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.
 

Saturday, August 13, 2016


Terri’s Song


"And I knew just as surely, just as clearly, that life is not a work of art, and that the moment could not last…

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood, and runs over rocks from the basement of time.

"On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

“I am haunted by waters.” --Norman Maclean


LONG ISLAND CITY, NY, August 12, 2016—


Dear Diary,


I’ve been looking forward to flying into Albany International on Tuesday in advance of 15 glorious days in Saratoga Springs, a homecoming in more ways than one.

But home is where the heart is and this weekend, my heart, body and soul, and my immediate family's, are in New York City to attend funeral services for my beloved cousin, Theresa.

As the only child of John and Nancy, and for as long as my childhood memories can transport me back in time, I can say that Theresa, the only child of Frank and Isabel, was the sister I never had.

Though a few years younger, she always kept up, from the time we were kids playing together on holidays and Sunday visits to this past spring on Wood weekend.

Don't know how appropriate the term would be today but back in the day people would describe Terri as a tomboy. Always fun, she was tough and fluent in many sports, a joyful spirit with a heart the size of all five boroughs. Her generosity was boundless.

Now, just like that, she's gone and I don’t understand it, even after having five days to process it. I’ve lost too many friends in recent years; contemporaries. Today I thank God that I have two healthy daughters.

Until last weekend, I was blessed never to have experienced anything like this kind of loss. Sadly, I can now empathize with anyone who has lost a younger loved one taken too soon. It’s just so profoundly sad.

I'm fully aware that the service this website hopes to provide is akin to walking into one of life’s candy stores, an escape from today’s often brutal reality. What could be better than complete immersion into horse racing and Thoroughbred handicapping, the mother of all brain teasers?

And so I thank God for horse racing, too, but I’m at a loss to understand His grand plan. Maybe this happened because my Aunt Isabel, Terri’s mom, died only months ago. Maybe because her dad, Frank, died 17 years ago, to the day.

My aunt and uncle, you see, was very active in the daily life of St. Rita's parish in Long Island City. If you were a fan of “The Sopranos,” you know this church. Filmed at Silvercup Studios in Queens, many of the series' church interiors were shot at St. Rita’s.

Maybe mother and daughter missed each other so much that He decided to reunite them sooner rather than later. I was raised Roman Catholic but I’m lapsed now, like many other Catholics these days.

Looking at the state of the world, can anyone be blamed for having just a little less faith in a loving God?

I'm sorry to rain on everyone’s Saratoga parade like this but I’m stunned stupid. I feel selfish and guilty about that, but I don’t suffer senselessness very well, not when a righteous person is taken from a world that needs more people like Terri, not less.

So, at this moment, I better understand what helplessness feels like: It’s about not having the type of energy that only anger seems to provide.

A brief horse racing aside: On balance, I have a pretty fair record when it comes to picking winners of the Kentucky Derby but have slumped the past three years.

Terri would call, as usual, asking me if I had “any Derby tips?”

On May's first Sunday, the morning after Mohaymen finished fourth in this year's Derby, Terri called to say “don't worry, one of these days you’re going to get it right.”

“Lose my number,” I told her, "you're bad luck to a good hunting dog," as the race-trackers like to say.

From early holiday afternoons spent in Rainey Park with other Pricci family cousins, Josef and Billy, we teased each other mercilessly. You can only do that in a loving, spiritual relationship.

Well, I love you, cuz, and I want everyone in my world to know this with today's Saratoga Diary entry.

Peace be with you, Theresa, strength to your loving Margaret, and tell Aunt Isabel and Uncle Frank I was asking for them. You will live forever in my heart.

Meanwhile, the candy store will reopen next week. I’ll be looking forward to seeing the mighty filly Songbird next weekend, her spirit soaring in the Alabama.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, August 07, 2016


Saratoga Diary: Whitney Weekend, Book Full


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., August, 7, 2016—

Dear Diary,


Can’t wait to change the dateline, hopefully to arrive in Saratoga a week from Tuesday for 15 glorious days—and nights.

Note to self: Bring money.

Truthfully, there have been only two days when I felt absent from the old Spa; opening day and yesterday. I fully partook of the great Whitney Day program in air-conditioned comfort 1.500 miles to the south and east, but it just wasn’t the same.

