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

Thursday, August 21, 2008

NYRA House Rule on Refunds Unfair, Shortsighted

Saratoga Springs, NY, August 21, 2008--Sorry, but after reporting on today’s fourth race, I’m done for the day. Call Sports Phone. I’m through and here’s why.

With five minutes remaining until post time for the fourth, I got up and walked to the self-service betting machine. I bet using a NYRA Cash Card.

Here were my plays: $15 quinella on 4-5; Dime Superfectas on 4,5--ALL--4,5--ALL. This was my betting strategy as I saw the quinella combining the two favorites was paying $8.

Taking 3-1 on the proposition that Ardnavagh and On Lake would finish one-two in either order for two horses I believed laid over the field was a better wager than taking either 2-1 or 7-5 on one or the other to win. I thought they were superior to the group but had no preference.

The second wager was made as both a saver and optimizer. My thinking was anyone else could finish somewhere on the board anywhere. My structured Dime Super would cost $11.20. My total outlay for this race was $26.20.

Given the short prices, it wasn’t worth extending myself further, but it looked like a more than reasonable way to triple my investment, at least.

I put the Dime Super wheel in first: 4--ALL--5--ALL, cost $5.60. It was supposed to read 4,5--ALL--4,5--ALL. No worries. With two minutes to post, I’ll punch in my $15 quinella first then go back and punch in 5--ALL--4--ALL.

Somehow, I mispunched the quinella ticket. Instead of getting a $10 4-5 quinella, I had a $10 quinella wheel with the 5 as the key, cost of $90. I didn’t notice until I saw that my balance was reduced by $80 more than I intended to spend. Since the self-service terminal provides a cancellation option, I took it.

Up pops an advice: EXCEEDS REFUND LIMIT

I asked press box mutuel clerk Kevin Giampa for help. There was now a minute left to post. He immediately called mutuels supervisor Jim Mattes. Mattes got on the phone and apologetically explained machines are programmed not to cancel wagers of $50 or more with less than five minutes to post.

I was aware that a similar rule was instituted some years ago to prevent unscrupulous bettors from manipulating pool prices by creating false projected payoffs. But the spirit of the rule involved extremely large wagers. But how much of an impact would nine $10 quinella wagers keying a 2-1 shot have on a pool at Saratoga Race Course? Zero!

As written, this rule is shortsighted and unfair. It might add to the handle of one race, but it depletes the customer’s bankroll and negatively affects churn on the rest of the card. Which is not the point. The point is service, not the smiling Can-I-Help-You-It’s-My-Job-For-The-Next-36-Days kind of service but REAL customer service.

The State Racing and Wagering Board approved it but the $50 excessive-limit-refund is a NYRA house rule. I can’t think of one good reason why such a small amount is the limit unless management just doesn’t want to make refunds of any kind.

Made a mistake? Sorry, you lose. Want a refund? Sorry, you can‘t have one.

In the interests of fairness and common sense, maybe the State Racing and Wagering Board will intervene by explaining to NYRA that the concept of servicing bettors helps pay industry salaries in this state. Maybe they will; it would be a pleasant surprise.

The results? The 4-2-5-1 Dime Superfecta, a.k.a., the 4--ALL--5--ALL, returned $116.85, which was the original superfecta ticket I needed to augment with a 5--ALL--4--ALL.

And, so, as I listened to the explanation of mutuels supervisor Mattes via the mutuel-bay phone, my original super wager, the winning sequence, timed out and was not transacted. I was prepared to wager, and lose, if necessary, $26.20. Bottom line? The fourth at Saratoga cost me, out of pocket, $191.85.

First Allumeuse; now this.

* * *

Getting With the (New Yok-Bred) Program

Business-wise and aesthetically, it’s not been a great meet. Three and half weeks of constant rain had a lot to do with it. Last year’s record meet is also a reasonable consideration as is, certainly, an economy that‘s in the toilet and not in the imagination of the American people.

That’s the trouble with the arrogantly powerful; they believe everyone is stupid.

Anyway, the most alarming element of the downward trends is the interstate simulcast handle. The cost of gas, hotels and food did not impact as badly when you’re not traveling. So, it must be something else.

