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 16, 2015

Jerkens and Nerud: Legendary Horsemen; Greater Men

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 16, 2015—It was only appropriate that if the seemingly indestructible John Nerud had to choose his time to step off the stage for good, it would be the week the New York Racing Association hosted a tribute in remembrance of H. Allen Jerkens.

Like most young people, I was way too smart to appreciate how great a man and horseman he was. It was only after he actively retired from training and got deeply involved in the marketing of Breeders’ Cup, which he co-founded with breeder John Gaines, did I get to know and value him personally.

Gaines and Nerud envisioned a season’s-end championship series and that’s exactly what they got. It might not have realized the same stature as the Triple Crown but don’t tell that to the bettors. They bring fistfuls of cash to the fray. Like the horses; they either win big or lose bigger.

Jerkens and Nerud were cut from the same horse blanket; only differently. Jerkens, as Saturday’s touching day-long tribute that featured still photos, video of his horse’s greatest victories and affectionate remembrances of the racetrack lives he touched everyday proved--he never stopped giving.

When Jerkens passed this winter in Florida, Gulfstream Park held a memorial service in their second floor Vegas-style theatre, the appropriately named Sport of Kings. Despite short notice many hundreds attended looking for a reason to smile, for a sport without Allen Jerkens was unacceptable.

As invited speakers told their Giant Killer stories, emotions swelled within the large South Florida gathering. To say goodbye in such fashion seemed an honor. On Saturday in Saratoga, it was more of the same, but different. New York is home.

And “Saratoga is,” as Allen Jerkens Jr. noted in a touching family eulogy from inside the winners’ enclosure, “well, Saratoga.”

Allen Jerkens Jr. is the spitting image in the Chief's favorite chapeau

Horsemen like Jerkens and Nerud are revered, exalted, held in awe, their names enshrined forever across from the Race Course on Union Avenue in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

On Saturday the Chief came home to Saratoga and will be there every time a trophy bearing his name is presented to the meet’s leading trainer. Accomplishment and circumstance make men great but only a soul can make a man beloved. In the end Jerkens killed the biggest giant of all; self-interest.

Nerud was the same, but different. Unlike the Chief, John Nerud was not shy and retiring. His speaking voice while high-pitched at times more resembled a bark. His aura demanded respect and once the intimidation factor was eliminated, his honesty demanded respect and admiration.

When Wayne Lukas was inducted into the Hall of Fame a decade ago he was surrounded by the protégés he taught; Todd Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin, Mark Hennig, to name a few.

For that, “the Coach” became known as a Trainer of Trainers. But his branch of the horsemen’s training tree began with Nerud, who also launched the careers of Scotty Schulhofer and Carl Nafzger.

Like Nafzger, Nerud came to racing via the rodeo circuit and was a groom, jockey, jockey agent--for Ted Atkinson, no less--trainer, owner and breeder, a renaissance horseman. He also played a role in developing the first synthetic racing surface with his client, William McKnight of 3-M fame. Remember Calder’s Tartan Track?

For McKnight, Nerud was brilliant enough to purchase an unknown sire named Rough n’ Tumble. One match in his first crop was a mating to the mare Aspidistra which begat a colt named Dr. Fager, the only Thoroughbred to win four in a single season; the Handicap, Sprint and Turf divisions including Horse of the Year.

I didn’t know Delegate first hand, Nerud’s first “big horse,” but I remember Intentionally’s name from the entries in the NY Daily Mirror when I first started following the game in 1959 at 15, two years older than Nerud was when he first became a rodeo cowboy.

Kiaran McLaughlin's Mutin is surrounded by Jerkens admirers.

Nerud also trained another all-time fave; the brilliant, highweight-carrying Ta Wee, often defeating males and winning consecutive sprint titles in 1969 and 1970. He also trained Gallant Man of Shoemaker-Derby-Gaffe fame, who later set a stakes record in the ‘57 Belmont until Secretariat’s world-record 2:24 in 1973.

In 1985, owner Nerud won the GI Breeders’ Cup Mile with his homebred Cozzene, trained by his son, Jan, the horse later becoming an influential sire. Nerud’s genius as a breeder can be found today in the bloodlines of two top sires; Tapit and Unbridled’s Song, and the race horses Shared Belief and presumptive Horse of the Year American Pharoah.

Like Jerkens, Nerud will be remembered as a man who championed the little guy. He has helped many backstretch workers and gave lots of jockeys a chance when no one else would. He was respected and well-liked by every racetracker he came in contact with.

At a time when the sport needs horsemen of influence, it has lost two of its greatest practitioners in history and two of its very best people.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, August 14, 2015

Time Marches in Different Directions

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 1, 2015—Call it whatever you wish because it cannot be gauged accurately but perhaps American Pharoah’s Triple Crown exploits were in the subconscious of buyers at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion Monday and Tuesday nights.

The accent is always on quality here and 145 yearlings walked in and out of the ring with price tags averaging more than $322,000 per head for a worth of nearly $67 million, the average a 10 percent bump year over year.

