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 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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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Making Sense Of The Three-Year-Old Championship

Saratoga Springs, NY--August 27, 2007

Dear Diary,

Offered for your consideration is the three-year-old championship. Who wins it? Who deserves it? What bearing will it have upon Horse of the Year 2007?

All good questions. No easy answers.

The extremely popular Street Sense, obviously, is the clubhouse leader. Is his divisional lead insurmountable?

For the first time in recent memory, it could be that the Breeders Cup Classic winner is no sure thing to be voted best in show. Consider a handful of plausible scenarios:

Most observers will concede that Street Sense won the granddaddy of American races, like it or not. The Kentucky Derby is Americas Race. The winner becomes an instant sports legend, and that goes for the horse, trainer and jockey.

Last Saturday Street Sense won the Travers, the Derby of midsummer. Racing people hold it in such high esteem that sometimes its called the fourth leg of the Triple Crown.

No matter what Steve Asmussen thinks. Clearly, he and Carl Nafzger hail from different Texas neighborhoods.

Now riddle this: Street Sense wins his Classic prep, whether it be the storied Jockey Club Gold Cup or the storied and recently resuscitated Massachusetts Handicap or the Hawthorne Gold Cup or the Super Derby, over straight three-year-olds.

To make this hypothetical more niggling, he chooses one of the three against older horses. He beats his elders, then loses the Classic to Curlin.

Who wins the title then? While its not particularly germane, recall that Street Sense already is a champion.

Whats the right call? Curlin with a Preakness and Classic title vs. Street Sense, winner of the Derby, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup but a loser in two of three in head-to-head matches?

Now try this: Give Curlin a win in the JCGC while Street Sense wins a less prestigious nine furlong prep such as the Mass Cap or Super Derby but both are defeated in the Classic. What to do?

Before you answer, remember that both have a win and a dont-deserve-a-loser placing in two legs of the Triple Crown. And, like it or not, not all Grade 1s are created equal. They should be, of course, but arent.

Think about this one: Both Street Sense and Curlin take a road less traveled, win the Mass Cap and Super Derby respectively, but lose the Classic to Whitney record holder Lawyer Ron who rebounds after losing the Woodward to, say, Corinthian. Meanwhile, Rags to Riches runs the table, beating elders in the Ruffian and the Breeders Cup Distaff.

Then were talking a history-making Belmont Stakes winning filly that could wind up with more Grade 1 titles than the other Triple Crown leg winners combined.

Thats, of course, if the tracks not too wet for her to train on, or she spikes another fever. Or the sky falls and she never races again.

Want more? Consider that Curlin could win the Classic but still would have lost to the filly in their only meeting. What happens now if Haskell winner Any Given Saturday also runs the table, including a victory in the Classic?

How do you like him now?

It would be much simpler if all this were settled on the racetrack but that becomes virtually impossible in the modern game of duck and dodge.

As an aside, Im thinking about this: Whos going to run for a million dollars in the Pennsylvania Derby Labor Day?

A million dollars sure doesnt buy what it used to anymore.

And where is Any Given Saturday, anyway? Why isnt he running in Philadelphia? Mondays race comes four weeks after the Haskell. The timings OK, right? Even for Pletcher, right?

Sorry, I forgot. Any Given Saturdays running in the Brooklyn. That would give him a victory over elders and the timing is better, too, five weeks from Brooklyn bridge race to the Eatontown exit on the Garden State Parkway.

Who could deny him then?

One more scenario: Hard Spun goes to Turfway Park, just like he did last spring. He beats elders in the Kentucky Cup Classic, just like he did beat three-year-olds in the Lanes End last spring. He catches a speed crazy Monmouth strip for the Classic, pulls a Black Tie Affair, and the filly never makes it into the Distaff starting gate.

Now what?

These scenarios might seem far fetched but theyre not, really. No one knows how any of this will play out, and no one knows how these disparate events could affect voters at seasons end.

Chances are that the three-year-old championship will fall into line predictably once the fall races reveal themselves.

Will the classics chase and summer season exact a toll on possibly the deepest sophomore class in the last half century? That seems unlikely given the depth of their talent and numbers.

But Horse of the Year is another matter. As legendary turf writer Joe Hirsch, one of the founders of the National Turf Writers Association--one of three Eclipse Award voting organizations, once explained the horse of the year can be anything.

Meaning that Horse of the Year will be decided either by carefully assessing the matchups or earned by an accomplished thoroughbred like Street Sense that exemplifies the spirit and charisma of an equine champion.

It might be useful to remember this when the votes are all counted, the snow begins to fly, two-year-olds turn three and the process begins all over again.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Spa Calm After Travers Storm

Saratoga Springs, NY--August 26, 2007

Dear Diary,

There might be one more big weekend, the Win and Youre In Woodward program over Labor Day, but the air has been let out of the balloon here.

Happens every year, right after the Travers.

Maybe thats the way its supposed to be. One orgiastic day of racing, during which the wickets opened 12 times to feed the associations and states unquenchable thirst for liquidity.

Goodbye everyone. Drive safely. See you next year.

Well, meets over, said a colleague moments after filing his Travers day story. But its as if this year, that feeling spread outside the press box, too.

The backside was unusually quiet this morning, possibly due to a fairly violent thunderstorm--albeit tame by Saratoga standards--had rendered this mornings track too wet for some trainers.

Maybe it was the Travers day weather. Cant remember when, on balance, this meet has enjoyed better. And Ive been coming here every summer since 1976.

