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 HorseRaceInsider.com.
 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017


Saratoga Wishes and Championship Dreams


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 22, 2017— This weekend should go a long way in settling some interesting good-for-the-sport controversies as it pertains to the opinion that “my horse is better than your horse.”

While it won’t be settled on the racetrack, where the record shows that Arrogate has proven better than Gun Runner—and most other horses in the world--racing fans will learn more this weekend and next.

With a victory in the prestigious Woodward Stakes on Sept. 2, Gun Runner would underscore the notion that this week's ranking atop of the NTRA poll is justified.

Lest we forget, polls are, in principal, projections based on accomplishment. The differences as they apply to accomplishment on the racetrack is at the very heart of what the game is about, horse racing at its essence.

While the Arrogate-Gun Runner controversy might not be settled ultimately until if and when they meet again, the helter-skelter that is the three-year-old colt division should emerge with a leader this weekend.

“The championship can go in so many different directions,” said trainer Doug O’Neill on Tuesday’s NTRA conference call. "If one of the Triple Crown winners should win then they would lead the way.

“This is going to be very exciting,” said the man who will saddle Irap in Travers 148, a colt with accomplishments and no stranger to competition among the glamour division’s elite. “There’s lots riding on it.”

All trainers usually say one of two things: The horse is doing great, training great; or will admit they are taking a shot to see just where their horse fits.

There’s no question Irap fits; it’s right there in the past performances; a couple of Derby wins, a Blue Grass, and a 20-horse wipe-out in Louisville the only time the division’s best were thrown into two gates placed side by side. And he’s a better horse now.

“He was always a big, strong and mature horse, but mentally it took him a while to figure it out.” O’Neill said. “He wasn’t mentally ready for a 20-horse field but the Ohio Derby definitely sent him forward.”

O’Neill has had huge success training three-year-olds up to big races. And he indicated that he loved his colt's most recent six furlong workout. “There’s a good cushion on Del Mar now; he galloped out a mile in one forty-two.."

Lack of fitness certainly won’t be the factor that gets him beaten. And if Always Dreaming turned out to be lone F, O'Neill wouldn’t mind seeing his horse stalk the Derby winner. There’s lots riding on Travers 148, indeed.

While the top two older horses are knocking heads in the rankings and the sophomore male division struggles to find its Alpha, older fillies and mares have a leader and a true equine star in Songbird.

Lest anyway forget, only Beholder’s nose separates Songbird from perfection. Yet many who believe that her West Coast rival, Stellar Wind, has been more impressive this year, has beaten better, and a worthier divisional leader.

Both mares are perfect in 2017, but the 2016 defending three-year-old champion is currently ranked third in the polls, two spots ahead of Stellar Wind. “I don’t have to defend her record,” said Jerry Hollendorfer when the topic was raised on the NTRA call.

Has he kept a close eye on Stellar Wind this year? “Well, she hasn’t made a mistake. I like to watch her breeze. I like to watch the Baffert horses…the Mandella horses. I think all horsemen enjoy watching the other good horses work.

So, is he irritated that observers have been wanting to see more from his filly this year? “Maybe a little bit,” admitted Hollendorfer.

“I don’t know what we’re looking at,” the trainer continued, “I think she’s better, and the rider thinks she better. She’s bigger, stronger and more willing to be rated in the morning.” And she's back [to her three year old form]?

“Yes. She had that one race, then we asked her to go a mile and a quarter. We’ve been preparing to bring her back to Saratoga and she’s doing better now than going into the mile a quarter…She went in forty-seven and two with a strong gallop out.”

Is there any concern that the Saratoga surface is not the exact same as the one over which she dominated rivals in last year’s Coaching Club Oaks and Alabama?

“I don’t usually complain about the hand I’m dealt. She’s won at seven different tracks. She makes adjustments.”

NEW RULES FOR HORSE SAFETY IN NEW YORK: The New York State Gaming Commission, New York Racing Association and the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association are implementing additional [safety] actions immediately at Saratoga Race Course.

