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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

Friday, August 09, 2013

2013 Hall of Fame Inductions: A Rich Tradition Continues

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 9, 2013—Calvin Borel’s Hall of Fame achievement truly began in the Churchill Downs paddock prior to the 2007 Kentucky Derby. The instructions from the trainer went something like this:

Carl Nafzger asked: “Calvin, do you like to ride races?” “Yes, you know I do,” answered Borel.

“Calvin, do you have fun riding races?” "Yes, boss, of course I do,” said the jock who never had ridden a Kentucky Derby winner.

“Then go out there, ride a race, have some fun, and win a race,” said Nafzger before giving Borel a leg up on Street Sense.

For Calvin Borel, who would become the only jockey to win not only that Derby, but two more in a span of three more years before, underscoring his Hall of Fame legacy aboard the great filly Rachel Alexandra, who vanquished male contemporaries in the Preakness and Haskell, and again beat males on a memorable Woodward afternoon at Saratoga Race Course, today was the culmination of a career the rider wished his late father and mother were around to see.

Along with equine greats Housebuster, Invasor and Lure, now Hall of Fame steeplechasers McDynamo and the legendary Tuscalee, and Pillars of the Turf August Belmont II and Paul Mellon, it was a fitting, emotional conclusion to the rich Racing Hall of Fame tradition.

Borel’s future still has a way to go—“I don’t know how long I’m going to keep on riding, I just love the game so much”—but it is on this day that all the Hall of Famers in the audience, as well as the vast gathering of fans, have a chance to fondly celebrate Thoroughbred Racing achievement. The traditional roll call of Hall of Famers featuring just a few of their career highlights is my favorite part each year:

First up there was, Chris McCarron, winner of 7,140 races, two Triple Crown races each, nine Breeders’ Cups, and as mentor of his Lexington-based riders’ school, teacher of graduates that have surpassed the 2,000 win mark.

And the rest of those that followed Nominating Committee Chairman Ed Bowen’s introductions in order:

Shug McGaughey, 1,774 winners and counting, four champions and training titles made.

Eddie Maple, with his back-to-back Travers victories, three upsets of Hall of Famer Forego with three different horses, among 4,398 career wins.

Johnny Velazquez, Saratoga’s all-time leading rider, third in purse earnings all-time and 11 Breeders’ Cups.

Wayne Lukas, innovator, trainer of trainers, winner of 4,677 races, 14 Triple Crown events, a record, 19 Breeders’ Cups, a record, 16 training titles and developer of 24 champions: Mind-boggling.

Jerry Bailey, Eclipse Award jockey all-time leader with seven, six Triple Crown race wins, 15 Breeders’ Cup, surpassed by Velazquez this year as Saratoga’s all-time leader.

Nafzger, the first and only trainer to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Kentucky Derby with the same horse, Street Sense.

Nick Zito, with his five Triple Crown race wins, two Derbies, and the developer of three champions.

Manuel Ycaza, four-time leading rider at Saratoga and partner of Filly Triple Crown winner Dark Mirage.

Jack Van Berg, who won the Preakness twice, the Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic among 6,417 winners, sixth all-time, the first to reach the 5,000 win plateau.

Bill Boland, who won the Kentucky Derby and Oaks in the same year and, as a 16-year-old apprentice, was the youngest jockey to win the Derby.

Jonathan Sheppard, one of two trainers to saddle champions over jumps and on the flat, 27 times leading money-earning steeplechase trainer and who has won a race at Saratoga for 45 consecutive years: Only needs 11 to catch DiMaggio.

Jose Santos, winner of seven Breeders’ Cups, each Triple Crown event, broke Angel Cordero’s Saratoga riding title streak at 11, and a laudable 15.7% career win rate for his 4,083 career victories.

Edgar Prado, 10 New York riding titles, three at Saratoga, partner of Derby winning Barbaro among 6,667 career wins, ninth all-time.

Bill Mott, developer of six champions, winner of 16 straight races with Cigar, 19 New York training titles, nine at Saratoga, saddled Classic and Ladies Classic winners in the same year and currently fourth in career earnings all-time.

