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.
 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014


They Said It All at Whitney Draw


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 30, 2014—It’s not often when two Travers winners and a Belmont winner meet after their three-year-old year and they will on Saturday.

And one of them, last year’s Belmont Stakes and this year’s Met Mile winner, Palace Malice, the top ranked horse in the country according to the latest NTRA poll, will try to put some separation between himself, Saturday’s eight rivals, and the glamorous three-year-old class with designs on a Horse of the Year championship.

He’s even money on Saturday and a little higher than that in the Horse of the Year future book; 5-2 co-favorite with dual classics winner California Chrome. If you like those odds—too short for me—get down now, not Saturday evening.

There were some interesting and fun quotes from the post draw, starting with Darrell Wayne Lukas, on Will Take Charge drawing the Whitney rail: “I hate to have an upset stomach this early in the morning. Not good. I never really have much luck on the rail in any big race.”

From Eric Guillot and his strategy with Moreno: “I’m going to tell you now: If you’re in front of me, you went too fast.”

Ken McPeek, on the $1.5 million purse: “The purse right now, it’s hard to turn your nose up at it. Even if you run third or fourth, it’s not a bad day at the office.”

Al Stall Jr., on the comparison between Blame and Departing: I say there is no comparison. There is only one Blame…If he doesn’t fare well [here], he’s going on the low road again.”

Dale Romans on running in big races: “I think this is the 10-year anniversary of Roses in May winning the Whitney, which was my first Grade 1. We’re creeping up on 30, but I’m not sure exactly—about as many as Wayne has won in one year.”

Todd Pletcher, on what’s made Palace Malice such a good four year old: “He really is an iron horse. He’s an uncomplicated horse. He’s hearty, he stays in the feed tub, you can train him however you want.

“[In the New Orleans Handicap] it was back in three weeks and we were concerned about that and he actually ran enormous that day. I think he likes the action.”

As do we all. The good news is that we’ve got three days to find an alternative to the even money favorite. The bad news is that may not be possible.

A turf sprint star was born in the Coronation Cup for three year old filly turf sprinters. The imported Stars Above Me was slammed so hard at the start that she had every right to not bother at all.

Instead, she dragged a confident and talented Irad to the lead between horses, she waited behind dueling leaders while saving ground at the turn, waited again for a seem to open on the inside, bursting through and drawing off. This is a filly with a future within the division; follow…

Brandini was much the best winning the second race, a state-bred maiden claimer, rallying wide on the turn then drawing off through the lane, looking very much like a repeater if spotted properly by 007 H. James Bond next time out.

That’s easier done than said because Bond is pushing all the right buttons this meet; 3-for-5 before having a 25-1 chance run third later on in the program; note...

Willet is simply, in racetrack vernacular, a sweetheart. The six year old mare obviously has her issues, making only her 17th start in the day’s third event. Winning as much the best, the New York bred mare improved her career slate to 8-6-1. Amazing job by part-owner, trainer Jimmy Iselin.

Meanwhile, Here’s Zealicious jumped up in the start just as her gate opened and was totally eliminated. Will be very tough vs. weaker set next out.

Rock Me Mama was much the best at 7 furlongs in the fourth, launching a strong, wide rally mid-turn before drawing off. It was her first start at a reduced level since claimed as a December two year old and should repeat if not pitched too high. Alaskan Bird was carried wide in the final furlong by a drifting Da Wildcat Girl and kept grinding; bet back in similar spot.

Myfourchix, bet early and often, did all the hard work in a state-bred special weight for juvenile fillies but succumbed late to the fast working Nonna Jo, racing well despite being washed in the the paddock and post parade. Perfect Freud finished well late when fourth in a useful effort; note.

First-timer Throckmorton, a gelded three year old making debut going a mile on turf in the finale, was loaded approaching the eighth pole but was completely trapped inside and never had a chance; bet back.

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, July 28, 2014


Big Weekend Everywhere


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 27, 2014—With apologies to any venue that puts up a million dollars for a Grade 1 event, and to call the William Hill Haskell Invitational a prep for the Travers is more than a little cheeky but many fans regarded Sunday’s War at the Shore as round three of Travers prep weekend.

What was supposed by many to be a triumphant victory by a sensational filly over males, or a competitive race rich in talent, turned into a romp for the brilliant Bayern, giving Bob Baffert a record seventh victory in this race and jockey Martin Garcia a record-tying third.

