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

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Breeders’ Cup Cocktails and Commentator Dreams

Saratoga Springs, NY, July 26, 2008--It was supposed to be about a Breeders' Cup challenge. The goal was simple; win, and you qualify for a day in the California sun. But as it turned out, it was more. It was a tribute to the past and a doorway to the future. And it could only happen in Saratoga.

The WHITNEY was the lynchpin of Breeders' Cup Challenge day. It was a wide open race, a full field where the favorite would pay almost four for one. What it turned into was a tour de force for a 7-year-old gelding, a throw-back to what the sport and its competitors was supposed to be about. There's only one way to describe Commentator: hickory, a word as old fashioned as his accomplishment turned out to be. Never mind that he had help from rivals that allowed him an opening gambit of :24.10 and :47.73. And when anyone made a challenge, all Johnny Velazquez had to do was turn him loose, and away he would spurt. But the big burst came from just the other side of the three-sixteenths pole, where Johnny pulled the rug out from beneath the entire field, even as Student Council made a futile albeit determined late run. The runnerup was almost five lengths away at the end, and it was another eight back to last year’s Travers runnerup, Grasshopper.

It’s rare when a 7-year-old can win a race as prestigious as the Whitney. Rarer still when he can do it twice, three years apart. To say that Nick Zito has done an amazing job, with a gelding endowed with high speed, but with nagging issues that continuously interrupted his career, would be to understate the accomplishment. With multiple Whitney victories, Commentator joined some exclusive company. Only Kelso, who won it three times, the last time as an 8-year-old, and Alfred Vanderbilt’s Discovery, his first time at three, are the Whitney's only multiple winners. But then it was just another day at the track, another day at Saratoga.

The GO FOR WAND: Ginger Punch proved much the best in the Go for Wand but it sure wasn’t easy. Somnambulating behind a pace of :24.04, :49.01 and 1:14.04, she split horses courageously at the first opportunity--less than a furlong from home--and drew off to an ultimately decisive 1-¼ length win in 1:53.43 over rivals she clearly towered over on paper.

The DIANA: Jonathan Sheppard and Julien Leparoux combined to upset the Grade 1 for fillies and mares on the turf at 9 furlongs with Forever Together in a worthy1:46.52 and punched to ticket to the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf at Santa Anita. Robby Albarado tried to steal it aboard longshot Bayou’s Lassie, opening a long lead in fast fractions, setting the table for a late runner. The winner came from last. In her prior start, she was a troubled third in the Grade 1 Just A Game at Belmont. Champion Wait A While, returning from a lengthy absence, stalked in third from the middle of the course but appeared empty all the way. Bill Mott, bidding to win his fourth consecutive Diana, finished second with Dynaforce, Kent Desormeaux up. Last year’s leading trainer, winless at the meet, suffered his second tough beat of the day (Intercoastal). But for Desormeaux, it’s been worse. Seeking his 5,000th career win, he rode number 4,998 on July 7. Number 4,999 came here opening day. After getting nailed on the line in the Diana, he showed his frustrations galloping out. By comparison, A Rod got his 500th a lot easier.

The ALFRED G. VANDERBILT: There was plenty of gas on paper and plenty of speed on the track. After speed-popping the field, Sammarco was joined almost immediately by Black Seventeen as First Defence settled in behind them third. At headstretch, First Defence came out to challenge as late running Abraaj gathered momentum out him. It took the length of the stretch, but Abraaj got there. First Defence settled for place while Sammarco was a very game third under the hot-paced circumstances. Thor’s Echo, appearing a bit short of condition, just missed the show spot and should benefit; tighter next time… Undefeated New York-bred pre-race favorite Bustin Stones was scratched with an apparent stone bruise

* * *

In the absence of Big Brown, both in today’s Jim Dandy and three weeks from now in the Travers, the role of household name falls upon Pyro (2-1), the pre-race Kentucky Derby favorite until Keeneland’s Polytrack compromised those ambitions.

If his last race is any indication--and usually last races are--Pyro is back. He appeared his old self, big-kicking to win the Grade 3 Northern Dancer at 1-1/16 miles at Churchill. He’ll go an extra sixteenth today for the Asmussen barn that already has four wins this meet. Shaun Bridgmohan, per usual, rides the Midsummer Derby prepster. There is sufficient speed in here to suit his late rally.

