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

Saturday, July 26, 2008

A Couple of Bad Calls Won’t Help Matters

Saratoga Springs, NY, July 24, 2008--Until the VLTs are finally on line and start making a difference, the fortunes of the association, horsemen and municipal and state governments will live with the austerity program now in place. What can you expect when funds are low everywhere?

With the infrastructure in disrepair, the association working on the umpteenth extension of the franchise extension and living on the scraps left from bankruptcy protection, cost cutting measures are in place everywhere.

For whatever the reason, economic or otherwise, the NYRA marketers may want to rethink its position on the discontinuation, of all things, the bobble-head doll, or some other giveaway on day two of a 36-day meet.

Yes, I know, but I’m not kidding. The spinners have spoken. Not one of them showed up Thursday.

Traditionally, the second day of the meet is the weakest of the season. Thursday’s weather was enough to keep ducks away. But 21,000 fewer people--read turnstile clicks--than last year, when the weather was good, is still an alarming number. Thursday’s on-track attendance of 10,124 probably was comparable to pre bobble-head meets.

Horseplayers showed up, but they bet less money on wet tracks. For that reason, most tracks in the simulcast era, when faced with the decision to label a surface subjected to precipitation, generally will err on the side of fast.

So between the foul weather on-track and the sealed, sloppy surface, Thursday’s on-track handle was off almost $900,000. Throw in another $100,000 decline in Belmont-to-Saratoga handle, another half million from the state’s OTBs and over $1.6 million from interstate sources, Thursday’s grand total was $9.8 million, off $3 million--$9.8 from last year’s $12.9.

A bobble-head giveaway, absurd as it seems, would have helped, maybe substantially. A sunny day certainly would have helped. But the giveaway would have attracted plenty of turnstile clicks. Some spinners might have stayed and even bet a couple of bucks.

If there was an economic component that went into NYRA’s decision, it ought to go back to its cost-analysis people. Friday was a lot better with 20,626 in the building. After two days of deluge, yesterday had an opening day feel. Attendance was up 2,000 from last year.

But on Thursday, NYRA could have used all the help it could give itself. Maybe next year. Happy Challenge Saturday.

First Race: Fast and soft the official track conditions under idyllic sunny skies. Perhaps damp-fast might have been more apt. Co-favorite Clemens (steroids off?) won the opener in routine fashion for Paul Pompa and Pat Reynolds. No word as to whether Michael Iavarone placed a phone call to his trainer after 3-year-old Langfuhr colt crossed the finish line.

Second Race: Join in the Dance, rank in the paddock, post parade and pre-loading, was put into the game from the break and led the special-weight maiden juveniles a merry chase for Todd Pletcher and Johnny Velazquez. Remember them? Tell the truth; colt did pay $8.80, after all, after completing the distance in 1:04.29... Bill Mott debuting entry, bet to 8-5 favoritism, had their issues. Pious David bore in at sixteenth pole, very green, as Kent D. continues to chase career win 5,000. Stablemate Charlie Trumper finished fast from the middle of the track, probably will pay to follow both… FTS Stomp loomed boldly into and through headstretch, then hung; figures to benefit, note.

Third Race: Giant Killer strikes! But I kid The Chief. He hates that Giant Killer stuff. Today’s third didn’t have a name attached but with only five betting interests and two heavy favorites, So Glitzy, 17-1, came again gamely to edge out Mushka at the line…Lauren’s Tizzy lost all chance at the break.

Fourth Race: Second maiden event for juveniles, this one for 50-claimers. There was just not enough time to do this race justice. Check the replay at The start was ragged, for openers… Beer Pong cranked up four wide at three-eighths and finished gamely, refusing to lose the place, a promising debut…Shoe Strap and Mitchell Park missed the break…Favored Grimaldi was ridden hard to take the lead, raced in the clear but tired without excuse… Lofty Banner was going well late at the finish while ridden out; note… Winning Midtown Bullet made his winning move around two rivals mid-turn, took the lead and drove clear; second win of the meet for Chad Brown… Persian appeared to be climbing early, settled, made strong run on deeper rail on turn to midstretch, altered course outside and finished gamely for third; should have been second, note.

