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

Friday, July 31, 2009

Saratoga Diary, Day 3

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 31, 2009--Momma always said: Dark Day, Don’t Play. Thing is, what do horses to watch mean on a day like today, unless some horse freaks and the world sees it, anyway. Even the Grade 2 Lake George is off the grass.

Tomorrow is forecasted to be sunny. And Vic Zast will take my seat tomorrow as I’m driving to the Jersey Shore where it’s also expected to be sunny. The bad news? Prospects for a sloppy Haskell Invitational. Here’s a glimpse at this weekend.

1:28 am: Triple Crown prep season notwithstanding--when would-be divisional leaders are hoping to run their way into a Kentucky Derby berth and beyond--there’s never been a weekend like this.

What separates the summer races from the spring is that the three-year-old class is a known quantity now. And, star power aside, there is an established pecking order among the division’s elite.
There is one facet of this weekend that’s quite similar to what happens on any given spring weekend: Never mind Louisville; been there. All roads now lead to Saratoga.

Providing they do not go off form or, heaven forbid, come out of their respective races not completely healthy, roads in Chester, West Virginia and Oceanport, New Jersey lead to upstate New York, where the home team will be in waiting.

The headlines say Rachel Alexandra is odds-on to beat the boys again in the Haskell Invitational. Her last three races include victories in the middle jewel of a crown and two wins over her peers, at the Haskell distance, by an aggregate 39 lengths.

“I’m not making any predictions, but I think we’ll give Rachel Alexandra a run for her money,” said Summer Bird’s trainer Tim Ice. Of course, trainer and horse made their bones in the Belmont.

“He’s very sharp right now,” said Chip Woolley Jr. of Mine That Bird on a national teleconference Tuesday, alluding to the fact that his plan for the West Virginia Derby might include taking the usual step beyond the 80-percent prep message. Woolley fully expects to win.

We know where these Triple Crown campaigners will be on the weekend of August 28. But what about the Superfilly? Where will she be? Actually, she’ll already be here. What race she runs in is another matter. She has options.

Everyone wants to see her in the Travers, of course. But even if she wins the Haskell with energy in reserve, the Midsummer Derby might not be in her best interests. Besides, a victory on Sunday gives her wins over both Triple Crown race champions.

I won’t be holding my breath a Travers start for Rachel. Of course, that’s only one man’s opinion.

Rachel Alexandra is the most probable winner of the Haskell, but this race will be far from a walkover.

Second choice at 3-1 is Munnings and he holds the key to the entire race. Does Johnny Velazquez ask his colt to look the filly in the eye and, if he does, will he be able to stay with her long enough, setting the table for Summer Bird’s rally?

Rachel figures to stalk the expected pacesetter, who is as fast as the filly on the Equiform scale, and who also stepped out of his division by beating elders in the G2 Tom Fool at Belmont Park, convincing Todd Pletcher to take a shot here.

“He deserves to run in a race like this,” said Pletcher at the Haskell draw. Indeed, he does. His pedigree accents speed, however, so that’s the big question with Munnings.

Meanwhile, Summer Bird has trainer Tim Ice crowing a bit, such has been his preparation at Monmouth Park, two of the workouts coming over wet tracks, expected to be the surface conditions Sunday. Pity that, for all concerned.

If Munnings is able to soften Rachel sufficiently, it will leave Summer Bird in the catbird seat. And making only his sixth career start, the Belmont winner still owns considerable upside potential.

Saturday’s West Virginia Derby has drawn six entrants, five betting interests, and it boils down to the Kentucky Derby champion vs. the very talented Big Drama, the controlling speed who’s finished first in seven of nine lifetime starts.

And if the Soul Warrior half of the Asmussen entry winds up part of the pace, for the benefit of stablemate Sunday Sunrise, it should be noted that Big Drama is not run-off speed. You can take a semi-light hold of him and get his best effort.

