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.
 

Friday, August 15, 2008


Putting the Filly Where the Mission Statement Is


Saratoga Springs, NY, August 14, 2008--The preliminary Equiform performance figures are in. Missing from the data, at the moment, are figures from the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park and the Prince of Wales from Fort Erie.

And, of course, that would tell us much more about the Travers prospects of both Haskell third Cool Coal Man and Fort Erie hero Harlem Rocker, whose Prince of Wales victory stretched his undefeated record on dirt to four.

Neither effort, however, figures to land them at the top of the performance figure heap.

And, so, who is the fleetest of them all?

Here’s a hint: Who’s the fairest of them all?

That‘s right, it’s the filly, Music Note, who's the fastest possible entrant and at the moment is sitting squarely atop the Alabama/Travers fence.

Which brings us to another very good filly named Little Belle, also entered in tomorrow's Alabama and Music Note's stablemate.

Interesting that the barn was saying the other day wouldn’t it be something if they could finish one-two in a race as prestigious as the Alabama?

Indeed, it would, especially pitted up against nominees such as Black-Eyed Susan heroine Sweet Vendetta and Proud Spell, winner of this year's Fair Grounds, Delaware and Kentucky Oaks.

A Music Note victory would prove that she is the unquestioned leader among the 2008 sophomore distaff class but nothing more. Most observers already believe that. But a Travers victory could stamp her--at the moment--the most talented three-year-old in America of either sex.

With challenges all the fashion in recent days, I’ve got one for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum: Run your filly in the Travers.

If performance figures mean anything--and they do--then Music Note is the "fastest horse" in the race. Unlike the boys, her best race came at the Travers distance of 10 furlongs.

These are the first two paragraphs from the website: "What To Do in Dubai City, your online guide:"

“Godolphin has become synonymous with international competition, targeting races at all points on the compass. To achieve that, it has developed a unique approach to training horses. One that is designed to advance Godolphin's achievements around the world.

“Godolphin has come a long way in a short time winning 124 Group One races in 11 countries (Canada, Dubai, England, Ireland, France, Italy, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and America). What started ten years ago with a handful of horses, has evolved into a complex operation. Its headquarters is Al Quoz, where strategies are forged and ambitious new targets formulated….”

OK, so the Sheikh hasn't won the Kentucky Derby, an ambitious, formidable, and illusive target. So then why not a Mid-Summer Derby?

Before the sheikh can say he’ll do what’s best for the horse, where’s the harm in running? It’s not like she isn’t built like a boy. It's not like asking her to do something she’s never done. This is 10 furlongs in August, not the first Saturday in May. Neither is it 12 furlongs on the first Saturday in June.

Here's more: In five career starts, Music Note never has bounced off a previous lifetime top. And since her debut, all her figures have been lifetime tops.

The owner retire the filly whenever he wants. No one can tempt him with enough money to make a difference in his life. He doesn't need the money. So why not target the Travers? You’ve come a long way in such a short time; come a little farther.

Point your compass north about 300 yards from the old Greentree place, where the filly is stabled, and run her a week from Saturday. She’s entered tomorrow, with mate Little Belle, in the Alabama. They own a third of the six-horse field. Let Little Belle run. Scratch the big mare.

One more thing. Mrs. Payson would never duck a challenge like this. Consider that. Or, like everyone else, it's really all about the benjamins.

* * *

First Race: Fans really got their money’s worth in only grass event of the day, a jump event over 19 furlongs, three times around the park. In addition, the running time of 4:47.93 over the soft ground was a mere :35.89 full seconds slower than Hokan’s course record 4:12.04. Two of the three uncoupled Sheppard’s finished 1-3, split by one of the uncoupled Fisher’s. Neither Fogarty stable coupling hit the board. Seriously, it was an exciting duel coming over the final fence with three having a chance to win it but it was leader Look At Him, Robert Walsh up, who prevailed.

