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

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Paradise Lost

Saratoga Springs, NY--September 2, 2007

Dear Diary,

It's the nature of horseplayers to endure pain. And when one looks forward to playing Saratoga the way most bettors do, it especially hurts to admit the meeting beat him more than he beat the meeting.

I didn't get beat badly at this meeting; only my ego got roughed up. It was mostly an up-and-back meet; good day, bad day, like most players experience. But it feels like I haven't been right for a week. And that costs.

Like any player in the game for the long haul, I'm not frantic to get even over the course of the next 21 races as this is written. The mantra is to play to your strengths, doing what you do best, cut down on mistakes (virtually impossible) and stay the course.

By any means necessary.

The only mistakes I'll admit to--other than picking eight winners on TV Travers day and winning (gulp) $34 in that afternoon--are lapses in focus.

The diary is a responsibility that's to be taken seriously. It's certainly time-consuming while the races are being run and game time decisions need to be made (read odds assessment here). Yes, it's a distraction, no question.

Know that that's a reason, not an excuse. There are no excuses in this game. No one forces a horseplayer do anything he doesn't choose to do himself.

Regarding odds assessments, you will hear the term value spoken ad nauseum, with little or no regard to its meaning.

Some horses that win and pay $5.20 can be value. Some horses that win and pay $20 are not. The misuse of the term comes when handicappers-in-name misidentify all non-favorites as value.

Odds assessment demands an evaluation of only one question: Compared to what? Price comparisons are the essence of successful parimutuel wagering.

Unless you can put a price on a horse's head, you shouldn't be allowed to use the word value. An 8-5 payoff is value if you believe that horse would win a race 50 out of 100 times, by definition, even money. That's what makes 8-5 value.

Of course, setting a price is easier said than done. To learn, it takes patience, practice and money. Mostly money.

Unlike fools and their money, miserable horseplayers seldom part company with other miserable horseplayers. And there's been lots of misery to go around this meet.

The large purses, an imaginative condition book including an inordinate number of turf sprints, full competitive fields in virtually all divisions--except going very long on either surface--assured a half dozen horses had a chance to win in nearly every race. Or so it seemed.

Nobody not named Linda Rice was able to figure out how to win turf sprints consistently. And everyone certainly had enough practice; there've been 38 at the meeting with another carded for tomorrow. Percentage of winning favorites in this category? Thirteen.

Thirteen percent!

In the interests of diversity, it would be nice to see more turf sprints at six and seven furlongs when racing shifts to Belmont on Friday. Those races would play more like real turf events, as opposed to simple speed-pop sprints.

What was personally disappointing was my inability to capitalize on what normally is a handicapping and wagering strength: degree of difficulty. Value is almost always available in wide open races.

Any horseplayer who constantly seeks betting value must be willing to lose many races before cashing the one ticket that evens things out and then some.

But I haven't been right nearly as often as I needed to be, or should have been, at this meet. That's when Shorty arrived in town and overstayed his welcome.

Like baseball, racing is a game of streaks. But the streaks here have been nothing less than spooky. Trainer Rusty Arnold got on a streak of in-the-money finishes with horses outrunning their odds early in the meet. Jockey Alan Garcia did the same thing in the second half.

No one is streakier than Kent Desormeaux. The meets enjoyed by owner Ahmed Zayat, trainers Bill Mott and Linda Rice, Rick Schosberg's early-meet money finishers and Tom Bush's longshot winners were enough to make the tooth fairy believe in Santa Claus.

When streaks dominate results over a short period of time, it skews all other handicapping tenets. You begin to look at races differently. Form and figures and trips become far less compelling in the handicapping process. Soon there is no Sanity Clause.

Even with the best intentions, with horses doing great and everything in the barn going right, there's no way to project that Zayat Stables, Mott and Desormeaux would bat .500 at the meet, 12-for-24, through the end of today's races.

Bob Baffert is undefeated with Zayat's Spa runners and, from memory, the owner also has had winners saddled by Barclay Tagg, Anthony Dutrow and, I think, George Weaver.

For me, winning streaks were the dominant deciding factor in too many outcomes. Add to that mix the uncertainties of juvenile racing--an insiders game more popular with horseplayers than they ought to be--and those confounding turf sprints, it's easy to understand why many players had a difficult Saratoga 139.

This will be the final Saratoga Diary of the meet, our 29th season. After tomorrow we'll take a brief three-day freshening. The local Breeders' Cup prep season begins in earnest Friday.

Tomorrow is closing day. With no diary to distract, the only mission is to win.

If we should break even for the meet, great. But that's not the goal, per se. The approach is to do what we try to do every racing day: Find value. Make money. Forty-dollar win bets will not become $40 exactas. You don't change long term goals and objectives. You do the most complete job you can, focus, and try eliminating unforced errors.

