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 29, 2008

Pitch It and They Will Come?

Saratoga Springs, NY, August 28,2008--A headline in the Daily Racing Form read ”An All-out Effort to Promote Big Brown” and his appearance in the inaugural Monmouth Stakes, a $500,000 creation by Monmouth Park to provide this country’s leading three-year-old with a path of least resistance to the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Four hours and 50 petro dollars to the north, Saratoga Race Course was holding a press conference and post draw for Saturday’s Grade 1 $500,000 Woodward Stakes in which reigning Horse of the Year Curlin will make his first start at the storied race course.

Now talk about your all-out efforts!

The publicists, with some tough talk prodding from John Sabini, the newly installed Chairman of the State Racing and Wagering Board, have been having a promotional field day of their own.

The great Angel Cordero Jr. was there to remind everyone that he was “fortunate enough” to win five Woodwards and how much that meant to him as one of his career highlights.

The event was hosted by Tom Durkin, your pronouncer provocateur, who kidded Monmouth Park and their need to create a race to lure a star while New York had it the other way around. They had the Grade 1 Woodward, and they had racing’s other star, reigning Horse of the Year Curlin.

And they’ve been promoting the hell out of it.

Want to get up close and personal with “the next Big Red,” “the fire-breathing Pegasus,” the “coolest horse in creation?” Easy, click on “Curlin’s Corner.”

“Curlin’s Corner” is a special page on the New York Racing Association website for all things Curlin, space “entirely devoted to the 2007 Horse of the Year as he prepares for his Saratoga Race Course debut…”

While there, you can read jockey Robby Albarado‘s blog. There are podcasts with members of “Curlin’s Crew,” a behind-the-scenes video of Curlin in his barn and during workouts.

Want more?

How about replays of Curlin’s races, a slide show of many “never-before-seen photos of Curlin,” and a printable full-color “fan’s guide” to Curlin. Check out the link at

The guide is an eye-pleasing confirmation profile of the horse with descriptive notes showing casual fans what to look for when they look at a race horse.

And, ladies and gentlemen, there’s much, much more.

Curlin and his connections will receive the keys to the city of Saratoga Springs from Mayor Scott Johnson in track ceremonies at 2:50 p.m. on Friday’s twilight program.

Meanwhile, back at Aqueduct, NYRA relented and allowed Big Brown the use of the turf course, where today Big Brown worked a slow five furlongs, probably designed as a leg stretcher.

In the interim, Monmouth Park was making preparations for the 15,000 or more fans they hope will show up on September 13. They’re stealing $30,000 from their promotional budget to help raise the day’s profile. Interest in racing wanes after Labor Day, but maybe the Derby-Preakness hero might attract a few day-trippers from New York and elsewhere.

Curlin had his final schooling session in the Saratoga paddock today before the first race. He could not have appeared in better health, his copper chestnut coat reflecting in the sun’s rays early on a Chamber of Commerce afternoon at the Spa.

The massive four-year-old stood quietly in stall 12 and, after the horses for the opener left the ring, two handlers, one assistant trainer Scott Blasi, walked him over to stall 5, the enclosure in which he’ll be saddled on Saturday.

Curlin drew post five in a field of eight and was made the early 3-5 favorite for the historic nine furlongs.

The colt looked battle ready. Affixed with a tongue tie, he was tacked up before taking a full circumference of the ring. He has been schooled twice in Saratoga; trainer Steve Asmussen likes to school his horses two days before they race.

It looked like Curlin needed the education. He was very keen in a good way; on edge, ready to go. But at times he appeared a bit skittish; it was a tough read. But he settled, looked around, all the while looking like he knew a crowd had come to see him.

There was no announcement but Saratoga’s knowledgeable fans didn’t rush to bet the opener, instead lingering for a few minutes. When Curlin made a left turn down the horse path that leads back to his Oklahoma track digs, a gentle cascade of applause followed his every step.

When a NYRA executive was asked whether the full court press they’ve put on for Curlin was the result of Sabini’s tweaking, he answered with an emphatic “no.”

But I really cannot recall such over-the-top drum beating for a horse still on the road to greatness but not there quite yet. That’s why Jess Jackson’s racing him, to prove it. It’s the same story with Big Brown.

There have been thousands of near greats, a good horse that wins way more than his share but for one reason or another aren’t dominating performers. Curlin’s come-again Preakness was a great performance, one for the ages, the promise of greatness to come. Then so was Big Brown’s Preakness, explosive turn of foot rarely seen, if ever.

