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 15, 2007

Scales of Justice Out of Balance

Saratoga Springs, NY--August 15, 2007

Dear Diary,

The State Racing and Wagering Board gave jockey Eibar Coa seven days for careless riding aboard Silver Timber in Mondays featured Troy Stakes.

By definition, this decision is fair. Coa tried to get through a very narrow opening, a hole that bordered on the nonexistent. Thats careless.

Silver Timber was highly unlikely to catch the winning T. D. Vance in the Troy. He entered the stretch behind a wall of horses and was constantly in traffic but had a punchers chance to finish second. Coa tried hard to get there for a long-time client, trainer Linda Rice.

But when attempting to split horses as he sought racing room, Coa caused serious crowding and forced the tiring Afrashad to be checked by Mike Luzzi. Thus the cause for the disqualification, as they say.

By the letter of the law I have no problem with any of this. But Im not crazy about the fact Coa is being punished for trying too hard.

In todays third race, front running Fleet Valid came out four horse-paths from the inside path beneath a left-handed whipping Cornelio Velasquez, forcing Alan Garcia to check Will He Shine, the late-running favorite attempting to match strides with the eventual winner, Council Member.

Garcia claimed foul to no avail.

To many observers, myself included, it appeared the incident cost Will He Shine second money.

At this meeting, the buzz has been about the stewards being disinclined to take horses down. On balance, we believe theyve been right more often than not on these judgment calls.

Until today.

The rules of racing regarding disqualifications based on race riding infractions were re-written recently to give stewards more latitude. If an infraction occurs now, stewards have the discretion to leave the number up if, in their judgment, they believe it had no effect on the outcome.

This is as it should be.

However, they appeared to blow one today. Can I say definitively the bearing out incident cost Will He Shine second money? No call involving horses racing in close quarters at forty miles an hour can be made with absolute certitude. But it is extremely likely it had.

Parenthetically, go to the replay center and check it out for yourself.

The argument here is that Velasquez was trying hard to win--switching to a left-handed whip to get the most from the tiring Fleet Valid--and his effort was validated. Coa tried hard and was punished.

Velasquez is the leading rider at the meet. On Aug. 5, he was suspended seven days for careless riding but lodged an appeal and the suspension was stayed. The curious thing here is that there was neither an inquiry nor a jockeys objection when Velasquez carelessly rode Sultry Sue to a third place finish in the seventh race for which he subsequently received an after-the-fact suspension.

Where was the transparency here? Where is Getnick and Getnick when you need them. Or are they not overly paid to help adjudicate fouls?

There has been some consistency with the number of what would be termed non-calls in the sports world. But the justice meted out to Velasquez and Coa, relative to the incidents involving Silver Timber and Fleet Valid, are inconsistent.

Unless, in Coas case, the stewards invoked the seldom used standard you see in basketball all the time, when it comes to having a reputation for hard-nosed play. Call it the Bill Laimbeer rule.

* * *

First Race: With three minutes to post, six of the eight horses were between 3-1 and 6-1, the other two at 11-1, in a non-winners of 2/optional claimer at 5- furlongs on turf. When betting stopped, Zaynab was the 2-1 favorite but finished a one-paced third. Astronomia, making its first start in a year for a barn that excels with long layups (Saeed bin Suroor/Rick Mettee), came from far back off the hot pace of Jillis Cape and Flankers, ran by the eventual second finisher, the stalking Willshefire, and drew off rapidly. She was taken in hand late by Johnny Velazquez in a first rate performance. The way the five-year-old New Zealand bred galloped past the wire, she looked like a cinch to win on the raise next out; follow her progress.

Second Race: All the money went to the John Kimmel-trained first timer Winning Punch, who had been working at Monmouth Park before shipping here for her state-bred and racing debut. She raced good, but greenly, and settled for third, her inexperience likely costing her the place. She wont be a maiden for long; bet back. Meanwhile, winning Honky Tonk Trick also down-ticked on the last flash and won convincingly from pacesetting Dana Dew, Trick first prompting, then drawing off in the last furlong. Another win for the white hot Tom Bush shed and another, number 21, for leading rider Cornelio Velasquez. Fourth finisher Fairy Godmother was going well at the finish, ridden out; note.

