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 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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Friday, August 08, 2008

Branding? We Don’t Need No Stinking Branding

Saratoga Springs, NY, August 7, 2008--You’ve got to love what happens when television and marketing folks get together. For instance, remember the NTRA‘s “Go Baby, Go” campaign? Are you sure? It’s close to two decades old now.

How about racing spokesperson Lori Petty, the B-movie actress of whom it was hoped would attract a younger, hipper audience? Me either.

What racing didn’t realize at the time is that it was light years ahead of itself. It was a full computer generation later before thinking came back into vogue. But don’t hold that against the industry. Who knew that the Dumb Down America campaign would be so successful, so quickly?

Racing’s television marketers are at it again, not on a national scale this time, but locally. And you’ve got to tip your hat. They're really outside-the-box thinkers, very clever, especially when it comes to inventing buzz words and phrases.

The hippest marketing suits are currently using “metrics” a lot. That’s a good one. It sounds really, really important,. Of metrics, the dictionary says it’s “the art or study of using meters in poetry,” but there's nothing about contemporary usage, however.

Metrics was explained to me as a way of measuring hits on a web-site, or something like that. No one I asked seemed to really know for sure, which makes it an extremely important word, perfect for impressing half-smart people such as myself.

I think when people throw the term “metrics” around, they figure you know what it means, or would be too embarrassed to ask. I play a handicapper on TV. I don’t embarrass easily.

If I’m not mistaken, metrics followed “synergy” by a few years, which came after “branding.” Branding’s big. In fact, branding's everything. I actually heard a political pundit refer to the “Obama brand” and the “McCain brand.”

Is it even possible to be any more pretentious?

Back when racing was in its infancy on cable television, a man named Harvey Pack hosted a daily replay show for the New York Racing Association. Whether you liked it or not, you knew the show was setting the bar for all replay shows to follow. Fortunately, most people liked it.

It was called “Thoroughbred Action with Harvey Pack.” Generically, most fans called it either the Harvey Pack show or Thoroughbred Action.

The NYRA, along with Long Island Cablevision, spent decades building the “brand” and turned the 45-minute program into the most popular replay show on cable or over-the-air television, a cult classic.

“Thoroughbred Action” paved the way for a dark Tuesdays magazine show called “Inside Racing.” It showed the important stakes races from the previous weekend, took on issues, put a face on horsemen beyond the names printed in a track program and, to my knowledge, was the first program to feature a weekly analysis of the prep races leading to the Kentucky Derby.

Pack, and the journalists he claims to have turned into “stars,” are long gone from that scene and, beginning with the Belmont Park fall meet, so will “Thoroughbred Action” and “Inside Racing.” “Thoroughbred Action” will now be “Belmont in 30” or Aqueduct in 30,” as in, your favorite track's races in 30 minutes.

What, “Pardon the Interruption” was taken? Then how about “Can You Tell Me Who Won the Feature or Should I Just Go Screw Myself Now?" show.

I'm sort of happy that they’re losing “Inside Racing” since, you know, we feature the word insider prominently here--though I’m not sure how our metrics are doing. The NYRA magazine show will now be called “Thoroughbred Week.”

I’m just going to assume here that the second word in the title is spelled using two e’s, not with an e and an a.

I’ve got to give the marketers credit for one really clever thing. “Belmont [Substitute Your Favorite Track Here in 30]” show is very now. You know what you’re getting, and how long it will take to get it.

The one unintended consequence is that the number 30, when used at the bottom of newspaper copy, means the story is finished.

At a racing symposium this Tuesday, racing experts testified that the sport's heyday is long over, never to return, a bygone era. The number 30 could have appeared directly under that story, too, like it appears next to Belmont, or Aqueduct, or newspapers, for that matter. Now that's synergy in action.

* * *

Saturday’s Yaddo Stakes for state-breds has been canceled due to lack of interest. When only five horses were entered, the racing office put the race back up for Sunday and substituted with another overnight handicap, making it four overnighters on the day. The Yaddo, once extremely popular, had been split in five of 18 previous years.

* * *

The A.P. Smithwick Memorial, Grade 2: Who knew that trainer Doug Fout had this race over a barrel, er, hurdle? High Action, an eight-year-old Theatrical horse from a Secretariat Mare, attacked the final fence , leaping over, catching frontrunning favorite Salford City before drawing off rapidly beneath Paddy Young. Dark Equation came on late from third to secure the all-Fout exacta. For Salford City, if this was intended as a bridge to the G1 New York Turf Writers’ Cup, it was a perfect prep; follow.

