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

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Saratoga: Meeting and Exceeding Expectations

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., September 7, 2015—Strange, posting this first ever Saratoga Diary from the Sunshine State. Ironic, too, since daily summer storms here are running to form while the Spa atmospherics were unusually remarkable; clear days with hardly a trace of humidity.

Quickly: Name another extended race meet in which only 10* turf races were rescheduled to the main track?

NYRA bashing is a popular sport, one that goes with the territory. And while I can nitpick with the best of them, I did not see a multitude of major faults to bitch about; not even the well-publicized cap on Travers day attendance.

Complaining about the current NYRA administration comes easily, especially when racetrack language is generously peppered with corporate speak, but they hosted a very successful season by any measure.

Yes, compared to other years, prices were exorbitant. But when likened to other major sports—and Saratoga is a world class sports venue--prices were in line, even if $5 for bottled water on Travers day was excessive.

For anyone attending the Travers, the “guest experience” was enjoyable. One could move about the crowded facility with relative ease and clubhouse betting queues were not inordinately deep--at least on the three or four occasions we left our press box sanctuary.

Simply because the brand says Saratoga doesn't mean the race meet will be memorable. But in 2015 it was. The racing was spectacular, even many mundane weekday programs necessitated by the expansion of Mega Racedays.

If persistent whispers are accurate and Executive Vice President of Racing Martin Panza does not have his contract renewed this fall, he certainly saved his best for last.

But this is an imperfect world and horsemen complained to us on occasion that Panza’s condition book is written on a three-week cycle.

This favors powerful stables because, the argument goes, they've got numbers to spread around both condition books; smaller outfits wishing to run back cannot because there are fewer similar spots to re-enter.

In case no one’s noticed, this game is tough and no place on this continent is it any tougher to win than at Saratoga. Just ask the majority of horseplayers, some excellent practitioners, who were humbled at this session.

It is said that bettors want big, competitive fields, and in the main that’s exactly what they got. What’s that expression, careful what you wish for? Imagine how much better handle might have been had players been able to churn back their winnings?

Between the fences and on the backstretch, there were some truly remarkable achievements, defining moments, and career-making seasons. The list of achievers and over-achievers were great. Here, then, some observations on the best extended race meet the planet has to offer:


Irad Ortiz Jr.: has been leading rider before, but this was his first Saratoga title. It won’t be his last. He rides for many of the best outfits. He has patience and excellent timing, rides with extreme confidence, even when he had some uneven moments.

Javier Castellano: Ortiz won the title but no one had a better meet than Javier. Six Grade 1s in 40 days is DiMaggioesque. There were 17 G1s, with two over hurdles, and winning the Whitney, Woodward, Alabama and Travers is extremely unlikely to be duplicated.

Johnny Velazquez: Per usual, JR won more races with his head than he did with his athleticism. He's talking about scaling back his daily schedule next year, concentrating on big races and special client relationships.

Jose Ortiz: Day to day, demonstrated why he’s consistently best away from the barrier, an excellent rider of speed horses.

Luis Saez: HRI predicted success in NY for Saez when he left Florida several years ago. With 35 wins at the meet, it was his Big Apple breakthrough moment.

Eric Cancel: With 18 winners at America’s premier meet, a stand that doesn’t offer apprentices many opportunities, Cancel ranked eighth in the final standings. The mutuel payoffs averaged over $20!

Kendrick Carmouche: Ranked ninth with Jose Lezcano behind Cancel with 16 wins, but Carmouche just might have earned himself a permanent spot in this talented colony.


Todd Pletcher: Face it, he is racing’s 1927 Yankees. Uncharacteristically coming from behind, it was Pletcher’s sixth straight Saratoga title and 12th overall. It’s one thing to have the stock, another to deliver so consistently—and this was following a record Belmont spring-summer meet.

Chad Brown: Hard to imagine you can have a breakthrough Saratoga with 31 winners and not win the title. Still, a career meet for the Mechanicville native.

Bill Mott: His meet was the training equivalent of a Z-pattern. Started fast, idled in mid-meet, but finished strongly.

Kiaran McLaughlin: Had an outstanding meet with 13 winners, finishing sixth among trainers. Indeed, Kiaran trains quality stock but it was horsemanship, not number of starters, that was responsible.

Jeremiah Englehart: Talk about career meets? Had 11 winners with few short-priced horses among them.

Barclay Tagg: Pointed to the meet--uncharacteristically with maidens and younger stock--and killed it with seven winners and a strike rate of well over 30%. (Meet favorites overall were only 29.5% efficient).


Outstanding Meet Performance: Flintshire winning the G1 Sword Dancer

Outstanding Debut Victory: Jess’s Dream, who might have been farther back than Honor Code was when he broke his maiden here, and at two turns yet.

Outstanding Horse: Rachel Alexandra who, as colleague Tom Jicha noted, was the only three-time winner at the meet.

Outstanding Owner: Michael Dubb, repeater.

