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.
 

Friday, July 24, 2015


Saratoga Diary 2015: Uncertainty and Speculation


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., July 24, 2015--

Dear Diary: For only the third time in a four decade career will I miss opening day at Saratoga. Two years ago, we lost Nana at 4 a.m. on opening day. Eight years ago we were on a plane back from Las Vegas from meetings at which HorseRaceInsider.com was spawned.

Now residing 10 months a year in South Florida, we do what we can, when we can. This year our Saratoga Diary--the original Saratoga Diary having its debut in 1977. It was a time promoters called Saratoga the "August Place To Be." It was our first full year at Newsday.

For the next fortnight, it will need to be the Saratoga Simulcast Diaries, one which will include a stop-over on the Jersey Shore for American Pharoah's run in the Haskell.

There also will be visits with family, and friends who might as well be family, our arrival in Saratoga penciled in for 10 am Whitney morning, God willin' and the Creek don't rise.

An aside: Note the capital C in creek: According to legend, the phrase was conjured up back in the day when buckboards were the principal mode of transportation and Creek referred to a Native American tribe of the same name.

History shows that those folks had a serious aversion to buckboards with the top up, better known as the covered wagon.

So for me, Saratoga again will be the “August Place to Be.” Let’s mark 2015 the year of the Saratoga Sojourn, albeit a Saratoga Prime Time Sojourn

A Gulfstream Park patron asked us last Saturday if we were going to the Spa this year. After telling him my plans, he exited the elevator saying “I like your schedule.”

According to the present raceday calendar, I will be in attendance for Saratoga’s two biggest days: the Whitney and Travers programs. All the stakes should be interesting and challenging. Hopefully performances in the marquee events will be worthy of Saratoga's timeless lore.

After all, if Saratoga isn’t about history, and health, and horses, it isn’t Saratoga. In that event, it might just as well be Anywhere, USA.

The year 2015 will be different indeed. That's because many believe this is the year Saratoga is under siege from its new administration, to the extent there is a local movement to insulate Saratoga from the actions of the New NYRA.

I will withhold judgment until I see for myself what the old place looks like and how events transpire. Some strange stuff has been known to happen during the Saratoga race meet--both on and off track. Given the backdrop of two Congressional bills that promises to alter the way the racing industry conducts itself, events could get curiouser and curiouser as the days blend into nights.

As the late, great Joe Hirsch once counseled, back when Saratoga was a true, august place: “It’s not the 24 days of Saratoga that get you, it’s the 24 nights.” And this isn’t a town where Early Bird Specials were ever in vogue, unless it's the Del Mar simulcasts at the end of live racing, which is another thing the founders never could have envisioned.

In its history, the one given about Saratoga is its stability but that no longer is true. So much so that the Saratoga Springs City Council three nights ago felt it necessary to officially state their desire for greater jurisdictional determination over proposed changes to the state-owned track, still rated as one of America's Top 10 sports venues.

The organization’s board wants regular communication and input with NYRA, and they want the composition question of the NYRA’s Board's temporary status to be resolved.

The City Council considers the issues regarding the conduct of current day Saratoga Race Course to be a matter of “significant concern.” Of great interest is the impact that future plans would affect surrounding neighborhoods, traffic patterns, infrastructure and future race meet scheduling.

This year, dear diary, the unpredictability might even include a challenge to Todd Pletcher’s domination of the trainer standings, given the growth of the Chad Brown program to mammoth proportions.

Clearly, Pletcher and Brown are the favorites to come out on top in that category and, per usual, the jockey’s race, always entertaining, will be highly competitive, led by Johnny Velazquez, Javier Castellano, the Ortiz brothers, et al.

Saratoga generally is not the place where “the bug” thrives. But given the ability of Eric Cancel and guidance from his agent, Angel Cordero Jr., forever the “King of Saratoga” in our view, the young rider could make enough of an impact to put some pressure on the veterans, making that race even more interesting.

We will be making a stopover at Monmouth Park for the Haskell. Hopefully, American Pharoah will make another perfect performance with enough left in the tank to consider a run in the Derby of Midsummer four weeks later.

What’s Saratoga about, if it’s not about where the past meets the future?

