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 23, 2008

Mid-Summer Vindication for Harty and Colonel John

Saratoga Springs, NY, August 23, 2008--Travers morning dawned clear and crisp: Track fast, turf firm, rails down on both courses. The scene was set for a challenging day of sport and the most competitive Travers Stakes in decades.

And it was exactly a decade ago in the 1998 Belmont Stakes and Eoin Harty, trainer of Travers 139 winner Colonel John in the closest finish in a season of close Saratoga finishes, was experiencing déjà vu, and it wasn’t the kind of flashback he welcomed.

“By no means did I think we won,” Harty said of his colt’s Travers victory over Mambo In Seattle. “I had a flashback to Real Quiet and Victory Gallop.”

On that occasion Harty was an assistant trainer to Bob Baffert, himself seeking to make history with Real Quiet, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. And coming into the Belmont stretch, that’s precisely how it looked as Real Quiet opened a four length lead.

But Victory Gallop, whose move could not have been timed any better by Gary Stevens, stormed up the fence, tipped around Real Quiet leaving the sixteenth pole and nailed the would-be Triple Crown champion by a nose the instant the finish line was reached by both horses.

Yesterday was different, but not only because Harty was on the right side of the Travers photo. In the jump before and after the finish line, Mambo In Seattle’s late surge propelled the colt and partner Robby Albarado to the lead, the jockey brandishing his whip in premature celebration.

But at the line it was Colonel John’s nose that proved more photogenic. The racing phrase “in time” never was so apt.
It was also exactly a decade ago when the closest Travers finish until yesterday’s was produced; Coronado’s Quest, ironically, beating Victory Gallop by the same margin Victory Gallop had beaten Real Quiet two months earlier.

For trainer Neil Howard, it was his second consecutive agonizing loss in this Derby of Mid-Summer. Last year, his upstart Grasshopper ran Derby and Preakness hero Street Sense to a close finish, a narrow half-length separating the two following a punishing stretch-long duel.

The first two finishers ran away from 10 other three-year-olds in a moderately run roughly contested Travers in which the winner had to cross over heels to secure room, effectively eliminating Jim Dandy winner Macho Again, causing him to clip heels and nearly falling just as he was about to mount a challenge.

While this was happening, Mambo In Seattle raced in the clear but at a considerable loss of ground. Third finisher Pyro had a relatively good trip despite his wide draw, weaving his way between horses for the drive while well backed fourth finisher Harlem Rocker was also forced to race very wide, especially on the final bend.

Meanwhile, for Santa Anita Derby-winning Colonel John, it was vindication for his Kentucky Derby defeat, his only previous dirt start in which he suffered through an agonizing early trip. This job done, the Winstar colt will use either the Super Derby or Goodwood as a bridge to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, powered by Dodge, or Harty said he could simply train him up to the race.

Either way, Harty must be relieved to have former trainer Elliot Walden on his side. Walden, who trained Victory Gallop for Prestonwood Farm in 1998, now is a bloodstock consultant and adviser to the Winstar group headed by Bill Casner.

“You have to take these races philosophically, said Casner when asked about Colonel John’s tough trip in the Kentucky Derby. “But horses are like people; they have to overcome adversity. Today, that’s what he did at the head of the lane.”

* * *

Grade 3 Victory Ride Stakes: Carryover! First Slambino, now Porte Bonheur? Not the she was all that implausible, but with the $1 million Pick Four guaranteed pool and the Pick Six, Indyanne, 4-for-4 lifetime by an aggregate 32-½ lengths was a “single” on a preponderance of tickets, especially with the sequence filled with competitive races. The favorite lost it at the start, breaking tardily, rushed up into a duel with J Z Warrior, then tiring inside the final sixteenth. Porte Bonheur, a sharp winner here earlier at the meet, was confidently handled by long-hold Ramon Dominguez, who virtually measured off the win for trainer David Duggan, in the midst of having a career meet. Nice job, one and all, including the filly, of course.

Grade 2 Bernard Baruch Handicap: And that would be three for Team McLaughlin/Garcia, Garcia‘s fourth on the day. The pace was fairly pedestrian going to the half, then they stepped it up. The third quarter went in :23.50, Thorn Song setting the pace under mile pressure from War Monger, who chased the pace throughout. Into the lane, Thorn Song was weakening, War Monger surged, but just when it appeared Bill Mott was get his third win of the meet, here came Shakis with giant strides. Until yesterday, he was not the same horse we saw last year. But he’s back for sure. He gathered momentum as the pace continued to heat, another :23.59, but the winner saved his best for last, roaring home in a final eighth of :11.51, as he stopped the timer in 1:46.78. Operation Red Dawn saved showed over the tiring Thorn Song. Todd Pletcher’s Distorted Reality never threatened in a high disappointing effort after sitting with good position throughout.

