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 28, 2016

A Travers Performance for the Ages

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 28, 2016—

Dear Diary,

In the post-race press conference following the 147th running of the Travers, Dr. John Chandler of Juddmonte Farms, who within a half-hour’s time saw Flintshire and Arrogate win two of the most prestigious races run at this storied course, was asked the meaning of Arrogate:

“Being arrogant,” answered Chandler, “but not in an unpleasant sense… and not really a real word.”

This description was totally apt, appropriate in the wake of what simply was one of the most dominatingly surreal performances in the history of Thoroughbred racing.

Hyperbole, you say? Fine.

Feel free designate another performance, other than Secretariat’s 1973 Belmont Stakes, Seattle Slew’s remarkable nose loss in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup and Dr. Fager’s world-record 1:32 1/5 mile in the 1968 Washington Park Handicap under 134 pounds.

Trying to find appropriate comparisons kept me awake Saturday night and these examples were the only three I could conjure. What 48,630 on-track fans and a national television audience saw on Saturday was truly a Thoroughbred performance for the ages.

In 1979, on one of those notoriously wet Saratoga afternoons, slop-loving General Assembly caught his favorite surface--a speed-favoring sloppy track--and ran off by 15 lengths to win the Travers in a track record 2:00.

In fact, there have been only three other sub-2:01 mile and a quarters in 147 years. On Saturday, over a dry track which was not aberrantly fast, Arrogate smashed General Assembly’s mark by a lot, his 13-1/2 length victory timed in an otherworldly 1:59.36.

And that was after being pressured throughout by two rivals in splits of 23.61, 46.84, 1:10.85 and 1:35.52. There have been only four opening quarter-mile splits that were faster and only one, Holy Bull in 1994, survived that.

Similarly, there were four half-mile fractions that were clearly faster and the best finish was Tumiga’s show effort in 1967, setting the table for Damascus’s record-smashing 22-length Travers victory.

Only Man o’ War, Honest Pleasure and Holy Bull were able to win the Travers after setting faster six-furlong splits.

Three other Midsummer Derby champions were able to deal with a faster one-mile split, including Ten Most Wanted from off the pace in 2003, and Jaipur’s unforgettable race-long speed duel with Ridan 54 years ago.

“What [Arrogate] did today is pretty incredible,” said his trainer, Bob Baffert, who thought he’d win last year’s Travers by a similar margin with the sport’s 12th Triple Crown champion.

“He looks like a superstar in the making. I think the fans… they'll remember watching a horse like this because I know when I see performances like this--very rare.

“Last year you probably could have poured me out of a shot glass,” Baffert recollected. “We were pretty dejected. The whole town came out to see [American Pharoah] do something like Arrogate did today. I'm just glad to be back here with another chance at it…”

For good measure, not only did Baffert finish second with American Freedom, albeit in another zip code, but he won the Grade 1 King’s Bishop with Drefong, another laugher made possible by the fact that there’s no speed in New York like SoCal speed.

As long as the New York riding colony—for as long as I can remember—don’t send horses out of the gate as is done in California, West Coast shippers will always have a tactical pace advantage.

As for the turf-pedigreed, athletic Drefong, he’s a sprint star in the making and will be getting weight as a three-year-old when Breeders’ Cup Sprint time rolls around.

Drefong’s 1:21.25 was 26/100s of a second slower than the older A. P. Indian, who won his fourth in succession, remaining undefeated in four starts at seven furlongs.

Arrogate was not the only cause of celebration for the Juddmonte folks.

Rabbit-aided Flintshire demonstrated his electric turn of foot and blew open the G1 Sword Dancer, getting through on the fence in early stretch following Javier Castellano’s overzealousness to save ground with the best horse in a small field.

However, Castellano deserved props for his superb handling of Cavorting to win the G1 Personal Ensign. It’s highly unusual to come from last behind dawdling fractions of 48.77 and 1:12.64, first time going nine furlongs and first time rounding two turns.

But Castellano jumped out in front of his four rivals from the outside slip, forced them to react somewhat, before he took back and waited in the back of the pack after working his way inside.

Castellano saved ground throughout and tipped widest after straightening away, rallying strongly late for a half-length victory while improving Cavorting’s Spa-loving record to 4-for-4: Textbook race ride.

Trainer Tom Morley has done incredible work with older sprinting mare Haveyougoneaway, coming back to repeat here following a lifetime best effort made winning the shorter Honorable Miss, July 27.

Horses that like Saratoga love it and horses do so well here they recover in shorter duration. As for the heavy G1 Ballerina favorite, Carina Mia, we don’t understand why she was so close to the early pace coming off the two-turn Coaching Club Oaks.

Later on, Lady Eli tried gallantly in her long-awaited return from a bout with laminitis but her patented late kick was missing. She grinded her way to a short lead but was outfinished by a somewhat underrated Strike Charmer; very well prepared Mark Hennig.

