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 13, 2008

Spa 2008: Curse of The Spinner

Saratoga Springs, NY, August 12, 2008--Time to face it. This has not been a great Saratoga meet. Almost every promising race card was decimated by the wettest season in memory, taking an enormous toll on attendance and handle.

Merchants around town haven’t complained all that much, but another group--the casual Saratoga fan that can take or leave the actual racing--has been voting with their feet. Only they're not beating a path to the admission gates.

We are referring to that special breed of individual who comes to Saratoga only on premium giveaway days. They are androgynous, neither female nor male, horseplayer nor tourist.

And what they told the association this past Sunday was that it could keep its stadium seat; they still have the whole chair from last year. The individual we refer to is, of course, The Spinner.

The Spinner often travels in packs, sometimes cleverly disguised as family, a social unit that uses children as beards to collect their free-gotten gains. They are enterprising and, although harmless, are not to be trifled with. Never, ever, take The Spinner for granted.

Last year The Spinner came in droves, 72,745 strong, their eyes squarely on the prize: the portable folding lawn chair. The Spinner is no fool. When only the seat was offered this year, 26,905 fewer Spinners flipped those turnstiles or reported to the multiple-admissions area.

Counter-intuitively, many of last year's Spinners stayed to play the races. They used their new furniture to park themselves comfortably on the track's apron and contributed a portion of the $1.1 million more wagered last year than was bet three days ago.

Because The Spinner doesn’t usually hang around for the racing, don’t infer that he's anti-social. He is very unlike the Squatter, who queues up at admission gates long before dawn, pays admission, then hurdles over fellow Squatters as fast as he can for choice picnic areas closest to the horses, a shade tree or a self-service betting terminal.

The Spinner can’t afford this luxury, of course. If he is to make a score he needs patience. And stamina.

The Spinner must be ready to stand in line for hours, in orderly fashion, sometimes five or six deep. Then he must be prepared to queue up again at redemption areas. If he were a race horse, The Spinner would need scope. His game is not for the short of wind, the feint of heart.

If the Spinner were a jockey he would need to be blessed with patience. And timing. Last year, when he came in record numbers, he had to stand in three lines for the portable folding lawn chair. The first got him into the building, the second to a coupon booth, then, finally, redemption at last. This ordeal added to the Spinner's legend in the storied land of the premium giveaway.

Late Sunday afternoon, the Ultimate Spinner was spotted parked alongside a herd of Squatters on the grassy knoll inside the fence lining Union Avenue. He sat contentedly on last year’s P.F.L.C. using Sunday’s seat cushion for ballast. Planted on the northwest corner of a red Saratoga stadium blanket, he was resplendent in a classic Saratoga Tee, circa 2003, and a red 2007 baseball cap, of that I am certain.

As if on cue, he clandestinely lifted a cold one out of his portable Saratoga ice cooler, stealthily concealed inside a tattered Spa sports bag, surreptitiously sipping a brew from the versatile Jerry Bailey beer stein--the one that easily doubles as a world class pencil holder--shaded from the harmful ultraviolet rays by a red and white striped Saratoga umbrella.

But, running to past performances, the majority of Sunday’s Spinners left immediately. The ambitious ones who remained had lugged laptops with wireless cards for logging on to E-Bay. Last year, fortunes were made at $19.55 per P.L.F.C., shipping included if you were among the first 50 to order. This year‘s premium wasn’t nearly as marketable.

And so the Ultimate Spinner left the grounds quickly last Sunday, his head bobbing in disappointment, marking the days until this Sunday when the ritual, unique to Saratoga Race Course, begins anew.

Expect the karma to improve. The NYRA marketers tempted fate this year and paid dearly for not offering the premium umbrella. Fortuitously, the giveaway this weekend is the long-sleeve tee. How prescient in this wettest of wet Saratoga summers.

Last year, HRI suggested a way for the racing association to show its appreciation for the unique contributions made by The Spinner to the fabric of this meet. Alternatively, on the second day of the meet, it tempted fate again by discontinuing the popular bobble-head promotion, much to the chagrin of the bean counters.

How fitting it would have been had The Spinner spun for his own likeness in all its bobble-headed glory. Nothing says thank you for coming quite like your own immortal image. The Spinner deserved better for his support in 2007. Instead, there were over 21,000 fewer clicks of the turnstile. It’s been that kind of year.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Just Another Day in Paradise

Saratoga Springs, NY, August 9, 2008--Although it didn’t appear so at first, it turns out that NYRA management made a good call when it decided to cancel Friday’s card moments before the running of the third race.

