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

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Time to Play Name That Race

Saratoga Springs, NY, August 22,2008--Here’s another reason why Saturday’s Travers is a better race on paper than this year’s Kentucky Derby: The Travers Stakes Presented by Shadwell Farm just sounds better than the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum Brands!

Can’t help it. I came from the old newspaper school that says if you want publicity , you have to pay for it.

The idea of sponsoring races started with the Jim Beam Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park. Actually, it was the brain-child of HorseRaceInsider staffer Vic Zast when he worked the other side of the street, before he went legit.

For some reason, no one was offended by what was called the Jim Beam Spiral Stakes. In fact, it wasn’t long before people just started calling it the Jim Beam. That was OK. The name came trippingly off the tongue.

Later, it morphed into the Gallery Spiral Stakes. Now there’s a mouthful. The owner of the home furnishings operation, James McIngvale, apparently discovered race horses and the Internet simultaneously, so he decided to sponsor what was developing into a viable Kentucky Derby prep race.

I don’t think McIngvale got too much bang for his buck, though. No one ever referred to it in polite company as the Gallery and, as far as I know, he never sponsored a race named after his business alter ego, the Mattress Mack. If truth be told, however, it was rumored at the time that Mattress Mack was a large contributor to Eliot Spitzer’s gubernatorial campaign.
Too bad there never was a Mattress Mack Stakes. It would have to have been an added money event, of course. “Say, who do you like in the Mattress Mack, the overlay or the underlay?”

Needless to say, the “furniture race,” as it was known in the press box, wasn’t around for very long.

Remember the Marlboro Cup? For those who don’t, Triple Crown winner Secretariat won the inaugural over his Kentucky Derby winning stablemate, Riva Ridge, as well as the Pride of the West, Cougar II; Onion, who upset Secretariat at Saratoga, and Key to the Mint, voted three-year-old champion over Derby-winning Riva Ridge the previous year, and another Left Coaster, Kennedy Road.

Even over that year’s souped up Belmont Park, a mile and an eighth in 1:45 2/5 is really truckin’. That was Secretariat.

Sponsorship was in its infancy then and many newspapers forbad the use of the term Marlboro Cup, ordering their turf writers refer to it as the Cup Invitational. It was also around a time that cigarette advertising was first banned on television.

Sports editors believed then that event sponsorship was sullying the image of sports. They resented doling out free plugs, too. The Louisville Courier Journal called the race the “M-Cup.”

The following decade, of course, the sullying of the image of sports was left to the professionals, the athletes themselves.

Since I’m a smoker--no e-mails, please--I rather enjoyed the moment when, two years later, after Wajima won the third Marlboro Cup for trainer Steve DiMauro, owner Zenya Yoshida, boasting a Cheshire grin, held up a pack of Marlboros as his interview was concluding, pointing to the red and white cigarette box, leaving CBS directors yelling at their production people: “Wipe…wipe!”

In the main, no one had major problems calling it the Marlboro. But in 1984, racing welcomed the inaugural Breeders’ Cup. When only five horses were entered in the following year’s Marlboro, the Philip Morris company withdrew their sponsorship in 1985.

Champagne manufacturers stepped up and Moet sponsored the Champagne Stakes, a Grade 1 for two-year-olds in the fall at Belmont Park. It was popular with the media, especially since the Moet people distributed cool green wind-breakers--I still have mine. And they also handed out splits of the bubbly in the press box.

For some reason, I never returned the favor. I felt that a sponsorship title before the name of an historical event somehow cheapened it. It was a “feel” thing, and it just didn’t feel right. But I showed support by wearing my Moet Champagne wind-breaker into the paddock for the race.

Not all sponsorship names are created equal. You’d never have--at least I think we’ll never have--title sponsorship of races such as the Derby or Travers. Sponsorship of the Kentucky Derby and Travers should always be…Presented by (Your Sponsor’s Here).

The Breeders’ Cup folks obviously don’t feel the same way. Probably because it’s costing their title sponsors a small fortune. But they, too, left the big one alone. It’s the “Breeders’ Cup Classic Powered by Dodge.” I’m quite sure I never referenced the sponsor. Nothing against Dodge. It’s just that names have to scan, and that one hurts my ears.