If Curlin is truly great, he will continue to go out there and prove it for as long as Jess Jackson lets him. My only nagging issue was his Man o’ War. True greats win even in unfavorable conditions, over surfaces they don‘t like. And his conqueror Red Rocks is a multiple Grade 1 winner on turf. But Red Rocks isn’t exactly Ribot.

And let’s neither confuse Curlin with original Big Reds; first Man o’ War himself then, of course, Secretariat.

These are tough times as everyone knows. And hyperbole is not so hyperbolic as much as it is the regrettably acceptable price of doing business in this climate and culture.

Oh, for the days when college football and boxing and horse racing was king, and all that was needed was a back page headline guaranteed to draw 50,000 people to a racetrack near you.

It would have read something like this: “Kelso Runs Today.”

* * *

Fout Doubles His Pleasure in New York Turf Writers' Cup

Trainer Doug Fout has virtually owned this Saratoga steeplechase meet. In the prep for today’s Grade 1 67th running of the New York Turf Writers’ Cup Handicap, the Paddy Smithwick Memorial, he finished one-two High Action and Dark Equation.

Today, Dark Equation, under second highweight at 152 pounds and Matthew McCarron, turned the tables on his stablemate to win the Turf Writers by a half length over the youthful four-year-old jumper Be Certain, who split the Fout duo by a neck. Fout saddled Hirapour to victory in the 2005 renewal.

Another nine lengths separated High Action from the remainder of the nine-horse field while, remarkably, after 19 furlongs, three-quarters of a length separated the first three finishers after two and three-eighths miles and 10 fences.

Beverly Steinman, a founding member of the National Steeplechase and Association, owns the six-year-old Pennsylvania-bred, who will race back in the Lonesome Glory at Belmont Park next. The victory concluded a pretty good seven hours for jumpers and aspiring vice-presidents from the Keystone State.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Keeping Their Eye On the Prize

Saratoga Springs, NY, August 27, 2008--Perception is reality the pop saying goes. But sometimes it’s just perception. It’s a lot like statistics that way; reality is in the eye of the truth seeker.

I’ve been here the entire meet. And while I might have felt that Alan Garcia was having a good meet, I didn’t realize he was having a great one. He had that great Travers day, that five-bagger. The young man made us take notice.

I’m sure I wouldn’t have guessed he’d be tied for leading rider going into Saratoga’s sixth and final week. But there he was, right on top with Johnny Velazquez, who’s done this kind of thing before, and they’re both tied for first with 30 wins apiece. We’ll see what today brings.

Then there’s perception again. I would have sworn Johnny was leading Saratoga rider more than thrice. But there it was, in the NYRA media guide, the years 1998, 2003, 2004.

Must have confused him with his main client, Todd Pletcher, who led all Saratoga trainers in 2002 through 2006, and in 1998, too.

For me, the perception was Johnny V. was in the lead because he’s been riding in top form again. Almost every time I’ve looked out the press box window, he was positioned in the sweet spot of every race, his timing and judgment, temporarily lost after a spill, finally was back.

Velazquez is proof races can be won before reaching the finish line. Maybe it’s my harness racing roots of four decades ago. But nothing excites more (cashing tickets notwithstanding) than watching races won by riders with well-timed middle moves. Ironically, we would see one later today.

Four winners behind Garcia and Velazquez, in third, is Edgar Prado. I’m sorry but since Edgar was inducted in the Hall of Fame, his riding form has been uncharacteristically spotty.

Normally artfully positioned, able to get through inside everyone, as if the Bailey Rail Pass had been passed on to him as the room’s new elder statesman, Prado has been out of position in many races. How he could have ridden 26 winners at this meet is still beyond my comprehension. Kudos agent Bob Frieze.

Ramon Dominguez, one winner behind Prado and fourth overall as Saratoga turns for home, had two winners in the first two weeks! Suddenly it’s 25 and counting, closing day minus six.

Cornelio Velasquez and Eibar Coa, fifth and sixth, with 23 and 22 winners, respectively, have been enigmatic.

In Velasquez’s defense, he doesn’t seem to be getting the same quality rides as last year, when he finished a win ahead of Kent Desormeaux in a battle that went down to the final day.

Coa has been a little less defensible. On some days he’s been Manuel Ycaza incarnate, right down to the rough-housing. But in too many other spots he’s gotten lost, lamentably and often at a short price. Coincidence, no doubt.

On the trainer’s side, two Wayne Lukas protégés, Todd Pletcher and Kiaran McLaughlin, are tied at 13. The perception seems right here. Todd’s doing it more with a lot of ammunition while Kiaran seems to have the tad better stock. And McLaughlin warns that he has several more live horses where those winners came from.

