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

Friday, August 14, 2015

Time Marches in Different Directions

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 1, 2015—Call it whatever you wish because it cannot be gauged accurately but perhaps American Pharoah’s Triple Crown exploits were in the subconscious of buyers at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion Monday and Tuesday nights.

The accent is always on quality here and 145 yearlings walked in and out of the ring with price tags averaging more than $322,000 per head for a worth of nearly $67 million, the average a 10 percent bump year over year.

If business were any better they would have had to rename the place the Donald J. Trump Pavilion. Hey, there’s nothing this man can’t do.

There were three million-dollar babies among sold and Sheikh Mohammed bought the sales topper, a Street Cry colt for $1.4 million. Completing the top three were a Malibu Moon filly for $800,000 and a Tapit filly for $750,000.

Indeed Tapit had the three sales toppers on Monday, the first of two sessions, and only 15% failed to reach their pricey reserves. Was there a 2017 Derby or Oaks winner among them? All will be revealed between the fences in the spring after next.

The Midsummer Question: Let’s face it. If Bob Baffert had his druthers he wouldn’t be within 3,000 miles of Saratoga come August 29.

Of course, there are many dynamics at play here. There was the arduous road to and through the Triple Crown and then the Haskell. And while he won the latter geared down, fast races take a toll no matter how the job was accomplished; an effort is an effort.

Thankfully the Zayats want to see their colt run again, as do a handful of racetracks and millions of racing fans. But for Baffert, until he delivers the colt safe and sound to breeders at season’s end, it’s all pretty much downside. Who knew pressure would mount after the fact?

There is the matter of the plate in American Pharoah’s left foot, which he’s been racing with all season, and the management of an under-publicized high-suspensory issue that is disquieting for all those tethered to America’s 12th Triple Crown champion.

Churchill Takes Step in the Right Direction: Owing to criticism from horsemen and certain segments of the media alike, including HRI staffers, CDI has doubled the point values of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile across the board.

The Juvenile winner will now earn 20 points which would place him at least on the cusp of the final field, in all likelihood demanding merely an in-the-money finish in a points-qualifying event for the Kentucky Derby.

This tack should draw one or two players off the sidelines on this side of the Atlantic and another European qualifier that merely finishes fourth in the UAE Derby, worth 10 points. A total of 30 all but assures entrance after the usual prep season attrition.

Ed Martin: Friend of Horsemen; Enemy of Sport’s Future

“While the Jockey Club is to be commended for its commitment to the sport and its efforts at promotion and marketing, its departure on some significant issues from a cooperative effort with industry regulators as to how to address equine welfare and integrity challenges is most unfortunate,” stated the American Racing Commission International president Martin in a release.

“…Equine welfare and integrity challenges should be addressed holistically, working with the entire community of regulators. The Jockey Club possesses no regulatory authority other than as a breed registry.

“The collection of data in Jockey Club computers that is not seamlessly integrated with regulatory data system, potentially undermines the benefits to be achieved from these efforts.”

In other words, let we regulators continue to work with this patchwork quilt of states and woefully inadequate, underfunded testing laboratories so that we can buy another two decades of kicking this can down the road.

Contextually, it’s useful to recall his defense of clenbuterol before a congressional sub-committee investigating racing spurned in part by the catastrophic breakdown of the filly Eight Belles in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.

Recall, too, how he insinuated himself into the Rick Dutrow case in 2011 by orchestrating a suspension of Dutrow’s license in Kentucky which was used in his meddling into a case before New York’s State Racing & Wagering Board with the aid of then SRWB chairman John Sabini.

Martin worked extremely closely with Sabini who simultaneously serving on the Board of Directors, Executive Committee, and as chairperson of the board-elect of ARCI, making Sabini effectively judge, jury and executioner in the case.

“…I formally request the Board to commence a proceeding and issue a notice to show cause as to why [Dutrow’s license] should not be revoked given what appears to be a lifetime pattern of disregard for the rules of racing, wrote Martin to the SRWB.

