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

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Blinkers, Anyone?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, August 31, 2013--Finally, Alpha put his whole game together which, of course, is not the kindest words one can have for a horse that was talented enough to share the Travers trophy in 2012.

But that was the kind of four-year-old season it’s been for the son of Bernardini who until today had failed to hit the board in four starts as a 4-year-old. Now that he’s back in Saratoga, however, we would see the good Alpha, not the 2013 imposter.

He was expected to be a strong factor in the Whitney but that never happened. Wide on both turns he was flat, never showed any of the talented that’s enabled him to bankroll $1.3 million coming into today’s Woodward.

Alpha has always had gate issues which forced trainer Kiaran McLaughlin to try whatever might work. The thought was let’s get him back to Saratoga where he never had been beaten—until the Whitney. Clearly it was time to shake things up.

Blinkers, which failed to help him in the Godolphin Mile in Dubai in late March, went back on for this race. The gear picked him right up and he breezed a half mile in 47 2/5, faster than 53 members of his peer group to work earlier in the week.

McLaughlin, who is 33 percent effective with runners making their third starts off a layup, played this one beautifully, as did jockey Johnny Velazquez, his Woodward partner.

“Maybe he wasn’t as fit as I thought he was the last two races,” McLaughlin said. “We had him dead-ready and fit today. Johnny did a great job breaking well because he has had his gate issues.”

“Once we got to the first turn where I wanted to be, he sat in the four path,” Velazquez said of his trip. “We waited until the quarter-pole when the other horse came to me. Once [Flat Out] didn’t pass me…I knew my horse was going to put up a good fight.”

“I think the start was a big, big difference,” added McLaughlin. “I talked to John and said if he breaks well and you can clear Paynter [the awkward breaking favorite], let’s go…He did a great job, Johnny did.

It worked [last year] in the Jim Dandy. And it worked again, over the same distance, over a similarly sloppy Saratoga oval. “[Alpha] loves it here. It’s one of the biggest wins in our career.”

And that goes for Alpha, and this time he didn’t have to share the prize with anyone.

What a Difference a Year Makes

On Friday, trainer David Jacobson experienced the lowest of racing’s lows when his 7-year-old New York-bred win machine, the local legend Saginaw seeking his 13th win in his last 14 starts and the status of equine millionaire, was euthanized after breaking both sesamoid bones in his left front leg.

Today, Jacobson watched as his Strapping Groom, which he also claimed for his account and that of Drawing Away Stable, held determinedly to withstand the distance and Saratoga-loving Jackson Bend after first racing odds-on favorite Fast Bullet into defeat to win the Grade 1 Forego Stakes.

Following Jacobson’s $35,000 claim on May 24, the Johannesburg six-year-old won both the Lion Cavern and Kid Russell overnight stakes prior to winning the biggest race of his 22 race career and improving his across-the-board record to 8-5-1.

“When you claim a horse, you always have high expectations,” Jacobson said via cell phone. “I always liked him going back to when he was laid up. Carl Domino did an outstanding job bringing him back and he was in great shape when I claimed him.

“Back then, I told my assistant that I thought he was fast enough to win a graded stakes. Frank reminded me of that ten minutes ago.”

Claiming barns expect to find the competition formidable when they ship to Saratoga. Jacobson, a claiming titan downstate, was expected to have a slow meeting but the victory by Strapping Groom was his second of the day, his 16th of the meet, good enough for third in the trainer’s standings behind Chad Brown’s 22.

Neither is within hailing distance of Todd Pletcher who, when the meet ends after the 10th race on Labor Day, will have won his 10th Saratoga training title, a modern-day record named for the legendary Allen Jerkens.

Fresh Is As Fresh Does

It probably was unreasonable to expect that the excellent weather that has prevailed throughout this history marking Saratoga season would continue.

And, so, early Saturday morning, the weather gods landed a body blow to the racing gods and the surface as a sea of slop as the early arrivals made their way into the building late on Woodward morning.

The only beneficiary from all of this seemed to be a turf course that was spewing forth clouds of dust throughout the week but played very well when the Bernard Baruch horses completed their appointed rounds.

No dust, and neither was there much evidence of those sizable chunks of green earth that get hurled around when the turf course comes up “yielding” as it did for the Grade 2 mile and a sixteenth.

And that was just fine for all the contestants, especially Silver Max, who had a very busy 3-year-old year in 2012, having run eight races in top company by mid-August. His 2013 schedule has been reduced by two, including today’s August-ending event.

As the racetrackers say, he went to the front and improved his position: “It’s no secret what his strategy is,” said jockey Robby Albarado. “He just pops right out of there and goes right to the front.

“He gets on his streaks,” the rider continued, “and I think his last couple he’s been back to himself.”

“Last year, I might have overdone it with him” said trainer Dale Romans. “I ran him a lot of times in those three-year-old races. He’s coming into fall a lot [fresher], and I think by the end of the year he could be one of the best turf horses around.”