Most of that early gas will come in the form of Peter Pan runnerup Mint Lane (5-2), a winner of the G2 Dwyer last time out. Given an added sixteenth and a second turn, it figures that Mint Lane could be long gone as this group heads into the backstretch. We’re counting on it. The super aggressive Eibar Coa, riding with a vengeance at this meet, will set the tone. Trainer Jimmy Jerkens got married last week. Today he shoots for the honeymoon money.

Belmont Stakes winner Da’ Tara and stablemate Anak Nakal both “need to run” according to Nick Zito and we’ll take the trainer at his word. Besides, it seems a Grade 2 stage isn’t big enough for the recent Hall of Famer.

One horse on the come is Iowa Derby winner Tiz Now Tiz Then (6-1), who will try to extend his current winning streak to four. He is blessed with tactical speed, draws the advantageous pole at the distance and has never been beaten with Miguel Mena in the boot.

The final analysis? Speed is always dangerous.

* * *

Big Brown breezed six furlongs in 1:10.86 at Aqueduct Saturday morning, finishing well and galloping out strongly, according to IEAH spokesman Michael Sherack..

* * *

First Race: Like we said, Eibar Coa is on a mission. He gunned cleverly bet Benny the Waiter to the front, withstood pace pressure, and drove home clearly best while putting odds-on, overbet returnee Rollers in close quarters at the sixteenth pole, getting home in 1:09.74. Good race ride. Talented Rollers will benefit from the run; note… Rajiv Maragh rode the hair off Borrowing Limit for third. Good for him, we love to see that!

Second Race: Money came in late on Munnings, a $1.7 Tabor/Magnier/Smith purchase. Big, blocky, short-coupled Speightstown colt shot to the lead, withstood strong-middle-move pressure from Just a Coincidence and proved clearly best in the lane, the chaser finishing second best. Probably a key race in training, given its half-mile in :44.92 and final time in 1:09.84... Bill Mott firster Successful Mission showed early and mid-race speed then finished greenly along the rail, ridden out. He needed it and will benefit; follow.

Third Race: Wide open turf mile and a sixteenth would have made a terrific superfecta event despite it being a relatively small field of nine, the winning favorite, Baronial, paying $10.60. There was no super wagering due to the presence of an entry. That’s against the rules. Note to State Racing and Wagering Board: In trifecta wagering involving a stable coupling when both stalemates finish in the top three, the winning trifecta is paid on the first four finishers, as if the second part of the entry were non-existent. So, would it be OK, then, if the super were paid on the first five finishers, should both halves finish within the top four? Once they know the rules, horseplayers can live with anything. Trust me on this. Baronial, meanwhile, loved his new blinkers. Johnny V,. rode him perfectly and the Shugster is now off the duck. Debuting Intercoastal ran super; did everything right but win. Will not be a maiden for long.

Fourth Race: Note to the State Racing and Wagering Board, Part II: In this race, there were two entries. In both instances, mates were scratched leaving eight betting interests and no entries. But there was no superfecta wagering because the entry rule precluded the association from carding it as a superfecta event. So please consider amending the rule. Thank you... Prado rode and rated Acai perfectly off a strong two-turn pace, getting home just before surging favorite, Unbridled’s Heart.

Note to the State Racing and Wagering Board, Take III: I noticed that Eibar Coa and Alan Garcia both received seven day suspensions for “careless riding” in yesterday’s Lake George in which winning My Princess Jess and fourth finisher Receipt easily could have been disqualified, certainly the latter, in our view. I think it’s a good idea to give the stewards some latitude in assessing punishment when justified. But even if the riders both received days, how is justice served when the appeal process delays justice. Taking seven days at Christmas and losing seven days at Saratoga are horses of different colors. Riders might think twice if they knew they could lose a week's worth of business at America's most prestigious track.

Fifth Race: Garrett Gomez timed Stepaside’s late run perfectly, drawing away late from Woodrunner, who made a strong mid-race move but tired from the effort. Gomez in from California for Challenge Day; Tom Voss up from Maryland for some state-bred loot… Piazza Di Spagna finished like a rocket from the middle of the course and just missed the place. The inner turf continues to favor late rally types.

Sixth Race: Did you see the fire? Cornelio Velasquez did. Going seven-eighths in splits of :22.28, and :44.98, Tiz It led until the three-sixteenths pole where overlay Joppa Flat’s (34-1) ran by and drew off dramatically, galloping out 12 to 15 lengths in front of the field after striking the finish in 1:21.71. Underlay White Tie stalked the pace and tried without excuse.