Next Time: The Road to Saratoga Runs Through Oceanport

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, September 03, 2014


Following a Successfully Unforgettable Saratoga Season, Uncertainty


SARATOGA SPRINGS, September 2, 2014—Had an idea for a lead, something about how there were only three hundred-plus days until the Saratoga 152 opener in July of 2015. But I don’t know how many days that will be because not even the New York Racing Association has that answer.

And so, in the final days of the recently concluded meet, after trial balloons had been launched then walked back, the fact that the association doesn’t know rings true because serious discussions on the matter have yet to be held. It’s now back to square one and here’s the bottom line:

Whatever opening day 2015 turns out to be no one—repeat, no one--has a clue of what the future of New York racing will be next year or beyond. The only thing that is known is that the current administration must make its intentions known by next spring.

To bid, or not to bid, that is the question.

As for the season past, the NYRA is claiming victory, but success often is in the eye of the beholder. That’s because attendance figures do not accurately reflect the number of people in the building, for soon after an announced attendance of 8,800 on a Wednesday early in the meet, 6,400 season passes were counted in the daily totals.

HRI is on record earlier that it has no problem with this practice, even if the passes sold at Stewart’s Shops were deeply discounted, and we are aware that prepaid admissions in other sports are sold at the retail level.

Requests from management to confirm or deny as to when and why the new policy went into effect received no response.

What doesn’t make sense from a business perspective were the gains or losses sustained on-track and off given that, according to a Daily Racing Form story, field size, number of races and rescheduled turf events, while all lower, were virtually unchanged year over year.

All sources handle was down 2.6 percent despite the overall improvement in quality while on-track handle increased by 1.9 percent despite a 12 percent gain in on-track attendance, clearly a reflection of when the 6,400 season pass-holders were or were not in the building.

Success is not only measured at the bottom line, however, nor should it be. The aesthetics were great and numerous, and the improved quality and competitiveness of the racing resulted in more photo finishes than during any season, at any venue, in recent memory.

On the racetrack, the gutsy, successful return of Wise Dan to score a three-pear in the Bernard Baruch Stakes, while giving seven rivals from eight to 13 pounds on the scale, was jaw-dropping, raising him to a level that even eclipses his worthy 21-for-28 career slate.

Trainers Jimmy Jerkens and Mike Hushion, graduates of the H. Allen Jerkens University of Horsemanship, were responsible for two of the best shows seen between the fences this season.

Jerkens trainees finished noses apart in the Travers, the horseman also winning with about four of every 10 horses he saddled over the span of 40 days. And now, as the developer of V.E. Day, Jerkens has an exciting complement to the talented Wicked Strong.

For his part, Hushion helped orchestrate the performance of the meet by getting Artemis Argotera, bred 50 miles up the Northway from Saratoga in Chestertown by Chester and Mary Broman, to leave New York-bred company and demolish a field of older fillies and mares in the Grade 1 Ballerina.

The H. Allen Jerkens training title, which Todd Pletcher won for the fifth straight year, his 11th overall, turned into a contest when Chad Brown, who also has barns-full of talented runners, made a late surge to make it close as Pletcher was having, for him, an uncharacteristic Todd-like season.

In his defense, the certain-to-be first ballot Hall of Famer did have a plethora of seconds on his card but not among those were no-show performances by Palace Malice and Princess of Sylmar--who did not receive a single 10th place vote in this week’s NTRA Poll.

At the moment, Close Hatches is in a class by herself, just like in the Personal Ensign.

Javier Castellano’s understanding of what’s needed to win turf races was key in his winning a second consecutive Angel Cordero Jr. riding title but, in a fashion, the buzz belonged to Irad Ortiz who, following his Belmont Summer co-championship, proved he belongs among New York’s elite.

Gratifying to see was the emergence of Itsmyluckyday onto the Grade 1 stage by virtue of his Whitney placing and Woodward score, and the consistency shown by the speedy and gutsy Moreno, who beat Itsmyluckyday before finishing second to him at meet’s end. They were good 3-year-olds that became good 4-year-olds.

Two runners that proved pleasant surprises were Stopchargingmaria and Palace, both of which would have been huge odds to sweep a pair of Grade 1s, but ‘Maria’ parlayed the Coaching Club American Oaks into the Alabama while Palace returned to win the Forego after first taking the A.G. Vanderbilt.

