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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 01, 2007

Polytrack Trouble In Paradise; Mott, Desormeaux Star At Spa

Saratoga Springs, NY--August 1, 2007

Dear Diary,

Theres trouble in paradise, the West Coast version, anyway. Or, you could look at it another way: Del Mars loss is Saratogas gain.

Two planes loaded with classy horses from the Ahmed Zayat stable are shipping from Del Mar to Saratoga because Zayat is displeased with the inconsistent nature of the newly installed Polytrack surface at Del Mar.

Zayat believes, as do many other horsemen, that theres a vast difference between how the surface plays in the mornings as compared to when the temperatures heat up in the afternoons.

No one is against safety, Zayat told Hank Wesch of the San Diego Union-Tribune. You need a surface that is both safe and maintains the integrity of racing. You cant take the speed out.

Battle lines are being drawn. Those who have no problem with the surface are saying its the speed-crazy trainer of Zayats horses, Bob Baffert, thats the problem.

He has to learn to train on it just like the rest of us, said rival trainer Mike Mitchell. And Im no genius about it I dont hear anyone other than Bob complaining.

Baffert has won seven training titles at the track where the rubber meets the surf.

But Bafferts not alone. Although he hasnt complained, trainer John Sherriffs entered his speedy A P Xcellent--second by a nose to Lava Man in the Hollywood Gold Cup on Cushion Track most recently--on the turf rather than on the Polytrack surface thats been cutting the legs out from under speed horses.

Richard Migliore, in town last weekend to ride Fairbanks for Todd Pletcher in the Whitney Handicap, loves Del Mar, but doesnt like the Polytrack surface either. He is, however, a fan of Hollywood Parks Cushion Track.

Polytracks record for safety at Del Mar has been impressive and that is the first order of business. There were 18 breakdowns at Del Mar last year, 10 during the running of races. There have been no significant injuries reported so far this year.

Zayat has shipped 25 horses out of the Del Mar barn area with most of them headed here. Consequently, Baffert will be a bi-coastal trainer for the next five weeks.

Truth is that no two Polytrack surfaces are created equal. Turfway Park and, to a certain extent, Woodbine, has played more honestly than the versions installed at Keeneland and now Del Mar.

While there were some issues with Cushion Track at the end of the recent Hollywood meet, that surface clearly has been the most fair in terms of running style, more closely resembling the American style or racing where speed is king.

Not an inveterate West Coast player myself, my personal handle at Hollywood last winter was much higher than it ever had been, such was the honest nature of Cushion Track racing. Santa Anita strongly considered converting to Polytrack but decided to install Cushion Track in time for its Oak Tree fall meet. Wise choice, especially since it brings continuity to the Southern California circuit in greater Los Angeles.

The difference between the Polytrack surface from morning to afternoon might as well be the difference between night and day. Its fine in the mornings until the Southern California sun turns Polytrack into a kind of rubber soup.

While artificial surfaces have virtually eliminated sloppy tracks, weather still can wreck havoc. Some trainers on occasion have resorted to applying cooking spray and other lubricants to a horses foot to help their runners gain traction.

Safety is a primary concern, of course. But as Zayat says, so is the integrity of racing. Natural elements are one thing. But surfaces themselves should not possess a natural bias that favors one running style over another.

Yes, its a learning process for everyone. Weve all heard the spin. But no trainer, no matter how gifted, can train a horse one way in the morning and expect similar results over virtually a different surface.

And we still have not learned anything about the extent of soft tissue injuries, reportedly more prevalent on artificial tracks than on conventional surfaces. Further, theres much empirical data suggesting that horseplayers have not found the means to make the proper adjustments.

And thats a group the industry might want to listen to. They vote with their dollars.

First Race: All wagers on even money favorite Rumspringa were refunded when it was discovered he was in the grasp of an assistant starter at the break. Jockey Ramon Dominguez was unseated but unhurt. Meanwhile, the loose horse impeded Sweet Grass Creek twice and forced Kent Desormeaux aboard Explosive Count to check approaching the quarter pole; follow both, Sweet Grass Creek in particular.

Second Race: Experience counted in baby race for maiden claimers, Double Or Nothing getting D. Wayne Lukas off the duck at the meet. Fuffy made strong late move down the center of the track beneath Jorge Chavez for Jamie Sanders, a good runnerup effort; note.

Third Race: Over-bet Trendy Lady was raced into defeat by Fast Deal, who placed gamely behind Cuaba, a strong late runner from down the center of the track; Bill Mott having a strong meet. Meanwhile, third finisher Veneti finished well too late and should benefit from the effort; bet back under similar conditions.

