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.
 

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 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvChzy5J-v4&feature=related.

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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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 Furniture.com 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 Furniture.com 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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