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.
 

Thursday, August 21, 2014


Travers and the Championship: A Mystery-Wrapped Enigma


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 21, 2014—Could it be that a victory in a race over a synthetic surface by a synthetic-track specialist could turn the result of Saturday’s Travers Stakes over on its hindquarters?

That likely would be the case if Shared Interest draws older horse-first blood by beating, among others, the redoubtable Game On Dude, even if he has lost a step or two, or three, to age.

Mike Smith, who’s been abiding by the Dude the past few years but will abandon him on Sunday when he takes a seat aboard the invincible, thus far unbeatable Shared Belief, is not ready to concede that the old boy is done.

When he’s alowed to get into his speedy rhythm early and dominate the front end of any race, he’s near unbeatable, Smith said, before delivering the best line of Tuesday’s NTRA national teleconference.

“[Game On Dude] might not be as good as he once was, but he can be as good as he was once.” But push came to shove, Smith deciding that youth will be served.

Mike’s been very helpful with Game on Dude, Bob Baffert was saying, adding that Smith is one of those riders that can tell you something about a horse you might not have known before.

“I rode him all wrong,” Smith would tell you, Baffert explaining how a certain horse might want to do something one way while the rider wanted to do something else. Gary Stevens is the same, he said.

Smith said that the one trait Shared Belief had form one ride on the colt was that he was extremely well balanced, that he allow the rider to do virtually anything he wants, that he's very agile.

“It was an easy decision to make, one horse is three and the future is ahead of him. "[Game On Dude] has some good races left in him but he’s probably not going to get any better.”

Shared Belief not only is good but is highly likely to get better; a defending champion that never has been beaten; the sky’s still the limit.

Shared Belief ia rated at #7 on the NTRA Poll this week--Game On Due is #6, incidentally--and is one of five 3-year-olds in the Top 10, the others being California Chrome #3; Bayern #5, and Wicked Strong #9.

The fifth is the filly Untapable at #10.

Like the Eclipse Awards, the NTRA Poll doesn’t have hard fast voting rules except for a loosely constructed mindset that the rankings should reflect accomplishment and the promise that continued succes could result in a Horse of the Year title.

Assumedly, this is why a defending “synthetics champion” with a victory at Los Alamitos can be ranked below a dual classics winner and a sensationally fast Woody Stephens/Haskell winner, but higher than a Wood Memorial/Jim Dandy winner and—at #13—the winner of the Peter Pan and Belmont.

Should either Bayern, Tonalist or Wicked Strong win the Derby of Mid-Summer on Saturday, they could be ranked as high as #4, should Close Hatches be defeated in Friday’s Grade 1 Personal Ensign.

It is unlikely, however, that any of the 3-year-olds could leapfrog #1 Wise Dan, scheduled to return in the Bernard Baruch next week at Saratoga, or Palace Malice, seeking reparations in next Saturday’s Woodward, with or without the addition of blinkers.

However, Shared Belief could vault into third with an impressive Pacific Classic victory over Game On Dude, among other elders. Undefeated and an older-horse victory in August just might get that done.

Ten 3-year-olds will start in the Travers and a victory by any horse outside the Big 3-1/2—Bayern, Tonalist, Wicked Strong and Mr Speaker—would have to be considered a major upset and could topple the entire sophomore apple cart.

With Bayern, it’s a question of his ability to stretch his brilliance over 10 furlongs. Personally, I have no doubt that he can if the early fractions are moderate; he distributed his energy beautifully at Monmouth Park.

It’s a total coin toss between Wicked Strong, who raised his game considerably in blinkers and just might keep marching forward, especially now that he can run in a straight line, and Tonalist.

The Belmont Stakes champion clearly needed the Jim Dandy, carefully handled by Joel Rosario throughout who did enough but not anything near too much, in his capital P Travers prep.

As for Mr Speaker, it’s all about the dirt; will he or won’t he? Always high on Shug McGaughey's depth chart, the colt was way too fresh in the Holy Bull in February at Gulfstream Park. Further, he was forced to move prematurely thereafter when challenged on both flanks at the half-mile pole .

The colt had every right to get tired after spending all that energy early, and that’s exactly what happened. But he has continued to develop, won at 10 furlongs in the grassy Belmont Derby, a race producing two next out winners from five subsequent starters, and has trained like a wild horse on the Saratoga dirt. Can you say fuzzy?

As for the Big 3; here’s the current assessment. Bayern is coming off a ‘A’ effort, maybe even an ‘A+’. It is unlikely he can replicate anything close to that.

