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, September 04, 2013

Favorite Saratoga Moments? Two Words: Dead Heat

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September 4, 2013—Even after giving the matter considerable thought, I still hadn’t decided whether a Top 10 Performances, or the Top 10 Spa Stories of 2013, was the most appropriate ending for our 36th Saratoga Diary.

I have decided to go with my Top 10 Spa 150 Moments instead. (And if you’re thinking the headline refers to the double dead heat on closing day, think again. Although very rare, there were several of far greater import).

#10: THE PRINCESS OF ALABAMA: She was so dominant in the Coaching Club American Oaks, but then to come back and underscore that victory with her second Grade 1 of the meet to secure an Eclipse championship with another high energy tour de force performance was a sight to behold. “Maybe Todd should have run her next week,” I uttered to former Newsday colleague Paul Moran as Princess Of Sylmar cantered across the finish line. At the time, I didn’t know I’d be so Travers prescient.

#9: THE KINGS OF SARATOGA: You know you’re getting old when the sight of Angel Cordero Jr., Jerry Bailey and Johnny Velazquez at a podium to accept a plaque representing their domination of Saratoga racing, era after era after era, requires wiping a tear from you eye. But considering their legendary achievements in a place where legends are commonplace was a true Saratoga moment. As you looked up at the men on a makeshift stage, you realized it was the best three decades that a racing life could have.

#8: TIP ON A DEAD-HEATER: One of the first things I learned in Section 3P at Aqueduct in the 70s was that dead-heat winners never repeated. Over the years, I realized that sometimes nonsense can provide elements of truth. And it sure looked that way for Alpha who had been having a terrible 4-year-old year, until Labor Day weekend, that is. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin pushed two buttons (third time off the layup; blinkers on) and voila! Alpha leads the Woodward field on a merry chase. A job very well done by a nice horse and a very good team.

#7: JONATHAN SHEPPARD or TIP ON A DEAD-HEATER, PART II: What did it matter that Sheppard already is enshrined in the pantheon across Union Avenue and long since had won a race at Saratoga for the 45th consecutive season. But when he won the New York Turf Writers Cup Handicap for a record 14th time, it earned him another distinction befitting his Hall of Fame status. Fourteen is exactly the same number of victories posted by the late Charlie Whittingham in Santa Anita’s San Juan Capistrano turf marathon. It’s the Turf Writers without fences. This Charlie guy must have been pretty, pretty good.

#6: TWO TRAINERS MAKE THE GRADE: In what easily was a career meeting for both, George Weaver and Leah Gyarmati each got their first Grade 1 victories with Lighthouse Bay and Sweet Reason in the Prioress and Spinaway, respectively. Weaver had been flying under the radar, doing excellent work since 2012, and Gyarmati had been all but invisible. Not anymore. In all likelihood, it will be difficult for Weaver’s filly to duplicate her Grade 1 effort in the Breeders’ Cup F & M Sprint November 2. But if Sweet Reason takes to a dry track the way she handles slop, there’s no telling how good she might be. Juvenile Fillies here we come.

#5: JOHNNY ALL-NOTE: Like his famous agent, and like the man he dethroned as the leading rider in Saratoga history, Johnny Velazquez finds the sweet spot in almost every race he rides. With a stalker, he’s close, but not too close and hardly ever at a loss of serious ground. When riding the rails, he always seems to find a way to extricate himself before steadying and checking become mandatory. The greatest of riders are often passengers aboard the “best horse.” But aside from his ability to leave the gate quickly and cleanly, to rate speed horses without discouraging them, and to finish up with strength and style, it’s JR’s ability to get out of the way on the best horse is his greatest strength.

#4: SARATOGA TWO DEW: I’m wondering this: When The Chief, a.k.a. H. Allen Jerkens, got Go Unbridled to duplicate last year’s winning performance in the 2013 renewal of the Saratoga Dew, was it more emotional than seeing his former assistant, Gyarmati, win the biggest race of her career? The best thing about getting his mare ready to repeat were those old school signature works of his—the long, slow, tightly spaced breezes—that he employed with Beau Purple, Prove Out, Onion and all the rest to get a job done. Suddenly, you’re back in college cutting afternoon classes to get out to the Big A just in time for the feature, always the seventh on a nine race card.

