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.
 

Saturday, August 30, 2008


Curlin’s Still the One


Saratoga Springs, NY, August 30, 2008--When Jess Jackson made the decision to race Curlin as a four-year-old, his stated purpose was to set out to prove the colt’s greatness and rightful place in history.

That’s why early season plans included a trip to Paris in the fall and a go at the historic Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, once considered the world’s most prestigious horse race, and still part of that particular conversation. But in the Man o’ War, he appeared to dislike the surface and those hopes were dashed.

But in today’s 55th running of the Woodward Stakes at nine furlongs and at weight-for-age, Curlin took another step toward what Jackson envisions in his mind’s eye and in doing so advanced toward a defense of his Horse of the Year championship.

Curlin did so by overcoming adversity on the first turn, as he was buffeted about between Divine Park and Out of Control while racing four horses wide of the rail, a path he would maintain throughout the race.

“On the first turn he was caught between horses but he’s a big horse, big enough to stay in there and hold his spot,” said trainer Steve Asmussen. “Once he got to the seven-furlong pole, he was pretty comfortable,” even if he was brushed again by Divine Park five furlongs from the finish.

Meanwhile the speedy Past The Point had stolen the march from the anticipated pacesetter, opening ground while shadowed closely by Wanderin Boy in sprint-like fractions of :22.89 and :46.20. The leaders opened daylight on Divine Park, while Curlin sat off that one’s hip in fourth.

For all intents, the Woodward was over at the five-furlong pole. No one was menacing from the back of the pack, and Divine Park remained one paced until the final bend where he began to retreat.

At that instant Asmussen sent the big horse after the leader, who not only was continuing to run on strongly, but was opening ground on Wanderin Boy.
“I have to give [Past the Point] a lot of credit,” said winning jockey Robby Albarado. “He set strong fractions and didn’t back up. I had to put Curlin in a drive for longer than I wanted.”

Curlin’s drive began in earnest approaching the quarter-pole as he continued his wide run toward the leader, collaring him with a furlong remaining, before grudgingly beginning to pull away with a hundred yards remaining.

“He’s getting older now so he only does what he has to do,” Albarado continued. “I had to stay after him at the end but if someone came at me, I’m sure he would have re-broke for me.”

The torrid sprint pace continued through six furlongs in 1:09.61. The surface wasn’t especially fast and the hot pace began to melt down. Past the Point reached a mile in 1:35.33 and the final furlong, in which Curlin gained then held the lead under pressure was run in an unimpressive :14.01, as he stopped the timer in 1:49.34.

While Curlin might have re-broken for Albarado had there been a need, Curlin appeared a tired horse as he approached the finish. Depending on how he comes out of the Woodward, he could attempt a repeat victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park September 27 although “not necessarily,” Jackson said.

“We’ll see if he’s fit. There’s the Breeders’ Cup down the road and then there’s Japan. Japan offered more money than the Breeders’ Cup,” added Jackson.

But Jess Jackson is not about the money. If he were, Curlin wouldn’t be racing as a four-year-old. His interest is in getting the money on Curlin’s card. A victory in the Gold Cup would make him America’s all-time leading money earner.

And Jackson wants a piece of Big Brown, too.

“I hope we meet somewhere, it would be great for the fans and for the industry. But that may not happen. [The IEAH group] is doing what’s best for their horse; they’re being careful with him, with his hoof….”

It’s likely that Asmussen didn’t try to get to the bottom of his star for the Woodward. The colt might have been cheating a bit but he was tired, too. It’s highly probable that the race will advance his conditioning.

The 2008 Woodward is in the books and on Curlin’s resume. And until another horse beats him, he’s still number one in the world.

Asmussen put the Woodward in context this way: “The mystique of Saratoga, winning a grade one here, the Graveyard of Champions, all of that works into your head leading up to this. But he came through like Curlin does. We’re extremely proud of him.”

As was his owner who’s enjoying the ride that Curlin’s providing: “Thank you for giving us this fabulous race. That truly adds to the legacy of every horse that’s ever run here, and won here. At this point, that’s more important to Curlin than money.”

* * *

The Grade 1 Forego Handicap: Lucky Island was nothing if not extremely unlucky. First Defence was nothing if not very, very good. Apparently, Lucky Island was so anxious to record his fifth straight win that he seemed to outbreak himself and bobbled at the break, allowing himself to get into a bigger jackpot when he was squeezed between rivals. In a matter of jumps, he was last.

First Defence, meanwhile, was always prominent from his inside post. And he did it over a surface where jockeys were avoiding the inside portion of the track throughout the afternoon.

