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, August 11, 2007

Farm Life Not Funny For Saratoga’s Derby Hero

Saratoga Springs, NY--August 11, 2007

Dear Diary,

Dont understand why but theres been some unpleasant fallout on message boards over the retirement of Funny Cide--because he will spend his immediate future as a stable pony for Barclay Tagg that fate somehow is unworthy of his status as a winner of two American classics.

While its comforting that thoroughbred racing can attract fans not solely because of its wagering aspects, sometimes the passion of fans can border on the, well, fanatical.

Consider Evening Attire, for instance. Like Funny Cide, he won the Jockey Club Gold Cup and is an equine millionaire twice over, a horse that challenged Funny Cide on five different occasions. At age nine hes still racing. Some think he should be pensioned, too, but the horse disagreed:

Been there. Done that. Hated it.

While the life of an equine pensioner seems glorious, the sun warming his shoulders, the wind at his back and with a spacious paddock to romp around in, most of the time is spent swatting flies with his tail.

Evening Attire finished third in Fridays fifth race mostly because his late run was compromised by a slow early pace. But for him it was better than lounging on the farm. He was bored and unhappy, his attitude changing for this worse. The Kelly family did the sensible thing and brought him back to the racetrack.

He happens to love Saratoga. Kellys barn is close enough to the main track that Evening Attire can hear the races as theyre run. When he does he gets really excited. Hes worse than the two-year-olds during the races, said trainer Pat Kelly. Hes just not ready for the farm yet.

Apparently its the same case with Funny Cide.

But it was interesting that Tagg was either absent or keeping an extremely low profile during Fridays retirement ceremonies. Hes not a circus animal, Tagg once said of Funny Cide. Ill be glad when all this is over.

At times, the pomp and circumstance surrounding Funny Cide has been way over the top. One can hardly blame Tagg for sometimes having an attitude about it all. But youd also think he could have danced through one more hoop for the people who paid to get in.

Tagg has been a horsemans horseman for some time. Everybody on the racetrack has acknowledged his talent for years. But to the betting public he was known as that Maryland trainer whos real good with turf horses.

Until Funny Cide came along and changed all that, and Taggs life for the better.

First Race: Didnt see this coming until it was too late, but from the clouds came River Mountain Rd to take the inscrutable first race for $20,000 claimers. Mighty Gulch raced well for the place, winning a photo from Wild Vicar, the only horse with a modicum of form going in to show up in here.

Second Race: Baby race loaded with first-timer pedigrees from top outfits. So, of course, horses with experience finished 1-2. As they were supposed to as the top two choices. The Leopard and Immortal Eyes had finished 2-3 in their rapidly run debuts. This time they eliminated the middle man. Immortal Eyes was a bullet away from the barrier, rated well by Eibar Coa while racing two paths out from the rail. Into the stretch, Johnny Velazquez tried to sneak of the fence, but Coa tightened it up, as he should have. At that point, JV tipped off the fence and confidently urged the odds-on Todd Pletcher trainee, $2.5 million two-year-old purchase, past the leader. Steve Asmussen firster Verify chased the leader but tired without apparent excuse. Newcomer Legacy Thief also chased while widest on the turn, but continued very willingly and was a good third; follow progress. But The Leopard? The way theyre preparing him, an educational debut followed by a strong late finish score, the outfit thinks they have a good one here. A real good one.

The Saratoga Sunrise: For the fifth time at the meet, Johnny Velazquez landed on the ground soon after the start of a race. It happened when Tommasi bobbled soon after the start. Showing his preference for a two-turn nine furlongs, Naughty New York also showed his class to win this overnight stakes easily, drawing away from pacesetting Building New Era late.

Fourth Race: Spurred kicked in strongly in deep stretch to take this mile inner turfer, lassoing in both second favorite Yankee Thunder and show finisher Of All Times in an otherwise uneventful show.