Meanwhile, kudos to leading trainer Chad Brown for getting Lady Eli back to the races at all.

As good as Cavorting was for Kiaran McLaughlin, Mohaymen was as bad, beating one horse in a field of 12. Current plans are for him to return at Gulfstream next season--if we ever see him again. He could use Nyquist’s “late growth spurt.”

Mohaymen’s light-bodied frame has definitively caught up with him. Where there’s much promise, there’s much disappointment.

Like Woodstock, someday 150,000 racing fans will claim to have been at Saratoga Race Course the day Arrogate made Travers history. But there’s no need for anyone to miss it; they can watch it here:

Announced attendance 48,630 rang true with respect to on-track handle of almost $10.779 million, a per capita of $222 with rounding.

Empirically, it felt smaller, and if the 50,000 attendance cap discouraged would-be late-comers, the benefit was for fans who did attend and were able to walk around comfortably all afternoon. It also made auto traffic congestion far more manageable.

From all sources, $45.596 million was wagered on the 13-race program.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (12)

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Stars Shine: Good Horses = Good Racing = Good Business

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 21, 2016—

Dear Diary,

Who said you can’t go home again? Like New Orleans, Saratoga is a place you feel more than see. It’s as if you’ve never left, especially given five decades of prior experience.

In Saratoga, the horse that has the right of way at all times. Posted signs virtually everywhere tells you as much.

As for Saturday’s racing, including the final two legs of a special Pick 4 wager that combined three Grade 1 stakes and a Grade 2, the final two legs at Del Mar, was spectacular.

Saturday was the kind of day when you feel sorry for all those people who just don’t get it about the game. Even the non-stakes where highly competitive, featuring many tight finishes.

Betting notwithstanding, it boggles the brain that sports fans seem unwilling to appreciate the athleticism involved in the sport of Thoroughbred racing; the equines, the jockeys and, most significantly, the interaction between them.

On sun-baked afternoons from coast to coast, two SoCal based horses, Songbird and California Chrome, were so dominant they made graded stakes-winning rivals appear inferior by comparison.

Questions were answered. Songbird, indeed, can carry her speed a mile and a quarter, even if it took 26.99 seconds to close the deal.

Songbird, of course, is now 10-for-10, and the Alabama was another “margin” victory: first by 7.

While Songbird dominated at the end, she won ridden out, not handily or easily. Mike Smith was taking no chances, giving her some left-handed encouragement in the stretch, the final reminder with a sixteenth to go.

Songbird: Before...

However, the performance and ride of the day, occurred cross-country. California Chrome, the top-ranked horse in America, justified his #1 ranking with an exclamation point victory in the Pacific Classic.

Jockey Victor Espinoza blasted out of the gate from his pole position and altered course to the outside entering the first turn as his main rivals, Beholder and Dortmund, chased from close range curling into the bend.

The wide tack forced Espinoza’s rivals into make a surprising, early decision, likely freezing them for a moment, wondering what Espinoza would do next.

From that point, Espinoza let the big chestnut roll and moved back closer to the rail. Down the backside, Gary Stevens on Beholder tried to put some pressure on ‘Chrome’.

Espinoza would have none of that, pulling the rug out from beneath his rival’s hooves with little more than five furlongs remaining.

After settling into a rating hold a second time, Espinoza tripped up his rivals once again, gaining separation at headstretch, blowing the race wide open.

Into the stretch and after straightening away, Espinoza looked back four times, twice over each shoulder, for competition that never materialized.

In midstretch the big powerful chestnut simply bounded away with a 23.20-fast opener, 47.29, 1:11.22, 1:35.69 and 24.44-fast home, for a final of 2:00.13.

It’s premature at this point, but California Chrome vs. Frosted looks like the Classic matchup everyone wants to see come the first Saturday in November.

...And After

Del Mar handled a record $25 million+ for the day while Saratoga did over $26 million…

THE LONGEST DAY: Post time for the last race on Saturday’s 12-race card was 7:28 pm. First post at Saratoga was 1 pm; you do the math. It’s just too long. To wit:

I brought my computer out to the car before the Fourstardave so I could go paddocking unencumbered for the back-to-back Grade 1s. I was astonished at the amount of people filing out the gate before the two best races on the card, including an undefeated champion, were staged.

Suddenly, on these long race days, maybe running the best races earlier in the day is the way to go. Aesthetically and traditionally I don’t like it, but if tracks are interested in “selling” the sport

We predicted that this would be Chad Brown’s year if the weather cooperated, but he’s been winning and placing with every type runner imaginable. (To be fair, we said the same thing last year).

MIND-BLOWING STAT: After saddling the first race winner ON Sunday, Chad was tied at 29 victories each--with jockey Johnny Velazquez! He’s up 11 on Todd Pletcher, who’s suddenly running out of racetrack.