Fifth Race: Formful exacta result. The Cuban Hawk established the pace quickly for Dutrow/Prado team and set realistic fractions to the eighth pole, where ground-saving, perfect-tripping Jump It ran by beneath Jeffrey Sanchez; John Terranova now off the duck.

Sixth Race: What a race! Looked like the ’44 Carter Handicap coming down the stretch. Real Estate on the fence, Aquino three across the track and Visible Truth between them; completely anybody’s race from the eighth pole to the finish pole, but it was Real Estate for Bruce Levine on the fence, a natural double for Eibar Coa and Levine’s first of the meet. Aquino edged Visible Truth for place, three noses across the line in 1:09.38. Great show.

Seventh Race: If you want to see an example of patience and don’t have time to find a dictionary with Ramon Dominguez’ picture alongside, check the replay of this race. The rider absolutely was the difference here. Twice he had opportunities to rattle and twice he resisted, instead remaining covered up with Fort Apache Star as if it were some damn turf race. The pace was both hot and contested in this starter allowance and not only did Dominguez not fall into two potential traps but he waited for a seem at the sixteenth pole. And, as Mr. Durkin intoned, “into the breach goes Fort Apache Star.” Eddie Kennelly’s talented sprinter got it done and even appeared to have a bit something left. But don’t take my word. Check it out for yourself. It’ll take only 1:16.49 of your time.

The LAKE GEORGE: Lots of trouble for a six-horse field. Eibar Coa bulled his way between horses in upper stretch with My Princess Jess and the filly responded with her class, flashing an excellent turf of foot despite the soft ground, a triple for Coa. But the poor French filly never had a chance. Mousse Au Chocolat missed the break badly, was rank early, settled, angled out for the drive, then was cut down when Alan Garcia and Receipt came out directly into her path, nearly dropping the filly and rider.

Christophe Lemaire did well to stay aloft, making two post-race observations: “My filly couldn’t pick it up. The inside horse crossed my line and I nearly fell down.” At that point, it was impossible to know whether the incident cost the chocolate filly a share of the purse. But that wasn’t the point in this situation. If that wasn’t a careless ride, there’s no such thing. And so the Phipps filly was allowed to keep fourth money and Garcia dodged a bullet. Terrible call.

Ninth Race: Sashay Renee wore down a game Sweet Bama Breeze, Shaun Bridgmohan’s third of the meet and Stanley Hough’s first. Third finisher Welcome to Wista will win her maiden condition next out if she takes to Spa turf the way she took to main track, seizing the show after altering course late; follow.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Sunset Boulevard to Sunset Racing

Saratoga Springs, NY, July 24, 2008--Let’s face it, there’s nothing like a good rainy day movie. And since we all have some time to kill before lining up at the wickets, and since there’s no time to see “The Dark Knight” and get to the track in time for the first rolling double except, of course, on Sunset Fridays, I have the solution.

If atmosphere matters--and for true fans it’s the straw that stirs racing’s drink--then queue up at the Racing Hall of Fame and Museum across Union Avenue from the race course and go see the Hennegan brothers acclaimed documentary on racetrack life, “the first Saturday in May.”

Parenthetically, you don’t have enough time to see “The Dark Knight,” anyway. The film, while very entertaining, is too long, the action sequences at the end repetitive, even if they are cool. Part of the dumbing down process I expect. But seeing it is mandatory.

Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker has been hailed as one of cinema’s all-time villains. It just might be. In some sequences, in a voice barely audible, he conveys a panoply of evil. Ledger’s malevolence and immorality is palpable, making for a chilling movie experience.

For Ledger, it ended in tragedy. But from silent films legend Conrad Veidt, to Cesar Romero, Mark Hamill and Jack Nicholson, the character found the dark side of every soul it inhabited. Nicholson was bitter when he lost the role to Ledger, and when told of the circumstances surrounding the young actor’s death, he said, “well, I warned him.”