Fourth Race: Rasta Farian withstood interference and still out-gamed Sweet Ransom, who was subsequently, and justifiably, disqualified; second winner of the meet for Michael Matz, both on turf. No excuses for loose leader Beau Dare, who has shown little development since turning four; note

Fifth Race: Dallas Stewart improved on his good record with second-time starters as Georgetown justified his low odds in debut. Burgenland came from far back beneath Garrett Gomez for the place; two two-year-old starts for Sanders and two seconds. Well backed Elusive Schemes was rank in the post parade; note.

Sixth Race: Pegase Jim finished strongly to take short turf sprint, pacesetting Tourn Again holding gamely. Lemon Shore finished well too late, third; follow. Wild Quake chased the pace while racing wide throughout; note.

Seventh Race: The next time someone asks what was the last horse you saw break through the gate before the start and win, tell them it was Tight Grip on the grass at Saratoga. The fastest horse on performance figures finished smartly from off the pace to win his turf debut. Kaishu was used up alternating on the lead; note. Peace Mon finished very well too late, just missing; bet back vs. state-bred maidens.

The Fleet Indian: First of two overnight stakes and the smart money was, well, smart. Showing no aversion to a second turn, Laurens Tizzy stalked the leader, moved easily to the lead at headstretch and blew the race open, driving hard to the finish. Shady Lane finished strongly too late for the place; note.

The De La Rose: It was only an overnighter but know that Fantastic Shirls going to win something important this season. It could come here, a course she obviously loves, or at the mile distance which she loves more than this course. She absolutely flew home beneath Johnny V. who guided her brilliantly between horses to beat me, er, Amansara, in the final strides. Four-year-old Fantastic Light filly really coming into her own for McLaughlin; follow her progress. Meanwhile, the runnerup should benefit from her first start of the year for George Weaver; bet her back, too.

Tenth Race: Did we mention Mott was having a great meet? He had Ruban Bleu tight off the brief freshening and Desormeaux rated her brilliantly in front, giving him a riding triple. Tears I Cry raced well enough with the aluminum pad on. Prom Party lost ground on the backside but had no pop when the test came in a disappointing performance.

Bias Report: Track fast, no discernable bias. Turf (very) firm, played honestly.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Record Whitney, Big Prices, Big Business and Retirement Highlight Week 1

Saratoga Springs, NY--July 30, 2007

Dear Diary,

Not reporting on the races today. But will be betting on the races today; I have not yet taken leave of my senses. Much to reflect on in memorable opening week of Saratoga 139.

Before the meet began, we talked about the weird vibe in the air opening day eve. Consider all this and you decide:

Tom Durkin did an unusually good job at warming up the opening-day crowd. This years fan rendition of Theyre Off At Saratoga was a loud, heartfelt chorus. But soon after the favorite entered the stretch on a clear lead in that first race, Moussoud took a bad step and subsequently was euthanized.

Air in, air out, of the red-and-white striped balloon.

The next morning, Moussouds trainer Graham Motion called David Jacobson to apologize and offer his condolences. Jacobson had claimed the seven-year-old from Motion for $35,000 and, according to rule, owned him once the horse left the starting gate.

Although the backstretch is a tight-knit community, its doubtful Motion and Jacobson knew each other personally. Jacobson thought the turf specialist would be his best claim this year and believes the horse simply took a bad step.

Such courtesy and empathy between racetrack rivals is a little weird, right?

Not sure the first race set the tone but toward the end of Week 1, favorites were winning at a paltry 21 percent and Todd Pletcher had won only two races. Somehow these events dont seem to be mutually exclusive. Both will do much better in the weeks ahead. Pletcher already is up to four winners.

Business, meanwhile, has been absolutely booming. Handle figures for both on-track live handle and total handle from all sources were up markedly every day. Whats unusual is that churn is most often effected by the rate of winning favorites.

But despite an endless parade of longshots, the crowd kept right on sending it in. And somebody kept on hitting the Pick Six. There was only one carryover, into the Monday program. It was hit, paying $146,000-plus. Weird.

Attendance is up, too. The Win And Youre In Breeders Cup promotion not only entertained a national television audience for two hours last Saturday but put fannies in the seats, too. The gate was higher than last year even though the Whitney was moved up a week. Traditionally, Saratoga is still an August, not a July place to be. Twilight Friday, too, was an unqualified success.

Through the first week, attendance is up 14 percent, on-track handle 20 percent and all sources betting revenue increased 13 over last years totals with only one extra race carded, 58 to 57.

The weathers been good, weve had no races come off the turf [there were four last year] and field size has been large, explained NYRA President Charles Hayward. Indeed, there have been 42 more betting interests than there were last year.