Eleventh Race: Ya Think, sitting behind dueling leaders, tipped wide at headstretch and loomed a winner, until Lyke a Hurricane, beneath Prado, lived up to his name, trainer David Duggan’s first win at the meet.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

A Couple of Bad Calls Won’t Help Matters

Saratoga Springs, NY, July 24, 2008--Until the VLTs are finally on line and start making a difference, the fortunes of the association, horsemen and municipal and state governments will live with the austerity program now in place. What can you expect when funds are low everywhere?

With the infrastructure in disrepair, the association working on the umpteenth extension of the franchise extension and living on the scraps left from bankruptcy protection, cost cutting measures are in place everywhere.

For whatever the reason, economic or otherwise, the NYRA marketers may want to rethink its position on the discontinuation, of all things, the bobble-head doll, or some other giveaway on day two of a 36-day meet.

Yes, I know, but I’m not kidding. The spinners have spoken. Not one of them showed up Thursday.

Traditionally, the second day of the meet is the weakest of the season. Thursday’s weather was enough to keep ducks away. But 21,000 fewer people--read turnstile clicks--than last year, when the weather was good, is still an alarming number. Thursday’s on-track attendance of 10,124 probably was comparable to pre bobble-head meets.

Horseplayers showed up, but they bet less money on wet tracks. For that reason, most tracks in the simulcast era, when faced with the decision to label a surface subjected to precipitation, generally will err on the side of fast.

So between the foul weather on-track and the sealed, sloppy surface, Thursday’s on-track handle was off almost $900,000. Throw in another $100,000 decline in Belmont-to-Saratoga handle, another half million from the state’s OTBs and over $1.6 million from interstate sources, Thursday’s grand total was $9.8 million, off $3 million--$9.8 from last year’s $12.9.

A bobble-head giveaway, absurd as it seems, would have helped, maybe substantially. A sunny day certainly would have helped. But the giveaway would have attracted plenty of turnstile clicks. Some spinners might have stayed and even bet a couple of bucks.

If there was an economic component that went into NYRA’s decision, it ought to go back to its cost-analysis people. Friday was a lot better with 20,626 in the building. After two days of deluge, yesterday had an opening day feel. Attendance was up 2,000 from last year.

But on Thursday, NYRA could have used all the help it could give itself. Maybe next year. Happy Challenge Saturday.

First Race: Fast and soft the official track conditions under idyllic sunny skies. Perhaps damp-fast might have been more apt. Co-favorite Clemens (steroids off?) won the opener in routine fashion for Paul Pompa and Pat Reynolds. No word as to whether Michael Iavarone placed a phone call to his trainer after 3-year-old Langfuhr colt crossed the finish line.

Second Race: Join in the Dance, rank in the paddock, post parade and pre-loading, was put into the game from the break and led the special-weight maiden juveniles a merry chase for Todd Pletcher and Johnny Velazquez. Remember them? Tell the truth; colt did pay $8.80, after all, after completing the distance in 1:04.29... Bill Mott debuting entry, bet to 8-5 favoritism, had their issues. Pious David bore in at sixteenth pole, very green, as Kent D. continues to chase career win 5,000. Stablemate Charlie Trumper finished fast from the middle of the track, probably will pay to follow both… FTS Stomp loomed boldly into and through headstretch, then hung; figures to benefit, note.

Third Race: Giant Killer strikes! But I kid The Chief. He hates that Giant Killer stuff. Today’s third didn’t have a name attached but with only five betting interests and two heavy favorites, So Glitzy, 17-1, came again gamely to edge out Mushka at the line…Lauren’s Tizzy lost all chance at the break.

Fourth Race: Second maiden event for juveniles, this one for 50-claimers. There was just not enough time to do this race justice. Check the replay at The start was ragged, for openers… Beer Pong cranked up four wide at three-eighths and finished gamely, refusing to lose the place, a promising debut…Shoe Strap and Mitchell Park missed the break…Favored Grimaldi was ridden hard to take the lead, raced in the clear but tired without excuse… Lofty Banner was going well late at the finish while ridden out; note… Winning Midtown Bullet made his winning move around two rivals mid-turn, took the lead and drove clear; second win of the meet for Chad Brown… Persian appeared to be climbing early, settled, made strong run on deeper rail on turn to midstretch, altered course outside and finished gamely for third; should have been second, note.