If business were any better they would have had to rename the place the Donald J. Trump Pavilion. Hey, there’s nothing this man can’t do.

There were three million-dollar babies among sold and Sheikh Mohammed bought the sales topper, a Street Cry colt for $1.4 million. Completing the top three were a Malibu Moon filly for $800,000 and a Tapit filly for $750,000.

Indeed Tapit had the three sales toppers on Monday, the first of two sessions, and only 15% failed to reach their pricey reserves. Was there a 2017 Derby or Oaks winner among them? All will be revealed between the fences in the spring after next.

The Midsummer Question: Let’s face it. If Bob Baffert had his druthers he wouldn’t be within 3,000 miles of Saratoga come August 29.

Of course, there are many dynamics at play here. There was the arduous road to and through the Triple Crown and then the Haskell. And while he won the latter geared down, fast races take a toll no matter how the job was accomplished; an effort is an effort.

Thankfully the Zayats want to see their colt run again, as do a handful of racetracks and millions of racing fans. But for Baffert, until he delivers the colt safe and sound to breeders at season’s end, it’s all pretty much downside. Who knew pressure would mount after the fact?

There is the matter of the plate in American Pharoah’s left foot, which he’s been racing with all season, and the management of an under-publicized high-suspensory issue that is disquieting for all those tethered to America’s 12th Triple Crown champion.

Churchill Takes Step in the Right Direction: Owing to criticism from horsemen and certain segments of the media alike, including HRI staffers, CDI has doubled the point values of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile across the board.

The Juvenile winner will now earn 20 points which would place him at least on the cusp of the final field, in all likelihood demanding merely an in-the-money finish in a points-qualifying event for the Kentucky Derby.

This tack should draw one or two players off the sidelines on this side of the Atlantic and another European qualifier that merely finishes fourth in the UAE Derby, worth 10 points. A total of 30 all but assures entrance after the usual prep season attrition.

Ed Martin: Friend of Horsemen; Enemy of Sport’s Future

“While the Jockey Club is to be commended for its commitment to the sport and its efforts at promotion and marketing, its departure on some significant issues from a cooperative effort with industry regulators as to how to address equine welfare and integrity challenges is most unfortunate,” stated the American Racing Commission International president Martin in a release.

“…Equine welfare and integrity challenges should be addressed holistically, working with the entire community of regulators. The Jockey Club possesses no regulatory authority other than as a breed registry.

“The collection of data in Jockey Club computers that is not seamlessly integrated with regulatory data system, potentially undermines the benefits to be achieved from these efforts.”

In other words, let we regulators continue to work with this patchwork quilt of states and woefully inadequate, underfunded testing laboratories so that we can buy another two decades of kicking this can down the road.

Contextually, it’s useful to recall his defense of clenbuterol before a congressional sub-committee investigating racing spurned in part by the catastrophic breakdown of the filly Eight Belles in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.

Recall, too, how he insinuated himself into the Rick Dutrow case in 2011 by orchestrating a suspension of Dutrow’s license in Kentucky which was used in his meddling into a case before New York’s State Racing & Wagering Board with the aid of then SRWB chairman John Sabini.

Martin worked extremely closely with Sabini who simultaneously serving on the Board of Directors, Executive Committee, and as chairperson of the board-elect of ARCI, making Sabini effectively judge, jury and executioner in the case.

“…I formally request the Board to commence a proceeding and issue a notice to show cause as to why [Dutrow’s license] should not be revoked given what appears to be a lifetime pattern of disregard for the rules of racing, wrote Martin to the SRWB.

“…In considering Mr. Dutrow’s suitability to continue his participation in racing, the Board is urged to take into account his adherence to rules in all jurisdictions he participated in…” On that same day, the RCI issued a press release to that effect.

The following day, Lisa Underwood, Executive Director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, sent an email to RCI Chairman Willie Koester, copying Sabini and questioning whether actions taken by Martin “were authorized by any directors of the executive board?”

“I think it was totally inappropriate for Ed [Martin] to send the letter and issue a release,” Underwood continued in an email. “I would be furious if he ever interfered with a Kentucky matter.” As it turned out, it was only the beginning of Martin’s involvement in the Dutrow matter.

All Hail Status Quo: In a separate but related matter, the Thoroughbred Racing Associations Board of Directors at their annual pre-Jockey Club Round Table meeting in Saratoga reiterated their firm commitment to the implementation of uniform medication policies with a sense of urgency throughout the United States.

Indeed, the TRA has assisted and has supported the adoption of the RCI uniform rules on the controlled therapeutic-substance schedule, accreditation of testing laboratories, third-party administration of Lasix, and uniform penalties for multiple medication violations.

The TRA Board supports an initiative to find an alternative to Lasix for treating exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. It states further that by the end of 2016, the TRA expects at least 35 of its 38 member tracks in the US will be operating under the RCI’s Uniform Medication Policy.

Will it ever end?