There's no crying in baseball and no excuses for horseplayers. Even if there were, no one wants to hear them. Nor should they.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, September 01, 2007

Lawyer Ron, Midnight Lute Star; NYRA, Horsemen at Loggerheads Over Track Maintenance

Saratoga Springs, NY--September 1, 2007

Dear Diary,

It has become clear that the tentative agreement between the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and the New York Racing Association regarding track maintenance measures is just that; tentative.

Do racetrack intramurals ever cease? Maybe, maybe not. However, what is clear is a failure to communicate.

Pronouncements that maintenance procedures would change so that the running surface at all NYRA tracks would no longer be aggressively sealed and/or hard-rolled after the races were premature. Neither has there been a resolution regarding harrowing the surface earlier during morning training hours.

The announcement that the techniques used by Director of Racing Services John Passero would be changed were made by NYTHA President Rick Violette at an open meeting of horsemen Friday morning, intimating that he had assurances from NYRA upper management.

"Those were Rick's words, not our words," said NYRA president Charles Hayward this morning. "We need to have more specificity. Our biggest concern is the sealing and rolling. We promised at a meeting with five other horseman before [the open meeting] that we would look at it. In the next two weeks we could come up with a new policy."

"Charley's on a little bit of a hook here," Violette said earlier. "He made a statement in public that they [NYRA] wanted to make us happy by doing everything they could. We took them at their word."

"The track here has been good but the weather has been idyllic. The problem was at Belmont [this spring]."

Yesterday Passero denied knowing anything about the situation, was unaware there were problems with training injuries at Belmont, and that he had no intention of changing maintenance procedures.

Clearly the issue has all the principals at loggerheads.

On August 6 following Rags to Riches first workout after recovering from a mysterious problem, trainer Todd Pletcher was quoted in the New York Post: "Horses seemed to be struggling over the track at Belmont.

"There were a lot of injuries. Some serious horses were knocked off their campaigns. I don't complain about racetracks but that would be my observation."

"I get beat up every day over track condition, Violette said Friday. There's big resentment, a smoldering out there. This is an issue that has horsemen united."

"I had a talk with Gary Contessa earlier about this issue," said Hayward. "Why don't you go talk to him? He doesn't have any problem with the surfaces."

And so it goes.

"We'll talk again when we get back to Belmont and I'm sure we can work this out,� said Violette.

That would be a relief to everyone concerned. Especially to owners who are footing the bills.

* * *

Bets N' Pieces: The whispers were all over as the special-weight maidens took the track for the second race but, again at this meeting, the horse with experience showed them the way. Saada, making its second start for Bill Mott, wore down well backed newcomer Golden Weekend, a good stretch run put on by both horses. The latter won't be a maiden long; bet back First-timer Sir Jock finished well too late for third; follow progress.

More special-weight maidens in the fourth, stronger division, many more stories, same results. With Maimonides scheduled to meet three rivals in Monday's Hopeful, the runnerup to that exciting maiden, Sam's Passion, made his second start and led all the way beneath Garrett Gomez, his second of the day. Newcomer A Diehl was trapped inside most of the stretch and became discouraged late; note. Debuting Tizbig made a good mid-race run while wide and continued willingly to the finish.

Less than an hour after Edgar Prado was transported to Albany Medical Center with an ankle injury suffered when he was unseated aboard Admiral Bird, involved in a collision with Yankee Thunder, after the finish of the seventh race, Tom Durkin made an announcement welcoming Andrew Lakeman back to the racetrack, up from New York to visit his many friends. Lakeman was paralyzed in a spill at Belmont Park this spring. Fortunately for Prado his injury is not termed serious, but the incident is a reminder of how perilous the occupation of jockey can be.

The Grade 1 Forego Stakes at seven furlongs for older horses is always an entertaining heat. Not so this one, such was the facility of Midnight Lute's victory. It was expected that Attila's Storm would take the lead but was somewhat surprising when favorite High Finance joined him in a speed duel. However, when the leaders reached the half-mile pole, the difference between East Coast and West Coast speed became apparent. The local horses just can't play the kind of speed game Left Coasters play.

As the leaders continued their battle at mid-turn, Midnight Lute simply cruised past them both under no urging from Shawn Bridgmohan, who picked up the mount following Prado's injury. With less than a quarter mile remaining, the Bob Baffert-trained four-year-old improved his position as the favorite faded badly, giving Bullet Bob his fifth win at the meet from eight starters. The half-mile pace was fast but not blazing: :45.24. But the final time of 1:21.06 was strong by comparison. Benny The Bull finished well for place but was never a win threat. The winner was bet strongly from the bell, favored for most of the wagering, before drifting to 5-2 ($7.20) at post time.

With Linda Rice winning two more turf sprints on today's card, 2007 has been The Meet of the Red Hot Trainer..

