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.
 

Sunday, September 04, 2016


SARATOGA: Too Much of a Good Thing?


SARATOGA SPRINGS, September 1, 2016—

Dear Diary,


This is the middle leg of Saratoga’s getaway weekend. By Monday evening, Saratoga 147 will be history. Thoroughbreds have been racing here since forever, part of the fabric like in no other city in North America.

Like New Orleans, Saratoga isn’t so much a destination as it is a feeling. No matter how familiar you are with the environs, no matter if know more than a hundred ways to avoid bustling Broadway on Travers night, the sense and sensibility of the place is timeless.

For me, Saratoga felt different this year. Maybe because I lost Terri, or maybe because 15 days is too short. So many people to visit with, so little time.

Oh, Caroline Street was impassable on Travers night, congested by revelers, like it is on almost any weekend, much less August. But the rest of the town was a little quiet, which never is the case in August.

With a few exceptions, there was little time to kill at the bar awaiting a table at the most popular restaurants, with or without reservations. We ate out most every night, albeit avoiding the newest hot spots that crop up around town every year.

Following the 12th race Travers day--still stunned by a front-running mile and a quarter in one-fifty-nine-and-three and in awe of the remarkable Lady Eli who returned from a debilitating disease a year later to finish second by 3/4s of a length, 1-1/16 miles in near record 1:38.77--we left the track via the Nelson Ave. gate with only two cars ahead of us.

Two cars!

There’s something wrong with this picture, I thought. I noted the time, 6:37 p.m. At that point, the race day was precisely seven hours and two minutes long.

Seven hours and two minutes!

I picked up Toni at 14 Central Avenue and we were at our favorite Italian Restaurant a little after 7 p.m. I had called an audible, arrived sans reservations, and I had my choice of tables. We were seated immediately.

After dinner, we sipped on anisette out back, hard by the bocce court, and the owner grabbed a quick bite at our table. “I noticed there were some tables available all night and this wasn’t the only time that’s happened this year. How’s business?”

“They’re an inch away from killing this whole thing,” the owner said.

“Is it the rents, the increased prices at the track for everything, the late post times?”

“All of it,” he said. “I’m lucky, I don’t need this but a lot of people I know are hurting. [The racing] isn’t even as special anymore. They run too many races.”

In the name of an enhanced “guest experience,” Saratoga has become too much of a good thing. In the name of job security and currying favor with state ownership, there are now price points for amenities that once were free.

In the modern simulcast age, with ever competing signals and post times that have become meaningless as every betting dollar is syphoned as if every day were closing day, a day at the races has become numbingly stale.

Last race post Travers day was 6:54 p.m. for a program that began at 11:35 a.m. On an 11-race card the day before, with a traditional 1 p.m. first post, the finale was off at 7:15 p.m. It’s no wonder a few thousand people leave the track each day before the best horses even run. How does that help the sport?

Saratoga is supposed to be about celebrating the sport, not just providing great betting fodder.

Many people believe that if it weren’t for horse racing, Saratoga Springs would still be a one-horse town in upstate New York. Indeed, Saratoga owes the racing community a debt.

But the racing community owes the city something, too: Respect; deference for its inhabitants, traditions, its fans and, yes, its merchants as well.

Racing programs that end at 7:15 sharply curtails social life and not for just the elite but for families and visitors to the region, people that might want to dine at 7, or a 9, but late posts don’t easily allow for second seatings or a night life.

Indeed, locals get greedy, too. Towns-people who rent their homes for sustained periods act as if they’re doing you a favor by offering their residences at slightly less than hotel rates, racing-season prices that rival Manhattan’s for a night’s lodging.

The Jicha’s and Pricci’s were reminded by the realtor of the bargain rate of $3,000 charged for a two-week stay--and that was after $200 to have it cleaned professionally following previous lodgers—two veterinarians who paid $5,000 for a 10-day stay.