But now there’s the TVG Breeders’ Cup Sprint (but you can‘t bet on it in certain jurisdictions); the Emirates Airlines Breeders’ Cup Turf (which followed the John Deere Breeders‘ Cup Turf--now that‘s good synergy); the VO5 Filly & Mare Turf (perfect); the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (not bad); the NetJets Breeders’ Cup Mile (?) and the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (thought fillies had to be at least 21?).

You can see why I have problems with all this. So have the sponsors. The Darley Test Stakes is no more. The Woodford Reserve Turf Classic started out as the Early Times Turf Classic. Remember the Budweiser Million? Had no problem with that one--another scan thing. Besides, Budweiser sponsored everything back in the day; now they don’t even sponsor their owns selves.

How about the Visa Triple Crown? They were smart. They got a lot of mileage out of it, because of the $5 million bonus, which they never had to pay!

In addition to Saturday’s Travers Presented by Shadwell Farm--their signage is everywhere at Saratoga Race Course including on the starting gate, a sign that dwarfs the one that says “Saratoga”--there’s the NetJets King’s Bishop, which owns major pieces of the rail on the main track, just before the finish line, flying passed the Heineken signs inside the final sixteenth.

I’ve decided to get over myself and adjusted my sensibilities’ radar. Racing needs all the help it can get right now. So I pledge, from this point forward, that my first reference to a race will include the title sponsor.

But a word to the underwriters. If you want to insure the publicity you seek, you’ll have a much better shot if the title scanned nicely, or the name was cool. I’m still having major problems with the Yum Brands thing.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, August 22, 2008

And the Winner of Travers 139 Is…

Saratoga Springs, NY, August 21, 2008--No Big Brown? No problem.

Travers 139, a.k.a. The Travers Stakes Presented by Shadwell Farm, a.k.a. the Mid-Summer Derby, has the makings of the best three-year-old race run this year. Why?

Because at least a half-dozen of the dozen entered can win and none of them could be categorized as a surprise. Arguably, picking the post time favorite is as difficult as projecting a winner.

As the “reputation horse” in a national event, Pyro is the most likely to close the slight choice of the wagering public. But post position 11 could mitigate that thinking.

Saturday’s renewal of the Travers is the Kentucky Derby without Big Brown and a 20-horse field.

The ultimate outcome likely will produce a fair, hard earned verdict, no matter which three-year-old wins this. Which horse that will be is anyone’s best guess.

Here, then, a handicapper’s look at Travers 139, listed in post order, with early line odds in parentheses:
1--Tale of Ekati (20-1). At Wednesday’s Travers post draw, trainer Barclay Tagg said he thought that Edgar Prado moved his horse too soon in the ultimate Travers prep race, the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes on July 27. Tagg was neither knocking the rider nor making excuses, just giving a fair assessment of the circumstances. The Wood Memorial (Grade 1) winner also appeared short of condition, but has done very well in his training since the race. He runs inside, outside, wherever and whatever he needs to do. Trainer Tagg has been on an absolute tear the last two weeks. Very live longshot.

2--Colonel John (8-1). Winner of the G1 Santa Anita Derby, he lost his lone dirt start after being eliminated from contention early in his troubled-trip Kentucky Derby. Recycled, he returned in the Swaps (G2) where he finished second to Tres Borrachos. While trainer Eoin Harty admitted to some disappointment with the show finish, he conceded it was a bridge race to get him to Saratoga at tops. He has a big kick and stout pedigree. Garrett Gomez takes the re-ride and Harty, not one prone to hyperbole, said Wednesday that his horse has a “very, very good chance” on Saturday.

3--Da’ Tara (8-1). It’s been 27 days since the Jim Dandy and there’s still no good answer as to why Alan Garcia sacrificed his colt’s chances by engaging in the must suicidal of speed duels. The tactics made no sense, not to trainer Nick Zito or anyone else. Zito has a history of having horses rebound in big spots off horrendous efforts. If nothing else, the bizarre Jim Dandy will sharpen Da’ Tara’s speed for today’s longer test, the distance no problem for a (G1) Belmont Stakes winner. Da’ Tara had an extremely sharp recent :47.80 work at the Oklahoma training track and will improve. But he doesn’t figure to get loose on the lead the way he did at Belmont.