Third Race: Council Member displayed his late turn-of-foot to catch Fleet Valid beneath Ramon Dominguez, second win of the day for Godolphin/Suroor connections.

Fourth Race: Paint, working fast and aggressively for Nick Zito, impressed favorably with an open-lengths score in his debut, Cornelios second, over tote-disregarded Macho Again. Devereux chased a strong pace three wide throughout and was a willing third. Debuting favorite Inner Light chased the pace and tired, a very disappointing effort.

Fifth Race: Gary Contessa shakes a small slump with Keen Irish, a first-time starter going a mile on the turf. A little anti-profile, dont you think? Nevertheless, River Keen gelding was much the best as he swooped up into contention on the far turn and continued his run through the stretch beneath Eibar Coa, getting a catch-ride from Norberto Arroyo Jr. Tobruk, rank in the gate with Johnny Velazquez (oh no, not again!), was checked soon after the start after bumping with Ill Make It Up and never threatened. Dont look for JV to want to ride this one back.

Sixth Race: Theres no doubt that European turf horses are superior to ours as Palace Episode, a Group 1 winner as a two-year-old, took a non-winners of three with authority, Godolphin/Suroors third, over Kiaran McLaughlins imported Stream of Gold, listed stakes placed in Dubai. It was daylight back to the favorite, Yates Black Cat, a willing but outclassed third.

Seventh Race: Second dropdown score of the meet for Stall/Gomez team on turf, GG timing it perfectly with Cliff Meadows, a strong-finish six-path rally winner. Copy That and Caught Stealing put on a good battle for place after the latter had trouble at the start; note.

The Grade 2 Adirondack Stakes: Just no substitute for SoCal gas. More Happy made the start look bad, outfooting eight rivals to the lead in :21.88 and :44.93 but needing all of her advantage to get home in front of surprising second finisher, late running A to the Croft, in 1:17.51. She was getting tired at the end but was tearing it up early, said winning trainer Bob Baffert of the early pace. An apt description from Bullet Bob, now 2-for-2 at the meet. Going a mile this group wouldnt have seen my horse, said Ken McPeek of the runnerup; note. Phantom Income was declared a non-starter when she reared badly at the start, Coa fortunate not to be badly hurt in yet another gate incident at this meet.

Ninth Race: Willis Sweet Girl made a strong wide rally beneath Dominguez to become a repeat winner at the meet, Contessas second. Bridal Path made a strong late surge but never seriously threatened for the win.

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Spa Halfway Home and Looking Good

Saratoga Springs, NY--August 13, 2007

Dear Diary,

All I can say is this: If the Kentucky Derby is the fastest two minutes in sports then the Saratoga race meet is its fastest six weeks.

Cant believe were halfway home and only nine racing days from Travers 138.

As usual, its been interesting. To wit:

Longshots Top Jockey Colony

Going into the final day of the first half, Cornelio Velasquez and Kent Desormeaux were 1-2 in the riding colony.

If I were making book on that exacta and offered you odds of 100-1, youd be correct to call me dirty names. While this proposition is not really quantifiable to the math-challenged like me, I think to be fair I'd need start at 200-1.

Were not casting aspersions here. As presently constructed, Saratogas is the deepest jockey room in America. Think its easy keeping Edgar Prado, Johnny Velazquez and Garrett Gomez out of the quinella? I fully realize they are called out of town more often for stakes engagements and as such wouldnt be a fair comparison.

Some would say riding for outfits with 200 horses-in-training isnt fair either, but thems the breaks.

Bill Mott Having Hall of Fame Meet

If he werent in the pantheon already as the youngest trainer ever inducted, this meet might have helped Bill Mott clear that hurdle. And hes doing it with every manner of racehorse, including debuting juvenile maiden breakers, of all things.