In the process, Bayern ran himself out of the Grade 1 7-furlong King’s Bishop on August 23rd here. Does that mean a run in the Travers off this devastating 7-1/4 length score in 1:47.82?

This was a Breeders' Cup Classic “win and you’re in” event, not by definition a stepping stone to the Travers. All Baffert would say after the race was: “I don’t think I’ll back him up after this.” Who could blame him

And while Steve Asmussen didn’t say it, I don’t think he or his connections want any part of Grade 1 colts anytime soon, although Untapable did get bumped at the start then raced wide throughout, legitimate excuses. But neither did she truly fire.

Rachel Alexandra? Can we officially stop the madness now?

What was so impressive about Bayern, even if the track was kind to speed later in the day, the surface was not aberrantly fast [the Monmouth Cup went 1.23 seconds slower than the track record for 1-1/16 miles; the Teddy Drone sprint 1.55 slower and Bayern 1.02 seconds off Spend A Buck’s 1:46.80] and the winner made two moves on the lead, arguably three, as the hickory third-finisher Wildcat Red tried him twice from close range but each time the winner repelled his bid.

The guess here is that Bayern returns to home base and races once between now and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. We shall see…

BACK TO SPA BUSINESS: One thing we can confirm is that if all goes well, the first three out of the Jim Dandy will be back; Wicked Strong, Tonalist and Kid Cruz. That final furlong should be, well, a dandy.

The hot duel up front and Rosie’s soft hands helped Coup De Grace find the Grade 2 Amsterdam winners’ circle. Three-year-old chestnut is now 2-for-2 for Larry Jones. With a couple of heady turf rides previously, it seems that any rust Ms. Napravnik endured since being grounded by injury is officially gone…

Indeed, that was quite a debut by Competitive Edge, apparently a well named juvenile that cost about five times the average Super Saver at the Keeneland fall sale (the freshman sire had another winner Sunday)…

“Every time we did something with him it was impressive,” said Todd Pletcher of the colt’s morning trials. “He did it pretty easily,” said Johnny V of the 10-1/4 length winner in 1:09.89. “It was definitely impressive.” Next up will be the Hopeful on closing weekend…

Lost in the Jim Dandy headlines created by Wicked Strong and Tonalist, Kid Cruz was a excellent third, going in the right direction at the finish. Close up to an early pace, he dropped back, as if the race was over for him, then came on again. This type of Z-pattern will augur well when he stretches out another furlong in the Travers...

While it is highly likely that maiden breaking Competitive Edge will be the Hopeful favorite, the day might have produced another future Grade 1 favorite in the King’s Bishop on the Travers undercard, such was the manner of The Big Beast’s allowance victory in 1:09, winning by a short pole after making a good field look completely overmatched. Tony Dutrow’s horses are simply running out of their skin.

C. Zee, second in the Amsterdam, ran too good to lose; note…Celebrated Talent appeared in need of his return from a layup and suffered through curious handling. Perhaps a stretchout next time, perhaps not, but bet back in a logical spot…Poppy’s Watching is another who should benefit from his return from a layoff, placing gamely; note.

It’s an amazing streak for Hall of Famer with Jonathan Sheppard; saddling a Spa winner every year for 46 consecutive years. The victory came on the flat but, appropriately, in a turf marathon at 12 furlongs. Only 10 more and he’ll tie Joltin’ Joe. Kudos!

Spa Business Booming: For the weekend, more than 63,300 fans clicked the turnstiles, 31,000+ both Saturday and Sunday.

On Saturday, 31,812 bet $5.7 million on-track, with total receipts of $23.3 million nationwide. The following afternoon, the first wet day of the meet, attracted 31,561 customers who bet $2.7 million live, with total receipts of $9.9 million. This was after 48 program scratches and no turf racing. All but eight of the scratches were weather related.


Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, July 26, 2014


The Prep Killer


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NT, July 26, 2014—With “the Chief” somewhere in Hallandale Beach looking on, the “Prep Killer” emerged with a huge weekend.

“The Prep Killer,” a.k.a. “Peanuts” in the barn where he was growing up into a top assistant to his legendary father, H. Allen Jerkens, Jimmy Jerkens took a page from dad’s book and slew a pair of heavy favorites in Saratoga's two Travers preps this weekend.

But it had to be the victory of Wicked Strong, he of the occasional wicked will, that must have been the most gratifying of all--considering the addition of blinkers and all.

And, oh, what a difference a change of equipment made.

Jerkens has dealt with the temperamental colt in the run-up to, and through, the Triple Crown series. Crowds made the colt antsy, he tended to run very spottily in his races, turning himself off and on whenever it suited his fancy.