Clearly, the rain that forced turf races to be rescheduled to the main track and rendered many interesting races unappealing is the elephant in the room. But then so has the accent on state-bred racing which the betting public, fairly or not, perceives as less than New York racing.

That perception is not out of line, especially since sprints of less than six furlongs, turf or dirt, have become a dominant theme. The backlash it has generated has not made many new converts to the New York breeding program. The argument is that quality racing has been sacrificed at the altar of field size.

Then there was yesterday’s Albany Stakes, a terrific race that only would have been better had not the promising Writingonthewall been scratched.

It featured Tin Cup Chalice, an undefeated winner of six races including three stakes, one in open company, and eligible for the OTB Big Apple Triple bonus of $250,000 for a sweep of Belmont Park’s Mike Lee, Finger Lakes’ New York Derby and the Albany. Under the conditions, he carried highweight of 124 pounds. The scratch of Writingonthewall, a talented frontrunner, was significantly helpful to Tin Cup Chalice, making him lone speed.

From the connections that brought New York-bred Fio Rito to upset the 1981 Whitney when the New York-bred program was in its infancy, they had to spot Big Truck, winner of the Grade 3 Tampa Derby and, prepping, was narrowly beaten in the Samuel F Davis.

Tin Cup Chalice also spotted Icabad Crane three pounds, a winner of the Federico Tesio and third in the Rushaway and G1 Preakness. The three remaining entrants were all stakes placed.

It wasn’t the Travers but it probably was one of the more interesting mid-week races for three-year-olds since the NYRA used to run the Jim Dandy on a Thursday.

Tin Cup Chalice, taking advantage of the pace as expected, held off a gritty challenge by That’srightofficer, sprinting his final eighth-mile off slow fractions in :12.19, stretching his record to 7-for-7. What a cool horse!

Kudos to Pedro Rodriguez, or P-Rod, as he’s known in the New York wine region of Finger Lakes and in Tampa. Good show, just like it looked on paper.

* * *

First Race: Not an auspicious beginning for chalk players as Flibberjibit, holding a commanding edge on paper, chased the pace of Crafty N P but was not up to the task, fading off the board at odds on. The winner, trained by Linda Rice, continued her roll. It was her seventh winner of the meet and first since saddling the first four finishers in the Mechanicville Stakes.

Second Race: Even though he earns recognition, I’m not sure trainer David Donk is truly appreciated as a turf ace. Here he gets Relatively Ready prepared to go 8.5 furlongs on turf off a dirt sprint in May. Pedigree is nice, but then you have to do it. Kudos to Donk and Cornelio Velasquez for timing the run perfectly. Debuting Umbra had winning position throughout, challenged three wide on the turn, and finished somewhat one-paced; expect improvement next out… Debuting Pynaformer finished gamely from the middle lane; follow.

Third Race: When did Javier Castellano think he had it lost with 8-5 favorite Pretty Carina? Probably when he hit her left handled and she ducked out, practically propped, got back on the stride but the momentum of Awesome I Am carried her to victory. It was a legitimate excuse; dah. Bet back.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Jockey Club Lacks Needed Sense of Urgency

Saratoga Springs, NY, August 19, 2008--I’m not as smart as I think but smart enough to know this much: Might doesn’t only not make right but it doesn’t necessarily make smart either.

Making recommendations is no guarantor of making progress, or that the recommendations will solve a problem any better than it treats a symptom. Which brings us to Sunday’s Jockey Club Round Table on Matters Pertaining to Racing, a Saratoga tradition since 1954.

The annual gathering is not really a round table at all. By definition, people sitting around a circular table means that all participants are created equal and that actual dialogue might be taking place. I was not in attendance, but I found the substance of the Round Table meeting at

Photo by: Toni Pricci
Dinny Phipps is a man who insists on hearing bad news immediately
Indeed, if there were, literally, a Jockey Club table, it would be anything but round. Ogden Mills (Dinny) Phipps is clearly the poohbah de tutti poohbah, standing at a podium and introducing hand-picked speakers to enlighten the august body, the details of which eventually trickle down to the rest of us who may be lost in a sea of mutuel tickets.