You always knew he had the talent do it, but not with the late Allen Paulsons distance bred runners. Now, led by some precocious two-year-olds provided by Ahmed Zayat, among others, hes getting it done with youngsters, too. Even when hes not winning his horses are running extremely well.

Motts 13 winners to Pletchers nine as the first half nears completion makes it look as if the Todd Squad has fallen on tough times. But Pletcher is a victim of his own success. However, a track record Whitney, an impressive Sanford score and a tour de force Haskell down at the Shore does not qualify as having a bad run. Remarkably, he has not saddled a juvenile debut winner on dirt. When he is not winning, however, his horses aren't running like youd expect.

Feel Good Stories Abound

If you cant find heart warming human interest at this meet, check your pulse: Racetrackers and fans getting together in the Saratoga High School gym to help raise money for seriously injured jockey Andrew Lakeman.

And all the years of hard work finally paying off for Bobby Ribaudo, who went to Florida last winter for the first time in two decades because he had a couple of grass horses unsuited by Aqueducts winter track. One of those horses, Grand Couturier, won the Sword Dancer Invitational over the weekend giving Ribaudo with his first Grade 1 victory lifetime.

Finally, of course, who doesnt like Funny Cide? He got a warm and fuzzy sendoff here, the crowd showing no lack of affection for their local hero. And while Barclay Tagg is happy the circus-like atmosphere surrounding the gutsy gelding is over, he stepped up and gave Funny Cide a racetrack home. The man who knows him best figured he would be happy at the barn, a better alternative to swatting flies in a farm paddock.

Business Remains Brisk

The trend that began opening week, with virtually every days attendance and handle up over 2006, has continued. There were four rocky days since but the numbers remain strong, the meeting having been blest by simply sensational weather, not always the case here. Attendance is up 4.2 percent; on-track handle 7.2 percent and total all-sources at 6.5.

Given that the NYRA executives, as well as other franchise hopefuls, remain in limbo until this meeting ends, for the moment they can afford to keep smiling.

Sitting On A Record

While it was a rare early line favorite to win at this session, the portable folding lawn chair premium, a.k.a. the P.F.L.C., is King in the Land of Giveaway.

The P.F.L.C. is the all-time attendance leader at 72,745, followed by the wall clock, in a minor upset over the stadium blanket at 71,337, the blanket drawing 70,792. The Big Three were followed by the sports bag (70,603) and the pint glass (70,195). In what could only be categorized as a major upset, the trusted stalwart, the T-Shirt, failed to reach the 70,000 standard or break into the Top Five at 69,523.

Phone calls placed to marketing executives requesting clarification on whether the record was held by the classic or standard Tee were not returned at post time.
Horses, Horses, Horses

The best reason for coming to Saratoga is the racing. At any time, you can see a good one, even a great one, certainly a promising one and lots and lots of good looking ones. Even if youre not a seasoned racetracker, the post parades scream this is the good horse circuit.

There were the performances, too, the aforementioned Lawyer Rons next level performance in the Whitney; Readys Image powerful Adirondack, and two particularly fetching juvenile maiden breakers.

First came $4.6 million baby Maimonides, owned by an Egyptian, named for a brilliant 13th Century Rabbi/philosopher/poet and trained by a Southern Californian where everythings just cherry except the Del Mar Polytrack. The colt broke his maiden by double digits like breaking so many sticks.

While the winning margin wasnt imposing, the photo camera revealed that The Leopard is a serious racehorse, as any $2.5-million two-year-old purchase is supposed to be. He received an educational debut at Belmont Park, and last Saturday it appeared as though Todd and Johnny were interested in more schooling. The Leopard chased quality speed until crunch time, when JV tipped him off fence inside the furlong pole and hand-drove him to the finish, getting serious only as the wire approached and the danger of an upset loomed. Hes being trained, and ridden, as part of a process meant to lead him to the 2008 classics.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (2)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Spinner: A Racing Epic

Saratoga Springs, NY--August 12, 2007

Dear Diary,

There is a special kind of individual that comes to Saratoga Race Course on premium giveaway days. It is androgynous, neither female nor male, neither horseplayer nor tourist:

The Spinner.