Wicked Strong ran his ‘A’ race, no question, and he could be sitting on another just like it. Tonalist is coming off a ‘B+’ with every indication that an ‘A’ is forthcoming. That very much looks like two sides of the same coin. It’s a fascinating puzzle.

Whichever colt solves this mystery, he might have to check out the TV set in his stall on Sunday evening to know whether his Travers victory was enough to move him to the head of the class.


Written by John Pricci

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Friday, August 08, 2014


Oh Baby


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y., August 8, 2014—Here it is, the fourth Saturday of Saratoga 151, and I’m already looking passed it, awaiting Sunday’s juvenile stakes doubleheader.

Maybe that’s because the Grade 2 Saratoga Special attracted 11 entrants. Given the state of two-year-old racing around here for the past decade, Sunday’s field is almost twice the norm.

The ladies will go first on Sunday’s national television broadcast on Fox in the Grade 2 Adirondack at 6-1/2 furlongs and we’re pleased that both stakes will be run at this hybrid distance.

Instead of a speedway to graded heaven, what this trip should provide is a more meaningful perspective on the future; the longer races of Fall leading up to a national championship. Not many races are stolen at this distance.

A cursory look a past performances indicates, to us at least, there are two fillies that just might be extraordinary, casting no aspersions on the other talented fillies in the group.

I don’t want to make comparisons with filly debuts past, but can I have to say this; that I’ve not been this impressed with a first-time starter since, well, Moccasin, or Ruffian. Please—not making comparisons with either one; that would be crazy.

But I don’t think I’ve seen a filly win as easily as Wonder Gal did in the modern era. The New York-bred, by juvenile buzz sire of the season, Tiz Wonderful, made her debut in the restricted Lynbook Stakes against four overmatched rivals.

I didn’t know those fillies were overmatched at the time, although the fact Wodner Gal was postward at 4-5 was a pretty good indication.

Debut types often win by big margins, and the 14 lengths thatseparated her from runnerup Accelebrate was huge by any measure. But this was no runoff wire job; this was a professional hit.

Allowed to trail by eight lengths, she advanced on the inside, running the sweeping turn very well, her momentum carrying her into the three-path at headstretch. It was all totally effortless; no encouragement from Taylor Rice whatsoever.

And she improved her position from there. She widened with every stride as Rice sat motionless. The splits were 22 and 46 en route to a 1:11 clocking for six furlongs. Measured in hundredth from the half-mile to the finish, she shaded 25 seconds coming home.

Find the third race replay from July 6 at Belmont Park. I’ll bet you’ll have your own Jack I-Don’t-Believe-What-I-Just-Saw-Buck moment.

In the language of the day, it was awesome.

The other filly on our radar wasn’t nearly as impressive. In fact, her win could be categorized as workmanlike, far from awesome. But if a race is worth three workouts, this one was worth 10.

Facing seven rivals, Angela Renee had to work a little to eventually get to even terms, the first quarter-mile of the five furlongs timed in 22 1/5 After breaking fifth, she was suddenly third by 2-1/2 lengths and streaking toward the leader, reaching almost even terms with a half-mile timed in 45 2/5.

From that point forward, Johnny Velazquez was content to take a narrow lead, allow is filly to fight her rival for about a sixteenth of a mile before drawing out late to win by 2-1/2 in 57 4/5 for five furlongs.

But here’s the thing: She’s a Bernardini filly from a Deputy Minister mare. It should take her a half-mile just to clear her throat. That was the third race on June 27 and is another replay worth watching. Sunday's additional three-sixteenths will work for, not against her.

Whatever Sunday’s result, these are fillies with a huge upside and are worth noting in the coming weeks and months.

As stated, 11 colts will line up in the Saratoga Special. Four of them--none of which I would choose in Sunday’s feature analysis--have proven so precocious that all four have already been purchased privately and/or have moved into new barns.

After Lord Tyrion finished third in his debut for Eddie Kenneally, he will make his second start for Ian Wilkes.

One start after zipping 4-1/2 furlongs in a 6-1/2 length romp for Michael Yates at Gulfstream, Peter Miller will tighten the girth on Tizcano tomorrow.

After taking a five furlong Canterbury maiden allowances by 8-3/4 lengths for Douglas Oliver, Majestic Affair make his second start in for Chad Brown.

And, finally, after winning two straight at Lone Star Park, including a restricted stakes for Texas-breds, W V Jetsetter will make his Spa debut for George Weaver, working a bullet five furlongs for the occasion.

But Saratoga is a place where a little practice over the surface comes in handy.

Thus, we think the Saratoga Special winner will come out of the Sanford on opening weekend here. Which one of the three to choose from is another matter entirely.