Second Race: The secretary must have been desperate to fill this starter handicap that drew a field of six, for “three-year-olds and up which have started for a claiming price of $25,000 or less in 2006-8.” NYRA got two horses per year, the event going to Digger, claimed last time out from the IEAH folks for $30,000 by Roberto Urrutia and trainer Enrique Arroyo, who reaped immediate dividends. It was the second meet win for Arroyo and the repatriated Richard Migliore.

Third Race: Wonderwho’sbest, going turf to dirt and turning back for trainer Bruce Levine and Eibar Coa, burst clear in midstretch and held the group safe, never seriously threatened. Not the greatest cast of fillies ever assembled but they put on a terrific show, four of the seven entrant lined up four across the track into the lane.

Fourth Race: Todd and Johnny just continue to keep doing things right, especially with the babies. In this case, debuting High Cry had too much speed, too much turf pedigree and too much conditioning for the group despite lack of experience. And she needed all that to withstand the late run of Dancing Daisy, who prepped for this in a dirt sprint six weeks ago then brought up here for her grass debut by turf ace David Donk.

Fifth Race: Skies opened and biblical rains rendered the track sloppy in an instant, resulting in the cancellation of remaining grass races which were shifted to the extremely wet oval. Trainer David Carroll told a television audience that he had a Forest Wildcat filly that could run but apparently no one believed him: wire to wire, $39 to win… In Fine Fettle was moving well when checked sharply approaching the turn, made a second move on turn then tired; the inside was a bog--follow… Firster Spell Check broke slowly, steadied immediately thereafter, angled 7 wide entering stretch while on the move, and continued gamely to the finish; bet back… Newcomer Justwhistledixie finished gamely for third after steadying in close quarters early; will improve second out for McLaughlin.

Sixth Race: Dockmaster and Stormy Success, both having their most recent starts on the Saratoga main track, benefited from the surface switch to dirt and the late run tactics of jockey Robby Albarado and late substitute Channing Hill, respectively. Exacta rule of thumb was $90-plus; came back a little light at $78.50.

Seventh Race: Second straight off-turfer saw Dose of Reality go to the front, set a pressured pace, then tire late, second to Seasons Wise, who pressed on turn, challenged entering, before drawing off deep stretch.

Eighth Race: Wish I kept this stat. Have you ever noticed how Pat Kelly’s horses always seem to move up on wet tracks? Will Never Bend, 1-for-12 lifetime as a six-year-old, reveled in the wet under Jose Espinoza. Well supported Minot Light disappointed without excuse.

The New York Stallion, Statue of Liberty Division: This two turner for three-year-old fillies also a rainy day casualty might have produced a budding state-bred good one in Raffie’s Treasure, who broke awkwardly, rushed to command, and drew off impressively by 9-¾ lengths. Time of 1:53.48 was solid enough over demanding sealed-sloppy track… Study Abroad, bet to 8-5 favoritism, loomed at headstretch but was second best in a solid performance. Heavy pre-race favorite I Lost My Choo was scratched when grass race was rescheduled.

Tenth Race: Main-track-only Mor Chances took advantage of the conditions and the hot pace to collar the group in mid-stretch and power home under intermittent pressure, returning a somewhat generous $8.10... Victorious Affair finished well up the inside late for Pat Kelly, third, after he scratched MTO entry Good Card, adding a little spice to trifecta and super.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Buzz Coming Back to Saratoga

Saratoga Springs, NY, August 6, 2008--As the saucer said to the cup, things are lookin’ up. People are actually beginning to fill the building again, Saratoga still the August place to be. Beginning last Friday, attendance began to take an upswing and this tiny trend seems to be holding.

In addition to the monsoons that flattened both enthusiasm as well as wallets during the first week of the meet, the meeting began at the earliest date possible on the schedule, the six weeks working backward from Labor Day, which this year is September 1.

Then, on Tuesday, NYRA management had reason to smile after Jess Jackson announced that the defending Horse of the Year would be a Woodward participant which, of course, is bad news for the rest of the horses.

The welcome news comes about a week after it was learned the Travers would get Harlem Rocker. Now Harlem Rocker’s no Big Brown but is a real nice colt, undefeated on dirt. The Travers will be a good horse race.

Todd Pletcher, after taking what amounted to a Spa sabbatical last year, is back in 2006 form, i.e., winning races, and he’ll saddle the Withers, Prince of Wales winner.

OK, so the rest of the three-year-olds are taking turns beating each other up, and Music Note will not try the boys, the Alabama written in ink on her dance card.

