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

Friday, August 31, 2007

Track Maintenance A Harrowing Issue For New York Horsemen

Saratoga Springs, NY--August 31, 2008

Dear Diary,

It turns out that Del Mar is not the only successful racetrack where the surface you race on in the afternoon isn't the same as the one you train on in the mornings.

But the difference is that horseman here are more satisfied with the one they race on, as opposed to Del Mar, where the afternoon surface often bears no resemblance to what took place that morning.

Of greater significance, however, is that at Saratoga, as well as Belmont Park and Aqueduct downstate, the issue relates more to horse safety than the running style of winning horses.

"I get beat up every day over track condition," said trainer Rick Violette, president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. Violette will saddle early line favorite High Finance in tomorrow's Grade 1 Forego Stakes.

"You can stand here [at the top of the stretch] and hear a horse work up at the three-sixteenths pole," added NYTHA board member, trainer Pat Kelly. "Jarring, jarring," he said, punching the air in a downward motion to demonstrate the jackhammer compression that occurs when thousand-pound animals strike hard ground at 40 miles per hour on legs no bigger than a human's arm.

The whispers about a larger-than-normal attrition rate from training injuries suffered in morning workouts traveled up the Northway months before any horses did. Track maintenance procedures had rendered the surfaces too compact, too hard.

Even the normally deeper Oklahoma training track here was harder and faster than anyone could ever remember, a circumstance recently corrected after prominent horseman Shug McGaughey complained to track management.

The issue came to a head this morning at an open meeting called by Violette before the races, attended by approximately 60 NYTHA horsemen.

"No one is satisfied with the condition of the racetrack [during training hours]," said Violette. "Something has to happen. Lots of us are scared to death to breeze a horse before the [8:15 a.m. renovation] break.

"There have been too many breakdowns, too many frogs shed, too many shoes pulled."

The first steps to please the horsemen have already been taken in the form of track maintenance policy changes.

After discussions with Director of Racing Surfaces John Passero, it was agreed that there no longer will be a hard roll applied to the track after the races, lasting until morning training hours.

Parenthetically, a hard roll occurs when a huge piece of grading equipment is driven over the surface to compact and flatten it.

Rolling sometimes is done in conjunction with, or in lieu of, sealing the track. Sealing is done with heavy boards called floats attached to the rear of conventional tractors. The purpose is to hasten the drying process in the event of precipitation.

Racing on sealed tracks is somewhat controversial.

Sealed tracks are popular with jockeys because the wet surface plays more consistently. But the tight surface often is speed biased, compromising non-speed horses that just don't handle the slick surface well. Call it the equine equivalent of spinning your wheels.

The new policy also will eliminate aggressive sealing of the track after the races. And there will be more harrowing done in the morning, to more closely resemble afternoon running surfaces and to keep the surface softer, more forgiving.

"I've been lucky at this meet," Kelly said. "My horses have been doing well. But sore horses in the morning make short fields in the afternoon."

"This is one issue that has horsemen united," said Violette. "It's been smoldering out there for a while. There's been big resentment, not just here but at Belmont and Aqueduct. It came to a head. Something had to happen.

"We're putting on the show and [the association] has to please us. The staff here seems to want to make us happier. We'll take them at their word."

When apprised of the agreement later by a reporter, Passero said "I hadn't heard a word. I'm not going to do anything different."

Apparently, the last word on this issue is yet to be spoken.

The welfare of horses and riders were not the only topics covered. Violette talked about the nightmare of red tape created by the Department of Homeland Security regarding the many backstretch workers that come from Mexico and other countries.

The racetrack has not been immune to fallout from the immigration issue. Violette sees the 'big problem' as a political one. "[Government officials] want to tie everything to citizenship which seems like overkill. We'd like our workers to do their jobs, pay their taxes, and return home if they want."

The other hot button issue the detention barn in which horses must be stabled for six hours prior to running in a race. The NYRA constructed the first detention barn three years ago in an attempt to thwart cheaters taking an edge with illegal drugs.

"Has it worked? I don't know," said Violette, answering the question he posed to the group.

"Have standards changed? Not really. But a couple of people have disappeared [from the ranks of leading trainers].

"We need to ramp up testing and change the attitude. The atmosphere here is you're guilty; we just haven't caught you yet. We never underline the fact that the majority of trainers are hard working, honest people who care about the horses, that most are not cheaters.

"That wasn't mentioned at the Jockey Club [Round Table], and that's not right. We don't get credit for the scrutiny that's in place. The testing and penalties are serious but we need to spend two or three times the money.

"We should do it behind close doors. Don't talk about it. Clean it up."

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

DRF Needs To Advocate For Players, Not Tracks

Saratoga Springs, NY--August 30, 2007

Dear Diary,

I dont get it. But maybe thats why I have intrinsic faith that this country will work out its problems. Eternal optimist. Another story for another day.

But I dont understand the purpose of a sketchy news story in Daily Racing Form, Take Cut Has Little Effect, regarding the 10-day reduced takeout experiment at the recently concluded Laurel summer meet.

According to the story, the blended takeout reduction of 11.4 percent had no discernable impact and the track will not experiment with takeout cuts in the near future, said a Laurel official.