And he did this while putting away two quality speed horses who pressured him for a half-mile before blowing the race wide open soon after entering the straight, passing three-quarters in 1:08.49 after a half-mile of :44.61.

Greeley’s Conquest, the longshot price in the field of 10, finished gamely from the far outside to get the place, overcoming his stumbling beginning. Ferocious Fires finished determinedly for third, but unplaced Lucky Island deserves honorable mention.

After leading rider Alan Garcia finally got the odds-on favorite to settle at the back of the pack, he made a very long, sustained mid-race run that might have even carried him into a money position between calls. He wound up sixth, but lost place by a head, neck, nose, and another head.

For leading trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, it set an unfortunate tone for Divine Park’s non-threatening effort a half hour later.

* * *

Programming Glitch Cost Bettors

Caveat Emptor was never so appropriate than in today’s eighth race. Trainer Nick Zito entered two horses for owner Robert LaPenta, Just A Coincidence and Ruler‘s Vision. Ruler’s Vision was a well bred first-time starter. Just A Coincidence was an excellent second to a highly regarded debut winner, Munnings, who raced six furlongs in 1:09 4/5 to win by 4-¼ lengths here on July 26. He would have been one of the choices.

On self-service terminals in the press box and throughout the track, you were getting 8-1 on both halves of the entry with two minutes remaining to post time. Only you weren’t. Just A Coincidence was a program scratch this morning and track announcer Tom Durkin informed the crowd during the first set of changes at noon.

But the change was never programmed into the terminals. Late scratches are indicated on the terminals with a line that runs through the middle of the program number. There’s simply no excuse for this kind of negligence.

Written by John Pricci

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This Woodward Is No Walkover


Saratoga Springs, NY, August 29, 2008--In the run-up to Saturday’s Woodward Stakes, some time between the Keys to the City and Jim and Michelle’s nuptials in the Saratoga winners’ circle, there was time to study the tale of the tape. I confess that I love these things. To wit:

Curlin’s value as a potential stud is placed in the $50 to $60-million range.

Curlin’s current earnings stand at $9,496,800, American.

His purchase price at the Keeneland September 2005 sales, ankle chip and all, was a mere $57,000.

A big boy, he weighs over 1,200 pounds.

The highest impost he’s ever carried, in the Jaguar Trophy at Nad el Sheba, the prep for the Dubai World Cup, was 132 pounds.

He’s won his races by an aggregate 47-½ lengths.

Curlin’s approximate speed leaving the starting gate is 42 mph.

The length of his stride is estimated at more than 26 feet. (thought it would have been more).

Curlin eats 24 quarts of grain daily.

His height is 16-plus hands [1 hand equals 4 inches] (he seems taller).

Curlin has raced 15 7/8ths miles in 13 career starts.

He’s won nine races lifetime, five Grade 1.

Finally, he has two white stockings on his hind legs and is the world’s #1 rated thoroughbred, with a Timeform rating of 134 pounds. A Grade 1 rating starts at 115 pounds.

But there’s another number, his Equiform performance figures, that present a numerical picture of his chances to win the Woodward.
To no one’s surprise, he is a most deserving favorite. To the surprise of many, the Woodward is far from a walkover. Thus far, Spectacular Bid he‘s not.

On paper, which is as far away from a racetrack as any handicapper can get, there are two serious entrants that merit consideration as potential Woodward winners; the speedy Wanderin Boy, and the late developing four-year-old winner of the Metropolitan Handicap, Divine Park.

As a matter of course before making a wager, I earmark the three highest Equiform final-time figures in every race in an attempt to assess a horse’s basic aptitude for speed. Then I consider three subsets:

I pay particular attention to top figures that cluster--showing an ability to perform at an optimal level for a sustained period; a horse’s bounce-ability, or lack thereof. A bounce in presidential politics is good, but not on the racetrack.

If one of the three top figures tower over the other two, however, that one likely is the aberration and not the truest measure of dependable speed/ability.

Next I emphasize ability at the distance and at different surfaces. Obviously, dirt is different from grass is different than synthetics is different than mud is different from soft, etc., etc.

A horse’s ability to run his best figures over a particular distance and/or racetrack is more significant than wins and losses. If those factors happen to combine, so much the better.

The handicapping process doesn’t stop there, of course. Whether the measure is performance figures, form-cycle pattern analysis or other traditional Handicapping 101 factors--lone speed, human connections, statistical tendencies, pedigrees, etc., handicappers need to use the entire playbook.

For sure, it’s a lot more stimulating fun than watching wheels on a machine whirl until they stop whirling. But I digress.

So, will Curlin join the pantheon of Woodward winners such as Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Buckpasser, and subsequently enter the pantheon across Union Avenue from the race course?

