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 01, 2008

Eliminating Withholding Only a Good First Step

Saratoga Springs, NY, July 31, 2008--At last horseplayers might be getting a tax break. The operative word here is might: Horseplayers are held in the same contempt as smokers, this is an election year, and we are in a recession.

(Sorry, didn’t mean to whine about the economy).

Aside from the obvious benefits, the more significant news is that NTRA’s lobbying efforts appear to be bearing fruit. The proposed legislation is the first stand-alone bill addressing the issue. It would place horse-race winnings on the same playing-field as tax codes for lottery and keno games.

Horseplayers are the only group that are taxed on winnings automatically. Maybe it’s because track winnings require thinking, a kind of brain power tax.

The only thing we didn’t fully understand from on-line reports is that NTRA vice-president of legislative affairs Peggy Hendershot will now commission a study on the economic impact eliminating automatic withholding would have on the racing industry.

“Congressman, this is a racetrack. This is churn. Are you still with me?”

Seriously, haven’t racing’s lobbyists been attending to these educational issues all along? Or is it simply a matter of spreading the wealth around?

And never mind that parimutuel takeout withholding is built into the odds and payoffs, meaning that horseplayers are taxed twice.

Neither is it taken into account that bettors, super-exotic players in particular, might spend $1,000 to win $20,000. Math is not a strong suit but I don’t think that’s the equivalent of the 300-1 standard upon which the tax is levied.

Lobbyists are now looking for co-sponsors for the bill before Congress comes back into session in September.

If the NTRA and racing’s lobbyists ultimately have success in eliminating this regressive levy, maybe then they could start working on parimutuel takeout, withholding that affects all players.

That would have a far greater positive impact on growing the handle that finds its way into government coffers. Lowering takeout would be a positive for everybody.

* * *

Six Rivals for Big Brown in Sunday’s Haskell: Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner will face a half dozen rivals at Monmouth Park in Sunday’s million-dollar Haskell. From the rail: Magical Frost (J. Chavez) 10-1, Cool Coal Man (E. Castro) 4-1, Alaazo (J. Lezcano) 30-1, Big Brown (K Desormeaux) 1-2, Nistle’s Crunch (E. Trujillo) 15-1, Coal Play (J. Bravo) 8-1 and Atoned (E. Prado) 6-1.

* * *

First Race: Four of the seven members of the Jonathan Kiser Novice Stakes were either winners or horses that placed in graded stakes and the 2-1/16th miles was entertaining from end to end, four horses battling head to head after clearing the last of nine fences. But is was Danielle Hodsdon who got through on the fence with Jonathan Sheppard’s well named The Price of Love (Prenup, from the Caveat mare, Solitary Signal) to win it. Longshot Red Letter Day set all the pace, under pressure for the last half of the race, and was still battling at the finish. Favorite Be Certain came between horses after the last jump for place as Bee Charmer, who made a premature move to chase the frontrunner, was a very game third. Bet him back.

Second Race: A big time speed duel between Asmussen and Pletcher babies, Asmussen winning the battle and the war with second-time starter Valiancy. Todd’s Keep’em Movin Dan was well clear of Fast Draw for third and should benefit from the experience; note.

Third Race: Redefined simply keeps running well in these turf sprints and get his first win over this course as clearly best. Favorite Hatta Fort raced covered up rounding the turn and through the stretch and never really had a chance to gain momentum; probably will make amends soon, follow.

Fourth Race: This condition shouldn’t exist in Saratoga; maiden fillies, 3 & up, with claiming tags of $25,000. Reduced by two late scratches, six remained, with Isn’t That Special proving best for trainer Michael McDonald under a hustling Cornelio Velasquez. Prominent finished gamely in deep stretch for the place, as another well named runner gets home first: Isn’t That Special is a bay daughter of The Church Lady.

Fifth Race: Oh, look, a 5-½ furlong turf sprint. What a novel idea; NOT. Unless, of course, you’re part of the Tim Ritvo team and had this spot circled since last August 10. Lauren’s Go Go went to the front and :21.86 and kept right on going as Miss Dolan’s Rose chased her every step of the way and nearly grabbed her at the finish. But Ramon got down low for the stable dough, only Dominguez’s second winner of the meet. The Longshot runnerup with extremely game and could have a future sprinting on turf vs. her state-bred peers...Better Than Swiss finished well too late for third; note.

