Sword Dancer

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 15, 2009--If today’s Grade 1 Sword Dancer was about anything, it, like Saratoga, was about history.

Would Better Talk Now be the first 10-year-old to win a Grade 1 race? Could Grand Couturier become the first horse to win this race three consecutive years? Would this 35th edition be a formful renewal?

Recent history, however, was against them: Sixth race result: $51.50. Seventh: $57.50. Eighth: $18.80. Ninth: $14.00. Grade 1 Sword Dancer winner: Telling: $68.00.

Drive home safely. First post tomorrow is one o’clock. Good night.

Grand Couturier clearly was not at his best. He was down inside behind a wall of horseflesh soon after entering the stretch but it would not have mattered.

Clearly, it was not his day, tipping his hand when he came out washy in the post parade.

But the remarkable 10-year-old fired. Again. In midstretch it appeared that Better Talk Now might get there despite coming from far back, his usual tack. And the pace was strong for 12 furlongs.

And so a horse that had been beaten five times in Grade 3 company, won a Grade 1 in Saratoga over two celebrated horses.

The question is: How did he get the invite?

4:28 P.M.Talk about pointing for a meet like Saratoga. Leah Gyarmati was the 74th trainer to win a race at Saratoga when Prince Dubai upset the seventh race turf route. Tomorrow's carryover is over $260,000. The Sunday sequence begins with three consecutive maiden races, two for juveniles.

The Reason Horseplayers Come to Saratoga

The allure of the babies. And the folks were given a treat when Darley unleashed a fast and, now proven, classy juvenile Liston. From the penultimate crop of Storm Cat from Rings a Chime, the good reports were correct. Any why not?

The mare produced two winners from three foals, one a stakes winner, and Strom Cats win their debuts 19 percent of the time.

The other good thing in today’s second race, Chief Counsel, sat a perfect, ground-saving trip, was steadied awaiting room--no biggie--had a clear shot but was no match as the 8-5 choice.

Brother Bird made a strong mid-move three across the track and weakened; follow.

Debuting My Piano Man, who took sneaky play at 14-1 into two big favorites from big outfits, reared, got hung up in the gate briefly, and was vet scratched. He did not appear seriously injured.

"Have Your Family Picnic on the Oklahoma Turf Course"

It should come as a surprise to no one that horsemen, once in a while, are just not happy. But they’re our guys. Can’t knock anyone on a 24/7/365 schedule, although sometimes we must.

Now gentlemen, and ladies, you can’t have it both ways--or is the association that’s trying to have it both ways. Everyone I run into complains and the secretary’s office writing too many turf sprints.

But the publicists tell us horsemen love them and they continue to over-fill. Perhaps the fact that I can get a horse to race 5-½ on turf based on only their ability is what I have against them, though I’m sure I can’t do it as well as Linda Rice.

I must give the horsemen this: No one’s happy that, for the first time, training time on the Oklahoma turf course is restricted to 30 minutes on days when grass training is permitted. It’s always been from 9:45 AM to 10:30. Now it’s 10 AM to 10:30.

Why? It’s a training track. Why are we protecting it, especially in light of the nice weather this meet. If you have a lot of grass horses in your barn--think Rice and Bill Mott--you’re always changing exercise riders on the fly. That 15 minutes is big.

To reiterate, that 15 minutes is big.

Time Counts--And Not Just In Jail

The plan to introduce the Hall of Fame winners to on-track fans while also providing a cool simulcast photo opportunity for the NYRA and the sport was dashed as a result of the Hall of Fame ceremonies going overtime.

The plan was a have a parade of antique cars featuring the Hall of Fame inductees to be driven down the outside portion of the main track, closest to the fans and the rail, from the eighth pole to the winners’ circle, located just before the finish line.

But unless the ceremony began promptly, the parade would have to be scrapped because Glen Kozak, Director of Racing Surfaces, didn’t want any interruption of routine track maintenance once racing had begun.

Am I being dense here, because I just don’t get it. Horses don’t run on the outside of the main track except by accident and that portion of the track is usually sealed whether the racing surface has been harrowed or not. I just don’t seem the harm.

Had someone been thinking, Kozak’s objections should have been overruled, a victory for common sense. The parade, which would have taken a few minutes, could have been done between Friday’s eighth and ninth races, in advance of the featured National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame Stakes.