Second Race: This will probably be a juvenile event that keeps on giving, a key race in training despite the short field. Selective placed gamely after pace dueling inside of Argyle Pink, these two battling to the wire until Eddie Kenneally’s filly prevailed. Luster was going well at the finish, third; follow. This was a quick heat, fractions of :22.13 and :45.62, en route to 5-½ furlongs in 1:04.01.

Third Race: A two-horse race on paper and we tested those two to the wire. But you could have filled out the check after Edgar Prado nursed splits of :23.64 and :46.91 en route to seven-eighths in 1:22.28 with Megapixel, who held relentless Law Enforcement safe, a final furlong in a worthy :12.10. Meanwhile, let’s hear it for plucky Be Bullish, who always tries hard. Though his best game has been six furlongs, he kept chugging along the fence in those fast closing fractions, finishing in a blanket with the two favorites; bet back, especially if turning back to three-quarters.

Fourth Race: Chauette never had run well on dirt…until yesterday. Laca, first-time Bruce Levine, had it won every stretch step until the final lunge, when Penna Jr. trainee grabbed her. Not many horses that finish a fairly well beaten fourth were probably best, but you might want to make an exception in the case of Kewland, who had a tangled beginning, spotted the field double-digit lengths, and made a huge mid-race run to loom a brief threat; bet back.

Fifth Race: Another two-horse event on paper posted similar results with Vinnies Wild Tale returning a square-priced 5-2 following a stretch battle in which he drew away late in a final quarter mile in under :25 seconds. Dropdown African Storm placed gamely, splitting the two favorites.

Sixth Race: You can’t win every race you enter, but you can try to make sure that whatever you enter runs well. That’s been the case with the George Weaver barn this meet. In here, New Member got loose in quick fractions beneath Javier Castellano, :22.81 and :45.77, then finished up strongly in :24.20. Coach Butts came down the center of the track with a strong late rally for place. War Ruler had every chance but finished evenly, fourth, no excuses.

Seventh Race: It’s not often you’ll see Graham Motion enter for main-track-only, so when he does, handicappers ought to take notice. Enter Easy To Say No under suddenly hot Ramon Dominguez, who proved clearly best in the rescheduled 7 furlongs on dirt…$800,000 2007 two-year-old sales graduate Rocky Engagement, made only tepid run as announced first-time gelding newcomer; Darley having a rough meet thus far.

Eighth Race: Every once in a while we are reminded of Jorge Chavez’s talent on wet tracks. Here, he sliced and diced his way through rivals to give trainer Wesley Ward his fifth win of the meet with Fiumes… Cleverly bet Phobia moved prematurely beneath Javier Castellano and tired deep stretch; bet back under similar conditions.

The Saratoga Special: Run Away And Hide might be just that, special. He stretched his undefeated career to three victories, his second in stakes, and props to Ronny Werner for having him at tops off a May 1 layup and Robby Albarado for his clever handling. Compliments were mutual all around. “Ronny has done a remarkable job with him coming off that kind of layoff in such a talented field.” Replied Werner: “Robby did an excellent job; he set him up just right. He gave us a little spot on the rail and it worked out great.” The tactic worked, indeed, especially after splits of :21.66 and :44.80, the winner getting the distance in a rapid 1:15.67. This was a quality group, producing a quality race. Break Water Edison battled gamely for place in only his second lifetime start. Thus far, the Lemon Drop Kid’s we’ve seen can really run. Third finisher Reynaldothewizard also impressed in his second start after a visually impressive maiden run at Churchill Downs.

Tenth Race: Weaver doubles with second-time starter, MTO Chicks Are Better, who made a strong albeit belated three-year-old debut. He stalked, pounced and drew off, never threatened… Vladimira finished well too late for third; note.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, August 14, 2008


Big Brown Needs Curlin to Validate Ultimate Season


Saratoga Springs, NY, August 13, 2008--It was a nice gesture Curlin owner Jess Jackson made, trying to lure Big Brown off his schedule to meet the defending Horse of the Year in the Woodward Stakes on the final weekend of the Saratoga session. God knows this meet could have used all the help it could get. But these two won't meet at Saratoga, and don't count on the Jockey Club Gold Cup, either.