Randy Romero, a winner of riding titles at 10 different tracks, the partner of Go for Wand, and engineered Personal Ensign’s undefeated career. Will anyone ever forget the 1988 Distaff?

Janet Elliott, second woman to be inducted into Hall of Fame (Julie Krone), the first trainer, third in all-time steeplechase earnings and winner of the prestigious Colonial Cup five times.

And then there was a special video presentation by Breeders’ Cup co-author John Nerud, who celebrated his 100th birthday this year.

The only thing missing were acknowledgments to “the Chief,” Allen Jerkens, who could not attend, and Thomas (T.J.) Kelly, who passed away this year.

Today at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion, Borel, along with sprinting win machine Housebuster, dual Breeders’ Cup winning turf speedster Lure, 2006 Horse of the Year and 2005 Uruguayan Triple Crown winner Invasor.

Two ‘chasers were inducted; McDynamo and Tuscalee, and was very happy to be reminded of the achievements of the latter.

Tuscalee won 39 of 89 career starts, his final victory at age 12, won a record 10 races in a single season and carried a staggering 167 pounds to victory. But his best stat is never to have fallen in all 89 trips to the post.

Two Pillars of the Turf, a new and long overdue honor, was awarded August Belmont II who opened Belmont Park, co-founded the Jockey Club and bred the storied Man o’ War among other laudable achievements.

Paul Mellon, philanthropist extraordinaire, was represented by over 1,000 stakes winners as the master of Rokeby Stable and the only person to campaign winners of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Epsom Derby and Kentucky Derby.

Exemplary achievement, the best of the best, each and every one.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, August 03, 2013


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 3, 2013—It was the Sunday morning after the 2002 Breeders’ Cup. I was in the Arlington Park press box fielding phone calls about the unusual Pick Six payoff, completed by Classic upsetter Volponi just 15 hours earlier.

At that point I had been recently converted to performance-figure handicapping and was able to divine the Classic winner. That Breeders’ Cup yielded my first five-figure winning day.

Bobby P, who was working for NYC-OTB at the time, cornered me and wouldn’t let me go, telling me about the great figures produced by a professional horseplayer from Queens. “Bobby, I’ve got something that isn’t broke; why should I fix it?”

But he wouldn’t let me go. Desperately, I said “OK, send me a copy of the guy’s book and I promise I’ll read it.”

“Blinkers Off” arrived a few weeks later with a warm inscription from the author who was familiar with my work at Newsday. It was the first time I saw the name Cary Fotias in print.

One evening I sat down with his book in front of the TV with a yellow Hi-Liter, figuring I would outline the sections that interested me, promising myself to investigate any new handicapping principles to be found therein.

I wound up highlighting entire sections on virtually every page. It was clear that this was my introduction to an entirely different animal from the traditional Sheets format. Fotias included half-mile figures and, in sprints, two-furlong figures, as well.

Cary’s Equiform figures spoke to my trip-handicapping roots--adding science to an art form that effectively quantified visual perceptions. It wasn’t long before I realized that I had developed a keener insight into condition and development than horsemen did.

Don’t take my word on that. Here’s a third party opinion from a post that appeared at the day after Cary died: “Cary stood on the shoulders of giants but he was also a genius. He was influenced by Ragozin and Sartin, but expanded their ideas.

“Like Ragozin, Cary made figures, but like Sartin, he added velocity to the mix. Cary's creation was velocity-based pace figures that were used to identify not only the fastest horses but also horses coming into or falling out of peak condition…

“I doubt anyone has ever used such high level math and extensive research to design a system to make figures… I have never known of any other figures that were made at the high level of Cary's numbers. His methods were revolutionary.

“Huey Mahl was a rocket scientist who liked to predict the trajectory of horses running around a track. Cary Fotias was a professional horseplayer who could have calculated the trajectory needed by a rocket to land on the moon.

“He came up with so many new concepts that he had to devise names for them -- Reversal, New Pace Top, Cyclical Pace Top, Plunge Line, and my personal favorite -- Turf Decline Line, etc. I don't know of any other handicapping author who presented so many unique, even revolutionary, ideas in one book.”