We all understand that Saratoga is a premium event, not unlike an A-list concert or a pair of tickets to Yankee Stadium. But, in case some are unaware, there aren’t as many horse racing fans as there used to be. Abuse them and there will be no one left to build on.

Concession prices are off the charts. In today’s world, $12 for a special Hattie’s Fried Chicken sandwich is fair market value, but $7 for a lemonade is not. The price of reserve seats keeps rising, leaving section-after-section of empty seats most weekdays.

The magic of Saratoga is about making people fall in love with the place, the region and the game, not to make folks feel like taken-for-granted marks. If that mindset continues, someday they will open it and no one will come.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, August 28, 2016


A Travers Performance for the Ages


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 28, 2016—

Dear Diary,

In the post-race press conference following the 147th running of the Travers, Dr. John Chandler of Juddmonte Farms, who within a half-hour’s time saw Flintshire and Arrogate win two of the most prestigious races run at this storied course, was asked the meaning of Arrogate:

“Being arrogant,” answered Chandler, “but not in an unpleasant sense… and not really a real word.”

This description was totally apt, appropriate in the wake of what simply was one of the most dominatingly surreal performances in the history of Thoroughbred racing.

Hyperbole, you say? Fine.

Feel free designate another performance, other than Secretariat’s 1973 Belmont Stakes, Seattle Slew’s remarkable nose loss in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup and Dr. Fager’s world-record 1:32 1/5 mile in the 1968 Washington Park Handicap under 134 pounds.

Trying to find appropriate comparisons kept me awake Saturday night and these examples were the only three I could conjure. What 48,630 on-track fans and a national television audience saw on Saturday was truly a Thoroughbred performance for the ages.

In 1979, on one of those notoriously wet Saratoga afternoons, slop-loving General Assembly caught his favorite surface--a speed-favoring sloppy track--and ran off by 15 lengths to win the Travers in a track record 2:00.

In fact, there have been only three other sub-2:01 mile and a quarters in 147 years. On Saturday, over a dry track which was not aberrantly fast, Arrogate smashed General Assembly’s mark by a lot, his 13-1/2 length victory timed in an otherworldly 1:59.36.

And that was after being pressured throughout by two rivals in splits of 23.61, 46.84, 1:10.85 and 1:35.52. There have been only four opening quarter-mile splits that were faster and only one, Holy Bull in 1994, survived that.

Similarly, there were four half-mile fractions that were clearly faster and the best finish was Tumiga’s show effort in 1967, setting the table for Damascus’s record-smashing 22-length Travers victory.

Only Man o’ War, Honest Pleasure and Holy Bull were able to win the Travers after setting faster six-furlong splits.

Three other Midsummer Derby champions were able to deal with a faster one-mile split, including Ten Most Wanted from off the pace in 2003, and Jaipur’s unforgettable race-long speed duel with Ridan 54 years ago.

“What [Arrogate] did today is pretty incredible,” said his trainer, Bob Baffert, who thought he’d win last year’s Travers by a similar margin with the sport’s 12th Triple Crown champion.

“He looks like a superstar in the making. I think the fans… they'll remember watching a horse like this because I know when I see performances like this--very rare.

“Last year you probably could have poured me out of a shot glass,” Baffert recollected. “We were pretty dejected. The whole town came out to see [American Pharoah] do something like Arrogate did today. I'm just glad to be back here with another chance at it…”

For good measure, not only did Baffert finish second with American Freedom, albeit in another zip code, but he won the Grade 1 King’s Bishop with Drefong, another laugher made possible by the fact that there’s no speed in New York like SoCal speed.

As long as the New York riding colony—for as long as I can remember—don’t send horses out of the gate as is done in California, West Coast shippers will always have a tactical pace advantage.

As for the turf-pedigreed, athletic Drefong, he’s a sprint star in the making and will be getting weight as a three-year-old when Breeders’ Cup Sprint time rolls around.

Drefong’s 1:21.25 was 26/100s of a second slower than the older A. P. Indian, who won his fourth in succession, remaining undefeated in four starts at seven furlongs.

