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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, August 16, 2013


Chris Kay Getting Off to Fast Start


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 16, 2013—On Thursday, Paul Post of the Saratogian wrote a news story, the contents of which might be the best news a New York Thoroughbred racing fan have read in a very long time.

It’s clear that that while President and CEO Chris Kay might not have known a great deal about Thoroughbred racing when he got the job a few short months ago, he’s smart enough to know what he doesn’t know and finds a way to fix a problem while getting on-the-job training simultaneously.

Under Kay’s direction, the new New York Racing Association plans to fill a newly created position of executive director of racing position this fall. NYRA already has issued a request for proposals for an executive search firm to lead the selection process and recommend potential candidates.

Considering that his time on the job dates all the way back to July 1, Kay has gotten out of the administrative starting gate with 22-44 type speed. This might not be your father’s NYRA after all.

The new executive racing director would oversee the daily racing program and advise NYRA from a racing frame of reference how to best re-brand and promote the game at its downstate properties, Belmont Park and Aqueduct Racetrack.

One way to improve the product and create interest in what was once regarded as the industry’s clear leader: Shorten the racing season slightly by reducing the number of racing days per week and number of races carded on weekday programs.

Quality New York racing would return and field size would grow immediately. Trolling the lower classes for parimutuel fodder hoping that a gateful of lower class horses will be good for business turned out to be a temporary fix to a permanent problem; the mainstream decline of interest in Thoroughbred racing.

Other issues on Kay’s first agenda include maximizing property usage in the same manner that baseball’s Cardinals are proposing to build a “Baseball Village” to enhance the fan experience; customer surveys to help management make informed decisions on the kind of entertainment sports fans want when they enter a racetrack.

In short, Kay wants to know who his customers are, what they like and don’t like, why they came and why they might or might not return. “We need to understand who our customers are and why.” First it must make sense financially.

Horse of the Year? Who Cares?

If there’s a good thing to acknowledge about polls, it’s that the consensus of opinions provide a snapshot to those who may be interested in the pecking order of things, but do not have the time necessary to follow a given situation in earnest.

Consider the NTRA Poll for Top Thoroughbred. A pair of six-year-old geldings have won all four of their 2013 starts. They are thisclose to each other in the voting for first place but tower over the remaining American Thoroughbreds in captivity.

The top point setter is Wise Dan, an emphatic winner of the Grade 2 Fourstardave at one mile on the grass under a steadying 129 pounds, spotting 11 pounds to a sharp, loose-leading and still developing New York-bred rival, King Kreesa. It was an excellent performance.

The effort was so good, in fact, that I reversed my exacta from the previous week, placing him in front of Game On Dude instead of the other way around. I did it grudgingly because of the nature of the accomplishment but couldn’t in good conscience deny its worthiness.

However, if last week’s poll were to be the one determining my preference for Horse of the Year 2013 it likely would go a a horse that distinguished itself on dirt over a distance of ground or a turf runner that was more accomplished a traditional route distances.

Last week in the Racing Post, noted turf writer Sam Walker had some unkind things to say about the campaign being waged by owner Morton Fink, the decider, and trainer Charlie LoPresti, the adviser. This is, of course, the natural order of things.

Much of what Walker wrote was accurate in our view. Unfortunately, much of it came across as arrogant and mean spirited. Not that I find anything wrong with a little well-placed elitism, but a modicum of temperance is always appreciated, albeit dated these days.

“U.S. turf racing is second tier,” wrote Walker. “It doesn't take a great horse to excel in that division and the situation is nothing like being the best miler in Europe, or the best sprinter in Australia - positions which carry global significance.

“Turf horses in the U.S. have their own separate categories at the Eclipse Awards because they are a side dish. Dirt horses don't require separate awards because dirt is the main course. It's the surface everyone wants to win on; the surface they were all bred for.

“Being the best turf horse in America is like being the best harness, quarter horse or show pony. It's commendable but largely irrelevant in racing circles unless you also happen to be top class on dirt.” Not sure why Walker had to disparage harness racing or quarter horses to make his point.

But a show pony? A little cheeky, eh mate?

Walker did give Wise Dan his due, saying that he is top class on turf, dirt and synthetics. “And that is exactly what he built his reputation on. Not simply by being the best horse on the U.S. turf, but by being the most versatile.”

That’s the part of Wise Dan’s talent that Fink either doesn’t appreciate or chooses to ignore. And while Walker was not temperate in some of the things he wrote, it wasn’t as if Fink and LoPresti were respectful in consideration of Eclipse tradition.

“I don’t care at all [about Horse of the Year],” said Fink the morning after the Fourstardave. “I could care less about Horse of the Year,” said LoPresti. In its way, that’s almost as disparaging as comparisons to quarter horses and show ponies.