Given the state of the modern game, and despite Jess Jackson’s sportsmanship, Curlin is unlikely to join the ranks of Forego, Kelso or Cigar, multiple Woodward winners all. But first he must win Saturday’s 55th running of the event. Consider the three logical Woodward choices, in inverted odds order:

Despite advancing age, Wanderin Boy (8-1) hasn’t lost many steps. Last year at 6, he earned a 79-½ finishing second to subsequent Woodward winner Lawyer Ron in the Whitney. At 5, he earned figures of 80 (Pimlico), 80-¼ (Keeneland) and 80-¾ (also Keeneland, also on dirt), at distances of 9.5 furlongs, 9, and 8.5 furlongs.

Owned by breeder Arthur Hancock, Wanderin Boy earned a 79-¾, with a four-furlong pace figure of 80, winning a Saratoga 7-furlong allowances July 28. It seems counter-intuitive but it’s harder to earn higher sprint figures than distance numbers because sprinters don’t have a chance to back down the pace and save energy, essentially running full throttle all the way and thus decelerating at a faster rate.

Given that Wanderin Boy’s pace and sprint figures were compressed in his recent sprint, the likelihood of a bounce is minimized. But these are better horses and class--especially at the higher levels--still matters.

Divine Park (3-1) has performance figures that are not as compelling until you look a little deeper. He has matured at 4 and his improving figures reflect that development. Prior to running a lifetime best in the Westchester Mile, a 79, he earned a 76-¾ on March 28, his best figure to that point. Significantly, that was his two-turn debut. His pedigree should get him at least 9 furlongs.

While his Met Mile figure of 76-¼ was a regression, his new pace top of 83 was key. The new pace top is a positive pattern, the harbinger of a forward move. There‘s another way to look at it, too. From a traditional perspective, if you run fast early, you don’t run fast late.

In short, there’s a reasonable expectation that Divine Park will earn a new lifetime best figure, an 80, which puts him right in the middle of the Woodward ballgame. And is there a hotter Saratoga tandem than Kiaran McLaughlin and Alan Garcia? OK, then, Linda Rice and Alan Garcia.

Curlin (3-5), as stated, is a deserving favorite. He’s earned performance figures as high as 83-½ and 81-¾. He earned a 79-¾ winning last year’s Jockey Club and a 79-¼ winning this year’s Stephen Foster. His 81-¾ came in the Preakness at 9.5 furlongs; his 83-½ in the sloppy track Breeders’ Cup Classic at 10 furlongs.

Making the inference, then, Curlin is at his best going farther than 9 furlongs, and over a wet track. Admittedly, this is known as building a case. But the Woodward is, first and foremost, a horse race. And Saratoga is, it has been mentioned, the Graveyard of Favorites. May all the horses have a safe trip, and may the best horse win.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, August 29, 2008


Pitch It and They Will Come?


Saratoga Springs, NY, August 28,2008--A headline in the Daily Racing Form read ”An All-out Effort to Promote Big Brown” and his appearance in the inaugural Monmouth Stakes, a $500,000 creation by Monmouth Park to provide this country’s leading three-year-old with a path of least resistance to the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Four hours and 50 petro dollars to the north, Saratoga Race Course was holding a press conference and post draw for Saturday’s Grade 1 $500,000 Woodward Stakes in which reigning Horse of the Year Curlin will make his first start at the storied race course.

Now talk about your all-out efforts!

The publicists, with some tough talk prodding from John Sabini, the newly installed Chairman of the State Racing and Wagering Board, have been having a promotional field day of their own.

The great Angel Cordero Jr. was there to remind everyone that he was “fortunate enough” to win five Woodwards and how much that meant to him as one of his career highlights.

The event was hosted by Tom Durkin, your pronouncer provocateur, who kidded Monmouth Park and their need to create a race to lure a star while New York had it the other way around. They had the Grade 1 Woodward, and they had racing’s other star, reigning Horse of the Year Curlin.

And they’ve been promoting the hell out of it.

Want to get up close and personal with “the next Big Red,” “the fire-breathing Pegasus,” the “coolest horse in creation?” Easy, click on “Curlin’s Corner.”

“Curlin’s Corner” is a special page on the New York Racing Association website for all things Curlin, space “entirely devoted to the 2007 Horse of the Year as he prepares for his Saratoga Race Course debut…”

While there, you can read jockey Robby Albarado‘s blog. There are podcasts with members of “Curlin’s Crew,” a behind-the-scenes video of Curlin in his barn and during workouts.

Want more?