Rick Dutrow’s not even here so it’s a little surprising he’s third with 11. He’s been spending most of his time at Aqueduct, preparing Big Brown, and at Monmouth, where he has 40 stalls. That’s when he’s not looking for a patch of grass on the Belt Parkway to work the big horse. NYRA failed to give him permission to use the Aqueduct turf course for his next start at Monmouth Park.

But his game is always the same: Move them up, then run’em where they belong.

After that comes Gary Contessa, fourth with nine victories. That’s a remarkable number; feels to me like he hasn’t even shipped. Perception is funny like that.

Beyond that, five trainers are tied for fifth with eight winners: Steve Asmussen (seems like he had more); Anthony Dutrow (feels like he’s batting .800); Barclay Tagg (did he go undefeated for a couple of weeks?); Bobby Frankel (eight, really?) and Linda Rice (quick, name one that didn’t come in a turf sprint).

And so it should be a fun final week, especially at the top. Likely that will make for a few good wagering opportunities, too.

* * *

First Race: The $70,000 Happy Intellectual, an overnight hurdle stakes, went to Spy in the Sky over Swagger Stick in a finish that wasn’t quite the Travers, but it wasn’t bad either. Swagger Stick, with a change-of-pace effort that saw him setting it instead of rallying from off of it, was leading and going strongly over the final hedge. Meanwhile, Spy in the Sky was rallying like some up-and-over Forego, a wide, sweeping run that brought him into contention approaching the final fence. Once both landed safely, they ding-donged it to the finish with Spy in the Sky prevailing by the drop of his head right at the line. Good show.

Second Race: Thought we were fortunate when horse to watch Frosty Diamond (see Diary dated Aug. 6) had his chances enhanced when main rival That’s A Good Thing stumbled badly at the start. But the favorite recovered and wore down Frosty from the center of the track. It was a good effort by the runnerup who showed improved early speed and finishing willingly while racing greenly over the Spa track last out. Deserves another chance with similar; bet back.

Just before running of the third, learned that Benny The Bull, a chip discovered in his right ankle, will miss the Forego here this weekend and has been retired. A winner of five straight going back to last fall, the Breeders’ Cup Sprint has lost a major attraction. Too bad; Benny was fun, a very cool horse.

As an aside, just love stretch-running sprinters. My favorite was a great horse, and great horses are supposed to do anything, including winning a sprint from anywhere on the track. At that, the great Turkoman was one of the best.

Third Race: Calling My Colors has set the pace and tired in her last four appearances but held on better in her recent Spa debut. Well, she made it all the way in here, following all through the stretch by Ofcr. Sheila T Rex, but never close enough to matter. The group didn’t exactly get the old blood boiling. H. Morgan Tesher off the duck with his eighth Spa starter as Garcia goes one up on Velazquez to begin the week.

Fourth Race: Ramon Dominguez put dropdown Indian Hawke on the lead, repulsed pace pressure throughout. And held gamely to withstand late runs from both Blackfoot Trail and Golden Man, who closed as a team late. The Hawke likes it here, having won at Saratoga last season, only this time for David Jacobson, who recorded his first of the meet after eight previous tries.

Fifth Race: Surprising payoff (3-1) on debuting Majestic Blue for McLaughlin/Garcia team, showing workout accomplished presumably in company with Regal Ransom, an impressive winner at Spa on Monday. First-timer Daimon’s Glory did all the work but settled for place after setting hot pace and knocked off stride approaching headstretch when Johnny attempted to get through on the fence with Cabaret Cowboy, literally running right into him. Review of replay appeared to show that Velazquez lacked room, a rare miscue. Runnerup won’t be a maiden for long; note.

Sixth Race: McLaughlin/Garcia, again. Stream of Gold finished like an absolute wild horse from the center of the course to win this, but a Grade 2 winner three starts back is supposed to do just that with the help of a pacesetting stablemate providing, of course, there are no visible holes. But he seemed to come back very well and now he’s the property of Ken Ramsey, trainer Michael Maker haltering him for $60,000. Moonshine Hall finished very well late for place after getting through nicely on the turn. Moon Ala Mode had his troubles on the first turn and got through between horses with a resolute move on the second turn; could have had an easier time of it; note.

