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

Sunday, August 03, 2008

For Big Brown It’s Redemption or Retirement

Oceanport, NJ, August 2, 2008--”What are you doing here?” a racetrack acquaintance asked as I got the lay of the Monmouth land late this afternoon. “You wait all year for the horses to come up to Saratoga then you ship down here for the weekend? The Haskell is on television, you know. What’s the matter, didn’t you have an opinion in the Test?”

I didn‘t, since it featured a heavy favorite, even if the Test Stakes for three-year-old fillies at seven furlongs is one of my favorite Saratoga events. But it’s been so humid in the north country; thunderstorms du jour. And Michael Iavarone promised over a month ago that it would be cooler here.

Actually that’s reason number 1,050,001 for Iavarone to choose the Haskell for Big Brown and not the Travers, which was off the table, but now might be on the table, kinda’ sort of.

But I’m here because I needed to see Big Brown race again, to erase the memory of a hot and dirty Long Island afternoon on the first Saturday of June. The only way that exhibition could have been worse were if BB didn’t complete the course at all.

I’m here also because the event has a car wreck quality to it. Like those closest to Big Brown, I have no idea what to expect, although I suspect he‘ll run well enough to win. But will that be enough for $50million on four hooves.

His workout last weekend was an indication he could again be the Derby/Preakness Big Brown, not the Belmont Stakes model. Running time in workouts is of great interest but it’s all about context. Six furlongs in 1:10 4/5 was his second straight good move, an indication he was back. Not many horses can work that fast on the Aqueduct main track.

In addition to a healthy hoof, a brief freshening, a proper workout regimen and a surface that doesn’t break away from under flying hooves the way “Big Sandy” does, etc., etc., no one knows how he feels better than the colt. And, like his trainer, he’s not saying very much these days.

I visited with the colt over the July 4th weekend at his South Ozone Park home in Queens. He looked good and, of greater significance, he acted good. His playfulness was back and he wanted to please as always. Big Brown; part thoroughbred, part puppy, not the obstreperously playful beast that appeared to misbehave in the detention barn awaiting destiny’s fickle Belmont fate.

Horses have memories tethered to racetrack performance. The classy ones won’t allow a clunker to damage their psyches. Horsemen will tell you “just throw that one out.” More often than not they’re proven right.

Empirically, however, we’ve seen many examples--especially with horses that compress a handful of extraordinary efforts into a short time frame--where horses have lost their will to compete and it’s gone for good. What makes horses great is their love of competition. Good horses want to beat you.

But when the competitive fire gets extinguished and the will to win dissipates, there’s no sense competing anymore. That’s not good for anybody’s psyche, especially the horse’s.

Big Brown wants to please the humans around him. But if he doesn’t want to compete anymore, that’s Big Brown’s call. Everyone will know where he’s at, mentally and physically, late Sunday evening at Monmouth Park. There should be hints of what to expect in the paddock and post parade.

Before the Florida Derby, Big Brown was the Trojan horse, leaving the Gulfstream walking ring not too high and not too low. Just right: controlled, intense energy; necked arched, an intimidating presence: Not the flat equine on display before the Belmont Stakes.

So that’s what I’m doing here. Big Brown will be back with a vengeance, or he won’t. He might give the Travers a try, or seek out Curlin, if his connections dare. Or he might never run again. I have to see this for myself, either way.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, August 02, 2008

Did Passero Jump or Was He Pushed?

Saratoga Springs, NY, August 1, 2008--At Tuesday’s symposium on the efficacy of installing synthetic surfaces at New York State racetracks, a recurring theme was the need for superior track maintenance.

“Some people don’t want to be told that a track is too fast, to be told what to do,” said Saratoga’s leading rider Johnny Velazquez. “We can put our attention into the tracks we do have as opposed to something we don’t know about.”

“We need to do a better job maintaining our tracks,” said Hall of Famer Nick Zito. “We need a watchdog.” “Sealing tracks over and over is taking a toll on training in the mornings,” said Todd Pletcher. “Constant sealing damages [the surface], it weakens it.”

Whoever that watchdog might be, he won’t be looking John Passero’s shoulder. As of today, effective Sept. 1, Passero is the former Director of Racing Surfaces at New York Racing Association tracks, having submitted his resignation.

