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

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Saratoga 140: A Tale of Two Meetings

Saratoga Springs, NY, September 2, 2008--Ar-r-r-r-r-r-r!

That was the theme in the first half of Saratoga 140’s schizophrenic race meet. It rained on opening day. Then it rained some more. Three weeks of some more.

Then the sun came out and that lasted, give or take a day or two here and there, the other three weeks. And it was a glorious final weekend in just about every way imaginable.

Curlin showed up, both in the entries and in the storied horse race, the Woodward. It wasn’t exactly a performance for the ages, but it will do until something better comes along.

Like trying to grow his household-name status by joining the rank of Jockey Club Gold Cup repeat winners, of which there are only eight.

But even in the first three weeks of racing predominantly on wet racetracks, the action between the fences was terrific. So many Saratoga races were highly entertaining, exciting. Interesting what a little competition can do.

Of course, the quality of the competing horse flesh at Saratoga continues on the wane, like it does everywhere else.

Too much racing and too much of an accent on speed in the pedigree, perhaps The only thing that seems to slow down the modern thoroughbred is a synthetic surface over which to race.

But there was this sense among regulars that there was too much of a good thing. Of the 36 racing days, only four were nine-race programs. Tens and 11s were wild and, on that score, racing secretary P J Campo measured the available talent reasonably well.

Even if it did get dicey for about a week at one point, relative to field size and the kind of quality fare for which Saratoga has been noted.

Business was down, just short of double digits in attendance and handle, which is half as bad as it was the first three weeks when it looked like the biggest jinx NYRA could have placed on itself was not passing out umbrellas on the meet’s first giveaway Sunday.

CEO Charlie Hayward said it best of the final totals at the traditional closing-day press conference: “If someone asked me back then if would I settle for these numbers, I would have signed right there.”

Later Hayward said perhaps he underestimated the damaging effect that the economy would have on this boutique meet, which would qualify him for the role of new economic adviser to the RNC.

Charlie must have noticed that simulcast numbers consistently took a hit throughout the meet. And with a simulcast or OTB facility on virtually every corner, and with phones and computers but an arm’s length away; gas, hotel and meal prices shouldn’t have mattered. So why the downtown in handle?

It’s probably an amalgam of scenarios. Perhaps the blush has come off Saratoga for the modern player, or the quality of the fare wasn’t as appealing as it used to be. But there’s another theory, too. The races were very hard to figure.

Given that horseplayers like to exaggerate, I didn’t see many smiling faces on the countless regulars I know both on track and off, even among those bettors--and you know who you are--who always seem to win and never lose.

Most public handicappers, myself included, struggled at this meet. Interesting that the percentage of winning favorites was above 33 percent, a tick or two higher than the universal average. But the problem was that a preponderance of those favorites were unknowable until the wagering began.

Many races were simply too wide open. Chaotic form produces chaotic results, and chaotic results is not good for the average player.

Two-hundred dollars is generally considered a good per capita figure. The Travers day per capita was $203, when over 40,000 fans produced the second highest handle day in Saratoga history. From the third race on, the longest Travers lines were at the ATMs. And it takes about a half-hour each morning to fill them up with money.

Handle is a product of churn. You can’t churn what you don’t have. Betting back-to-back winners at Saratoga 2008 was extremely challenging, no matter the style of play or handicapping preference.

It wasn’t a good meet for bettors who took a knife to the gunfight at the Saratoga corral, or for marketers who didn’t get much bang for its Curlin buck, getting 3,000 more people than last year for Lawyer Ron.

It was not a good meet for bettors not allowed to cancel wagers of over $50--for which there apparently is no good explanation, or I might have received one. Nor was it for self-service bettors who thought they were getting two entrants for the price of one in the eighth race, August 30. No explanation offered there, either.

Secretary Campo was saying that next year’s Saratoga schedule is something that the brass discusses around the first of November. Perhaps they should look at the last weekend of the meet--always a tough sell. Perhaps NYRA should flip-flop the Travers and Woodward. Schedule-wise it’s no big thing and might help the Travers recruit more Haskell horses.

No one need sell the Travers. Otherwise, how come the 2008 Mid-Summer classic without Big Brown drew twice as many fans as a very heavily promoted Woodward appearance by a reigning Horse of the Year?

* * *

SARATOGA HIGHLIGHTS: It’s not business; it’s strictly personal.

Best Ride of the Meet: Jean-Luc Saynn on Yield Bogey, Day 31, ninth race, an extremely rough five and a half on the grass.