Seventh Race: Strange how things go. We talked early about how middle moves when skillfully executed win races. That’s exactly what Desormeaux did aboard Our Golden Dream. Sensing the glacial pace, he made a four-wide sweep soon after entering the backstretch to take a clear lead, rated the favorite along, then pulled the rug on the field leaving the sixteenth pole, winning as much the best. That’s how you can negotiate a final sixteenth of a mile in :05.99, which is moving right along; likely repeater… Judge Margaret held willingly for place and Zipolina finished well from the center of the course for third. Lilly of Paradise was checked sharply entering the first turn and was eliminated from serious contention; note.

The Mollie Wilmot (overnight) Stakes: In her last race at Saratoga, a secondary allowances for state-breds, the competition allowed Cagey Girl to get an easy half-mile in :49.02. Given today’s class rise, naturally her competitors allowed her to get away even softer, a half in :49.29. No wonder, after three-quarters in 1:34.34. She was able to scamper home a final quarter mile in :22.65. That’s all she wrote. Good for trainer David Duggan, his sixth winner of the meet, and for Mike Luzzi, able to steal two Saratoga turf races with the four-year-old Crowd Pleaser filly. Bad for everyone else.

Ninth Race: Just when I was thinking that Jean-Luc Samyn was, like me, closer to the end than the beginning, he comes up with a danger defying ride on Yield Bogey, winning despite getting the squeeze in a rough-house event. There’s no blame for it. Horses going fast in a short space, 5-½ furlongs, getting tired, and youthful, Yield Bogey took the hit--think he might even tried to savage the rival pinning him from the outside--broke through, opened less than a length, then crossed the line with something in reserve under brilliant handling. Pat Kelly got him ready off works and Samyn stayed with him the whole way. It was good to see.

Tenth Race: Unflagging broke his maiden as a 4-year-old gelding wearing two aluminum pad, had them removed, went to the front, and improved his position under clever handling from Channing Hill for George Weaver, who’s had a career in the last three months. Piazza Di Spagna finished strongly too late for place, his usual good effort, and will get them next time under similar conditions; bet back.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

ESPN Travers Telecast Highlghts Foibles of Racing Coverage on TV

Saratoga Springs, NY, August 26, 2008--Shame on the Entertainment and Sports Network. You simply cannot report to a national television audience--many of them casual sports fans--who won a race as close as Saturday’s Travers Stakes without being certain.

Somewhere, the late, great Pete Axthelm is smiling. “Ax” was part of a national broadcast of the inaugural running of the Arlington Million. Somewhere, his British colleague, Brough Scott, who called The Bart the winner, is not.

Scott waxed poetic about how The Bart pulled off the stunning upset of John Henry for what seemed like an eternity. It wasn’t until the network returned from a commercial break--almost 10 minutes had elapsed--before the results were given correctly: John Henry, by a nose.

As Tom Durkin instructed Saturday’s live audience at Saratoga Race Course, the Travers finish was just “too close to call.”

Certainly, Jerry Bailey should have known better; Joe Tessitore perhaps not so much, although he is a Capital District native. Had Randy Moss been on the set, instead of being piped in via remote as he prepared for Sunday’s Pacific Classic at Del Mar, this embarrassment likely would have been avoided.

But it’s not really about embarrassment as it’s about serving your audience. Reporting that Mambo In Seattle defeated Colonel John based on jockey Robby Albarado brandishing his whip in premature celebration does a disservice to viewers.

It might be useful for ESPN to remember that Hank Goldberg isn’t the only one who bets his money. And calling a winner of the tightest photo seen this side of John Henry and The Bart doesn’t qualify as a scoop, either. What was the hurry?

It wasn’t even good television. Would it not have been preferable to go to a commercial break and tease the audience with the suspenseful result? Wouldn’t the tightness of the actual photograph made for more dramatic--and accurate--viewing?

At first blush, I thought Mambo In Seattle had won the photo. But when I saw the slow motion replay, I wasn’t sure. When I saw the replay for a second time, I was even more confused; thought it might have been a dead heat.

Damnedest thing, too. I have yet to meet a single person who called the photo correctly, and I know of only one who was on the right side of the picture.

Within a span of about 10 feet, Mambo In Seattle had the race won; five feet before and after the wire. But the race was precisely a mile and a quarter, not a mile and a quarter plus or minus an inch. Upon inspection of the photo, the margin seemed shorter than the length of an equine nose. A millimeter closer and it would have been a tie.

Photo finish technician Don Morehouse said it was the closest finish he had seen in a stakes race since Meadow Star beat Lite Light by the identical margin in the 1991 Mother Goose Stakes.

