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 28, 2015

Pharoahtoga: The Christmas Place To Be

SARATOGA SPRINGS, Travers Eve, 2015—Since 1977, my first full racing season in Saratoga, I have seen many strange things, but this was different—in a good way.

Put another way, I live virtually across the street from the race course and it took me about 25 minutes to get inside the gate this morning.

Welcome to Pharoahtoga.

NYRA racing analyst Richard Migliore said a month ago that if Monmouth Park could draw 6,000 fans to see American Pharoah gallop that, because this is Saratoga, you could get 20,000.

I’m thinking The Mig might have ridden 4,450 winners but what does he know about this?

I’ll be damned but his guess was a lot better than mine. The crowd seemed more like a weekday at the races or, as Jerry Bossert put it, “there were more people here this morning than will be at Aqueduct all winter.”

My spies--colleagues Bob Ehalt and Ed McNamara--have been around the oval more than a few times. Ehalt, observing from the winners’ circle, guesstimated the front-side crowd at about 15,000.

McNamara, who watched the gallop from the backside, thought there were about 3,000 fans back there. The NYRA guesstimated the crowd at 15,000. Nobody questioned it.

I watched the gallop on cable TV in my living room. That’s right. In Saratoga, you can stay home and when American Pharoah shows up, you can watch Tuesday’s post draw and this morning’s gallop on Time-Warner Cable News, Ch. 1.

I probably had the best seat to observe the gallop and nothing I saw indicated that he will not be at his best at 5:46 p.m. tomorrow.

His stride was fluid, his energy level was high, and he didn’t want to be pulled up, always wanting his head.

“He liked the track,” trainer Bob Baffert said. “He galloped around there like he usually does, whenever he has his ears up. I feel very happy about the way he went today.”

In a Man on the Street feature in a local paper, fans were asked to complete this sentence: “American Pharoah coming to Saratoga is as big as…?”

“Derek Jeter getting his 3000t hit,” said one. “The President coming; it’s a piece of history,” said another. “Secretariat,” said a racing fan. And my personal favorite: “The Grateful Dead Fare Thee Well Tour.”

And when the 146th Travers field curls into headstretch, 50,000 fans will hope to see history as American Pharoah keeps right on truckin’, like the do-dah man.

The View From the Porch

It started early. By 7 a.m. the red light on Nelson Ave. was backed up on Union Avenue 10 Victorians deep. Every parking spot, normally filled by noon on a racing day, was taken.

Occasionally, a savvy driver would make a U turn and take the back route. Too bad; Nelson and East Avenues didn't look any better.

Some came by foot carrying the furniture and groceries they'd need for the day. A beautiful morning for a walk; a beautiful day for the races at Saratoga Race Course.

American Pharoah is galloping this morning and thousands are coming to see him. These early pilgrims are fans for whom the Triple Crown winner IS the Super Bowl. And Thoroughbred Racing is the winner, today anyway. Hopefully tomorrow, too.

They are smiling as they walk by with the anticipation of a child hoping to see Santa on Christmas morning.

That's when I saw him: Glorious as ever, slowly rolling east on Union. Recognizable in denim or in his iconic red suit, Saratoga's resident Santa Claus can be spotted anywhere as he goes about his daily life.

And today, Santa came to see Pharoah. Only in Saratoga.

--Words and File Photo by Toni Pricci

Saratoga's Santa in Residence, Fred Clark

Written by John Pricci

Comments (2)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Pharoah’s Chariot in Rarified Air

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 27, 2015—This town, the whole Capital District in fact, never ceases to amaze in terms of its enthusiasm for whatever is scheduled to take place at Saratoga Race Course.

Before thinking this is provincialism its worst, Saratoga no longer is our full time residence; it’s South Florida now. But Saratoga is, to me and many others, like New Orleans; it’s a place you can feel. And that vibe extends beyond the course on Union Avenue.

It’s one thing to say that the Albany area boasts only one major league sports attraction—the flat track, as the locals call it—and that would be correct. But true enthusiasm cannot be manufactured, it’s an expression that comes from within.

Sipping a cup of coffee trackside Wednesday morning as the horses filed past to enter the main track for whatever was in store; timed workouts, gallops, jogs or just standing quietly, a report came over the television sets that rest atop the backside food stand.

The pronouncement was that “the big horse” would be landing in a matter of hours at Albany International, bound for trainer John Terranova’s barn on the Saratoga backstretch after first making a stopover to pick up a horse called Funny Cide.

Of course, Funny Cide was the local equine that made good as a Dual Classics winner, the gelding literally born up the road from the racetrack. The 15-year-old will be feted at the track. Everything that’s done here relates to how much this place “gets it” about horses.