“…In considering Mr. Dutrow’s suitability to continue his participation in racing, the Board is urged to take into account his adherence to rules in all jurisdictions he participated in…” On that same day, the RCI issued a press release to that effect.

The following day, Lisa Underwood, Executive Director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, sent an email to RCI Chairman Willie Koester, copying Sabini and questioning whether actions taken by Martin “were authorized by any directors of the executive board?”

“I think it was totally inappropriate for Ed [Martin] to send the letter and issue a release,” Underwood continued in an email. “I would be furious if he ever interfered with a Kentucky matter.” As it turned out, it was only the beginning of Martin’s involvement in the Dutrow matter.

All Hail Status Quo: In a separate but related matter, the Thoroughbred Racing Associations Board of Directors at their annual pre-Jockey Club Round Table meeting in Saratoga reiterated their firm commitment to the implementation of uniform medication policies with a sense of urgency throughout the United States.

Indeed, the TRA has assisted and has supported the adoption of the RCI uniform rules on the controlled therapeutic-substance schedule, accreditation of testing laboratories, third-party administration of Lasix, and uniform penalties for multiple medication violations.

The TRA Board supports an initiative to find an alternative to Lasix for treating exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. It states further that by the end of 2016, the TRA expects at least 35 of its 38 member tracks in the US will be operating under the RCI’s Uniform Medication Policy.

Will it ever end?

Racing’s policy wonks have been talked about these fixes for years, albeit more extensively since Congress began looming, and progress has been made. However, this flies in the face of objective oversight and the goal of eliminating race-day medication.

It’s ironic that all the alphabet groups combined are likely favorites to win the day, based on industry PPs. Never mind that rhetoric and tweaked policies won't get the job done in any substantive way that represents meaningful reform.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, August 09, 2015

An Inauspicious Beginning at the Spa

SCHROON LAKE, NY, August 9, 2015—Diary: The punishment for heresy is swift and immediate.

Arose at 6 a.m. Whitney morn, showered quickly, stopped at Anthony’s Deli in Lake Mahopac for bacon, egg and cheese on hard roll—sorry, the rest of the world outside New York City does not appreciate that hard rolls, bedecked with poppy seeds, are supposed to crunch on contact.

At 7:15 a.m., I jumped on the iconic Taconic and made the 2-1/2 hour drive north to the Spa City. After draining all the coffee, the mind started to awaken. Why am I doing this? As a media professional, I've spent the entire meet for 39 straight years.

Been there; rocked that.

But the Whitney card was so promising, important on so many levels, that I was jazzed to get to my seat in the press box, visit with friends and colleagues old and new—one of the best parts of my job.

All this effort. Is it worth it at this stage? Maybe next year’s sojourn will take me to Del Mar; never been there, never done that, owing to the Saratoga conflict. Besides, I’m still searching for great fish tacos and heard I can find it where the turf meets surf.

A strange thing happened as I exited #23 on the Thruway: If you’re headed to Saratoga from the south, take exit #24 Albany. At once, it’s around-about yet more direct, and you avoid the construction pockets on SR 787 that way.

Upon exiting 787 I saw the first sign that directed drivers to Saratoga Springs and the strangest thing happened: the only way I can describe it is that seeing the words Saratoga and Springs linked together, my heart skipped a beat.

To absolutely no one I shouted WTF?! Clearly, this was unexpected. Upon seeing the second Saratoga Springs road sign at the Northway entrance, my thoughts turned to ‘I don’t know, I guess this really is some magical place’.

Even though I entered the building at around 9:30, I knew that for horseplayers, this WAS Mecca. Horses have the right of way at all times and there are seemingly small children everywhere.

Red Smith and all the ghosts from Saratoga press boxes past knew this is a special place and wrote about it often. Of course, they were right.

My first bet, harmless enough, was a small wager on a two-turn turf race for maiden 2-year-olds, most of which were first time starters: In racetrack parlance, this chapter from the handicapper’s playbook is titled “The Educated Guess.”