Ironically, Corey Nakatani, like Albarado, was on the outside and, like Albarado, also thought he won aboard Lite Light. But it was Bailey and Meadow Star who prevailed in a photo that took six minutes to develop

One question remains: Why tick off half the bettors of the two horses involved in one of the most dramatic finishes in Travers history? It leaves the losers with a bad taste for the game? Isn’t racing and its fans having a hard enough time as it is these days?

Since I was at the event, I had no idea what was transpiring on television. But I received a call from a friend in Springfield, Massachusetts minutes after the race. He was incensed. He had the exacta and trifecta both ways, so he won, but with greater amounts using Mambo In Seattle on top.

Later, I received e-mail confirmation from a loyal HRI reader who not only was angered by ESPN’s Travers coverage, but who wrote to me, and to the network, following ESPN’s coverage of the 2007 Breeders’ Cup.

The following is reprinted here. It’s the opinion of a successful, retired businessman who is a serious student of handicapping and plays the races on a daily basis. [Some of his comments were edited for clarity of presentation, and subsequently approved by the author]. To wit:

“1. I never saw (to this moment… Sunday afternoon) on BrisBet, TVG online, TVG (TV), The BloodHorse, BrisNET, DRF, Equibase, Monmouth website, or ESPN, the Will- Pays for the Two-Day Daily Doubles. That does not speak well for how the bettor was being treated.

“2. Nor will pays between races? Not from Monmouth, or on the taken-over-by-Stronach-people BrisBet, nary a one. TVG online had a few but not timely. Again, disadvantage bettor.

“3. ESPN coverage (spare me next year, please).

a/ Better this year. A relative term... up from horrid in 2006 to awful in 2007.

b/ Inane conversations at an NFL Today-style crescent table among silly people who may never reach adulthood (especially Kenny M. who should have no role in any program that involves thoroughbred racing...he is an embarrassment).

c/ Not once was the final order of finish provided verbally at the race’s conclusion by the commentators (including Jerry Bailey, who should know better).

d/ The order of finish on screen (after a TV commercial break) was flashed long enough to catch barely a glimpse.

e/ Post Parades. Has ESPN ever heard of them? They do exist for races other than the Classic. Maybe someone should clue them in.

f/ I don't care a wit about loudmouth's $50 win ticket and his rolling bankroll and where he plans having dinner.

g/ Is ESPN and, for that matter, the NTRA, pleased with ESPN's belabored emphasis on which owners/connections are in what jail or court of law?...not to mention in a ‘jail that does not provide ESPN.’ And the interview moments before the horses were entering the gate that belabored the matter of legal ownership...ugly. Were I the owner I'd have ignored the question and the interviewer.

h/ Was Caton Bredar banned from approaching the winning jockey after each race? Or is the assumption that everyone wants to focus on the loser?

i/ For that matter, these pony riding paparazzi are a bad idea anyway....interviewing a jockey while proceeding from the post parade to warm-up/gate? That's nuts. Again, were I the owner, the final instruction via the trainer to the jockey would be avoid the pony paparazzi [pre-race].

j/ And, oh yes, a minute or two before they enter the gate I really want to see a close up of Todd Pletcher looking through binoculars rather than see the horses as they may or may not be acting up entering the gate.

k/ Take the Breeders' Cup away from ESPN. Even my 97-year-old mother-in-law called us between races to complain about ESPN.

l/ Annoying coverage. And I was home! cozy, dry and winning...gotta run, the two-day daily double will pays might be available now.”

[Second e-mail] “Oh, yes. The ESPN TV camera persons who descended upon Lawyer Ron in his stall shortly before the Classic... what a fool-hearty move...where was security, as we see, say, at Keeneland, or CD, before the running of a graded stakes?

“At least the two handlers for Lawyer Ron were not one iota shy about shooing away these misguided TV camera people...imagine if he had reared up and injured himself in the stall? Then ESPN would have had a story!

“Thoroughbred people should be in charge of Racing Day's Biggest Event, not alleged ‘sportscasters’ and their ill-informed producers...

For the sake of the sport, and its expansion, The NTRA should demand more.”

[Sent Oct. 29, 2007] “Re: constructive criticism, and its likely rejection by ESPN. Yup, it’s really easy to ‘criticize/knit-pick’ on the details surrounding such a massive production--nibbling around the edges they might say. But when it comes to telecasting the Breeders Cup to a new audience of prospective fans, as well as to existing fans, is there anything more basic than:

1/ Showing the horses before the race?
2/ Telling the viewing audience the results upon the conclusion of the race?

If ESPN cannot figure that out in two attempts, they should be precluded from covering the event again.”

Written by John Pricci

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