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, July 31, 2008

Good Sparma

Saratoga Springs, NY, July 30, 2008--Among the press box visitors today were Lou Raffetto and Bill Gallo. I’m a fan of both. Raffetto is the newly installed CEO of the National Steeplechase Association, Gallo is its longtime Director of Racing. After an exchange of greetings, they offered me a bribe.

I accepted.

All credentialed media were given a $50 betting voucher only good for the first race, if they chose to accept it. The rule was simple. Bet it all on the steeplechase race, the $70,000 Nine Pins Novice Stakes. “Some people complain not enough money is bet on these races,” said Raffetto. “This should help the handle a little.”

Back in the day at Newsday, I would have had no shot to accept this largesse. Back then I couldn’t even go in on a share of a race horse because the newspaper believed it a conflict of interest. As the paper’s lead handicapper, they thought I could manipulate the odds.

They really did.

It was a nice compliment but obviously they were giving me far too much credit. But rules are rules. The horse in question was picked out one afternoon by a good friend, Paul Cornman, as we watched a grass race at Aqueduct. He was taking the chart call at the time. Soon after the replay, Paul called a friend to tell him about the horse.

I turned to him and said “if that was about possibly buying the horse that just won, I’m in.” Paul bought the horse but, thanks to Newsday, I was out.

Exclusive Partner, a horse I subsequently referred to as Excluded Partner, went on to win over $400,000 on the East Coast and later was sold to California interests for a tidy sum. The trainer was an unknown newcomer named Tom Bush.

Another opportunity came up and this time I got in through the back door. I made my mother buy a five percent share. Surely, if the horse did well, mom would tithe some of the proceeds. That was none of Newsday’s business.

Lucky Mathieu, with John Hertler tacking him up, went on to win the Palisades on turf at The Meadowlands. It was before that track got too crowded and nobody went there anymore.

At 4, the little guy scooted six furlongs in 1:08 4/5 on Belmont’s Widener turf course and we all were looking forward to running at Saratoga. Even the vicarious owner, me.

But while he was being freshened on a farm awaiting the Spa meet, he came down with colic, foundered, and was humanely destroyed. Our little group had had our own Barbaro moment. It‘s like losing a member of the family.

The “bribe” had to be used in the Wednesday opener, a re-carded event canceled by last week’s torrential rains. So bet the race I did. After learning that trainer Tommy Voss was really upset by last week’s race cancellation because he thought Dynaski was sitting on a win, I put the favorite over four horses in the trifecta for $1. Twelve dollars down, 38 to go.

I then did the same with my choice, the longer half of a John Fisher uncoupled entry, Swagger Stick, who’s very fast on the flat but doesn’t fence particularly well. Took him over the same four-horse trifecta mix for another $12. Used the three remaining horses, all good prices, over the same five horses in exactas, extra tickets with our keys underneath, a “place saver.” I bet the remaining $8 to win on Swagger Stick at 11.50-1.

The NSHA wasted their money on me. I’m one of the few media types that doesn’t need a bribe to enjoy a jump race. Horses that leave the ground and also run fast are to be admired, not scorned. Steeplechase trainers are among the game’s best horsemen and year after year the percentage of winning favorites is usually higher than it is on the flat. Formful, what’s not to like?

Photo by: Toni Pricci
Cate Dolan, President of B.E.S.T., speaks with a dental patient at the Backstretch Medical Clinic
A few weeks ago, 8,000 people showed up at Belmont Park to see Curlin run for free. On any given steeplechase weekend, fans will pay upwards of $25 a carload to tail-gate at a jump meet program with no wagering. At places like Far Hills and Aiken, crowds of 25,000 or more are routine. It’s considered family entertainment.

Before the race, I pledged to share half the proceeds with B.E.S.T., the backstretch employee service team, Cate Dolan’s outfit that does good works for the people behind the scenes. It’s an organization worthy of support.

Coming over the last of 9 fences, Swagger Stick, who jumped pretty well, led by a length but couldn’t sustain his drive despite a good trip. He settled for third behind 7-5 favorite Dynaski and the $1 trifecta paid $103.75. Being the kind of sport I am, the breakage will go to B.E.S.T., as will a check for $52.

If you’d like to help, learn more at

Photo by: Toni Pricci
B.E.S.T. Backstretch Medical Clinic at the Oklahoma Training Track

A final word to Raffetto and Gallo. If you’re thinking about more bribes in the future, it needs to be for a lot more than half a C-Note. And don’t approach me in the press box ever again. You deal with Turnbull.