Sixth Race: Storming Off, an allowance winner last time out at Monmouth, showed up at the Spa with a claiming tag and totally dominated $45,000 platers. But he was all out to hold away over turf debut Deputyville, not particularly bred well for grass but who raced his final sixteenth in less than six seconds. Pays to follow Deputyville and show finisher Galaxy Tax, who also finished strongly as the pace was heating up. The winner appeared to shorten stride perceptibly while pulling up after the finish. Todd might have gotten away with one here but I wouldn’t be looking to bet her back, first winner of the afternoon for Spa leader Johnny V.

Seventh Race: The Kal Kan Pet Products purse--no kidding--went to Encinas, for Team McLaughlin/Garcia, young Alan winning it by skimming up the fence. During the running, Velazquez and Eibar Coa, racing in stalking position, second and third, were so busy tabbing each other they were powerless to shut the door on Garcia. It was a good comeback run for Ground Hero, making his season’s debut as an 8-year-old. He needed a race before getting the money at the Spa in 2007; different year, but same story: follow.

Eighth Race: The speedy Latest Scoop seemed to be unhappy in her new blinkers, breaking sharply then bearing out into the first turn, chasing the pace from the outside throughout; look for equipment change next out. The pace was strong in this preliminary allowance/optional claimer, allowing Borrowing Base to rally down the center of the track for Javier Castellano and Patrick Quick at 11-1... Favorite Pious Ashley, making her first start since the Black Eyed Susan, took the lead into the stretch and tired as if short of condition; follow. All the crowding at the three-sixteenth didn’t affect the outcome. Despite not posting formal inquiry, stewards did take a look.

The John Morrissey: With Market Psychology scratched, Ferocious Fires towered over the group and went out and proved it. He handled pace pressure throughout and, soon after entering the stretch, Cornelio Velasquez pulled the rug out from beneath the ralliers and left them gasping, a triple on the day for Cornelio, a double for Tony Dutrow. Endless Circle chased and held the place gamely…Mr. Bourbon Street angled wide into the stretch, effectively eliminated, then finished ridden out through the lane; note.

Tenth Race: A strange run by Retribution, who at one point appeared long gone, then like he would be off the board, then like he would last. All that happened but at the end of the racing day, Logic Way nailed him at the line, a late double for the brothers Dutrow, Prado winning this one for Rick, the trainer’s fourth of the meet.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Good Sparma

Saratoga Springs, NY, July 30, 2008--Among the press box visitors today were Lou Raffetto and Bill Gallo. I’m a fan of both. Raffetto is the newly installed CEO of the National Steeplechase Association, Gallo is its longtime Director of Racing. After an exchange of greetings, they offered me a bribe.

I accepted.

All credentialed media were given a $50 betting voucher only good for the first race, if they chose to accept it. The rule was simple. Bet it all on the steeplechase race, the $70,000 Nine Pins Novice Stakes. “Some people complain not enough money is bet on these races,” said Raffetto. “This should help the handle a little.”

Back in the day at Newsday, I would have had no shot to accept this largesse. Back then I couldn’t even go in on a share of a race horse because the newspaper believed it a conflict of interest. As the paper’s lead handicapper, they thought I could manipulate the odds.

They really did.

It was a nice compliment but obviously they were giving me far too much credit. But rules are rules. The horse in question was picked out one afternoon by a good friend, Paul Cornman, as we watched a grass race at Aqueduct. He was taking the chart call at the time. Soon after the replay, Paul called a friend to tell him about the horse.

I turned to him and said “if that was about possibly buying the horse that just won, I’m in.” Paul bought the horse but, thanks to Newsday, I was out.

Exclusive Partner, a horse I subsequently referred to as Excluded Partner, went on to win over $400,000 on the East Coast and later was sold to California interests for a tidy sum. The trainer was an unknown newcomer named Tom Bush.