But the humidity that had the Heat Index reach triple digits was so oppressive it made breathing somewhat difficult. More prudent fans watched the big races on television. Attendance failed to reach the 40,000 mark for the first time since 1984, and was the lowest in 26 years.

Or maybe it was because the Wizard was on TV. Cant tell.

Fans were walking around the building so slowly in late morning that the next speed on their pedometer would read stop.

Then again, this was a premium giveaway-less Sunday, the first of the meet. And theres just no measuring the excitement level that The Spinner brings to the old Spa.

Travers gave us a great day of racing, the degree of difficulty so high that some handicappers were comparing it to a Breeders Cup day program, a half dozen palatably live horses in every race.

The program was so difficult that I went on Capital OTBs Handicappers Report that morning, picked eight winners from 12 races, and won $30.

Dont ask, OK? Lets just say there werent enough cold ones in my fridge to guzzle on Saturday night.

And I went to bed early. Slept like a bear in winter.

But as Hyman Roth would say: This is the business we have chosen. I didnt ask-k-k

Where else could Senate Minority Leader Joe Bruno and Gov. Eliot Spitzer be seen sharing a laugh for the cameras, presenting trophies and otherwise enjoying themselves at the races.

The governor wasnt even booed when he presented the Travers trophy to Street Sense owner James Tafel, breaking with a tradition that goes all the way back to Gov. Hugh Carey.

All this excitement exacts a toll. Maybe a dip of 20 degrees will bring back a bounce into the step of fans, increasing the pace for Saratoga Stretch Run 2007.

If it doesnt, no worries. This Saratoga meet owes nothing to anybody.

* * *

First Race: Steve Asmussen has a late developing filly in Sequoia Queen, a winner of her debut here opening week and a repeater yesterday in a solid, professional effort beneath Garrett Gomez. But Awsugahnow was the story, commencing a wide rally approaching the quarter pole, momentum carrying her even wider, a move that carried her to a second-place finish. It was a strong, sustained run and at 14-1 yesterday, shell be worth betting back; note. Favorite Meredith Bee was a willing but non-threatening third.

Second Race: Also-eligible horses have been having uncanny success at this meet. And theyve been proving clearly best. Impressionism saved ground at no time, racing three to four paths wide the entire 8- furlongs. But when Johnny V. was ready, he pushed the button, she cruised up four wide into the lane and held the late runners safe with some authority. Mula Mula might get the moolah with more energetic handling, if you catch my meaning; follow progress.

Third Race: War Pass, an impressive maiden winner of his key race debut (see July 28 Diary), made it two straight for Nick Zito, winning with authority once again while racing a tad greenly beneath Cornelio, who continues to open his lead in the jockey standings with a little over a week to go. It will be interesting.

Fourth Race: Daaher went to the front and improved his position, winning by daylight with something in reserve. Speed has been better in the last two days than its been the entire meeting. Sacrifice Bunt saved ground through the stretch which might not be the place to be on todays drying out good track.

Fifth Race: Knew sooner or later Wayne was going to win one for Marylou. Second-time starter Carnival City, taking advantage of her natural speed in the stretch, outfinished Nightnightnight, who stalked a long way while wide and just missed in a game performance. It was the first win of the meet for Team Whitney/Lukas.

Sixth Race: Friar, dropping into a claimer for the first time, a tack that worked opening day for Albert Stall, looked like it was going to pay off again as the favorite sneaked up the fence with Gomez. But then Dr. Rico, making his first start for Tim Ritvo, came charging down the center of the course beneath Julien, whos really adept at timing his late run with grass runners. The way the winner finished up, he is likely to win on the raise. In fact, bet him back. He was 30-1 today, doesnt figure to be too much shorter if given a class hike next time.

Seventh Race: Been remarking here all meet how well Rick Schosbergs horses have been running. So just when it appeared that Lets Fly Away had wrested the lead for good, Desormeaux tipped Pennylove off the fence and the filly quickly drew off under pressure. Deft training job as state-bred three-year-old miss was coming off a February layoff and emerged with blinkers added.

Eighth Race: Linda Rice really has these 5- furlong turf sprints figured out. Indeed, she might be the only one. But her Huge City, who made a bold mid-race move in last but faded behind the on-rushing deep closers, took complete control in upper stretch and wouldnt be seriously challenged here, winning by daylight. Beneath the Crown was a willing second but the story was third-finisher Thunder Minister, far behind into the stretch, then flying home with a wide rally, nailing show money in the last stride. With better trip next out

The Ballerina, Grade 1: Well, if Calvin Borel can win three Grade 1s at the meet, and Mario Pino another, why not Elvis Trujillo? Trujillo, who really came into his own this winter in Florida, rode yesterdays winner, Maryfield, to a good, troubled fourth in the Grade 1 Princess Rooney last month. Briefly freshened, Doug ONeill shipped her cross country from her Hollywood Park base and got the filly her first Grade 1 title, winning a stirring stretch duel from the younger Baroness Thatcher. Sadly, pacesetting Indian Flare was euthanized on the racetrack, having collapsed 200 yards past the finish line. The ultimate cause of her death was termed cardiovascular shock, according to Dr. Anthony Verderosa, NYRA Chief Examining Veterinarian. Heavy favorite Burmilla was awful, never picking up the bit.

Tenth Race: Juror, making his U. S. Debut in state-bred company, swooped the group from the far outside, winning as much the best.

Written by John Pricci

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