Grade 1 NetJets King’s Bishop Stakes: And Visionaire makes FIVE for Alan Garcia! Just like he did in Visionaire’s prep earlier at the meet, he dawdled in last behind a slow pace, angled seven wide into the stretch, and exploded a furlong out, blowing by a game Desert Key, who raced right up on the pace throughout. Ground loss cost both favorite J Be K and Lantana Mob. Visionaire, on the Triple Crown trail earlier this year, has found his niche sprinting, turning back to seven furlongs the way Hard Spun did last season. It was a wise choice made by Barry Irwin and the rest of the Team Valor connections; terrific training job turned in by Michael Matz. Note, however, the time of 1:21.94 was .04 slower than Aquino in the opener.

* * *

First Race: When he debuted stateside here at the dawn of this meet, Aquino ran a stakes class figure finishing second in a non-winners of 3 lifetime. If he could repeat that effort, the competition would be running for second money. He did, and they did. After being shadowed throughout in moderate fractions, he kicked on to record his third quarter in :23.24 and a final eighth mile in :11.90 to win the opener in an eye popping 1:21.90 for Kiaran McLaughlin and Alan Garcia. This looks like a serious race horse; note… West Express finished well up the fence for place and figures to go well next out.

Second Race: International good thing Florentino spotted the leader about a dozen lengths out of the gate, gained full momentum approaching the quarter pole and was nearly fourth, finishing in mid-pack; appears to have ability and deserves a chance to make amends; follow… Favorite Spaniard set strong pace, shook clear into stretch but stopped a furlong later; possible money burner…? Gone Astray finished strongly, Shug McGaughey’s third juvenile winner of the meet. Runnerup Nowhere To Hide finished strongly too late for Nick Zito; won’t be a maiden for long.

Third Race: Tiz It can’t catch a break. Speedster was pressed throughout fractions of :22.16 and :44.73--going seven eighths--and was no match for debuting Storm Play, a scopey first starter for Jimmy Jerkens debuting without Lasix, a bit unusual these days; this colt might have a future, follow progress. But if Tiz It ever meets a group looking early speed…

Fourth Race: Roughhouse inner-turf event went to Missinglisalewis beneath Alan Garcia, his the team avoiding all the stretch crowding by changing down the center of the course to win going away. The one to follow, however, is Triple Bogey Blues, who trailed throughout, Mike Luzzi opting to remain inside--his only chance to win if he got through inside, but he didn’t, blocked virtually throughout. He’ll be a big price with similar next time out; bet back.

Fifth Race: Edgar Prado looking more like himself on Travers day, getting through inside from post 10 on Mellon turf and drawing clear late. Uncle Indy finished well late between horses while in close quarters, Tizzy staying on gamely for place.

Sixth Race: Sometimes the game is more about connections than the horses. Are you listening Kiaran McLaughlin and Alan Garcia? The team came back to double up here with Big Stick, Garcia’s third overall, Big Stick now a winner of three straight despite the class and distance rise. Garcia took advantage of his inside draw and his horse’s kick to get home first over the stubborn Hammock, a gritty third after Baletti roared home very late to nail the place. Consider both seriously when they race back; make note.

Seventh Race: FOURTEEN-THIRTEEN-EIGHT-THREE: ONE MILLION, FIVE-HUNDRED TWENTY-FOUR THOUSAND, ONE HUNDFRED EIGHTY EIGHT DOLLARS!!!!!!!!!!!. Slambino, indeed! The superfecta payoff combining 88-1, 20-1 and 37-1 shots was so large, the $2 superfecta price had to be posted in a $1 denomination; the software not programmed to include seven-digit payoffs… Please don’t ask if it was a record, or to explain exactly how Slambino, Blazing Dynamo, Key Event and Holiday Trip finished in that order. Also don’t ask to explain Bill Mott’s abysmal meet. Prussian beat one horse at even money, and he’ll never get a better pace setup than he had here. Kudos to the two Dime Super winners. A result like this might never happen again.

Twelfth Race: Ramon Dominguez timed Iron Gate’s late rally perfectly, collaring and passing favorite Burnished Copper in the final strides. But I need to go back and study the replay of one of the also-rans, Rockon Rockoff. At first glance, I didn’t care for the rider’s effort. Check it out for yourself.

Written by John Pricci

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Time to Play Name That Race

Saratoga Springs, NY, August 22,2008--Here’s another reason why Saturday’s Travers is a better race on paper than this year’s Kentucky Derby: The Travers Stakes Presented by Shadwell Farm just sounds better than the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum Brands!