Outstanding Horsemanship: Dale Romans

Outstanding Moment: Chris Antley, posthumously entering the Hall of Fame

Outstanding About-Time Moment: King Leatherbury into the circle

Outstanding Bad Beat: Tepin, twice.

Outstanding Betting Favorite: Saratoga v Del Mar

Outstanding Life Celebration: Hail to The Chief

Outstanding Sportsmanship: Ahmed Zayat

Outstanding Morning Trial: American Pharoah

Outstanding Afternoon Trial: American Pharoah

*correction made 090815, 3:48 p.m.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Travers Aftermath Deserved Better From Espinoza

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September 1, 2015—Victor Espinoza embarrassed himself. Maybe he began to take himself a little too seriously after becoming the first Triple Crown jockey in 37 years, or becoming a “Dancing With the Stars” celebrity.

Rather than accusing Jose Lezcano of “trying to hurt American Pharoah,” he should have taken a page from the Zayat’s book, or Bob Baffert’s, for that matter, who all handled the loss graciously, as crushed as they must have been at the time.

To their credit, they didn’t look for excuses, never came close to making one up the way Espinoza did. Ahmed Zayat spoke only of his horse not performing “like the American Pharoah I know.”

Baffert had it right, too, when, in the heat of the moment, he said it right--which is a lot different than saying the right thing, a.k.a. spin what really happened. “He didn’t bring his ‘A’ game today. His tank wasn’t as full as we thought,” he said immediately port-race.

And neither did he say what he might have suspected but couldn’t prove, the reason why he was reticent to run in the first place. He worried about the spacing from the Haskell to the Travers and from the Travers to the Classic.

In a scheduling context, the Travers was no man’s land.

He knows all too well that the Derby of Midsummer is never won easily, never stolen on uncontested leads. Saratoga didn’t earn its deserved reputation by making things easy for “the best horse.”

And whatever instructions Lezcano may have gotten from Kiaran McLaughlin, he brought the race to the favorite because he felt that was the best way to beat him at that moment in time. Lezcano was on his back, no one else.

If handicappers were completely honest they would admit Lezcano was a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t spot. No one knows whether Pharoah would have won had he not been pressed hard, but it’s difficult to imagine Frosted would have beaten him from behind. Been there, failed at that—twice.

Horseplayers hate conspiracies, who doesn’t? Except when events conspire to allow them to cash a bet. Hey, maybe I should get some credit from getting the champ beat. The Travers was the first time I picked him all year; stopped him cold.

But there it was, the middle half-mile in under 47 seconds that eventually got him beaten. If it hadn’t, then it would have been said American Pharoah bottomed-out the field on his way to victory.

American Pharoah was as gallant in defeat, as courageous as any non-winner of a race can be. Seattle Slew’s Jockey Club Gold Cup loss to Exceller comes to mind. No, Pharoah’s resurgent effort wasn’t nearly as dramatic as Slew's in 1978, but it was pretty damn good.

Good enough that Pharoah came back all the way back, vanquishing a super-sharp challenger by 2-1/4 lengths, a Grade 1 winner who dogged him right down to the bottom, passing him briefly at headstretch but unable to put him away.

To the contrary, Frosted was farther back at the finish than at any point of the mile and a quarter midsummer classic. Lezcano tried to beat American Pharoah, not “hurt” him. I can’t believe any jockey, especially those competing at this level, would ever harm a horse intentionally.

Even if jockeys weren’t animal lovers, which most are, horses provide the least talented among them with an excellent living. Why jeopardize that?

In one thoughtless, selfish moment, Espinoza’s charge undid much of the good will created by the colt and the people around him. For a jockey to suggest that another would purposely harm an animal, to win at any cost, is the kind of damage the sport doesn’t need.

The Mother of All Undercards:
If Saturday’s supporting card wasn’t the best I had ever seen, it was pretty damn close. Bettors must have agreed, sending in nearly $50 million from all-sources on the 13-race program…

Private Zone was stunningly triumphant, turning the Forego into a runaway once he engineered an opening gambit of 23 2/5 seconds. So, will it be the Sprint or the Dirt Mile. In either case, he will be a very tough out.

The King’s Bishop never fails to elicit blazing exhibitions of speed for what can be a grueling 7 furlongs. But a Pea Patch exacta? Really? Runhappy? Well, he’s appropriately named. And Limousine Liberal completing an Ellis Park two-speed-number sweep? Wow..!

I was never a big fan of the G1 Sword Dancer. Well given the Breeders’ Cup “Win and In” incentive, I can get used to seeing more high class Euros such as Flintshire. Double wow! Only where was he when I needed to complete a Breeders’ Cup multi-race sweep? Arrrggghhh..!

Looks like the connections have finally figured it out: Unbridled Forever wants to be a stretch-running sprinter. And that’s where Dallas Stewart is taking her, to the Filly & Mare Sprint; seven-eighths sure looks like her best go…

Maybe now, Sheer Drama will get her due. Just like their younger counterparts, the Eastern-based older fillies and mares are looking for a leader to challenge Beholder—if that’s even possible. David Fawkes has done a great job developing her, ditto Joe Bravo in the boot…

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Travers 146: Keen Karma

SARATOGA SPRNGS, NY, August 30, 2015—The second lesson a trainer takes from his Horsemanship 101 manual, after “he couldn’t be doing any better” is “they all get beat.”