Most Courageous Performance By a Filly or Mare: Ginger Punch, in the Go for Wand and Personal Ensign.

Best Performance By a Filly Going Long: Proud Spell, Alabama.

Best Performance By a Colt Going Long in One of the Closest Photos of All TIme: Colonel John, Travers.

Best Stretch Finish in a Grade 1: Visionaire, King’s Bishop.

Best Named Horse (Parimutuel Category): Slambino, $178 to win.

Best Saratoga Comeback Performance: Wait a While, Ballston Spa.

Best Performance By a Juvenile in a Graded Stakes: Run Away and Hide, Saratoga Special.

Most Courageous Performance By a Juvenile Filly in a Graded Stakes: Mani Bhaven, Spinaway.

Best Named Horse (Pedigree Category) City Broad, by City Zip, from the Sea Hero mare, Goomada Byda Sea.

Best Performance By a Trainer on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Labor Day: John Kimmel.

Best Comeback By a Trainer at the 2008 Saratoga Meet: John Kimmel, on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Labor Day.

Best "Probably Best" Award: Cribnote:, Three Chimneys Hopeful.

Lame Duck Performance of the Meet: John Passero, Director of Racing Surfaces.

Most Obnoxious Signage: Shadwell Farm, on Saratoga’s starting gate.

Best Race Call Deep Into a Long Stretch Duel: Tom Durkin, “On the outside, it’s Ohnoitsmymotherinlaw, and she won’t go away!”

Written by John Pricci

Comments (20)

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Curlin’s Still the One

Saratoga Springs, NY, August 30, 2008--When Jess Jackson made the decision to race Curlin as a four-year-old, his stated purpose was to set out to prove the colt’s greatness and rightful place in history.

That’s why early season plans included a trip to Paris in the fall and a go at the historic Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, once considered the world’s most prestigious horse race, and still part of that particular conversation. But in the Man o’ War, he appeared to dislike the surface and those hopes were dashed.

But in today’s 55th running of the Woodward Stakes at nine furlongs and at weight-for-age, Curlin took another step toward what Jackson envisions in his mind’s eye and in doing so advanced toward a defense of his Horse of the Year championship.

Curlin did so by overcoming adversity on the first turn, as he was buffeted about between Divine Park and Out of Control while racing four horses wide of the rail, a path he would maintain throughout the race.

“On the first turn he was caught between horses but he’s a big horse, big enough to stay in there and hold his spot,” said trainer Steve Asmussen. “Once he got to the seven-furlong pole, he was pretty comfortable,” even if he was brushed again by Divine Park five furlongs from the finish.

Meanwhile the speedy Past The Point had stolen the march from the anticipated pacesetter, opening ground while shadowed closely by Wanderin Boy in sprint-like fractions of :22.89 and :46.20. The leaders opened daylight on Divine Park, while Curlin sat off that one’s hip in fourth.

For all intents, the Woodward was over at the five-furlong pole. No one was menacing from the back of the pack, and Divine Park remained one paced until the final bend where he began to retreat.

At that instant Asmussen sent the big horse after the leader, who not only was continuing to run on strongly, but was opening ground on Wanderin Boy.
“I have to give [Past the Point] a lot of credit,” said winning jockey Robby Albarado. “He set strong fractions and didn’t back up. I had to put Curlin in a drive for longer than I wanted.”

Curlin’s drive began in earnest approaching the quarter-pole as he continued his wide run toward the leader, collaring him with a furlong remaining, before grudgingly beginning to pull away with a hundred yards remaining.

“He’s getting older now so he only does what he has to do,” Albarado continued. “I had to stay after him at the end but if someone came at me, I’m sure he would have re-broke for me.”

The torrid sprint pace continued through six furlongs in 1:09.61. The surface wasn’t especially fast and the hot pace began to melt down. Past the Point reached a mile in 1:35.33 and the final furlong, in which Curlin gained then held the lead under pressure was run in an unimpressive :14.01, as he stopped the timer in 1:49.34.

While Curlin might have re-broken for Albarado had there been a need, Curlin appeared a tired horse as he approached the finish. Depending on how he comes out of the Woodward, he could attempt a repeat victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park September 27 although “not necessarily,” Jackson said.

“We’ll see if he’s fit. There’s the Breeders’ Cup down the road and then there’s Japan. Japan offered more money than the Breeders’ Cup,” added Jackson.

But Jess Jackson is not about the money. If he were, Curlin wouldn’t be racing as a four-year-old. His interest is in getting the money on Curlin’s card. A victory in the Gold Cup would make him America’s all-time leading money earner.