4--Tiz Big (30-1). Second after being used hard pace-dueling following a stumbled break in a nine-furlong “non-winners of 2 lifetime” six days ago, it’s hard to fathom how he’s supposed to win a Grade 1 the following weekend. But as Big Brown owner Michael said at Wednesday’s post draw: “I’ve learned never to second guess Allen Jerkens.” Cornelio Velasquez, in a battle for leading rider at the meet, takes the mount again and will probably race close to the lead. If the “Giant Killer” pulls this off, the Racing Hall of Fame ought to give him his own wing.

5--Macho Again (6-1). The Jim Dandy winner, surprising fourth choice of the linemaker, came to hand in the Derby Trial and used that sprint score to propel him to a place finish in Big Brown’s (G1) Preakness Stakes. Following a one-paced Belmont Stakes effort, he returned to win the Travers prep in subtle, eye-opening style, overcoming far-turn trouble, running down a sharp Tiz Now Tiz Then before holding last-run Pyro safe. He appeared to have reserve energy while crossing the finish line, an observation confirmed by Julien Leparoux, having an outstanding Saratoga stake meet. Thriving here, the Jim Dandy hero is peaking right now but picks up 11 pounds off his last race, at once, a significant but not impossible obstacle to overcome.

6--Cool Coal Man (15-1). The second member of the Zito trio, the G2 Fountain of Youth winner was most recently a willing third in Big Brown’s G1 Haskell Invitational. His Equiform performance figures have improved to the extent he can compete effectively at this level and indeed might be poised for another forward move. Mineshaft colt debuted in Saratoga last season, finishing fourth after a troubled beginning and subsequent wide trip, making his Spa form difficult to read. Reunites with leading rider Johnny Velazquez, who won with his own previous ride on the colt over the winter.

7--Amped (30-1). Zito, Part III. A deep closer, he finished third behind Mambo In Seattle over the track, his lone start at nine furlongs. Given his history of upsetting Grade 1 races, Zito has become a latter day Giant Killer. But we seriously doubt whether even the great Allen Jerkens could pull this off. It appears the colt will run all day but a superfecta finish would represent a major accomplishment in this spot.

8--Harlem Rocker (4-1). Undefeated in four dirt starts, his lone poor try came on Woodbine’s Polytrack surface in the Plate Trial, an effort that precluded participation in the storied Queens Plate. The G3 Withers Stakes winner rebounded returning to dirt to win Fort Erie’s Prince of Wales Stakes, second leg of the Canadian Triple Crown. Significantly, that victory came at a mile and three-sixteenths under 126 pounds, today‘s impost. His spring performance figures make him competitive with this group and with several months added maturity the Macho Uno colt could prove the “fastest” horse. No one knows how good this colt is, including trainer Todd Pletcher, who’s been anxiously awaiting this spot. Expect he’ll run very well.

9--Mambo in Seattle (5-1). The restricted Walton Stakes a key Travers prep? In this sophomore season, Big Brown notwithstanding, anything’s possible. Kin to A. P. Indy via his grand-dam, blue hen producer Weekend Surprise, he is seeking a fourth consecutive victory. He hails from connections--Neil Howard and Robby Albarado--that nearly upset mighty Street Sense in last year‘s renewal. After sweeping to command, he withstood a serious stretch challenge from talented late developer You And I Forever, passing the eyeball test with flying colors. He has continued to impress his trainer but he, too, must shoulder eight additional pounds while jumping several classes. Easier said than done.

10--Tres Borrachos (15-1). Following a third-place finish in the (G2) Arkansas Derby, his connections skipped the Derby and went to Baltimore, where the colt ran like “three drunks” following a badly troubled start, finishing unplaced. Following the Preakness, he returned to his California base and was second in the G3 Affirmed, a race that spring-boarded him to his Swaps victory over Colonel John. Well managed, the Ecton Park gelding once again will be seriously tested for class. His running style, post draw and Saturday’s distance are highly unlikely to help in this spot.