It was time to find out if a set of blinkers would work; get him in the game earlier, help him focus throughout a race.

In the G2 Jim Dandy, the blinkers carried Wicked Strong with a rush into contention despite a wide post draw, allowing him to reach near even terms with the speedy Legend soon after the leader entered the backstretch straight.

From there, Wicked Strong, under stout restraint from regular partner Rajiv Maragh, kept the leader in his sights, stalking him throughout, and when Tonalist loomed up alongside approaching headstretch, the winner came out to greet him and the real running began. In the end, the Belmont winner could not match strides with the Wood Memorial hero.

This week, trainer Christophe Clement said his colt would be fit enough to compete and compete him did, finishing 2-1/4 lengths behind Wicked Strong but 3-3/4 lengths ahead of third finishing Kid Cruz who, it must be said, was going in the right direction after the winner posted a clocking of a very solid 1:49.16.

“It might be my imagination but he always seemed to be running with his head cocked to the other side in his other races,” Jerkens explained. “I didn’t really notice that today. I thought he ran straight and true.”

“With the blinkers he wasn’t loafing down the backstretch,” said Maragh. “He was running into a nice rhythm and didn’t go on and off the bridle, which he was doing in his prior starts. He was more focused today, and more aggressive.”

“The way he works in the morning,” said the awed Jerkens, "I don’t think Secretariat worked any better than this he does. It know the talent’s there. It’s just getting him to put it all together.”

Clement had no immediate reaction after the race, was contacted back at the barn, and said that he needed to “spend some time with my horse” before assessing just what happened with regard to yesterday and next month’s Travers. Aside from finishing second, it was a good race to grow on.

As for Jerkens, he might also run Friday’s Curlin Stakes winner, V.E. Day, in the Derby of Midsummer. “We’re going to think that way,” he said. “V.E. Day has improved with leaps and bounds with each race. Those kind of horses usually have a lot of quality.”

Having learned from the best, he should know.

Depending on Perspective, No News Is the Good News and the Bad News

The unceremonious firing of NY Daily News handicapper and reporter Jerry Bossert, in virtually the same manner the NY Post handled its racing people last year, inspired much conversation both off and online.

Most opinions went something like: It’s symptomatic of what’s happening with to thoroughbred racing; the mainstream media doesn’t care except for four days a year-- which essentially boils down to two; Kentucky Derby day and Belmont Stakes day when a Triple Crown is on the line.

Q: So, what’s an industry to do about that?

A: Absolutely nothing; they like it this way.

It might be instructive to recall that it was Bossert’s Daily News piece exposing Aqueduct for the unkempt eyesore that it had become, despite all that VLT largesse. Were these mutually exclusive events? Who knows?

There is no way of knowing what the exact policy with respect to working press is in New York, or anywhere else for that matter, but there does seem to be a pattern at work.

Last year, when a hard-hitting column was written in the Saratogian at the conclusion of the meet, a top NYRA executive, accompanied by a local NYRA Board member, visited the newspaper to personally complain about the opinion expressed.

When the Post racing writers and handicappers were fired on the eve of the 2013 Belmont, one of them at the time was trying to broker negotiations between NYRA and Post executives, the goal being to recover advertising that was pulled following the critical story.

Earlier at this meet, the popular “Saratoga Special,” which never has written anything negative, ever, was pulled from areas around the racetrack where it previously was available.

The incident became a non-issue quickly when an agreement was reached, making the magazine-style publication available on track once again but in mutually agreed upon area.

Without objective coverage, what passes for reportage these days often is rewritten press releases, that is when industry media bother to make the effort at all.

Internet news disseminators have joined this bandwagon, learning to follow the money—their own—and tend not to trumpet any commentary that could be construed as controversial, thus becoming part of a problematic trend.

Prior to this stand Saratoga handle figures were included in a nightly recap. It still is available in the press box after the races but is not disseminated online. So much for promises of transparency made earlier by the current quasi-state controlled association.

Handle figures are still available but only by calling the communications office to request them. Generally, however, when the numbers trend upward, they are made public more readily.

Not releasing handle statistics was started by Churchill Downs Inc. not that long after the private company went public; bad publicity does little to enhance shareholder value, nor does it help racetracks scheduled to go up for bid in the future.

It will be interesting to see whether the subtle pressures that journalists occasionally face from the industry is a temporary development or the new normal.



Written by John Pricci

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