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 08, 2014


Oh Baby


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y., August 8, 2014—Here it is, the fourth Saturday of Saratoga 151, and I’m already looking passed it, awaiting Sunday’s juvenile stakes doubleheader.

Maybe that’s because the Grade 2 Saratoga Special attracted 11 entrants. Given the state of two-year-old racing around here for the past decade, Sunday’s field is almost twice the norm.

The ladies will go first on Sunday’s national television broadcast on Fox in the Grade 2 Adirondack at 6-1/2 furlongs and we’re pleased that both stakes will be run at this hybrid distance.

Instead of a speedway to graded heaven, what this trip should provide is a more meaningful perspective on the future; the longer races of Fall leading up to a national championship. Not many races are stolen at this distance.

A cursory look a past performances indicates, to us at least, there are two fillies that just might be extraordinary, casting no aspersions on the other talented fillies in the group.

I don’t want to make comparisons with filly debuts past, but can I have to say this; that I’ve not been this impressed with a first-time starter since, well, Moccasin, or Ruffian. Please—not making comparisons with either one; that would be crazy.

But I don’t think I’ve seen a filly win as easily as Wonder Gal did in the modern era. The New York-bred, by juvenile buzz sire of the season, Tiz Wonderful, made her debut in the restricted Lynbook Stakes against four overmatched rivals.

I didn’t know those fillies were overmatched at the time, although the fact Wodner Gal was postward at 4-5 was a pretty good indication.

Debut types often win by big margins, and the 14 lengths thatseparated her from runnerup Accelebrate was huge by any measure. But this was no runoff wire job; this was a professional hit.

Allowed to trail by eight lengths, she advanced on the inside, running the sweeping turn very well, her momentum carrying her into the three-path at headstretch. It was all totally effortless; no encouragement from Taylor Rice whatsoever.

And she improved her position from there. She widened with every stride as Rice sat motionless. The splits were 22 and 46 en route to a 1:11 clocking for six furlongs. Measured in hundredth from the half-mile to the finish, she shaded 25 seconds coming home.

Find the third race replay from July 6 at Belmont Park. I’ll bet you’ll have your own Jack I-Don’t-Believe-What-I-Just-Saw-Buck moment.

In the language of the day, it was awesome.

The other filly on our radar wasn’t nearly as impressive. In fact, her win could be categorized as workmanlike, far from awesome. But if a race is worth three workouts, this one was worth 10.

Facing seven rivals, Angela Renee had to work a little to eventually get to even terms, the first quarter-mile of the five furlongs timed in 22 1/5 After breaking fifth, she was suddenly third by 2-1/2 lengths and streaking toward the leader, reaching almost even terms with a half-mile timed in 45 2/5.

From that point forward, Johnny Velazquez was content to take a narrow lead, allow is filly to fight her rival for about a sixteenth of a mile before drawing out late to win by 2-1/2 in 57 4/5 for five furlongs.

But here’s the thing: She’s a Bernardini filly from a Deputy Minister mare. It should take her a half-mile just to clear her throat. That was the third race on June 27 and is another replay worth watching. Sunday's additional three-sixteenths will work for, not against her.

Whatever Sunday’s result, these are fillies with a huge upside and are worth noting in the coming weeks and months.

As stated, 11 colts will line up in the Saratoga Special. Four of them--none of which I would choose in Sunday’s feature analysis--have proven so precocious that all four have already been purchased privately and/or have moved into new barns.

After Lord Tyrion finished third in his debut for Eddie Kenneally, he will make his second start for Ian Wilkes.

One start after zipping 4-1/2 furlongs in a 6-1/2 length romp for Michael Yates at Gulfstream, Peter Miller will tighten the girth on Tizcano tomorrow.

After taking a five furlong Canterbury maiden allowances by 8-3/4 lengths for Douglas Oliver, Majestic Affair make his second start in for Chad Brown.

And, finally, after winning two straight at Lone Star Park, including a restricted stakes for Texas-breds, W V Jetsetter will make his Spa debut for George Weaver, working a bullet five furlongs for the occasion.

But Saratoga is a place where a little practice over the surface comes in handy.

Thus, we think the Saratoga Special winner will come out of the Sanford on opening weekend here. Which one of the three to choose from is another matter entirely.