Seeing horses in the flesh makes all the difference, to me at least. Per usual, so much copy, so little time, which pretty much is the case every week. So, let’s catch up, shall we? 4

Kiaran McLaughlin sometimes gets a bit of a bad rap in that when he’s hot, he’s hot, but when he’s not, his horses get shy when the whole world's watching. Well, not so Frosted.

At 4, Frosted finally has made it to the next level, true elite status. Not only did he win his second straight, he did so in wow fashion. Again.

No, his Whitney score was not the kind of effort like the one he gave in the Met Mile downstate. This was more subtle but, in context, no less impressive.

Joel Rosario was not going to submit himself to being pressured by rival jockeys; the boxing in, the trapping, etc. He took the race to the competition right from the sharp break.

Rosario allowed the speedy Noble Bird to chew on him through fast fractions. The riders of Effinex and Comfort must have had piano-keyboard smiles on their faces when early splits of 23.11 and 46.42.

Not only did he bottom out his rivals from there but he opened the lead as Rosario sat quietly until inside the final eighth, where he started riding him a bit, reaching the line in an impressive 1:47.77.

If he’s not the highest rated handicap horse in the country not named California Chrome when the NTRA Poll is released late Monday, then the poll is, in the vitriol of the moment, “rigged.”

The Test Stakes has been one of my favorite Saratoga races for some time but, given field size and overall depth of quality, this year's was lacking compared to renewals of the past.

No knocks on Paola Queen, who looked like she would appreciate a turn-back but not her G1 rivals. And after Johnny Velazquez pressed main rival Kareena with Off The Tracks through splits of 21.74 and a crazy half-mile in 43.50, the table was set for a late rally type.

Enter Paola Queen and Lightstream, in that order. At first I was disappointed with Kareena’s effort, then I saw the splits. Resultantly, she deserves a pace mulligan—and maybe an outside post next time, too.

Of course, horses can’t run fast late if they’ve run fast early--the reason it took 13.73 seconds for the Florida-based connections to get the money with their bay daughter of Flatter.

Shining Copper benefited from perfect-trip handling under Jose Ortiz to take Lure Stakes narrowly; Guapaza won an exciting, though not particularly memorable, renewal of the Waya and Lady Lara, dropping out of graded company, won a hard fought De La Rose under pluperfect handling from Jose Lezcano.

A potential star was on display in a preliminary allowances for three-year-olds earlier on the card.

Summer Revolution earned a Thoro-Graph stakes-sprint figure in his maiden debut and a high Pricci Energy Rating as well. The T-G figure was so fast, in fact, as to be too fast, an effort that often leaves nothing to build on next out.

Loaded right from the jump, he showed restrained speed beneath Irad Ortiz Jr., went after the seasoned Juan and Bina on the turn, took command under a hold, then was ridden out to win by daylight in 1:21.03.

Recall that the Grade 1 Test for fillies went in 1:22.32--and it’s not like the colts were walking up front, given an opening half-mile of 44-and-change. The chestnut colt is by Summer Bird, from the Boston Harbor mare Revolutionary Act. King's Bishop, diary?

Broadway Bobby raced more like Bowery Bobby in Saturday’s opener. Heavily bet on the strength of a company workout in which he finished ahead of G1-winning Grand Arch. The bettors got nothing but the colt got a great education.

After a tangled beginning, he was steadied before reaching the first turn, entered the backstretch 3-wide, then 4-wide while making a brief backstretch move, was pushed forward on the final turn which carried him 7-wide into the lane.

Broadway Bobby, a tad soft-looking in the paddock, wound up beating half the field and finished third best on the gallop-out. No excuses next time, diary.

All of this added up to good business, as 39,405 fans/bettors showed up, contributing to all-sources handle that reached a bit over $29.3 million.

The Florida Sires Stakes Series, which had its 2016 debut leg on Saturday at Gulfstream Park, showcased a pair of promising babies. We know this because the next time Three Rules and Cajun Delta Dawn are defeated will be their first loss after having made a combined six starts.

Speaking with Florida Equine Publications editor-in-chief Brock Sheridan in the press box before the races, he said “we’re about due to have a major horse come out of Florida again.”

A litany of past Florida-breds talent certainly is there, with major horses like Smile, Holy Bull and Unbridled, to drop three names. And there also was a recent filly graduate named Ivanavinalot, dam of the mighty Songbird, so the tradition is rich in high class runners.