“He has always handled his duties admirably and with determination,” said NYRA president Charlie Hayward in a short press release. “It has been a gratifying experience working with Charlie Hayward and P.J. Campo,” said Passero in the same release.

But where’s the love?

Behind the scenes the relationship had been a contentious one. Passero said he never got the equipment he needed from the bankrupt organization. He prided himself on getting tracks to dry faster and free of bias. At that, he did a superb job. His answering machine identified him as John “Fast Track” Passero.

But to accomplish this he often placed a hard seal on the track, compacting the surface to a fault many believed. At Saratoga last year, the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s group held a meeting to discuss the effect a sealed track was having on the horses. Said trainer Pat Kelly after that meeting: “You could stand at the finish line and hear the horses coming from the [top of the stretch].”

As a result of that meeting a compromise was reached, but the relationship remained strained, with the NYRA caught in the middle. Management wanted a fast, safe and bias free track for racing in the afternoon. Trainers wanted the same thing, but not at the expense of the horses. One way or the other this parting of the ways was inevitable.

Passero will be replaced by Glen Kozak, whose career began in 1991 at Suffolk Downs. Kozak has been the General Superintendent for the Maryland Jockey Club since 2004. He participated in rebuilding the surface at Laurel Park, which entailed widening of the main track and the installation of a new turf course. The Laurel turf course has played to rave reviews from horsemen since its installation.

* * *

First Race: Edgar Prado did everything right; Javier Castellano was timing his late run perfectly and this finish would be a beauty. Benefiting from a hot pace, ground saving Panthera Tigre dropped her nose on the line a split second before Seeing Clearly, a rousing opener to begin the Spa’s second weekend.

Second Race: Ramon Dominguez, mired in a slump, said this is the first time he can remember not being able to do as well as he wanted. While he didn’t do anything particularly wrong aboard And A Cherry Tree, he didn’t do anything particularly right, either. Sitting behind the three-ply battle, and with odds-on favorite Casino Kay getting the worst of it between horses, Dominguez had the option of steering his mount outside into the clear but elected to drive between horses instead. He didn’t have enough horse for the close-quarters battle. Tipping outside might not have gotten the money, but the filly would have benefited from clear sailing; give another chance… Eibar Coa swept up three wide to challenge on the turn and wore down the odds-on choice in midstretch with Hope Street for Gary Contessa.

Third Race: As a handicapping neophyte, the first thing you learn is speed is always dangerous. The second thing is that speed kills. This is an example of the second thing. Calling My Colors went out immediately to establish the pace and was stalked intently by the overbet, odds-on choice, Afleet Aya. Looking for his second win on the card, Prado went after Alan Garcia at the five-sixteenths, expecting to go by. It didn’t happen. And so the two fillies locked in a duel from midstretch to the wire. Don’t look now because they might be gaining on you. Jean-Luc Samyn rallied strongly up the fence with Weekwee, tipped wide of the battling leaders with a sixteenth left, and rolled right on by for Pat Kelly.

Fourth Race: Just as I was beginning to lose faith in a magical angle, Linda Rice wins her first turf sprint. Frozen Prospect was so good, in fact, that not only did he establish a clear lead but, as the ralliers began to roll, Cornelio Velasquez asked for another gear and got it. Rice entered two and mate American Cruiser finished well up the fence, the entry going 1-2... Prime Obsession, totally eliminated at the start, breaking five lengths behind the field, shared in the trifecta when his generous late run got him fourth; bet back...

Note to SRWB: NYRA paid off on the fourth finisher in the trifecta pool with the entry finishing first and second. No one was confused. You’ll find this will work just as well in the superfecta. Why not give it a try, thus eliminating the need for unnecessary scratches.

Fifth Race: Halton survived a three-ply speed battle beneath Robby Albarado, opened a clear lead in midstretch but was driving hard to repel strong finishing County Galway, getting Dale Romans off the duck. County Galway should benefit from the run; bet back. Ditto Repenthouse, who finished very well after the fact; follow.

Sixth Race: Overbet favorite Jibboom had no excuse after setting moderate pace while under only light pressure and had to settle for place. Final Refrain, under patient handling from Julien Leparoux, timed the late run perfectly for Al Stall, who’s never to be trifled with when he ships to the Spa… Prianca raced in close quarters on the hedge throughout before stopping abruptly mid-far turn; have no idea what to make of it; note.

