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, July 23, 2008

Saratoga 140: Racing’s Welcomed Distraction

Saratoga Springs, NY, July 22, 2008-- As a distraction for the thoroughbred racing industry, particularly here in New York, Saratoga could not have come at a better time. When negative stories lead the national sports pages and blogs, the trickle down is felt here first and hardest. That’s what comes from having a reputation for, deserved or imagined, being the industry leader.

Still reeling from Eight Belles death at the Derby, the Triple Crown traveling show rolled into New York and was stunned, as was a national audience, by the big brownout in Nassau County. The abysmal performance of a would-be legend was nowhere near as damaging to racing’s psyche as the Derby tragedy, nor should it be. But the debacle that was the Belmont--from flag fall to that‘s all--certainly didn’t lighten the mood.

Soon after the Belmont Stakes, Congress came calling to ask questions. Racing answered to the best of its ability but not satisfactory enough because the word out of Washington soon afterward was that there would be federal regulation in some form. And that drum has continued to beat ever since.

The presumptive Triple Crown trainer was summoned to appear before a House sub-committee but didn‘t, claiming ill health. One colleague, a member of the Racing Hall of Fame, called the game “pharmaceutical warfare.” The owner of the reigning Horse of the Year, whose trainer has been cited for drug infractions more than once, called for a “zero tolerance” policy on all medication.

The chance that steroids will be banned from the sport by federal edict is an odds-on favorite. Too sexy not to be. But after steroids were recently banned in California, 27 positives were found among a variety of breeds tested, eight percent of the population examined by the California Horse Racing Board since July 1.

Bad news has not been contained within the fences. The talented and popular race caller Luke Kruytbosch died in his sleep a fortnight ago and much too young. Churchill Downs, where he called the last 10 Kentucky Derbies, is laying off employees saying they need to stay competitive in a bad economy, another way of stating the mission is to maximize shareholder value.

Purses were up in the second quarter of this year, but handle was down. Getting an increasing share of a shrinking pie is anathema to any business model. Locally, New York City OTB, the biggest bookmaker in America, needed a state bailout, which will be paid for by horseplayers in the form of increased takeout.

The NYRA could not attract much more than a quorum after a too-late announcement that gave away the Man o’ War gate free. Horse of the Year Curlin then added injury to insult by losing the horse race. All this after a calamitous Belmont Stakes day when NYRA couldn’t provide adequate service to a large crowd. The infrastructure at their two downstate tracks is in about the same shape as America‘s bridges and highways. And it won‘t improve until the VLT money kicks in sometime late next year.

This past weekend, New York’s leading jockeys kicked them where the sun never shines. There was consideration of cancelling the Saturday card after a transformer fire in the basement necessitated the evacuation of the building. When service was resumed, it was on a limited scale. Everyone was inconvenienced.

With the big-name riders at Colonial Downs for the Virginia Derby program, the Belmont jockeys stayed on the job. But when the big guns got back, and with “only” the state-bred Evan Shipman on the stakes docket, the Sunday card was cancelled. The NYRA should have a legal remedy for this, but the timing couldn’t be worse.

Last week, TVG said never mind to an agreement that opened up advance deposit wagering throughout California to any bet-taker with a license. But since they have a piece of paper stating they’re entitled to the Del Mar property exclusively, they wouldn’t send a signal to competitive platforms. Once again, fans took it on the chin.

But bettors are mad as hell and have decided not to take it anymore. They want a voice, a seat at the table, and horseplayer groups are springing up everywhere. The NTRA sponsored Horseplayers’ Coalition, the newly formed Horseplayers Association of North America, and other grass roots organizations are beginning to get faceless horseplayers noticed.

So, not all the recent news has been bad. Halsey Minor, founder of CNET, wants to buy Hialeah and restore it to its former eminence. A star was born at the recent Belmont meet where Mother Goose and Coaching Club Oaks winning filly Music Note showed she might be the best three-year-old in America not named Big Brown.

Trainers in California were ordered to disclose new geldings to the public and transparency‘s always a good thing in a data driven business--even if the executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers group believes a levy for non compliance is “unjust, a Boston Tea Party for trainers.” Someone please take this man’s pulse.

It’s against this background that Saratoga opens its gates for a 140th season. Big Brown will not seek redemption in the Travers because the colt’s managing partner Michael Iavarone thinks the spacing is better to the Breeders’ Cup Classic by running in early, not late, August. He may have a point. Either way, Big Brown’s going to the Haskell.

Curlin has been in Saratoga since the Man o’ War but he’s not scheduled to run here. No one knows when, and over what surface, he’ll run next. His class got him the place in the Man o’ War, not bad for a horse that clearly was not striding out over the surface. He always improves doing something for a second time, his trainer has said. So who knows? The turf experiment could continue in the Sword Dancer depending, of course, on how the fans vote.

Historically, Saratoga has been all about the babies and, to a lesser extent, turf racing. Indeed, eight of the 10 races on Wednesday’s opener is for either/or, although, lamentably, two grass races are at 5-½ furlongs. Hopefully, there won’t be the same preponderance of turf sprints as were carded last year. They’re too chaotic. If your goal is to bust your players out as quickly as possible, card 10 of them a day, this way everyone can go home three weeks early. Perhaps the recently announced purse increases that rewards distance racing will have its desired effect.