Weight-for-age used to be the way the game is played once racing shifted downstate following the Saratoga meet. Not anymore. The Woodward Stakes of Saratoga has changed all that. And there were two stories coming out of it. One has been the successful stakes meet enjoyed by Todd Pletcher is an otherwise disappointing meet for a horseman seeking his sixth consecutive training title. The other is Lawyer Ron, whose Woodward victory was in certain respects even more impressive than his track-record Whitney romp. Pletcher certainly has the four-year-old running in career form and looking very much the part of Breeders' Cup Classic favorite among this country�s older horses.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, August 31, 2007

Track Maintenance A Harrowing Issue For New York Horsemen

Saratoga Springs, NY--August 31, 2008

Dear Diary,

It turns out that Del Mar is not the only successful racetrack where the surface you race on in the afternoon isn't the same as the one you train on in the mornings.

But the difference is that horseman here are more satisfied with the one they race on, as opposed to Del Mar, where the afternoon surface often bears no resemblance to what took place that morning.

Of greater significance, however, is that at Saratoga, as well as Belmont Park and Aqueduct downstate, the issue relates more to horse safety than the running style of winning horses.

"I get beat up every day over track condition," said trainer Rick Violette, president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. Violette will saddle early line favorite High Finance in tomorrow's Grade 1 Forego Stakes.

"You can stand here [at the top of the stretch] and hear a horse work up at the three-sixteenths pole," added NYTHA board member, trainer Pat Kelly. "Jarring, jarring," he said, punching the air in a downward motion to demonstrate the jackhammer compression that occurs when thousand-pound animals strike hard ground at 40 miles per hour on legs no bigger than a human's arm.

The whispers about a larger-than-normal attrition rate from training injuries suffered in morning workouts traveled up the Northway months before any horses did. Track maintenance procedures had rendered the surfaces too compact, too hard.

Even the normally deeper Oklahoma training track here was harder and faster than anyone could ever remember, a circumstance recently corrected after prominent horseman Shug McGaughey complained to track management.

The issue came to a head this morning at an open meeting called by Violette before the races, attended by approximately 60 NYTHA horsemen.

"No one is satisfied with the condition of the racetrack [during training hours]," said Violette. "Something has to happen. Lots of us are scared to death to breeze a horse before the [8:15 a.m. renovation] break.

"There have been too many breakdowns, too many frogs shed, too many shoes pulled."

The first steps to please the horsemen have already been taken in the form of track maintenance policy changes.

After discussions with Director of Racing Surfaces John Passero, it was agreed that there no longer will be a hard roll applied to the track after the races, lasting until morning training hours.

Parenthetically, a hard roll occurs when a huge piece of grading equipment is driven over the surface to compact and flatten it.

Rolling sometimes is done in conjunction with, or in lieu of, sealing the track. Sealing is done with heavy boards called floats attached to the rear of conventional tractors. The purpose is to hasten the drying process in the event of precipitation.

Racing on sealed tracks is somewhat controversial.

Sealed tracks are popular with jockeys because the wet surface plays more consistently. But the tight surface often is speed biased, compromising non-speed horses that just don't handle the slick surface well. Call it the equine equivalent of spinning your wheels.

The new policy also will eliminate aggressive sealing of the track after the races. And there will be more harrowing done in the morning, to more closely resemble afternoon running surfaces and to keep the surface softer, more forgiving.

"I've been lucky at this meet," Kelly said. "My horses have been doing well. But sore horses in the morning make short fields in the afternoon."

"This is one issue that has horsemen united," said Violette. "It's been smoldering out there for a while. There's been big resentment, not just here but at Belmont and Aqueduct. It came to a head. Something had to happen.

"We're putting on the show and [the association] has to please us. The staff here seems to want to make us happier. We'll take them at their word."

When apprised of the agreement later by a reporter, Passero said "I hadn't heard a word. I'm not going to do anything different."

Apparently, the last word on this issue is yet to be spoken.

The welfare of horses and riders were not the only topics covered. Violette talked about the nightmare of red tape created by the Department of Homeland Security regarding the many backstretch workers that come from Mexico and other countries.

The racetrack has not been immune to fallout from the immigration issue. Violette sees the 'big problem' as a political one. "[Government officials] want to tie everything to citizenship which seems like overkill. We'd like our workers to do their jobs, pay their taxes, and return home if they want."

The other hot button issue the detention barn in which horses must be stabled for six hours prior to running in a race. The NYRA constructed the first detention barn three years ago in an attempt to thwart cheaters taking an edge with illegal drugs.

"Has it worked? I don't know," said Violette, answering the question he posed to the group.

"Have standards changed? Not really. But a couple of people have disappeared [from the ranks of leading trainers].

"We need to ramp up testing and change the attitude. The atmosphere here is you're guilty; we just haven't caught you yet. We never underline the fact that the majority of trainers are hard working, honest people who care about the horses, that most are not cheaters.

"That wasn't mentioned at the Jockey Club [Round Table], and that's not right. We don't get credit for the scrutiny that's in place. The testing and penalties are serious but we need to spend two or three times the money.

"We should do it behind close doors. Don't talk about it. Clean it up."

Written by John Pricci

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