Mine That Bird will be making his first start since his third-place finish in the Belmont Stakes, in which he made a premature run to the lead. Mike Smith, of course, replaces Calvin Borel.

Smith’s Preakness familiarity will help, and his freshness is likely to find the gelding closer to the leaders than usual, even if taken under restraint.

Weight will be a mitigating factor. Under the allowance conditions, Mine That Bird will be spotting Big Drama 11 pounds, 122 to 111.

That’s a significant spread, especially considering Mine That Bird beat Big Drama by 4-½ lengths in the Preakness at scale weights after the speedster was pressed throughout by the uber filly.

Still, despite prepping, Mine That Bird is likely to prevail. At the very least he’ll complete the exacta with Big Drama. Woolley says his gelding’s “dead-ready.”

Tactically, the most interesting race of the weekend is the Jim Dandy, the traditional nine furlong Travers prep, which drew a field of seven.

The race features four late developers that have improved this mid-season, namely Kensei, Charitable Man, Warrior’s Reward and, to a lesser degree, Convocation.

Kensei, yet another talented Jess Jackson-connected runner, came into his own with a breakthrough performance winning the Dwyer, a race in which Warrior’s Reward practically fell down at the start, finding himself daylight behind the field before making a very strong late run.

Kensei is there now. The question is whether he can replicate his last effort going a bit farther and around a second turn.

But Warrior’s Reward is on the come, his nightmare Dwyer experience moving him forward physically and mentally, according to trainer Ian Wilkes. With him, it’s the mental part that’s most important.

Charitable Man is threatening to break through himself and is being pointed to the Travers. Tomorrow he will need to begin living up to Kiaran McLaughlin’s high expectations. Obviously, he’s very talented. Whether he’s all that, however, remains to be seen.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Saratoga Diary, Day 2

Backtalk and Miguel Mena on the Sanford
Backtalk and Miguel Mena focus on the Sanford
Photo by: Toni Pricci

5:37 Got to hand it to Backtalk (Tom Amoss), the juvenile colt who refused to lose the Sanford, stretching his undefeated slate to three in taking the six furlong Grade 3 in a wild scramble of a finish. It was the second time the Smarty Jones colt overcame serious trouble to win a graded stakes.

Of course, it would have been good to see what might have happened had Bulls and Bears raced more professionally. He spotted the group 3-1/2 lengths at the start, made a good move to close the gap after trailing the leaders by nearly 10 at mid-turn, appeared to have a chance in midstretch but went to snaking around in deep stretch. The time was a workmanlike 1:10.07 as one length separated the first four finishers.

Mission Accomplished!
Mission Accomplished!
Photo by: Toni Pricci

The co-feature was a 5-1/2 furlong turf sprint, the Quick Call, going to Awakino Cat with a well timed run beneath Alan Garcia. Anyone surprised Linda Rice saddled the winner of the turf sprint? What was surprising was Ramon Dominguez losing ground at a critical juncture with Our Friend Harvey while making a good run; might want to tab him back with a little lesser; note.

4:33: Just from an overview perspective, it just seems, for the first two days, anyway, that many of the first-time starting two year olds have not been ready to run. There were many fleshy individuals, missing the creases of condition you like to see.

Five years ago, thereabouts, it was Todd Pletcher who was the dominant Spa force. If the first two days are an indication, it appears Steve Asmussen has a barnful of runners in every division.

In today’s seventh, he saddled second-time starter Kinsey to a professional win, with firster Awesome Maria (Stanley Hough) a very good second. But the juvenile filly you want on your horses to watch list is, speaking of Pletcher, Ailalea.

Debuting, well made Pulpit filly simply roared down the center of the track with a strong and sustained rally to finish third. With a little more development and distance, she might be among the best of the division by season’s end; follow progress.

* * *

A correction made by the NYRA press office indicates opening day business was better than originally reported. Reflecting a grand total of all betting handle, last year’s business was $11,431,845, compared to this year’s $14,216,133.