Fifth Race: Midnight Slammer, a juvenile state-bred colt by Officer, absolutely toyed with 10 rivals and will be looking for something a lot tougher next time. And he might be up to the task; note. Debuting Alexandros made fine rally into the lane but hung badly and could not wrest the place from either Wishful Tomcat and Alabamas Jumpin, who finished heads apart. He might benefit from addition of blinkers but might not, too. Tough call.

Sixth Race: Kent Desormeaux saved ground through the lane and that proved to be the difference. Ground Hero, a well meant returnee from the George Weaver shed, swooped into contention into the lane but could not sustain his rally. Military Major finished gamely too late but did wrest the show in the final strides.

Seventh Race: Even money favorite Equitable was rank at the gate, delaying the start, did not have the easiest of trips thereafter, angling six wide into the claim and closed determinedly, though a bit one-paced; deserves another chance, bet back. Meanwhile, Senor Enrico rallied between horses to win it in the final strides from Grand Strike, who received a ground saving gem from Rafael Bejarano and just missed.

Eighth Race: Greater Fool did everything right but win. He made the start look bad, outbreaking the field by four lengths from his extreme outside slip. He withstood pace pressure, opened a clear lead into the stretch but was nailed on the line by the late surging My Golden Opinion, who clearly benefited with the addition of blinkers. This is another in a tough series of beats for the Rick Violette shed. If you liked his colt today; bet him to make amends next out.

The Grade 1 Sword Dancer Invitational: Ran into an old friend, Bobby Ribaudo, at Gulfstream Park this winter. First time Ive been here in over 20 years. How come, I wanted to know. Ive got two turf horses I came down with. Its a long way from Gulfstream to Saratoga, and a lot of time in between, but Ribaudos patience paid off as Grand Couturier gave him the first Grade 1 win of his career. He had some issues acclimating and getting use to the American way of training, my training. It looks like hes learned. Odds on favorite English Channel came from off a fast early pace to challenge for the lead at the top of the stretch. But Calvin Borel got through a large hole on the fence and the four-year-old Grand Lodge colt burst through and won convincingly and in full stride. Good job all around.

Tenth Race: Formful finale as Sense of Speed sat off a speed duel, assumed command soon after entering the stretch, and won as clearly the best horse. Manhattan Mack was eliminated when Desormeaux fell leaving the gate. Horse and rider appeared unhurt.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, August 10, 2007

Saratoga Salutes Its Favorite Son

Saratoga Springs, NY--August 10, 2007

Dear Diary,

They came from Northern California and Ohio and Long Island and from right down the street from this storied race course to say goodbye to their favorite New York bred hero, foaled a few miles from this racetrack seven years ago at Joe McMahons farm.

They came because his story made people feel good about a racehorse again. And they came to Saratoga today to salute their very own Kentucky Derby champion.

Funny Cide, a gelding from the wrong side of the breeding shed owned by a bunch of high school classmates from a small town in upstate New York, against a powerful favorite with the regal name Empire Maker, owned by oil rich foreign interests, trained and ridden by members of Racings Hall of Fame.

They had finished close together in that years Wood Memorial but it was Funny Cides second place finish that showed everyone he belonged with the elite members of that three-year-old class. They would settle it in Louisville, while America watched.

The karma was good for a potential Kentucky Derby upset. The day before, a good filly named Bird Town, owned by the woman they call the Queen of Saratoga, socialite Mary Lou Whitney, was the upset winner of the Kentucky Oaks. Could it be an all-Saratoga Oaks-Derby double?

Among Jose Santoss 91 Grade 1 victories, this one gave him his first and only Kentucky Derby julep cup and helped put him in the Hall of Fame on Monday. His ride was a confident and smart one, stalking comfortably while in winning position throughout, taking the lead for good at the precise moment in the stretch when the move needed to be made.

Empire Maker was coming hard, and it appeared momentarily that his late momentum would carry him past the Derby upstart. But thats when racing first heard the apt term coined by Triple Crown racecaller Tom Durkin, the gutsy gelding Funny Cide.

As he hit the Churchill Downs finish line in front, the crowd at the Saratoga harness track went absolutely wild, way beyond the exuberance normally reserved for cashing a winning ticket.