Sometimes the Spinner travels in packs, disguised as a family, a social unit that uses children as beards to collect their free-gotten gains.

In the main, Spinners are an enterprising lot and, although harmless, are not to be trifled with.

Its not because they are anti-social. Quite the contrary. Unlike the Squatter--who lines up at the admission gates long before dawn, pays his admission once the gates open, then sprints as fast as he can for the choice picnic table, hurdling over fellow squatters so that he can get a table closest to the horses, or a shade tree, or a self-service betting terminal. But not the Spinner who knows that patience is his only key to survival.

The Spinner stands in line for hours, in orderly fashion, like today, five and six deep, the queue for those wanting more than one item stretching from the redemption tent at the quarter pole all the way to the finish line. So popular was todays item that the line wrapped around double.

The Spinner is nothing if not unwearied, uncomplaining, for the redemption line was the THIRD queue he needed to endure on portable folding lawn chair day. Thank God for the shoulder-strap pouch that would carry the P.F.L.C.

The Spinner waited on line number one to get into the building. That one stretched from the main gate at the intersection of Union and East Avenues, on the south side of Union, down to Yaddo--the retreat for artists where it is said Mario Puzo wrote The Godfather--about a quarter-mile from the main gate.

The second led the Spinner to a coupon booth, that ticket to be cashed at the redemption tent at the top of the stretch. That line began somewhere near the paddock, snaked around the racing secretarys office, and ended in an area beneath the trees that served no particular purpose beyond lending beauty to this storied land of the giveaway.

The Spinner that collected his prize early had the advantage this day, the highest of high holy days on the Spinner calendar: the portable folding lawn chair giveaway day. For those Spinners thinking outside the box, the P.F.L.C. would be the perfect beach companion.

The first Spinner to make use of the portable folding lawn chair was spotted at 11:02 a.m., camped out on the apron between the sixteenth pole and the wire. By 12:23 p.m., his ilk were two to three deep, lined up along the fence.

There was no way to know how the shock of Saratoga Red P.F.L.Cs would effect the horses in the post parade for the first race. By some act of Divine Providence, the lid-lifter was for older horses. Oh the humanity had they been two-year-olds stressed out by a sea of red before even reaching that tight first turn of the inner turf course.

The Deity must now add Spinner to His responsibilities of caring for the fools and drunks among us.

Thankfully the first race went without incident from the gate, doubtlessly aided by the fact that Johnny Velazquez didnt have a mount. The gelding Wood Winner did suffer from heat stroke after the race but was revived, stable handlers and members of the house veterinary staff doing excellent work.

It was sometime prior to the fifth race that the redemption line crowd had almost completely dispersed when what can only be described as the Ultimate Spinner was spotted, parked precariously alongside a herd of Squatters lining the fence that leads from the Oklahoma barn area to the paddock.

The U.S. sat there contentedly on his P.F.L.C., planted on the north corner of a red Saratoga stadium blanket, resplendent in a classic Saratoga Tee, circa 2003, and a 2007 red baseball cap, of that I am sure.

As if on cue, he clandestinely lifted a cold one out of his zippered portable Saratoga ice cooler (since banned by security), stealthily concealed inside a tattered Saratoga sports bag and sipped the surreptitious brew from a Jerry Bailey beer stein--the one that makes an excellent pencil holder--protected from the suns harmful rays by a red and white striped Saratoga umbrella.

By the end of the program almost all the Spinners were gone, the most ambitious of them lugging laptops with wireless cards for logging on to the e-Bay home page. Most, of course, will use their trophies to improve the quality of their own lives and dispense the rest as Christmas cheer, but only to special friends and family.

(In case you were unable to get the track today, you can find various package deals on e-Bay: the best at this writing was $29.55, but that included shipping.

Finally, the U.S. left the track, his head bobbling and his body wobbling beneath the weight of premium giveaway days past and present, marking the days until next Sunday when this ritual unique to Saratoga Race Course begins anew.