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Travers Muddles Three-Year-Old Picture

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 25—In the wake of yesterday’s Travers Stakes result, which three-year-old rates to be the division’s leader?

And it doesn’t make me feel better that many I’ve spoken with don’t know either. There just are too many disparate scenarios.

I realize plenty of racing remains and there’s the matter that, with the exception of the Pennsylvania Derby here in the East, the three-year-old class will need to deal with those pesky elders when leaves begin to fall.

In the interim, when I fill out my weekly NTRA poll ballot by noon Monday I’m going to shade Orb as owning the slightest of divisional leads.

It couldn’t be Verrazano who was invisible on two of the biggest stages he’s graced. He had a legitimate excuse in the Derby—although top horses are supposed to handle anything thrown their way.

The surface wasn’t the midsummer problem, however. It likely was his enervating Haskell. Just because you win by almost 10 doesn’t mean you have won easily; an effort is an effort is an effort. That, and he might have been a little intimidated, too.

Neither can the division’s leader be the Travers winner. Will Take Charge should be acknowledged surely, but the G2 Rebel is by definition a prep for the Arkansas Derby in which he was not competitive.

Saturday was the only time Will Take Charge has run two good ones back to back in top company. But it looks like there’s more in store for this scopey late developer.

With Oxbow on the shelf, the remaining Triple Crown race winners are what remain.

Palace Malice, presumably best in the Travers given a poor start and questionable handling, he would have rated higher placement had he won the Saturday’s show photo.

(And recall that he lost the G1 Blue Grass by a neck when he began gawking around).

It’s difficult to fathom that Palace Malice was beaten one length for all of it on Saturday but that’s horse racing. His future is as bright as the winner’s—brighter, actually.

Orb won the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby, and that counts for a lot. The G2 Fountain of Youth, and his Belmont and Travers show finishes, is just a little more icing.

He’s no cinch to hold the slimmest of divisional leads. Not surprisingly, Wayne Lukas, who has a vested interest in these things, has an opinion about all this:

“I think [the Travers result] muddles it a little bit,” he said Sunday morning. “I think if you’re one of the voting group, you’re going to have trouble until we get father down the basepath.

“It’s going to have to be sorted out in a race or two more. Maybe it will get all the way down to the Breeders’ Cup. The fight’s not over.”

So, What's Next?

Lukas, meanwhile, is not sure, but he’s weighing the situational options: “[The Jockey Club Gold Cup] is a Grade 1 and very prestigious. If you stay in your division [Pennsylvania Derby], the million dollars is not necessarily bad, either.

“We’ll weight all the things. You get an extra week [freshening] if you go to the Jockey Club, so that’s also something.”

Speaking of extra time, Todd Pletcher will need a few more days to consider what's next for both Palace Malice and Verrazano.

If the Travers winner elects to go to the [September 21] Pennsylvania Derby, he’ll find Moreno, the narrowest of runners-up, in waiting. If he opts for the JCGC, he should expect to find Orb there.

“Now we’ve got a good, solid race under his belt, we’ve got all last winter and spring stuff behind us,” said Shug McGaughey. “I think we can really move forward now.

“I’m going to look at the Gold Cup. That’s not to say the Pennsylvania Derby or the Indiana Derby or something is completely out of the picture, but I think we want to go to the Gold Cup.

Pretty sure that ‘Dinny’ Phipps and Stuart Janney wouldn't mind going there, too.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, August 24, 2013

Karma Chameleon

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 24, 2013—Luis Saez is no long the King of Calder.

The journey that led to the most important victory of his career came last winter at Gulfstream Park when suddenly “the Calder jock” was beginning to lay it on the big boys, and horsemen were beginning to notice.

In the winners’ circle one afternoon, Phil Gleaves, once Woody Stephens #1 exercise rider and now a successful Florida horseman who once won the Travers with slop loving Wise Times, gave me a scoop.

“This kid is coming to New York this spring and he’s going to take the place by storm,” Gleaves said. “He’s one of the best riders in America that no one’s ever heard of.”

Until today.

Fitting Jim Dandy runnerup Will Take Charge perfectly and riding him masterfully after being named on the colt just 72 hours before the 144th renewal of Saratoga’s Derby of Midsummer, the team got up in the last jump to nail Jim Dandy third, Moreno, on the line.

Kentucky Derby winner and Triple Crown combatant Orb ran a winning race making an inside rally—not his favorite spot—and looked like the winner of his second “Derby” this year but tired in the final hundred yards and settled for third.

Jim Dandy winner Palace Malice was close behind in fourth and, from a trips perspective, might have been best. Stumbling at the start while breaking flat footed, he was sloughed in the first 50 yards when Transparent was angled inside by Irad Ortiz and, with War Dancer holding a straight course from inside those two, made themselves a Palace Malice sandwich.

Up front, meanwhile, not much was happening. Moreno went to the lead as expected, but a lot slower than anyone thought possible—a half-mile in nearly 49 seconds over a lightning fast track.

