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

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

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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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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Farm Life Not Funny For Saratoga’s Derby Hero

Saratoga Springs, NY--August 11, 2007

Dear Diary,

Dont understand why but theres been some unpleasant fallout on message boards over the retirement of Funny Cide--because he will spend his immediate future as a stable pony for Barclay Tagg that fate somehow is unworthy of his status as a winner of two American classics.

While its comforting that thoroughbred racing can attract fans not solely because of its wagering aspects, sometimes the passion of fans can border on the, well, fanatical.

Consider Evening Attire, for instance. Like Funny Cide, he won the Jockey Club Gold Cup and is an equine millionaire twice over, a horse that challenged Funny Cide on five different occasions. At age nine hes still racing. Some think he should be pensioned, too, but the horse disagreed:

Been there. Done that. Hated it.

While the life of an equine pensioner seems glorious, the sun warming his shoulders, the wind at his back and with a spacious paddock to romp around in, most of the time is spent swatting flies with his tail.

Evening Attire finished third in Fridays fifth race mostly because his late run was compromised by a slow early pace. But for him it was better than lounging on the farm. He was bored and unhappy, his attitude changing for this worse. The Kelly family did the sensible thing and brought him back to the racetrack.

He happens to love Saratoga. Kellys barn is close enough to the main track that Evening Attire can hear the races as theyre run. When he does he gets really excited. Hes worse than the two-year-olds during the races, said trainer Pat Kelly. Hes just not ready for the farm yet.

Apparently its the same case with Funny Cide.

But it was interesting that Tagg was either absent or keeping an extremely low profile during Fridays retirement ceremonies. Hes not a circus animal, Tagg once said of Funny Cide. Ill be glad when all this is over.

At times, the pomp and circumstance surrounding Funny Cide has been way over the top. One can hardly blame Tagg for sometimes having an attitude about it all. But youd also think he could have danced through one more hoop for the people who paid to get in.

Tagg has been a horsemans horseman for some time. Everybody on the racetrack has acknowledged his talent for years. But to the betting public he was known as that Maryland trainer whos real good with turf horses.

Until Funny Cide came along and changed all that, and Taggs life for the better.

First Race: Didnt see this coming until it was too late, but from the clouds came River Mountain Rd to take the inscrutable first race for $20,000 claimers. Mighty Gulch raced well for the place, winning a photo from Wild Vicar, the only horse with a modicum of form going in to show up in here.

Second Race: Baby race loaded with first-timer pedigrees from top outfits. So, of course, horses with experience finished 1-2. As they were supposed to as the top two choices. The Leopard and Immortal Eyes had finished 2-3 in their rapidly run debuts. This time they eliminated the middle man. Immortal Eyes was a bullet away from the barrier, rated well by Eibar Coa while racing two paths out from the rail. Into the stretch, Johnny Velazquez tried to sneak of the fence, but Coa tightened it up, as he should have. At that point, JV tipped off the fence and confidently urged the odds-on Todd Pletcher trainee, $2.5 million two-year-old purchase, past the leader. Steve Asmussen firster Verify chased the leader but tired without apparent excuse. Newcomer Legacy Thief also chased while widest on the turn, but continued very willingly and was a good third; follow progress. But The Leopard? The way theyre preparing him, an educational debut followed by a strong late finish score, the outfit thinks they have a good one here. A real good one.

The Saratoga Sunrise: For the fifth time at the meet, Johnny Velazquez landed on the ground soon after the start of a race. It happened when Tommasi bobbled soon after the start. Showing his preference for a two-turn nine furlongs, Naughty New York also showed his class to win this overnight stakes easily, drawing away from pacesetting Building New Era late.

Fourth Race: Spurred kicked in strongly in deep stretch to take this mile inner turfer, lassoing in both second favorite Yankee Thunder and show finisher Of All Times in an otherwise uneventful show.

Fifth Race: Midnight Slammer, a juvenile state-bred colt by Officer, absolutely toyed with 10 rivals and will be looking for something a lot tougher next time. And he might be up to the task; note. Debuting Alexandros made fine rally into the lane but hung badly and could not wrest the place from either Wishful Tomcat and Alabamas Jumpin, who finished heads apart. He might benefit from addition of blinkers but might not, too. Tough call.

Sixth Race: Kent Desormeaux saved ground through the lane and that proved to be the difference. Ground Hero, a well meant returnee from the George Weaver shed, swooped into contention into the lane but could not sustain his rally. Military Major finished gamely too late but did wrest the show in the final strides.

Seventh Race: Even money favorite Equitable was rank at the gate, delaying the start, did not have the easiest of trips thereafter, angling six wide into the claim and closed determinedly, though a bit one-paced; deserves another chance, bet back. Meanwhile, Senor Enrico rallied between horses to win it in the final strides from Grand Strike, who received a ground saving gem from Rafael Bejarano and just missed.

Eighth Race: Greater Fool did everything right but win. He made the start look bad, outbreaking the field by four lengths from his extreme outside slip. He withstood pace pressure, opened a clear lead into the stretch but was nailed on the line by the late surging My Golden Opinion, who clearly benefited with the addition of blinkers. This is another in a tough series of beats for the Rick Violette shed. If you liked his colt today; bet him to make amends next out.

The Grade 1 Sword Dancer Invitational: Ran into an old friend, Bobby Ribaudo, at Gulfstream Park this winter. First time Ive been here in over 20 years. How come, I wanted to know. Ive got two turf horses I came down with. Its a long way from Gulfstream to Saratoga, and a lot of time in between, but Ribaudos patience paid off as Grand Couturier gave him the first Grade 1 win of his career. He had some issues acclimating and getting use to the American way of training, my training. It looks like hes learned. Odds on favorite English Channel came from off a fast early pace to challenge for the lead at the top of the stretch. But Calvin Borel got through a large hole on the fence and the four-year-old Grand Lodge colt burst through and won convincingly and in full stride. Good job all around.

Tenth Race: Formful finale as Sense of Speed sat off a speed duel, assumed command soon after entering the stretch, and won as clearly the best horse. Manhattan Mack was eliminated when Desormeaux fell leaving the gate. Horse and rider appeared unhurt.

Written by John Pricci

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