People were jumping up and down, literally, trying to slap high fives but missing in their uncontrollable excitement. It was about more than cashing a bet: the Saratoga horse had done it. No waiting until August to stick your chest out.

Meanwhile, on the Churchill backstretch, Santos was screaming into Donna Brothers equine microphone: Get with the Program, New York Bred, as he pointed downward at his Derby winning mount, parroting a tagline made famous in a television commercial.

By now the whole state was celebrating, and the New York breeding industry received the publicity boost it needed, one putting it on the map for good. Good horses can be bred here, even Derby winning geldings.

At the Capital Off Track Betting Teletheater that afternoon, the crowd, Im told, was no less exuberant. There, and at a handful of other simulcast locations, winning bettors were given an apology and told to come back tomorrow.

Between the winning Oaks-Derby double winners, the $26 win mutuel, and all those winning exactas, trifectas and superfectas keyed by Funny Cide, the venues had run out of cash: Its Saturday. The banks are closed. Come back tomorrow.

And nobody seemed to mind.

There were other moments: Vindication for his Derby win after a Miami newspaper falsely accused Santos of riding with a battery, an illegal electrical device used to stimulate racehorses. There was photographic proof that the claim was false, and the gelding and Santos proved it at Pimlico.

Empire Maker skipped that dance, but got even with his Derby rival in the Belmont Stakes. The combination of Funny Cides enervating Preakness, a too-fast Belmont workout, a wet racetrack, and the Test of the Champions additional quarter mile all conspired against him.

But he tried hard, like always, and his many fans were still proud of what he had accomplished against significant odds. His third-place Belmont Stakes finish could not diminish those feelings.

There were other important victories, of course, but none more significant as an older horse than his victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup the following year.

Funny Cide has dropped back, said Durkin of the gutsy gelding. And indeed he had. Surely he was beaten as the field was approaching the quarter pole in the classic for older horses. But Funny Cide found another gear, rallying a second time, and out-gutting his rivals from between horses in a performance for the ages.

The JCGC was to be his prep for the Breeders Cup Classic. I asked one of his owners at the harness track one afternoon, the late Gus Williams, how important would it be for Funny Cide to win the Classic.

The Classic? harrumphed Williams. Hell, I just want to win five more Gold Cups, referring to the achievement of the mighty Kelso when the race was run at two miles and not at its present mile and a half distance.

Last year, at age six, the horse that inspired books, his own flavor of ice cream, a micro beer, and a future full length feature film, started to lose steps. This year, there were efforts where you could see the flame that once made him great and so very popular was flickering perceptibly.

Then came the whispers that the gelding should be retired before he embarrassed himself further by losing to rivals he would once trounce, that he had earned the privilege of living life as an equine pensioner.

Finally, after winning the Wadsworth Memorial at the lower tier racetrack in Canandaigua, New York, Finger Lakes, where he attracted an overflow crowd, he was retired. Sort of.

Unlike many racehorses that are angered by boredom, a decision was made to keep him at the racetrack instead of a farm, now working as the stable pony for his trainer Barclay Tagg and assistant Robin Smullen.

And so he led the field for todays fourth race to the post, a maiden sprint for New York bred two-year-olds at seven furlongs, the same distance he raced as a two-year-old of 2002 when he showed he might have a bright future. But not even those closest to him expected a ride like this.

First Race: Todd Pletcher mega-dropdown Super Hero totally outclassed field of $25,000 claimers, blowing the race open at mid-turn, over the sealed muddy track.

Second Race: Indescribable did all the work, racing Who Fu into defeat, but Imagistic picked up the pieces and got the money, nipping Inda who stalked the leaders from the four path throughout but couldnt hold last-run winner.

The Waya Stakes: Overnight event was switched to the wet main track and truncated from 12 to 9- furlongs. Warrior Girl was very game through the stretch after chasing the leader into the straight but Nunnery was too game, giving Bill Mott his 11th winner of the meet. Absolutely no excuses for Pletcher-trained Jade Queen.