The argument was that they called it prematurely, that fans had time to spare, could busy themselves with simulcasting or picnicking, and that there would be plenty of daylight to finish out the card.

But the wash-out was worse than it first appeared. It took four to five hours to complete the repair, working, then reworking, the surface until it was suitable and safe for racing.

The track had washed away in at least three places between the five-sixteenths and quarter-poles, according to John Velazquez on Friday, and Robby Albarado said that the water atop of the surface was extremely deep.

The surface was fast, albeit inside-speed favoring, and the turf courses yielding for the Saturday program..

The third Saturday card of the meet had a celebratory theme: “Tradition Turns 140.” Historical vignettes, featuring a Saratoga Top Ten, from Colin to the great Kelso, twice a winner of the Whitney, were presented throughout the day, courtesy of the National Museum of Racing. Racing related, and good stuff.

The occasion of Saratoga’s 140th race meet might have made a greater impact had a graded stakes of some kind been offered as part of the racing program. But, hey, there were many warm bodies in the building, 31,497 of them, and not a raindrop in sight.

One could hardly ask for more.
* * *

First Race: Moore Miles and Great Emperor in his sights from the five-eighths pole, looked like a cinch to go by at any point, and he did. Only Great Emperor came again on the fence as Moore Miles went to hanging. It’s early yet, but the course seemed to play honestly.

Second Race: Ryan’s Comet, international good thing, was bet early and often. Todd Pletcher newcomer stalked from close range, moved up to challenge, then stopped. Second-timer In Speight Of It got underway too late; note… The experienced Flying Private showed speed throughout from the inside, was challenged throughout from the outside, and stayed gamely for the upset, Jamie Theriot in from Chicago, riding this one for Wayne Lukas. Theriot in to ride Closeout in the Madame Jumel for Tom Proctor. Gets shipping money home here ($18.00).

Third Race: R Fast Favorite just too much race horse for this group, leading them throughout the entire 6-½ furlongs. Second over the surface here July 27, Rick Schosberg dropped him a notch and had him spotted correctly. Big Brain came on well too late to impact the winner but showed improvement in second start for Greg DiPrima, who’s been very live this meet. Lost Going Home sat a rail trip under Channing Hill rating, tipped wide entering to challenge but offered little; class drop, please.

The James Marvin: Terrific race on paper lived up to its PPs with the performance of the top two finishers. The very speedy Delaware Valley performer Eternal Star took command immediately, was chewed on by Brilliant Son down the backside and rounding the far turn, drove clear, then repelled the late bid of super sharp Bold Start, an Ellis shipper who proved he belonged with these. No excuses, however, for slim favorite Noonmark, who should have benefited from the hot pace. Props to Ramon Dominguez who wouldn’t let the four-year-old surrender, and to Michael Trombetta, who’s kept this horse sharp all season. Eternal Star (1:08.79) improved his record to 8-for-13 lifetime, and did so coming come in :24 seconds flat after a half in :44.79. Good show.

The Solomon Northup: A rough-house event. Soon after entering the far turn, Dr. D.F.C. under Aldo Arboleda, commenced a huge move along the rail from last. His momentum carried him into third, still inside, when Arboleda had a decision to make; check his mount or slip through between horses. He chose the later and in doing so carried Tommasi several paths wide into the stretch, at which point the continued coming out slightly to brush that rival after straightening away. The incident appeared to cost Tommasi second money but at the point of contact, no salient camera angle was available. If this were an NFL replay we were looking at, the evidence would have been deemed inconclusive. A very tough call but, in context, probably the right one. It was trainer Rodrigo Ubillo‘s first Saratoga victory. (For the record, I took 2-1 on the runnerup, Stud Muffin, to win. I liked the name).

Sixth Race: Ramon Dominguez made the winning mid-race move on Volponi Dragon, opening a clear advantage before Burnished Copper swooped up to join him, then head him, before hanging on the money, out-bobbed by the winner under relentless left-hand pressure from Dominguez.