Any meeting won’t happen as long as Big Brown managing partner Michael Iavarone insists on the Breeders’ Cup Classic for Big Brown’s career finale. Iavarone talks up the Classic’s prestige and surely its list of winners would read, in the language of the great Joe Hirsch, like a roll of drums. Or was it Charlie Hatton who wrote that? Either way, the meaning is clear.

While the Woodward would have allowed Big Brown another week to recover from his Haskell exertions, the race is in no man’s land if the goal is to have only one more prep before fall racing’s biggest dance. It made no sense and Jackson had to know this, which makes the Woodward proposal little more than a hollow gesture.

I’m a big Jackson fan. There would have been no four-year-old season for Curlin without Jackson’s say-so, no matter what the legal ownership entanglements were at the time. And given the insurance premiums, keeping Curlin racing was not fiscally prudent. But damn if Jess Jackson just doesn’t love watching the big horse run.

Then, to testify before Congress and speak truth to power--not the legislators but loud enough for industry moguls to hear--takes the courage of conviction. Apparently when you’re one of the world’s richest men, ostracism isn’t something that either keeps you awake nights or prevents you from speaking your mind. .

But at least Jackson’s trying. The Woodward “invitation” came with a sweetener of a $50,000 donation to Anna House, the Belmont Child Care Association, from the Curlin for Kids Fund established by Jackson, if Big Brown’s connections accepted the invitation. The incentive for making this lemonade was borne of recent disparaging remarks made by trainer Rick Dutrow about Jackson's horse.

But here’s the skinny. The ball might be in Big Brown’s court but there‘s no way he would have run this soon. When Triple Crown dreams were dashed in the heat of a steamy June afternoon on Long Island, Big Brown would need to meet and defeat Curlin if he wants the ultimate honor. It doesn’t always work out this way, but Eclipse Awards are like championship belts; you have to take it away in the arena.

If Big Brown and Curlin never meet, and each runs the table with, say, two more victories each, Curlin will retain the title. Winning a Curlin-less Classic won’t make Big Brown Horse of the Year, even if it turns out to be his sixth Grade 1 victory of the year.

End of year voters will punish the Big Brown camp for beating up on a weak three-year-old class, for ducking the champ, and, however unfairly, because the connections decided to run their mouth instead of their horse.

One of the options the Curlin people are still considering is a run in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. What a great spot for both to meet! Neither would seem to have an edge at the 12-furlong distance, Big Brown might have an advantage on grass, but Curlin is older and stronger.

A Turf battle against each other and top class Europeans would be the kind of buzz this Breeders’ Cup could use, especially coming off last year’s slop-compromised event and the negative publicity it has gotten this year because of the artificial surface controversy and--at least to this point--the unfairly maligned Ladies Day concept. But like the proposed matches in the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup, don't bet the rent on a Turf match, either.

* * *

First Race: Track fast, no turf racing and, thus far, 38 program scratches and counting… Props to Linda Rice who had C.T. Phone Home ready off the 212-day layoff, the 3-year-old filly speeding through early splits of :22.49 and :45.67, stopping the timer in 1:04.47 for 5-½ furlongs, staying strong right to the finish. Recent maiden winner Weekwee finished strongly for the second time over this surface, clearly second best. Obviously, she likes this track and owns a big late kick, as did her mother, Bien Sucre.

Second Race: The good thing wasn’t so good. The $700,000 February 2-year-old was bet early and often but the Kiaran McLaughlin newcomer was run off her feet early by Grizzly Peak, who held very determinedly for place and after pressured by the favorite in fractions of :21.57 and :45.06... The running time of 1:03.56, clocked by debuting Capt. Candyman Can, was first rate. Trainer Ian Wilkes, not generally known for his debut types, had the Candy Ride gelding completely fit, sitting off the rapid fractions, fourth, while under restraint from Julien Leparoux, who continues to push all the right buttons, until ready to roll. Wilkes off the duck. The “Candyman” galloped out nicely following his good-trip score; may have a future…Mesa Sunrise, also well meant, loomed up three wide but lugged in greenly and should benefit…Second-time starter Laver finished willingly for fourth, hand-ridden, following an energetic pre-race warm-up; follow.

