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

Big Brown, Workmanlike and Courageous, Takes Haskell

Oceanport, NJ, August 3, 2008--When I arrived early on a beautiful Haskell morning, Big Brown was being wiped down, having had his bath, and exercise rider Michelle Nevin was standing, relaxed, outside barn 28 on the Monmouth Park backstretch.

Photo by: Toni Pricci
Big Brown Exercise Rider, Michelle Nevin
“Sure worked good last week,” I said, “not many horses can go in ten-and-four at Aqueduct.” Nevin smiled, as Rick Dutrow’s stable foreman Juan Calvo led Big Brown back to stall one, the shed all outfits reserve for the stable star, the “big horse.”

On this day, no horse would be any bigger than Big Brown.

After taking a few calls on his cell phone, Dutrow sat on a stool propped up against the barn wall. It wasn’t the pre-Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby or Preakness Dutrow. It was the post Belmont version. It wasn’t the Dutrow that the Triple Crown public and media had come to expect. It were as if his body was invaded by a foreign spirit.

Solitude and introspection aren’t words normally associated with a horseman having Hall of Fame talent but with communication skills of a selling plater. The cyclone that is the Triple Crown has taken a toll. So much was riding on today’s nine furlongs at the Jersey Shore, and it showed.

So if, if, if, Big Brown was to win as easily horses can win and if, if, if, he were to come out of the race as if he hadn’t run, might we see Big Brown three weeks from now in Saratoga?
“You had better ask Mike after the race.”

It was late afternoon now and Big Brown didn’t win as easily as horses could win. He struggled, had to dig deep down and, according to managing owner Michael Iavarone, “showed us a dimension we didn’t know he had. I thought we were in trouble. Nick Zito’s horse ran so big. Then he showed us his heart.”

“I didn’t see that until today,” said jockey Kent Desormeaux. “The leader and I were sittin’ cozy, but when [Coal Play] took off into stretch I said, ‘oh no’! Big Brown then switched his leads at the three-sixteenths and showed he was a warrior.”

“I was concerned during the race,” admitted Dutrow. “But he turned it on late and he never did that before. He had another gear, that’s a good thing,” the trainer said, before putting his arm around Iavarone for winners’ circle picture taking and all three posed with the Haskell trophy held aloft, Stanley Cup style.

Photo by: Toni Pricci
New Jersey's Joe Pesce was a paddock visitor
No matter the level of competition, only warriors have the will to beat you. It was Big Brown’s will, not his brilliance, that beat six Haskell rivals before 45,132 appreciative fans, those closest to the rail calling his name as he came back to be unsaddled.

But the Big Brown of Derby and Preakness fame was nowhere to be found at Monmouth Park, only the kind, cool horse that wants to please you. “I’ve said before this is the best horse I’ve been on. The thing that sets him apart from other fast horses I’ve ridden is his mind. He’s just so cool. If he was human I’d love to go clubbin’ with him.”

Big Brown’s unlikely to “go clubbin’” with Desormeaux or anyone else, anytime soon. He’s also extremely unlikely to run back in three weeks in the Travers.

His trainer, seemingly relieved as they all were, was very proud of his horse, as they all were. “He chased lone speed and ran him down in his first start after being pulled up. “It was the first time he showed he was a true race horse.”

Photo by: Toni Pricci
General Manager, Bob Kulina has much to smile about
The lone speed was Coal Play, the Zito horse that ran big, who tried to do to Big Brown what Da’ Tara did to him at Belmont Park. “Big Brown’s a wonderful horse, he’s good for the game,” said Zito after the initial disappointment wore off. “But going down the backstretch I started to get excited again,” recalling how he felt as he watched the Belmont Stakes upset he engineered unfold two months ago.

On the other side of the Monmouth Park horse path from Zito, Dutrow watched his horse and his thinking went a little differently. “I was satisfied with how the race was developing, until the three-eighths pole,“ he said.

“I thought we were beat turning for home but then he took dead aim. At the sixteenth pole, he seemed like the winner. It was thrilling to watch him…something just goes through you,” and his voice simply trailed off.

In the parade postward, Big Brown looked better than he did at Belmont Park but not by all that much. It seems that the Big Brown of the Gulfstream Park paddock and post parade is also a thing of the past. Looking good is not the same as looking great.

But it seemed that assessment was erroneous when Big Brown broke like a shot, Desormeaux establishing a forward position until Joe Bravo and Coal Play zoomed by to take the lead. At the lower first turn, Edgar Prado, like he had in the Preakness, tried to pin Big Brown inside, but Desormeaux loosened up on the reins and took an attending position outside straightening into the backstretch.

He stalked Coal Play all the way but not while under restraint. He was simply a pace presser, and on the final turn things got dicey for those who made Big Brown a 1-5 favorite. He remained virtually in place throughout, eventually leading to Desormeaux’s oh-no moment.

Photo by: Toni Pricci
Big Brown Accepts a Warm Welcome Following Hard Earned Haskell Victory
Three sixteenths from the finish, it looked doubtful Big Brown would win. It looked better at the eighth pole, but only a little better, until he found that gear propelling him forward, drifting out as the leader shortened stride. Bravo had tried to steal it in the way that so many Monmouth two-turn races are stolen.

But Big Brown surged to the lead inside a final furlong that shaded :13 seconds, stopping the timer in a very solid 1:48 1/5. While Rockerfeller--appearing very much like a Breeders’ Cup Sprint contender--won the Teddy Drone Stakes in 1:08 earlier in the day, the Monmouth surface was not especially glib and played honestly throughout the program.

Iavarone said that “right now, Rick will evaluate him and we’ll plan a sensible campaign. The Breeders’ Cup is the ultimate goal. We‘ll work backward from there.”

Written by John Pricci

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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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