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 10, 2007

Saratoga Salutes Its Favorite Son

Saratoga Springs, NY--August 10, 2007

Dear Diary,

They came from Northern California and Ohio and Long Island and from right down the street from this storied race course to say goodbye to their favorite New York bred hero, foaled a few miles from this racetrack seven years ago at Joe McMahons farm.

They came because his story made people feel good about a racehorse again. And they came to Saratoga today to salute their very own Kentucky Derby champion.

Funny Cide, a gelding from the wrong side of the breeding shed owned by a bunch of high school classmates from a small town in upstate New York, against a powerful favorite with the regal name Empire Maker, owned by oil rich foreign interests, trained and ridden by members of Racings Hall of Fame.

They had finished close together in that years Wood Memorial but it was Funny Cides second place finish that showed everyone he belonged with the elite members of that three-year-old class. They would settle it in Louisville, while America watched.

The karma was good for a potential Kentucky Derby upset. The day before, a good filly named Bird Town, owned by the woman they call the Queen of Saratoga, socialite Mary Lou Whitney, was the upset winner of the Kentucky Oaks. Could it be an all-Saratoga Oaks-Derby double?

Among Jose Santoss 91 Grade 1 victories, this one gave him his first and only Kentucky Derby julep cup and helped put him in the Hall of Fame on Monday. His ride was a confident and smart one, stalking comfortably while in winning position throughout, taking the lead for good at the precise moment in the stretch when the move needed to be made.

Empire Maker was coming hard, and it appeared momentarily that his late momentum would carry him past the Derby upstart. But thats when racing first heard the apt term coined by Triple Crown racecaller Tom Durkin, the gutsy gelding Funny Cide.

As he hit the Churchill Downs finish line in front, the crowd at the Saratoga harness track went absolutely wild, way beyond the exuberance normally reserved for cashing a winning ticket.

People were jumping up and down, literally, trying to slap high fives but missing in their uncontrollable excitement. It was about more than cashing a bet: the Saratoga horse had done it. No waiting until August to stick your chest out.

Meanwhile, on the Churchill backstretch, Santos was screaming into Donna Brothers equine microphone: Get with the Program, New York Bred, as he pointed downward at his Derby winning mount, parroting a tagline made famous in a television commercial.

By now the whole state was celebrating, and the New York breeding industry received the publicity boost it needed, one putting it on the map for good. Good horses can be bred here, even Derby winning geldings.

At the Capital Off Track Betting Teletheater that afternoon, the crowd, Im told, was no less exuberant. There, and at a handful of other simulcast locations, winning bettors were given an apology and told to come back tomorrow.

Between the winning Oaks-Derby double winners, the $26 win mutuel, and all those winning exactas, trifectas and superfectas keyed by Funny Cide, the venues had run out of cash: Its Saturday. The banks are closed. Come back tomorrow.

And nobody seemed to mind.

There were other moments: Vindication for his Derby win after a Miami newspaper falsely accused Santos of riding with a battery, an illegal electrical device used to stimulate racehorses. There was photographic proof that the claim was false, and the gelding and Santos proved it at Pimlico.

Empire Maker skipped that dance, but got even with his Derby rival in the Belmont Stakes. The combination of Funny Cides enervating Preakness, a too-fast Belmont workout, a wet racetrack, and the Test of the Champions additional quarter mile all conspired against him.

But he tried hard, like always, and his many fans were still proud of what he had accomplished against significant odds. His third-place Belmont Stakes finish could not diminish those feelings.

There were other important victories, of course, but none more significant as an older horse than his victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup the following year.

Funny Cide has dropped back, said Durkin of the gutsy gelding. And indeed he had. Surely he was beaten as the field was approaching the quarter pole in the classic for older horses. But Funny Cide found another gear, rallying a second time, and out-gutting his rivals from between horses in a performance for the ages.

The JCGC was to be his prep for the Breeders Cup Classic. I asked one of his owners at the harness track one afternoon, the late Gus Williams, how important would it be for Funny Cide to win the Classic.

