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 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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Sunday, August 03, 2014


Whitney Day Redux and Through a Spa Trip Notebook


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 3, 2014—I don’t know for sure but I’m going to take a shot here: Whitney day was the first time women trainers won two Grade 1s on the same card.

Earlier this week, Rosie Napravnik and Linda Rice swept two mid-week feature races. But yesterday's distaff heroics were more dramatic; a lot more.

We’ll say this: Two Grade 1s on the same day is probably an historic achievement, but two women winning championship events a half-hour apart? That’s never happened, ever.

On Saturday, Rice, who claimed Palace for $20,000 and turned him into a multiple graded stakes winner, continued her hot hand going back to the recent Belmont summer meet,

And given the manner in which Palace won yesterday, his talent level might just keep getting better and better.

Even though Joe Orseno did not have the speedy Happy My Way wound up 100 percent for the A.G. Vanderbilt, that speedster still looked like he was long gone at the furlong pole. But at the sixteenth marker, the water got a lot deeper.

You hear the term “reeled him in” all the time. This time, the cliché was absolutely appropriate. Rice not only has improved this runner, but has kept him performing at a very high level for a sustained period of time. Excellent work.

The career of Leah Gyarmati really began to flourish at this meeting last year when juvenile filly Sweet Reason, in the most impressive sloppy-track run I’ve ever seen, ever, won like a wild horse. And she did it again, just for good measure, in the Grade 1 Spinaway.

Noble Moon also put Gyarmati on the national map, but now the filly is beginning to push her trainer into elite company. Back to back Grade 1s in the Acorn and in Saturday’s always contentious Test Stakes has assured that.

Sweet Reason is now 5-for-8 with three Grade 1s and has not tasted defeat in Saratoga in three lifetime attempts. From the University of Allen Jerkens, he has learned her lessons well. Good for her.

Good for them.

Through a Saratoga Trip Notebook: Some runners to keep a watchful eye on; others to bet back next time postward:

Billy the Bull (1st race) was loaded with run in the Whitney day opener, tried to sneak up the fence approaching the five-sixteenths when Javier Castellano slammed the door in Taylor Rice’s face. Well meant turf sprinter continued well through the stretch at double-digit odds and will be worth a wager under similar conditions; follow.

Debuting turf runner Strong Coffee (3rd) made a good impression in the post parade with his size and demeanor for Graham Motion—who’s made a strong impression in the Saratoga trainer standings—and finished professionally, winning as clearly best; likely repeater if spotted properly next out…

In the same 1-1/16 miles event, runnerup Face the Music, a bit green in the paddock but more settled in the post parade, finished strongly down the center of the course and won’t be a maiden long; bet back…

Longshot Skerkis was aggressively handled throughout breaking from a wide post and tired late; tough read whether colt needed the effort, was the victim of dynamics, or might not have that much ability; follow progress.

Price shot Striking Style (6th) was in the bridle throughout from a wide post going two turns on turf, surged to the lead at headstretch, but was hindering rider Luis Saez who was forced to wait until clear of inside rivals before going to a right-handed stick on the filly who was trying to bear in. Saez did everything right but just got nailed on the line by favorite Granny Mac’s Kitten beneath leading rider Javier Castellano; note.

Royal Sun debuting for Todd Pletcher as the favorite in a juvenile dirt sprint, was pressured throughout and held very well for place. Good-sized colt was forced to move early breaking from the rail post, hustled on the way around, never getting a breather. Will benefit; bet back next time out.

Flimbi (7th) won the De La Rose with a strong late run, lengthening her stride perceptibly the closer she got to the wire. Bill Mott trainee has graded stakes in her future and it appears that added distance would be in her wheelhouse. When Mott’s horses improve incrementally, as this one has, take notice.

Aside from Moreno, Itsmyluckyday was the only horse that did any real running in the Whitney as even third-finishing champion Will Take Charge was a one-paced third late. After the race, trainer Eddie Plesa said that his charge proved he belongs in this company; agreed.

It’s difficult to know how to gauge the non-effort of Palace Malice in the Whitney. He’s been examined thoroughly and there was no physical excuse for the performance. He had been training very well, loves his surroundings, and, then, this.

If Pletcher enters him back in the Woodward, as he said he would this morning, it would be a signal to handicappers to cross this line off his form. If there’s more of a significant layup, that would be a red flag.

We asked Pletcher at the end of the post Whitney draw press conference whether the colt might return again at 5. The trainer said that he and Cot Campbell have not ever had that conversation. You can be sure the subject will come up now. Maybe it has already.

Written by John Pricci

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