And this from Ph.D James Quinn’s review of "Blinkers Off": “A new voice for the new millennium belongs to Cary Fotias and he comes in loud and clear. His contribution is both contemporary, one might even say postmodern, and significant.

“He uses velocity-based pace numbers and energy distribution concepts to identify horses coming to peak condition. The horses can be expected to deliver their best efforts next time, and many do.

“A number and variety of figure analysts have depended upon numerical patterns to infer improving form, even peaking form, but none has succeeded with a high degree of reliability, until now.

“A new and important author and book that can enhance handicapping proficiency is always cause for celebration. This one is cause for jubilation.”

Soon after finishing the book, I called Cary to say how much I enjoyed it, learned from it and that perhaps we might have lunch the next time I came to town.

And so I arrived one day about 10:30 a.m. We talked incessantly—well, Cary talked incessantly, stopping only to interrupt himself. At times, the conversation was of a philosophical nature; life, family, the game. We didn’t have lunch until about 3 p.m. and I didn’t leave his office until 10 that night. It was as if we had known each other our whole lives.

At Cary’s memorial service I learned that I wasn’t unique in feeling like a special friend; far from it in fact. Wednesday began sadly, slowly became a mini laugh-fest and, inevitably, a love-fest. “I never saw so many grown men cry,” said his mother, Anne.

Again, don’t take this on faith: “Cary Fotias was a wonderful man. He was never out to hurt anyone or put anyone down. He was as honest and trustworthy as anyone I have ever met…

“It is hard to describe Cary. He was complicated and stood steadfast to any position he held… He enjoyed nothing more than a great story with his friends… I don't know if we will see another Triple Crown. But if it happens I will be there with thoughts of Cary and my father. All my love, J.D.”

“He was the best friend possible,” said Peter Arnold, a graduate school classmate at Indiana University, informing us that “Cary got his M.B.A. with distinction. He loved games of all kinds, was a true renaissance man. He even wrote poetry.”

From HRI “Players Up” contributor Indulto: “I just read about the passing of Cary Fotias. It's strange but I feel very sad in the way I did when John Lennon died--someone I had never met somehow had a tremendous positive impact on my life… He seemed to be the Benjamin Franklin of Horseplaying--a technological and philosophical innovator, as well as a personal liberty advocate.

Wrote Joel Cohodes: “I was a high school buddy and poker player… We went to Vegas three times before we were 18. He was incredible at card counting back then.

“We went to our 40th reunion... ‘Greek’ asked for the microphone and read a poem that he wrote. Not sure what the hell the poem was about, but it made sense to Cary. That was the kind of guy he was… you never knew what was coming. I will miss my one of a kind, broke-the-mold friend.”

From Bill Feingold: “The network of friends centered around him will only get closer. One of a kind indeed. The sadness right now is almost unbearable but I know over time it will be replaced by a stream of happy shared memories and the ongoing preservation of how Cary thought, shared and lived.”

Said Dale Miller: “One of the most unique and nicest people I've ever known. The first Saturday in May will never be the same.”

From Steve Walters, on Cary's way of interrupting himself: “Often, in the onrush of his thoughts and memory… everything he remembered had such immediacy for him, [that it] was still somehow unfolding, allowing the wildest connections to declare themselves. [This] goes to the special quality of his energy and intensity… it had a lot to do with his being startled, stopped by his own astonished sense of things…

“In my copy of “Blinkers Off,” his inscription speaks to this… ‘life is not a riddle to be solved but a mystery to be experienced’… Here are a couple short segments of a letter he sent me back in 1979 that might stand on their own and help to fill out his portrait:

" ‘Someone once said that intelligence is the ability to accept two paradoxical thoughts or ideas simultaneously--I hope that's true. I wish I could be with everybody I love at the same time--physically, I mean-- but I guess that's impossible, so I try to do it spiritually."

Cary’s kindergarten buddy, Bruce Kittles, agreed with Feingold that the best description of Cary may have come from the noted European handicapper, Nick Mordin, who said it for anyone lucky enough to meet Mary’s beloved husband: "Cary was the loudest, funniest, smartest and nicest man I've ever known."