The Classic? harrumphed Williams. Hell, I just want to win five more Gold Cups, referring to the achievement of the mighty Kelso when the race was run at two miles and not at its present mile and a half distance.

Last year, at age six, the horse that inspired books, his own flavor of ice cream, a micro beer, and a future full length feature film, started to lose steps. This year, there were efforts where you could see the flame that once made him great and so very popular was flickering perceptibly.

Then came the whispers that the gelding should be retired before he embarrassed himself further by losing to rivals he would once trounce, that he had earned the privilege of living life as an equine pensioner.

Finally, after winning the Wadsworth Memorial at the lower tier racetrack in Canandaigua, New York, Finger Lakes, where he attracted an overflow crowd, he was retired. Sort of.

Unlike many racehorses that are angered by boredom, a decision was made to keep him at the racetrack instead of a farm, now working as the stable pony for his trainer Barclay Tagg and assistant Robin Smullen.

And so he led the field for todays fourth race to the post, a maiden sprint for New York bred two-year-olds at seven furlongs, the same distance he raced as a two-year-old of 2002 when he showed he might have a bright future. But not even those closest to him expected a ride like this.

First Race: Todd Pletcher mega-dropdown Super Hero totally outclassed field of $25,000 claimers, blowing the race open at mid-turn, over the sealed muddy track.

Second Race: Indescribable did all the work, racing Who Fu into defeat, but Imagistic picked up the pieces and got the money, nipping Inda who stalked the leaders from the four path throughout but couldnt hold last-run winner.

The Waya Stakes: Overnight event was switched to the wet main track and truncated from 12 to 9- furlongs. Warrior Girl was very game through the stretch after chasing the leader into the straight but Nunnery was too game, giving Bill Mott his 11th winner of the meet. Absolutely no excuses for Pletcher-trained Jade Queen.

Fourth Race: Horse to watch Mor Chances (see Diary from 7/28) timed her run a lot better this time with the switch to Cornelio Velasquez to get the money at fair odds. Biohazard showed much improved speed in her first wet-track start, as if really moving up in the going; note.

Fifth Race: Three of Ministers Bids four lifetime victories came when he was fresh. You can make that 4-for-5, stalking the pace comfortably and solidly repelling late run of Hesanoldsalt, who now has finished second in six of seven starts this season. Old pro Evening Attire raced well but was hindered by the pedestrian pace.

Sixth Race: Off the turf maiden event for juvenile fillies went to Mike Hernandez trained newcomer Slipstone who had good position into the lane and finished off her run with some authority. Laurens Go Go made a solid move into command, looming the winner, but couldnt even hold off late running newcomer Upper Level for the place award. Bar City was a late scratch after breaking through the gate at the start.

Seventh: Another winner for Rick Dutrow stable as In Command, steadied backstretch and again on turn awaiting room, angled out, then finished like a rocket to win going away. Take to repeat under similar conditionsTzipi had horrible trip as gate woes continue at this meet. Steadied by an assistant starter while fractious in the gate, she broke in the air, then raced behind and between horses thereafter. Clearly deserves another chance; note.

The Heed: Another overnighter, this one switched to the wet main track. Dorm Fever benefited from the new conditions, turning back with recent conditioning, a pedigree for the going, and a well timed late move from Garrett Gomez. She could make it three straight next out as she continues her development; follow progress.

Ninth Race: Danzaway drew in from the also-eligible list then drew away from the field in the late going, obviously relishing the wet track, giving Tom Bush another longshot winner.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Conjuring Horse of the Year Thoughts at the Spa

Saratoga Springs, NY--August 9, 2007

Dear Diary,

Ive got this hypothetical Im mulling over. All the possible scenarios leading up to the Breeders Cup Classic which--and Ill take a winter book price right now--in my view will be won by a three-year-old.

I know, youre thinking thats big limb youre stepping out on. Well, there is a four-year-old named Lawyer Ron whos going to be formidable, yes? Especially if he underscores his record breaking Whitney with a score in the Woodward closing weekend here.