Seventh Race: Wayne Lukas gets his first, getting the classy Holla Bend ready off the layup, all out beneath a relentless Jorge Chavez to hold a dogged Clemens--who had mid-moved into serious contention on the turn--safe. All Expenses Paid was a willing third after looming a threat approaching headstretch. But the one to follow with interest is Stormy Success, who roared home much too late; bet back.

The Majestic Light: All the pre-race chatter surrounded race favorite Prussian’s ability to rate and avoid a speed duel. The good news is that the headstrong three-year-old appeared to rate kindly; the bad news is that Bill Mott, last year’s leading trainer at Saratoga, is still looking for his first of the meet. Prussian was a grind it out second to perfect tripping Luck Money from Team Pletcher/Velazquez, who are both enjoying a rebound season at the Spa. Now that Prussian appears to have a new dimension, he might be more effective in the future; note.

The Grade 2 Honorable Miss: Giant Killer strikes. With a little racing luck that is. There was all kinds of speed signed on in the six furlong stakes but Any Limit managed to get loose in relatively soft fractions for Cornelio Velasquez and was a fresh filly when the real running started at headstretch. Zada Belle, tentatively handled by Velazquez from the start, had to tap on the breaks soon after entering the turn and lost enough momentum to make a difference. Godolphin filly settled for second but deserved better; note.

Tenth Race: Here Comes Rita took over when Alan Garcia was ready--soon after entering the stretch--and drew off quickly, winning as clearly best. She should handle winners next out with a similar effort. Meanwhile, runnerup favorite Sweet Slam won’t be a maiden for long, absolutely flying home in deep stretch to easily secure the place; bet back.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, August 01, 2008

Eliminating Withholding Only a Good First Step

Saratoga Springs, NY, July 31, 2008--At last horseplayers might be getting a tax break. The operative word here is might: Horseplayers are held in the same contempt as smokers, this is an election year, and we are in a recession.

(Sorry, didn’t mean to whine about the economy).

Aside from the obvious benefits, the more significant news is that NTRA’s lobbying efforts appear to be bearing fruit. The proposed legislation is the first stand-alone bill addressing the issue. It would place horse-race winnings on the same playing-field as tax codes for lottery and keno games.

Horseplayers are the only group that are taxed on winnings automatically. Maybe it’s because track winnings require thinking, a kind of brain power tax.

The only thing we didn’t fully understand from on-line reports is that NTRA vice-president of legislative affairs Peggy Hendershot will now commission a study on the economic impact eliminating automatic withholding would have on the racing industry.

“Congressman, this is a racetrack. This is churn. Are you still with me?”

Seriously, haven’t racing’s lobbyists been attending to these educational issues all along? Or is it simply a matter of spreading the wealth around?

And never mind that parimutuel takeout withholding is built into the odds and payoffs, meaning that horseplayers are taxed twice.

Neither is it taken into account that bettors, super-exotic players in particular, might spend $1,000 to win $20,000. Math is not a strong suit but I don’t think that’s the equivalent of the 300-1 standard upon which the tax is levied.

Lobbyists are now looking for co-sponsors for the bill before Congress comes back into session in September.

If the NTRA and racing’s lobbyists ultimately have success in eliminating this regressive levy, maybe then they could start working on parimutuel takeout, withholding that affects all players.

That would have a far greater positive impact on growing the handle that finds its way into government coffers. Lowering takeout would be a positive for everybody.

* * *

Six Rivals for Big Brown in Sunday’s Haskell: Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner will face a half dozen rivals at Monmouth Park in Sunday’s million-dollar Haskell. From the rail: Magical Frost (J. Chavez) 10-1, Cool Coal Man (E. Castro) 4-1, Alaazo (J. Lezcano) 30-1, Big Brown (K Desormeaux) 1-2, Nistle’s Crunch (E. Trujillo) 15-1, Coal Play (J. Bravo) 8-1 and Atoned (E. Prado) 6-1.