Horseplayers and fans would also do well to keep in mind that dictum. The disgrace is in not showing up; not running on gallantly for second in a losing effort.

They all get beat is the truest of all axioms, of course. That’s the way it is with flesh-and-blood things. Like humans, animals have their good days and bad days. American Pharoah had a good one, just not the great one he needed.

For the Triple Crown champion of 2015, the 146th Travers was an effort somewhere in between. Bob Baffert said it best to a national television audience moments after the race: “He didn’t bring his ‘A’ game. We thought he would have a little more in the tank.”

Now maybe people understand why Baffert was reticent to run in this spot.

Pharoah’s B+ game was pretty damn good, however, in part reminiscent of Seattle Slew in the Jockey Club Gold Cup of 1978, coming again gallantly only to be beaten by a one-run, perfect trip rival, Exceller.

American Pharoah dug down to the bottom and found courage, but no reserves. While clearly fatigued, he still resurged to defeat his Travers shadow, the couldn’t-be-doing-any-better Frosted, soundly defeating him by open lengths at the end.

But it was the fresh, specifically pointed to the Midsummer Mile and a Quarter who won the day beneath expert handling from his human connections. And the good karma surrounding them proved too hard for the champ to overcome.

Jerry Crawford, founder and managing partner of the eminently successful Donegal Racing partnership, believed in his horse and the game’s future--the children, distributing free Dairy Haus ice cream—Keen Ice Cream cones—to celebrate his colt’s participation in the Travers.

“I have a suspicion that promotion may be extended a few days,” he would say hours after the race.

At a charity event Travers eve at the Fasig-Tipton Pavilion for Senior Services of Albany, trainer Dale Romans auctioned off his own paddock pass—“what are they going to do, prevent me from saddling the horse?” and it was the event topper, attracting a bid of $5,000.

“It’s one of my favorite charities,” Romans afterward. “Meals on Wheels really improved the quality of my grandfather’s life, giving him a hand while allowing him to enjoy his independence late in his life.”

It is rare when good karma is rewarded almost instantly, and it was from the moment the Travers field was sent on its way. And before the term rabbit gets thrown around re Frosted’s tactics too loosely, Kiaran McLaughlin’s horse was under a tighter hold first time by the stands than was American Pharoah.

Jose Lezcano--who replaced Joel Rosario, unseated earlier in the G1 Forego, did not sustain serious injury but will be off his Sunday mounts, too--did nothing wrong.

Lezcano’s horse was super-sharp and rather than choke him down, he brought the race to the rival the whole world believed was the horse to beat.

And so the table was set for the Graveyard to claim its latest victim, thanks to a hotly contested pace and the coming of age of Keen Ice, who developed beautifully over the summer for Romans.

Fractions can be deceiving going 10 furlongs. Going the distance on a contested lead is always difficult, especially with a middle half-mile in 46 seconds, but Keen Ice was set for a breakthrough performance, a resume that only figures to get better with each subsequent start.

We have said, and have written previously, that Keen Ice showed signs of becoming a man in Oceanport when he sprinted home for place behind a geared-down Triple Crown champion in the Haskell Invitational.

Keen Ice, this week, when asked about Travers favorite

Photo by Toni Pricci

Keen Ice continued to train in improved fashion during his time at Saratoga and Javier Castellano, winning an unprecedented fifth Travers, liked what he felt beneath him the only time he worked him.

While McLaughlin hoped Frosted would be in fifth position in the early going, his colt was super sharp and Lezcano brought the race to American Pharoah, to the detriment of both as it turned out.

Conversely, the connections of Keen Ice wanted their horse in the game earlier, and that’s exactly the trip Castellano gave them.

While the long-striding colt was well back early, he did ask Keen Ice to get closer when the real running began at the far turn following that grueling middle half-mile.

But, too, it was Romans’ patient approach with classics-type runners that ultimately paid dividends for the Donegal group and their colt going forward. He will continue to improve and, with added development, should make an excellent 4-year-old.

Patience was a lesson Romans learned from one of his mentors, the late, great Allen Jerkens. They had been friends for decades and they spent a lot of time over dinners this winter in Florida, just before “the Chief” passed.

“After today’s race I kept waiting for him to call me,” said Romans wistfully back at the barn Saturday night where Keen Ice finished his dinner by about 8 p.m. When he later posed for photos with the Romans family, he appeared bright and fresh, almost as if he had never run.

The current plan is to train up to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, just as will be the case with American Pharoah, who was fine, albeit tired, on Sunday morning.

Parenthetically, that makes sense for Pharoah but perhaps not so much for Keen Ice, who has both the constitution and the body to benefit from another Haskell-style prep.

Whatever tack Romans takes it will be well considered and, like late Saturday afternoon, the original Giant Killer will be somewhere, smiling.

Written by John Pricci

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