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

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Hall of Fame Never Fails to Fire

Saratoga Springs, August 5, 2008--They came to honor the game and their place in it. And they came to pay tribute to their new colleagues. I can only imagine that for every single one, as they took a long glance around the hall, there was an undeniable sense of honor and privilege.

Photo by: Toni Pricci
Elizabeth and Allen Jerkens enjoy the festivities
Not one Hall of Famer introduced to the standing room gathering at the Fasig-Tipton Sales Pavilion for the 2008 Racing Hall of Fame induction ceremonies ever would be confused for a shrinking violet. Incentive needs ego to succeed.

So for the men introduced to their loyal public, there must have been this sense of great accomplishment as they took measure of their colleagues and realized that yes I, too, belong. And so the roll call from Hall of Fame communications officer Mike Kane began:

Walter Blum, and I’m thinking he never met a speed horse he didn‘t like. Pat Day, who dominated by cajoling rivals into thinking they had a chance. Richard Mandella, who made it look all too easy one Breeders‘ Cup afternoon. Jacinto Vasquez, with the cojones to try to win a Saratoga steeplechase event.

Photo by: Toni Pricci
Leroy Jolley saddled filly Genuine Risk to 1980 Derby win
Angel Cordero Jr., who rode his horse, and yours, simultaneously. Earlie Fires, double tough on the lead. Chris McCarron? Money. Jorge Velasquez? Mr. Smooth. Leroy Jolley, who took a Genuine Risk in the Kentucky Derby. Wayne Lukas? Revolutionary.

Shug McGaughey? Personal Perfection. Allen Jerkens: Giant. Kent Desormeaux, 5,000 and climbing. Jerry Bailey? Mo’ Money, Mo’ Money, Mo’ Money. Bill Mott: King of Turf. Jonathan Sheppard: Chase King. Laffit Pincay Jr.; peerless strength, resilience, character. Nick Zito: Mr. Upset.

Photo by: Toni Pricci
Wayne Lucas saddled filly Winning Colors to 1988 Derby score
Greats, making their game great.

And the new greats: Ancient Title: short, long, West Coast, Saratoga, it was all the same. Inside Information: 14-for-17, wet or dry, it didn‘t matter. Manila the Magnificent. Milo Valenzuela: Kelso and two Derbies. Carl Nafzger: Old School never out of style. Edgar Prado: saves ground, saves horse, 7,000 or bust.

The pavilion was brimming with people long before post time, fans queuing up around the amphitheater before 9 AM, more than an hour before the doors opened. Seats were gone in 15 minutes. Steve Asmussen, in suit and tie, Alex Waldrop, CEO of NTRA, and barn-delayed late arrivals Zito and Barclay Tagg, standing in tribute.

Photo by: Toni Pricci
Paul Mannello of Connecticut is a big fan
As a love fest, Hall of Fame induction ceremonies never fail to fire. Keynoter Dr. Dean Richardson, veterinary surgeon from the University of Pennsylvania made famous by his almost daily updates of Barbaro’s convalescence, talked about his background with entertaining, self-deprecating style.

Learning of the great friendship between Dr. Eduardo Luongo and Mike Shannon, once and future owners of Manila, after millionaire Luongo and his family were forced to escape a military coup in their native country with the clothes on their backs, becoming wards of the U.S. government, sharing their love of horses.

The children of Milo Valenzuela, daughter Dina explaining how much the honor meant to their father, unable to travel from California to Saratoga, but who thanked the Historic Review Committee in a touching video presentation.

There was Jockey Club Chairman Ogden Mills Phipps, honored to join the company of his grandmother, Mrs. Henry Carnegie Phipps, breeder of the great runner and sire, Bold Ruler, and father, Ogden, who raced Easy Goer, saying how proud he was of Inside Information whose heart helped her overcome neurological and spinal cord issues. “You never knew it when you watched her run.”

Photo by: Toni Pricci
Liliana and Edgar Prado accept congratulations
Trainer Bob Klesaris, who gave a young rider from Lima, Peru his start by paying his way to Boston to ride at Suffolk Downs, later sending Prado to Maryland to ride first call for his division there. Dominating that circuit for years, he eventually moved his tack to New York until, on Monday, he was inducted into the Hall across the street from Saratoga Race Course.

“I grew up one of 11 children in a poor part of Lima, Peru. Who knew that a jockey from a small town in Peru could be nominated and inducted into the Hall of Fame? I want to thank my mother who pushed me forward, told me to follow my dream, and for making me 5’ 3” and 114 pounds.

“And a special thanks to Michael Matz and Roy and Gretchen Jackson for giving me the best ride of my life, and to my friend Barbaro, who’s in my heart forever. I miss you, my friend,” Prado said, bringing the crowd to its feet.

Photo by: Toni Pricci
Friendly rivals, Angel Cordero, Jr. and Jorge Velasquez, share a light
Finally, Carl Nafzger, introduced by his owner of 25 years, Jim Tafel. Nafzger, from bull rider, to quarter horse trainer, to the thoroughbred Hall of Fame. Nafzger, a complete horseman who won a Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic in the same year with Unbridled; the first trainer to saddle a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Kentucky Derby champion the following year, Street Sense.

Nafzger thanked his staff, the horsemen who helped him along the way, and his wife Wanda, always at his side. Then he turned his attention to the real reason he was being inducted, a subject not lost on an appreciative audience in this most difficult year for the sport.

“We have to get back to the horse,” said Nafzger. “The horse, that’s who brought us here.

“The horse has taken me from Texas to the Hall of Fame. I haven’t done anything. We wait on the horse. The horse is easy to train. It’s just hard to be patient.”

Then he said again, “the horse is the real reason we’re all here today.” It was, at once, an acknowledgment and a cautionary tale. And everyone in the room knew it.

Written by John Pricci

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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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