* * *

First Race: Four of the seven members of the Jonathan Kiser Novice Stakes were either winners or horses that placed in graded stakes and the 2-1/16th miles was entertaining from end to end, four horses battling head to head after clearing the last of nine fences. But is was Danielle Hodsdon who got through on the fence with Jonathan Sheppard’s well named The Price of Love (Prenup, from the Caveat mare, Solitary Signal) to win it. Longshot Red Letter Day set all the pace, under pressure for the last half of the race, and was still battling at the finish. Favorite Be Certain came between horses after the last jump for place as Bee Charmer, who made a premature move to chase the frontrunner, was a very game third. Bet him back.

Second Race: A big time speed duel between Asmussen and Pletcher babies, Asmussen winning the battle and the war with second-time starter Valiancy. Todd’s Keep’em Movin Dan was well clear of Fast Draw for third and should benefit from the experience; note.

Third Race: Redefined simply keeps running well in these turf sprints and get his first win over this course as clearly best. Favorite Hatta Fort raced covered up rounding the turn and through the stretch and never really had a chance to gain momentum; probably will make amends soon, follow.

Fourth Race: This condition shouldn’t exist in Saratoga; maiden fillies, 3 & up, with claiming tags of $25,000. Reduced by two late scratches, six remained, with Isn’t That Special proving best for trainer Michael McDonald under a hustling Cornelio Velasquez. Prominent finished gamely in deep stretch for the place, as another well named runner gets home first: Isn’t That Special is a bay daughter of The Church Lady.

Fifth Race: Oh, look, a 5-½ furlong turf sprint. What a novel idea; NOT. Unless, of course, you’re part of the Tim Ritvo team and had this spot circled since last August 10. Lauren’s Go Go went to the front and :21.86 and kept right on going as Miss Dolan’s Rose chased her every step of the way and nearly grabbed her at the finish. But Ramon got down low for the stable dough, only Dominguez’s second winner of the meet. The Longshot runnerup with extremely game and could have a future sprinting on turf vs. her state-bred peers...Better Than Swiss finished well too late for third; note.

Sixth Race: Storming Off, an allowance winner last time out at Monmouth, showed up at the Spa with a claiming tag and totally dominated $45,000 platers. But he was all out to hold away over turf debut Deputyville, not particularly bred well for grass but who raced his final sixteenth in less than six seconds. Pays to follow Deputyville and show finisher Galaxy Tax, who also finished strongly as the pace was heating up. The winner appeared to shorten stride perceptibly while pulling up after the finish. Todd might have gotten away with one here but I wouldn’t be looking to bet her back, first winner of the afternoon for Spa leader Johnny V.

Seventh Race: The Kal Kan Pet Products purse--no kidding--went to Encinas, for Team McLaughlin/Garcia, young Alan winning it by skimming up the fence. During the running, Velazquez and Eibar Coa, racing in stalking position, second and third, were so busy tabbing each other they were powerless to shut the door on Garcia. It was a good comeback run for Ground Hero, making his season’s debut as an 8-year-old. He needed a race before getting the money at the Spa in 2007; different year, but same story: follow.

Eighth Race: The speedy Latest Scoop seemed to be unhappy in her new blinkers, breaking sharply then bearing out into the first turn, chasing the pace from the outside throughout; look for equipment change next out. The pace was strong in this preliminary allowance/optional claimer, allowing Borrowing Base to rally down the center of the track for Javier Castellano and Patrick Quick at 11-1... Favorite Pious Ashley, making her first start since the Black Eyed Susan, took the lead into the stretch and tired as if short of condition; follow. All the crowding at the three-sixteenth didn’t affect the outcome. Despite not posting formal inquiry, stewards did take a look.

The John Morrissey: With Market Psychology scratched, Ferocious Fires towered over the group and went out and proved it. He handled pace pressure throughout and, soon after entering the stretch, Cornelio Velasquez pulled the rug out from beneath the ralliers and left them gasping, a triple on the day for Cornelio, a double for Tony Dutrow. Endless Circle chased and held the place gamely…Mr. Bourbon Street angled wide into the stretch, effectively eliminated, then finished ridden out through the lane; note.

Tenth Race: A strange run by Retribution, who at one point appeared long gone, then like he would be off the board, then like he would last. All that happened but at the end of the racing day, Logic Way nailed him at the line, a late double for the brothers Dutrow, Prado winning this one for Rick, the trainer’s fourth of the meet.

Written by John Pricci

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