Photo by: Adam Coglianse
Pyro, Morning line favorite for the Travers
11--Pyro (7-2). Lukewarm favorite of this wide open event, Pyro has the company lines, accomplishments, and performance figures to warrant the linemaker’s respect. If Tale of Ekati’s move in the Jim Dandy was premature, Pyro’s was too late. His Jim Dandy had the look of a perfect Travers prep and his class lines are among the best in the field. But he’s been most effective vs. Grade 2 types and shorter distances have been more suitable. Consistently fastest on the Equiform scale, he’s a strong sentimental choice as his exercise rider Parker Buckley suffered a stroke while on horseback during training hours Monday, was thrown from his mount and, sadly, never recovered.

12--Court Vision (12-1). Among the upper echelon of 2007 juveniles nine months ago, he never made a great transition from 2 to 3. Third in the Fountain of Youth and Wood Memorial, he was run off his feet in a rough-house Derby try, winding up 13th of 20. Freshened, he prepped for the Virginia Derby in the G3 Colonial Turf Cup over soft ground he couldn’t handle, underscoring that assessment with an excellent effort, beaten a nose in the subsequent G2 10-furlongs showing a strong late. Ten furlongs on dirt is another matter, of course, but he’s doing well enough to give Big Brown’s owner hope that he’ll transition going from turf to dirt. The recent addition of blinkers and Kent Desormeaux have helped. From post 12, he’ll need luck--as will they all.

Most Probable Winner: Macho Again

Most Probable Longshot: Tale of Ekati

Most Promising: Harlem Rocker

Most Probable Money Finisher: Pyro

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

NYRA House Rule on Refunds Unfair, Shortsighted

Saratoga Springs, NY, August 21, 2008--Sorry, but after reporting on today’s fourth race, I’m done for the day. Call Sports Phone. I’m through and here’s why.

With five minutes remaining until post time for the fourth, I got up and walked to the self-service betting machine. I bet using a NYRA Cash Card.

Here were my plays: $15 quinella on 4-5; Dime Superfectas on 4,5--ALL--4,5--ALL. This was my betting strategy as I saw the quinella combining the two favorites was paying $8.

Taking 3-1 on the proposition that Ardnavagh and On Lake would finish one-two in either order for two horses I believed laid over the field was a better wager than taking either 2-1 or 7-5 on one or the other to win. I thought they were superior to the group but had no preference.

The second wager was made as both a saver and optimizer. My thinking was anyone else could finish somewhere on the board anywhere. My structured Dime Super would cost $11.20. My total outlay for this race was $26.20.

Given the short prices, it wasn’t worth extending myself further, but it looked like a more than reasonable way to triple my investment, at least.

I put the Dime Super wheel in first: 4--ALL--5--ALL, cost $5.60. It was supposed to read 4,5--ALL--4,5--ALL. No worries. With two minutes to post, I’ll punch in my $15 quinella first then go back and punch in 5--ALL--4--ALL.

Somehow, I mispunched the quinella ticket. Instead of getting a $10 4-5 quinella, I had a $10 quinella wheel with the 5 as the key, cost of $90. I didn’t notice until I saw that my balance was reduced by $80 more than I intended to spend. Since the self-service terminal provides a cancellation option, I took it.

Up pops an advice: EXCEEDS REFUND LIMIT

I asked press box mutuel clerk Kevin Giampa for help. There was now a minute left to post. He immediately called mutuels supervisor Jim Mattes. Mattes got on the phone and apologetically explained machines are programmed not to cancel wagers of $50 or more with less than five minutes to post.

I was aware that a similar rule was instituted some years ago to prevent unscrupulous bettors from manipulating pool prices by creating false projected payoffs. But the spirit of the rule involved extremely large wagers. But how much of an impact would nine $10 quinella wagers keying a 2-1 shot have on a pool at Saratoga Race Course? Zero!

As written, this rule is shortsighted and unfair. It might add to the handle of one race, but it depletes the customer’s bankroll and negatively affects churn on the rest of the card. Which is not the point. The point is service, not the smiling Can-I-Help-You-It’s-My-Job-For-The-Next-36-Days kind of service but REAL customer service.

The State Racing and Wagering Board approved it but the $50 excessive-limit-refund is a NYRA house rule. I can’t think of one good reason why such a small amount is the limit unless management just doesn’t want to make refunds of any kind.

Made a mistake? Sorry, you lose. Want a refund? Sorry, you can‘t have one.

In the interests of fairness and common sense, maybe the State Racing and Wagering Board will intervene by explaining to NYRA that the concept of servicing bettors helps pay industry salaries in this state. Maybe they will; it would be a pleasant surprise.

