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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

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Travers Muddles Three-Year-Old Picture

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 25—In the wake of yesterday’s Travers Stakes result, which three-year-old rates to be the division’s leader?

And it doesn’t make me feel better that many I’ve spoken with don’t know either. There just are too many disparate scenarios.

I realize plenty of racing remains and there’s the matter that, with the exception of the Pennsylvania Derby here in the East, the three-year-old class will need to deal with those pesky elders when leaves begin to fall.

In the interim, when I fill out my weekly NTRA poll ballot by noon Monday I’m going to shade Orb as owning the slightest of divisional leads.

It couldn’t be Verrazano who was invisible on two of the biggest stages he’s graced. He had a legitimate excuse in the Derby—although top horses are supposed to handle anything thrown their way.

The surface wasn’t the midsummer problem, however. It likely was his enervating Haskell. Just because you win by almost 10 doesn’t mean you have won easily; an effort is an effort is an effort. That, and he might have been a little intimidated, too.

Neither can the division’s leader be the Travers winner. Will Take Charge should be acknowledged surely, but the G2 Rebel is by definition a prep for the Arkansas Derby in which he was not competitive.

Saturday was the only time Will Take Charge has run two good ones back to back in top company. But it looks like there’s more in store for this scopey late developer.

With Oxbow on the shelf, the remaining Triple Crown race winners are what remain.

Palace Malice, presumably best in the Travers given a poor start and questionable handling, he would have rated higher placement had he won the Saturday’s show photo.

(And recall that he lost the G1 Blue Grass by a neck when he began gawking around).

It’s difficult to fathom that Palace Malice was beaten one length for all of it on Saturday but that’s horse racing. His future is as bright as the winner’s—brighter, actually.

Orb won the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby, and that counts for a lot. The G2 Fountain of Youth, and his Belmont and Travers show finishes, is just a little more icing.

He’s no cinch to hold the slimmest of divisional leads. Not surprisingly, Wayne Lukas, who has a vested interest in these things, has an opinion about all this:

“I think [the Travers result] muddles it a little bit,” he said Sunday morning. “I think if you’re one of the voting group, you’re going to have trouble until we get father down the basepath.

“It’s going to have to be sorted out in a race or two more. Maybe it will get all the way down to the Breeders’ Cup. The fight’s not over.”

So, What's Next?

Lukas, meanwhile, is not sure, but he’s weighing the situational options: “[The Jockey Club Gold Cup] is a Grade 1 and very prestigious. If you stay in your division [Pennsylvania Derby], the million dollars is not necessarily bad, either.

“We’ll weight all the things. You get an extra week [freshening] if you go to the Jockey Club, so that’s also something.”

Speaking of extra time, Todd Pletcher will need a few more days to consider what's next for both Palace Malice and Verrazano.

If the Travers winner elects to go to the [September 21] Pennsylvania Derby, he’ll find Moreno, the narrowest of runners-up, in waiting. If he opts for the JCGC, he should expect to find Orb there.

“Now we’ve got a good, solid race under his belt, we’ve got all last winter and spring stuff behind us,” said Shug McGaughey. “I think we can really move forward now.

“I’m going to look at the Gold Cup. That’s not to say the Pennsylvania Derby or the Indiana Derby or something is completely out of the picture, but I think we want to go to the Gold Cup.

Pretty sure that ‘Dinny’ Phipps and Stuart Janney wouldn't mind going there, too.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (26)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Karma Chameleon

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 24, 2013—Luis Saez is no long the King of Calder.

The journey that led to the most important victory of his career came last winter at Gulfstream Park when suddenly “the Calder jock” was beginning to lay it on the big boys, and horsemen were beginning to notice.

In the winners’ circle one afternoon, Phil Gleaves, once Woody Stephens #1 exercise rider and now a successful Florida horseman who once won the Travers with slop loving Wise Times, gave me a scoop.

“This kid is coming to New York this spring and he’s going to take the place by storm,” Gleaves said. “He’s one of the best riders in America that no one’s ever heard of.”

Until today.

Fitting Jim Dandy runnerup Will Take Charge perfectly and riding him masterfully after being named on the colt just 72 hours before the 144th renewal of Saratoga’s Derby of Midsummer, the team got up in the last jump to nail Jim Dandy third, Moreno, on the line.

Kentucky Derby winner and Triple Crown combatant Orb ran a winning race making an inside rally—not his favorite spot—and looked like the winner of his second “Derby” this year but tired in the final hundred yards and settled for third.

Jim Dandy winner Palace Malice was close behind in fourth and, from a trips perspective, might have been best. Stumbling at the start while breaking flat footed, he was sloughed in the first 50 yards when Transparent was angled inside by Irad Ortiz and, with War Dancer holding a straight course from inside those two, made themselves a Palace Malice sandwich.