Arrogate was not the only cause of celebration for the Juddmonte folks.

Rabbit-aided Flintshire demonstrated his electric turn of foot and blew open the G1 Sword Dancer, getting through on the fence in early stretch following Javier Castellano’s overzealousness to save ground with the best horse in a small field.

However, Castellano deserved props for his superb handling of Cavorting to win the G1 Personal Ensign. It’s highly unusual to come from last behind dawdling fractions of 48.77 and 1:12.64, first time going nine furlongs and first time rounding two turns.

But Castellano jumped out in front of his four rivals from the outside slip, forced them to react somewhat, before he took back and waited in the back of the pack after working his way inside.

Castellano saved ground throughout and tipped widest after straightening away, rallying strongly late for a half-length victory while improving Cavorting’s Spa-loving record to 4-for-4: Textbook race ride.

Trainer Tom Morley has done incredible work with older sprinting mare Haveyougoneaway, coming back to repeat here following a lifetime best effort made winning the shorter Honorable Miss, July 27.

Horses that like Saratoga love it and horses do so well here they recover in shorter duration. As for the heavy G1 Ballerina favorite, Carina Mia, we don’t understand why she was so close to the early pace coming off the two-turn Coaching Club Oaks.

Later on, Lady Eli tried gallantly in her long-awaited return from a bout with laminitis but her patented late kick was missing. She grinded her way to a short lead but was outfinished by a somewhat underrated Strike Charmer; very well prepared Mark Hennig.

Meanwhile, kudos to leading trainer Chad Brown for getting Lady Eli back to the races at all.

As good as Cavorting was for Kiaran McLaughlin, Mohaymen was as bad, beating one horse in a field of 12. Current plans are for him to return at Gulfstream next season--if we ever see him again. He could use Nyquist’s “late growth spurt.”

Mohaymen’s light-bodied frame has definitively caught up with him. Where there’s much promise, there’s much disappointment.

Like Woodstock, someday 150,000 racing fans will claim to have been at Saratoga Race Course the day Arrogate made Travers history. But there’s no need for anyone to miss it; they can watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=carUcUxy1-8

Announced attendance 48,630 rang true with respect to on-track handle of almost $10.779 million, a per capita of $222 with rounding.

Empirically, it felt smaller, and if the 50,000 attendance cap discouraged would-be late-comers, the benefit was for fans who did attend and were able to walk around comfortably all afternoon. It also made auto traffic congestion far more manageable.

From all sources, $45.596 million was wagered on the 13-race program.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, August 21, 2016


Stars Shine: Good Horses = Good Racing = Good Business


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 21, 2016—

Dear Diary,

Who said you can’t go home again? Like New Orleans, Saratoga is a place you feel more than see. It’s as if you’ve never left, especially given five decades of prior experience.

In Saratoga, the horse that has the right of way at all times. Posted signs virtually everywhere tells you as much.

As for Saturday’s racing, including the final two legs of a special Pick 4 wager that combined three Grade 1 stakes and a Grade 2, the final two legs at Del Mar, was spectacular.

Saturday was the kind of day when you feel sorry for all those people who just don’t get it about the game. Even the non-stakes where highly competitive, featuring many tight finishes.

Betting notwithstanding, it boggles the brain that sports fans seem unwilling to appreciate the athleticism involved in the sport of Thoroughbred racing; the equines, the jockeys and, most significantly, the interaction between them.

On sun-baked afternoons from coast to coast, two SoCal based horses, Songbird and California Chrome, were so dominant they made graded stakes-winning rivals appear inferior by comparison.

Questions were answered. Songbird, indeed, can carry her speed a mile and a quarter, even if it took 26.99 seconds to close the deal.

Songbird, of course, is now 10-for-10, and the Alabama was another “margin” victory: first by 7.

While Songbird dominated at the end, she won ridden out, not handily or easily. Mike Smith was taking no chances, giving her some left-handed encouragement in the stretch, the final reminder with a sixteenth to go.

image
Songbird: Before...