Can’t help it. I came from the old newspaper school that says if you want publicity , you have to pay for it.

The idea of sponsoring races started with the Jim Beam Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park. Actually, it was the brain-child of HorseRaceInsider staffer Vic Zast when he worked the other side of the street, before he went legit.

For some reason, no one was offended by what was called the Jim Beam Spiral Stakes. In fact, it wasn’t long before people just started calling it the Jim Beam. That was OK. The name came trippingly off the tongue.

Later, it morphed into the Gallery Spiral Stakes. Now there’s a mouthful. The owner of the home furnishings operation, James McIngvale, apparently discovered race horses and the Internet simultaneously, so he decided to sponsor what was developing into a viable Kentucky Derby prep race.

I don’t think McIngvale got too much bang for his buck, though. No one ever referred to it in polite company as the Gallery and, as far as I know, he never sponsored a race named after his business alter ego, the Mattress Mack. If truth be told, however, it was rumored at the time that Mattress Mack was a large contributor to Eliot Spitzer’s gubernatorial campaign.
Too bad there never was a Mattress Mack Stakes. It would have to have been an added money event, of course. “Say, who do you like in the Mattress Mack, the overlay or the underlay?”

Needless to say, the “furniture race,” as it was known in the press box, wasn’t around for very long.

Remember the Marlboro Cup? For those who don’t, Triple Crown winner Secretariat won the inaugural over his Kentucky Derby winning stablemate, Riva Ridge, as well as the Pride of the West, Cougar II; Onion, who upset Secretariat at Saratoga, and Key to the Mint, voted three-year-old champion over Derby-winning Riva Ridge the previous year, and another Left Coaster, Kennedy Road.

Even over that year’s souped up Belmont Park, a mile and an eighth in 1:45 2/5 is really truckin’. That was Secretariat.

Sponsorship was in its infancy then and many newspapers forbad the use of the term Marlboro Cup, ordering their turf writers refer to it as the Cup Invitational. It was also around a time that cigarette advertising was first banned on television.

Sports editors believed then that event sponsorship was sullying the image of sports. They resented doling out free plugs, too. The Louisville Courier Journal called the race the “M-Cup.”

The following decade, of course, the sullying of the image of sports was left to the professionals, the athletes themselves.

Since I’m a smoker--no e-mails, please--I rather enjoyed the moment when, two years later, after Wajima won the third Marlboro Cup for trainer Steve DiMauro, owner Zenya Yoshida, boasting a Cheshire grin, held up a pack of Marlboros as his interview was concluding, pointing to the red and white cigarette box, leaving CBS directors yelling at their production people: “Wipe…wipe!”

In the main, no one had major problems calling it the Marlboro. But in 1984, racing welcomed the inaugural Breeders’ Cup. When only five horses were entered in the following year’s Marlboro, the Philip Morris company withdrew their sponsorship in 1985.

Champagne manufacturers stepped up and Moet sponsored the Champagne Stakes, a Grade 1 for two-year-olds in the fall at Belmont Park. It was popular with the media, especially since the Moet people distributed cool green wind-breakers--I still have mine. And they also handed out splits of the bubbly in the press box.

For some reason, I never returned the favor. I felt that a sponsorship title before the name of an historical event somehow cheapened it. It was a “feel” thing, and it just didn’t feel right. But I showed support by wearing my Moet Champagne wind-breaker into the paddock for the race.

Not all sponsorship names are created equal. You’d never have--at least I think we’ll never have--title sponsorship of races such as the Derby or Travers. Sponsorship of the Kentucky Derby and Travers should always be…Presented by (Your Sponsor’s Here).

The Breeders’ Cup folks obviously don’t feel the same way. Probably because it’s costing their title sponsors a small fortune. But they, too, left the big one alone. It’s the “Breeders’ Cup Classic Powered by Dodge.” I’m quite sure I never referenced the sponsor. Nothing against Dodge. It’s just that names have to scan, and that one hurts my ears.

But now there’s the TVG Breeders’ Cup Sprint (but you can‘t bet on it in certain jurisdictions); the Emirates Airlines Breeders’ Cup Turf (which followed the John Deere Breeders‘ Cup Turf--now that‘s good synergy); the VO5 Filly & Mare Turf (perfect); the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (not bad); the NetJets Breeders’ Cup Mile (?) and the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (thought fillies had to be at least 21?).

You can see why I have problems with all this. So have the sponsors. The Darley Test Stakes is no more. The Woodford Reserve Turf Classic started out as the Early Times Turf Classic. Remember the Budweiser Million? Had no problem with that one--another scan thing. Besides, Budweiser sponsored everything back in the day; now they don’t even sponsor their owns selves.

