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 09, 2015

An Inauspicious Beginning at the Spa

SCHROON LAKE, NY, August 9, 2015—Diary: The punishment for heresy is swift and immediate.

Arose at 6 a.m. Whitney morn, showered quickly, stopped at Anthony’s Deli in Lake Mahopac for bacon, egg and cheese on hard roll—sorry, the rest of the world outside New York City does not appreciate that hard rolls, bedecked with poppy seeds, are supposed to crunch on contact.

At 7:15 a.m., I jumped on the iconic Taconic and made the 2-1/2 hour drive north to the Spa City. After draining all the coffee, the mind started to awaken. Why am I doing this? As a media professional, I've spent the entire meet for 39 straight years.

Been there; rocked that.

But the Whitney card was so promising, important on so many levels, that I was jazzed to get to my seat in the press box, visit with friends and colleagues old and new—one of the best parts of my job.

All this effort. Is it worth it at this stage? Maybe next year’s sojourn will take me to Del Mar; never been there, never done that, owing to the Saratoga conflict. Besides, I’m still searching for great fish tacos and heard I can find it where the turf meets surf.

A strange thing happened as I exited #23 on the Thruway: If you’re headed to Saratoga from the south, take exit #24 Albany. At once, it’s around-about yet more direct, and you avoid the construction pockets on SR 787 that way.

Upon exiting 787 I saw the first sign that directed drivers to Saratoga Springs and the strangest thing happened: the only way I can describe it is that seeing the words Saratoga and Springs linked together, my heart skipped a beat.

To absolutely no one I shouted WTF?! Clearly, this was unexpected. Upon seeing the second Saratoga Springs road sign at the Northway entrance, my thoughts turned to ‘I don’t know, I guess this really is some magical place’.

Even though I entered the building at around 9:30, I knew that for horseplayers, this WAS Mecca. Horses have the right of way at all times and there are seemingly small children everywhere.

Red Smith and all the ghosts from Saratoga press boxes past knew this is a special place and wrote about it often. Of course, they were right.

My first bet, harmless enough, was a small wager on a two-turn turf race for maiden 2-year-olds, most of which were first time starters: In racetrack parlance, this chapter from the handicapper’s playbook is titled “The Educated Guess.”

However, if Saratoga is anything it’s about pedigree and connections as much as it’s about exposed form: Trust your instincts. For me, this case called for a blend turf and distance pedigree from known “grass barns.”

I don’t know Adam Rice or his moves yet, but I know the family tree well; they’re all bred for turf. In fact, turf races, albeit sprints, helped Aunt Linda to the first training title by a female in Saratoga racing history.

Second-time starter Monster Bea made debut at Presque Isle over one of the few synthetic surfaces I ever liked—actually there was only one other, Hollywood’s Cushion Track, an experiment so successful that the track doesn’t exist anymore.

Sorry, diary, but sometimes irony is such cruel fun.

So a small 4-horse exacta box dismissing favorites and a small win bet on Monster Bea was a modest $15 investment while awaiting the graded stakes portion of the program to learn whether or not I was walking around lucky.

Monster Bea won paying $25.80. Repeat after me, ‘I should have bet more’. But not only that, it was my first taste of the punishment I would endure this Whitney day.

A 5-1 shot completed an exacta worth $166, splitting me in the final strides. My third finisher was 20-1 on the tote.

Don’t ask.

I was exacta-split three more times this day but it was OK; Liam’s Map would get me well. Repeat after me, ‘damn tough beat’!

But the saddest part was losing, actually leaving, a voucher worth $50 or $55 at the self-service betting window in the press box.

If you’re good, you will lose money two of every three times you wager--you know that going in. But this was like going up to the press box roof and throw a ‘fiddy’ into the crowd below.

I called the mutuels department and received polite, prompt, and excellent service. A supervisor was in the press box in 10-15 minutes and took my information. There was a follow-up phone call asking whether a supervisor had arrived.

I had the last ticket purchased before the voucher was dispensed and supervisor Jim told me the voucher was traced and found the bets had been made on it already but that a stop had been placed so that no more bets could be made on it.