* * *

First Race: I’m not familiar with jockey Padge Whelan but he rode the favorite with confidence, timing his late run perfectly. Seer ran on gamely for the place. Danielle Hodson was unseated aboard Look At Him approaching the final turn. Neither horse nor rider were hurt.

Second Race: Just as the Yankees appeared to be salvaging the last of a three-game set with the Orioles, owner Peter Angelos had to settle for fourth with well meant first-time starting New York-bred Glory Gold. Benefiting from both nature and nurture, it didn’t help... Akilina was all out to keep a determined Sneakin Up safe. Dixie Time Thief, third, also should benefit from his debut.

Third Race: Kapanga sure has a nice turn of foot, swooping the group from the far outside after overcoming early trouble, giving Rajiv Maragh a natural double and getting trainer Angel Penna Jr. off the duck. Good job all around…Venetian Causeway could have been luckier. After entering the stretch wide, he angled back in, split horses, and finished strongly along the inside; bet back.

Fourth Race: Storm Boot Gold was hustled to the front and last in a hard drive. No excuses for overbet Brooker D. He’s A Lumberjack finished sneaky good on the fence late; note.

Fifth Race: First-time Ziptronic was hustled to the lead but was finished when the serious running started… Pletcher and Velazquez, remember them? Well, they’re already doing better with juveniles than they did all last season as Double Domino made an impressive debut on grass.

Sixth Race: Turf marathon goes to Summer Patriot, who blew it open soon after entering the stretch… Borobudur lagged early but finished strongly from the middle of the course… Titan Of Industry set a controlled pace in moderate fractions but three turns were one too many.

Seventh Race: Into The Wind blew by them all after cranking up big time on far turn, but he sure had a lot of pace help. Everyone near the lead at any point were not around at the finish. Not a very inspiring group.

Eighth Race: Damn, what a great finish in the listed De La Rose! Edgar Prado kept the winning Carriage Trail covered up as long as he could, angled out after straightening away to find a seem, got through and exploded nail to nail Trouble Maker, who looked all but home, for Shug McGaughey, whose horses are running very well. The runnerup is from the Tom Albertrani shed; his horses have been outrunning their odds at this meet; note.

Ninth Race: The nominal feature, the Fleet Indian, featured an excellent performance from Talking Treasure, trained by Charlton Baker and ridden skillfully by meet leader Johnny Velazquez, who’s been flashing his 2006 Spa form thus far this session… Morning Gallop came from about a thousand lengths back to nail Ice Kool Kitty at the line; follow under similar conditions.

Tenth Race: Maragh gets his triple with Valiant Humor in the finale for Greg Diprima. Probably the least inspiring day of racing at the meet.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dialogue: Another Saratoga Upset

Saratoga Springs, NY, July 29, 2008--I must admit to a certain amount of skepticism, borderline delusional paranoia, when I first heard that the New York Task Force on Retired Race Horses was conducting a fact-finding symposium on the efficacy of installing synthetic surfaces at New York State racetracks.

What does a retired race horses panel have to do with surfaces, anyway?

When I saw how heavily the deck was stacked in favor of the Polytrack, Cushion Track, Tapeta, Pro Ride folks, I was convinced that that was the case. But since it was a dark day after six days of thoroughbreds, I figured that dogs and ponies might make for a pleasant diversion.

And so I went, wearing cynicism on one sleeve and a heart on the other, and must report I see some progress in addressing issues that have driven the sport of thoroughbred racing to the edge of an abyss. To paraphrase Lou Mannheim, a fictional broker in Oliver Stone’s classic “Wall Street,” it’s time for the industry to look into that abyss, find its character, and that’s what will keep it out of the abyss:

It’s called communication. What a concept.

The eight-hour session ran to its past performances when Patrick Hooker, NYS Department of Agriculture & Markets Commissioner, repeated the platitudes that first appeared in a press release, attributed to Task Force Co-Chairman and NYS Racing & Wagering Board Chairman, Daniel P. Hogan. To wit:

“Safety is now at the forefront of issues affecting the racing industry and it’s incumbent upon this task force to undertake a cost-benefit analysis to help determine if these artificial surfaces are the best and safest route for our horses and the jockeys who ride them.”

My cynicism might have been assuaged if installing synthetic surfaces didn’t also make good politics. The sporting public doesn’t understand all the issue and nuances involved. And with 30 percent of the general population wanting to see horse racing abolished, and with a recent House subcommittee chomping at the bit to take aggressive action, some good public relations needs to happen now.

The New York session was open to the public, as opposed to a secret meeting of a few industry leaders some weeks ago in Lexington, Ky., according to the website The leaders apparently have a plan to stave off federal regulation, a rider, with benchmarks, to the Interstate Horseracing Act that permits simulcasting.