While no one questions the motives of the organization that has as its mission “the improvement of Thoroughbred breeding and racing,” Sunday’s exercise called for more R & D when one would have thought that by now, with Congress lurking since June, racing’s leaders would be farther along in the process.

None of the recommendations were bad ideas. Quite the contrary. It’s just seems a tad late in the game to first develop a business plan for the most efficient and cost-effective infrastructure for equine drug testing and research; the development of testing laboratory standards; development of a request for proposals requiring adherence to standards established by the state racing commissions and, finally, the development and maintenance of a facility to store frozen samples for future analysis.

Drug testing is currently being done by 18 laboratories throughout the United States, the other issue being that drug rules differ in the 38 jurisdictions those labs monitor. It’s a huge, complicated issue.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s too bad it had to take the running of the 2008 Kentucky Derby to get this ball rolling.

Among other recommendations made were the immediate adoption and implementation by all racing commissions of the RCI Model Rule on Uniform Classification Guidelines and Penalties that apply to trainers, veterinarians and owners, its implementation to be adopted no later than by the end of the year.

As it specifically regards “milkshaking”--a performance-enhancing practice via the use of alkalinizing agents--the committee calls for the overall prohibition of the use of all alkalinizing substances, as recommended under the auspices of Racing Commissioners International, calling for its implementation by requesting that Thoroughbred Tracks in North America “consider implementation… by ‘house rule’.”

Other suggestions are that racing associations, training facilities and individual licensees participate in a commission-approved injury reporting database, whereby interested parties collaborate on the development of standardized protocols and procedures for pre-race, post-race and post mortem exams.

According to the Jockey Club website, Stuart S. Janney III, chairman of the Thoroughbred Safety Committee, said that “medication issues continue to haunt this industry and they are and will continue to be a priority for this committee as evidenced by several of today’s recommendations. We once again vigorously encourage the respective industry organizations to act on these recommendations in a timely manner.”

To its credit, the Jockey Club has launched a dedicated section containing all Safety Committee recommendations and resulting actions on its home page at, and a transcript of the conference is now available.

In addition to recommendations, several speakers presented the results of studies challenging criticisms of the racing industry since the Eight Belles tragedy. Matt Iuliano, Vice President of Jockey Club registration services, challenged claims that modern practices have weakened the breed.

Iuliano said that pedigree research conducted by the Jockey Club appeared to reveal that no one sire line is responsible for producing horses with a higher degree of unsoundness, and that essentially there was no increase in unsoundness leading to the decline of field size in the last 47 years from more than 11 horses to just over 6.

Dr. Larry Bramlage, a familiar figure to Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup viewers, challenged the notion that two-year-old racing contributes to unsoundness or catastrophic injury. Bramlage presented data indicating that horses which race at 2 run more often with more average earnings per start than horses debuting at 3.

How are racing’s customers supposed to perceive this, as progress, or statistical spin? How will Congress respond to the “progress” this represents? Legislators already are at work on a bill certain to rock industry. But what can racing do when Congress holds simulcasting hostage? No simulcasting; no game.

Isn’t the recommendation to adopt RCI Model Rules old news? Wasn’t milkshaking dealt with definitively years ago? Don’t hear much about milkshaking these days. My fault, or the fault of an industry not known for its transparency?

And so the organization whose charter it is to improve thoroughbred racing and breeding is asking the tracks to consider implementation of their recommendations by house rule. “Consider?” It further wants implementation of a commission-approved injury reporting database using standardized protocols. And this is new news, too? Mary Scollay, D.V.M., has wanted to do this for years. How overdue is it? Ten years, fifty?

The “medication issue continues to haunt the industry and will continue to be a priority as evidenced by several of today’s recommendations,” said Janney. But nary a mention of permissive medications: Butazolidin, an analgesic that allows horses to compete while “racing sound”; Lasix, the granddaddy of masking agents.

Clearly, horses need therapeutic and/or prophylactic treatment. They just don’t need it on race day. But there were no mentions of moving current withdrawal periods or-- heaven forbid someday--a possible return to hay, oats, and two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen.