I was hoping that my ticket brought some press box occupant luck and perhaps a voucher would stealthily reappear at my work station, no questions asked. Jim took my cell info but thus far no news has been bad news.

When mutuel clerk Charlesann returned to her live betting window next door, she was outraged that no one had turned the ticket into her for safe keeping, should its rightful owner inquire.

I learned two lessons my first day back in town: For the 14th time, I learned to be careful not to leave a betting voucher in the SAM before leaving the window.

And, secondly, that I wasn’t the only heretic in the Saratoga press box on this particular Whitney afternoon.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, July 31, 2015

Saratoga Summer on the Jersey Shore

OCEANPORT, NJ, July 31, 2015—Finally, after 2-1/2 hours on the Fort Lauderdale tarmac, where repairs were made on the plane’s hydraulics—time well spent—I arrived on the Jersey Shore, Jennifer’s Place…smack in the middle of a heat wave.

It was hotter in Newark than it was in South Florida.

But the good news is that rain is nowhere in the forecast beginning today through Tuesday of next week. No sense watching the 2015 Triple Crown demolish some other field over a sloppy racetrack.

There are other interesting races this weekend but we have not yet looked seriously at the Jim Dandy or West Virginia Derby as of this post and nowhere close to checking out the Haskell program, a 14-race program.

I have two words for when Sunday arrives: Bring It!

Not long after the Haskell is run, there will be stopovers in Suffolk and Putnam Counties as we wend our way toward the North Country early Whitney morn. Can’t wait for that, either. Even on my own dime, life is still good.
SPRINT TAKES: For the first time in 38 years, I’m not spending the entire summer in Saratoga but technology, when it doesn’t drive me bonkers, is a wonderful thing. And this note commentary is long overdue.

The presentation of racing from Saratoga as seen on the new website has taken the lead in simulcast presentations nationwide, one that doesn’t figure to diminish anytime soon.

The coverage is, in a word, spectacular. And, dare I say in some respects it’s better than being there. The reporting is knowledgeable and the race analysis extremely solid, but it’s the paddock and post parade coverage is what sets the current NYRA presentation apart.

Thousands came out to see the Champ

The added camera angles make a difference. Everywhere there seems to be more pictures of horses in and around the paddock, heading out to the racetrack and my fave; a two way post parade, one view from the inside rail and the traditional pan shot; no ponies to obstruct the view of the athletes.

And can’t say too much about the resolution of the High Definition presentation; horses just seem to pop out of the screen.

The racing thus far also has been spectacular, reflected in the metrics; attendance up approximately 11 percent with all-sources handle up 17 percent. Interesting, but not unexpected, number of races offered were not as significant as field size.

Until Thursday, no turf races were rescheduled to the main track and all entries are uncoupled. The number of betting interests increased by almost 10 percent per race. Huge, in more ways than one.

Air Jordan aka American Pharoah at Monmouth Friday morning

IT’S NOT PERSONAL, IT’S STRICTLY BUSINESS: Not the racing business but the racetrack-racing business.

There were four nine-furlong races for three-year-olds this weekend including Friday’s Curlin Stakes, won by coming-of-age Smart Transition. Today, there’s the West Virginia Derby and Jim Dandy Stakes. And on Sunday, of course, is the Phenomenal Pharoah Phestival on the Jersey Shore.

But what’s a major racing event be without a little controversy?

Now that the smoke has cleared some, HRI understands there was a good reason why the Haskell purse increase from $1 million to $1.75 million was so last-minute.

Dennis Drazin, a lawyer by trade and prominent horse owner from the Garden State, is the man who generally credited with coming up with a plan to save Monmouth Park several years ago when its straits were direr that they are at present.

Glad someone did. Not having covered the Haskell the past three years, I had forgotten what a great racing destination this is. But I remembered again at 6:55 a.m. today. My family and I were among an estimated trackside crowd of 2,000, fans who queued up five to six deep from head-stretch to clubhouse turn to catch a glimpse of a Triple Crown champion gallop once around the park.