And Jackson wants a piece of Big Brown, too.

“I hope we meet somewhere, it would be great for the fans and for the industry. But that may not happen. [The IEAH group] is doing what’s best for their horse; they’re being careful with him, with his hoof….”

It’s likely that Asmussen didn’t try to get to the bottom of his star for the Woodward. The colt might have been cheating a bit but he was tired, too. It’s highly probable that the race will advance his conditioning.

The 2008 Woodward is in the books and on Curlin’s resume. And until another horse beats him, he’s still number one in the world.

Asmussen put the Woodward in context this way: “The mystique of Saratoga, winning a grade one here, the Graveyard of Champions, all of that works into your head leading up to this. But he came through like Curlin does. We’re extremely proud of him.”

As was his owner who’s enjoying the ride that Curlin’s providing: “Thank you for giving us this fabulous race. That truly adds to the legacy of every horse that’s ever run here, and won here. At this point, that’s more important to Curlin than money.”

* * *

The Grade 1 Forego Handicap: Lucky Island was nothing if not extremely unlucky. First Defence was nothing if not very, very good. Apparently, Lucky Island was so anxious to record his fifth straight win that he seemed to outbreak himself and bobbled at the break, allowing himself to get into a bigger jackpot when he was squeezed between rivals. In a matter of jumps, he was last.

First Defence, meanwhile, was always prominent from his inside post. And he did it over a surface where jockeys were avoiding the inside portion of the track throughout the afternoon.

And he did this while putting away two quality speed horses who pressured him for a half-mile before blowing the race wide open soon after entering the straight, passing three-quarters in 1:08.49 after a half-mile of :44.61.

Greeley’s Conquest, the longshot price in the field of 10, finished gamely from the far outside to get the place, overcoming his stumbling beginning. Ferocious Fires finished determinedly for third, but unplaced Lucky Island deserves honorable mention.

After leading rider Alan Garcia finally got the odds-on favorite to settle at the back of the pack, he made a very long, sustained mid-race run that might have even carried him into a money position between calls. He wound up sixth, but lost place by a head, neck, nose, and another head.

For leading trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, it set an unfortunate tone for Divine Park’s non-threatening effort a half hour later.

* * *

Programming Glitch Cost Bettors

Caveat Emptor was never so appropriate than in today’s eighth race. Trainer Nick Zito entered two horses for owner Robert LaPenta, Just A Coincidence and Ruler‘s Vision. Ruler’s Vision was a well bred first-time starter. Just A Coincidence was an excellent second to a highly regarded debut winner, Munnings, who raced six furlongs in 1:09 4/5 to win by 4-¼ lengths here on July 26. He would have been one of the choices.

On self-service terminals in the press box and throughout the track, you were getting 8-1 on both halves of the entry with two minutes remaining to post time. Only you weren’t. Just A Coincidence was a program scratch this morning and track announcer Tom Durkin informed the crowd during the first set of changes at noon.

But the change was never programmed into the terminals. Late scratches are indicated on the terminals with a line that runs through the middle of the program number. There’s simply no excuse for this kind of negligence.

Written by John Pricci

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This Woodward Is No Walkover

Saratoga Springs, NY, August 29, 2008--In the run-up to Saturday’s Woodward Stakes, some time between the Keys to the City and Jim and Michelle’s nuptials in the Saratoga winners’ circle, there was time to study the tale of the tape. I confess that I love these things. To wit:

Curlin’s value as a potential stud is placed in the $50 to $60-million range.

Curlin’s current earnings stand at $9,496,800, American.

His purchase price at the Keeneland September 2005 sales, ankle chip and all, was a mere $57,000.

A big boy, he weighs over 1,200 pounds.

The highest impost he’s ever carried, in the Jaguar Trophy at Nad el Sheba, the prep for the Dubai World Cup, was 132 pounds.

He’s won his races by an aggregate 47-½ lengths.

Curlin’s approximate speed leaving the starting gate is 42 mph.

The length of his stride is estimated at more than 26 feet. (thought it would have been more).

Curlin eats 24 quarts of grain daily.

His height is 16-plus hands [1 hand equals 4 inches] (he seems taller).

Curlin has raced 15 7/8ths miles in 13 career starts.

He’s won nine races lifetime, five Grade 1.

Finally, he has two white stockings on his hind legs and is the world’s #1 rated thoroughbred, with a Timeform rating of 134 pounds. A Grade 1 rating starts at 115 pounds.