The Spinner needed a new umbrella, anyway.

There is a way in which the racing association can show their appreciation to the unique contributions made by the Spinner to the fabric of this storied place. On the second day of the 2008 race meet, give the Spinner the ultimate tribute, its very own likeness in all its bobblehead glory.

The Spinner deserves it, showing up in all its glory, a record 72,745 strong.

* * *

First Race: Steve Klesaris dropped Angelic Aura to a winnable level and the older gelding promptly won by open daylight, geared down by Ramon Dominguez in the final sixteenth. Fastest on performance figures, he proved it.

Second Race: Tom Albertrani got off the duck with the eminently playable Boxitup, bet down to even money by the non P.L.F.C. crowd, who mid-moved to blow the race open but was kept busy by Alan Garcia as Crusaders Code made a strong late run. Speedster Provided For was rated into submission after getting in an early duel with first-time turfer Pretty Gal. Next time, let him roll, jock! Follow.

Third Race: Not nice, at least by appearances. Odds on Bill Place, saddled by Anthony Dutrow picked a poor time to race dully--off the board--as his brother Ricks Digger opened ground into the stretch and drew off, winning by a short pole at 10-1. Now, the price was inflated. His performance figures loomed him a potential second choice in the field of six. But if you dont believe in coincidence

Fourth Race: Enforcement of the harness rule: If youre odds-on; you must leave. Which is what Cornelio Velasquez did aboard 2-5 Posted, intimidating the field into not chasing him through a soft opening quarter-mile of :23 2/5. Four-year-old Gone West gelding opened out the lead, widening through the stretch under no pressure from Cornelio while racing on an incorrect left lead. Apparently he has more to learn about this game. As for speed, he seems to have that in reserve. Another win for the white hot Tom Bush outfit. She caused a minus pool, having attracted $241,000 of $288,000 worth of show money.

Fifth Race: A gate load of maiden juvenile fillies going six furlongs and our horse to watch out of here is the winner, Wish Me Success. She was a filly with plenty of nurture, a 20 percent debut sire from a dam whose only foal was a winner, but from a barn not known for first-out success. She broke behind the field, was far back entering the stretch, then rallied strongly in the 6 or 7 path to get the money beneath Garrett Gomez. Yes, the race collapsed in front of her but she shouldnt be penalized under the circumstances; note. Banner Day finished willingly for place and should improve. Well backed Raw Silk had a educational journey; bet back. Namastes Wish was virtually eased through the stretch. Dont know what to do with her next time. But if she shows up on turf Ill probably bet her back.

Sixth Race: Post time favorite Nordberg was scratched with a minute to post, moving the $101,000 carryover crowd to the new post time favorite, Tomorrows Nano. Theyre Off! You lose! Result was formful enough as Linda Rice stable entry finishes 1-2.

Seventh Race: The Yankees are rolling and so is their principal owner. Second win of the meet for George Steinbrenners Kinsman Stable and 12th for his leading trainer, Bill Mott, as Crystal Minuet just got there under Velazquez, nailing Quiet Alice, who raced strongly throughout only to just miss under Edgar Prado. Rusty Arnolds horses continue to run well

Eighth Race: Didnt take long for Mott to get his 13th as new stable rider Kent Desormeaux made an arrogant four-wide sweep on the turn, challenging anyone to run him down through the lane. No one could, but another Arnold horse, Altered State, got a piece of the purse, and the exacta, at big odds once again.

The West Point Handicap: When Retribution ran off with Chantal Sutherland through early fractions of :22.23 and :45.27, the race set up for a late runner. That turned out to be Classic Park for Mike Hernandez and gave Cornelio Velasquez a riding triple and the lead in the jockey colony over Kent Desormeaux at the meet, 19-18.

Tenth Race: Sound the alarm. Rick Violette won a photo, with New York Dixie, the only horse covered in a Pick Six carryover pool of $101K-plus. With two favorites in the sequence, the winning ticket paid $142,005. Have a nice weekend.

Written by John Pricci

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