How about replays of Curlin’s races, a slide show of many “never-before-seen photos of Curlin,” and a printable full-color “fan’s guide” to Curlin. Check out the link at http://www.nyra.com/Curlin/CurlinCorner.htm.

The guide is an eye-pleasing confirmation profile of the horse with descriptive notes showing casual fans what to look for when they look at a race horse.

And, ladies and gentlemen, there’s much, much more.

Curlin and his connections will receive the keys to the city of Saratoga Springs from Mayor Scott Johnson in track ceremonies at 2:50 p.m. on Friday’s twilight program.

Meanwhile, back at Aqueduct, NYRA relented and allowed Big Brown the use of the turf course, where today Big Brown worked a slow five furlongs, probably designed as a leg stretcher.

In the interim, Monmouth Park was making preparations for the 15,000 or more fans they hope will show up on September 13. They’re stealing $30,000 from their promotional budget to help raise the day’s profile. Interest in racing wanes after Labor Day, but maybe the Derby-Preakness hero might attract a few day-trippers from New York and elsewhere.

Curlin had his final schooling session in the Saratoga paddock today before the first race. He could not have appeared in better health, his copper chestnut coat reflecting in the sun’s rays early on a Chamber of Commerce afternoon at the Spa.

The massive four-year-old stood quietly in stall 12 and, after the horses for the opener left the ring, two handlers, one assistant trainer Scott Blasi, walked him over to stall 5, the enclosure in which he’ll be saddled on Saturday.

Curlin drew post five in a field of eight and was made the early 3-5 favorite for the historic nine furlongs.

The colt looked battle ready. Affixed with a tongue tie, he was tacked up before taking a full circumference of the ring. He has been schooled twice in Saratoga; trainer Steve Asmussen likes to school his horses two days before they race.

It looked like Curlin needed the education. He was very keen in a good way; on edge, ready to go. But at times he appeared a bit skittish; it was a tough read. But he settled, looked around, all the while looking like he knew a crowd had come to see him.

There was no announcement but Saratoga’s knowledgeable fans didn’t rush to bet the opener, instead lingering for a few minutes. When Curlin made a left turn down the horse path that leads back to his Oklahoma track digs, a gentle cascade of applause followed his every step.

When a NYRA executive was asked whether the full court press they’ve put on for Curlin was the result of Sabini’s tweaking, he answered with an emphatic “no.”

But I really cannot recall such over-the-top drum beating for a horse still on the road to greatness but not there quite yet. That’s why Jess Jackson’s racing him, to prove it. It’s the same story with Big Brown.

There have been thousands of near greats, a good horse that wins way more than his share but for one reason or another aren’t dominating performers. Curlin’s come-again Preakness was a great performance, one for the ages, the promise of greatness to come. Then so was Big Brown’s Preakness, explosive turn of foot rarely seen, if ever.

If Curlin is truly great, he will continue to go out there and prove it for as long as Jess Jackson lets him. My only nagging issue was his Man o’ War. True greats win even in unfavorable conditions, over surfaces they don‘t like. And his conqueror Red Rocks is a multiple Grade 1 winner on turf. But Red Rocks isn’t exactly Ribot.

And let’s neither confuse Curlin with original Big Reds; first Man o’ War himself then, of course, Secretariat.

These are tough times as everyone knows. And hyperbole is not so hyperbolic as much as it is the regrettably acceptable price of doing business in this climate and culture.

Oh, for the days when college football and boxing and horse racing was king, and all that was needed was a back page headline guaranteed to draw 50,000 people to a racetrack near you.

It would have read something like this: “Kelso Runs Today.”

* * *

Fout Doubles His Pleasure in New York Turf Writers' Cup

Trainer Doug Fout has virtually owned this Saratoga steeplechase meet. In the prep for today’s Grade 1 67th running of the New York Turf Writers’ Cup Handicap, the Paddy Smithwick Memorial, he finished one-two High Action and Dark Equation.

Today, Dark Equation, under second highweight at 152 pounds and Matthew McCarron, turned the tables on his stablemate to win the Turf Writers by a half length over the youthful four-year-old jumper Be Certain, who split the Fout duo by a neck. Fout saddled Hirapour to victory in the 2005 renewal.

Another nine lengths separated High Action from the remainder of the nine-horse field while, remarkably, after 19 furlongs, three-quarters of a length separated the first three finishers after two and three-eighths miles and 10 fences.

Beverly Steinman, a founding member of the National Steeplechase and Association, owns the six-year-old Pennsylvania-bred, who will race back in the Lonesome Glory at Belmont Park next. The victory concluded a pretty good seven hours for jumpers and aspiring vice-presidents from the Keystone State.














Written by John Pricci

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