Another opportunity came up and this time I got in through the back door. I made my mother buy a five percent share. Surely, if the horse did well, mom would tithe some of the proceeds. That was none of Newsday’s business.

Lucky Mathieu, with John Hertler tacking him up, went on to win the Palisades on turf at The Meadowlands. It was before that track got too crowded and nobody went there anymore.

At 4, the little guy scooted six furlongs in 1:08 4/5 on Belmont’s Widener turf course and we all were looking forward to running at Saratoga. Even the vicarious owner, me.

But while he was being freshened on a farm awaiting the Spa meet, he came down with colic, foundered, and was humanely destroyed. Our little group had had our own Barbaro moment. It‘s like losing a member of the family.

The “bribe” had to be used in the Wednesday opener, a re-carded event canceled by last week’s torrential rains. So bet the race I did. After learning that trainer Tommy Voss was really upset by last week’s race cancellation because he thought Dynaski was sitting on a win, I put the favorite over four horses in the trifecta for $1. Twelve dollars down, 38 to go.

I then did the same with my choice, the longer half of a John Fisher uncoupled entry, Swagger Stick, who’s very fast on the flat but doesn’t fence particularly well. Took him over the same four-horse trifecta mix for another $12. Used the three remaining horses, all good prices, over the same five horses in exactas, extra tickets with our keys underneath, a “place saver.” I bet the remaining $8 to win on Swagger Stick at 11.50-1.

The NSHA wasted their money on me. I’m one of the few media types that doesn’t need a bribe to enjoy a jump race. Horses that leave the ground and also run fast are to be admired, not scorned. Steeplechase trainers are among the game’s best horsemen and year after year the percentage of winning favorites is usually higher than it is on the flat. Formful, what’s not to like?

Photo by: Toni Pricci
Cate Dolan, President of B.E.S.T., speaks with a dental patient at the Backstretch Medical Clinic
A few weeks ago, 8,000 people showed up at Belmont Park to see Curlin run for free. On any given steeplechase weekend, fans will pay upwards of $25 a carload to tail-gate at a jump meet program with no wagering. At places like Far Hills and Aiken, crowds of 25,000 or more are routine. It’s considered family entertainment.

Before the race, I pledged to share half the proceeds with B.E.S.T., the backstretch employee service team, Cate Dolan’s outfit that does good works for the people behind the scenes. It’s an organization worthy of support.

Coming over the last of 9 fences, Swagger Stick, who jumped pretty well, led by a length but couldn’t sustain his drive despite a good trip. He settled for third behind 7-5 favorite Dynaski and the $1 trifecta paid $103.75. Being the kind of sport I am, the breakage will go to B.E.S.T., as will a check for $52.

If you’d like to help, learn more at

Photo by: Toni Pricci
B.E.S.T. Backstretch Medical Clinic at the Oklahoma Training Track

A final word to Raffetto and Gallo. If you’re thinking about more bribes in the future, it needs to be for a lot more than half a C-Note. And don’t approach me in the press box ever again. You deal with Turnbull.

* * *

First Race: I’m not familiar with jockey Padge Whelan but he rode the favorite with confidence, timing his late run perfectly. Seer ran on gamely for the place. Danielle Hodson was unseated aboard Look At Him approaching the final turn. Neither horse nor rider were hurt.

Second Race: Just as the Yankees appeared to be salvaging the last of a three-game set with the Orioles, owner Peter Angelos had to settle for fourth with well meant first-time starting New York-bred Glory Gold. Benefiting from both nature and nurture, it didn’t help... Akilina was all out to keep a determined Sneakin Up safe. Dixie Time Thief, third, also should benefit from his debut.

Third Race: Kapanga sure has a nice turn of foot, swooping the group from the far outside after overcoming early trouble, giving Rajiv Maragh a natural double and getting trainer Angel Penna Jr. off the duck. Good job all around…Venetian Causeway could have been luckier. After entering the stretch wide, he angled back in, split horses, and finished strongly along the inside; bet back.

Fourth Race: Storm Boot Gold was hustled to the front and last in a hard drive. No excuses for overbet Brooker D. He’s A Lumberjack finished sneaky good on the fence late; note.

