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.
 

Wednesday, August 09, 2017


Time Is the Cure for Spate of Spa Breakdowns


SARATOGA SPRINGS, August 9, 2017—

DEAR DIARY,

Before Day 16 of the annual celebration of Thoroughbred horse racing known as the Saratoga race meet is completed, I wanted to begin the diary by talking numbers.

But instead of referencing the excellent attendance and handle metrics, or how Todd Pletcher is closing gap on main rival Chad Brown, or how Irad Ortiz Jr. is only one win behind younger brother Jose, the numbers that stick out are 14 and 11.

At last year’s Saratoga race meet, 14 horses suffered catastrophic injuries resulting in euthanasia Sadly, in 2017, the number of fatalities current stands at 11 and counting.

The skinny is there’s something demonstrably wrong with main track surface. Everybody knows it but nobody knows at this point how to fix it, at least not while America’s premier race meet is reaching the midway point of its season.

All this as the Alabama, Travers and Woodward horses are waiting in the wings.

Under the condition of anonymity, we spoke with seven horsemen over a period of three days. The stakeholders deal in different disciplines although most, of course, train race horses for a living.

There are numerous theories, many reasonable explanations for why the breakdowns are occurring, but it may be a problem that everyone must to learn to live with until meet’s end on Labor Day. Only time will tell.

The hope is that we don’t see another tragedy, of course. It’s something of a miracle that a jockey hasn’t been seriously injured, although one nearly was during a training accident on the main track last week.

We thought the problem might have been solved when over the last two complete days of racing, August 6 and 7, the track played fairly, not favoring any particular style of running.

On Sunday and Monday, if you had speed, saved ground, and were the best horse, you won. If the pace was hot enough, you could rally down the center of the track as the speed was tiring. Finally, race dynamics were beginning to make sense.

But I recall exclaiming “what the hell?” while watching opening day on television in South Florida—the “And They’re Off at Saratoga” lid-lifter—as the first-race field curled into the lower clubhouse turn, clods were flying every which way, lots of clods.

To me it appeared that the track was playing beyond cuppy. You don’t race a mile and an eighth run on a dead track in a 1:55 and see no positional changes. It was the kind of merry-go-round that went beyond routine speed biases that surface on occasion.

One trainer we spoke with who was schooling two year olds at the gate, walked over to the seven-furlong chute to get a closer look and told me it was “really tough” walking on the main dirt track.

Another horseman said “it’s not like the surface is that deep but it holds you, pulls at you like quicksand. If my shoes weren’t tied tight they would have come off.”

Another stakeholder spoke with two highly respected veteran jockeys who said “the problem is that the track is inconsistent. It’s like the first turn is different than the far turn, the backstretch is different than the front stretch.

“It acts normal, then in different spots horses would just bog down,” the jockeys told the source.

As was first reported in independent racing media by Mark Berner of HorseRaceInsider on August 1, what made this spate of injuries unusual is the number of hind leg injuries. Unlike front leg compression injuries, back legs propel horses forward, supplying the power. But if your stride is compromised by the surface...

While hind end injuries do occur as a matter of course, most horses sustain foreleg injuries. But if horses are having the same difficulty as humans who try to extract their feet from the holding track, this is how accidents happen.

One stakeholder we spoke with Sunday morning recounted a conversation he had with a trainer friend weeks before the meet began. He offered “I know that they added a lot of clay to the track recently, what does that mean?”

“It means broken bones,” the trainer said. Clearly, adding new material was a factor but it’s not that simple. There are plenty of safe clay-based surfaces but they’re not holding ones like this, they are the kind of surfaces that horses skip over.

“I don’t know where the thinking comes from but many people have this idea that deeper surfaces are safer than faster ones? That’s not true, it’s a matter of how they are maintained.”

And when.

“We’re all looking for explanations and there are many theories out there,” said yet another horseman who, like many of his colleagues, have sent their horses over to the Oklahoma training track for morning trials.