The possibility remains that Wise Dan is the best horse in America on any surface. In fact, he has run faster performances figures in a synthetic track and his best race last year came in a losing effort on dirt—a narrow, tough-trip, weight-spotting run in the G1 Stephen Foster.

Walker makes the point properly that it is Wise Dan’s versatility that sets him apart and that this should be featured in his campaign. It’s what Wise Dan’s fans and critics are longing to see.

Instead, it will be the path of least resistance, not the road that leads to the kind of immortality reserved for sporting owners who sought challenges and not the safety of specialty racing.

Some have argued that Wise Dan is a Horse of the Year by default because a lack of domination elsewhere. But 2012 started with three top-class performances on three disparate surfaces. Versatility is Wise Dan’s milieu; it helped kame him a star.

But the 2013 campaign lacks versatility of any kind. Not only are the future targets softer and more familiar, but those challenges will come at scale-weights.

Wise Dan could still make history, of course: There hasn’t been a walkover since Spectacular Bid in the 1980 Woodward, which could have been a target had Fink placed his horse in historical context, not the softest spot.

"We've got so many honors, it's unbelievable,” said Fink last weekend. “All we care about is do the right thing for the horse. We're not trying to make it harder and harder on him. What does he have to prove?”

That will be for history to decide, not the bottom line.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, August 11, 2013


HELP WANTED: Jockey with Common Sense


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 11, 2013—Folks that have been HRI regulars and Newsday readers before that know that I’m no jockey basher. But after today’s Adirondack Stakes, the following will be the exception to my personal rule.

Corey Lanerie was totally overmatched aboard odds on and formerly undefeated Fiftyshadesofgold in the storied Grade 2 at 6-1/2 furlongs. After the late scratch of Untapable, Bret Calhoun’s filly was relegated to a position closest to the rail in the field of six, an unlucky happenstance that contributed to the events.

Lanerie had the filly in a compromising position right from the start and despite at least two opportunities to alter the course of the big, scopey gray filly to the outside for clear running, he kept her down on the inside saving a little ground--as if the filly beneath him were 35-1 and not 35-Cents on the dollar.

You’d think that after the two fillies on her right flank veered in soon after the start and bumped her, he’d have eased his filly back, cover her up but keep her off the inside so that he could do the dictating and not be dictated to. But he stayed right where he was.

At headstretch, Lanier and Fiftyshadesofgold were still inside, had another opportunity to tip out for a clear run but didn’t. Instead, he elected to attempt getting through on the fence and got eliminated from winning contention when Who’s In Town beneath Joel Rosario bore in.

Was Fiftyshadesofgold interfered with? Absolutely. But the filly never should have been put in that situation in the first place. And that’s too bad for the filly, her trainer, and the Scharbauer family that owns her.

The owners were lucky once before when one of their runners nearly was knocked over in the stretch, but Alysheba and Chris McCarron recovered and went on to win the 1987 Kentucky Derby anyway. In this game, I guess no one’s entitled to that kind of good fortune more than once.

THE BRONX IS UP AND THE BATTERY’S DOWN


Total wagering on races at Saratoga Race Course increased from last year through the first 20 days of the 4-day meet according to New York Racing Association statistics. The increase reflects handle from all-sources and the half of one percent increase is testimony to the stretch of the Saratoga brand.

On-track handle, however, fell by nearly 3 percent year over year and attendance decreased by 2.2 percent. The association cited the extreme heat on opening day and poor weather for the track’s first giveaway day.

While this is true, the excuses are misleading. On balance, the weather thus far has been good, borne out by the fact that there have been 15 more turf races thus far than in 2012 and only eight races were lost compared to 21 last year.

The lack of support might reflect something else; that too much of a good thing is just too much, making a day at the Spa a little less special. Nine race programs are virtually a thing of the past.

And despite 13 more turf races this year--with their larger fields--still could not help the average field size to lower from 8.3 starters per race to 8.2. The math is simple: With the number of available running horses remaining virtually static, more races will deplete the possible number of starters.


TERRIFIC AND PROLIFIC


Soon after Sweet Whiskey hit the finish line first in her debut, a colleague said: “the rich are getting richer.” Said another in reply: “That’s the way it works.” So what happened after that? Well, the rich got richer, and richer, and…

The debut winner, Sweet Whiskey, lived up to the hype, winning her debut in an extremely worthy 1:02.81. The chatter was that the Todd Pletcher trained filly had been outworking Our Amazing Rose, an uber impressive debut winner earlier at the meet.