In all, Saratoga will present 33 graded stakes events in 36 days. It should make for a pleasant diversion.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (3)

Monday, July 21, 2008

First Saratoga Diary Entry

Pricci's first 2008 'Saratoga Diary' entry will be on Wednesday, July 23rd.

Written by HRI Publisher

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Sunday, September 02, 2007

Paradise Lost

Saratoga Springs, NY--September 2, 2007

Dear Diary,

It's the nature of horseplayers to endure pain. And when one looks forward to playing Saratoga the way most bettors do, it especially hurts to admit the meeting beat him more than he beat the meeting.

I didn't get beat badly at this meeting; only my ego got roughed up. It was mostly an up-and-back meet; good day, bad day, like most players experience. But it feels like I haven't been right for a week. And that costs.

Like any player in the game for the long haul, I'm not frantic to get even over the course of the next 21 races as this is written. The mantra is to play to your strengths, doing what you do best, cut down on mistakes (virtually impossible) and stay the course.

By any means necessary.

The only mistakes I'll admit to--other than picking eight winners on TV Travers day and winning (gulp) $34 in that afternoon--are lapses in focus.

The diary is a responsibility that's to be taken seriously. It's certainly time-consuming while the races are being run and game time decisions need to be made (read odds assessment here). Yes, it's a distraction, no question.

Know that that's a reason, not an excuse. There are no excuses in this game. No one forces a horseplayer do anything he doesn't choose to do himself.

Regarding odds assessments, you will hear the term value spoken ad nauseum, with little or no regard to its meaning.

Some horses that win and pay $5.20 can be value. Some horses that win and pay $20 are not. The misuse of the term comes when handicappers-in-name misidentify all non-favorites as value.

Odds assessment demands an evaluation of only one question: Compared to what? Price comparisons are the essence of successful parimutuel wagering.

Unless you can put a price on a horse's head, you shouldn't be allowed to use the word value. An 8-5 payoff is value if you believe that horse would win a race 50 out of 100 times, by definition, even money. That's what makes 8-5 value.

Of course, setting a price is easier said than done. To learn, it takes patience, practice and money. Mostly money.

Unlike fools and their money, miserable horseplayers seldom part company with other miserable horseplayers. And there's been lots of misery to go around this meet.

The large purses, an imaginative condition book including an inordinate number of turf sprints, full competitive fields in virtually all divisions--except going very long on either surface--assured a half dozen horses had a chance to win in nearly every race. Or so it seemed.

Nobody not named Linda Rice was able to figure out how to win turf sprints consistently. And everyone certainly had enough practice; there've been 38 at the meeting with another carded for tomorrow. Percentage of winning favorites in this category? Thirteen.

Thirteen percent!

In the interests of diversity, it would be nice to see more turf sprints at six and seven furlongs when racing shifts to Belmont on Friday. Those races would play more like real turf events, as opposed to simple speed-pop sprints.

What was personally disappointing was my inability to capitalize on what normally is a handicapping and wagering strength: degree of difficulty. Value is almost always available in wide open races.

Any horseplayer who constantly seeks betting value must be willing to lose many races before cashing the one ticket that evens things out and then some.

But I haven't been right nearly as often as I needed to be, or should have been, at this meet. That's when Shorty arrived in town and overstayed his welcome.

Like baseball, racing is a game of streaks. But the streaks here have been nothing less than spooky. Trainer Rusty Arnold got on a streak of in-the-money finishes with horses outrunning their odds early in the meet. Jockey Alan Garcia did the same thing in the second half.

No one is streakier than Kent Desormeaux. The meets enjoyed by owner Ahmed Zayat, trainers Bill Mott and Linda Rice, Rick Schosberg's early-meet money finishers and Tom Bush's longshot winners were enough to make the tooth fairy believe in Santa Claus.

When streaks dominate results over a short period of time, it skews all other handicapping tenets. You begin to look at races differently. Form and figures and trips become far less compelling in the handicapping process. Soon there is no Sanity Clause.

Even with the best intentions, with horses doing great and everything in the barn going right, there's no way to project that Zayat Stables, Mott and Desormeaux would bat .500 at the meet, 12-for-24, through the end of today's races.

Bob Baffert is undefeated with Zayat's Spa runners and, from memory, the owner also has had winners saddled by Barclay Tagg, Anthony Dutrow and, I think, George Weaver.

For me, winning streaks were the dominant deciding factor in too many outcomes. Add to that mix the uncertainties of juvenile racing--an insiders game more popular with horseplayers than they ought to be--and those confounding turf sprints, it's easy to understand why many players had a difficult Saratoga 139.

This will be the final Saratoga Diary of the meet, our 29th season. After tomorrow we'll take a brief three-day freshening. The local Breeders' Cup prep season begins in earnest Friday.

Tomorrow is closing day. With no diary to distract, the only mission is to win.

If we should break even for the meet, great. But that's not the goal, per se. The approach is to do what we try to do every racing day: Find value. Make money. Forty-dollar win bets will not become $40 exactas. You don't change long term goals and objectives. You do the most complete job you can, focus, and try eliminating unforced errors.

There's no crying in baseball and no excuses for horseplayers. Even if there were, no one wants to hear them. Nor should they.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (3)

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