Many horses that put in fast final workouts before their first local start raced poorly, the works taking too much out of them, sapping their racing reserves.

“I know [track superintendent] Glen Kozak. He’s a good man, he cares, and he knows what he’s doing. But I know this is keeping him up nights.”

Some horsemen complained that there always seems to be a tight seal on the surface too much of the time. “Tracks have to breathe, they have to be opened up. Dirt tracks are living things; they need water and nutrients to thrive, just like humans do.”

“Let’s face it,” said one. “Some of the best trainers on the world are here and they bring their best horses. Everyone wants to win, it’s so competitive. So when you have 20 to 30 lengths separation from first to last in so many races, something’s wrong.”

As referenced earlier, we thought the problem was close to being solved as we observed the races of August 6 and 7. After the finale on Whitney Day, three tractors came out of the maintenance yard and began to “roll” the track; compact the surface.

image
Tractor #3 filled with concrete blocks.

The first two tractors were tugging 10 huge drums. We counted as many as 11 wheels stacked across the track that served as rear wheels to support their heavy loads. The third tractor had its bin full of what appeared to be huge, thick, heavy concrete slabs.

From my press box window, I have watched tracks being rolled for nearly a half century and never have seen anything quite like this. They made one circumference, covering 4 or 5 paths wide, then made a second pass that extended nearly to the crown of the track.

Judging from Sunday’s and Monday’s results, the tack appeared to work--until the next catastrophic breakdown. Unfortunately, fixing the problem completely may have to wait until next year. Racetracks, like race horses, need time.

image
First two tractors toting weighted drums

If there was one theory resembling consensus it was that clay was added too late and there wasn’t enough time to allow the main track to settle.

Two of the seven stakeholders we spoke with said the exact same things in the same way: “You can’t shut a track down for 10 months, open it 10 days before the meet starts and expect things to be normal.

“You have to let the top settle, open it up so that it mixes properly, especially when you’re adding materials like clay that holds water. There wasn’t enough time to allow the clay to mix into the racetrack. Now that we’re three weeks in, maybe the track is settling.”

The fault does not lie at the feet of Kozak. This North Country spring was unusually wet and the clay couldn’t be added until after a horse show was staged on the main track. It’s one thing to be community-minded; it’s another to run a racetrack.

While it may be too late this year, something can be done to improve the main track surface before the 2018 meet.

One horseman said Allen Jerkens once told him the association used to plant winter wheat on the Saratoga main track, making the dirt rich in nutrients prior to the snow blanket of winter.

Also in the day, Hialeah, with a deserved reputation as one of the safest racetracks ever, benefitted from the growing of soybeans during the off season. Remember the rich, brown color of the surface?

The hope is, now that the meeting is nearly halfway home, the track will continue to settle and that the human and equine athletes, and the pocketbooks of bettors, will all benefit from improved conditions.

I-Phone Photos

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, August 06, 2017


Saratoga Diary: “Too Bad About John Pricci”


SARATOGA SPRINGS, August 5, 2017—This was supposed to be a whimsical piece about how great it is to return home to Saratoga.

And having lived here for 13 years before calling South Florida home, it would have been more than just a racing tale.

Because I am, and always will be, a New Yorker, who happens to be living in Florida now.

But recent events appear to be much more serious, whimsy inappropriate. In short, it was a matter of life and death: Mine.

Fortunately for me or, as Mark Twain famously said, “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” For the moment, anyway.

One of the great things about returning to any place you once called home is seeing old friends in places where all racetrackers, practiced in the art of spouting the wisdom of John Nerud, reside from time to time.

“There are three stages in life,” Nerud once explained to NYRA’s Tony Johnson. “There’s youth, middle age, and ‘you look good’!”

Irony, of course, often has to do with amazing coincidence. Before seeing an old press box friend on Whitney morning, I had driven into town Friday night, was making a left onto Broadway, and thought of a friend recently passed, John Piesen.

Some backstory: Working in the same market, at the same jobs, with first names of John and a surname beginning with the letter ‘P’, names that were six letters long, well many fans were confused.