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Palace Malice Deserves Some Love



After Princess of Sylmar won the Coaching Club American Oaks, trainer Todd Pletcher talked about respect--the lack of respect afforded the upset winner of the Kentucky Oaks.

Now everybody thinks it was a real race, he said somewhat sarcastically.

Palace Malice was in that same stall, so to speak. Like the filly, he was the upset winner of the Belmont, benefitting from his position as the white hot pace right in front of him. And that final quarter in :27 and change, trotting horse time.

It's amazing how pace doesn't get the respect it deserves as a handicapping principle.

Well, the Jim Dandy pace was honest, an opening gambit of :24 following by another quarter in :23 and change. The pace was being set by "the best three-year-old in America," Moreno, and attended by Palace Malice. These two even got the jump on the speedy Freedom Child.

The two leaders separated themselves from the pack on the turn, opening their advantage into the lane. It looked like the two would test each other to the finish.

"He relaxed nicely and finished up pretty well in a very, very good time," the trainer said. "We got the race over the track. The horse keeps getting better and better and today was arguably his best performance yet. Hopefully, on to the Travers."

Moreno held very well and gave the Belmont winner a legitimate scare but the winner had too much conditioning; too much class. Moreno settled for third as Will Take Charge rallied strongly late under a well judged, strong finish from Junior Alvarado.

Coming up to the Travers, we're sure that Pletcher wouldn't trade places with anyone, unless it is himself.

Verrazano will likely be a slight favorite over Preakness winner Oxbow in Sunday's Haskell at Monmouth Park.

The hope, of course, is that they stay healthy and that the Triple Crown race winners, plus Verrazano, will meet in the mile and a quarter "Midsummer Derby."

Stay tuned.

The King Is Dead, Long Live the King

Victory #694 was so typical of what fans and gamblers alike have come to expect from Johnny Velazquez. After all, he already was a member of the Racing Hall of Fame before he eclipsed Jerry Bailey’s all-time win mark at Saratoga.

Back in the day, no one ever expected that Angel Cordero Jr., Johnny’s longtime friend, mentor and agent, would ever be surpassed. Then suddenly the 24-day Saratoga race meet was no more.

The meet was lengthened and with the help of Cigar’s trainer, Bill Mott, Jerry Bailey became the new King of Saratoga.

Until today.

And so in today’s fourth race for maiden allowance males going 1-3/16 miles on the Mellon Turf Course, Johnny bided his time in fifth, riding the race in front of him and the horse beneath him, in perfect position. Like so many of the great ones, Velazquez finds the sweet spot in ever race.

Soon after entering the stretch, Luis Saez opened out the lead he had so carefully nursed and at the furlong pole appeared that he might be home free. But Unitarian and Velazquez kept coming and didn’t stop until they hit the wire first.

Appropriately, the new Saratoga standard set by Velazquez came astride a runner saddled by Todd Pletcher. And while Castellano has come between the tandem in the last two seasons, there are plenty of winners for everybody in this outfit.

"I definitely want to say thank you to Todd. I've been riding for him since 1998 and we're still going," said Velazquez. "Just to be named after Jerry Bailey or Angel Cordero, who probably, in my eyes, obviously I'm a little biased when it comes to Angel, they are two of the best riders I've ever seen in my career. I'm humbled, and I'm happy."

"He's a great rider and he deserves every bit of this," said Bailey in winners' circle ceremonies. "I do hope he takes the time to enjoy and reflect on this, because it's major."

And if you were wondering whether it’s all becoming too easy for Team Pletcher/Velazquez, the 2-5 Prioress Stakes favorite, Kauai Kate, faded to last after chasing dueling leaders in the next race.

Somewhat appropriately, it would be George Weaver, a former Pletcher assistant that has raised his game significantly the last two years, won the country’s only Grade 1 for 3-year-old fillies at six furlongs with 21-1 Lighthouse Bay, deftly ridden by Joe Rocco Jr., his second stakes victory of the meet.

A couple of up-and-coming stars, just like Pletcher and Velazquez were more than a decade ago.

Written by John Pricci

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