Fourth Race: Horse to watch Mor Chances (see Diary from 7/28) timed her run a lot better this time with the switch to Cornelio Velasquez to get the money at fair odds. Biohazard showed much improved speed in her first wet-track start, as if really moving up in the going; note.

Fifth Race: Three of Ministers Bids four lifetime victories came when he was fresh. You can make that 4-for-5, stalking the pace comfortably and solidly repelling late run of Hesanoldsalt, who now has finished second in six of seven starts this season. Old pro Evening Attire raced well but was hindered by the pedestrian pace.

Sixth Race: Off the turf maiden event for juvenile fillies went to Mike Hernandez trained newcomer Slipstone who had good position into the lane and finished off her run with some authority. Laurens Go Go made a solid move into command, looming the winner, but couldnt even hold off late running newcomer Upper Level for the place award. Bar City was a late scratch after breaking through the gate at the start.

Seventh: Another winner for Rick Dutrow stable as In Command, steadied backstretch and again on turn awaiting room, angled out, then finished like a rocket to win going away. Take to repeat under similar conditionsTzipi had horrible trip as gate woes continue at this meet. Steadied by an assistant starter while fractious in the gate, she broke in the air, then raced behind and between horses thereafter. Clearly deserves another chance; note.

The Heed: Another overnighter, this one switched to the wet main track. Dorm Fever benefited from the new conditions, turning back with recent conditioning, a pedigree for the going, and a well timed late move from Garrett Gomez. She could make it three straight next out as she continues her development; follow progress.

Ninth Race: Danzaway drew in from the also-eligible list then drew away from the field in the late going, obviously relishing the wet track, giving Tom Bush another longshot winner.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Conjuring Horse of the Year Thoughts at the Spa

Saratoga Springs, NY--August 9, 2007

Dear Diary,

Ive got this hypothetical Im mulling over. All the possible scenarios leading up to the Breeders Cup Classic which--and Ill take a winter book price right now--in my view will be won by a three-year-old.

I know, youre thinking thats big limb youre stepping out on. Well, there is a four-year-old named Lawyer Ron whos going to be formidable, yes? Especially if he underscores his record breaking Whitney with a score in the Woodward closing weekend here.

Although the division this week lost Stephen Foster winner Flashy Bull to retirement via a cracked sesamoid, Corinthians gotta run in the Woodward, or so Jimmy Jerkens was saying the other morning over at Oklahoma. And hes no empty stall.

Forget Curlin and Rags to Riches for a moment and riddle this:

Lets say Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense wins the Travers and the Jockey Club Gold Cup, but loses the Classic. Now lets say that Haskell winner Any Given Saturday wins the Brooklyn Handicap and the Breeders Cup Classic.

Whos Horse of the Year?

Before you answer, recall that Street Sense beat him a nose in Tampa and finished well ahead of him in Louisville. Think about it. Its a tough call.

The Curlin camp has been quiet since the colt finished third in the Haskell, in what can only be described as a disappointing effort. Not for the win, necessarily. The winner was certainly sharper and with a conditioning edge. But he should have won this place photo.

In any event, well see where he goes. Would be surprised if the leading three-year-olds dont meet again until the final weekend of October at Monmouth Park.

In what was his first of three workouts for the Travers, Street Sense worked a half mile in the mud yesterday morning in :49 3/5, a work truncated from five furlongs because of the wet track. In typical SS fashion, his final quarter was a zippy :23 2/5. Expect something faster next time.

He showed that he handled the mud OK, said trainer Carl Nafzger.

Soon after he worked, Lady Joanne, pronounced Joan-ie--dont ask, its a Kentucky thing--went the same distance in :49 2/5. The three-year-old filly won her Alabama prep here like breaking so many sticks and we havent seen the best of her yet, Nafzger said, a pretty scary thought.

Were not expecting that shell meet Rags to Riches in the Alabama unless that filly does something extraordinary in the mornings leading up. The likely targets for the Belmont heroine are the Gazelle or Ruffian. The latter is against elders, of course.

Meanwhile, Todd Pletcher has decided on the Brooklyn Handicap vs. older on Sept. 22, also at Belmont Park. You just knew it would be all about the spacing, and there are five weeks from Brooklyn to Classic.

