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.
 

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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Sunday, August 10, 2008


Just Another Day in Paradise


Saratoga Springs, NY, August 9, 2008--Although it didn’t appear so at first, it turns out that NYRA management made a good call when it decided to cancel Friday’s card moments before the running of the third race.

The argument was that they called it prematurely, that fans had time to spare, could busy themselves with simulcasting or picnicking, and that there would be plenty of daylight to finish out the card.

But the wash-out was worse than it first appeared. It took four to five hours to complete the repair, working, then reworking, the surface until it was suitable and safe for racing.

The track had washed away in at least three places between the five-sixteenths and quarter-poles, according to John Velazquez on Friday, and Robby Albarado said that the water atop of the surface was extremely deep.

The surface was fast, albeit inside-speed favoring, and the turf courses yielding for the Saturday program..

The third Saturday card of the meet had a celebratory theme: “Tradition Turns 140.” Historical vignettes, featuring a Saratoga Top Ten, from Colin to the great Kelso, twice a winner of the Whitney, were presented throughout the day, courtesy of the National Museum of Racing. Racing related, and good stuff.

The occasion of Saratoga’s 140th race meet might have made a greater impact had a graded stakes of some kind been offered as part of the racing program. But, hey, there were many warm bodies in the building, 31,497 of them, and not a raindrop in sight.

One could hardly ask for more.
* * *

First Race: Moore Miles and Great Emperor in his sights from the five-eighths pole, looked like a cinch to go by at any point, and he did. Only Great Emperor came again on the fence as Moore Miles went to hanging. It’s early yet, but the course seemed to play honestly.

Second Race: Ryan’s Comet, international good thing, was bet early and often. Todd Pletcher newcomer stalked from close range, moved up to challenge, then stopped. Second-timer In Speight Of It got underway too late; note… The experienced Flying Private showed speed throughout from the inside, was challenged throughout from the outside, and stayed gamely for the upset, Jamie Theriot in from Chicago, riding this one for Wayne Lukas. Theriot in to ride Closeout in the Madame Jumel for Tom Proctor. Gets shipping money home here ($18.00).

Third Race: R Fast Favorite just too much race horse for this group, leading them throughout the entire 6-½ furlongs. Second over the surface here July 27, Rick Schosberg dropped him a notch and had him spotted correctly. Big Brain came on well too late to impact the winner but showed improvement in second start for Greg DiPrima, who’s been very live this meet. Lost Going Home sat a rail trip under Channing Hill rating, tipped wide entering to challenge but offered little; class drop, please.

The James Marvin: Terrific race on paper lived up to its PPs with the performance of the top two finishers. The very speedy Delaware Valley performer Eternal Star took command immediately, was chewed on by Brilliant Son down the backside and rounding the far turn, drove clear, then repelled the late bid of super sharp Bold Start, an Ellis shipper who proved he belonged with these. No excuses, however, for slim favorite Noonmark, who should have benefited from the hot pace. Props to Ramon Dominguez who wouldn’t let the four-year-old surrender, and to Michael Trombetta, who’s kept this horse sharp all season. Eternal Star (1:08.79) improved his record to 8-for-13 lifetime, and did so coming come in :24 seconds flat after a half in :44.79. Good show.

The Solomon Northup: A rough-house event. Soon after entering the far turn, Dr. D.F.C. under Aldo Arboleda, commenced a huge move along the rail from last. His momentum carried him into third, still inside, when Arboleda had a decision to make; check his mount or slip through between horses. He chose the later and in doing so carried Tommasi several paths wide into the stretch, at which point the continued coming out slightly to brush that rival after straightening away. The incident appeared to cost Tommasi second money but at the point of contact, no salient camera angle was available. If this were an NFL replay we were looking at, the evidence would have been deemed inconclusive. A very tough call but, in context, probably the right one. It was trainer Rodrigo Ubillo‘s first Saratoga victory. (For the record, I took 2-1 on the runnerup, Stud Muffin, to win. I liked the name).

Sixth Race: Ramon Dominguez made the winning mid-race move on Volponi Dragon, opening a clear advantage before Burnished Copper swooped up to join him, then head him, before hanging on the money, out-bobbed by the winner under relentless left-hand pressure from Dominguez.

The Madame Jumel: Say what you wish about the IEAH folks but they continue making astute purchases, although one never knows for sure as the sales prices are never revealed. But 20 minutes after Plan--the Aidan O’Brien-trained winner of the G3 International Stakes at the Curragh last time out--finished second to fellow Euro Winchester in the G1 Secretariat at Arlington Park, Ariege roared home from the center of the course to win this mile on the Spa inner turf over last run strong finisher Closeout, who, as the race was run, might have been best, operative word being might. Dawdling behind very soft fractions, Theriot cranked up on the far turn, the filly’s momentum taking him seven wide into the lane. After gathering his filly, she finished with a flurry for place without ever seriously threatening the obviously talented winner. The inner seemed to play a lot slowly than the Mellon course did in the previous race, the fractions here going in :25.42, :50.35 and 1:15.14. The final quarter was run in an eye-opening :23.63. These talented three-year-olds should only get better from here; follow.

Eighth Race: A training double for Lukas, something we have seen for a while at the old Spa. Theriot gunned Nautical Storm from his outside slip and was joined immediately by Captivating Cat and Shaun Bridgmohan from the fence and the duel was on. After an opening gambit in :21.48, the winner took command into the stretch in :44.20 and kept right on going, stopping the timer in 1:10, a double for Theriot. The runnerup continued gamely, narrowly holding off Darkside Holiday at the line.

Ninth Race: He’s only run three times but when he run, Forest Command runs. Making his third lifetime start, he stalked the pace of longshot Bucky Came Come, took the lead when Edgar Prado asked, and drew off, winning in full stride, ridden out, in 1:21.89 for John Ward, now 2-for-3 with one second at the meet. Next stop, stakes.

The Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Magenta: Fairbanks is back! At least when he gets the right horses, when he’s allowed to set the tempo and when he finds himself on a speed friendly surface, as was the case in the day’s nominal feature. Richard Migliore again showed why he’s a superb tactical rider, setting a realistic, controlled tempo, before pulling the rug at the seven-sixteenths pole, winning the mile and three-sixteenths two-turner right there on the far turn. It was leading trainer Todd Pletcher’s 10th win of the meet, giving him a three race lead over current runnerup Steve Asmussen.

Eleventh Race: Mr. Sidney made the last run under Rajiv Maragh to take the nightcap going away, as Rogue Victory also finished well late for the place. Favorite Storm Harbor had a perfect trip in a no-excuse performance, fourth. It was victory number two for last year’s leading trainer, Bill Mott.

Written by John Pricci

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