So, who will it be? Mr. Z, Cinco Charlie, Nonna’s Boy? The seventh race on July 19 is worth reviewing, over, and over, and over again.

Nonna’s Boy was a victim of circumstances, taken out of what likely is his best game. He never had a moment’s peace.

Cinco Charlie? It’s the same story. They ran relays at this guy and he still was very much there at the finish in one of the more courageous efforts of the meet.

But poor Mr. Z should have been unsaddled. Instead, he entered the stretch behind rivals, clipped heels, bulled his way out beneath a panicky partner, practically knocking the winner over.

Mr. Z eventually surged to a short lead, fought tenaciously between rivals, but the momentum of the winner, racing freely on the outside after getting sloughed by Mr. Z, carried the talented Big Trouble passed Mr. Z.

And where do all these runners belong in Saratoga’s juvenile pecking order? Tune in tomorrow. Check your local listings.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, August 06, 2014


Vic Zast: The Complete Package


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 6, 2014--For two chroniclers of the sport of horse racing, it was totally appropriate that Vic Zast and I would have our first face-to-face in this town, a place when Vic would spend every day if he could, but summers would just have to do.

The bonus for Vic, in addition to the top class racing, social scene, and race course itself was that his children lived downstate and could visit frequently. He was always eager to introduce family to the friends he made on his racetrack odyssey, sharing coffee, croissants and conversation by morning and something a tad stronger by afternoon.

We initially met because of Vic’s gift for words, syntax and cadence. I remember reading a piece he wrote for the Bloodhorse, showing it to my wife and saying: I’ve got to meet this guy; maybe he’ll be interested in writing for [this] website?

That day came on a Sunday morning. We shared breakfast and a conversation and if the term “mutual admiration society” hadn’t already existed, we could have founded the organization right there at the table. Vic loved what we were trying to accomplish; I loved Vic’s writing and critical eye. It was a marriage made in turf-writing heaven.

I told him he had carte blanche; that he could write about anything he wanted. I never failed to be surprised by the topics he ultimately chose. I can handicap a race with the best of them but I never knew what Vic was going to do. Not that it ever mattered; I never so much as substituted a semi-colon for a comma.

Clean copy and a great read, what a parlay!

It's hard to define what I admired most about Vic: Was it his joie de vive? Was it his passion, generosity, loyalty, style, his mind? As turned out it was all the above. He had the kind of attributes that makes men loved and respected.

But what I appreciated most from my colleague were his words. His writing had wit, honesty and a sensitivity woven around his relentless pursuit of truth. His advocacy for the sport he loved was boundless.

Vic graced the pages of HorseRaceInsider for far too short a duration. I looked forward to his Monday columns with the anticipation of a devoted fan. He was a wordsmith of the highest order in the tradition of Thoroughbred racing's greats: the Palmers; Smiths; Hattons; Morans.

And nowhere was he more inspired than when he was in Saratoga, riding his bicycle down Fifth Ave. by morning and attending charity events or parties by night, always with his wife Maureen at his side.

Vic was a freelance writer, meaning he went to most events on his own dime, hoping that the writing gigs he picked up along the way somehow would get him even for the trip.

Zast took pictures on his I-phone long before it was commonplace. He took what is now known as a selfie of the both of us in the Arlington Park press box when the Breeders’ Cup rolled into his home town of Chicago. He later confided that he took the “Fix Six Scandal” as a personal affront.

Racing wasn’t about gambling for Vic. He loved the racetrack because it was fun, exciting, a cut above other sporting pastimes. And he never stopped selling that.

He wasn’t embarrassed to bet $2 on a horse no matter how sure, no matter how strong his opinion. The game wasn’t about making a score; it was the color, the spectacle, the style. It was the dramatic storylines that reeled him in

Vic was successful in his life’s work, making a good living as a marketer. He owned his own fragrance company, something he parlayed into a career in horse racing. He was at one time President of Finger Lakes Racetrack and had the vision to promote racing through sponsorship.

The sport’s first sponsored race was a Zast creation, the melding of the Spiral Stakes at the old Latonia together with bourbon distillers Jim Beam. Indeed, the Jim Beam Spiral Stakes was Vic’s brainchild. That would be enough of a career path for most men but it was writing about the sport that he enjoyed most.