As I sipped my coffee no less than three guided tours passed in front of me and, even though there wasn’t a tall building within three hours of here, many of the visitors kept looking up and around wanting to take in the entire scene.

Most faces were adorned with an expressive mix of joy and wonder, happy to be here to see and feel a place where, as the signs remind you, “horses have the right of way at all times.”

The plane carrying the sport’s 12th Triple Crown winner and Derby and Preakness hero of 2003 would arrive at 2 p.m. the reporters said, which turned out to be exactly right give or take a few minutes.

Some clever promoter dubbed the plane “Air Horse One” and I thought that I wish I came up with that myself but this game keeps you humble, even on days when you don’t bet.

There was this great image on the six o’clock news of the plane landing in Loudonville, exit 4 on the Northway which comes immediately after exit 2 as one drives north. One day I’ll have to find out why that is.

Was it some frenzied exacta bettor screaming “no 3, no 3!?”

American Pharoah’s energy level was high as he de-planed, ears at full attention. He then stretched his legs with Baffert assistant Jimmy Barnes tethered to the other side of the lead shank, holding his head held high after his walk was done.

Cameras clicked and whirred, the colt fully attentive to his surroundings and, not to anthropomorphize but he sure seemed to be quite proud of himself. For certain, he enjoyed all the attention--a lot.

Anywhere within a hundred-mile radius it was impossible to ignore American Pharoah’s arrival. He was on every network, as if POTUS had just arrived in town. The on-air talent was as excited to report about him as those who showed up to greet him.

The champ and all the Travers horses will be on the track Friday morning from 8:45 for 20 minutes as they jog and gallop around the main track. If there were 6,000 in attendance on the morning before the Haskell in Oceanport, NJ, you should probably take the over here.

That is so especially since the Travers crowd as been capped at 50,000 and this is, well, Saratoga. This event is so exclusive that NYRA even capped the press box attendance at 60.

Weather reports for Saturday are good—sunny, temps in low 80s--and with 13 races, six on turf, with six Grade 1s which drew sizable, competitive fields, a new handle record likely is in the offing.

Not all the news was great, as far as we were concerned, anyway. Catching a breath of air between takes this morning, Ron Nicoletti of Gulfstream Park rolled by on his two wheeler.

Nicoletti brought us up to speed on Tropical Storm Ericka, now scheduled to arrive in South Florida Monday. Toni and I are scheduled to return home on Tuesday, so we might be able to finagle a few more days out of this racing sojourn. It’s out of our hands.

Should the storm hit, Gulfstream Park will have to evacuate its barn area. Any place east of U.S.1 is considered an evacuation zone. With Calder stalls no longer available, it will be Palm Meadows and points north here we come.

Restaurants in town were slow Wednesday night and that trend could continue since there will be no walk-up admissions available on Travers day. For those holding admission tickets and restaurant reservations wishing to valet their car, it will cost $50 to do so.

But not to worry, this only happens about every 38 years or so.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (3)

Sunday, August 23, 2015

SARATOGA: History, Horses and Healthy Business

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 23, 2015—It’s Travers week and, barring any untoward occurrences during American Pharoah’s scheduled trial this morning, there promises to be a hot time in the old town come Saturday.

A victory in the storied Derby of Midsummer always has historical implications, especially when a champion shows up. Participation and victory for the sport’s 12th Triple Crown winner will enhance his legend, probably to disproportionate levels. Time does that.

An historic celebration will assure the 2015 Saratoga meet aesthetic success of epic proportions, whatever the average fan’s feelings toward current management. And give them this: they are pushing the right buttons here and the numbers prove it.

The efficacy of the metrics traditionally used by the industry are considered outmoded by some, but until something better comes along, conventional wisdom will have to do.

Double-digit handle increases on and off track are impressive, with daily averages of $4 million and almost $16 million the envy of any sustained meeting anywhere in the world, including their cross-country turf-and-surf rival.

Field size at the Spa is also strong with nearly 9 runners per race. I can’t remember the last time that’s happened here. Obviously, the weather has been very good for business--although it doesn’t rain all that much in San Diego, either.

The number of turf races lost could be counted on two hands, amazing considering that yesterday was the fifth Saturday of the session. Rain has come either at night or on dark days.

This probably doesn’t augur well when measured against the law of averages and the enormity of next weekend’s program. Parenthetically, no one in attendance will ever forget the Birdstone Travers.

The racing has been uniformly excellent, top heavy in talent and competitiveness, and the riding has been superb.

Irad Ortiz Jr. needs no introduction, of course, but he’s been a revelation here despite several uneven performances. He’s been leading rider at NYRA tracks but never Saratoga, and this is the one that everyone wants.