The methodology will include increased regulatory veterinary presence at the track during training hours, state-of-the-art monitoring of horses and comprehensive trainer education intended to share scientific findings of research into the types of injuries and kinds of risks that occur at New York Thoroughbred racetracks that can help prevent injuries.

"This is in addition to the existing industry-leading equine health and safety policies and procedures already in place at New York State racetracks,

“Our goal is to reduce the number of racehorse deaths and injuries to zero, and we have taken many productive steps toward reaching that goal over the past four years,” said New York State Equine Medical Director Scott E. Palmer, VMD.

“However, our work is never done and there will always be challenges that require reexamination and recalibration to effectively protect horses and their riders.”

HRI’s Mark Berner will have more on this next Tuesday in his “Inside New York” column.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017


Equestricon Breaks Quickly for the Fans, Less So For Players


SARATOGA SPRINGS, August 15, 2017—As trade shows go, depending on how much time and passion is devoted to the effort, what you see is exactly what you get. Whether it be trains, boats, cars, or comedians, standard are usually met.

In that context--and in that context only—when I left the Saratoga City Center, my socks remained right where they were when I put them on this morning.

But considering this is horse racing we’re talking about, it was difficult for true lovers of Thoroughbred sport--whether they were first attracted by the horse, the spectacle or the gambling, not to walk away captivated.

What was so impressive was that it happened in the first place. It was something that veteran racetrackers never thought they would see.

So the fact that Equestricon did happen made it an unqualified success. If one wanted to parse those words, the observer would say it was a very worthy first effort. It was the kind of debut that in time could move horse racing forward despite its many impediments.

We could not spend more than several hours a day on Monday and Tuesday but wanted to feel the atmosphere.

After cruising all the exhibits, many belonging to “signature event partners,” we thought the event was in the main nicely attended, especially considering Monday was a racing day.

We noted many of the organizations that one would have expected to see at a horse racing convention: America’s Best Racing, Breeders’ Cup, Daily Racing Form, National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame, NYRA and TVG.

Other lesser-tiered partners were racetrack organizations; the Hong Kong Jockey Club, Keeneland, The Stronach Group and Woodbine.

We spent time at three conferences. The first was “Racing Media: Past, Present and Future.” We arrived during the session and assume that past media was addressed before taking our seat.

There were no Racing Form people on this panel--although Matt Bernier did moderate “Big Scores on Big Days,” sponsored by Kentucky Downs. The point of emphasis we witnessed was how best to attract future fans; the consensus was via social media.

“Racing has been slow to embrace some of the newer technology,” offered one media panelist.

There were readily recognizable television and radio electronic media personalities among a group that also included representatives from “The New York Times,” “Saratoga Special” and online magazine “Thoroughbred Racing Commentary.”

There was a strong number of ownership and racing outfits represented at the convention, too, a group consisting of West Point Thoroughbreds, Centennial Farms, Sagamore Racing, Stonestreet Farms, Bradley Thoroughbreds and Kirkwood Stables.

The august Jockey Club was among the missing brands despite the fact that the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance was the event’s official charity partner: Curious.

The truly enjoyable part for me was the Author series featuring multi-faceted, award-winning journalist Bill Nack and Team Secretariat, including jockey Ron Turcotte.

As I walked in, Secretariat was on a monitor, about to be “moving like a tremendous machine.” When he reached the finish line, a room full of people began to applaud. For lovers of the game, it was a chilling moment.

When it comes to story-telling, there are few authors on the planet who can hold a candle to Nack. His great, late friend Frank De Ford was one, colleague Tony Kornheiser another. It wasn’t long before Nack was reaching into the recesses of memorable experience.