How about the Visa Triple Crown? They were smart. They got a lot of mileage out of it, because of the $5 million bonus, which they never had to pay!

In addition to Saturday’s Travers Presented by Shadwell Farm--their signage is everywhere at Saratoga Race Course including on the starting gate, a sign that dwarfs the one that says “Saratoga”--there’s the NetJets King’s Bishop, which owns major pieces of the rail on the main track, just before the finish line, flying passed the Heineken signs inside the final sixteenth.

I’ve decided to get over myself and adjusted my sensibilities’ radar. Racing needs all the help it can get right now. So I pledge, from this point forward, that my first reference to a race will include the title sponsor.

But a word to the underwriters. If you want to insure the publicity you seek, you’ll have a much better shot if the title scanned nicely, or the name was cool. I’m still having major problems with the Yum Brands thing.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, August 22, 2008

And the Winner of Travers 139 Is…

Saratoga Springs, NY, August 21, 2008--No Big Brown? No problem.

Travers 139, a.k.a. The Travers Stakes Presented by Shadwell Farm, a.k.a. the Mid-Summer Derby, has the makings of the best three-year-old race run this year. Why?

Because at least a half-dozen of the dozen entered can win and none of them could be categorized as a surprise. Arguably, picking the post time favorite is as difficult as projecting a winner.

As the “reputation horse” in a national event, Pyro is the most likely to close the slight choice of the wagering public. But post position 11 could mitigate that thinking.

Saturday’s renewal of the Travers is the Kentucky Derby without Big Brown and a 20-horse field.

The ultimate outcome likely will produce a fair, hard earned verdict, no matter which three-year-old wins this. Which horse that will be is anyone’s best guess.

Here, then, a handicapper’s look at Travers 139, listed in post order, with early line odds in parentheses:
1--Tale of Ekati (20-1). At Wednesday’s Travers post draw, trainer Barclay Tagg said he thought that Edgar Prado moved his horse too soon in the ultimate Travers prep race, the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes on July 27. Tagg was neither knocking the rider nor making excuses, just giving a fair assessment of the circumstances. The Wood Memorial (Grade 1) winner also appeared short of condition, but has done very well in his training since the race. He runs inside, outside, wherever and whatever he needs to do. Trainer Tagg has been on an absolute tear the last two weeks. Very live longshot.

2--Colonel John (8-1). Winner of the G1 Santa Anita Derby, he lost his lone dirt start after being eliminated from contention early in his troubled-trip Kentucky Derby. Recycled, he returned in the Swaps (G2) where he finished second to Tres Borrachos. While trainer Eoin Harty admitted to some disappointment with the show finish, he conceded it was a bridge race to get him to Saratoga at tops. He has a big kick and stout pedigree. Garrett Gomez takes the re-ride and Harty, not one prone to hyperbole, said Wednesday that his horse has a “very, very good chance” on Saturday.

3--Da’ Tara (8-1). It’s been 27 days since the Jim Dandy and there’s still no good answer as to why Alan Garcia sacrificed his colt’s chances by engaging in the must suicidal of speed duels. The tactics made no sense, not to trainer Nick Zito or anyone else. Zito has a history of having horses rebound in big spots off horrendous efforts. If nothing else, the bizarre Jim Dandy will sharpen Da’ Tara’s speed for today’s longer test, the distance no problem for a (G1) Belmont Stakes winner. Da’ Tara had an extremely sharp recent :47.80 work at the Oklahoma training track and will improve. But he doesn’t figure to get loose on the lead the way he did at Belmont.

4--Tiz Big (30-1). Second after being used hard pace-dueling following a stumbled break in a nine-furlong “non-winners of 2 lifetime” six days ago, it’s hard to fathom how he’s supposed to win a Grade 1 the following weekend. But as Big Brown owner Michael said at Wednesday’s post draw: “I’ve learned never to second guess Allen Jerkens.” Cornelio Velasquez, in a battle for leading rider at the meet, takes the mount again and will probably race close to the lead. If the “Giant Killer” pulls this off, the Racing Hall of Fame ought to give him his own wing.

5--Macho Again (6-1). The Jim Dandy winner, surprising fourth choice of the linemaker, came to hand in the Derby Trial and used that sprint score to propel him to a place finish in Big Brown’s (G1) Preakness Stakes. Following a one-paced Belmont Stakes effort, he returned to win the Travers prep in subtle, eye-opening style, overcoming far-turn trouble, running down a sharp Tiz Now Tiz Then before holding last-run Pyro safe. He appeared to have reserve energy while crossing the finish line, an observation confirmed by Julien Leparoux, having an outstanding Saratoga stake meet. Thriving here, the Jim Dandy hero is peaking right now but picks up 11 pounds off his last race, at once, a significant but not impossible obstacle to overcome.