Fifth Race: First-time Ziptronic was hustled to the lead but was finished when the serious running started… Pletcher and Velazquez, remember them? Well, they’re already doing better with juveniles than they did all last season as Double Domino made an impressive debut on grass.

Sixth Race: Turf marathon goes to Summer Patriot, who blew it open soon after entering the stretch… Borobudur lagged early but finished strongly from the middle of the course… Titan Of Industry set a controlled pace in moderate fractions but three turns were one too many.

Seventh Race: Into The Wind blew by them all after cranking up big time on far turn, but he sure had a lot of pace help. Everyone near the lead at any point were not around at the finish. Not a very inspiring group.

Eighth Race: Damn, what a great finish in the listed De La Rose! Edgar Prado kept the winning Carriage Trail covered up as long as he could, angled out after straightening away to find a seem, got through and exploded nail to nail Trouble Maker, who looked all but home, for Shug McGaughey, whose horses are running very well. The runnerup is from the Tom Albertrani shed; his horses have been outrunning their odds at this meet; note.

Ninth Race: The nominal feature, the Fleet Indian, featured an excellent performance from Talking Treasure, trained by Charlton Baker and ridden skillfully by meet leader Johnny Velazquez, who’s been flashing his 2006 Spa form thus far this session… Morning Gallop came from about a thousand lengths back to nail Ice Kool Kitty at the line; follow under similar conditions.

Tenth Race: Maragh gets his triple with Valiant Humor in the finale for Greg Diprima. Probably the least inspiring day of racing at the meet.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dialogue: Another Saratoga Upset

Saratoga Springs, NY, July 29, 2008--I must admit to a certain amount of skepticism, borderline delusional paranoia, when I first heard that the New York Task Force on Retired Race Horses was conducting a fact-finding symposium on the efficacy of installing synthetic surfaces at New York State racetracks.

What does a retired race horses panel have to do with surfaces, anyway?

When I saw how heavily the deck was stacked in favor of the Polytrack, Cushion Track, Tapeta, Pro Ride folks, I was convinced that that was the case. But since it was a dark day after six days of thoroughbreds, I figured that dogs and ponies might make for a pleasant diversion.

And so I went, wearing cynicism on one sleeve and a heart on the other, and must report I see some progress in addressing issues that have driven the sport of thoroughbred racing to the edge of an abyss. To paraphrase Lou Mannheim, a fictional broker in Oliver Stone’s classic “Wall Street,” it’s time for the industry to look into that abyss, find its character, and that’s what will keep it out of the abyss:

It’s called communication. What a concept.

The eight-hour session ran to its past performances when Patrick Hooker, NYS Department of Agriculture & Markets Commissioner, repeated the platitudes that first appeared in a press release, attributed to Task Force Co-Chairman and NYS Racing & Wagering Board Chairman, Daniel P. Hogan. To wit:

“Safety is now at the forefront of issues affecting the racing industry and it’s incumbent upon this task force to undertake a cost-benefit analysis to help determine if these artificial surfaces are the best and safest route for our horses and the jockeys who ride them.”

My cynicism might have been assuaged if installing synthetic surfaces didn’t also make good politics. The sporting public doesn’t understand all the issue and nuances involved. And with 30 percent of the general population wanting to see horse racing abolished, and with a recent House subcommittee chomping at the bit to take aggressive action, some good public relations needs to happen now.

The New York session was open to the public, as opposed to a secret meeting of a few industry leaders some weeks ago in Lexington, Ky., according to the website The leaders apparently have a plan to stave off federal regulation, a rider, with benchmarks, to the Interstate Horseracing Act that permits simulcasting.

Without simulcasting, now accounting for more than four of every five dollars wagered on U.S. horse racing, it’s game over.

Unlike the House subcommittee hearing, which seemed less about fact-finding than political posturing, there was real dialoguing going on at the Fasig-Tipton Sales Pavilion between the Task Force and the five panels, representing track management; veterinarians; trainers; jockeys and researchers. The panels alternated between informing and answering Task Force questions.