Favorite Verrazano was stalking comfortably, although a tad farther back than anticipated considering the soft pace. Orb was racing close up inside of horses while Romansh was on the pace battling between leaders.

The race began in earnest on the far turn. Ortiz finally asked Moreno for a little more speed and he got it. In fact, the second half mile, which carried the field to the top of the stretch, was faster than the first half--:48.51 as opposed to :48.88.

Ortiz allowed Moreno to drift into the three-path, Orb came through with an inside two-path rally, Palace Malace, who had one horse beaten after the first six furlongs, commenced a wide rally that carried him nearly six wide at headstretch.

The winner, meanwhile, reserved under a relaxed hold, began his drive that carried him into the four-path with a quarter mile remaining. Then he began grinding it out; fifth, then third, while Orb seized a short lead from near the fence.

Moreno was resurgent off his measured pace, Orb was beginning to tire and Palace Malace was finishing relentlessly, although never looking the part of a winner.

Will Take Charge’s longer nose was the difference between consecutive Travers’ dead heats. Moreno was 3/4s of a length to the good of Orb, who lasted for third by a nose over Palace Malice, who wound up beaten a length with what was for him, completely unorthodox circumstances.

“At the three-eighths pole, I thought we’ll get a piece of it,” said Wayne Lukas, who can add the name of Will Take Charge to Thunder Gulch and Corporate Report, his first two Travers winners.

“I changed up a [few] things. I took a chance on an up-and-coming rider.”

This was the second time Will Take Charge won a stakes this season after changing riders and the fourth time in as many races that a change was made. It was Saez’ first ever Travers mount.

Junior Alvarado was aboard Will Take Charge for his Jim Dandy placing and did nothing wrong but also rode Optimizer for Lukas in last week’s Sword Dancer. After racing wide throughout, Alvarado eased Optimizer and he was beaten off. The horse walked off the racetrack in no obvious distress.

"It's not anything; I just think sometimes the karma is wrong," Lukas said after Wednesday’s post draw. "I've had good luck with certain riders. I didn't feel real comfortable with where I was at with Junior, so I made the change."

“Last time when he finished second,” Saez said, “I saw the replays and I knew how to ride him. I tried to ride him like he runs.

“I want to say thanks to God, Mr. Lukas and everyone who’s coming here to see these champions,” all 47,597 who helped contribute to a record all-sources handle of $41,363,760.

That’s a lot of karma.

The Old In-Out in the King's Bishop

There are different kinds of race horses: champions, nice horses, also-rans, morning glories... Then there's the ever popular in-and-outer. Sorry, but that's as clever as it gets when Capo Bastone finishes like a rocket to take the Grade 1 King's Bishop, reeling in the very speedy Mentor Cane who out-sped all the speedsters signed on.

As it turns out, Todd Pletcher, had the race surrounded. There was favorite Forty Tales, a winner of the Amsterdam prep for this; Overanalyze, the Arkansas Derby winner that might have been worth a flyer on the turn-back, and Capo Bastone, who just missed winning the G3 Derby Trial. Capo Bastone, who never hinted at being a Grade 1 talent beyond his juvenile season; Capo Bastone, the in-and-outer.

In his three year old season, it was good race, bad race, good race, bad race, then yesterday.

Beneath Irad Ortiz Jr., who with brother Jose Ortiz have had a Saratoga to remember, Capo Bastone roared down the center of the course and blew passed Mentor Cane in the shadow of the finish line. Central Banker came from well back himself to finish third.

Forty Tales, without regular partner Joel Rosario, who shattered his ankle in an incident Friday. Leparoux, who won the Test, filled in ably but could finish no better than fourth on the multiple stakes winner.

The Test a Real Lu-Lu

I’m sure there will be a consensus among the wise guy clan that the Test didn’t turn out to be a true Grade 1 event because speed was holding in sprints all day and the final furlong was timed in little than a glacial 13 2/5.

Those are the facts, of course, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Those kinds of facts seldom do.

But for the undefeated Sweet Lulu to extend her undefeated career to four straight without defeat, she had to survive a strong first half-mile challenged from the bullet-like Baby J, withstand the late running co-favorite My Happy Face, and out-gut the perfect tripping speedster Wildcat Lily.

And did we mention it was her first lifetime start on God’s dirt?

"She trained on dirt as a two year old," Hollendorfer said post-race.

The victory, engineered by the California-based Hall of Famer Jerry Hollandorfer and jockey Julien Leparoux, not generally known as a partner of speed types, was well earned.

The tandem sat off the speedster until the right moment to present herself in front, was challenged from the outside through the lane, but dug down deep to pass the eyeball test.

That makes four wins on three disparate surfaces, Cushion Track, the closest synthetic there is to dirt, and Del Mar’s Polytrack, and four different distances.

"I was a little concerned when she got headed, then Julien rode hard, she came back, fought back, and won."

Written by John Pricci

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