While there might be some wistful moments in the Hennegans’ film--the Barbaro story and, to a lesser extent, the injury to Achilles of Troy that aborted his 2006 Kentucky Derby dreams come to mind--“the first Saturday in May” is a celebration of racetrack life.

As handicappers, the Hennegans didn’t do badly selecting trainers, either. They chose Michael Matz (Barbaro, of course), Dan Hendricks (eventual favorite Brother Derek), Bob Holthus (undefeated Lawyer Ron), Kiaran McLaughlin (eventual Belmont winner Jazil), Frank Amonte (Achilles of Troy) and Louisville native Dale Romans (Sharp Humor), a trail that takes the audience from Dubai to Kentucky to Queens to Florida to Hot Springs and finally back to Kentucky, for the playing of “that song.”

Winner of awards at the Savannah and Austin film festivals, “the first Saturday in May” is screened at the Museum virtually every morning, twice on dark Tuesdays. Find details at The Hall of Fame screening is $5, the DVD, with a charity component, costs a bit more. If you don’t like it, you probably should consider another pastime.

First Race: Never mind, there was none. But you just knew that track would be more tiring as rains continued to pelt the area, and it would play that way. The surface was sloppy and sealed. The rail was not the place to be, so check those chart footnotes.

Second Race: Who does Steve Asmussen think he is, the Todd Pletcher of 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006? After tripling opening day, second starter Stunning Electra took control leaving headstretch and drove clear, Dorothy’s Essence finished strongly down the center for place.

Third Race: Peleliu got Wesley Ward off the duck with his main man Elvis Trujillo in the building, who stalked half the race then led the rest of the way home, winning under pressure.

Fourth Race: Seven in a Row was scratched pre-race after rearing in the gate, that‘s one… Tiring nature of the track responsible for huge upset. Opening day, Scott’s Choice, under similar circumstances, would have held sway after opening three-length margin into the lane. Worth A Shot, lagging early, circled up to challenge and wore down the leader in the final strides for James Corrao and Rudy Rodriguez. The previously 0-for-30 Worth A Shot paid $71.50 straight, snapping an 0-for-30 this year for his owner/trainer. Yippee, one and all.

Fifth Race: Looks like Mine All Mine has reached maturity. Juvenile filly was making her fourth career start, even trying stakes company at Churchill. She stalked from the outside, took command, then took flight late for a very impressive score, a double for Ward and Trujillo. Back to stakes company she goes...Venado should benefit from her debut, a little better than evenly late after breaking from the fence and racing inside much of the way; follow.

Sixth Race: Bidding to make it a triple for himself and Ward, Trujillo replicated his Mine All Mine ride, stalking and taking the lead, seemingly home. But Cornelio Velasquez got Abby Morgan in high gear and that team grabbed the leader 30 yards from the line.

Word comes at 3:58 pm Thursday that Friday’s turf races will be rescheduled to main track but the Grade 2 Lake George remains on grass. A little later it was announced that race replays once again will be available on the NYRA website.

Seventh Race: If it was meant as a prep for the Grade 1 King’s Bishop, it was a success. Triple Crown trail-er Visionaire returned from a six week freshening with blinkers added, took advantage of a hot three-ply battle, settled in midstretch, and zoomed by on the inside a sixteenth out, winning by a bigger margin than seemed possible when trailing at the three-eighths pole, in 1:17.15. Alan Garcia timed the move superbly; savvy way beyond his years.

Eighth Race: MTO Loving Vindication had the look of split silk in the post parade and ran to her looks. She cleared, rated toward the inside on the turn, and drew off under a strong hand ride in 1:03.62 for the 5-½ furlongs; follow… Rizzi’s Twist made a strong late rally to nail the place, a gutsy performance late.