Without simulcasting, now accounting for more than four of every five dollars wagered on U.S. horse racing, it’s game over.

Unlike the House subcommittee hearing, which seemed less about fact-finding than political posturing, there was real dialoguing going on at the Fasig-Tipton Sales Pavilion between the Task Force and the five panels, representing track management; veterinarians; trainers; jockeys and researchers. The panels alternated between informing and answering Task Force questions.

Photo by: Toni Pricci
NYRA President, Charlie Hayward
As racetrackers say, it was a good visit. The reason we originally thought it possible for leashes and bridles to be given away as door prizes was because the panels were mostly representatives from pro-synthetic jurisdictions. Either that or they were people known to be synthetic friendly or had an economic interest in the companies manufacturing the artificial tracks. NYRA president Charlie Hayward said, among other things, he had concerns because some of the best companies seemed to be “thinly financed.” But he listened, then he gave testimony.

Hayward had one of the day’s best lines when he eluded a loaded question from moderator Bennett Liebman, Esq., one of racing best and trusted legal minds, Acting Director of the government law center at Albany Law School, who said: “Charlie, I guess you would have liked to have one of those racetracks here last week.”

“I would have liked not to get any rain,” Hayward said to an appreciative audience.

Like everyone who spoke on the topic, Hayward was cautious, had questions about the maintenance of synthetic surfaces, its cost--a recurring theme throughout the session-- and the need for more research. He conceded that while decisions will be based on data, there was an anecdotal component, then offered: “Last year there were fewer breakdowns at Saratoga than there were at Keeneland and Del Mar.”

When asked whether he thought the state should pay for the research, or even the installation of an artificial track, he said, “I just hope that the state finally renews the NYRA franchise and I’d be happy to pay for it myself.”

No one should be surprised that Todd Pletcher came up with a well reasoned compromise that addresses all of it. “We can have all three; turf, dirt and synthetic.”

Pletcher’s far-flung operation has two years of experience with artificial surfaces, having a division at the Hollywood Park Cushion Track and Arlington Park’s Polytrack the last two years. Three of the four sorties were successful, including the preparation of Belmont Stakes winning filly Rags To Riches, but that more study was needed. He thinks it could take 10 years.

“Build a synthetic track inside the two turf courses at Belmont Park,” where the main track takes a beating from the relentless sealing of sloppy tracks during training hours so that the surface would be fast for racing. “Sealing tracks over and over is taking a toll on training in the mornings. Constant sealing damages [the surface], weakens it.”

Pletcher’s thinking is that a synthetic track could be used for training in winter and for washed off turf races, cutting down precipitously on the number of scratches. It also could be used for training year-round, eliminating the need for compacting the main track. “With synthetics you don’t have to worry about rain.”

Everyone in racing acknowledges the positive relationship between turf and synthetic-track form even if all synthetics are not created equal. Pletcher’s suggestion means that NYRA could study the issue first hand, potentially keeping costs down while learning how to maintain the surface and, significantly, see if it really cuts down on catastrophic injuries.

Photo by: Toni Pricci
Leading rider, John Velazquez, listens to Richard Migliore's comments
Johnny Velazquez admits he’s more comfortable riding on synthetic tracks when weather conditions are foul, the rain and mud making it extremely difficult to see, the wet reins making steering problematical. Acknowledging all that, Velazquez is calling for better communication between jockeys, trainers and the tracks.

“Some people don’t want to be told that a track is too fast, be told what to do. We can put our attention into the tracks we do have as opposed to something we don’t know about.” His colleagues and all the trainers agreed on the need for much better maintenance, “a watchdog.” Current track superintendent John Passaro says NYRA doesn’t give him the tools he needs. NYRA, in bankruptcy, says it doesn’t have the money.

Both groups acknowledged each other’s differences and the need to cooperate for the greater good, but there was a glaring contradiction. To a man trainers Mark Casse, Dale Romans, Pletcher and Nick Zito said they’ve never seen any evidence of horses suffering respiratory problems from the surface.

Said Richard Migliore: “I thought I was having an allergic reaction to Pro-Ride. My eyes were getting irritated. There were discussions on and off, where some of the jockeys were talking about wheezing. We talked about it,” was about as far as it went. “When it was hot at Keeneland I was getting nosebleeds,” Velazquez said.

In New York, the jury is still out, but well meaning people were engaged in dialogue, hopefully productive. And that’s all anyone was hoping on a dark Tuesday following a rough first week in Saratoga where attendance and handle figures were a match for the bad weather and poor economy.