Third Race: An entertaining six-horse race. Temporary Saint broke from the barrier rapidly, set a realistic, pressured pace, battled back gamely when Loose Leaf came alongside and lost a head-bobber in an excellent performance. Credit Ken McPeek for having his debuting 4-year-old dead fit, up the rail into contention on final turn before tipping wide for the drive…Ravel, winner of the G3 Sham at 3, appeared in need of his return from a lengthy layup; note.

Fourth Race: This turf two-turn fro juvenile fillies was run at 7 furlongs on the main track and all three money finishers raced well. The fractions, :22.87 and :45.94, were strong, as was the final time of 1:23.57. Dominguez scored a natural double with Silver Reunion, benefiting from a pace duel, with pressured pacesetter Ain’t Love Grand holding extremely well for place. Show finishing Jehan loomed strongly up the fence before tiring. The rail wasn’t completely dead, but the 2-path was better. Graham Motion breaks his maiden at the meet.

Fifth Race: Maiden claiming juveniles in the fifth, and not many impressed here. David Donk’s debuting Spina was fit and she got the outside trip behind dueling leaders, proving clearly best. Debuting Truly Divine and Maggie’s Promise were going well at the finish while never threatening. Peace Baby Peace showed early speed but tired as if short of condition; should benefit, but may need another.

Sixth Race: Take The Bluff survived a speed duel with Casey’s Joy and had more than enough to hold off perfect-tripping and overbet Bill Place. Role Play completed the four-horse field. Yawn.

Seventh Race: Mother Russia made an auspicious debut, a training double for Linda Rice. The daughter of the speedy Mayakovsky made all the pace, repelled the lone serious challenge from first-timer Gem for Hook, and widened under pressure. The fractions and final time (1:06.04) were moderate but the drying surface appeared a little more demanding as the afternoon wore on.

Eighth Race: A triple for Dominguez and the sixth win of the meet for Tony Dutrow, quietly having a very strong meet. Premium Wine enjoyed the class relief with the drop from graded company, out-finishing battling leaders with a perfect-trip score. Surface lover Starforaday rolled home for the place after the pacesetters tired. This “non-winners of three other/than, optional claimer” would have passed for a stakes anywhere else; a hint of what Saratoga used to be on a regular basis.

The Adirondack: It was hard to know just what Mani Bhavan was coming into her second lifetime start. A speed-popping two-year-old wiring the field at speedy Delaware Park, especially given we’re talking a filly here, doesn’t take your breath away, even if she beat her five rivals in July 12 by 9-¼ lengths in :57.66. That all changed with her breathtaking performance in the Adirondack. She made the other speed fillies look slow by comparison. Never threatened and under complete control beneath Alan Garcia, she rolled to a serendipitous 9-¼ victory in a Grade 2 that went in 1:18.09 for 6-½ furlongs. “I really expected her to run well,” said her trainer Steve Klesaris, “but she ran better than I expected.” I’ll bet… Said Kelly Breen of favorite Bold Union, who finished a one-paced fourth, “she didn’t run her race.” There’s a chance Mani Bhavan might be at her best in sprints, but there’s a chance she might be a whole lot more; follow with interest.

Tenth Race: Favorite Multidude was going easily in front and looked well on her way, until Little Wise Guy cruised on by for an open lengths score; no excuse.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Spa 2008: Curse of The Spinner


Saratoga Springs, NY, August 12, 2008--Time to face it. This has not been a great Saratoga meet. Almost every promising race card was decimated by the wettest season in memory, taking an enormous toll on attendance and handle.

Merchants around town haven’t complained all that much, but another group--the casual Saratoga fan that can take or leave the actual racing--has been voting with their feet. Only they're not beating a path to the admission gates.