Fifth Race: Formful exacta result. The Cuban Hawk established the pace quickly for Dutrow/Prado team and set realistic fractions to the eighth pole, where ground-saving, perfect-tripping Jump It ran by beneath Jeffrey Sanchez; John Terranova now off the duck.

Sixth Race: What a race! Looked like the ’44 Carter Handicap coming down the stretch. Real Estate on the fence, Aquino three across the track and Visible Truth between them; completely anybody’s race from the eighth pole to the finish pole, but it was Real Estate for Bruce Levine on the fence, a natural double for Eibar Coa and Levine’s first of the meet. Aquino edged Visible Truth for place, three noses across the line in 1:09.38. Great show.

Seventh Race: If you want to see an example of patience and don’t have time to find a dictionary with Ramon Dominguez’ picture alongside, check the replay of this race. The rider absolutely was the difference here. Twice he had opportunities to rattle and twice he resisted, instead remaining covered up with Fort Apache Star as if it were some damn turf race. The pace was both hot and contested in this starter allowance and not only did Dominguez not fall into two potential traps but he waited for a seem at the sixteenth pole. And, as Mr. Durkin intoned, “into the breach goes Fort Apache Star.” Eddie Kennelly’s talented sprinter got it done and even appeared to have a bit something left. But don’t take my word. Check it out for yourself. It’ll take only 1:16.49 of your time.

The LAKE GEORGE: Lots of trouble for a six-horse field. Eibar Coa bulled his way between horses in upper stretch with My Princess Jess and the filly responded with her class, flashing an excellent turf of foot despite the soft ground, a triple for Coa. But the poor French filly never had a chance. Mousse Au Chocolat missed the break badly, was rank early, settled, angled out for the drive, then was cut down when Alan Garcia and Receipt came out directly into her path, nearly dropping the filly and rider.

Christophe Lemaire did well to stay aloft, making two post-race observations: “My filly couldn’t pick it up. The inside horse crossed my line and I nearly fell down.” At that point, it was impossible to know whether the incident cost the chocolate filly a share of the purse. But that wasn’t the point in this situation. If that wasn’t a careless ride, there’s no such thing. And so the Phipps filly was allowed to keep fourth money and Garcia dodged a bullet. Terrible call.

Ninth Race: Sashay Renee wore down a game Sweet Bama Breeze, Shaun Bridgmohan’s third of the meet and Stanley Hough’s first. Third finisher Welcome to Wista will win her maiden condition next out if she takes to Spa turf the way she took to main track, seizing the show after altering course late; follow.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Sunset Boulevard to Sunset Racing

Saratoga Springs, NY, July 24, 2008--Let’s face it, there’s nothing like a good rainy day movie. And since we all have some time to kill before lining up at the wickets, and since there’s no time to see “The Dark Knight” and get to the track in time for the first rolling double except, of course, on Sunset Fridays, I have the solution.

If atmosphere matters--and for true fans it’s the straw that stirs racing’s drink--then queue up at the Racing Hall of Fame and Museum across Union Avenue from the race course and go see the Hennegan brothers acclaimed documentary on racetrack life, “the first Saturday in May.”

Parenthetically, you don’t have enough time to see “The Dark Knight,” anyway. The film, while very entertaining, is too long, the action sequences at the end repetitive, even if they are cool. Part of the dumbing down process I expect. But seeing it is mandatory.

Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker has been hailed as one of cinema’s all-time villains. It just might be. In some sequences, in a voice barely audible, he conveys a panoply of evil. Ledger’s malevolence and immorality is palpable, making for a chilling movie experience.

For Ledger, it ended in tragedy. But from silent films legend Conrad Veidt, to Cesar Romero, Mark Hamill and Jack Nicholson, the character found the dark side of every soul it inhabited. Nicholson was bitter when he lost the role to Ledger, and when told of the circumstances surrounding the young actor’s death, he said, “well, I warned him.”

While there might be some wistful moments in the Hennegans’ film--the Barbaro story and, to a lesser extent, the injury to Achilles of Troy that aborted his 2006 Kentucky Derby dreams come to mind--“the first Saturday in May” is a celebration of racetrack life.