But it’s tradition, old and new, that sets Saratoga Race Course apart from the rest of the continent’s racetracks. Two newer ones; “Red Jacket Day,” in recognition of outstanding achievement, and the newly created “Jockey Legends Day’” have become heart-warming new events that will be cherished for years to come.

So if it was Wise Dan that stamped this season with respect to what was seen between the fences, it was the human being in the announcer’s booth that left an indelible impression on this session.

Saratoga 151 belonged to Tom Durkin. Bittersweet were the cheers and tears from the crowd that showed admiration and love for a horse racing practitioner that gave nothing less than his very best. And his best was more than that; it was unforgettable as Saratoga itself.

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, September 01, 2014


“Tom-my Dur-kin, Clap-Clap, Clap-Clap-Clap


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September, 1, 2014—What can you say about a legend?

“No words,” is an expression we’ve heard often recently, but usually it marks solemn occasions, such as the sudden, unexpected loss of Robin Williams. The moment is so profound that erudition is overmatched.

Legends are found on the silver screen or television, like Williams, or the stage, the baseball diamond or the gridiron. For the average American, knowing or loving a legendary figure is an unattainable fantasy.

But most people don’t feel that way about Tom Durkin. He is approachable, responsive, and racing fans have reached out to button-hole him virtually every day this meet, telling him what his calls, his words, have meant to them.

There’s a sign as you drive down Nelson Avenue toward High Rock Ave., propped up against a house on the corner. It says: “Arrrrh, thanks for the memories, Tom, you will be missed.”

Mayor Joanne Yepsen talked about Durkin’s presence and accessibility in the first of two ceremonies: “You are not only an icon in the racing industry but an icon right here in our great city.

“For Saratoga race fans, your voice was a familiar and reassuring presence, one of the sounds of Summer in Saratoga. [Your] warmth and generosity have earned great admiration in our city and many Saratogians are proud to consider [you] a friend.”

Her Honor spoke those words inside the announcement that proclaimed Sunday as “Tom Durkin Day.”

“You’ve got my vote,” responded Durkin over the track’s public address system.

Congressman Paul Tonko acknowledged Durkin’s contributions to the sport of horse racing via an official “Proclamation from the United States House of Representatives.”

Durkin later received a key to the City of Saratoga Springs from one of its leading citizens, NYRA Board member John Hendrickson, during Sunday’s public ceremony following Durkin’s last call, the 123rd running of the Spinaway.

And finally, it was Durkin’s turn at the microphone for the last time since he first became the voice of New York racing in 1990.

Acknowledging and thanking all the people responsible for his career would be impossible, he said, I would need to be at the podium thanking people until opening day in 2015, then he said this:

“There is one person that is completely and entirely responsible for this wonderful life that I’ve had the privilege to live in horse racing, and I’m happy to say that that person is right here in Saratoga today.

“He’s in the back yard, on a picnic bench underneath a pine tree, probably looking up at this very image right now, and she’s at the top of the stretch leaning over the rail, in the clubhouse, in a box seat, in a TV parlor in Syracuse, at a track in Ohio, in front of a computer terminal in California.

“And that person who I owe an inexpressible gratitude to is you, the racing fan, the horseplayer, thank you, thank you for it all, thank you for everything…

“And now it’s time to say one last thing into this microphone, and I’ve chosen these words very carefully, they are these: ‘Long live horse racing, and long live Saratoga’.”

And long live the man who this month was celebrated with the Jockey Club Medal of Honor for long and distinguished service, honored in the second annual ceremony of “Red Jacket” for his contributions to the sport and Saratoga Race Course, a saddlecloth from the jockeys, a #1, with the inscription ‘You Are the Man.’

Indeed, Tom Durkin has provided the soundtrack of our adult lives and created a template which many in his trade have followed, a primer for every would-be race caller to study carefully.

But to those in the industry lucky enough to call him a friend, his generosity of spirit, and depth of love for life, and for the living, dwarf his considerable professional skills.

Tom Durkin is one of those rare lights that if you’re fortunate enough to rub up against it, improves the quality of your life, a feeling which he has given to all those that have shared intimate moments.

He is a man who has an untold number of best friends, and he makes you feel that you are the only person in the room that has his complete and undivided attention.

Sunday brought the curtain down on a brilliant, legendary career. He burst on the scene as if it were yesterday, a 43-year career than can be described best in one word: “Splashtastic.”

And that’s that.

Written by John Pricci

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