However, if Saratoga is anything it’s about pedigree and connections as much as it’s about exposed form: Trust your instincts. For me, this case called for a blend turf and distance pedigree from known “grass barns.”

I don’t know Adam Rice or his moves yet, but I know the family tree well; they’re all bred for turf. In fact, turf races, albeit sprints, helped Aunt Linda to the first training title by a female in Saratoga racing history.

Second-time starter Monster Bea made debut at Presque Isle over one of the few synthetic surfaces I ever liked—actually there was only one other, Hollywood’s Cushion Track, an experiment so successful that the track doesn’t exist anymore.

Sorry, diary, but sometimes irony is such cruel fun.

So a small 4-horse exacta box dismissing favorites and a small win bet on Monster Bea was a modest $15 investment while awaiting the graded stakes portion of the program to learn whether or not I was walking around lucky.

Monster Bea won paying $25.80. Repeat after me, ‘I should have bet more’. But not only that, it was my first taste of the punishment I would endure this Whitney day.

A 5-1 shot completed an exacta worth $166, splitting me in the final strides. My third finisher was 20-1 on the tote.

Don’t ask.

I was exacta-split three more times this day but it was OK; Liam’s Map would get me well. Repeat after me, ‘damn tough beat’!

But the saddest part was losing, actually leaving, a voucher worth $50 or $55 at the self-service betting window in the press box.

If you’re good, you will lose money two of every three times you wager--you know that going in. But this was like going up to the press box roof and throw a ‘fiddy’ into the crowd below.

I called the mutuels department and received polite, prompt, and excellent service. A supervisor was in the press box in 10-15 minutes and took my information. There was a follow-up phone call asking whether a supervisor had arrived.

I had the last ticket purchased before the voucher was dispensed and supervisor Jim told me the voucher was traced and found the bets had been made on it already but that a stop had been placed so that no more bets could be made on it.

I was hoping that my ticket brought some press box occupant luck and perhaps a voucher would stealthily reappear at my work station, no questions asked. Jim took my cell info but thus far no news has been bad news.

When mutuel clerk Charlesann returned to her live betting window next door, she was outraged that no one had turned the ticket into her for safe keeping, should its rightful owner inquire.

I learned two lessons my first day back in town: For the 14th time, I learned to be careful not to leave a betting voucher in the SAM before leaving the window.

And, secondly, that I wasn’t the only heretic in the Saratoga press box on this particular Whitney afternoon.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, July 31, 2015

Saratoga Summer on the Jersey Shore

OCEANPORT, NJ, July 31, 2015—Finally, after 2-1/2 hours on the Fort Lauderdale tarmac, where repairs were made on the plane’s hydraulics—time well spent—I arrived on the Jersey Shore, Jennifer’s Place…smack in the middle of a heat wave.

It was hotter in Newark than it was in South Florida.

But the good news is that rain is nowhere in the forecast beginning today through Tuesday of next week. No sense watching the 2015 Triple Crown demolish some other field over a sloppy racetrack.

There are other interesting races this weekend but we have not yet looked seriously at the Jim Dandy or West Virginia Derby as of this post and nowhere close to checking out the Haskell program, a 14-race program.

I have two words for when Sunday arrives: Bring It!

Not long after the Haskell is run, there will be stopovers in Suffolk and Putnam Counties as we wend our way toward the North Country early Whitney morn. Can’t wait for that, either. Even on my own dime, life is still good.
SPRINT TAKES: For the first time in 38 years, I’m not spending the entire summer in Saratoga but technology, when it doesn’t drive me bonkers, is a wonderful thing. And this note commentary is long overdue.

The presentation of racing from Saratoga as seen on the new website has taken the lead in simulcast presentations nationwide, one that doesn’t figure to diminish anytime soon.

The coverage is, in a word, spectacular. And, dare I say in some respects it’s better than being there. The reporting is knowledgeable and the race analysis extremely solid, but it’s the paddock and post parade coverage is what sets the current NYRA presentation apart.