As handicappers, the Hennegans didn’t do badly selecting trainers, either. They chose Michael Matz (Barbaro, of course), Dan Hendricks (eventual favorite Brother Derek), Bob Holthus (undefeated Lawyer Ron), Kiaran McLaughlin (eventual Belmont winner Jazil), Frank Amonte (Achilles of Troy) and Louisville native Dale Romans (Sharp Humor), a trail that takes the audience from Dubai to Kentucky to Queens to Florida to Hot Springs and finally back to Kentucky, for the playing of “that song.”

Winner of awards at the Savannah and Austin film festivals, “the first Saturday in May” is screened at the Museum virtually every morning, twice on dark Tuesdays. Find details at The Hall of Fame screening is $5, the DVD, with a charity component, costs a bit more. If you don’t like it, you probably should consider another pastime.

First Race: Never mind, there was none. But you just knew that track would be more tiring as rains continued to pelt the area, and it would play that way. The surface was sloppy and sealed. The rail was not the place to be, so check those chart footnotes.

Second Race: Who does Steve Asmussen think he is, the Todd Pletcher of 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006? After tripling opening day, second starter Stunning Electra took control leaving headstretch and drove clear, Dorothy’s Essence finished strongly down the center for place.

Third Race: Peleliu got Wesley Ward off the duck with his main man Elvis Trujillo in the building, who stalked half the race then led the rest of the way home, winning under pressure.

Fourth Race: Seven in a Row was scratched pre-race after rearing in the gate, that‘s one… Tiring nature of the track responsible for huge upset. Opening day, Scott’s Choice, under similar circumstances, would have held sway after opening three-length margin into the lane. Worth A Shot, lagging early, circled up to challenge and wore down the leader in the final strides for James Corrao and Rudy Rodriguez. The previously 0-for-30 Worth A Shot paid $71.50 straight, snapping an 0-for-30 this year for his owner/trainer. Yippee, one and all.

Fifth Race: Looks like Mine All Mine has reached maturity. Juvenile filly was making her fourth career start, even trying stakes company at Churchill. She stalked from the outside, took command, then took flight late for a very impressive score, a double for Ward and Trujillo. Back to stakes company she goes...Venado should benefit from her debut, a little better than evenly late after breaking from the fence and racing inside much of the way; follow.

Sixth Race: Bidding to make it a triple for himself and Ward, Trujillo replicated his Mine All Mine ride, stalking and taking the lead, seemingly home. But Cornelio Velasquez got Abby Morgan in high gear and that team grabbed the leader 30 yards from the line.

Word comes at 3:58 pm Thursday that Friday’s turf races will be rescheduled to main track but the Grade 2 Lake George remains on grass. A little later it was announced that race replays once again will be available on the NYRA website.

Seventh Race: If it was meant as a prep for the Grade 1 King’s Bishop, it was a success. Triple Crown trail-er Visionaire returned from a six week freshening with blinkers added, took advantage of a hot three-ply battle, settled in midstretch, and zoomed by on the inside a sixteenth out, winning by a bigger margin than seemed possible when trailing at the three-eighths pole, in 1:17.15. Alan Garcia timed the move superbly; savvy way beyond his years.

Eighth Race: MTO Loving Vindication had the look of split silk in the post parade and ran to her looks. She cleared, rated toward the inside on the turn, and drew off under a strong hand ride in 1:03.62 for the 5-½ furlongs; follow… Rizzi’s Twist made a strong late rally to nail the place, a gutsy performance late.

The SANFORD: After three late scratches, including the two early line choices, a field of four took the track for the 94th running of the Grade 2 over a surface, still sealed, but now rated muddy. The favorite was Desert Party, a $2.1 million juvenile purchase, looked the part, with plenty of size and scope. He had a very rough trip in his Polytrack debut at Arlington Park at 4-½ furlongs, so it was hard to know for sure what to expect. Next time, expect another classy performance. Forced to steady from close quarters on the rail after trying to sneak through inside pacesetting Officer Ipod, he re-rallied in midstretch and drove clear with authority in 1:12.23 over the tiring surface. The pacesetter held the place gamely after being challenged on all sides three-sixteenths from the wire. Given the conditions, it’s hard to project how good these colts really are, but they’ll be time to figure that out later in the meet.

Tenth Race: Roddy Valente and Michael Aro have a habit of showing up in the winner’s circle here, and this time they did so as a team, taking the finale with King Mobay, driving hard beneath Johnny Velazquez to wear down pacesetting Touchdown Kid, who tired dramatically in the final furlong. Didn’t see anything to bet back, either.

Written by John Pricci

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