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 23, 2008

Mid-Summer Vindication for Harty and Colonel John

Saratoga Springs, NY, August 23, 2008--Travers morning dawned clear and crisp: Track fast, turf firm, rails down on both courses. The scene was set for a challenging day of sport and the most competitive Travers Stakes in decades.

And it was exactly a decade ago in the 1998 Belmont Stakes and Eoin Harty, trainer of Travers 139 winner Colonel John in the closest finish in a season of close Saratoga finishes, was experiencing déjà vu, and it wasn’t the kind of flashback he welcomed.

“By no means did I think we won,” Harty said of his colt’s Travers victory over Mambo In Seattle. “I had a flashback to Real Quiet and Victory Gallop.”

On that occasion Harty was an assistant trainer to Bob Baffert, himself seeking to make history with Real Quiet, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. And coming into the Belmont stretch, that’s precisely how it looked as Real Quiet opened a four length lead.

But Victory Gallop, whose move could not have been timed any better by Gary Stevens, stormed up the fence, tipped around Real Quiet leaving the sixteenth pole and nailed the would-be Triple Crown champion by a nose the instant the finish line was reached by both horses.

Yesterday was different, but not only because Harty was on the right side of the Travers photo. In the jump before and after the finish line, Mambo In Seattle’s late surge propelled the colt and partner Robby Albarado to the lead, the jockey brandishing his whip in premature celebration.

But at the line it was Colonel John’s nose that proved more photogenic. The racing phrase “in time” never was so apt.
It was also exactly a decade ago when the closest Travers finish until yesterday’s was produced; Coronado’s Quest, ironically, beating Victory Gallop by the same margin Victory Gallop had beaten Real Quiet two months earlier.

For trainer Neil Howard, it was his second consecutive agonizing loss in this Derby of Mid-Summer. Last year, his upstart Grasshopper ran Derby and Preakness hero Street Sense to a close finish, a narrow half-length separating the two following a punishing stretch-long duel.

The first two finishers ran away from 10 other three-year-olds in a moderately run roughly contested Travers in which the winner had to cross over heels to secure room, effectively eliminating Jim Dandy winner Macho Again, causing him to clip heels and nearly falling just as he was about to mount a challenge.

While this was happening, Mambo In Seattle raced in the clear but at a considerable loss of ground. Third finisher Pyro had a relatively good trip despite his wide draw, weaving his way between horses for the drive while well backed fourth finisher Harlem Rocker was also forced to race very wide, especially on the final bend.

Meanwhile, for Santa Anita Derby-winning Colonel John, it was vindication for his Kentucky Derby defeat, his only previous dirt start in which he suffered through an agonizing early trip. This job done, the Winstar colt will use either the Super Derby or Goodwood as a bridge to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, powered by Dodge, or Harty said he could simply train him up to the race.

Either way, Harty must be relieved to have former trainer Elliot Walden on his side. Walden, who trained Victory Gallop for Prestonwood Farm in 1998, now is a bloodstock consultant and adviser to the Winstar group headed by Bill Casner.

“You have to take these races philosophically, said Casner when asked about Colonel John’s tough trip in the Kentucky Derby. “But horses are like people; they have to overcome adversity. Today, that’s what he did at the head of the lane.”

* * *

Grade 3 Victory Ride Stakes: Carryover! First Slambino, now Porte Bonheur? Not the she was all that implausible, but with the $1 million Pick Four guaranteed pool and the Pick Six, Indyanne, 4-for-4 lifetime by an aggregate 32-½ lengths was a “single” on a preponderance of tickets, especially with the sequence filled with competitive races. The favorite lost it at the start, breaking tardily, rushed up into a duel with J Z Warrior, then tiring inside the final sixteenth. Porte Bonheur, a sharp winner here earlier at the meet, was confidently handled by long-hold Ramon Dominguez, who virtually measured off the win for trainer David Duggan, in the midst of having a career meet. Nice job, one and all, including the filly, of course.

Grade 2 Bernard Baruch Handicap: And that would be three for Team McLaughlin/Garcia, Garcia‘s fourth on the day. The pace was fairly pedestrian going to the half, then they stepped it up. The third quarter went in :23.50, Thorn Song setting the pace under mile pressure from War Monger, who chased the pace throughout. Into the lane, Thorn Song was weakening, War Monger surged, but just when it appeared Bill Mott was get his third win of the meet, here came Shakis with giant strides. Until yesterday, he was not the same horse we saw last year. But he’s back for sure. He gathered momentum as the pace continued to heat, another :23.59, but the winner saved his best for last, roaring home in a final eighth of :11.51, as he stopped the timer in 1:46.78. Operation Red Dawn saved showed over the tiring Thorn Song. Todd Pletcher’s Distorted Reality never threatened in a high disappointing effort after sitting with good position throughout.