6--Cool Coal Man (15-1). The second member of the Zito trio, the G2 Fountain of Youth winner was most recently a willing third in Big Brown’s G1 Haskell Invitational. His Equiform performance figures have improved to the extent he can compete effectively at this level and indeed might be poised for another forward move. Mineshaft colt debuted in Saratoga last season, finishing fourth after a troubled beginning and subsequent wide trip, making his Spa form difficult to read. Reunites with leading rider Johnny Velazquez, who won with his own previous ride on the colt over the winter.

7--Amped (30-1). Zito, Part III. A deep closer, he finished third behind Mambo In Seattle over the track, his lone start at nine furlongs. Given his history of upsetting Grade 1 races, Zito has become a latter day Giant Killer. But we seriously doubt whether even the great Allen Jerkens could pull this off. It appears the colt will run all day but a superfecta finish would represent a major accomplishment in this spot.

8--Harlem Rocker (4-1). Undefeated in four dirt starts, his lone poor try came on Woodbine’s Polytrack surface in the Plate Trial, an effort that precluded participation in the storied Queens Plate. The G3 Withers Stakes winner rebounded returning to dirt to win Fort Erie’s Prince of Wales Stakes, second leg of the Canadian Triple Crown. Significantly, that victory came at a mile and three-sixteenths under 126 pounds, today‘s impost. His spring performance figures make him competitive with this group and with several months added maturity the Macho Uno colt could prove the “fastest” horse. No one knows how good this colt is, including trainer Todd Pletcher, who’s been anxiously awaiting this spot. Expect he’ll run very well.

9--Mambo in Seattle (5-1). The restricted Walton Stakes a key Travers prep? In this sophomore season, Big Brown notwithstanding, anything’s possible. Kin to A. P. Indy via his grand-dam, blue hen producer Weekend Surprise, he is seeking a fourth consecutive victory. He hails from connections--Neil Howard and Robby Albarado--that nearly upset mighty Street Sense in last year‘s renewal. After sweeping to command, he withstood a serious stretch challenge from talented late developer You And I Forever, passing the eyeball test with flying colors. He has continued to impress his trainer but he, too, must shoulder eight additional pounds while jumping several classes. Easier said than done.

10--Tres Borrachos (15-1). Following a third-place finish in the (G2) Arkansas Derby, his connections skipped the Derby and went to Baltimore, where the colt ran like “three drunks” following a badly troubled start, finishing unplaced. Following the Preakness, he returned to his California base and was second in the G3 Affirmed, a race that spring-boarded him to his Swaps victory over Colonel John. Well managed, the Ecton Park gelding once again will be seriously tested for class. His running style, post draw and Saturday’s distance are highly unlikely to help in this spot.

Photo by: Adam Coglianse
Pyro, Morning line favorite for the Travers
11--Pyro (7-2). Lukewarm favorite of this wide open event, Pyro has the company lines, accomplishments, and performance figures to warrant the linemaker’s respect. If Tale of Ekati’s move in the Jim Dandy was premature, Pyro’s was too late. His Jim Dandy had the look of a perfect Travers prep and his class lines are among the best in the field. But he’s been most effective vs. Grade 2 types and shorter distances have been more suitable. Consistently fastest on the Equiform scale, he’s a strong sentimental choice as his exercise rider Parker Buckley suffered a stroke while on horseback during training hours Monday, was thrown from his mount and, sadly, never recovered.

12--Court Vision (12-1). Among the upper echelon of 2007 juveniles nine months ago, he never made a great transition from 2 to 3. Third in the Fountain of Youth and Wood Memorial, he was run off his feet in a rough-house Derby try, winding up 13th of 20. Freshened, he prepped for the Virginia Derby in the G3 Colonial Turf Cup over soft ground he couldn’t handle, underscoring that assessment with an excellent effort, beaten a nose in the subsequent G2 10-furlongs showing a strong late. Ten furlongs on dirt is another matter, of course, but he’s doing well enough to give Big Brown’s owner hope that he’ll transition going from turf to dirt. The recent addition of blinkers and Kent Desormeaux have helped. From post 12, he’ll need luck--as will they all.

Most Probable Winner: Macho Again

Most Probable Longshot: Tale of Ekati

Most Promising: Harlem Rocker

Most Probable Money Finisher: Pyro

Written by John Pricci

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