Meanwhile, the pre-race Whitney storyline was which horse was capable of stepping up to lead the handicap division in the wake of Invasors retirement. His name is Lawyer Ron, who, as a four-year-old and now in the care of Pletcher, has moved way up on performance figures. He did so again Saturday in a track record performance.

Whether Lawyer Ron did or did he not set a track record was the most beaten dog in Saratoga during Week 1. The time was just too fast, it didnt make sense, said the racing paper of record.

Minutes following the Whitney official, Daily Racing Form staffers charged into Haywards office insisting the time of 1:46.64 was wrong. NYRA had placing judge and official course timer Stephen Foster time in three times off the television monitor before the next race was run. The clocking fell into line every time.

The next morning, Pletcher timed it off a replay monitor and verified it as correct. And its not like he had a vested interest. His Left Bank already owned the nine furlong mark set in 2004.

Another DRF writer weighed in, too, timing the race off a computer replay. Must have used a super-duper fast modem to insure there would be no glitches. Sure enough, the time had to be wrong. After all, a Grade 1 filly on the same card raced the distance in 1:49.19. That individual then reversed his position after re-timing the race from a TV replay.

Foster was back at it again on Monday, only this time before representatives of Equibase, Daily Racing Form and the New York Turf Writers Assn. The posted time checked out within a couple of hundredths on two sets of watches and it was agreed that the new standard of 1:46.64 was accurate and would be recognized.

All this could have been avoided, of course. Grade 1 filly Ginger Punch was a half length behind a six furlong pace of 1:12.83 in the Diana. Lawyer Ron was 1- lengths behind at the three-quarters that went in 1:10.28. Consequently, while running a slower final time, Ginger Punch actually raced her final three-eighths 3/5s of a second faster than Lawyer Ron! That should have been sufficient subjective evidence.

Maybe next time the frame of reference will be Moss Pace instead of Beyer Finals. Until then, arrogance must be its own reward.

Sundays Jim Dandy was big fun. Street Sense is a very popular colt and who doesnt love Calvin Borel? Except, momentarily perhaps, his brother Cecil, who phoned Calvin in the jocks room after the race and called him out. Why didnt you switch sticks to your left hand when he was getting in? You rode him like a bug boy.

Cecil had better be careful. He could lose his best groom with remarks like that.

Now all must await the results of Sundays Haskell to know whether there will be a Preakness redux with Curlin in the Travers, presented by the New York Lottery, whose takeout really needs lowering!

As for Curlin showing up in the Midsummers Derby, I wouldnt hold my breath.

Rags To Riches is back in training! She galloped at Belmont Monday and will ship to Saratoga Tuesday. Pletcher will decide in about a week whether shell be ready for the Alabama, August 18th. Its great having her back, and no small surprise given recent HRI reports.

Saratoga is, of course, synonymous with juvenile racing and weve seen a few promising maiden breakers; Sargent Seattle, War Pass and J Z Warrior, to name three.

If there was one disappointing element it was the retirement of jockey Jose Santos who, at 46, will be inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame one week after making his retirement official. Santos fractured his spine in five places in a Feb. 1 spill. The doctor said there would be an 80 percent chance I could wind up in a wheel chair if I continued to ride. Im extremely grateful for the career Ive had.

According to Equibase figures, Santos rode 4.083 winners, 331 of them graded stakes including 91 Grade 1s, total purses of over $187 million and, of course, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness aboard the highly celebrated stable pony, Funny Cide, in 2003.

He might not be the best horse Ive ever ridden, said Santos in the Saratoga press box Monday, but hes on top of the list. When a jockey wins the Kentucky Derby that becomes his favorite horse. Now were both retired.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

I’d Like Some of What Calvin Borel’s Having

Saratoga Springs, NY--July 29, 2007

Dear Diary,

For Calvin Borel this time, the celebration started early.

Perhaps it was the shock of his Kentucky Derby victory that prevented Borel from whopping it up at least until he got his classic winner pulled up on the backside of Churchill Downs.

But not yesterday at Saratoga. Once Borel urged his Derby winner passed C P West, the resolute pacesetter, he turned his whip down, Street Senses ears went up, Borel took a firm hold with his left hand and, with his right, blew kisses to the crowd.

Most racing fans have a love/hate relationship with jockeys. Thats what happens when someone elses decision and athletic ability either win or cost you money.

Win or lose, however, fans who dont enjoy watching Calvin ride Street Sense probably ought be betting their money on something else, like the NBA.

Yesterdays Grade 2 Jim Dandy was routine and yet not without its anxious moments. Anticipating that he would be fresh, Borel and Carl Nafzger sensed the colt would be closer to the early pace.