The fact that no one sire is responsible for the spate of recent breakdowns ignores all empirical knowledge. Just as speed horses beget speed horses and turf horses beget grass runners and even as certain sires transmit track-specific aptitudes to their offspring, so, too, does inherently unsound horses produce runners with a predisposition to unsoundness.

In the sales marketplace, as everyone knows, talented, accomplished runners are retired prematurely. But somehow we must believe that the owners of Raise a Native and Danzig, to name two phenomenally pre-potent studs, wanted to retire those amazing speed merchants to the breeding shed after only a handful of starts?

Of course, research will show horses that race at 2 earned more money on average than horses debuting at 3. Well, not only is there a ton of purse money available to modern-day juveniles but debuting three-year-olds are horses that, whatever the reason, can't make a start at 2.

If horses could race at 2, they would. Late developers lacking juvenile foundation and seasoning are left behind the developmental curve at 3, hence the lower earnings. It’s the same principle that makes the yearlings which are allowed to romp in their paddocks--as opposed to hot-house sales types--better two-year-olds. It was a specious argument, unworthy of those who would improve the breed.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Doubling Your Pleasure at the Spa

Saratoga Springs, NY, August 16, 2008--Alabama Day dawned bright. That’s right, bright, and sunny. But chilly, which is OK. Anything but 17 of the first 21 days of the meet, or thereabouts. It’s been, like, forever.

And not one but, two, two, Grade 1s in one day. But I cannot tell a lie. I just can’t warm up to the Sword Dancer. To me it’s out there in no man’s land, somewhere between the Man o’ War and Joe Hirsch Turf Classic.

The scheduling is perfect, really, for trainers of top class distance racers on grass who need a bridge to get neatly from one race to the other. My knock is that the Sword Dancer rarely comes up big. It attracts its compliment of grade one performers but seldom gets the star.

For years, the argument was it had no chance going up against the Arlington Million, which was true. So the NYRA rescheduled it for a week later, which sounded like a good idea. Trainers could take a look at the Million, decide if they want to duck some killer Euro, and run in Saratoga instead, even if it is for only half the money.
The way it shook out this year, the Million attracted only one killer, Archipenko, and he was beaten anyway. The Sword Dancer probably would have gotten the same horses last week it attracted today. But it was a good try.

This in no way disparages today’s runners. Half the field of eight were Grade 1 winners and a couple others came damn close. It turned out to be an excellent horse race. But I digress.

Music Note stayed in the Alabama, and so we’ll never know how good she could have been next week. But I suppose erring on the side of caution is never a bad idea. The size of the field and fast track were the deciding factors. Besides, this game might be one bad step and ensuing public relations disaster away from extinction.

Some ideas just turn out better on paper, and in the mind’s eye.

* * *

The Sword Dancer: At once, it was a good trip and bad trip for Sword Dancer defending champion Grand Couturier. Alan Garcia saved ground throughout, covered up, and timed the move perfectly. But there was a split second at headstretch when it appeared he could have tipped around the soft-pace setter, Presious Passion, but didn’t, and when he tried to slip through inside, he nearly got dropped. But all’s well that finishes well--a couple of ticks over :25 for the final quarter mile of a 12-furlong race--as he held old man, the wonderful nine-year-old Better Talk Now, safe. The clear disappointment was Manhattan winner and favorite, Dancing Forever, who appeared to big down in the good going. Props to trainer Bobby Ribaudo for having the rugged five-year-old set for best and a Sword Dancer repeat.

The Alabama: Well, the Godolphin people ran their filly in the right race. Had Music Note run the same race in the Travers--a good race but not her ‘A’ race--she might have been embarrassed. Her trip was soft. As her stablemate battled with her main rival, Kentucky Oaks heroine Proud Spell, Javier Castellano tipped out before entering the stretch, the momentum carrying Music Note a bit wide. But she rallied resolutely, passed Proud Spell, but failed the eyeball test as the Oaks winner battled back beneath a dogged underrated talent, Gabriel Saez. And the fillies gave the crowd its money’s worth, head to head from the sixteenth pole home. Proud Spell prevailing by a courageous nose. Great job all around. Now Music Note will be freshened until later this fall and her fans should take heart. Still lightly raced, this was an effort that can toughen her for the battles to come.