Although the division this week lost Stephen Foster winner Flashy Bull to retirement via a cracked sesamoid, Corinthians gotta run in the Woodward, or so Jimmy Jerkens was saying the other morning over at Oklahoma. And hes no empty stall.

Forget Curlin and Rags to Riches for a moment and riddle this:

Lets say Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense wins the Travers and the Jockey Club Gold Cup, but loses the Classic. Now lets say that Haskell winner Any Given Saturday wins the Brooklyn Handicap and the Breeders Cup Classic.

Whos Horse of the Year?

Before you answer, recall that Street Sense beat him a nose in Tampa and finished well ahead of him in Louisville. Think about it. Its a tough call.

The Curlin camp has been quiet since the colt finished third in the Haskell, in what can only be described as a disappointing effort. Not for the win, necessarily. The winner was certainly sharper and with a conditioning edge. But he should have won this place photo.

In any event, well see where he goes. Would be surprised if the leading three-year-olds dont meet again until the final weekend of October at Monmouth Park.

In what was his first of three workouts for the Travers, Street Sense worked a half mile in the mud yesterday morning in :49 3/5, a work truncated from five furlongs because of the wet track. In typical SS fashion, his final quarter was a zippy :23 2/5. Expect something faster next time.

He showed that he handled the mud OK, said trainer Carl Nafzger.

Soon after he worked, Lady Joanne, pronounced Joan-ie--dont ask, its a Kentucky thing--went the same distance in :49 2/5. The three-year-old filly won her Alabama prep here like breaking so many sticks and we havent seen the best of her yet, Nafzger said, a pretty scary thought.

Were not expecting that shell meet Rags to Riches in the Alabama unless that filly does something extraordinary in the mornings leading up. The likely targets for the Belmont heroine are the Gazelle or Ruffian. The latter is against elders, of course.

Meanwhile, Todd Pletcher has decided on the Brooklyn Handicap vs. older on Sept. 22, also at Belmont Park. You just knew it would be all about the spacing, and there are five weeks from Brooklyn to Classic.

Were not even half way done here and already the fall prep season is looming.

P.S., diary, think Id vote for Street Sense given the scenario above. But I wouldnt feel comfortable about it.

* * *

The G2 A.P. Smithwick Memorial: The traditional prep for the Grade 1New York Turf Writers Cup Handicap was a hell of a horse race. With Preemptive Strike setting a controlled pace, favorite Mixed Up would have his stretch work cut out for him. But he sprinted home strongly beneath fist-pumping Danielle Hodsdon to win by a half length, giving Hall of Famer Jonathan Sheppard his third win in 12 runnings of the Smithwick. Mixed Up (158) spotted eight pounds to the runnerup and 12 to the four remaining rivals. Hell be a tough out un the Turf Writers but might have to spot them even a few more pounds. Sheppard also will be looking for an unprecedented 13th victory in that race. Good show.

Second Race: Experience the difference in state-bred juvenile sprint. Myakka got all the late money, and the purse money, sprinting away from the group at the three-eighths pole to win by daylight. Newcomer runnerup was maneuvered off the rail by Ramon Dominguez but remained inside through the running. The filly was tipped outside inside the eighth pole and finished very nicely for the place; she wont be a New York bred maiden for long.

Third Race: This non-winners of three other/than at 1-1/16th miles over good turf would have passed for a stakes anywhere else. In fact, winning Criminologist was entered in one on the Haskell undercard but scratched awaiting this. While everyone saw the flying finish of Sky High Flyer--a horse to watch next time--Criminologist was clearly best. She saved ground at no time, was forced to move probably sooner than Edgar Prado wanted, put the leader away and withstood everyone else, including Sky High, getting Shug McGaughey off the duck. Another terrific finish at the worlds best race meet.

Fourth Race: Rick Dutrow had My Fair El all wound up and she beat maiden claimers like a poor stepchild. Her speed was dominating throughout, then she drew off. Ivory Star was well meant on the tote and completed the exacta. First-timer Foxy Patty finished well too late in a useful debut; follow.