Like 10 days proves anything, one way or another.

As if 10 days going fetlock to fetlock with Saratoga and, to a lesser degree, Del Mar, would yield meaningful results.

Or that, buried inside the story, was the nugget that simulcast handle which on balance accounts for 85 cents of every dollar wagered on thoroughbred racing in this country actually increased.

And that because of a flap created by the attempts of a few betting platforms within the industry to corner the market on Internet wagering, wagers from and International Racing Group were not accepted. Those outfits averaged $154,000 in daily handle at last years meet.

International Racing Group, better known as IRG, caters to some of racings biggest bettors, gamblers accustomed to accepting rebates in exchange for their business and who view reduced takeout in the same context.

The wagering pools at Laurel that averaged $1.29-million at the brief meet were probably insufficient to attract the action of racings whales. However, thats decidedly besides the point.

There was no mention in the story that Laurel CEO Lou Raffeto viewed the experiment as a promotion, to garner some publicity for the track at a time when Saratoga and Del Mar routinely grab the headlines. He explained that to HRI readers before the experiment began.

But everyone has to answer to somebody. Now the talk is about how the industry needs to try new ideas but that there are ramifications, and that [Maryland racing isnt] not that strong right now and.

I suppose what bothered me most was no mention of how reduced takeouts have worked elsewhere.

How since the 1970s handle went up every time takeout was reduced at the New York tracks.

Or how Ellis Park awakened a moribund Pick Four pool this year by dropping its take on the wager, with cooperation from lawmakers in the Commonwealth, to four percent.

The problem is that tracks and OTBs point to declining revenue while handle figures rise during times of reduced takeout.

But never is reduced takeout given a fair shake to succeed over a more meaningful duration. And its never been reduced to a meaningful number that would optimize the point at which demand meets supply to maximize revenue.

Racing economists conservatively project that number to be between eight and 10 percent.

But aside from Steven Crist, a player who seems to be a lone voice in the DRF wilderness, the paper doesnt consistently advocate for the player, the overwhelming number of the DRFs customers.

Perhaps theyve made one too many strategic alliances with the tracks to bother supporting the needs of horseplayers.

I cant understand why, when several tracks have reduced takeout this year, the only track reported on in this fashion was Laurel, where the experiment was said to fail.

However, if simulcast handle were the measure then it wasnt a failure, even without the commingling from and IRG customers.

Takeout is not lowered with the little guy in mind, players who, like government regulators and unsophisticated track officials, dont get it. It helps them but it doesnt seem to matter to them.

Tracks should lower takeout because its the smart thing to do for the games best customers that drive the revenue and for the new gamblers a lower take might help attract.

That should be an idea racings paper of record can get behind. Instead of nitpicking the results of meaningless experimental promotions.

* * *

Bets N Pieces: This time Rick Violette got away with one. Unlike last week when he ran a first-time starting juvenile for a tag and watched as his very professional winner was haltered away via the claim box, Violette sent out D J Lightning with a $100,000 selling at, watched him win by 5- lengths in 1:04.68 and brought him back to the barn; juvenile miss looks like a nice prospect; note.

Hesanoldsalt, the odds-on choice that created a minus show pool in the third race, came on the track with front bandages added, finished fourth, and produced inflated show payoffs. If you paid attention, you cashed.

In the stretch run of the fifth race, Farri H. with Kent Desormeaux, and Cape Cod Escape, Raul Rojas in the boot, were locked in a head to head stretch battle. Approaching the sixteenth pole, Desormeaux, despite racing right up on the fence, looked over his left shoulder. The momentary lapse, or whatever that was, might have cost his mount the win as Farri H. was narrowly beaten by the Scott Schwartz newcomer. Come back to us, Kent

Bob Baffert just keeps sending out running two-year-old after running two-year-old. In todays sixth, it was juvenile filly Indian Blessing, who missed the track record--set yesterday by the Baffert-trained colt J Be K--by 10/100s, as she stopped the timer in 1:03.26. Considering that fillies of any age run about 40/100s slower than males at sprint distances, it was one hell of an effort. Bullet Bob is 4-for-4 at this meet with his juveniles, including stakes winning More Happy.

Weight can stop a train, racetrackers like to say. Today it did. Highweight Mixed Up simply was not the same horse that won his prep with authority and, like the Belmont Stakes, a filly beat the boys in a Grade 1 stakes, the New York Turf Writers Steeplechase Cup Handicap. Taking command over the ninth of 10 fences, Footlights opened an insurmountable lead beneath Xavier Aizpuru, the leading jump rider at the meet, and drew off beneath low weight of 133 pounds, sex allowance notwithstanding. Second low weight Underbidder was second under 136 and The Looper was third. Mixed Up was a dull fifth under 162 pounds, failing to give Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard his 13th Turf Writers win. It was the first for trainer Roger Horgan.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Steeplechase Fans Still Jumping For Joy

Saratoga Springs, NY--August 29, 2007

Dear Diary,

In this business, everyone seems nostalgic for the good old days which, when you think about it, really werent.

Did horseplayers really enjoy standing on street corners winter nights awaiting the truck that would deliver the next days Racing Form because races were drawn the same day?