It’s not like the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies are an every day occurrence. And neither is this rocket science.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Hall of Fame, That’s a Heck of a Day

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 14, 2009--It’s hard to believe it’s been a decade since Darryl Wayne Lukas was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame.
Once Rivals
Once Rivals, D. Wayne Welcomes Bullet Bob Into the Club
Photo by: Toni Pricci

Almost equally hard to believe is that he would be the one introducing this year’s inductee, and one-time fierce rival.

But, in the end, there was more bringing Lukas and Bob Baffert together than could ever have torn them apart.

To be honest, I was looking for a little more shtick from both. After all, they have reputations to live up to.

I wasn’t really expecting Tim Conway & Harvey Korman. Nor did I think I would see a reprise of Bob & Ray, Laurel & Hardy or Abbott & Costello.

I don’t know, third base.

But there wasn’t a single line that started with, “Did I ever tell you about the time….?”

The closest the audience came to that was, first, Baffert’s admission that when he was a kid he wanted to be a jockey. “I came here when Wayne was inducted,” he said. “I’ve been chasing him all my life.”

“When I was a junior in high school, I called Wayne and told him I wanted to be a jockey. Being the great judge of talent that he is, he turned me down…”

“Many of you are probably wondering, ‘what’s Bob Baffert doing in the Hall of Fame’? Me, too.”


Clearly, Baffert held up his end of the comedy team bargain. But he was like Lewis working without Martin, Hope without Crosby, Belushi sans Akroyd.

Baffert, of course, has a serious side, although he doesn’t allow the media to see it all that often.

“[The induction] is meaningful because my parents will be around to see it. One of my clients chartered a flight to bring them here. I hope I can keep it together.

“I’m sure it will be very emotional. My dad is 86 and I’m living his dream. It was something he always wanted to do but he raised seven kids. So I picked up the ball and ran with it.”

All the way to racing's pantheon on Union Avenue.

And so, today, Baffert introduced the audience to all the people in his life responsible for his standing at a podium inside the Humphrey S. Finney Pavilion. He had them stand, one by one.

Then he talked about his dad Bill and how it all started for him when his father bought a ranch and he developed a love for animals, the cattle, and the horses.

Then he began talking about his mom and choked on his emotions: “I can’t get it out,” he explained.

And there was more emotion when he talked about Mike Pegram and Hal Earndardt, owners that gave him a huge leg up in the thoroughbred business.

Baffert thanked his staff, assistants past and present, by name, and Roberto, a groom that’s been with him for 22 years.

“That guy’s big and strong but when we lost a couple of close ones, he was balling like a baby. That’s what these horses do to us.”

Of course, there were many reasons he was standing at the podium this morning: Eight classics, three of them on May’s first Saturday; seven Breeders’ Cups; two Dubai World Cups.

Not to forget three consecutive Eclipse Awards; four money-winning titles; 20 training titles in California--seven straight at Del Mar, and developed many champions such as Point Given and Silverbulletday, the filly enshrined along with her trainer.

But there were the tough beats. Real Quiet--was there ever a tougher one?--and Cavonnier, beaten a nose by Lukas and Grindstone 13 years ago.

“We went into a slump,“ Baffert said this week, “but it wasn’t until Cavonnier did I think maybe I can get the [Derby] done.”

That wasn’t Baffert’s only battle with self-doubt. “I was ten minutes from walking away from the sport when the synthetics came in. I sat down to breakfast with [wife] Jill and said ‘I can’t train, and I can’t win.’

“She said take your horses and go to Saratoga. We did, then we won two Breeders’ Cup races.

“The one characteristic is that you have to adapt,” he said. “It’s a tough business. You can’t feel sorry for yourself.”

When this morning turned into afternoon, Baffert offered this: “Thank you all for allowing me to share this with you. To get here, you have to be good, and you have to be lucky.”

Then he raised his arms, turned both thumbs inward, pointing to himself, and said: “You’re looking at lucky.”

More 'Good and Lucky' Honorees

Whether you know the inductees or hardly at all, it’s impossible not to feel the emotion as you watch their past--and yours--fly by in a twinkling.
Chris McCarron

Inducted 20 Years Ago, Chris McCarron Delivers Keynote Address
Photo by: Toni Pricci

Twinkling, a word or expression that Joe Hirsch would write, his professional life and times recalled this morning by multiple Eclipse Award-winner Bill Nack, who I chased around in my days at Newsday, like Baffert chasing Lukas.

