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

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Saratoga: Where the Absurd Is Sublimely Routine

Saratoga Springs, NY, July 23,2008--The day dawned…well…crummy. Heavy rains foiled backstretch plans to visit with early arrivals, and spirits were further dampened when I learned that Thomas J. Kelly and his wife Fran won’t be visiting the Spa City this year.

Hall of Fame ceremonies won’t be the same without seeing TJ and Fran in attendance. Hope the Florida sun has them on the mend, and soon.

One hundred six horses were entered overnight in 10 opening day races. After early scratches, 66 remained. So much for good intentions. On balance it was an interesting, challenging program, even if eight of the 10 races, including two grass events, were carded at six furlongs or shorter.

There was real potential for tertiary contenders to fall between the cracks at boxcar mutuels. And, of course, there was the requisite appearance of two hands full of well bred juveniles in the pair of races carded for maiden two-year-olds.

Today’s turf races were rescheduled to the main track. Not a tough call when as much as five inches of rain was projected, today alone. The real shame is the impact it could have on Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Challenge Day program.

In only its second year, the new and improved Whitney day extravaganza has evolved into Saratoga’s second most prestigious card, Travers notwithstanding, with three Grade 1s and a Grade 2. But, at least until 1 p.m., dear diary, we’ll remain optimistic.

Any chance the association would match last year was eliminated by the conditions. Over 30,000 welcomed the runners back to the Spa in ‘07, yesterday’s crowd falling about 8,000 off that mark.

Last year’s record handle was made possible when only six of 164 races were taken off the turf. The NYRA will pass that mark on the meet’s second day, as all of Thursday turf races have been rescheduled, following today’s five surface switches. And Friday’s turf is iffy, too, according to NYRA president Charlie Hayward.

Later it was announced that Thursday’s steeplechase has been canceled altogether, and will be rescheduled for next Wednesday, making that day’s card 10 races. Thursday’s second race, which will be the day’s opener, will go as the “second race” at its pre-scheduled post time of 1:35 p.m. Any questions?

Hayward said there were a number of opening day glitches, from closed replay centers due to a lack of television sets that did not arrive in a timely fashion from downstate, to some inoperable betting windows.

“Obviously we’re a little disappointed,” Hayward said, before adding he was happy to report that the Gary Contessa trainee who got loose on the main track, crossed Union Avenue, and proceeded to his barn at the Oklahoma training track, was fine. The human race may be a little overrated.

“To see people lined up in the rain at 11 o’clock in the morning waiting to get in was something I’d never experienced before,” said executive vice president Hal Handel. He had better get used to it. This is Saratoga, mister.

First Race: Announcer Tom Durkin warms up the crowd, the horses leave the starting gate and “they’re off at Saratoga.” Try that one in February at Aqueduct… The meet’s not even 1:25.06 seconds old and “the Graveyard” claims its first favorite: Coach Butts: dull, no excuses. Edgar Prado tried to steal it aboard Saint Barr; almost did. But Star Player’s rally made Eibar Coa and Chad Brown Saratoga’s leading jockey and trainer, respectively. Track was sloppy and sealed for the opener.

Second Race: First baby race of the meet goes to favorite Cognito, who speed pops, is joined by newcomer Gone Astray almost immediately, then by Forest Lord, and then by Brave Victory, four across the track. They remained that way virtually to the finish, with Cognito (1:05.11) impressing with gameness under fire (:22.64), and Brave Victory, surging late in a promising debut for Nick Zito. Robert LaPenta colt won’t be a maiden for long.

Third Race: Once Accredit was able to engineer splits of :23.01 and :46.57, it was over, consecutive winning favorites and one for the McLaughlin/Garcia team; clearly best. Golden Age finished very well for place, shading :24 seconds, the winner home in 1:10.41.

Excellent news advisory comes across the cyber-desk. In addition to rolling doubles, the State Racing and Wagering Board has approved superfecta wagering on all races with a sufficient number of entrants. Sanity prevails; another Saratoga upset.

Fourth Race: First two-turner of the day; track remains sloppy and sealed. The competition and running time might not have been spectacular--state-bred maidens originally carded for turf--but Theartofcompromise made a most impressive two-turn debut in the slop. Cranked up on the turn, he swept to command and drew off in a dominating 9 furlong performance, just loving the surface. Flying Zee Stable had a great week recently, including last Saturday’s Virginia Oaks, and started quickly here. They had a great Saratoga two years ago and might be loaded again; note. The outfit uses principally Carlos Martin and Phil Serpe in New York; Serpe off the duck on day one.

Fifth Race: The three top betting choices combined for the trifecta, Lookin at Her (Mike Hernandez/Cornelio Velasquez) rushing passed a tiring, fast-pace setting favorite Fiddlers Afleet before holding off the well meant first-timer Vinnie Van Go, who found stride and went into overdrive too late. Next time out for Vinnie, everything else being equal.

Sixth Race: Kent Desormeaux scored with Jazz Nation, giving Asmussen a training double and himself career victory 4,999. Kent D. had been sitting on 4,998 since it seems like forever. Good Card rallied nicely after being switched to the outside by Ramon Dominguez. Four-year-old Good and Tough colt is one hard tryin’ little dude.

Seventh Race: Once this race was rescheduled, Building New Era towered over the group on and went out and proved it. Start the Rick Dutrow parlay.

Eighth Race: Complete the Rick Dutrow parlay, or the cold rolling double, if you prefer, with Stormin Normandy. The Saratoga humidity didn’t prove too much for the IEAH four-year-old. He appeared to win easier than his stablemate. The Dutrow Double paid $6.60. Hope he wasn’t planning on Siro’s for dinner.

The SCHUYLERVILLE Before the opening-day Grade 3, it rained in torrents and, as predicted, Asmussen won it. Only not with favored maiden winner Ocean Colors but with 12-1 recent maiden winner Jardin, with Curlin’s jockey, Robby Albarado, a training triple for Asmussen. This filly really loved the conditions and obviously her outside position helped as the rail became extremely deeper from the heavy downpour. “Ocean Colors tied up a bit but it looks like she’ll be alright,” explained Asmussen. “I was worried about the outside post for Jardin. As the day went on it looked like that was where she was supposed to be.” Jardin looped the field but was put in a drive only in the final sixteenth, as Cameron Crazies rallied late for the place. Of course, that horse was named by her owner, Duke All American Bobby Hurley. She was bidding to give D Wayne Lukas his seventh Schuylerville victory. Inside posts, normally an advantage in this spot, hindered both fourth finisher Collegiate and the favorite; note. The time was an understandably slow 1:12.79.

Tenth Race: Gary Contessa jumped off the duck when Debating nailed Sonny Pajamas in the absolute final stride; Javier Castellano could not have timed it better. Red Hot Dawn was always in position but settled for third. Well backed Rumspringa was virtually eliminated at the start.

Written by John Pricci

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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

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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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