“So, how are things at the New York Post?” I was often asked. No doubt these same folks asked John Piesen how he was making out at Newsday.

I thought of John, this being the first year he would miss Saratoga in a half century. I thought of him, too, because there was a span of five or six years we celebrated Whitney eve together, along with Pohla Smith of UPI and later the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

There was no emotional attachment to Whitney eve necessarily, just another excuse to throw down a few at a watering hole on South Broadway. No one missed an opportunity back then; it was only a 24-day meet.

The night before opening day this year, another old friend, Matt Graves of the Albany Times-Union, the “Russ Harris of the North Country” because he picked more winners than any living human, was celebrating the return of another Spa season with friends.

Graves indeed holds the record with 141 winners picked at Saratoga one season, beating out about another 20 public handicappers, myself included, in the process.

Anyway, Graves was lifting a glass when his brother John said, “yeah, and it’s too bad about John Pricci.”

“What are you talking about?” Matt asked. “Oh, John died about a month ago.”

Graves told me this story in the Saratoga press box on Whitney morning. “So when I just said I was happy to see you this morning, I really meant that I was happy to see you. But that’s not the story.”

“Later that night I’m lying in bed watching Channel 13, and [sports anchor] Rodger Wyland says “and later on, we’ll have John Pricci’s first pick of the Saratoga season… I almost fell out of bed. And there you were.” At this point, I’m buckled over.

“No, wait,” said Graves, “there’s more.”

My brother and I are driving to the track Friday morning and Wyland says on his radio show, “After these messages, we’ll be back with John Pricci’s Xpressbet Bankroll Play of the Day.”

“You idiot,” Matt screamed at John, “I told you he didn’t die.”

On opening day, and every Friday during the Spa meet, Wyland and his partner Chris Onorato do a trackside remote for ESPN Radio, 104.5-FM The Team.

“Hey Preach, how are you?” Rodger asks me on the phone line. Crickets. There were some technical difficulties between the remote location and the broadcast studio.

“OK, we seem to be having difficulty with John’s phone, but he’ll be with us soon so don’t go away…”

“Hey John, we’ve finally got you now, so, are ready for opening day? John? John can you hear us?” More crickets, followed by the sound of a phone that went: Click.

“See, I told you!” John said to brother Matt.

Suddenly, it was 11:30 and time for Paul Lo Duca’s spot. NYRA’s newest “Saratoga Live” talent did his thing and I finally got on at about 11:45 am, “Big Board Sports’” final segment.

The cliché “better late than never” never was more applicable.

And, now that I am reminded again, yesterday I missed seeing John, and Paulie, and Wolfie, and Jack, and Bill, and Bill and Rick...

LET THE WAR OF WORDS BEGIN: I’m voting Gun Runner #1 when I submit my NTRA ballot Monday morning.

Now I’m not saying that if Gun Runner and Arrogate both brought their A+ games to a race at equal weights that Gun Runner is a better horse than Arrogate.

(Although Steve Asmussen did say he was thinking about how Arrogate beat his horse twice; the first time by 10, the second a little more than two. “We’re getting closer...”)

Agreed: In a perfect Grade 1 world, the Pegasus and Dubai World Cup on balance are more prestigious than the Stephen Foster and Whitney.

The difference for me is that in between three 2017 victories, Gun Runner was a good second to Arrogate in Dubai, while in his lone defeat Arrogate finished nowhere in Del Mar’s San Diego.

After his breeze earlier this week, Bob Baffert pronounced his horse is back and will stick with scheduled plans to run in the Pacific Classic.

I expect his effort there will prove that the San Diego was an aberration. We anticipate seeing Arrogate’s dominance on display once more.

But that’s just what I expected Always Dreaming to redeem his Preakness disappointment in the Jim Dandy.

Of course, I’m allowing for the fact that Todd Pletcher left some Travers gas in the tank and that Baffert will have Arrogate at 100 percent in two weeks.