Of course, we won’t know how good juvenile colt Three Rules and filly Cajun Delta Dawn will be until a second turn is introduced. Thus far, they’ve been perfect.

Three Rules walked away from his Dr. Fager rivals, almost quite literally, with six furlongs in 1.09.49 by seven geared-down-late lengths. Cajun Delta Dawn wore down a stubborn Lu Lu Laura in the Desert Vixen after chasing her throughout from close range throughout in splits of 21.62 and 44.82.

‘Dawn’ made a scopey appearance in the ring, indicating she should be able to improve as the distances increase. She owns enough tactical speed to put her in any game she decides to play.

By Gone Astray, Three Rules also should handle two turns, albeit perhaps classics-challenged. Thus far, however, there’s no telling how good until some rival steps up and forces him to take a few deep breaths.

A former Calder series, it appears the series has taken hold at Gulfstream Park. An impressive $2.9 million was bet on track with all-sources handle reaching $7.768 million, up a tad over 24%, year over year.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, July 31, 2016


Upsets from Coast to Coast, More In the Offing?


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, JULY 31, 2016—

Dear Diary, The differences between trainer Eric Guillot’s 2014 Whitney winner, Moreno, and yesterday’s Jim Dandy hero, Laoban, are subtle ones.

Moreno rolled into Saratoga two years ago as a non-winner once removed, coming off a huge maiden score on the Belmont Stakes undercard. The other difference was a bit more dramatic.

And that's because Laoban was threatening to do what he did yesterday--win a graded stakes for three-year-olds--going back to last winter in Queens. And, with the help of a pronounced inside speed bias, he nearly did just that, nearly stealing the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes over Aqueduct’s winter track.

Over a surface that was far less cuppy Saturday than it has been all meet long, and with the rail a little less dead, Laoban, with the assist of speed ace Jose Ortiz and a lackadaisical bunch trailing him, he sauntered through splits of 24.56 and 49.07—forty-nine!—and rolled from there, beating a pair of near Belmont Stakes dead-heaters and a once divisional leader in the process.

Showing his class, Laoban responded with a final five furlongs in 59.32 seconds, stunning his rivals with nine very solid furlongs in 1:48.39, winning the local Travers prep by 1-1/4 lengths over Governor Malibu.

The talented runnerup, getting into a similar jackpot that encumbered his Belmont rally, wound up saving all that ground to no avail. But his effort was still good enough to get him to the line a neck in front of Destin.

The latter, for a brief twinkling at the furlong pole, looked like he would run past Laoban, but not in those late splits. Appearing a tad short and dullish, Destin should be all set for the August 27 Travers.

Truthfully, the first three finishers all ran well, efforts that should see them advance nicely toward the Derby of Midsummer, including that of Laoban.

Despite a stumbling beginning that virtually eliminated race favorite Mohaymen from any chance of winning, especially given Saturday’s dynamic, it is now abundantly clear that he has not stepped it up since taking two brilliant Florida Derby preps this winter.

The Jim Dandy was supposed to be Mohaymen's reemergence--his Travers, so to speak: He was fresh and was pointed to a target by an outfit that’s been sizzling hot at this Spa stand. To boot, he was training brilliantly.

The only thing that failed him pre-race was not looking as if he filled out his light-framed body. We thought he had a legitimate excuse yesterday, even if the man on his back disagreed.

Junior Alvarado, riding extremely well at Saratoga, and whose remarks about Mohaymen have always appeared to be forthright, made no excuses:

“I didn't think [the stumble] mattered at all,” said Alvarado. “He just wasn’t following the race…doing things I’ve never done with him before. He wasn’t the same horse.”

“It looked like he was out of horse at the half-mile pole,” said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. That was about the same time Ortiz was gaining confidence: “I was really confident by the half-mile pole,” Ortiz later said.

McLaughlin was troubled by Mohaymen's lack of effort. "It's a big concern. We'll scope him and look him over.”

It’s situations like these in which horsemen hope to find a little something to put a finger on and correct. But if May foal Mohaymen has indeed peaked, it could be a long remainder of 2016 for the three-year-old and his connections.

TURF FIRM, TRACK CUPPY: Yesterday at Saratoga was reminiscent of any Saturday when racetracks, virtually all of them, speed up the surface on big race days.