So, who will it be? Mr. Z, Cinco Charlie, Nonna’s Boy? The seventh race on July 19 is worth reviewing, over, and over, and over again.

Nonna’s Boy was a victim of circumstances, taken out of what likely is his best game. He never had a moment’s peace.

Cinco Charlie? It’s the same story. They ran relays at this guy and he still was very much there at the finish in one of the more courageous efforts of the meet.

But poor Mr. Z should have been unsaddled. Instead, he entered the stretch behind rivals, clipped heels, bulled his way out beneath a panicky partner, practically knocking the winner over.

Mr. Z eventually surged to a short lead, fought tenaciously between rivals, but the momentum of the winner, racing freely on the outside after getting sloughed by Mr. Z, carried the talented Big Trouble passed Mr. Z.

And where do all these runners belong in Saratoga’s juvenile pecking order? Tune in tomorrow. Check your local listings.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, August 06, 2014


Vic Zast: The Complete Package


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 6, 2014--For two chroniclers of the sport of horse racing, it was totally appropriate that Vic Zast and I would have our first face-to-face in this town, a place when Vic would spend every day if he could, but summers would just have to do.

The bonus for Vic, in addition to the top class racing, social scene, and race course itself was that his children lived downstate and could visit frequently. He was always eager to introduce family to the friends he made on his racetrack odyssey, sharing coffee, croissants and conversation by morning and something a tad stronger by afternoon.

We initially met because of Vic’s gift for words, syntax and cadence. I remember reading a piece he wrote for the Bloodhorse, showing it to my wife and saying: I’ve got to meet this guy; maybe he’ll be interested in writing for [this] website?

That day came on a Sunday morning. We shared breakfast and a conversation and if the term “mutual admiration society” hadn’t already existed, we could have founded the organization right there at the table. Vic loved what we were trying to accomplish; I loved Vic’s writing and critical eye. It was a marriage made in turf-writing heaven.

I told him he had carte blanche; that he could write about anything he wanted. I never failed to be surprised by the topics he ultimately chose. I can handicap a race with the best of them but I never knew what Vic was going to do. Not that it ever mattered; I never so much as substituted a semi-colon for a comma.

Clean copy and a great read, what a parlay!

It's hard to define what I admired most about Vic: Was it his joie de vive? Was it his passion, generosity, loyalty, style, his mind? As turned out it was all the above. He had the kind of attributes that makes men loved and respected.

But what I appreciated most from my colleague were his words. His writing had wit, honesty and a sensitivity woven around his relentless pursuit of truth. His advocacy for the sport he loved was boundless.

Vic graced the pages of HorseRaceInsider for far too short a duration. I looked forward to his Monday columns with the anticipation of a devoted fan. He was a wordsmith of the highest order in the tradition of Thoroughbred racing's greats: the Palmers; Smiths; Hattons; Morans.

And nowhere was he more inspired than when he was in Saratoga, riding his bicycle down Fifth Ave. by morning and attending charity events or parties by night, always with his wife Maureen at his side.

Vic was a freelance writer, meaning he went to most events on his own dime, hoping that the writing gigs he picked up along the way somehow would get him even for the trip.

Zast took pictures on his I-phone long before it was commonplace. He took what is now known as a selfie of the both of us in the Arlington Park press box when the Breeders’ Cup rolled into his home town of Chicago. He later confided that he took the “Fix Six Scandal” as a personal affront.

Racing wasn’t about gambling for Vic. He loved the racetrack because it was fun, exciting, a cut above other sporting pastimes. And he never stopped selling that.

He wasn’t embarrassed to bet $2 on a horse no matter how sure, no matter how strong his opinion. The game wasn’t about making a score; it was the color, the spectacle, the style. It was the dramatic storylines that reeled him in

Vic was successful in his life’s work, making a good living as a marketer. He owned his own fragrance company, something he parlayed into a career in horse racing. He was at one time President of Finger Lakes Racetrack and had the vision to promote racing through sponsorship.

The sport’s first sponsored race was a Zast creation, the melding of the Spiral Stakes at the old Latonia together with bourbon distillers Jim Beam. Indeed, the Jim Beam Spiral Stakes was Vic’s brainchild. That would be enough of a career path for most men but it was writing about the sport that he enjoyed most.

There will be a celebration of his life at the Westmoreland Country Club in Wilmette, Illinois this afternoon, golf being another of Vic’s passions. There will be another in his beloved Saratoga on August 17th, one day before the Cary Fotias memorial.

Tee shirts being sold here this season that remind us “Everything’s Better at the Racetrack.” For some, that’s a bit harder to swallow this time around.

Written by John Pricci

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