But the point is that Arrogate has something to prove at Del Mar--that he’s the same Arrogate that has bedazzled us all who have watched him from the 2016 Travers to his remarkable 2017 Dubai World Cup victory.

Until August 19, on the most recent evidence, Gun Runner earned the #1 spot with his Whitney tour de force, spotting weight to all and giving them a thrashing.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, September 06, 2016


Final Saratoga Diary of 2016, and Then Some…


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, September 6, 2016—So many stories, so little bandwidth:

Economic Indicators Down in August: Despite the renewal of this country’s two most impactful boutique race meets, handle metrics were down significantly. With 6.08% fewer races, handle was down 9.37%.

Maybe there’s only so much betting money to go around, or: Could it be that high degree-of-difficulty horizontal wagers—the only type the game seems to promote (are you reading this, TVG?) ultimately takes more money out of circulation than it brings in?

Rabbit Redux: The use of rabbits in horse racing is nothing new and is quite routine around the world which makes it easier for the super-stables to dominate individual races. In the Sword Dancer, jockey Aaron Gryder did his job, albeit carelessly.

My thought? Did Javier Castellano have to ride America’s best turf horse as if he were astride some no-hope price shot, needing to save ground at any cost?

Saving ground wins grass races, of course, but was it really necessary to do so to such an extent in a short field with a strong pace? Poor execution, we believe.

Who knows? Maybe the real reason Roman Approval’s trainer objected--and subsequently his owner, too, on appeal--is because super-stable’s domination of the entry box yields a disproportionate and unfair advantage.

Flintshire’s trainer Chad Brown had three separate entrants in the seven-horse Grade 1.

When Gryder got off the fence with Inordinate to allow Flintshire through, he came back in and forced Maker’s Roman Approval to check.

Roman Approval was in no danger of pulling off the upset, but Gryder’s careless tack arguably cost Roman Approval a larger share of the purse.

The stewards were right not to alter the winning order of finish. But had Gryder received, say, a three-day suspension, it would have sent a message worth sending. I’m in favor of uncoupled entries with separate ownership interests as field size does matter.

But it’s disingenuous when bettors make a big deal of betting on large fields but argue for stable couplings. On second thought, I might be wrong about uncoupled entries. Maybe it is time to revert to trainer couplings, certainly a more equitable choice.

Rosario’s Woodward Ride Frosts Bettors: It was not Joel Rosario’s finest 1:48.92, far from it. Then neither was it Frosted’s, who entered the race off an unbelievably fast Met Mile--earning the fastest Thoro-Graph performance figure ever—followed by a visually stunning, dominant and rapidly run Whitney score.

Coming off consecutive top efforts is reason enough for a dull performance. The dye was cast at the start when Frosted left the gate with his head held high, but if Rosario’s body language is the measure, the rider was egregiously overconfident to the public’s detriment.

Settling in sixth behind an extremely moderate 48.43 was fine, but then to only hand ride his mount while very wide on the far turn, showing no urgency, and thinking it was OK to rally eight across the track while still under mild urging is heavy-fine worthy at least.

Given Rosario’s contemptuous handling, my first thought was maybe the big gray is empty and the rider didn’t want to hurt the horse’s lofty reputation in defeat. Frankly, I didn’t know what to think.
After straightening away, Rosario allowed Frosted to drift in on his left lead, doubtlessly hoping that seeing rivals would produce a surge of energy from Frosted, which it did.

But approaching the sixteenth pole, while still under no serious urging, Frosted continued to drift inward. Javier Castellano, saving ground and horse throughout, surged inside for the victory as Frosted’s mate, Mubtaahij, was saving the place from between horses.

The fact that Frosted resents being whipped in well publicized. But had Rosario gotten down on his belly sooner and “showed” Frosted the stick, the 2-5 Woodward favorite might have gotten the message clearly. As for the visuals, the optics were awful.