First Race: “Hey Sebastian, who do you think you are, Jerry Bailey?” Back in the day I would have been lining the apron to welcome the young man back when he weighed in. You just don’t get through on the entire field when you’ve got a sign on your back, i.e., you’re the favorite…Joppa Flat’s was coming off a monster effort over the track and the spot looked ripe for a repeat, bounce or no bounce. But the horse never had a chance and young apprentice Morales got through on half the group before the hole closed at headstretch, and stayed closed until the race was over. He finished well after the fact, third, and deserves another chance despite seconditis tendencies. The other logical horses, National Pride and Posse Cat, finished one-two.

Second Race: Light Green looked the best of those that have run, was overbet on the strength of that and the connections (Todd and Johnny) but was a good-trip no-excuses third behind debuting Abundantia and Obsequious, who ding-donged it much of the way around until the latter, racing outside, prevailed for Edgar Prado and Elizabeth Gray, a former Dale Romans assistant who was winning with only her second lifetime entrant. Congratulations to the connections. The time from end to end was fairly routine, a half mile of :46.45 en route to 5-½ furlongs in 1:05.78.

Third Race: Both turf course rated “good.” Fanfire, stretching to a mile off a lone turf looked like a winner every step except for maybe the last 25 or so after shortening stride abruptly. Young Channing Hill, who continues to impress, was in the right place at the right time with Sweet Slam, getting the jump on Love for a Price, who finished strongly again but had too much to do beneath Javier Castellano, who rode his Backseat Rhythm race back only he wasn’t on the Lake Placid winner here. She showed improvement in her new blinkers and won’t be a maiden long; bet back under similar conditions.

Fourth Race: Situation normal; back at 5-½ furlongs for state-bred turf sprinters. Fiona Freud, the lone 4-year-old, powered passed the group, cranking up outside on the turn before mowing them down from the 6-path in the lane, overcoming perfect tripper, the newly blinkered Sweet Bama Breeze… Intoxicatingbeauty finished well too late from the center of the course; Milwaukee Brew filly keeps improving; note.

Fifth Race: Special-weight juveniles going seven furlongs on Alabama day means there’s probably some talented stock on display--and there was. Girolamo, by A.P. Indy, from the Mr. Prospector mare, Get Lucky, didn’t need luck, only a good trip, which he got from Alan Garcia. Heavily bet, he chased good-tripping Romp, a $700,000 Saratoga yearling purchase, ran by and drew off under intermittent urging. Girolamo appears to have a future and so, too, Romp; follow both. Running time was very solid: :23.06 and :46.61 en route to seven-eighths in 1:24.70. The winner was trained by Kiaran McLaughlin for Darley. The opener was won by Godolphin. Is there a theme at work here?

Sixth Race: The second race on July 28, an otherwise nondescript $35,000 maiden claimer for state-breds, has come up key, with the second winner of three subsequent starters to run back here. Arrrr took advantage of a too-hot early pace for this level--:21.89 and :45, virtually replicating his recent win over the track. But it helps when the race falls apart, after a six furlong split in 1:11.89, 6-½ furlongs in 1:18.97 was wanting. Meanwhile, ther other well bet $35,000 maiden claiming winner, Let’s Go Yankees, was awful. Its been that kind of year for the pinstripe brigade.

Seventh Race: Been in the game longer than I care to admit but the one thing that still makes me crazy is when overbet favorites with no particular edge of any kind wins. Enter Quick to Charm, a perfect-trip winner (and isn’t that always the case with winning overbet choices?) beneath Johnny V., that pair barely holding off big finish Hard to Explain… Third finisher Dos Hombres did the hard work, stalking the pace throughout, and still battling at the end over a course that didn’t play kindly to speed all afternoon; bet back.

Tenth Race: Hot connections in the finale as George Weaver and Ramon Dominguez hook up with Miss Challenge, he exploded in midstretch to take the lead, and was geared down by Dominguez while a light brigade was charging at the filly late to no avail. The look of a repeater; note.

Written by John Pricci

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