But the racing was good. Everyone seemed to want to keep it that way.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Breeders’ Cup Cocktails and Commentator Dreams

Saratoga Springs, NY, July 26, 2008--It was supposed to be about a Breeders' Cup challenge. The goal was simple; win, and you qualify for a day in the California sun. But as it turned out, it was more. It was a tribute to the past and a doorway to the future. And it could only happen in Saratoga.

The WHITNEY was the lynchpin of Breeders' Cup Challenge day. It was a wide open race, a full field where the favorite would pay almost four for one. What it turned into was a tour de force for a 7-year-old gelding, a throw-back to what the sport and its competitors was supposed to be about. There's only one way to describe Commentator: hickory, a word as old fashioned as his accomplishment turned out to be. Never mind that he had help from rivals that allowed him an opening gambit of :24.10 and :47.73. And when anyone made a challenge, all Johnny Velazquez had to do was turn him loose, and away he would spurt. But the big burst came from just the other side of the three-sixteenths pole, where Johnny pulled the rug out from beneath the entire field, even as Student Council made a futile albeit determined late run. The runnerup was almost five lengths away at the end, and it was another eight back to last year’s Travers runnerup, Grasshopper.

It’s rare when a 7-year-old can win a race as prestigious as the Whitney. Rarer still when he can do it twice, three years apart. To say that Nick Zito has done an amazing job, with a gelding endowed with high speed, but with nagging issues that continuously interrupted his career, would be to understate the accomplishment. With multiple Whitney victories, Commentator joined some exclusive company. Only Kelso, who won it three times, the last time as an 8-year-old, and Alfred Vanderbilt’s Discovery, his first time at three, are the Whitney's only multiple winners. But then it was just another day at the track, another day at Saratoga.

The GO FOR WAND: Ginger Punch proved much the best in the Go for Wand but it sure wasn’t easy. Somnambulating behind a pace of :24.04, :49.01 and 1:14.04, she split horses courageously at the first opportunity--less than a furlong from home--and drew off to an ultimately decisive 1-¼ length win in 1:53.43 over rivals she clearly towered over on paper.

The DIANA: Jonathan Sheppard and Julien Leparoux combined to upset the Grade 1 for fillies and mares on the turf at 9 furlongs with Forever Together in a worthy1:46.52 and punched to ticket to the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf at Santa Anita. Robby Albarado tried to steal it aboard longshot Bayou’s Lassie, opening a long lead in fast fractions, setting the table for a late runner. The winner came from last. In her prior start, she was a troubled third in the Grade 1 Just A Game at Belmont. Champion Wait A While, returning from a lengthy absence, stalked in third from the middle of the course but appeared empty all the way. Bill Mott, bidding to win his fourth consecutive Diana, finished second with Dynaforce, Kent Desormeaux up. Last year’s leading trainer, winless at the meet, suffered his second tough beat of the day (Intercoastal). But for Desormeaux, it’s been worse. Seeking his 5,000th career win, he rode number 4,998 on July 7. Number 4,999 came here opening day. After getting nailed on the line in the Diana, he showed his frustrations galloping out. By comparison, A Rod got his 500th a lot easier.

The ALFRED G. VANDERBILT: There was plenty of gas on paper and plenty of speed on the track. After speed-popping the field, Sammarco was joined almost immediately by Black Seventeen as First Defence settled in behind them third. At headstretch, First Defence came out to challenge as late running Abraaj gathered momentum out him. It took the length of the stretch, but Abraaj got there. First Defence settled for place while Sammarco was a very game third under the hot-paced circumstances. Thor’s Echo, appearing a bit short of condition, just missed the show spot and should benefit; tighter next time… Undefeated New York-bred pre-race favorite Bustin Stones was scratched with an apparent stone bruise

* * *

In the absence of Big Brown, both in today’s Jim Dandy and three weeks from now in the Travers, the role of household name falls upon Pyro (2-1), the pre-race Kentucky Derby favorite until Keeneland’s Polytrack compromised those ambitions.

If his last race is any indication--and usually last races are--Pyro is back. He appeared his old self, big-kicking to win the Grade 3 Northern Dancer at 1-1/16 miles at Churchill. He’ll go an extra sixteenth today for the Asmussen barn that already has four wins this meet. Shaun Bridgmohan, per usual, rides the Midsummer Derby prepster. There is sufficient speed in here to suit his late rally.