3:32: Update on the swirling track record controversy: Kaper Lake can't own it, why? Well, there was at least one other horse that was faster and, ironically, it was Bobble-Head Pletcher’s Speightstown, who ran the distance in 1:08.04, faster than Kaper Lake. So, sorry, Kaper, you’re out.

FYI: When there are multiple track record holders, the official program prints the name of the horse that established the record first; you have to beat it to get your name on the page.

Hey, it’s a long meet.

You the Man won the first jump-up of the meet beneath the talented Archibald Kingsley Jr. with a well timed late run.

Mabou needlessly opened a 20-length advantage before stopping entering headstretch. Unless it was by design as uncoupled mate El Viaje came charging from far back, but too late. He’s going in my stable mail, hurdle edition.

Choosing took the fifth, Bill Mott cutting the claiming price in half was just right. Intergalactic, entered back quickly here, finished well too late from far back and galloped out strongly after the wire; note.

2:38: So the big, raging controversy in the press box is whether Spanish Riddle’s 37-year-old track record for six furlongs was equaled in today’s third race by a $25,000 claimer named Kaper Lake.

I could be that Wendell might be the only one to settle this controversy.

You see, Kaper Lake’s winning time was 1:08.07. The Spa loving, slop loving Spanish Riddle owns the record at 1:08. The problem? Races weren’t timed in hundredths in those days.

Theoretically, Spanish Riddle could have run in 1:08.19, which would give Kaper Lake the record. Or he could have run in 1:08-flat, in which case it would be his. Of course, this means nothing.

As Moran just said: “It’s pretty sad when on the second day of the meeting we’re sitting around here splitting fifths.”

Which was only the second best line from him all day. When someone brought up the old Big Brown bobble-head doll, Paul turned to me and said: “Probably looked like Todd Pletcher.”

If you’ve own one of these things, you understand everything.

1:40: I know, I know, said I would try to get tied on a little tighter today. Just so much to cover that the interruptions are constant. And they’re starting to interfere with my gambling. That’s never good.

Neither was the first bit of news re: the recently concluded Belmont race meet. Down everywhere, and the numbers are a bit alarming.

All-Source handle down nearly 14 percent, catching up to the national trend and surpassing it a bit. A lot of that--no spin intended, just reality--were much smaller fields, the result of 77 races washed off the turf.

But maybe the racing office should consider this doubled-edged sword. I mean, aren’t there too many damn turf sprints to begin with? Allow me to answer that for you: AND HOW!

I know, I know, again. The races are popular with horsemen, they almost always fill with limit fields. The racing office does there job. Management is happy. Now it’s up to the rest of the staff to perform anti-rain dances.

But there’s something else. Turf Sprints are to Turf Routes what Polytrack is to Dirt. Does anyone catch my drift here?

What good is big handle on turf sprints if you’re probably busting out your players at an accelerated rate?

I’ve not met one single horseplayer in the last two years who, when this subject is broached retorts: “Are you kidding, I can’t get enough of them.”

And I’m thinking this guy must be taking the action.

So, do my a favor, New York powers-that-be. Please, just take this into consideration.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Star Is Born; NYRA Has Good Day

Hot Dixie Chick on her way to the Post for the Schuylerville
Photo by: Toni Pricci

6:08: A star is born and Mrs. Jess Jackson’s got her. Hot Dixie Chick showed she’s going to be a serious force within in the juvenile filly division with a thoroughly comprehensive romp in the Grade 3 Schuylerville.

After chasing Stormandaprayer from the insider and/or alternating for the lead, exploded soon after entering the stretch and drew off impressively by 6-¼ lengths in 1:10.18 for six furlongs.

Beautician rallied gamely through the lane for place and Cowgirl Mally made a strong run, albeit too late, for third. The third filly may be worth following in a subsequent start.

‘Mally’ earned an excellent figure winning her debut and has been uncommonly professional in both starts. But Hot Dixie Chick is something else, and wherever she runs next her opponents will have her to catch and beat.