#3: YEAH YOU’RE MY, ME OH MY, DELTA LADY: Saratoga sure loves its fillies. It wasn’t quite Rachel Alexandra’s Woodward because it was more a romp than a race, but to hear applause as Mike Smith geared down Royal Delta in the final strides of the Personal Ensign, followed by hoots and hollers as she was being led into the winners’ circle was a moment that racing fans reserve only for the great ones. And to think she might return as a 6-year-old to defend this title, and possibly run in this year’s Classic? Priceless.

#2: BE MY LOVIN’ BABY: Three juveniles to follow this fall and beyond are, alphabetically: Havana, Honor Code and Strong Mandate. HAVANA won his 5 ½-furlong debut in 1:02.64, missing the track record by 13/100s; comes from the same nursery as I’ll Have Another. HONOR CODE came from as far back as any 2-year-old I’ve ever seen, ever, winning a 7-furlong debut. His blend of talent and professionalism was scary. Once again, Johnny will have to choose between Todd and Shug. STRONG MANDATE beat a strong field in the 7-furlong Grade 1 Hopeful, and he beat them mercilessly. Already proven on wet and dry surfaces; he’s 2-for-2 since blinkers.

#1: MOMENT OF THE MEET A DEAD HEAT: It’s not like it was our first Wayne Lukas winners’ circle scenario, but never on his 78th birthday and in such a big spot. In the final three weeks of the meet, to go from a duck, to the centerpiece Travers, to the final Grade 1 of the meet? This is a guy who everyone had buried, the Hall of Fame guy who revolutionized his game… And, in yet another winners’ circle ceremony, to see Ramon Dominguez, flanked by his former peers and the family of Mike Venezia, receiving an award for good citizenship and his Eclipse as the leading rider of 2012, was as warm and as filled with pathos as any moment ever witnessed here in 150 years.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, September 03, 2013

You’re Never Too Old to Dream

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September 3, 2013--So, what, only Bill Mott can win races on his birthday at the Saratoga meet.

It's hard to believe now that after the halfway mark, Darrell Wayne Lukas was on the Saratoga duck. No winners, nada, zero.

Then he put a pair of blinkers on a second-time starting 2-year-old named Strong Mandate and the colt went to the front and improved his position, finishing strongly with an excellent display of energy distribution efficiency.

In the Hopeful, over a sealed muddy track, Strong Mandate did it again, only this time he demolished the strongest field of juveniles assembled at Saratoga this year.

And the Coach added to his legend. Happy 78th. Burgoo for all my friends.

Recapping, then, on the morning or August 17, Lukas is on the duck. On the morning after the historical meet closed, he added two more Grade 1s to his Hall of Fame career, the centerpiece Travers and the once and forever iconic Hopeful Stakes.

Sometimes, the Hopeful doesn't measure up. Yesterday it lived up to its name.

The bad news, perhaps, is that the Tiznow-Clear Mandate colt might not be seen in action at Belmont Park which reopens Saturday.

"I'd like to try to find a two-turn race for him," Lukas said post-race. "The race at Santa Anita, used to be called the Norfolk."

It would appear whatever prep Lukas chooses, his colt will show up. Apparently, neither sleek nor slop will stop Strong Mandate from completing his appointed rounds.

"Of course, we were always working backwards from the Breeders' Cup." Hopeful, indeed.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Blinkers, Anyone?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, August 31, 2013--Finally, Alpha put his whole game together which, of course, is not the kindest words one can have for a horse that was talented enough to share the Travers trophy in 2012.

But that was the kind of four-year-old season it’s been for the son of Bernardini who until today had failed to hit the board in four starts as a 4-year-old. Now that he’s back in Saratoga, however, we would see the good Alpha, not the 2013 imposter.

He was expected to be a strong factor in the Whitney but that never happened. Wide on both turns he was flat, never showed any of the talented that’s enabled him to bankroll $1.3 million coming into today’s Woodward.

Alpha has always had gate issues which forced trainer Kiaran McLaughlin to try whatever might work. The thought was let’s get him back to Saratoga where he never had been beaten—until the Whitney. Clearly it was time to shake things up.