Nack announced the institution of the Joe Hirsch Media Roll of Honor to the Hall of Fame. It will salute the sport’s best chroniclers, beginning next year. After the inaugural class is honored, one turf writer will be admitted each year.

Emotions began bubbling from the start with a video that introduced keynoter and Hall of Famer, Chris McCarron, class of ’89. Riding Sunday Silence to beat Easy Goer in a thrilling Classic--one of the great race calls of all-time, too--and his very emotional acceptance speech.

“Only racing can do this to me,” McCarron said, fighting for his words.
A Great Teacher
A Great Teacher and a Great Student
Photo by: Toni Pricci

Soon after the keynote address, Hall of Famer Jonathan Sheppard introduced protégé and new inductee Janet Elliot, the first female trainer so honored.

Elliot thanked her mentor and friend for being a teacher and having his family “become my American family,” after having come over from England.

Mike Pegram, accepting the honor for his great filly, Silverbulletday, and saying he “wouldn’t be here without my good friend,” and “being here with my pal is as good as it gets.”

Former Breeders’ Cup President D.G. Van Clief presenting to Pam Ziebarth, the daughter of Tiznow‘s owner, eerily recalling the uncertain atmosphere surrounding the 2001 Breeders’ Cup, the first international event staged in New York City following the attacks of 9/11.

That, then watching video of Tiznow’s two electrifying, narrow victories in the Classic, the only repeater in Classic history.

Owner-breeder Stuart Janney presented to Ann Stewart, the daughter of Ben Nevis II owner Redmond Stewart Jr., who raced the timber champion.

Ben Nevis, twice winner of England’s Grand National, contested over 30 tall fences at 4-½ miles, only the third American horse to do so, and how it took his handlers almost five years to teach him to behave.
Eddie and Kate Maple

Eddie and Kate Maple, a Strong Entry
Photo by: Toni Pricci

Even at an advanced age, Ben Nevis was a run-off. There was no slow and easy with him; to be at his best he had to attack the fences at full speed or not at all. Remarkable story, really. Then retired commentator Charlsie Cantey relayed a message from Joe Cantey that “Eddie Maple was not one to do things you would talk about 20 years later, he was too afraid of Kate [his wife].”

And Maple saying he was getting nervous toward the end of the Belmont Stakes he won aboard Temperance Hill. “I passed all the contenders and thought I’d win easy when I felt something coming fast on the outside.

“It was Charlsie on the pony. She was working for CBS. The pony must have gone the last eighth in 13.”

Laugh, Think, Cry

But it was a serious thought from Maple that had an SRO crowd applauding vigorously and spontaneously when he said:

“I don’t know what life would be like without these animals. Our concern for what happens to these animals is a lifetime, not a racing lifetime. We need these rescue organizations. They are as vital to the integrity of the sport as any issue they’re trying to work out.”

The annual Hall of Fame ceremony is a wonder. Mike Kane had it right when he said, before introducing all the Hall of Famers in attendance, we can all be competitors in the afternoon but can celebrate together here.

The ceremonies have all the elements you want when you get closer to the end than to the beginning.

Funny, too, how the emotional ups and downs conjure memories, such as the words of the late Jim Valvano in his famous television speech as he was dying of cancer. Said the coach:

“There are three things we all should all do every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. Number three is you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be sadness or joy.

“But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that's a full day. That's a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you're going to have something special.”

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

And a Woman Shall Lead Them

SARATOGA SPRINGS, August 13, 2009--

5:24 P.M.: Hey, everybody changes their modus operandi sometime. Meaning? Dallas Stewart saddles his second winning first-time starter at the meet. Stats know Dallas as a second-time guy, but he must have figured that if Zito could do it, so can he.

And a good meet, too, for the Aikenite himself, Cot Campbell. The master of Dogwood Stable, the first successful partnership concept in America racing, won his second of the meet with the debuting Snap Happy, ridden by Calvin Borel, getting him off the duck.

The Campbell entry, in fact, both ran well, with Limeheart coming on gamely for third, split by a well backed Pletcher newcomer. Cableknit was gate scratched at 5-2; note.

Speaking of Borel, business has been slow, very slow. He only had 17 rides at the meet. Guess it’s not too surprising as all race meets are provincial, even this one. But he’s confided in people that he’s not too pleased about it but understands racetrack reality.