Grade 1 NetJets King’s Bishop Stakes: And Visionaire makes FIVE for Alan Garcia! Just like he did in Visionaire’s prep earlier at the meet, he dawdled in last behind a slow pace, angled seven wide into the stretch, and exploded a furlong out, blowing by a game Desert Key, who raced right up on the pace throughout. Ground loss cost both favorite J Be K and Lantana Mob. Visionaire, on the Triple Crown trail earlier this year, has found his niche sprinting, turning back to seven furlongs the way Hard Spun did last season. It was a wise choice made by Barry Irwin and the rest of the Team Valor connections; terrific training job turned in by Michael Matz. Note, however, the time of 1:21.94 was .04 slower than Aquino in the opener.

* * *

First Race: When he debuted stateside here at the dawn of this meet, Aquino ran a stakes class figure finishing second in a non-winners of 3 lifetime. If he could repeat that effort, the competition would be running for second money. He did, and they did. After being shadowed throughout in moderate fractions, he kicked on to record his third quarter in :23.24 and a final eighth mile in :11.90 to win the opener in an eye popping 1:21.90 for Kiaran McLaughlin and Alan Garcia. This looks like a serious race horse; note… West Express finished well up the fence for place and figures to go well next out.

Second Race: International good thing Florentino spotted the leader about a dozen lengths out of the gate, gained full momentum approaching the quarter pole and was nearly fourth, finishing in mid-pack; appears to have ability and deserves a chance to make amends; follow… Favorite Spaniard set strong pace, shook clear into stretch but stopped a furlong later; possible money burner…? Gone Astray finished strongly, Shug McGaughey’s third juvenile winner of the meet. Runnerup Nowhere To Hide finished strongly too late for Nick Zito; won’t be a maiden for long.

Third Race: Tiz It can’t catch a break. Speedster was pressed throughout fractions of :22.16 and :44.73--going seven eighths--and was no match for debuting Storm Play, a scopey first starter for Jimmy Jerkens debuting without Lasix, a bit unusual these days; this colt might have a future, follow progress. But if Tiz It ever meets a group looking early speed…

Fourth Race: Roughhouse inner-turf event went to Missinglisalewis beneath Alan Garcia, his the team avoiding all the stretch crowding by changing down the center of the course to win going away. The one to follow, however, is Triple Bogey Blues, who trailed throughout, Mike Luzzi opting to remain inside--his only chance to win if he got through inside, but he didn’t, blocked virtually throughout. He’ll be a big price with similar next time out; bet back.

Fifth Race: Edgar Prado looking more like himself on Travers day, getting through inside from post 10 on Mellon turf and drawing clear late. Uncle Indy finished well late between horses while in close quarters, Tizzy staying on gamely for place.

Sixth Race: Sometimes the game is more about connections than the horses. Are you listening Kiaran McLaughlin and Alan Garcia? The team came back to double up here with Big Stick, Garcia’s third overall, Big Stick now a winner of three straight despite the class and distance rise. Garcia took advantage of his inside draw and his horse’s kick to get home first over the stubborn Hammock, a gritty third after Baletti roared home very late to nail the place. Consider both seriously when they race back; make note.

Seventh Race: FOURTEEN-THIRTEEN-EIGHT-THREE: ONE MILLION, FIVE-HUNDRED TWENTY-FOUR THOUSAND, ONE HUNDFRED EIGHTY EIGHT DOLLARS!!!!!!!!!!!. Slambino, indeed! The superfecta payoff combining 88-1, 20-1 and 37-1 shots was so large, the $2 superfecta price had to be posted in a $1 denomination; the software not programmed to include seven-digit payoffs… Please don’t ask if it was a record, or to explain exactly how Slambino, Blazing Dynamo, Key Event and Holiday Trip finished in that order. Also don’t ask to explain Bill Mott’s abysmal meet. Prussian beat one horse at even money, and he’ll never get a better pace setup than he had here. Kudos to the two Dime Super winners. A result like this might never happen again.

Twelfth Race: Ramon Dominguez timed Iron Gate’s late rally perfectly, collaring and passing favorite Burnished Copper in the final strides. But I need to go back and study the replay of one of the also-rans, Rockon Rockoff. At first glance, I didn’t care for the rider’s effort. Check it out for yourself.

Written by John Pricci

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