Fifth Race: Good races put in by all the money finishers. Winning Moon Ala Mode stretched her undefeated turf record at one mile to 3-for-3 with a strong finish up the fence for the Mike Hushion/Channing Hill team. Party Jones saved ground throughout despite an outside post but shook loose too late; she finished faster than the winner to no avail. Meanwhile, pacesetting Quick Comeback was pressed on the lead through and held on tenaciously; bet the second and third finishers back next out.

The Lady DAccord: Overnight stakes for three-year-old state-bred fillies was a good one between the first two finishers. Cammys Choice, making first start for Kiaran McLaughlin, outbroke the field but was quickly joined on her inside by Talking Treasure. The fillies raced on even terms for the final half-mile before the inside filly gamely prevailed. Not sure theres anyone better than JV when involved in speed duels. He doesnt rattle, and always seems to assert himself at just the right moment.

Seventh Race: Two winners from his last two starters for Mrs. Gerry, Angle Penna Jr.-trained English Colony took the lead midstretch but was driving hard to last over fast finishing Ever a Friend. Darley/Godolphin second-choice entry both have every chance in the lane and each hung, no excuses.

The Statue of Liberty: Yet another gate incident as two fillies broke through, with Twistaway running off necessitating a stewards scratch. Meanwhile, favorite Laurentide Ice raced terribly thereafter. She probably should have been excused from the race as well. In the running, Tishmeister was cleverly rated off the pace of longshot leader City in the Clouds, middle-moved and withstood the rally of second choice Dont Mind Me.

Ninth Race: Last week, Lhotse Quality drifted the length of the stretch, her poor action blowing a big lead. Not today. Straight as a string through the lane for Rick Dutrow and was never in danger of being caught by Jets Only, the strong choice until she met the Dutrow filly. Whatever the circuit, Dutrow doesnt miss a beat. Third finisher Prime Obsession showed marked improvement with addition of blinkers; note.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Note For Governor Eliot Spitzer As Franchise Decision Nears

Saratoga Springs, NY--August 8, 2007

Dear Eliot,

Its been a while since Ive written but Im sure you probably havent had time to notice. Sorry this cant be another full fledged letter, like the other two, but I've have been a little busy myself.

I read where youre still intending to make your franchise decision the day after the meet closes, Sept. 4. But even if the industrys been waiting five and a half years for a resolution, Im thinking: Whats the rush?

Your man Richard Rifkin said Tuesday that everybodys in agreement that the Saratoga meet still works.

Im sure that came as a relief to everyone in the room.

So the final, final, final bids were submitted yesterday. Rifkin also said that you werent wedded to any plan, that the debate continues to take place.

And Im wondering with whom you are debating? Yourself? I know the final say is yours, otherwise you would have taken the recommendation of the Ad Hoc Committee. I know, I know, didn't happen on your watch.

Like you, I realize youll need the approval of--and I dont want to get you upset here--a man well simply refer to as Mr. B. Youll need the other guys in that building to agree, too.

That wont be easy for you now. The winds are blowing in the other direction. And you have no one to blame but yourself for making Mr. B. a sympathetic figure.

Wish I could have gotten down on that prop in the Albany Winter Book.

You promised your decision will be made without delay. But whats another few weeks, or months, for that matter?

Please dont keep this self imposed deadline unless youre sure youre doing the right thing. Twenty years is a lifetime.

In case this needs stating, let me say that neither myself nor Michael Vick have a dog in this fight. But I was looking at what the possible franchisees had to say, or were not saying, the other day regarding their new proposals.

Capital Play is going to build a training facility with 500 new stalls somewhere in Saratoga County with Polytrack, and got hitched with Victoria Racing Club, the Melbourne Cup folks.

Well, those bet shop boys are in need of some racetrack guidance, right?