The good news is that if you’re not so much in demand, the town has plenty of distractions. But he rides Rachel, so what’s to worry? Actually, Calvin’s taking no chances, not letting the filly out of sight.

His first mistake on Rachel could be his last. What’s fair got to do with anything, anyway?…

In a very contentious optional allowances sprint, winning Just Ben was very good. He took pressure on the lead throughout but still was capable of re-breaking in midstretch, drawing out late; note…

Fast Draw, a full brother to Grand Slam, was dropped into a $20,000 maiden claimer and won off by a pole beneath Jamie Theriot for Wayne Lukas. Ante post odds of 9-1 were generous.

On the grass, Rice is still nice. In fact, you can’t beat her these days. Yesterday she won a two-turner with a horse that re-surged to the lead after it looked beaten.

Same thing with Willsboro, who was pressed throughout, was passed by a sweeping Vettriano, then re-surged to win. Spooky.

Well bred special-weight maiden juveniles going 5-½ on the grass and a couple of promising horses for your stable mail. Winning Smart Seattle can really run and owns terrific turf action; catch a replay near you!

Runnerup Hatheer is also going to be a good filly. She raced head to head in rapid fractions and was drawing away, getting a “classy” designation from the pronouncer and appeared the winner until Smart Seattle went into overdrive. Bet her back…

Linda Rice, Part II. Also known as the Statue of Liberty division of the New York Stallion series, Mother Russia led it throughout.

Pressed by speedy Sezzana throughout, she opened ground soon after straightening away but was all out to hold strong-finishing Es Mia safe by a neck. The Rice horses just don’t tire.

The win was Rice’s ninth of the meet, making her Saratoga’s leading trainer. “I’d like to stop right here,” she said afterward. The turf has been firm and fast, and that has been good for me. I hope it stays that way.”

This marks the first time in modern Saratoga history that a female trainer led the pack after so many races had been run. Tomorrow marks the midway point of Week 3.

Considering Janet Elliott will be inducted into the Hall of Fame Friday, the symmetry is inescapable.

When Julie Krone--the leading female rider of all time and first female to win a Triple Crown race with Colonial Affair in the Belmont Stakes--was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000, she said that she didn’t want the accomplishment “genderized.”

But how can you not? It’s a wonderful achievement in a game dominated by men and not without its prejudice against female riders. They may be sought after in morning- training hours but don’t get those same opportunities in the afternoon.

The situation has improved dramatically and women riders have become more commonplace. But not as trainers. Interesting that arguably the leading handicap male in the country, Einstein, is trained by a woman, Helen Pitts-Blasi.

And now, Linda Rice has a one-race lead, 9 to 8, over Todd Pletcher, who was blanked today. If the weather holds up, and if the course stays firm, anything’s possible.

Ben Nevis, Party Animal

3:53 P.M A late start to the filing day--prepping for tomorrow’s Hall of Famer ceremonies--covering, not accepting, but thanks for asking--but it’s not like we’ve not been taking notes.

The first hunch bet of the day goes down in flames when longshot Red Letter Day, trained by Janet Elliott, the first female trainer to enter the Hall, took the lead at headstretch the second time around but tired after playing chase the leader.

Steeplechase trainers are, of course, trainers of trainers, so it was no surprise that Tommy Voss had Dynaski ready to win the Ben Nevis II Stakes off a year layup. Apparently, this wasn’t unexpected, the winner as strong favorite.

Good old Ben Nevis. Had a drink with him once. Really, at the Reading Room in the late 1980s, can’t remember exactly what year.

But the National Steeplechase Association brought the horse to their annual soiree, where he mingled with the crowd. And it’s not like he didn’t earn the privilege.

You see, he was an American-based horse who went over there and won the English Grand National for his trainer and jockey, Charlie Fenwick Jr.

The Grand National? You must know it. From the movies. It always made those Movietone News film reels, a race famous for its calamity. I don’t know, maybe 30 horses start and 10 finish?

Ben Nevis is no mere hurdle horse; he was a timber horse, jumping over posts and rails and not through or up and over hedges. It’s a circuit all to its own, a smaller circuit.

But the fences and riders are bigger. Timber riders tack up from 160 to 170 pounds. You need strength for all those higher jumps in races that routinely three or four miles long. It’s a tough game.

So tough that even ‘Ben’ needed a second try to win the storied event. In his first try he fell going over the seventh fence.

But I never held that against him. Any horse that would tip a cocktail with you is all good in my book.

Written by John Pricci

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