Blinkers, which failed to help him in the Godolphin Mile in Dubai in late March, went back on for this race. The gear picked him right up and he breezed a half mile in 47 2/5, faster than 53 members of his peer group to work earlier in the week.

McLaughlin, who is 33 percent effective with runners making their third starts off a layup, played this one beautifully, as did jockey Johnny Velazquez, his Woodward partner.

“Maybe he wasn’t as fit as I thought he was the last two races,” McLaughlin said. “We had him dead-ready and fit today. Johnny did a great job breaking well because he has had his gate issues.”

“Once we got to the first turn where I wanted to be, he sat in the four path,” Velazquez said of his trip. “We waited until the quarter-pole when the other horse came to me. Once [Flat Out] didn’t pass me…I knew my horse was going to put up a good fight.”

“I think the start was a big, big difference,” added McLaughlin. “I talked to John and said if he breaks well and you can clear Paynter [the awkward breaking favorite], let’s go…He did a great job, Johnny did.

It worked [last year] in the Jim Dandy. And it worked again, over the same distance, over a similarly sloppy Saratoga oval. “[Alpha] loves it here. It’s one of the biggest wins in our career.”

And that goes for Alpha, and this time he didn’t have to share the prize with anyone.

What a Difference a Year Makes

On Friday, trainer David Jacobson experienced the lowest of racing’s lows when his 7-year-old New York-bred win machine, the local legend Saginaw seeking his 13th win in his last 14 starts and the status of equine millionaire, was euthanized after breaking both sesamoid bones in his left front leg.

Today, Jacobson watched as his Strapping Groom, which he also claimed for his account and that of Drawing Away Stable, held determinedly to withstand the distance and Saratoga-loving Jackson Bend after first racing odds-on favorite Fast Bullet into defeat to win the Grade 1 Forego Stakes.

Following Jacobson’s $35,000 claim on May 24, the Johannesburg six-year-old won both the Lion Cavern and Kid Russell overnight stakes prior to winning the biggest race of his 22 race career and improving his across-the-board record to 8-5-1.

“When you claim a horse, you always have high expectations,” Jacobson said via cell phone. “I always liked him going back to when he was laid up. Carl Domino did an outstanding job bringing him back and he was in great shape when I claimed him.

“Back then, I told my assistant that I thought he was fast enough to win a graded stakes. Frank reminded me of that ten minutes ago.”

Claiming barns expect to find the competition formidable when they ship to Saratoga. Jacobson, a claiming titan downstate, was expected to have a slow meeting but the victory by Strapping Groom was his second of the day, his 16th of the meet, good enough for third in the trainer’s standings behind Chad Brown’s 22.

Neither is within hailing distance of Todd Pletcher who, when the meet ends after the 10th race on Labor Day, will have won his 10th Saratoga training title, a modern-day record named for the legendary Allen Jerkens.

Fresh Is As Fresh Does

It probably was unreasonable to expect that the excellent weather that has prevailed throughout this history marking Saratoga season would continue.

And, so, early Saturday morning, the weather gods landed a body blow to the racing gods and the surface as a sea of slop as the early arrivals made their way into the building late on Woodward morning.

The only beneficiary from all of this seemed to be a turf course that was spewing forth clouds of dust throughout the week but played very well when the Bernard Baruch horses completed their appointed rounds.

No dust, and neither was there much evidence of those sizable chunks of green earth that get hurled around when the turf course comes up “yielding” as it did for the Grade 2 mile and a sixteenth.

And that was just fine for all the contestants, especially Silver Max, who had a very busy 3-year-old year in 2012, having run eight races in top company by mid-August. His 2013 schedule has been reduced by two, including today’s August-ending event.

As the racetrackers say, he went to the front and improved his position: “It’s no secret what his strategy is,” said jockey Robby Albarado. “He just pops right out of there and goes right to the front.

“He gets on his streaks,” the rider continued, “and I think his last couple he’s been back to himself.”

“Last year, I might have overdone it with him” said trainer Dale Romans. “I ran him a lot of times in those three-year-old races. He’s coming into fall a lot [fresher], and I think by the end of the year he could be one of the best turf horses around.”

Written by John Pricci

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