Up front, meanwhile, not much was happening. Moreno went to the lead as expected, but a lot slower than anyone thought possible—a half-mile in nearly 49 seconds over a lightning fast track.

Favorite Verrazano was stalking comfortably, although a tad farther back than anticipated considering the soft pace. Orb was racing close up inside of horses while Romansh was on the pace battling between leaders.

The race began in earnest on the far turn. Ortiz finally asked Moreno for a little more speed and he got it. In fact, the second half mile, which carried the field to the top of the stretch, was faster than the first half--:48.51 as opposed to :48.88.

Ortiz allowed Moreno to drift into the three-path, Orb came through with an inside two-path rally, Palace Malace, who had one horse beaten after the first six furlongs, commenced a wide rally that carried him nearly six wide at headstretch.

The winner, meanwhile, reserved under a relaxed hold, began his drive that carried him into the four-path with a quarter mile remaining. Then he began grinding it out; fifth, then third, while Orb seized a short lead from near the fence.

Moreno was resurgent off his measured pace, Orb was beginning to tire and Palace Malace was finishing relentlessly, although never looking the part of a winner.

Will Take Charge’s longer nose was the difference between consecutive Travers’ dead heats. Moreno was 3/4s of a length to the good of Orb, who lasted for third by a nose over Palace Malice, who wound up beaten a length with what was for him, completely unorthodox circumstances.

“At the three-eighths pole, I thought we’ll get a piece of it,” said Wayne Lukas, who can add the name of Will Take Charge to Thunder Gulch and Corporate Report, his first two Travers winners.

“I changed up a [few] things. I took a chance on an up-and-coming rider.”

This was the second time Will Take Charge won a stakes this season after changing riders and the fourth time in as many races that a change was made. It was Saez’ first ever Travers mount.

Junior Alvarado was aboard Will Take Charge for his Jim Dandy placing and did nothing wrong but also rode Optimizer for Lukas in last week’s Sword Dancer. After racing wide throughout, Alvarado eased Optimizer and he was beaten off. The horse walked off the racetrack in no obvious distress.

"It's not anything; I just think sometimes the karma is wrong," Lukas said after Wednesday’s post draw. "I've had good luck with certain riders. I didn't feel real comfortable with where I was at with Junior, so I made the change."

“Last time when he finished second,” Saez said, “I saw the replays and I knew how to ride him. I tried to ride him like he runs.

“I want to say thanks to God, Mr. Lukas and everyone who’s coming here to see these champions,” all 47,597 who helped contribute to a record all-sources handle of $41,363,760.

That’s a lot of karma.

The Old In-Out in the King's Bishop

There are different kinds of race horses: champions, nice horses, also-rans, morning glories... Then there's the ever popular in-and-outer. Sorry, but that's as clever as it gets when Capo Bastone finishes like a rocket to take the Grade 1 King's Bishop, reeling in the very speedy Mentor Cane who out-sped all the speedsters signed on.

As it turns out, Todd Pletcher, had the race surrounded. There was favorite Forty Tales, a winner of the Amsterdam prep for this; Overanalyze, the Arkansas Derby winner that might have been worth a flyer on the turn-back, and Capo Bastone, who just missed winning the G3 Derby Trial. Capo Bastone, who never hinted at being a Grade 1 talent beyond his juvenile season; Capo Bastone, the in-and-outer.

In his three year old season, it was good race, bad race, good race, bad race, then yesterday.

Beneath Irad Ortiz Jr., who with brother Jose Ortiz have had a Saratoga to remember, Capo Bastone roared down the center of the course and blew passed Mentor Cane in the shadow of the finish line. Central Banker came from well back himself to finish third.

Forty Tales, without regular partner Joel Rosario, who shattered his ankle in an incident Friday. Leparoux, who won the Test, filled in ably but could finish no better than fourth on the multiple stakes winner.

The Test a Real Lu-Lu

I’m sure there will be a consensus among the wise guy clan that the Test didn’t turn out to be a true Grade 1 event because speed was holding in sprints all day and the final furlong was timed in little than a glacial 13 2/5.

Those are the facts, of course, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Those kinds of facts seldom do.

But for the undefeated Sweet Lulu to extend her undefeated career to four straight without defeat, she had to survive a strong first half-mile challenged from the bullet-like Baby J, withstand the late running co-favorite My Happy Face, and out-gut the perfect tripping speedster Wildcat Lily.

And did we mention it was her first lifetime start on God’s dirt?

"She trained on dirt as a two year old," Hollendorfer said post-race.