And he was, about five lengths off the lead, saving ground, of course, but moving comfortably as the leaders raced through sensible but solid fractions.

But there was a moment leaving the half-mile pole when Borel appeared to be nailed to the fence. And Garrett Gomez and Johnny Velazquez and Cornelio Velasquez were doing their best to keep him right where he was.

Fortunately for Borel, Cowtown Cat was unable to keep pace at the precise moment he was seeking running room. He got it, soon after entering the straight.

From there, it was a matter of when Street Sense would forge ahead of C P West. That point came with a sixteenth of a mile left to run.

Street Sense began leaning inward, as he usually does in deep stretch, but never came close to hindering the progress of the Nick Zito-trained frontrunner.

When Street Sense crossed the line, the timer read 1:48.99, well off Lawyer Rons track record set 24 hours earlier in the Whitney. But a final furlong in :12 and a couple of ticks should have him precisely where he needs to be on August 25th.

Win or lose the Travers, Calvin Borel is enjoying his once in a lifetime horse in his first full Saratoga season, and having an awesome time. Ill be happy as long as Mr. Nafzger keeps me riding him.

So will the colt and so will Nafzger as long as Street Sense keeps on doing what he does best.

* * *

With more than $800,000 wagered in the show pool, and over $700,000 of it on the $2.70 winner, a negative show pool cost the house $143,181.

First Race: Mega-dropdown Cool the Economy didnt look great in the parade postward but was a lot better when she showed her class to outgame Sneaky Girl is a stretch-long duel, denying trainer Gary Gullo a natural longshot double, his Any Which Way having taken Saturdays finale at $23... Fourth finisher Tzipi was untenably wide into the stretch but continued willingly in a wide rally; bet back under similar conditions.

Second Race: Another impressive juvenile winner as J Z Warrior, responding most favorably from the addition of blinkers, made two moves on the lead before drawing off to win by 10 widening lengths in 1:10.40. It was the third win at the young meet for Zayat Stables Debuting Hopehopehope should not be a maiden long. After being reserved inside early, he angled out for room midstretch and finished well; note. Favorite Jolie The Cat stalked the winner until they straightened away then was summarily dispatched.

Third Race: Chipotle for all my friends! Bobby Flays Sophies Salad took command leaving the three-sixteenths and drew clear in the short turf sprint. Favorite Tuckahoe Road disappointed from her wide post but the outside didnt deter Stormy Winter, who finished strongly in her turf and seasons debut for Pat Kelly; bet back under similar conditionsFrozen Prospect, unplaced, suffered through a circuitous journey. Find a replay center somewhere and decide for yourself.

Fourth Race: Apparently unbeknownst to us all, upon his retirement Jerry Bailey bequeathed Edgar Prado with his rail pass, especially effective on grass. Saving ground made the difference for Willis Sweet Girl. Madam Manguy was a good second for John Parisella after stalking the pace throughout, holding very gamely late.

Fifth Race: Special-weight state-bred juvenile fillies and first-year sire Hook And Ladder continues on his precocious rounds. Richard Schosberg had her ready and Ramon Dominguez timed it perfectly for a narrow score over the experienced Staid, a willing runnerup. Debuting Ophite was a close-up third for David Donk, whose debut types are not as good as his second-out types; note.

Sixth Race: Bang-bang finish as Banrock and Admiral Bird hit the line together, Banrock taking advantage of the better trip; Admiral Byrd forced to rally very wide through the straight for Team Clement/Gomez. Excellent try from show finisher Chasing the Crown, whose game has been much improved since trying turf, nearly overcoming wide draw. Trainer Wesley Ward, in midst of career year, nearly got it done with his first Spa starter of the season.

Seventh Race: Another winner for white hot Clement shed, only this time with JJ Castellano, not Gomez, as Breezing gets up in final strides over Lets Fly Away, longshot runner making second start for Mike Hernandez, who gave leg up to Dominguez. Ramon was forced to alter course to rail in midstretch, just missing. Much improved Wheelaway filly now off a change-of-pace rally performance and should be set for best; bet back.

Eighth Race: Fast working Seventeen Love found a huge opening on the fence, shot through, and won by a comfortable margin over strong finishing runnerup Rizzis Twist. Favorite Classic Flirt was eased through the stretch beneath Gomez who, the first race notwithstanding, had a rough day. He did the end day on top of the leader board, his seven winners one more than Johnny V.

Tenth Race: JV took the finale with Whats Your Point for Rick Schosberg, whose horses are running well at this meet. Favorite Short Fuse Tara sat comfortable behind a fast pace but offered nothing in the drive. It appears David Jacobsons horses race better at inflated odds.

Written by John Pricci

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