You realize weve already got a training facility, its called Oklahoma, with plenty of room in the back for more barns and stalls. And you cant train here in December, January and February even if you hired Al Gore to replace Bob Kovachick.

Excelsior, as usual, kept its low profile. They added a new developer, probably in the cards soon after the Steinbrenner people were forced to drop out.

The NYRA is playing their cards closely to the vest saying they dont yet have a replacement for MGM. Thats probably true: Who would touch them until the coast clears?

Got to say the Empire people never fail to make me smile. Their proposal is to include, in their words, representatives of government, the horsemen community, OTB corporations and other community stakeholders.

What? No partridge? No pear tree?

Because winner-take-all doesnt work in Albany, and because Mr. B specifically said hed like to see the best of all proposals combined somehow.

It might be good for some people to grovel, but not the states first citizen.

Whatever you choose, be decisive, and take the heat for doing the right thing if necessary. You were elected to serve the people of New York, not to eventually run for higher office.

Keep your eye on the prize. VLTs are a means, not an end. They improve the quality of no ones life. They preserve nothing. The ability to push a button does not yet qualify as an Olympic sport.

* * *

First Race: Trainer Billy Badgett making the most of limited opportunities, this time with new acquisition Janie B. who took advantage of the wet surface created by the overnight rains. He showed speed throughout and benefited from his wide draw, which would seem like the better going all day.

Second Race: Debuting Maimonides looked like a million bucks--check that--four and three-quarter million bucks, breaking his maiden on the lead, improving his position throughout. His splits were quick: :22.04 and :45.37 en route to 5- furlongs in 1:04.41. Now this is racing, said Bob Baffert, in a statement you wouldnt classify as a veiled reference. Baffert is in from Del Mar, obviously not letting this horse or owner, Ahmed Zayat, get too far away from his sights Zayat is a very wealthy Egyptian businessman who named this runner after the famed Jewish Rabbi, philosopher and physician who lived in Egypt and Spain during the Middle Ages. Now thats very cool... Second-time starter Ecton was virtually eliminated on the backstretch, then angled out wide into the stretch and finished willingly; deserves another chance, obviously.

Third Race: Neil Howards horses are running very well, and Crossword would not be denied with a game, re-rally victory. Third finisher Memphis Mon was checked on the first turn, raced wide on the second, then finished evenly; should benefit, follow.

Fourth Race: Canadian Ballet wired the group as a good-thing debut winner for trainer Linda Rice, her first of the meet First-timer Farri H. didnt have much of a chance. Checked following the start, he was steadied again on the turn; thats pretty discouraging, especially for a debut typeFirster Beam Of Love finished well too late after trailing early and entering the stretch very wide; bet back.

Fifth Race: Pennyrile, in race drastically reduced by late scratches after race was re-scheduled to main track, was simply too good with a strong rail rally beneath Ramon Dominguez, fourth winner of the meet for trainer Tony Dutrow. Winner was claimed by Rick Schosberg for $50,000.

Sixth Race: Zayats second winner of the day with debuting Z Humor, this one for Bill Mott, the ninth win of the meet for Saratogas leading trainer Its not so much that runnerup Readys Echo is a horse to watch, which he is. But dont believe Ive ever seen anything like this. He was beaten by daylight but was about 20 lengths back at the top of the stretch. Really. If you get a chance to view the replay, do so. Its a real treat--unless you bet the Todd Pletcher newcomer.

Seventh Race: Harvest Lisa was driving hard to win her third straight, up the ladder again for trainer Guadalupe Preciado, yet another for Dominguez.

The Cab Calloway: Favorite Thunderestimate won his fourth straight turf race this year for trainer Carlos Martin, taking command into the stretch but driving hard to repulse a relentless stretch bid from runnerup Logic Way.

Ninth Race: Facile training job by Dale Romans with debuting Sort of Tricky, an open lengths tour de force after setting a hot pace throughout. Crowd went for lengthy returnee Lady Rizzi, bidding to give Rice her second on the day, but four-year-old filly settled for second best.

Written by John Pricci

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