The King Is Dead, Long Live the King: Spa-record setting trainer Chad Brown 40 victories enabled him to dethrone Todd Pletcher after six consecutive leading-trainer titles and 12 in all.
The great horsemanship is apparent when one sees how their horses are turned out, but their dominance, like Bob Baffert’s in Southern California, is not good for the greater good of the game going forward.

The time has come for U.S. tracks to follow Hong Kong’s lead and limit stall allotments. “Acting in racing’s best interests” has never stopped tracks from taking unilateral action via “house rules.”

Like the bettors cited in the example above, the game cannot have it both ways by allowing powerful stables to dominate the entry box for fear of costly restraint-of-trade lawsuits.

Like many suggestions that ostensibly are good for the game, we’ll bet the “under” when it comes to implantation and leveling the playing field at tracks everywhere, not just in New York and California. The fly in the ointment, of course, is that mega-stables can ship horses in from training centers elsewhere.

The sport can no longer afford catering to barns that are too big to fail. Of course, well healed owners could stop sending super-trainers top prospects by taking them away from other able horsemen who helped develop them in the first place.

John W. Phillips Latest to Join WHOA: His Darby Dan Farm has been breeding quality horses since forever, dating back to founder John W. Galbraith in 1935. Owner/breeders who do it the old fashioned way are to be celebrated, as should his trainer, Jimmy Toner.

“There is an old saying,”
commented Phillips, “that if you take care of the horse it will take care of you." To that I add the corollary "if we don't take care of the sport, we will have no horses to take care of… I support WHOA given its bold and rational support of HR 3084…”

On Tuesday of get-away week, I ran into one of the charter members of the Water, Hays and Oats Alliance at a restaurant. “I don’t make it a practice to talk shop at dinner, but what is your reaction to a 3-year-old going wire to wire in the first sub-two-minute mile and a quarter in Saratoga history?”

“I have no comment on that,” he said. “But I will say there simply is no appetite for drug reform within the industry in this country. My operation is going to concentrate on international racing from now on.”

The Secret to Jose Ortiz' Success: By riding 65 winners, nine more than brother Irad, the 24-year-old Ortiz put on a dazzling display during the final week of the meet to win his first Spa title. And the reason for his overnight success?

Just as California horses enjoy a significant tactical edge when meeting Eastern rivals, Ortiz’s success is based on his aggressive style. In California, the game is played at a faster pace which gives those runners a tactical competitive advantage.

Eastern riders don’t send their horses away from the barrier as is done out West. Empirically, it seems as if Ortiz catches more flyers out of the gate than any of his more celebrated, “name” competitors.

Ortiz is the best “speed rider” we’ve seen since the heyday of Patrick Valenzuela and Bob Ussery. And like many of today’s great practitioners, great speed riders often are the difference between victory and defeat.

Numbers, We’ve Got Numbers:
Yes, Virginia, racing is about more than Saratoga and Del Mar. Opening Saturday at Kentucky Downs, on-track handle jumped by 50% and 26% from all-sources… On the same after at Gulfstream Park, the second leg of its Florida Sires series, handle was up nearly 47% year over year. The first two parts of the three-day series are up a combined 35%.

Thirty percent of polled fans polled believed that both Inordinate and Flintshire should have been disqualified in the Sword Dancer… Rule 163.255, regarding “jail time” for recently claimed horses, was waived by the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission “in the best interest of horse racing in the Commonwealth.”

Regulators failed to elaborate on what “best interest” meant—another favorite wins.

Under this year’s budget, Nassau County Off-Track Betting will be allowed exclusive rights to 1,000 slot-like betting machines at the Aqueduct Racetrack’s casino.

None of the money from the machines will go to NYRA, an apparent violation of NYRA’s franchise agreement with New York State that will cost the racing association an estimated $25 million.

Which brings to mind a song, with apologies to the late John Lennon:

“In the middle of the lane…

“In the middle of the lane I call your name…

“Whoa Cuomo, Whoa Cuomo…

“Your greed won’t turn me on...”


Written by John Pricci

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