But there’s another number, his Equiform performance figures, that present a numerical picture of his chances to win the Woodward.
To no one’s surprise, he is a most deserving favorite. To the surprise of many, the Woodward is far from a walkover. Thus far, Spectacular Bid he‘s not.

On paper, which is as far away from a racetrack as any handicapper can get, there are two serious entrants that merit consideration as potential Woodward winners; the speedy Wanderin Boy, and the late developing four-year-old winner of the Metropolitan Handicap, Divine Park.

As a matter of course before making a wager, I earmark the three highest Equiform final-time figures in every race in an attempt to assess a horse’s basic aptitude for speed. Then I consider three subsets:

I pay particular attention to top figures that cluster--showing an ability to perform at an optimal level for a sustained period; a horse’s bounce-ability, or lack thereof. A bounce in presidential politics is good, but not on the racetrack.

If one of the three top figures tower over the other two, however, that one likely is the aberration and not the truest measure of dependable speed/ability.

Next I emphasize ability at the distance and at different surfaces. Obviously, dirt is different from grass is different than synthetics is different than mud is different from soft, etc., etc.

A horse’s ability to run his best figures over a particular distance and/or racetrack is more significant than wins and losses. If those factors happen to combine, so much the better.

The handicapping process doesn’t stop there, of course. Whether the measure is performance figures, form-cycle pattern analysis or other traditional Handicapping 101 factors--lone speed, human connections, statistical tendencies, pedigrees, etc., handicappers need to use the entire playbook.

For sure, it’s a lot more stimulating fun than watching wheels on a machine whirl until they stop whirling. But I digress.

So, will Curlin join the pantheon of Woodward winners such as Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Buckpasser, and subsequently enter the pantheon across Union Avenue from the race course?

Given the state of the modern game, and despite Jess Jackson’s sportsmanship, Curlin is unlikely to join the ranks of Forego, Kelso or Cigar, multiple Woodward winners all. But first he must win Saturday’s 55th running of the event. Consider the three logical Woodward choices, in inverted odds order:

Despite advancing age, Wanderin Boy (8-1) hasn’t lost many steps. Last year at 6, he earned a 79-½ finishing second to subsequent Woodward winner Lawyer Ron in the Whitney. At 5, he earned figures of 80 (Pimlico), 80-¼ (Keeneland) and 80-¾ (also Keeneland, also on dirt), at distances of 9.5 furlongs, 9, and 8.5 furlongs.

Owned by breeder Arthur Hancock, Wanderin Boy earned a 79-¾, with a four-furlong pace figure of 80, winning a Saratoga 7-furlong allowances July 28. It seems counter-intuitive but it’s harder to earn higher sprint figures than distance numbers because sprinters don’t have a chance to back down the pace and save energy, essentially running full throttle all the way and thus decelerating at a faster rate.

Given that Wanderin Boy’s pace and sprint figures were compressed in his recent sprint, the likelihood of a bounce is minimized. But these are better horses and class--especially at the higher levels--still matters.

Divine Park (3-1) has performance figures that are not as compelling until you look a little deeper. He has matured at 4 and his improving figures reflect that development. Prior to running a lifetime best in the Westchester Mile, a 79, he earned a 76-¾ on March 28, his best figure to that point. Significantly, that was his two-turn debut. His pedigree should get him at least 9 furlongs.

While his Met Mile figure of 76-¼ was a regression, his new pace top of 83 was key. The new pace top is a positive pattern, the harbinger of a forward move. There‘s another way to look at it, too. From a traditional perspective, if you run fast early, you don’t run fast late.

In short, there’s a reasonable expectation that Divine Park will earn a new lifetime best figure, an 80, which puts him right in the middle of the Woodward ballgame. And is there a hotter Saratoga tandem than Kiaran McLaughlin and Alan Garcia? OK, then, Linda Rice and Alan Garcia.

Curlin (3-5), as stated, is a deserving favorite. He’s earned performance figures as high as 83-½ and 81-¾. He earned a 79-¾ winning last year’s Jockey Club and a 79-¼ winning this year’s Stephen Foster. His 81-¾ came in the Preakness at 9.5 furlongs; his 83-½ in the sloppy track Breeders’ Cup Classic at 10 furlongs.

Making the inference, then, Curlin is at his best going farther than 9 furlongs, and over a wet track. Admittedly, this is known as building a case. But the Woodward is, first and foremost, a horse race. And Saratoga is, it has been mentioned, the Graveyard of Favorites. May all the horses have a safe trip, and may the best horse win.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (2)

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