“Jack Nickalus, the great golfer, was telling me this story about a conversation he had with Woody Broun…” Nack, of course, was referencing Hayward Hale Broun; author, actor, sportswriter and commentator. “You remember him,” said Nack, “he wore those colorful plaid jackets…

“Nicklaus was not a racing fan but he followed Secretariat through the Triple Crown. As Secretariat bounded down the stretch at Belmont Park, Nicklaus told Broun, ‘I got down on all fours and started pounding the rug--go, go--and then there were tears rolling down my cheeks. I don’t understand it, why did I start crying?

“Broun said, ‘Jack, you’re a golfer, a great golfer, and you’re always striving for perfection. Well, you just saw it’.”

Nack was asked “If you could describe Secretariat in one word, what would it be?” Nack didn’t answer immediately and fielded a few more questions before somebody came back to the original question. “One word?” Nack looked skyward, then back at the audience.

“Divine,” he said. More applause.

On Tuesday morning I was up early to attend the HANA talk. I thought it was great that someone thought to include a horseplayers’ organization at a first ever horse racing convention. Unfortunately, I left disappointed.

On the panel, moderated by Churchill Downs simulcast host, Joe Kristufek, was Theresia Muller, a founding member of the Horseplayers Association of North America, Eclipse Award-winning Handicapping Champion, Paul Matties, and board member Jerod Dinkin.

The credentials of these individuals are impressive, each with a deep understanding and knowledge of racing’s myriad problems; issues that have a profound effect on the player. The panel was thoughtful and sincere, its leaders less so.

I sincerely hope there were no health or family issues that prevented HANA President Jeff Platt from attending the debut of his organization at Equestricon. Personal issues notwithstanding, his absence was stunning.

I made a comment about it during a Q and A session at the end of the presentation but no explanation was offered. Keeneland’s offensive takeout hike was mentioned by a panelist almost immediately. “That was a real kick in the butt,” said another.

I wondered aloud why no one mentioned the “B word,” boycott as a possible course of action. I was told that influential mega-players, such as Mike Maloney of Lexington, have been contacted and that he and others are working behind the scenes.

Unfortunately, the takeout ship has already sailed, so I’m a little dubious about the negotiation process at this late date.

I asked, too, if anyone thought rebates were fair, explaining that I’m a small player who bets about $50,000 annually and that I didn’t think it was fair to be rewarded in nickels-and-dimes player rewards while whales got rebated in dollars.

Answers were not forthcoming which is not surprising. How can HANA be an effective ombudsman if it also wants to be part of the racing community at large? Watchdogs are not supposed to sit at a round table with an industry it’s supposed to be monitoring.

Horseplayer advocates should be sitting across the table from industry stakeholders. If not, it’s inherently conflicted--not White House-sized conflict but nevertheless at cross purposes with the people it is chartered to represent.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, August 13, 2017


Trainer Battles Make for Good Sport, Betting Not So Much


SARATOGA SPRINGS, August 13, 2017—

DEAR DIARY,

The Who’s Hot-Who’s Not aspects of handicapping relating to current trainer and jockey standings are, as an exercise, somewhat perfunctory. And that’s the case at virtually every race meet in America, but not this one.

Saratoga is one meeting where everything is magnified, especially considering it’s the only lengthy session that still attracts wholesale mainstream media coverage, whether it be electronic, print or online.

So it follows that one of the major storylines here is the battle for leading trainer between last year’s champion, “local boy” Chad Brown of nearby Mechanicville, vs. perennial leader Todd Pletcher.

It does not escape us that this is a battle between upper-dogs, each having access to a couple of hundred of the best pedigrees in the world every year. Their operations never require rebuilding their as much as their need to simply reload.

Still, diary, in our first full week here, this competition has been pretty dramatic with Brown having a five-win when we arrived last weekend. Then the Pletcher barn began firing on all cylinders and the battle is on in earnest.

The sense is that Brown simply can’t help himself when it comes to winning races with a collection of the best stock he has trained to date while at once Pletcher seems like a man on a mission, wanting to reclaim a title he won a dozen times.