However, the performance and ride of the day, occurred cross-country. California Chrome, the top-ranked horse in America, justified his #1 ranking with an exclamation point victory in the Pacific Classic.

Jockey Victor Espinoza blasted out of the gate from his pole position and altered course to the outside entering the first turn as his main rivals, Beholder and Dortmund, chased from close range curling into the bend.

The wide tack forced Espinoza’s rivals into make a surprising, early decision, likely freezing them for a moment, wondering what Espinoza would do next.

From that point, Espinoza let the big chestnut roll and moved back closer to the rail. Down the backside, Gary Stevens on Beholder tried to put some pressure on ‘Chrome’.

Espinoza would have none of that, pulling the rug out from beneath his rival’s hooves with little more than five furlongs remaining.

After settling into a rating hold a second time, Espinoza tripped up his rivals once again, gaining separation at headstretch, blowing the race wide open.

Into the stretch and after straightening away, Espinoza looked back four times, twice over each shoulder, for competition that never materialized.

In midstretch the big powerful chestnut simply bounded away with a 23.20-fast opener, 47.29, 1:11.22, 1:35.69 and 24.44-fast home, for a final of 2:00.13.

It’s premature at this point, but California Chrome vs. Frosted looks like the Classic matchup everyone wants to see come the first Saturday in November.

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...And After


GOOD RACING IS GOOD BUSINESS:
Del Mar handled a record $25 million+ for the day while Saratoga did over $26 million…

THE LONGEST DAY: Post time for the last race on Saturday’s 12-race card was 7:28 pm. First post at Saratoga was 1 pm; you do the math. It’s just too long. To wit:

I brought my computer out to the car before the Fourstardave so I could go paddocking unencumbered for the back-to-back Grade 1s. I was astonished at the amount of people filing out the gate before the two best races on the card, including an undefeated champion, were staged.

Suddenly, on these long race days, maybe running the best races earlier in the day is the way to go. Aesthetically and traditionally I don’t like it, but if tracks are interested in “selling” the sport

TRAINER and JOCKEY STANDINGS:
We predicted that this would be Chad Brown’s year if the weather cooperated, but he’s been winning and placing with every type runner imaginable. (To be fair, we said the same thing last year).

MIND-BLOWING STAT: After saddling the first race winner ON Sunday, Chad was tied at 29 victories each--with jockey Johnny Velazquez! He’s up 11 on Todd Pletcher, who’s suddenly running out of racetrack.

The Ortiz brothers are in a battle at the top with Jose’s 35 wins leading Irad by one as of Saturday night.

JOCKEY IRONY:
Javier Castellano, aboard the Fourstardave runnerup, A Lot, claimed foul against Joel Rosario for alleged interference at the start when the winning Tourist crossed over to the inside, forcing Castellano to check.

The stewards correctly viewed the claim as an “incident of the start” and allowed the result to stand. The irony, you ask?

Castellano, ranked third at the Spa with 31 winners, crosses over in the homestretch drive more than any other rider we can conjure, and that tack affects the winning outcome far more often than does a problem at the break.

Fourstardave winner Tourist, meanwhile, was very good; stalking and drawing out despite a significant stumble on the far turn.

COAST-TO-COAST PICK 4: Considering the short lead time needed for promotion, the special Pick 4 from Saratoga and Del Mar handled a worthy $618,380. The announcement was made Thursday afternoon.

SUGGESTION BOX:
A multi-track Pick 4 seems like an interesting promotional tool to spur handle and interest. Tracks wishing to participate just should get their schedules, logistics and rules settled well in advance.

Also, the fact that NYRA’s Late Pick 4 with its sizable guarantees and 10% bonus to NYRA Bets winners, which properly mitigates takeout, needs scheduling alterations to be stressed significantly at the time that a Pick 4 special event is announced.

The Late Pick 4 traditionally is offered on the final four races on the card but yesterday’s sequence began a race earlier, a fact that was lost on many bettors Saturday, myself included.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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