Before his interview on Fox’s Good Day Live program, Drazin spent a few minutes answering questions. I said that I thought the optics of the huge last-minute purse bump was unsightly. Trainers had only about 24 hours to enter their Haskell runners.

“It could not be helped,” explained the executive consultant. “For five weeks we tried to put together a three-race, five-million-dollar series starting here and ending with the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but we couldn’t work anything out with other racetracks.

“We tried another approach and it wasn’t until Tuesday night that we learned a sponsor we had from Las Vegas who willing to put up [one million dollars] for a race to be staged here in late September decided to pull out. We wanted to have the best [Haskell] possible.”

The purse bump, minus the Preakness runner-up, worked, even if trainer Dallas Stewart didn’t know about the increase until he read abouit on Twitter. Stewart already had made arrangements to send Tale of Verve to today’s West Virginia Derby. It was too late to ship to Oceanport, NJ, even with Monmouth PARK paying the freight.

“We didn’t want to ship in at the last minute in this kind of heat,” Stewart said. “Had I known earlier I would have liked to have had [the Haskell as] the option,” said Stewart in an online report.

The way American Pharoah continues to train, he will have no excuses on Sunday but the Haskell no longer is a soft spot. Upstart is at tops when fresh and he is training as well now as he did prior to his successful Florida campaign. Competitive Edge might be a tad distance challenged at this stage, but his brilliance never has been in question.

Mr. Jordan, 4-for-6 lifetime, won a Grade 3 prep over the track in fast time and, with a lively pace almost assured by the presence of Upstart, Competitive Edge and the gray colt, dismissing Keen Ice out of hand--even if the Travers is his major summer goal--could be a mistake.

In short, the purse bump turned the Haskell from coronation to challenge.

“I have e-mails I could show you,” Drazin said to us before returning to his office after having completed the television interview. “Call me if you have any more questions.”

It’s no longer necessary. All that remains is waiting for 5:52 p.m. on Sunday.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Saratoga Simulcast Dairy: Meeting Across the River

July 26, 2015—For us, the racing odyssey of 2015 is set to begin; much bag packing and errand running will ensue.

But there’s business to finish; writing, posting and editing to be done, selections to be made, traveling to begin. Saratoga Simulcast Diary will return Saturday, Jim Dandy day, the price for witnessing Sunday’s Haskell Invitation Ball staring Cinderfella, aka American Pharoah.

Good for Garden State fans and horseplayers. The good people of New Jersey love their racing (inded they do, Mr. Christie) and the area deserves and could use this shot in the arm. Note that “The Boss” has attended Haskells past, in his usual low key manner.

If he’s in Oceanport on Sunday, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise. Surely it will lend itself to the special atmosphere. Non-Springsteen fans probably didn’t hear but he showed up at a local bar last week, jumped on stage and played a two-hour set. No big deal, of course; he’s been doing things like that his entire career.

And so the Derby has “My Old Kentucky Home,” the Preakness “Maryland, My Maryland,” and the Belmont its “New York, New York” but only Monmouth Park has “Born To Run,” ‘cause tramps like them…

Now, through the Saratoga 147 Racing Trip Diary on the season’s first Saturday:

Race 1: Didn’t take long for the “Graveyard” to claim its first victim--then the crowd had no right to make second-time-out trainer Mark Casse’s Moon King 2-5 on debut, no matter how fast he worked, right?

Wasn’t such a bad effort, although he did finish of the board. Barclay Tagg has awakened from his recent slumber and unveiled a real runner in Realm, outfitted with blinkers for debut.

Realm stalked Casse’s Moon King, crushed him, and opened ground impressively. Debuting Asmussen colt Hundred Years was going very well at the end. Another second time guy, bettors might be raising a glass the next time he races: Cent’ann!

Race 2: Don’t know where English Minister got this rep for feint-heartedness on the lead but if that were ever true, it’s not the case anymore since Michael Trombetta took her over. Rated well over the firm ground by Luis Saez, she widened when she was supposed to weaken; never got the memo I suspect. Show finisher Bam Bam was going very well at the end; upgrade next time she starts!