Most observers would agree that Pletcher is the more diplomatic of the two, both would likely downplay the intramurals and talk about how their goal is to make their owners happy by increasing the value of their stock. Make no mistake; that’s true, of course.

But this rivalry is real, each with a burning the desire to out-win his rival; the bigger margin, the better. It’s not like “these teams don’t like each other,” but it’s close.

After Pletcher narrowed the gap earlier this week, the tit-for-tat battle has been fun to watch, one of the more entertaining days when one had a natural double, the other answered with a back-to-back of his own, the two sweeping half the races on the card.

As David Grening of Daily Racing Form observed on Twitter Thursday in relation to the day’s events: “There have been seven races run at Spa today. Brown and Pletcher have won five of them. They both have 20 for the meet. Sometimes we overthink it.”

Entering Sunday’s program, Brown and Pletcher are tied with 22 wins each. After that there’s a logjam for third among Kiaran McLaughlin, Jason Servis and Linda Rice with seven.

Indeed, horseplayers do tend to overthink many handicapping puzzles. But with fewer “square” dollars in the betting pools and as serious players continue to walk away from the game, the search for betting value has become exceedingly difficult.

With Brown and Pletcher dominating the results, along with other seemingly invincible high-percentage trainers, the situation has become the good news-bad news for horseplayers. We know who the live outfits are; the problem is everyone does.

This makes value virtually unattainable, unless one has extreme patience, and it affects both the horizontal and vertical pools, especially the former with all its promotional hype about life-changing scores--with nary a word on degree of difficulty.

“Free squares” are fine, providing the rest of the sequence is highly challenging. But between dominant trainers, the power of “sheets” players, and high takeout, betting pools feature far more underlays than overlays.

The leading trainer battle at Saratoga has its entertaining, sporting aspects but it doesn’t help the bankroll. Neither does leading jockey battles. The Ortiz brothers are often at the top these days, but at least they have Johnny and Javier and Joel, among others, to contend with.

It is said that one can’t argue with success. But in this game, dominating success takes much of the fun out of playing the game.

SHAME ON KEENELAND: Unless you were otherwise distracted this week, you couldn’t help notice that Keeneland, one of the most player-friendly racetracks in the industry, went the way of Southern California and nearby Churchill Downs.

The Keeneland Racing Association raised the taxes of wagering considerably—not in the highly promoted, churn-killing, bankroll-draining horizontal exotics--but in the bread and butter backbone of horse-race wagering; the straight and exacta pools.

Clearly, Keeneland has shifted its focus away from the customer. No longer concerned with its player-friendly reputation, it wants now to be regarded as horsemen friendly first. Only owners and trainers need apply here.

Keeneland’s purses and prestige are already high enough to compete with any track in the country, beating out most. Purses don’t need boosting at the expense of already beleaguered horseplayers.

There’s so much about Thoroughbred racing at Keeneland that’s so terrific, from its beloved confines, wonderful atmospherics, its great racing and ample good-gamble opportunities. It’s everything a boutique session should be.

But it’s raising taxes on wagering because it can, Kentucky parimutuel law giving it all the wiggle room it needs. Their reputation, the one that separated it from Churchill Downs a lot farther than does the 90 miles of highway, is now the same with customers.

Keeneland can talk all it wants about competitive purses; takeout that’s on par with Oaklawn Park and New York [the latter a false equivalency]; the need for constant upgrading of facilities; expansion costs [that have resulted in increased revenue]; the effects of a depressed sales market and overall industry contraction and so forth.

But it’s not about any of those things; it’s about protecting profit margins at a not-for-profit racetrack, one that has seen revenues flatten but only after recovering much of the losses that all businesses suffered during the deep recession of 2008.

In this country, success is measured at the bottom line. In that spirit, I will cut my losses. I’ll bet on selected stakes and some allowances that have future national implications. But, on principle I’m taking Keeneland out of my personal daily simulcast rotation.

Written by John Pricci

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