There will be a celebration of his life at the Westmoreland Country Club in Wilmette, Illinois this afternoon, golf being another of Vic’s passions. There will be another in his beloved Saratoga on August 17th, one day before the Cary Fotias memorial.

Tee shirts being sold here this season that remind us “Everything’s Better at the Racetrack.” For some, that’s a bit harder to swallow this time around.

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, August 04, 2014


If Adopted, Lasix Phase-Out MUST Be Gradual


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 4, 2014--The excuse most often given for having virtually every American racehorse compete on raceday-Lasix is maintaining a level playing field.

If the competition somehow is taking an edge, the reasoning goes: “I’d be a fool not to. I owe it to my owner--giving his horse its best chance to win. Besides, it’s legal.”

I have supported the idea of running medication free on raceday for several years and I live in the real world, too, and I recognize a good argument when I hear or read one.

The problem is there are good arguments and well intentioned people on both sides of the issue. All who are tethered to the thoroughbred understand their responsibility to do the right thing by the animal.

Just how to go about it is one of the most polarizing issues the industry has. With last week’s announcement, the tide seems to be shifting in favor of a gradual phase out of raceday Lasix.

At this point, everyone knows what the agenda is on all sides.

But the key word in the release sent out late Friday afternoon is “gradual.” Horseplayers’ wagering concerns must be part of this equation.

If the interests of horseplayers are not addressed, this operation could be a success but the patient--the industry--will die.

HRI totally supports phasing out raceday Lasix beginning with the 2015 two-year-olds. But the provision that there would be a ban for all ages the following year is ill advised and will bring the industry to its knees.

A ban for juvenile racing to start this process makes sense. There is nothing more exasperating than seeing an entire field of two-year-olds debuting on raceday medication.

And without listing the reasons ad nauseum, perception in a gambling game, especially one where the welfare of animals is involved, matter, particularly in the modern climate of correctness.

Besides, how humane can it be to yank horses off raceday Lasix when they have been running on it their entire careers? It would be akin to reading a set of past performances upside down.

We’ve all witnessed the example of handle decline in the years Lasix was banned for two-year-olds at the Breeders’ Cup.

Horseplayers are not risk-averse, but many stayed on the sidelines at Santa Anita. To think that most horseplayers would bet their money at their usual level of play is insane.

A ban that starts with two-year-olds and extends to the following year’s three-year-olds, and again to four-year-olds in the year after is an orderly transition that provides continuity and context.

It’s not just horsemen who will be required to deal with a new normal.

Trainers who grew up in this business who include raceday Lasix as a part of their programs will need to re-learn their trade.

Even veteran horsemen who remember what the pre-Lasix era was like to race without the diuretic might have to re-tool their ways when it comes to training and racing today’s thoroughbred. It’s no longer the 70s.

A total ban in 2016 will cause legions of horseplayers, already a shrinking population and one that is betting less year over year, are being replaced at a glacial pace if they are replaced at all.

It’s not a question of if or when the industry will lose more horseplayers, especially whales, should the entire racing population be mandated to go cold turkey. It’s a question of how many and how soon. Generating handle thrives only when form is demonstrable.

Horseplayers, united as never before, will react swiftly and the dollars that are needed to fuel purses will be taken out of circulation, forcing many smaller tracks out of business, especially non-racinos.

Another consideration vis a vis the thinking man’s betting dollar is what happens if the state of New Jersey beats the feds in court on the sports gambling issue? There’s no casino crossover but many horseplayers bet on sports.

Without an alternative that makes sense, gamblers will choose one and abandon the other, giving new meaning to the old Bud Abbott line: “They’re Off, You Lose.”

I’ve been defending the sport’s image in many different ways since I first became a turf writer/public handicapper for a major newspaper in 1977.

At the time, I never even considered the possibility that the horse racing and newspaper business could ever vanish from the face of the earth, but just look around. Both industries are in serious decline.

If enacted, a phase out of raceday Lasix should be gradual while horsemen and horseplayers alike learn to deal. The learning curve, while demanding, is do-able when one considers the unthinkable alternative.

The horse industry can’t do anything about the loss of mainstream racing coverage, but it can take gradual, positive steps to clean up its badly soiled image.

And if the game should lose many of its VIPs--serious horseplayers and dedicated low-to-medium rollers--the American horse industry will be, as Trotsky said, “where [it] belongs, in the dustbin of history.”

Written by John Pricci

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