“There were a couple of other fillies she’d been training with who had already started at the meet and ran well,” the trainer said post-race…She lived up to our expectations. I was impressed by the time; it was very fast.”

Also living up to expectations were We Miss Artie, Teen Pauline and Corfu, the game Saratoga Special winner who narrowly defeated the Sanford winning Wired Bryan on opening weekend.

That would give Pletcher four on the day, increasing his lead by 11 winners over Chad Brown, who has saddled a dozen winners in the first half of the Saratoga 150 meet.

Those four winners, plus She’s Stoned Sis, gave Johnny Velazquez five for the day, vaulting him to within five of meet leading Joel Rosario, who has a one-win lead on Javier Castellano.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, August 10, 2013


Wise Dan Very Impressive But No Closer to Horse of the Year Repeat


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY August 10, 2013---The Horse of the Year runs today but somehow it’s tomorrow that holds a more interest for this race fan. Maybe it’s because going in Wise Dan has been there and has done this before, in last year’s Fourstardave in fact.

On Sunday, however, it’s all about the future, unknown challenges in store for young, inexperienced horses that are being asked to do things they’ve never done before; at distances, on surfaces, under conditions, and against competition that have the same profile—promising futures.

In the Adirondack Stakes, the puzzle is whether Fiftyshadesofgold is as good as her first two races say she is, especially her most recent start, Churchill’s Debutante, which she won as impressively and effortlessly as horses can. But this is Saratoga, where scores can really change.

Thirty minutes later, it will be young boys out to prove which has the most upside--not only in the day’s Saratoga Special but beyond. Wired Bryan sure looked like the goods winning the Sanford here opening weekend; two wins from two starts by an aggregate 12-½ lengths.

And what about Corfu, who put away multiple challenges and held doggedly to break maiden in his debut? Or Candy Dandy, much the best in his maiden breaker at Churchill, or Danza, who proved to Permanent Campaign and observers he just wants to beat you. Check the videos.

While you still have hold of the mouse, check out Lunarwarfare winning his debut at Gulfstream. Of course a facile win at 4-1/2 furlongs is meaningless, especially when shipping up, moving up, and stretching out to meet the challenge of your young life.

Whatever the dynamic, it was an amazing performance by a previously unraced youngster. Maybe he is as good as the performance indicates; maybe he isn’t and owner-trainer Michael Yates is only here to test the private-purchase market.

Whatever happens tomorrow, it will be more intriguing than seeing something a Horse of the Year has done before, seven out of eight times. Make it eight out nine now, and kudos to the defending champion to accomplish it in the manner seen over a course made good by Friday’s heavy rains.

The sad part, though, is that it’s unlikely Wise Dan will ever be as popular as Fourstardave, a New York bred who never was Horse of the Year or anything close, but who accepted every challenge owner Richard Bomze and trainer Leo O’Brien demanded of him.

Fourstardave made over a million the old fashioned way; beating up on his ilk. But it was his exploits at the old Spa that made him the people’s horse, one they would name a street after--Fourstardave Way—just outside the clubhouse gates.

Fourstardave had a remarkable 100-race career, winning 21 and finishing in-the-money on 55 occasions. As a 9-year-old, he won a race at Saratoga for eight consecutive years, one for every win that Wise Dan has going a mile on grass.

Like Woody’s five Belmonts, or Jonathan Sheppard’s 45-year win streak at Saratoga, don’t look for that standard to fall anytime soon. But say this about Wise Dan in today’s featured Grade 2: It’s a race that won’t be forgotten by anyone that saw it.

The numbers are as follows: After tracking an ever improving and speedy King Kreesa in the pocket through moderate fractions of :24.24 and :47.48, he was tipped off the fence by Johnny Velasquez reached three-quarters on even terms with the leader, six furlongs in 1:10.59.

And the tempo increased once again as the defending champion responded to stout hand drive, coming his final quarter-mile in :23.01, making that last half in a stout 46.12 seconds and stopping the timer at 1:34 for the mile.

And so Wise Dan added 60 percent of a half-million dollars to the purse account of owner Morton Fink and trainer Charlie Lopresti but did little to insure that he will defend his Horse of the Year title even if he runs the one-mile-on turf, weight-for-age table.

In 2012, everything broke perfectly for him to snatch the Horse of the Year title. This year, the handicap dirt division is salty and deeper than it was last year. Further, there is the possibility that one of two Todd Pletcher-trained 3year-olds; Belmont-Jim Dandy winner Palace Malice, or Wood Memorial-Haskell winner Verrazano, will defeat their elders this fall.

But for Saturday, August 10, the day belonged to impressive Horse of the Year Wise Dan, who ran down New York-bred miler King Kreesa in the shadow of the Spa wire.

Written by John Pricci

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