The Madame Jumel: Say what you wish about the IEAH folks but they continue making astute purchases, although one never knows for sure as the sales prices are never revealed. But 20 minutes after Plan--the Aidan O’Brien-trained winner of the G3 International Stakes at the Curragh last time out--finished second to fellow Euro Winchester in the G1 Secretariat at Arlington Park, Ariege roared home from the center of the course to win this mile on the Spa inner turf over last run strong finisher Closeout, who, as the race was run, might have been best, operative word being might. Dawdling behind very soft fractions, Theriot cranked up on the far turn, the filly’s momentum taking him seven wide into the lane. After gathering his filly, she finished with a flurry for place without ever seriously threatening the obviously talented winner. The inner seemed to play a lot slowly than the Mellon course did in the previous race, the fractions here going in :25.42, :50.35 and 1:15.14. The final quarter was run in an eye-opening :23.63. These talented three-year-olds should only get better from here; follow.

Eighth Race: A training double for Lukas, something we have seen for a while at the old Spa. Theriot gunned Nautical Storm from his outside slip and was joined immediately by Captivating Cat and Shaun Bridgmohan from the fence and the duel was on. After an opening gambit in :21.48, the winner took command into the stretch in :44.20 and kept right on going, stopping the timer in 1:10, a double for Theriot. The runnerup continued gamely, narrowly holding off Darkside Holiday at the line.

Ninth Race: He’s only run three times but when he run, Forest Command runs. Making his third lifetime start, he stalked the pace of longshot Bucky Came Come, took the lead when Edgar Prado asked, and drew off, winning in full stride, ridden out, in 1:21.89 for John Ward, now 2-for-3 with one second at the meet. Next stop, stakes.

The Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Magenta: Fairbanks is back! At least when he gets the right horses, when he’s allowed to set the tempo and when he finds himself on a speed friendly surface, as was the case in the day’s nominal feature. Richard Migliore again showed why he’s a superb tactical rider, setting a realistic, controlled tempo, before pulling the rug at the seven-sixteenths pole, winning the mile and three-sixteenths two-turner right there on the far turn. It was leading trainer Todd Pletcher’s 10th win of the meet, giving him a three race lead over current runnerup Steve Asmussen.

Eleventh Race: Mr. Sidney made the last run under Rajiv Maragh to take the nightcap going away, as Rogue Victory also finished well late for the place. Favorite Storm Harbor had a perfect trip in a no-excuse performance, fourth. It was victory number two for last year’s leading trainer, Bill Mott.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, August 09, 2008

For the Love of Hialeah, Brunetti Must Walk Away

Saratoga Springs, NY, August 9, 2008--Saratoga Race Course and Del Mar are in full bloom and, as you read this, they’re getting read to celebrate Arlington Million day in Chicago.

But it’s two Florida racetracks that have been making headlines in recent days. Magna Entertainment, continuing to hemorrhage money, might sell crown jewel Gulfstream Park to help prop up the sagging conglomerate.

But the possible purchase of shuttered Hialeah Park is more than a sale. It’s a symbol, the perfect metaphor for today’s troubled industry. Hialeah Park represents everything that was great about the sport. It had everything; glamour, clout and world class buzz.

How many tracks could simultaneously attract J. Edgar Hoover and Al Capone for the same afternoon of sport?

Now I have no idea whether or not CNET guru Halsey Minor has taken leave of his senses. But everyone I speak with or get e mail from is rooting for the guy. I’ve never met him but I know it's going to be love at first sight.

Anyone who loves thoroughbred racing, has the bucks to restore Hialeah Park to its former eminence, is not only all right but well worth rooting for.

As a fan of racing and its traditions, I sincerely hope Minor can strike a deal with John Brunetti to purchase Hialeah Park and restore it. The good news is that Minor, following the purchase, is willing to invest the $30 million it will take to make the grand dame whole again.

The bad news is that Brunetti doesn’t seem ready to let go of the strings, at least not entirely.

No one’s ever doubted John Brunetti’s love for and dedication to Hialeah Park. I ought to know. I worked for him for two years. A lot more people worked for him for a whole lot longer. Brunetti’ was regarded as either a willful, demanding perfectionist who rewarded those on board with his ideas, or he was Frank Stronach in training, which makes him no different from any other powerful man.

It’s sadly ironic that Brunetti’s love of Hialeah might have been instrumental in helping to destroy it. The regulation and deregulation of Florida racing dates has been a concern since Arcaro and Shoemaker had the bug. And it was always the same issue: the coveted winter dates.

Brunetti was offered the prime middle dates for six weeks every year in perpetuity. But he wanted more. That hubris was the beginning of the end of Hialeah. But he never gave up, keeping Hialeah alive when others would have walked away. He spent as much time in Tallahassee as he did at the track, trying to keep the dream of Hialeah alive.