Rodman was ridden with extreme confidence by Edgar Prado and won the finale easier than it might appear. Galan Fete once again showed his affinity for a wet track, holding place gamely.

Hot Dixie Chick's owner, Barbara Banke
Photo by: Toni Pricci

The rains which threatened all afternoon finally came midway through the program, necessitating that Hot Dixie Chick win over a “good” surface and the finale be contested over a sealed track.

Originally scheduled for turf, the rescheduled last race became a Pick Six “all” race, effectively turning the wager into a Pick 5.

Business was good, compared to last year’s completely sloppy festivities. Handle from all sources went from $11.4 million last year to $14.2 million. There also was a healthy gate increase from 19,366 to 26,863, year to year. That's a tad over 40 percent!

One down, 35 to go. We’ll be tied on a little tighter tomorrow. That’s the goal, anyway.

4:50: This just in: Zast Picks Winner! Well, he did counsel a poster to play Bill Mott’s horses today because it’s his birthday, and Mott always wins a race on his birthday. True and true.

This one, Come From Behind, had practice at Belmont Park, chasing the pace in the quick heat, and put his experience to good use, a lengthy daylight winner at 8-1. Favorite City Trooper did well to get second. He seemed to lose his action shortly after the break, got back in contact, angled out, then finished well in the middle of the track.

The seventh was a very interesting scramble for well bred open class juveniles. Westover Wildcat raced well in his debut, obviously benefited, and broke maiden in a solid performance.

Two to follow out of there are V Sat, a Nick Zito newcomer who raced between horses in rapid fractions and didn’t tire badly until deep stretch.

The other was Trappe Shot, an $850,000 purchase that was bet early and often. After breaking about three lengths behind the field, he rushed to reached mid-pack into the turn, re-rallied into the stretch, steadied between horses while in close quarters, angled out, and made another run late, mostly on his own. Won’t be a maiden long; bet back!

Moisture in the track really tightened and sped up the surface--and Saratoga Russell is fast anyway.

In a race loaded with speed, he took it to them from the start, was briefly threatened when good-tripping Captain Rio sidled up three wide to challenge at headstretch, but Russell had another gear and raced away in the late stages.

Longshot Glittermans Cartel held third gamely late. Kenny McPeek just might be loaded; follow.

2:43: So after all the promotional nonsense, I arrived in the press box with three minutes to the opener, an interesting turf route with some money prospects available, but with only two at the top of the ticket, favorite Stepaside and Dantastic.

I left three other in-the-money horses open Moon Ala Mode, Good Prospect and Smarten Magic.

“One minute,” said Mr. Durkin. What to do? OK, key the two choices on top in trifectas and Dime Supers. Checked the tote. Dantastic was 7-1. Overlay, overlay. Dantastic to win and place.

Now lets take the two keys for second in the trifectas. You must put yourself in a position to make even more money if you’re wrong.

“And they’re off at Saratoga,” Durkin roared, exhorting the crowd.

So, we were shut out on the savers. Do I really have to complete this story?

Good Prospect won at 7-1, overlay Dantastic was second, paying a solid $7.50 to place. Moon A La Mode, 19-1, was third. The trifecta paid $1261 for a deuce. I was betting $1 tickets.

Six-hundred pays for several really good dinners. A-r-r-r-r-g-g-h-h!

Freedom Rings, 3-5 after strong second choice was a gate scratch, was life and death to break his maiden. He will benefit from the race; it wasn’t any easy trip!

Instead of trying to speed-pop the salty group in the James Marvin overnight stakes, the rider tried rating tactics On Riley Tucker. Mistake, he was caught in a speed vice and faded. Come-backing Pyro got caught in a big-time jackpot at headstretch, altered course and finished very well. Probably best and should benefit, note.

According to weather underground, we’re in the middle of two verge large storm bands. Don’t know how long how long the weather will hold. Stay tuned.

Written by John Pricci

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