We are referring to that special breed of individual who comes to Saratoga only on premium giveaway days. They are androgynous, neither female nor male, horseplayer nor tourist.

And what they told the association this past Sunday was that it could keep its stadium seat; they still have the whole chair from last year. The individual we refer to is, of course, The Spinner.

The Spinner often travels in packs, sometimes cleverly disguised as family, a social unit that uses children as beards to collect their free-gotten gains. They are enterprising and, although harmless, are not to be trifled with. Never, ever, take The Spinner for granted.

Last year The Spinner came in droves, 72,745 strong, their eyes squarely on the prize: the portable folding lawn chair. The Spinner is no fool. When only the seat was offered this year, 26,905 fewer Spinners flipped those turnstiles or reported to the multiple-admissions area.

Counter-intuitively, many of last year's Spinners stayed to play the races. They used their new furniture to park themselves comfortably on the track's apron and contributed a portion of the $1.1 million more wagered last year than was bet three days ago.

Because The Spinner doesn’t usually hang around for the racing, don’t infer that he's anti-social. He is very unlike the Squatter, who queues up at admission gates long before dawn, pays admission, then hurdles over fellow Squatters as fast as he can for choice picnic areas closest to the horses, a shade tree or a self-service betting terminal.

The Spinner can’t afford this luxury, of course. If he is to make a score he needs patience. And stamina.

The Spinner must be ready to stand in line for hours, in orderly fashion, sometimes five or six deep. Then he must be prepared to queue up again at redemption areas. If he were a race horse, The Spinner would need scope. His game is not for the short of wind, the feint of heart.

If the Spinner were a jockey he would need to be blessed with patience. And timing. Last year, when he came in record numbers, he had to stand in three lines for the portable folding lawn chair. The first got him into the building, the second to a coupon booth, then, finally, redemption at last. This ordeal added to the Spinner's legend in the storied land of the premium giveaway.

Late Sunday afternoon, the Ultimate Spinner was spotted parked alongside a herd of Squatters on the grassy knoll inside the fence lining Union Avenue. He sat contentedly on last year’s P.F.L.C. using Sunday’s seat cushion for ballast. Planted on the northwest corner of a red Saratoga stadium blanket, he was resplendent in a classic Saratoga Tee, circa 2003, and a red 2007 baseball cap, of that I am certain.

As if on cue, he clandestinely lifted a cold one out of his portable Saratoga ice cooler, stealthily concealed inside a tattered Spa sports bag, surreptitiously sipping a brew from the versatile Jerry Bailey beer stein--the one that easily doubles as a world class pencil holder--shaded from the harmful ultraviolet rays by a red and white striped Saratoga umbrella.

But, running to past performances, the majority of Sunday’s Spinners left immediately. The ambitious ones who remained had lugged laptops with wireless cards for logging on to E-Bay. Last year, fortunes were made at $19.55 per P.L.F.C., shipping included if you were among the first 50 to order. This year‘s premium wasn’t nearly as marketable.

And so the Ultimate Spinner left the grounds quickly last Sunday, his head bobbing in disappointment, marking the days until this Sunday when the ritual, unique to Saratoga Race Course, begins anew.

Expect the karma to improve. The NYRA marketers tempted fate this year and paid dearly for not offering the premium umbrella. Fortuitously, the giveaway this weekend is the long-sleeve tee. How prescient in this wettest of wet Saratoga summers.

Last year, HRI suggested a way for the racing association to show its appreciation for the unique contributions made by The Spinner to the fabric of this meet. Alternatively, on the second day of the meet, it tempted fate again by discontinuing the popular bobble-head promotion, much to the chagrin of the bean counters.

How fitting it would have been had The Spinner spun for his own likeness in all its bobble-headed glory. Nothing says thank you for coming quite like your own immortal image. The Spinner deserved better for his support in 2007. Instead, there were over 21,000 fewer clicks of the turnstile. It’s been that kind of year.

Written by John Pricci

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