The Ortiz brothers are in a battle at the top with Jose’s 35 wins leading Irad by one as of Saturday night.

Javier Castellano, aboard the Fourstardave runnerup, A Lot, claimed foul against Joel Rosario for alleged interference at the start when the winning Tourist crossed over to the inside, forcing Castellano to check.

The stewards correctly viewed the claim as an “incident of the start” and allowed the result to stand. The irony, you ask?

Castellano, ranked third at the Spa with 31 winners, crosses over in the homestretch drive more than any other rider we can conjure, and that tack affects the winning outcome far more often than does a problem at the break.

Fourstardave winner Tourist, meanwhile, was very good; stalking and drawing out despite a significant stumble on the far turn.

COAST-TO-COAST PICK 4: Considering the short lead time needed for promotion, the special Pick 4 from Saratoga and Del Mar handled a worthy $618,380. The announcement was made Thursday afternoon.

A multi-track Pick 4 seems like an interesting promotional tool to spur handle and interest. Tracks wishing to participate just should get their schedules, logistics and rules settled well in advance.

Also, the fact that NYRA’s Late Pick 4 with its sizable guarantees and 10% bonus to NYRA Bets winners, which properly mitigates takeout, needs scheduling alterations to be stressed significantly at the time that a Pick 4 special event is announced.

The Late Pick 4 traditionally is offered on the final four races on the card but yesterday’s sequence began a race earlier, a fact that was lost on many bettors Saturday, myself included.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

Comments (11)

Sunday, August 14, 2016

On the Road Again, Almost

LIC, NY, August 14, 2016—

Dear Diary,

It’s not Saratoga yet but we’re collecting out tack and will be on our way sometime in the next 48 hours.

On Saturday we kicked back some, made a few wagers and settle in to watch “Saratoga Live” for the first time. It’s unavailable in SoFla. We have FS1 in our area, not FS2.

But it almost didn’t matter, because it rained. And when summer storms appear in Saratoga, lots can happen, none of it very good.

But I, and the NYRA, got lucky. But the association deserves credit for creating a Grade 1 double wager featuring the newly upgraded Fourstardave—thank you Wise Dan—and the storied Arlington Million.

The Million was the first international seven-figure turf event in the U.S. and instant classic—thank you John Henry.

It would have been very successful, judging by the wide open nature of both races, but then storm clouds appeared on the horizon.

Because the storm figured to linger, racing was stopped at mid-card. Even the Fasig Tipton sales scheduled that night were canceled.

The lucky part was that “Saratoga Live,” looking to turn NYRA Bets into a true international ADW platform, dispatched Gabby Gaudet and along with Maggie Wolfendale and on-air handicapping talent had Arlington Park covered like a glove.

Just like Florent Geroux and Chad Brown, who, when racing ended Saturday, was five wins ahead of Todd Pletcher, 21-16, at Saratoga. But it was Geroux’s star that shined most brightly.

Interesting that it was Geroux, who, although “struggling at Saratoga,” would steal the show in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights.

Before Saratoga started, we guessed that in the end it would be Brown’s year to lead all Saratoga trainers—it’s not over by a longshot—but that “Flo” would make the jockey’s race interesting.

That hasn’t happened, through no fault of Geroux’s. Yes, the Saratoga jock room is as deep with talent as it has ever been, maybe the deepest ever, but Geroux is world class and neither he nor his agent have been able to breakthrough.

That’s because New York, like California was back in the day, apparently is now a closed shop. And maybe that has something to do with the fact that New York agents can represent two journeyman.

To me, there’s something wrong when four of five agents can tie up entire races.

Anyway, fields are larger in Saratoga than they are many times at Aqueduct or Belmont Park. How trainers do not have Doug Bredar near the top of their speed dial is unfathomable.

Just to be clear, I have no dogs in any fight but, hey, that’s racing, right?

And so by the end of a very different day of racing television, in which the production more than amply survived a God-made change in programming, all parties acquitted themselves well, especially Geroux.

Graded stakes victories, of which he has more than any other rider in the country this year, came back-to-back-to-back. Starting with the Grade 3 American St. Leger, then successive Grade 1s in the Secretariat and Beverly D.

Starting his day with a claiming victory, Geroux got his fifth in the finale, courtesy of the stewards and the stretch antics of Try Your Luck; half of the races on the 10-race card.

Two of the wins were aboard Mike Maker trainees, who deserves props for keeping The Big Hoss in career form virtually all year.

Geroux also won two for Brown with Beach Patrol, the trip horse of the Spa meet, and Sea Calisi, yet another top Europe-to-America purchase by owner Martin Schwartz.

The two Saratoga stakes, Adirondack Special and Fourstardave will be brought back next weekend. I hear Geroux has a few open calls.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (17)

Page 3 of 73 pages « FirstP  <  1 2 3 4 5 >  Last »