But it appears the buzz is beginning to come back, and that’s a good thing. Even the Magic Kingdom of Saratoga, when buzzless, can be just another racetrack.

* * *

First Race: Main track good, turf firm to begin Week 3. Clay Country set realistic pressured pace throughout the two-turner coming off a single lifetime score at 7 furlongs and it took a final furlong of :12.47 from a ridiculously overbet Sacrifice Bunt (7-5) to take the opener; good effort from both the $25,000 claimers.

Second Race: The first of six straight maiden races at the Spa. Guess if this place doesn’t reflect history, it makes some. Never saw this in my life at a New York track, much less Saratoga… Exchanging Kisses bore out dramatically into the stretch, then lugged in perceptibly, but still maintained daylight between himself and game, rail-rally runnerup Tanganyika… Tepid choice Westward Go probably lost too much ground and deserves another look.

Third Race: Snatching defeat from victory’s jaws, overbet (3-5) favorite looked unbeatable leaving the sixteenth pole before lugging in dramatically in the final hundred yards, allowing a relentless Vicarious to roll by. Even in maiden claimers, Jerkens still slays those giants.

Fourth Race: After five runnerup finishes in seven starts, Good Request is a maiden no more. Actually, his performance figures were superior and Ramon Dominguez timed his late run superbly in the 11-furlong marathon, nailing game runnerup Expansion inside the final furlong… Show horse Royal Lord finished strongly too late; bet back under similar conditions.

Fifth Race: Nature and nurture often will get it in Spa maiden races, this one a rare dash with $100,000 claiming tags. First-timer Yes I’m Clever came up the fence to win it for Stanley Hough, a first-timer ace. But the ped was there, too, the winner by 16 percent debut sire Yes It’s True, from the mare Call Her who produced six winners from seven starters, including two stakes winners… Buzzin And Dreamin cranked up wide on turn, long striding colt then lugged in stretch, bore out stretch, found his stride and finished with energy; follow… Frosty Diamond angled out on the move 7-wide into stretch and finished well while racing greenly; follow.

Sixth Race: The tote board was right again. Driven By Success, 3-5 on first flash and favored in 5-6 double, speed popped and never was threatened, winning as clearly best… Afrikaner finished well late after showing much improved early speed; won’t be a maiden for long, bet back.

Seventh Race: Potentially loaded baby race goes in 1:10.78; lots of runners indeed. Leading Trainer Steve Asmussen keeps the drum beating with cleverly bet newcomer Kensei. Stalking the pace of rapidly working firster and race favorite, Zensational, he took the lead soon after entering the stretch and was never in danger, winning by clear margin… Storm Cat firster from Pletcher (7-2) cranked up four wide on turn, momentum carrying him 6-wide into lane and he finished determinedly in professional stretch run; follow. Royal Vindication eventually worked his way inside from the outside post in the field of 10, and finished well inside of the runnerup, third. He will benefit as well… Zito newcomer They’re Late was going well at the finish, ridden out; note.

Eighth Race: Flawless execution by Eibar Coa, saving ground in stretch from outside slip before tipping out with Nehantic Cat inside eighth pole to win going away… I can’t begin to describe the trip Kent Desormeaux gave Party Girl. Must have thought he was sitting on Big Brown, steadying virtually all the way among and between horses, completely blocked in the stretch until he finally eased off the throttle; bet back!

The Cab Calloway: Although the favorite Cannonball did not show up with his ’A’ race, the difference in the horse race still might have been that Eibar Coa was aggressive and Johnny V. wasn’t. Midway down the backstretch, Coa tipped off the rail with eventual winner Doc N Roll to split horses and take a pressured lead, an usual tack to be sure. But instead of tiring from the premature move, he drew off as the favorite was finishing resolutely but without punch, four across the track. It was a natural double for the Tagg/Coa team and a return visit to the stakes circle by the Sackatoga folks of Funny Cide fame, of course. Cannonball might have been suffering from a bit of jet lag, having shipped from Long Island to Del Mar and back to Saratoga.

Tenth Race: A little rough-housing in the finale, stewards doing the right thing by letting order of finish stand. From the pan shot first time around, it appeared Prado on eventual winner Please Impress waited to hem in favorite Iron Curtain on the fence. The latter was raging but remained trapped right to the finish. The head-on view indicated it was frontrunning Thunder Buddy beneath Coa who came out under right handed punishment to keep the hole closed. The winner looked silky in the parade and warm up and ran to those looks.

Written by John Pricci

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