The SANFORD: After three late scratches, including the two early line choices, a field of four took the track for the 94th running of the Grade 2 over a surface, still sealed, but now rated muddy. The favorite was Desert Party, a $2.1 million juvenile purchase, looked the part, with plenty of size and scope. He had a very rough trip in his Polytrack debut at Arlington Park at 4-½ furlongs, so it was hard to know for sure what to expect. Next time, expect another classy performance. Forced to steady from close quarters on the rail after trying to sneak through inside pacesetting Officer Ipod, he re-rallied in midstretch and drove clear with authority in 1:12.23 over the tiring surface. The pacesetter held the place gamely after being challenged on all sides three-sixteenths from the wire. Given the conditions, it’s hard to project how good these colts really are, but they’ll be time to figure that out later in the meet.

Tenth Race: Roddy Valente and Michael Aro have a habit of showing up in the winner’s circle here, and this time they did so as a team, taking the finale with King Mobay, driving hard beneath Johnny Velazquez to wear down pacesetting Touchdown Kid, who tired dramatically in the final furlong. Didn’t see anything to bet back, either.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Saratoga: Where the Absurd Is Sublimely Routine

Saratoga Springs, NY, July 23,2008--The day dawned…well…crummy. Heavy rains foiled backstretch plans to visit with early arrivals, and spirits were further dampened when I learned that Thomas J. Kelly and his wife Fran won’t be visiting the Spa City this year.

Hall of Fame ceremonies won’t be the same without seeing TJ and Fran in attendance. Hope the Florida sun has them on the mend, and soon.

One hundred six horses were entered overnight in 10 opening day races. After early scratches, 66 remained. So much for good intentions. On balance it was an interesting, challenging program, even if eight of the 10 races, including two grass events, were carded at six furlongs or shorter.

There was real potential for tertiary contenders to fall between the cracks at boxcar mutuels. And, of course, there was the requisite appearance of two hands full of well bred juveniles in the pair of races carded for maiden two-year-olds.

Today’s turf races were rescheduled to the main track. Not a tough call when as much as five inches of rain was projected, today alone. The real shame is the impact it could have on Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Challenge Day program.

In only its second year, the new and improved Whitney day extravaganza has evolved into Saratoga’s second most prestigious card, Travers notwithstanding, with three Grade 1s and a Grade 2. But, at least until 1 p.m., dear diary, we’ll remain optimistic.

Any chance the association would match last year was eliminated by the conditions. Over 30,000 welcomed the runners back to the Spa in ‘07, yesterday’s crowd falling about 8,000 off that mark.

Last year’s record handle was made possible when only six of 164 races were taken off the turf. The NYRA will pass that mark on the meet’s second day, as all of Thursday turf races have been rescheduled, following today’s five surface switches. And Friday’s turf is iffy, too, according to NYRA president Charlie Hayward.

Later it was announced that Thursday’s steeplechase has been canceled altogether, and will be rescheduled for next Wednesday, making that day’s card 10 races. Thursday’s second race, which will be the day’s opener, will go as the “second race” at its pre-scheduled post time of 1:35 p.m. Any questions?

Hayward said there were a number of opening day glitches, from closed replay centers due to a lack of television sets that did not arrive in a timely fashion from downstate, to some inoperable betting windows.

“Obviously we’re a little disappointed,” Hayward said, before adding he was happy to report that the Gary Contessa trainee who got loose on the main track, crossed Union Avenue, and proceeded to his barn at the Oklahoma training track, was fine. The human race may be a little overrated.

“To see people lined up in the rain at 11 o’clock in the morning waiting to get in was something I’d never experienced before,” said executive vice president Hal Handel. He had better get used to it. This is Saratoga, mister.

First Race: Announcer Tom Durkin warms up the crowd, the horses leave the starting gate and “they’re off at Saratoga.” Try that one in February at Aqueduct… The meet’s not even 1:25.06 seconds old and “the Graveyard” claims its first favorite: Coach Butts: dull, no excuses. Edgar Prado tried to steal it aboard Saint Barr; almost did. But Star Player’s rally made Eibar Coa and Chad Brown Saratoga’s leading jockey and trainer, respectively. Track was sloppy and sealed for the opener.