The victory, engineered by the California-based Hall of Famer Jerry Hollandorfer and jockey Julien Leparoux, not generally known as a partner of speed types, was well earned.

The tandem sat off the speedster until the right moment to present herself in front, was challenged from the outside through the lane, but dug down deep to pass the eyeball test.

That makes four wins on three disparate surfaces, Cushion Track, the closest synthetic there is to dirt, and Del Mar’s Polytrack, and four different distances.

"I was a little concerned when she got headed, then Julien rode hard, she came back, fought back, and won."

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Rider’s Race: Post Draw to Dictate Travers Strategy

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 21, 2013—With regard to Thoroughbred racing’s handicapping puzzle, there sometimes is a tendency to overblow the importance of post positions.

All know the obvious caveats: You never want the rail or extreme outside post in baby races; the fence can intimidate or trap a horse, and inexperienced youngsters often bear out from an outside post, taking away most strategic options.

No one wants the extreme outside with a short run to the first turn over any surface; particularly going two turns on grass, and the connections of horses with tactical speed generally want to draw outside major speed rivals to better facilitate a winning strategy.

In Saturday’s mile and a quarter Travers Stakes, the importance of the post draw is somewhat mitigated by a long enough run into the first turn as to give rival jockeys options, a poor start notwithstanding.

But don’t play down the importance of post positions to Todd Pletcher who will saddle the first two betting choices—Wood Memorial and Haskell winner Verrazano (2-1) and Jim Dandy and Belmont Stakes winning Palace Malice (5-2)--in what figures to be a highly contentious 144th renewal of Midsummer’s Derby.

There was one dramatic interlude in this morning’s Travers post draw. Two posts remained, #3 and #7, and Verrazano’s name was yet to be drawn from the entry box. “Number 7 is War Dancer,” which left the 3 to Verrazano, a position inside the very speedy Moreno in slip #6.

“The post does matter,” said Pletcher when asked about the draw. “I would have wanted 7 on the outside. Ideally both horses are stalkers, but Johnny [Velazquez] knows him and it looks like there’s an honest pace in here.”

It was the last phrase which indicated that Pletcher was not about to give away the strategy both favorites would use on Saturday. All that’s at stake is a possible three-year-old championship no matter how racing this fall shakes out.

One notion can be inferred from the Travers draw. Successful Jim Dandy prepster Palace Malice, having drawn #8, will be positioned off Moreno’s right hip in the run to the first turn.

Had Oxbow not been relegated to the sidelines with a season ending injury, this Travers would have been in the conversation as the best ever run.

It certainly could give the 1987 renewal, regarded by many as the best of the modern era, featuring Java Gold (1st), Cryptoclearance (2nd), Polish Navy (3rd), Gulch (4th), Bet Twice (5th) and Alysheba (6th).

Parenthetically, Gulch went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Sprint the following year and dual Classics winning Alysheba, despite his Travers defeat, was still voted 3-year-old champion and the following year won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, giving him the older horse and 1988 Horse of the Year titles.

The remainder of Saturday’s field, with post position and early line odds, includes Curlin Stakes winner via disqualification 1-Romansh (12-1); Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby winner 2-Orb (4-1); Derby runnerup 4-Golden Soul (20-1);Rebel winner and Jim Dandy runnerup 5-Will Take Charge (10-1) and Curlin first finisher 9-Transparent (10-1).

From post 3, Johnny Velazquez will still have some options to play it off the break, his position being far enough away from the fence so as not to get him jammed up inside.

With his speed, it’s likely that Pletcher and Velazquez would prefer to break sharply, taking some sting out of Moreno in the run to the first turn before allowing him to take the lead so that he can move Verrazano to a position outside the likely frontrunner.

Meanwhile, Mike Smith and Palace Malice will not be far away. The captivating moment will come when Smith puts some pressure on Verrazano to go after Moreno, forcing him to take the advantage or get caught between Moreno and Palace Malice’s momentum.

This is a likely scenario on paper but the drama will play out between the fences and not on the printed page.

Orb from his inside post—“like Todd, I wanted to be outside,” said Shug McGaughey, likely will be tucked up inside but will also want to move out for clear running. Orb showed watchful Triple Crown observers his propensity for racing outside rivals.

Most of America’s best three year olds are getting together in Saturday’s mile and a quarter but, even at that, Travers 144 looks more and more like a rider’s race.

“You would hope they wouldn’t get in each other’s way,” Pletcher said last weekend when asked about the similar running style of his pair. But Verrazano also appears to be more comfortable racing on the outside.

After this morning’s post draw, little has changed in that regard. Position and style are just two more elements that make Saturday’s renewal so compelling.

Written by John Pricci

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