But recovering from hurricane damage that ripped out the palm trees lining the backstretch and virtually destroyed the barn area was just too daunting a task.

Brunetti and Minor, joined by government officials, met on Thursday. Preliminary discussions were categorized as good. Brunetti said it would take time and that he wants to be part of Hialeah’s revitalization, even if it takes years. He said he thought Minor had interesting ideas and obviously has been very successful.

Minor is eager to fight an uphill fight. He wants to prove that thoroughbred racing--the animals, the color, pageantry, people and the intellectual exercise of handicapping, is still a good sell, that the sport can once again thrive if it’s conducted in a proper setting. Minor wants to get fans closer to the horses, get them to fall in love with the total racetrack experience the way he did. And he’s putting his money where his ideas are.

But he shouldn’t partner up with Brunetti. What Hialeah needs now is outside-the-box thinking, certainly not the input of someone who raised parimutuel takeout rates so high that bettors boycotted the Hialeah product. The take on trifectas at that time was usurious, north of 30 percent.

If John Brunetti still loves Hialeah, and has the sport’s best interests at heart, he should let the new guy with energy, fresh ideas and capital have at it. Brunetti should just take the money and walk away.

If John Brunetti truly loves Hialeah, he has to let it go.

* * *

Following a hellacious rain storm, racing was canceled after the track washed away between the quarter-pole and five-sixteenths pole. Officials explained that the repair would have taken more than an hour and didn’t want to inconvenience the crowd any more than was necessary.

Many of the fans didn’t seem to mind all that much. Groups of people simply congregated by the rail under warm, sunny skies. Yes, warm, sunny skies. The rain took about 30 minutes to do its damage and after the card was canceled fans either didn’t know where to go, or simply didn’t want to leave. Everyone knows what to do when night falls in this town, but at 2:32 p.m. on a Friday?

And so NYRA’s meeting from purgatory continues. It can’t officially be a meeting from hell for at least another two weeks.

In 2006, NYRA lost a day to extreme heat and humidity, but that announcement came early, before the gates opened. Following yesterday’s announcement, however, fans continued to prop up their elbows on the railing, or sat on the benches that fill the apron from the sixteenth pole to the top of the stretch.

Most fans were awaiting coupons good for free admission and a program any day during the next two weeks. Some were distracted by the call to the post--from Monmouth Park--where it was clear, fast and firm, Tom Durkin informing the crowd that mutuel windows would remain open until the Monmouth card ended.

Numerous refunds and consolations were paid, the loss of eight races likely costing the association about $2 million in handle, given an average Saratoga Friday. With unwanted help from Mother Nature, yesterday was the 12th of 15 racing programs upon which handle was down from the previous year.

It wasn’t the jockeys who made the initial call to cancel. In fact, after a brief delay the horses for the third race came on the track prepared to race but were waved off by track maintenance personnel. Johnny Velazquez said the track approaching headstretch washed out in three spots. Robby Albarado said it was “this deep,” holding his hand about a foot off the ground to illustrate.

In 1988, the Grade 1 John A. Morris was lost when a tree felled by lightning landed across the main track. This came two years after severe lightning forced the cancellation of the final four races on the August 7 program.

There were two more weather related cancellations, 10 years ago when two races were lost to violent winds, and four years ago when the final race was canceled following Birdstone’s victory in the darkness of the 2004 Travers.

“Even after an hour, there was no guarantee that the track would be up to standard,” said NYRA president Charlie Hayward. “The threat of more storms was real and we decided to cancel for the safety of the horses, the riders and the fans.”

* * *

First Race: Cornelio Velasquez got off quickly with Ambling Rose, who won for the second time since Enrique Arroyo’s claim, and narrowed the gap between himself and leading rider Johnny Velazquez to two victories, 18-16. These two, along with Eibar Coa and Edgar Prado, each not far behind, figure to put on a good show for the title; more interesting than some of the recent races, actually… Mutakaway finished gamely too late from the center of the track, her first start off lengthy layup following Bruce Levine’s claim, who cut the selling price in half for yesterday’s race. I’d look for a class rise next time.

Second Race: Johnny V. answers right back with Mega, dropping into claimer for the first time for owner/trainer Todd Pletcher, who opens a two-win lead on his nearest rival, Steve Asmussen, via this off-the-turf seven furlongs. Clearly these two, given their considerable numbers, figure to battle for the training title down to the wire.

Third Race: Never mind.

Written by John Pricci

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