Racing’s policy wonks have been talked about these fixes for years, albeit more extensively since Congress began looming, and progress has been made. However, this flies in the face of objective oversight and the goal of eliminating race-day medication.

It’s ironic that all the alphabet groups combined are likely favorites to win the day, based on industry PPs. Never mind that rhetoric and tweaked policies won't get the job done in any substantive way that represents meaningful reform.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, August 09, 2015

An Inauspicious Beginning at the Spa

SCHROON LAKE, NY, August 9, 2015—Diary: The punishment for heresy is swift and immediate.

Arose at 6 a.m. Whitney morn, showered quickly, stopped at Anthony’s Deli in Lake Mahopac for bacon, egg and cheese on hard roll—sorry, the rest of the world outside New York City does not appreciate that hard rolls, bedecked with poppy seeds, are supposed to crunch on contact.

At 7:15 a.m., I jumped on the iconic Taconic and made the 2-1/2 hour drive north to the Spa City. After draining all the coffee, the mind started to awaken. Why am I doing this? As a media professional, I've spent the entire meet for 39 straight years.

Been there; rocked that.

But the Whitney card was so promising, important on so many levels, that I was jazzed to get to my seat in the press box, visit with friends and colleagues old and new—one of the best parts of my job.

All this effort. Is it worth it at this stage? Maybe next year’s sojourn will take me to Del Mar; never been there, never done that, owing to the Saratoga conflict. Besides, I’m still searching for great fish tacos and heard I can find it where the turf meets surf.

A strange thing happened as I exited #23 on the Thruway: If you’re headed to Saratoga from the south, take exit #24 Albany. At once, it’s around-about yet more direct, and you avoid the construction pockets on SR 787 that way.

Upon exiting 787 I saw the first sign that directed drivers to Saratoga Springs and the strangest thing happened: the only way I can describe it is that seeing the words Saratoga and Springs linked together, my heart skipped a beat.

To absolutely no one I shouted WTF?! Clearly, this was unexpected. Upon seeing the second Saratoga Springs road sign at the Northway entrance, my thoughts turned to ‘I don’t know, I guess this really is some magical place’.

Even though I entered the building at around 9:30, I knew that for horseplayers, this WAS Mecca. Horses have the right of way at all times and there are seemingly small children everywhere.

Red Smith and all the ghosts from Saratoga press boxes past knew this is a special place and wrote about it often. Of course, they were right.

My first bet, harmless enough, was a small wager on a two-turn turf race for maiden 2-year-olds, most of which were first time starters: In racetrack parlance, this chapter from the handicapper’s playbook is titled “The Educated Guess.”

However, if Saratoga is anything it’s about pedigree and connections as much as it’s about exposed form: Trust your instincts. For me, this case called for a blend turf and distance pedigree from known “grass barns.”

I don’t know Adam Rice or his moves yet, but I know the family tree well; they’re all bred for turf. In fact, turf races, albeit sprints, helped Aunt Linda to the first training title by a female in Saratoga racing history.

Second-time starter Monster Bea made debut at Presque Isle over one of the few synthetic surfaces I ever liked—actually there was only one other, Hollywood’s Cushion Track, an experiment so successful that the track doesn’t exist anymore.

Sorry, diary, but sometimes irony is such cruel fun.

So a small 4-horse exacta box dismissing favorites and a small win bet on Monster Bea was a modest $15 investment while awaiting the graded stakes portion of the program to learn whether or not I was walking around lucky.

Monster Bea won paying $25.80. Repeat after me, ‘I should have bet more’. But not only that, it was my first taste of the punishment I would endure this Whitney day.

A 5-1 shot completed an exacta worth $166, splitting me in the final strides. My third finisher was 20-1 on the tote.

Don’t ask.

I was exacta-split three more times this day but it was OK; Liam’s Map would get me well. Repeat after me, ‘damn tough beat’!

But the saddest part was losing, actually leaving, a voucher worth $50 or $55 at the self-service betting window in the press box.

If you’re good, you will lose money two of every three times you wager--you know that going in. But this was like going up to the press box roof and throw a ‘fiddy’ into the crowd below.

I called the mutuels department and received polite, prompt, and excellent service. A supervisor was in the press box in 10-15 minutes and took my information. There was a follow-up phone call asking whether a supervisor had arrived.

I had the last ticket purchased before the voucher was dispensed and supervisor Jim told me the voucher was traced and found the bets had been made on it already but that a stop had been placed so that no more bets could be made on it.

I was hoping that my ticket brought some press box occupant luck and perhaps a voucher would stealthily reappear at my work station, no questions asked. Jim took my cell info but thus far no news has been bad news.

When mutuel clerk Charlesann returned to her live betting window next door, she was outraged that no one had turned the ticket into her for safe keeping, should its rightful owner inquire.

I learned two lessons my first day back in town: For the 14th time, I learned to be careful not to leave a betting voucher in the SAM before leaving the window.

And, secondly, that I wasn’t the only heretic in the Saratoga press box on this particular Whitney afternoon.

Written by John Pricci

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