Johnny is Johnny and Javier is Javier, but Luis Saez has riding the turf courses like he owns them and Jose Ortiz is speeding bullet away from the barrier. Joel Rosario has emerged from a mini-slump.

Kendrick Carmouche is showing he belongs here and young Eric Cancel continues to be wise beyond his years. Jose Lezcano and Junior Alvarado continue winning regularly for their loyal clients.

It’s been the Todd and Chad show at the top of the trainer ranks, to no one’s surprise, considering their talent and numbers but many others are having terrific meets.

Kiaran McLaughlin’s horses have looked good and have run even better. Bill Mott owned the first quarter of the stand. Jeremiah Englehart and must be pinching himself every morning.

Tony Dutrow and Wesley Ward have come alive this week, the former in a big way. George Weaver and Gary Contessa both got their fifth wins yesterday and good to see Jimmy Toner’s horses running very well.

Saratoga seldom fails to fire but Del Mar may be reflecting the general malaise that engulfs California racing these days. Between the TOC’s greed and the out of touch stage of the CHRB, the karma in America’s second biggest market is bad and the numbers reflect that.

On the biggest day of the Del Mar meet in which the mare Beholder made Pacific Classic history, Saratoga’s 11-race Alabama card out-handled Del Mar’s program by nearly $5.8 million. That’s stunning.

And considering the betting tastes of these equal yet disparate destination meets, California continues its love affair with the Pick 6. Yet through the first 28 days of the meet and despite four more carryover days than last year, Pick 6 handle is off $2 million.

Want to know what’s interesting about that? The Pick 5, with its fan-friendly takeout rate and popular fractional betting unit, continues to grow, a fact that’s also spilled over to a small increase in the Pick 4, where a one day handle reached a record $1.4 million.

Here’s some more A-B-C type information for greedy horsemen’s groups and or racetracks to consider. Yesterday, both the P5 and P4 at Del Mar out-handled Saratoga by $200,000+ and $300,000+, respectively.

However, exacta handle at Del Mar with its excessive 22.68% takeout rate was $2.8 million compared to Saratoga’s $5.4 million featuring an 18.50% hold. Will myopic, unknowing executives and horsemen ever learn that excess never equals success?

Del Mar business if off $2 million year over year with their biggest day in the history books. With one less day of racing, business is down a staggering $32 million from 2013.

If California racing continues its present policies, its popularity will continue to erode and it should expect the bad news to continue. And that would be a damn, senseless shame. California racing and its fans deserve much better.

Bets n’ Pieces:
Johnny’s milestone 800th Spa victory was quintessential Velazquez. Giving Run a Dubb Dubb a perfect trip, he moved aggressively when another rival got first run, putting his horse in the game and got the job done with a punishing left hand before riding out his mount to victory…

That was quite an Alabama performance by Embellish the Lace, but will some three-year-old filly finally step up and take charge of this division? Meanwhile, Tony Dutrow's confidence and preparation was like some old page from Charlie's or Woody's book. Well done...

Beholder was absolutely amazing, becoming the first female winner in Pacific Classic history…I know I’m getting well ahead of myself here, but American Pharoah vs. Beholder in the Breeders’ Cup Classic would be the kind of sensation not seen since Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra once graced racing’s stages...

Just like the old Keeneland and the old Monmouth do not resemble their clichéd reputations of years ago, neither does the old Spa. You still need the ability to run fast but not from in front. Haven’t seen many races stolen this season and while the rail may still be the shortest way home, it hasn’t been the fastest way, either. But the current state of the surface has added a dimension to the competitiveness one expects from the best extended race meet on the planet…

Joe Sharp has done great work with Troy-winning Shore Runner, an amazing turf sprinter who just comes to get you no matter what the dynamics are…Horses To Watch: Sheikh of Sheikhs can really run. Rated very well in front by Eric Cancel who engineered an even sprint-type pace in 22.71, 46.06 and getting 6 furlongs in 1:10.14—right, a last quarter in 24 seconds; not bad for a debuting baby. Runners-up Portfolio Manager and Gift Box, both trained by Chad Brown, won’t be maidens for long [replay worth your time]…

looked like a turf horse in paddock and post parade then went out an proved it; nice colt, follow progress! Runner-up Life Imitates Art was too sharp in his new blinkers although he still raced greenly. Despite Irad Ortiz’s herculean efforts, he never got him to switch to his correct lead and just missed in a very game stretch performance. Show finisher Hunter O’Reilly trailed in 10th throughout, angled out for a lane on the far turn, angled wide into the stretch and closed very determinedly, beaten two necks for all of it [see replay].

Written by John Pricci

Comments (8)

Page 2 of 84 pages  <  1 2 3 4 >  Last »