Photo by: Toni Pricci
NYRA President, Charlie Hayward
As racetrackers say, it was a good visit. The reason we originally thought it possible for leashes and bridles to be given away as door prizes was because the panels were mostly representatives from pro-synthetic jurisdictions. Either that or they were people known to be synthetic friendly or had an economic interest in the companies manufacturing the artificial tracks. NYRA president Charlie Hayward said, among other things, he had concerns because some of the best companies seemed to be “thinly financed.” But he listened, then he gave testimony.

Hayward had one of the day’s best lines when he eluded a loaded question from moderator Bennett Liebman, Esq., one of racing best and trusted legal minds, Acting Director of the government law center at Albany Law School, who said: “Charlie, I guess you would have liked to have one of those racetracks here last week.”

“I would have liked not to get any rain,” Hayward said to an appreciative audience.

Like everyone who spoke on the topic, Hayward was cautious, had questions about the maintenance of synthetic surfaces, its cost--a recurring theme throughout the session-- and the need for more research. He conceded that while decisions will be based on data, there was an anecdotal component, then offered: “Last year there were fewer breakdowns at Saratoga than there were at Keeneland and Del Mar.”

When asked whether he thought the state should pay for the research, or even the installation of an artificial track, he said, “I just hope that the state finally renews the NYRA franchise and I’d be happy to pay for it myself.”

No one should be surprised that Todd Pletcher came up with a well reasoned compromise that addresses all of it. “We can have all three; turf, dirt and synthetic.”

Pletcher’s far-flung operation has two years of experience with artificial surfaces, having a division at the Hollywood Park Cushion Track and Arlington Park’s Polytrack the last two years. Three of the four sorties were successful, including the preparation of Belmont Stakes winning filly Rags To Riches, but that more study was needed. He thinks it could take 10 years.

“Build a synthetic track inside the two turf courses at Belmont Park,” where the main track takes a beating from the relentless sealing of sloppy tracks during training hours so that the surface would be fast for racing. “Sealing tracks over and over is taking a toll on training in the mornings. Constant sealing damages [the surface], weakens it.”

Pletcher’s thinking is that a synthetic track could be used for training in winter and for washed off turf races, cutting down precipitously on the number of scratches. It also could be used for training year-round, eliminating the need for compacting the main track. “With synthetics you don’t have to worry about rain.”

Everyone in racing acknowledges the positive relationship between turf and synthetic-track form even if all synthetics are not created equal. Pletcher’s suggestion means that NYRA could study the issue first hand, potentially keeping costs down while learning how to maintain the surface and, significantly, see if it really cuts down on catastrophic injuries.

Photo by: Toni Pricci
Leading rider, John Velazquez, listens to Richard Migliore's comments
Johnny Velazquez admits he’s more comfortable riding on synthetic tracks when weather conditions are foul, the rain and mud making it extremely difficult to see, the wet reins making steering problematical. Acknowledging all that, Velazquez is calling for better communication between jockeys, trainers and the tracks.

“Some people don’t want to be told that a track is too fast, be told what to do. We can put our attention into the tracks we do have as opposed to something we don’t know about.” His colleagues and all the trainers agreed on the need for much better maintenance, “a watchdog.” Current track superintendent John Passaro says NYRA doesn’t give him the tools he needs. NYRA, in bankruptcy, says it doesn’t have the money.

Both groups acknowledged each other’s differences and the need to cooperate for the greater good, but there was a glaring contradiction. To a man trainers Mark Casse, Dale Romans, Pletcher and Nick Zito said they’ve never seen any evidence of horses suffering respiratory problems from the surface.

Said Richard Migliore: “I thought I was having an allergic reaction to Pro-Ride. My eyes were getting irritated. There were discussions on and off, where some of the jockeys were talking about wheezing. We talked about it,” was about as far as it went. “When it was hot at Keeneland I was getting nosebleeds,” Velazquez said.

In New York, the jury is still out, but well meaning people were engaged in dialogue, hopefully productive. And that’s all anyone was hoping on a dark Tuesday following a rough first week in Saratoga where attendance and handle figures were a match for the bad weather and poor economy.

But the racing was good. Everyone seemed to want to keep it that way.

Written by John Pricci

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