Race 3: Bill Mott looks loaded for bear and the meet’s first example of how the stats can mislead of one’s not careful. Just because he doesn’t have a reputation for first-time starting two-year-olds, back when Jerry Bailey was winning Saratoga riding titles, Mott’s specialty was winning on debut with youngsters making their first starts on turf. Just ask Harvey Pack next time you see him in Atlantic City.

He saddled the horse for owner Bill Mott? Indeed, if Site Read stays health, there are future stakes with his name on them. Same thing for bullet-train runner-up for Chad Brown, Life Imitates Art, who finished strongly while not enduring didn’t have the easiest of trips. Stable Mail, please.

Race 4: Graveyard claims another, setting up a preposterous $470K 50-Cent Pick 5. Bombs away--and it was the bomb for one prescient ticket holder. But this one had help. Irad Ortiz is riding well but made much too much use of odds-on Stay Tuned.

Yes, the favorite had the pole but Ortiz never tried to ease off the Jacobson-improved recent claim Bird Prince. Meanwhile, love it when smaller outfits [Danny Gargan] get the money, especially at a venue like this. Shaun Bridgmohan has a reputation as a strong finisher and it was well deserved here, powering the well prepared Hey Bro home.

Race 5: Breaking News! Todd Pletcher wins with first-time starting overlay in Saratoga. Indeed, Saratoga Mischief was very good, doing much of the work to get it done, but the one we're watching is runner-up Greenpointcrusader. A fast-finishing second, final quarter-mile in 24:01 for Dominic Schettino, debuting colt was taking giant strides at the finish; distance please!

Race 6: Dowse’s Beach was much the best taking 5-1/2 furlong turf sprint, winning with something in the tank and very likely to win on the raise for Christophe Clement…Don’t what the story with Liberal Spin, who trailed very badly, angled very wide entering lane, made a very nice rally but swapped leads repeatedly, clearly hinder Jose Lezcano. An HRI Horse to Watch, he’s back on the list--but I’m not sure what I can do with that?

Race 7: Paid Up Subscriber [Little Al Stall] and Clothes Falling Off [Kiaran McLaughlin] were involved in the finish of the young meet which, by the way, has seen some truly great racing over a fair surface. The former got through under a very heady Joel Rosario; the latter rallied very wide into the lane, seemed to idle, then re-surged. Besides, how can a horse named Clothes Fall Off not make it on to any kind of watch list?

Also, Callista finished extremely fast down the middle and Miss Cobblestone galloped out strongly passed the wire; note both.

Race 8: I have much admiration for course lover Plainview who doesn’t seem to slow down with age; remarkable race horse--moderate pace or no moderate pace…Trouble, thy name is Taghleeb: bobbling soon after the start, he was on the hedge and forced to steady at a critical juncture approaching the far turn. He finally got out and made a choo-choo move that carried him extremely wide into the stretch but continued to roll down the center of the course as much the best; watch!

The G3 Sanford: Or should that be The Rodeo? Either way, the very racy Magna Light, veered out sharply from left-handed whipping, came back in, and proved clearly best. However, he did impede the very promising Percolator twice, hence the cause for the DQ… This time Pletcher was smart and lucky, awarded the win with Starlight Racing colt, Uncle Vinny, his second and Johnny Velazquez’s second win on the day. We like all three money finishers.

The G1 Diana: Someday, bettors, myself included, are going to have a lot more respect for the well named Hard Not To Like, just up under a brilliant ride from Johnny, a riding triple. As Chris Clement said, the course was firm, the pace was fast and they still finished fast—a course record 1:45.22 fast.

It was a heart breaking nose defeat for the talented, still maturing Tepin; a tough day for Casse, who seemed insulted by analysts who doubted his filly’s ability to go nine furlongs. Favorite Stephanie’s Kitten never fired and gave an indication she didn’t appreciate the ground. Meanwhile, longshot mate Kitten’s Queen, her supposed “rabbit,” keeps outrunning her odds for apprentice Eric Cancel. Cancel was also second behind Plainview with the 22-1 Orino. Apprentice Mail, please.

Written by John Pricci

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