The results? The 4-2-5-1 Dime Superfecta, a.k.a., the 4--ALL--5--ALL, returned $116.85, which was the original superfecta ticket I needed to augment with a 5--ALL--4--ALL.

And, so, as I listened to the explanation of mutuels supervisor Mattes via the mutuel-bay phone, my original super wager, the winning sequence, timed out and was not transacted. I was prepared to wager, and lose, if necessary, $26.20. Bottom line? The fourth at Saratoga cost me, out of pocket, $191.85.

First Allumeuse; now this.

* * *

Getting With the (New Yok-Bred) Program

Business-wise and aesthetically, it’s not been a great meet. Three and half weeks of constant rain had a lot to do with it. Last year’s record meet is also a reasonable consideration as is, certainly, an economy that‘s in the toilet and not in the imagination of the American people.

That’s the trouble with the arrogantly powerful; they believe everyone is stupid.

Anyway, the most alarming element of the downward trends is the interstate simulcast handle. The cost of gas, hotels and food did not impact as badly when you’re not traveling. So, it must be something else.

Clearly, the rain that forced turf races to be rescheduled to the main track and rendered many interesting races unappealing is the elephant in the room. But then so has the accent on state-bred racing which the betting public, fairly or not, perceives as less than New York racing.

That perception is not out of line, especially since sprints of less than six furlongs, turf or dirt, have become a dominant theme. The backlash it has generated has not made many new converts to the New York breeding program. The argument is that quality racing has been sacrificed at the altar of field size.

Then there was yesterday’s Albany Stakes, a terrific race that only would have been better had not the promising Writingonthewall been scratched.

It featured Tin Cup Chalice, an undefeated winner of six races including three stakes, one in open company, and eligible for the OTB Big Apple Triple bonus of $250,000 for a sweep of Belmont Park’s Mike Lee, Finger Lakes’ New York Derby and the Albany. Under the conditions, he carried highweight of 124 pounds. The scratch of Writingonthewall, a talented frontrunner, was significantly helpful to Tin Cup Chalice, making him lone speed.

From the connections that brought New York-bred Fio Rito to upset the 1981 Whitney when the New York-bred program was in its infancy, they had to spot Big Truck, winner of the Grade 3 Tampa Derby and, prepping, was narrowly beaten in the Samuel F Davis.

Tin Cup Chalice also spotted Icabad Crane three pounds, a winner of the Federico Tesio and third in the Rushaway and G1 Preakness. The three remaining entrants were all stakes placed.

It wasn’t the Travers but it probably was one of the more interesting mid-week races for three-year-olds since the NYRA used to run the Jim Dandy on a Thursday.

Tin Cup Chalice, taking advantage of the pace as expected, held off a gritty challenge by That’srightofficer, sprinting his final eighth-mile off slow fractions in :12.19, stretching his record to 7-for-7. What a cool horse!

Kudos to Pedro Rodriguez, or P-Rod, as he’s known in the New York wine region of Finger Lakes and in Tampa. Good show, just like it looked on paper.

* * *

First Race: Not an auspicious beginning for chalk players as Flibberjibit, holding a commanding edge on paper, chased the pace of Crafty N P but was not up to the task, fading off the board at odds on. The winner, trained by Linda Rice, continued her roll. It was her seventh winner of the meet and first since saddling the first four finishers in the Mechanicville Stakes.

Second Race: Even though he earns recognition, I’m not sure trainer David Donk is truly appreciated as a turf ace. Here he gets Relatively Ready prepared to go 8.5 furlongs on turf off a dirt sprint in May. Pedigree is nice, but then you have to do it. Kudos to Donk and Cornelio Velasquez for timing the run perfectly. Debuting Umbra had winning position throughout, challenged three wide on the turn, and finished somewhat one-paced; expect improvement next out… Debuting Pynaformer finished gamely from the middle lane; follow.

Third Race: When did Javier Castellano think he had it lost with 8-5 favorite Pretty Carina? Probably when he hit her left handled and she ducked out, practically propped, got back on the stride but the momentum of Awesome I Am carried her to victory. It was a legitimate excuse; dah. Bet back.

Written by John Pricci

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