Most of that early gas will come in the form of Peter Pan runnerup Mint Lane (5-2), a winner of the G2 Dwyer last time out. Given an added sixteenth and a second turn, it figures that Mint Lane could be long gone as this group heads into the backstretch. We’re counting on it. The super aggressive Eibar Coa, riding with a vengeance at this meet, will set the tone. Trainer Jimmy Jerkens got married last week. Today he shoots for the honeymoon money.

Belmont Stakes winner Da’ Tara and stablemate Anak Nakal both “need to run” according to Nick Zito and we’ll take the trainer at his word. Besides, it seems a Grade 2 stage isn’t big enough for the recent Hall of Famer.

One horse on the come is Iowa Derby winner Tiz Now Tiz Then (6-1), who will try to extend his current winning streak to four. He is blessed with tactical speed, draws the advantageous pole at the distance and has never been beaten with Miguel Mena in the boot.

The final analysis? Speed is always dangerous.

* * *

Big Brown breezed six furlongs in 1:10.86 at Aqueduct Saturday morning, finishing well and galloping out strongly, according to IEAH spokesman Michael Sherack..

* * *

First Race: Like we said, Eibar Coa is on a mission. He gunned cleverly bet Benny the Waiter to the front, withstood pace pressure, and drove home clearly best while putting odds-on, overbet returnee Rollers in close quarters at the sixteenth pole, getting home in 1:09.74. Good race ride. Talented Rollers will benefit from the run; note… Rajiv Maragh rode the hair off Borrowing Limit for third. Good for him, we love to see that!

Second Race: Money came in late on Munnings, a $1.7 Tabor/Magnier/Smith purchase. Big, blocky, short-coupled Speightstown colt shot to the lead, withstood strong-middle-move pressure from Just a Coincidence and proved clearly best in the lane, the chaser finishing second best. Probably a key race in training, given its half-mile in :44.92 and final time in 1:09.84... Bill Mott firster Successful Mission showed early and mid-race speed then finished greenly along the rail, ridden out. He needed it and will benefit; follow.

Third Race: Wide open turf mile and a sixteenth would have made a terrific superfecta event despite it being a relatively small field of nine, the winning favorite, Baronial, paying $10.60. There was no super wagering due to the presence of an entry. That’s against the rules. Note to State Racing and Wagering Board: In trifecta wagering involving a stable coupling when both stalemates finish in the top three, the winning trifecta is paid on the first four finishers, as if the second part of the entry were non-existent. So, would it be OK, then, if the super were paid on the first five finishers, should both halves finish within the top four? Once they know the rules, horseplayers can live with anything. Trust me on this. Baronial, meanwhile, loved his new blinkers. Johnny V,. rode him perfectly and the Shugster is now off the duck. Debuting Intercoastal ran super; did everything right but win. Will not be a maiden for long.

Fourth Race: Note to the State Racing and Wagering Board, Part II: In this race, there were two entries. In both instances, mates were scratched leaving eight betting interests and no entries. But there was no superfecta wagering because the entry rule precluded the association from carding it as a superfecta event. So please consider amending the rule. Thank you... Prado rode and rated Acai perfectly off a strong two-turn pace, getting home just before surging favorite, Unbridled’s Heart.

Note to the State Racing and Wagering Board, Take III: I noticed that Eibar Coa and Alan Garcia both received seven day suspensions for “careless riding” in yesterday’s Lake George in which winning My Princess Jess and fourth finisher Receipt easily could have been disqualified, certainly the latter, in our view. I think it’s a good idea to give the stewards some latitude in assessing punishment when justified. But even if the riders both received days, how is justice served when the appeal process delays justice. Taking seven days at Christmas and losing seven days at Saratoga are horses of different colors. Riders might think twice if they knew they could lose a week's worth of business at America's most prestigious track.

Fifth Race: Garrett Gomez timed Stepaside’s late run perfectly, drawing away late from Woodrunner, who made a strong mid-race move but tired from the effort. Gomez in from California for Challenge Day; Tom Voss up from Maryland for some state-bred loot… Piazza Di Spagna finished like a rocket from the middle of the course and just missed the place. The inner turf continues to favor late rally types.

Sixth Race: Did you see the fire? Cornelio Velasquez did. Going seven-eighths in splits of :22.28, and :44.98, Tiz It led until the three-sixteenths pole where overlay Joppa Flat’s (34-1) ran by and drew off dramatically, galloping out 12 to 15 lengths in front of the field after striking the finish in 1:21.71. Underlay White Tie stalked the pace and tried without excuse.

Eleventh Race: Ya Think, sitting behind dueling leaders, tipped wide at headstretch and loomed a winner, until Lyke a Hurricane, beneath Prado, lived up to his name, trainer David Duggan’s first win at the meet.

Written by John Pricci

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