Thousands came out to see the Champ

The added camera angles make a difference. Everywhere there seems to be more pictures of horses in and around the paddock, heading out to the racetrack and my fave; a two way post parade, one view from the inside rail and the traditional pan shot; no ponies to obstruct the view of the athletes.

And can’t say too much about the resolution of the High Definition presentation; horses just seem to pop out of the screen.

The racing thus far also has been spectacular, reflected in the metrics; attendance up approximately 11 percent with all-sources handle up 17 percent. Interesting, but not unexpected, number of races offered were not as significant as field size.

Until Thursday, no turf races were rescheduled to the main track and all entries are uncoupled. The number of betting interests increased by almost 10 percent per race. Huge, in more ways than one.

Air Jordan aka American Pharoah at Monmouth Friday morning

IT’S NOT PERSONAL, IT’S STRICTLY BUSINESS: Not the racing business but the racetrack-racing business.

There were four nine-furlong races for three-year-olds this weekend including Friday’s Curlin Stakes, won by coming-of-age Smart Transition. Today, there’s the West Virginia Derby and Jim Dandy Stakes. And on Sunday, of course, is the Phenomenal Pharoah Phestival on the Jersey Shore.

But what’s a major racing event be without a little controversy?

Now that the smoke has cleared some, HRI understands there was a good reason why the Haskell purse increase from $1 million to $1.75 million was so last-minute.

Dennis Drazin, a lawyer by trade and prominent horse owner from the Garden State, is the man who generally credited with coming up with a plan to save Monmouth Park several years ago when its straits were direr that they are at present.

Glad someone did. Not having covered the Haskell the past three years, I had forgotten what a great racing destination this is. But I remembered again at 6:55 a.m. today. My family and I were among an estimated trackside crowd of 2,000, fans who queued up five to six deep from head-stretch to clubhouse turn to catch a glimpse of a Triple Crown champion gallop once around the park.

Before his interview on Fox’s Good Day Live program, Drazin spent a few minutes answering questions. I said that I thought the optics of the huge last-minute purse bump was unsightly. Trainers had only about 24 hours to enter their Haskell runners.

“It could not be helped,” explained the executive consultant. “For five weeks we tried to put together a three-race, five-million-dollar series starting here and ending with the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but we couldn’t work anything out with other racetracks.

“We tried another approach and it wasn’t until Tuesday night that we learned a sponsor we had from Las Vegas who willing to put up [one million dollars] for a race to be staged here in late September decided to pull out. We wanted to have the best [Haskell] possible.”

The purse bump, minus the Preakness runner-up, worked, even if trainer Dallas Stewart didn’t know about the increase until he read abouit on Twitter. Stewart already had made arrangements to send Tale of Verve to today’s West Virginia Derby. It was too late to ship to Oceanport, NJ, even with Monmouth PARK paying the freight.

“We didn’t want to ship in at the last minute in this kind of heat,” Stewart said. “Had I known earlier I would have liked to have had [the Haskell as] the option,” said Stewart in an online report.

The way American Pharoah continues to train, he will have no excuses on Sunday but the Haskell no longer is a soft spot. Upstart is at tops when fresh and he is training as well now as he did prior to his successful Florida campaign. Competitive Edge might be a tad distance challenged at this stage, but his brilliance never has been in question.

Mr. Jordan, 4-for-6 lifetime, won a Grade 3 prep over the track in fast time and, with a lively pace almost assured by the presence of Upstart, Competitive Edge and the gray colt, dismissing Keen Ice out of hand--even if the Travers is his major summer goal--could be a mistake.

In short, the purse bump turned the Haskell from coronation to challenge.

“I have e-mails I could show you,” Drazin said to us before returning to his office after having completed the television interview. “Call me if you have any more questions.”

It’s no longer necessary. All that remains is waiting for 5:52 p.m. on Sunday.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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