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, August 02, 2009

Meanwhile, Back on the Racetrack…

5:09 PM: One thing about sprint races at Monmouth Park: They're very popular and never fail to fill. A bad track doesn't hurt that much either. Only one scratch out of the Teddy Drone, and it was Fleet Valid's mid-race move that got it done in a rather sprightly 1:08.77 by 3/4s of a length over Keep Laughing, who whittled down the lead but ran out of.a sharpness. But maybe it wouldn't have mattered, anyway. "He loves Monmouth Park and he likes a wet track," explained trainer Scott Volk. He had it his way today...

No matter what happens an hour from now, Todd Pletcher and Johnny Velazquez won't go home empty. The Taylor Made Matchmaker was rescheduled to the main track and was won by a horse that had never run on dirt before, much less on wet dirt in a Grade 3. But this much was known: South African-bred Captain's Lover is a good mare. You don't win six of 11 starts in group company if you're not. No surprise either that the Captain Al filly got heads-up handling from Velazquez.

"Once she got comfortable and started striding smoothly, she just race her race," the rider said. "She's trained so good over [the main track] in the morning but any time you have a horse that's never run on it, you're a little nervous," said her trainer. But as she increased her two length mid-stretch advantage to seven at the finish, those fears melted in the rain.

3:38 PM: Between the next two races, two with a good deal of history, we could only muster seven horses--total--for both races. Just seems like the Jersey Derby and Regret deserved better.

In the Derby, Endymion wasn't all that anxious to get involved early, but did he come running late! Joe Bravo rode him out to a 1-3/4 lengths victory over well named 2-5 favorite, Despite the Odds.

"Mr. [Christophe] Clement makes you look good," said Bravo. "I was real confident [because in his] last race he showed that he is really maturing."

One thing's for certain. The tank was by no means empty as he crossed the finish line; note.

The Regret sprint for fillies ands mares was as exciting as a three-horse race can get with D'Wild Ride wearing down Fearless Leader in the last two jumps for the head victory in 1:09.52. How close was it?

"I wasn't sure about the finish," said winning trainer Joe Orseno. "I turned to Brian [owner Brian Miller] and asked if she won."

"This filly really proved her class today," said jockey Carlos Marquez Jr. "I wasn't sure if she was going to go by that horse. It's not often a horse comes from behind in a three-horse race."

2:31 PM: Fabrizio Jiminez, who was thrown when his fourth race mount, Ballado Alert, appeared to clip heels and went down, was taken to the Jersey Shore Trauma Center where it was determined he suffered a fractured right hip,, right tibia and fibula, and a possible fractured right ankle.

Jiminez also suffered a laceration to his scalp. Awaiting word on Cotto. He was sent by Dr. Chinnici to the Trauma Center for X-Rays of his back and abdomen.

Actin Good was a desperate and thrilling winner of the overnight Majestic Light. "We've been pointing for this race all along," said trainer Bobby Dibona.

Hey, Bobby, how about giving me a call next time. I live in Saratoga. I'm in the book.

Meanwhile, good job by Kent Desormeaux, getting Actin Good to switch leads in the shadow of the wire and getting the job done.

2:13 PM: Not good, Part II. A second horse went down, this one in the fourth race, this one on the dirt, and this one more calamitous than the first. Tale Of Victory suffered a catastrophic injury and was euthanized. Pedro Cotto Jr. was the second rider of the day taken back to the room in an ambulance.

The jockeys were polled, and it didn't take them long to decide: the remaining turf races at Monmouth Park will be run on the sloppy main track, including two graded stakes.

Racing For Cover
Racing For Cover
Photo by: Toni Pricci
1:31 PM: Not good. The skies opened to a deluge just as the turf field for the fourth race was loading into the gate. Entering the backstretch, Ballado Alert appeared to clip heels and went down, throwing Fabrizio Jiminez heavily to the ground. Corredor's Song with Channing Hill was forced to alter course severely,

Hill lost his balance and was pitched. He walked away. Jiminez was taken away in the track ambulance. The horses appeared unhurt. There are two graded turf stakes today. Chances of their remaining on that surface don't look good. The track has been downgraded to sloppy (and sealed). Lightning and thunder has arrived.

It's like we never left Saratoga.

12:26 PM: Was saying to NTRA’s Eric Wing five minutes before the opener: “Don’t understand why the #6 is 2-1, should be even money. Obviously, I was invested.

I got my answer during the running. I’m figuring that the wise guys knew that Eddie Castro would stalk five wide all the way around with Clear Faith while Deep Run Doon and Channing Hill would hug the fence throughout. The wide trip even cost Clear Faith the place.

They Must Be Giving Something Away
They Must Be Giving Something Away
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Life got good: Sphynx Key got a great ride from Jeremy Rose; excellent use of restraint despite the mare being a little rank early, ground saving, threading the needle and finishing with a flurry late: $27.80.

No red board here as we made the note in the comment section under yesterday’s Free Race Analysis section. I’m still a little in shock. Wendell made a pick at Saratoga; sixth race, check it out.

Track fast but sealed for the third. No pronounced bias. Just usual speedy, stalky Monmouth Park. Was told maintenance took a little of the cushion off the top in anticipation of the rains.

They say the Philly Park rail is completely under water. The hope is the system moves East first, instead of straight up I-95.

Calm Before the Storm
Calm Before the Storm
Photo by: Toni Pricci

10:50 AM: You know what they say about bad luck, the one about having no luck at all, otherwise. That’s Monmouth Park.

Hyperbole? Two words: Breeders’ Cup.

Right now, it’s humid an overcast. Has been since 7 AM at least. But, as the day progresses, 30 percent chance of thunderstorms, 40 percent, 70 percent.

And post time for the 13th (that’s no typo) is scheduled for 6:15 PM.

Should they even bother to run the Haskell? And it’s not about Rachel. No need for last names here. Like, you know, Madonna.

Last year, Big Brown.  This year…?
Last year, Big Brown. This year…?
Photo by: Toni Pricci

Rather, it’s about her trainer. Five years ago, Todd Pletcher was THE dominant force. Now, it’s Steve Asmussen.

What kind of week is he having. The opening day Schuylerville with Hot Dixie Chick; the Jim Dandy with Kensei in a worthy 1:47.90. More on this weekend later.

Asmussen got Kensei to peak in the Dwyer, a real breakthrough performance. Yesterday, he repeated.

Now I know he had the table set for his Soul Warrior in West Virginia. Usually, 23-1 chances do need a little help.

Two guys told me Mine That Bird looked a bit short of condition. Haven’t seen it for myself yet, but I am a little surprised, even though the ultimate target is the Travers.

I’ll be very curious to see not only the W. Va. Derby replay but the training regimen Chip Woolley has planned for his big hoss.

I’m starving, must be the ocean air.

Or the fact that I woke up this morning. We’re back.

Written by John Pricci

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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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