Second Race: First baby race of the meet goes to favorite Cognito, who speed pops, is joined by newcomer Gone Astray almost immediately, then by Forest Lord, and then by Brave Victory, four across the track. They remained that way virtually to the finish, with Cognito (1:05.11) impressing with gameness under fire (:22.64), and Brave Victory, surging late in a promising debut for Nick Zito. Robert LaPenta colt won’t be a maiden for long.

Third Race: Once Accredit was able to engineer splits of :23.01 and :46.57, it was over, consecutive winning favorites and one for the McLaughlin/Garcia team; clearly best. Golden Age finished very well for place, shading :24 seconds, the winner home in 1:10.41.

Excellent news advisory comes across the cyber-desk. In addition to rolling doubles, the State Racing and Wagering Board has approved superfecta wagering on all races with a sufficient number of entrants. Sanity prevails; another Saratoga upset.

Fourth Race: First two-turner of the day; track remains sloppy and sealed. The competition and running time might not have been spectacular--state-bred maidens originally carded for turf--but Theartofcompromise made a most impressive two-turn debut in the slop. Cranked up on the turn, he swept to command and drew off in a dominating 9 furlong performance, just loving the surface. Flying Zee Stable had a great week recently, including last Saturday’s Virginia Oaks, and started quickly here. They had a great Saratoga two years ago and might be loaded again; note. The outfit uses principally Carlos Martin and Phil Serpe in New York; Serpe off the duck on day one.

Fifth Race: The three top betting choices combined for the trifecta, Lookin at Her (Mike Hernandez/Cornelio Velasquez) rushing passed a tiring, fast-pace setting favorite Fiddlers Afleet before holding off the well meant first-timer Vinnie Van Go, who found stride and went into overdrive too late. Next time out for Vinnie, everything else being equal.

Sixth Race: Kent Desormeaux scored with Jazz Nation, giving Asmussen a training double and himself career victory 4,999. Kent D. had been sitting on 4,998 since it seems like forever. Good Card rallied nicely after being switched to the outside by Ramon Dominguez. Four-year-old Good and Tough colt is one hard tryin’ little dude.

Seventh Race: Once this race was rescheduled, Building New Era towered over the group on and went out and proved it. Start the Rick Dutrow parlay.

Eighth Race: Complete the Rick Dutrow parlay, or the cold rolling double, if you prefer, with Stormin Normandy. The Saratoga humidity didn’t prove too much for the IEAH four-year-old. He appeared to win easier than his stablemate. The Dutrow Double paid $6.60. Hope he wasn’t planning on Siro’s for dinner.

The SCHUYLERVILLE Before the opening-day Grade 3, it rained in torrents and, as predicted, Asmussen won it. Only not with favored maiden winner Ocean Colors but with 12-1 recent maiden winner Jardin, with Curlin’s jockey, Robby Albarado, a training triple for Asmussen. This filly really loved the conditions and obviously her outside position helped as the rail became extremely deeper from the heavy downpour. “Ocean Colors tied up a bit but it looks like she’ll be alright,” explained Asmussen. “I was worried about the outside post for Jardin. As the day went on it looked like that was where she was supposed to be.” Jardin looped the field but was put in a drive only in the final sixteenth, as Cameron Crazies rallied late for the place. Of course, that horse was named by her owner, Duke All American Bobby Hurley. She was bidding to give D Wayne Lukas his seventh Schuylerville victory. Inside posts, normally an advantage in this spot, hindered both fourth finisher Collegiate and the favorite; note. The time was an understandably slow 1:12.79.

Tenth Race: Gary Contessa jumped off the duck when Debating nailed Sonny Pajamas in the absolute final stride; Javier Castellano could not have timed it better. Red Hot Dawn was always in position but settled for third. Well backed Rumspringa was virtually eliminated at the start.

Written by John Pricci

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