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 HorseRaceInsider.com.
 

Saturday, August 30, 2008


This Woodward Is No Walkover


Saratoga Springs, NY, August 29, 2008--In the run-up to Saturday’s Woodward Stakes, some time between the Keys to the City and Jim and Michelle’s nuptials in the Saratoga winners’ circle, there was time to study the tale of the tape. I confess that I love these things. To wit:

Curlin’s value as a potential stud is placed in the $50 to $60-million range.

Curlin’s current earnings stand at $9,496,800, American.

His purchase price at the Keeneland September 2005 sales, ankle chip and all, was a mere $57,000.

A big boy, he weighs over 1,200 pounds.

The highest impost he’s ever carried, in the Jaguar Trophy at Nad el Sheba, the prep for the Dubai World Cup, was 132 pounds.

He’s won his races by an aggregate 47-½ lengths.

Curlin’s approximate speed leaving the starting gate is 42 mph.

The length of his stride is estimated at more than 26 feet. (thought it would have been more).

Curlin eats 24 quarts of grain daily.

His height is 16-plus hands [1 hand equals 4 inches] (he seems taller).

Curlin has raced 15 7/8ths miles in 13 career starts.

He’s won nine races lifetime, five Grade 1.

Finally, he has two white stockings on his hind legs and is the world’s #1 rated thoroughbred, with a Timeform rating of 134 pounds. A Grade 1 rating starts at 115 pounds.

But there’s another number, his Equiform performance figures, that present a numerical picture of his chances to win the Woodward.
To no one’s surprise, he is a most deserving favorite. To the surprise of many, the Woodward is far from a walkover. Thus far, Spectacular Bid he‘s not.

On paper, which is as far away from a racetrack as any handicapper can get, there are two serious entrants that merit consideration as potential Woodward winners; the speedy Wanderin Boy, and the late developing four-year-old winner of the Metropolitan Handicap, Divine Park.

As a matter of course before making a wager, I earmark the three highest Equiform final-time figures in every race in an attempt to assess a horse’s basic aptitude for speed. Then I consider three subsets:

I pay particular attention to top figures that cluster--showing an ability to perform at an optimal level for a sustained period; a horse’s bounce-ability, or lack thereof. A bounce in presidential politics is good, but not on the racetrack.

If one of the three top figures tower over the other two, however, that one likely is the aberration and not the truest measure of dependable speed/ability.

Next I emphasize ability at the distance and at different surfaces. Obviously, dirt is different from grass is different than synthetics is different than mud is different from soft, etc., etc.

A horse’s ability to run his best figures over a particular distance and/or racetrack is more significant than wins and losses. If those factors happen to combine, so much the better.

The handicapping process doesn’t stop there, of course. Whether the measure is performance figures, form-cycle pattern analysis or other traditional Handicapping 101 factors--lone speed, human connections, statistical tendencies, pedigrees, etc., handicappers need to use the entire playbook.

For sure, it’s a lot more stimulating fun than watching wheels on a machine whirl until they stop whirling. But I digress.

So, will Curlin join the pantheon of Woodward winners such as Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Buckpasser, and subsequently enter the pantheon across Union Avenue from the race course?

Given the state of the modern game, and despite Jess Jackson’s sportsmanship, Curlin is unlikely to join the ranks of Forego, Kelso or Cigar, multiple Woodward winners all. But first he must win Saturday’s 55th running of the event. Consider the three logical Woodward choices, in inverted odds order:

Despite advancing age, Wanderin Boy (8-1) hasn’t lost many steps. Last year at 6, he earned a 79-½ finishing second to subsequent Woodward winner Lawyer Ron in the Whitney. At 5, he earned figures of 80 (Pimlico), 80-¼ (Keeneland) and 80-¾ (also Keeneland, also on dirt), at distances of 9.5 furlongs, 9, and 8.5 furlongs.

Owned by breeder Arthur Hancock, Wanderin Boy earned a 79-¾, with a four-furlong pace figure of 80, winning a Saratoga 7-furlong allowances July 28. It seems counter-intuitive but it’s harder to earn higher sprint figures than distance numbers because sprinters don’t have a chance to back down the pace and save energy, essentially running full throttle all the way and thus decelerating at a faster rate.

Given that Wanderin Boy’s pace and sprint figures were compressed in his recent sprint, the likelihood of a bounce is minimized. But these are better horses and class--especially at the higher levels--still matters.

Divine Park (3-1) has performance figures that are not as compelling until you look a little deeper. He has matured at 4 and his improving figures reflect that development. Prior to running a lifetime best in the Westchester Mile, a 79, he earned a 76-¾ on March 28, his best figure to that point. Significantly, that was his two-turn debut. His pedigree should get him at least 9 furlongs.

While his Met Mile figure of 76-¼ was a regression, his new pace top of 83 was key. The new pace top is a positive pattern, the harbinger of a forward move. There‘s another way to look at it, too. From a traditional perspective, if you run fast early, you don’t run fast late.

In short, there’s a reasonable expectation that Divine Park will earn a new lifetime best figure, an 80, which puts him right in the middle of the Woodward ballgame. And is there a hotter Saratoga tandem than Kiaran McLaughlin and Alan Garcia? OK, then, Linda Rice and Alan Garcia.

Curlin (3-5), as stated, is a deserving favorite. He’s earned performance figures as high as 83-½ and 81-¾. He earned a 79-¾ winning last year’s Jockey Club and a 79-¼ winning this year’s Stephen Foster. His 81-¾ came in the Preakness at 9.5 furlongs; his 83-½ in the sloppy track Breeders’ Cup Classic at 10 furlongs.

Making the inference, then, Curlin is at his best going farther than 9 furlongs, and over a wet track. Admittedly, this is known as building a case. But the Woodward is, first and foremost, a horse race. And Saratoga is, it has been mentioned, the Graveyard of Favorites. May all the horses have a safe trip, and may the best horse win.

Written by John Pricci

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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 http://www.nyra.com/Curlin/CurlinCorner.htm.

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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