Were not even half way done here and already the fall prep season is looming.

P.S., diary, think Id vote for Street Sense given the scenario above. But I wouldnt feel comfortable about it.

* * *

The G2 A.P. Smithwick Memorial: The traditional prep for the Grade 1New York Turf Writers Cup Handicap was a hell of a horse race. With Preemptive Strike setting a controlled pace, favorite Mixed Up would have his stretch work cut out for him. But he sprinted home strongly beneath fist-pumping Danielle Hodsdon to win by a half length, giving Hall of Famer Jonathan Sheppard his third win in 12 runnings of the Smithwick. Mixed Up (158) spotted eight pounds to the runnerup and 12 to the four remaining rivals. Hell be a tough out un the Turf Writers but might have to spot them even a few more pounds. Sheppard also will be looking for an unprecedented 13th victory in that race. Good show.

Second Race: Experience the difference in state-bred juvenile sprint. Myakka got all the late money, and the purse money, sprinting away from the group at the three-eighths pole to win by daylight. Newcomer runnerup was maneuvered off the rail by Ramon Dominguez but remained inside through the running. The filly was tipped outside inside the eighth pole and finished very nicely for the place; she wont be a New York bred maiden for long.

Third Race: This non-winners of three other/than at 1-1/16th miles over good turf would have passed for a stakes anywhere else. In fact, winning Criminologist was entered in one on the Haskell undercard but scratched awaiting this. While everyone saw the flying finish of Sky High Flyer--a horse to watch next time--Criminologist was clearly best. She saved ground at no time, was forced to move probably sooner than Edgar Prado wanted, put the leader away and withstood everyone else, including Sky High, getting Shug McGaughey off the duck. Another terrific finish at the worlds best race meet.

Fourth Race: Rick Dutrow had My Fair El all wound up and she beat maiden claimers like a poor stepchild. Her speed was dominating throughout, then she drew off. Ivory Star was well meant on the tote and completed the exacta. First-timer Foxy Patty finished well too late in a useful debut; follow.

Fifth Race: Good races put in by all the money finishers. Winning Moon Ala Mode stretched her undefeated turf record at one mile to 3-for-3 with a strong finish up the fence for the Mike Hushion/Channing Hill team. Party Jones saved ground throughout despite an outside post but shook loose too late; she finished faster than the winner to no avail. Meanwhile, pacesetting Quick Comeback was pressed on the lead through and held on tenaciously; bet the second and third finishers back next out.

The Lady DAccord: Overnight stakes for three-year-old state-bred fillies was a good one between the first two finishers. Cammys Choice, making first start for Kiaran McLaughlin, outbroke the field but was quickly joined on her inside by Talking Treasure. The fillies raced on even terms for the final half-mile before the inside filly gamely prevailed. Not sure theres anyone better than JV when involved in speed duels. He doesnt rattle, and always seems to assert himself at just the right moment.

Seventh Race: Two winners from his last two starters for Mrs. Gerry, Angle Penna Jr.-trained English Colony took the lead midstretch but was driving hard to last over fast finishing Ever a Friend. Darley/Godolphin second-choice entry both have every chance in the lane and each hung, no excuses.

The Statue of Liberty: Yet another gate incident as two fillies broke through, with Twistaway running off necessitating a stewards scratch. Meanwhile, favorite Laurentide Ice raced terribly thereafter. She probably should have been excused from the race as well. In the running, Tishmeister was cleverly rated off the pace of longshot leader City in the Clouds, middle-moved and withstood the rally of second choice Dont Mind Me.

Ninth Race: Last week, Lhotse Quality drifted the length of the stretch, her poor action blowing a big lead. Not today. Straight as a string through the lane for Rick Dutrow and was never in danger of being caught by Jets Only, the strong choice until she met the Dutrow filly. Whatever the circuit, Dutrow doesnt miss a beat. Third finisher Prime Obsession showed marked improvement with addition of blinkers; note.

Written by John Pricci

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