From opening day, the track maintenance department, perhaps overreacting to criticism that racing at Saratoga is tough on horses, loosened the cushion to such an extent that it was as cuppy as any racetrack we've ever seen, including downstate's Big Sandy.

But don't take my word: Go back and watch replays from July 22 and look at the amount of kickback.

Long-striding horses are badly compromised when they can't extend themselves comfortably, slipping and sliding when the ground breaks away beneath their hooves. The effort tires them out before they can finish their rally. When asked to comment about their horses in television interviews, most trainers referenced the "tiring track."

We’re all for safe racetracks; goes without saying. But there’s a relatively easy fix: Try watering the damn thing a little more between races. And, please, no weather-report spins on this.

This condition is unfair to players. Why? Because like it or not, public handicappers, whether they work independently or for house organs, have followings and have an influence on the betting public.

Public handicappers not expecting a serious change in atmospherics will handicap the next day's races to reflect the way a track has been playing. Opening week, the "Belmont Balcony" move was very productive..

Combined with a dead rail, it makes it difficult for horses and, by extension, bettors to win. On Saturday, the rail was improved and the track appeared noticeably less cuppy.

Some influential trainer with “a big horse” might have whispered in management's ear, or this was just a business-as-usual Saturday. I know many horsemen who have complained about consistent lack of water on New York surfaces.

Being a track superintendent is a tough and thankless job, like being the morning-line maker. People only notice when mistakes are made.

We’re not calling this a mistake. Erring on the side of caution and safety is never a bad idea. It’s also why it’s called gambling.

Atmospherics is one thing but not putting enough water on the surface between races to tighten it up is another.

All that horsemen and horseplayers demand is a level playing field whenever, wherever possible. That's not a big ask, is it?

For now, there will be no Pick 5 or early Pick 4. I'm no whale, but that can't be good for business.

THEY ALL GET BEAT:
That’s the phrase you hear often from racetrackers because it’s true.

Yesterday at Del Mar, the unbeatable Beholder (123 pounds) was beaten by a very good four-year-old named Stellar Wind (121), Victor Espinoza out-dueling Gary Stevens in another titanic stretch battle like they had last weekend.

Taking nothing away from either rider, or racehorse, but what was Beholder doing on the lead throughout? Stevens said she was comfortable there; the fractions for her were reasonable, which is true.

Both Stevens and trainer Richard Mandella were very complimentary of Stellar Wind and her trainer. John Sadler. Stellar Wind, who ran a great race, can be a major divisional now that she's beaten the queen.

So what does this portend for Beholder’s defense of her Pacific Classic title vs. California Chrome and Dortmund? One of two things:

Either Beholder got the perfect speed prep in the Clement L. Hirsch and will revert to her typical stalk and pounce style late next month, or chinks are beginning to develop in the armor of the mighty six-year-old mare. Handicappers have a month to come up with the right answer.

BETS ‘N PIECES: Wasn’t it interesting how Johnny, aboard Curlin Stakes winner Connect, invited Javier up the rail with Gift Box and kept him pinned down on the fence? "I was just trying to hold that horse in there,” said Velazquez. "It was definitely my choice… It seemed like every time you're on the rail all day long they don't finish very well.” Diary, they haven’t all meeting long--until Saturday...

IMPERTINENT QUESTIONS: Can today’s Haskell, wet track notwithstanding, produce a race dynamic similar to Saturday’s Hirsch in which Stellar Wind stalked and pounced on her way to a hard fought victory..? It sure appears as if Gun Runner will stalk rail-drawing Nyquist, or slip into a catbird-seat trip if someone else takes up the chase..? And isn’t the loose Spa surface, which Exaggerator didn’t handle to Keith Desormeaux’s satisfaction, the reason he will prep for a share of a million-dollar purse rather than train up to the Travers? That and the promise of a wet track, too… My heart can’t wait to see Tepin vs. Lady Eli in the Ballston Spa, but my head sure can. If I’m the trainer of either filly, do I want to see this battle now, with Tepin not 100% recovered by her ambitious early-mid season schedule vs. Lady Eli, after having recovered from a year-long battle with laminitis? If I’m Mark Casse, I’m taking a few extra weeks and Breeders' Cup prep in the Woodbine Mile, her best go, even if against males. If I’m Chad Brown, I’m looking for a softer spot for my filly’s return. Alas, it’s not my call to make, clearly being way above my pay grade.

Written by John Pricci

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