Did they like choosing from a wagering menu of nine races, and only nine races a day?

How about thinking a 3-5 favorite cant lose but being unable to turn into a 3-1 payoff because exactas werent invented yet?

Or cashing a ticket worth seven figures?

Youre joking, right?

What about a television network that broadcasts races from around the country all day, every day?

Or legal phone betting?

Well, the sport itself has changed also.

Imagine willfully skipping the Belmont Stakes or Travers with a healthy horse that would be the publics first or second choice in the betting?

Or needing six weeks between starts?

What about million dollar yearlings? Forty million dollar studs?

Dont look now, fans, but these are the good old days.

Lost in all this--how times have changed and not for the better--is a segment of the game thats still strong, more popular than ever as sport.

Its steeplechasing. And it doesnt matter that the betting community could care less.

One of the things the New York Racing Association does correctly is allowing the jump-up crowd to remain part of the fabric here.

There arent as many opportunities for the up-and-over set that there used to be. Hell, this year theres been only one race for turf horses--without obstacles to jump--going a distance of ground.

The NYRA still puts up the money for six steeplechase events a year at Saratoga, about one a week, including two graded stakes. Six races out of approximately 350 isnt very much.

But as a link to the sports past, its better than nothing.

Steeplechasing has waned in popularity because its been victim to a two-pronged attack; from bean counters that point to lower handle to a racing media that finds no efficacy in it, no appreciation for its nuances.

Horses that fall are part of the game. But good jumpers dont fall. In the 90s, I did a five year study and found that steeplechasing was more formful than flat racing, favorites winning at nearly a 50 percent rate.

Fifty percent!

Theres something else steeplechasing does that flat racing at major venues dont. Draw nearly 50,000 fans, many of them family units, to its biggest one-day event at Far Hills, New Jersey every fall.

Did I mention theres no wagering there?

Try that some day at Aqueduct in February.

Tomorrow is the 66th running of the $150,000 New York Turf Writers Cup Handicap, Grade 1, for four-year-olds and up, at two and three-eighths miles over 10 national fences.

Theres a pretty good highweight in there called Mixed Up that can jump and run. He worked in :59 4/5 for the race, outfinishing an in-company mate late. But thats not unusual these days.

Rather than find older thoroughbreds that have lost a step and making a jumper, the accent is on talent in the modern steeplechase game. Its about jumping and running.

And there are more younger jumpers than ever. Four is young for a hurdle horse. Now theres a program for three-year-olds each fall to get them started.

Mixed Up is no youngster, however. Hes eight. No ones compared him to Flatterer or Lonesome Glory or Neji, or Independence for that matter, but hes the best one around right now.

And hes trained by a man, Jonathan Sheppard, whos enshrined across the street from here in the Hall of Fame.

Maybe because hes won 12 Turf Writers has a little something to do with it.

But, as everyone knows, steeplechase people make terrific trainers. Tom Voss, Paul Fout, Sanna Hendricks and, back in the day, Paddy Smithwick and Burling Cocks, among many, many others, are great horsemen and women.

One of Cocks protgs, Billy Turner, is still the only trainer to win the Triple Crown with an undefeated horse. Long before Carl Nafzger was pointing horses to races, Turner did everything he could to prepare Seattle Slew to win the Belmont. He worked backwards from there.

And theres greater respect for the sports traditions among the jump set, too. In this crowd, while they might not like it, they consider carrying top weight an honor.

Mixed Up will tote 162 pounds tomorrow but thats not the real story. The real story is that hes conceding 10 to 29 pounds to his 10 rivals.

Apparently Director of Racing Bill Gallo Jr. has a healthy respect for the sports traditions and, at least in theory, for giving everyone a chance to win a handicap.

In todays flat game, handicap imposts of 124 pounds or more are rare, the spread between high and low weights often insufficient to bring them all together because the modern jockey cant do less than 110.

Todays opener, an allowance hurdle at 2-1/16 miles, went to six-year-old Dark Equation, who took command before reaching the final fence and drew off with authority by a handy five lengths. He paid $4.10 as the favorite.

* * *

Bets N Pieces: Bob Baffert unleashed a motorcycle in todays second race, the debuting J Be K. Leaving from the far outside post, he broke sharply, took command while racing professionally, then improved his position, as the racetrackers say.

By the time he reached the line, J Be K was 7- lengths in front, racing 5- furlongs in 1:03.13, a new track record. Bullet Bob said after the race that he wasnt sure he had him fit enough, then told his wife Jill to go cash the tickets. Despite a series of fast gate works here and at Del Mar, the scopey son of Silver Deputy, owned by the meet's leader, Ahmed Zayat, was sent off at 7-2. What a country.

Havent had a course record--as opposed to track record--in what, two weeks? But when you set a turf pace of :46.55 and 1:09:73 over very firm ground, youve got some splainin to do if you dont set some standard.

And thus the stage was set for Criminologist to win her second of the meet, drawing off late to win the Perfect Sting by open lengths in 1:45.61 on the inner course. The temporary rail remained set at 18 feet from the hedge.

Written by John Pricci

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