Ralph Nicks resides in the same barn as last year, nestled below the trees between Barclay Tagg and Mark Hennig, a winding walk from the Morning Line Kitchen.
Last year, The Special hit the old new kid on the block as Nicks was back in Saratoga for the first time in years. It was about his return. Nicks had 12 horses - 12 ripened and ready for a strong show. (Editor's note: Originally published in July 29 issue of The Sarartoga Special.)
Nicks won two races and hit the board with four others from just 13 starts.
Things are different this year. Nicks is back with 16 horses, but instead of ripened and ready for Saratoga, most of the 16 exit the Belmont spring meet, where Nicks won seven races from 27 starts, good for a 26 percent win clip and a 74 percent in-the-money rate.
Strong numbers, but that doesn't make Saratoga easier.
"The quality overall is a little bit better, but the horses aren't as hand-picked as they were last year, so obviously it won't work as well as last year, but we've picked up a little more quality and horses that fit in New York," Nicks said from outside his barn Thursday morning. "It's not necessarily, just for Saratoga, but for New York in general. We did Belmont spring, which we had never done and had an outstanding meet."
With 50 horses at Gulfstream Park, Nicks' stable is on the upswing.
Thursday morning, as exercise rider Barry Downes cleaned tack and assistant Heather Smullen bandied about, Nicks walked through his barn with The Special's Sean Clancy.
Table For Six: The daughter of Mizzen Mast won her debut at Saratoga last year. "She was third at the end of the meet at Belmont, not the best of trips. Ready by the end of the meet, hopefully I don't have to wait for her to get me off the duck."
Heavenly Grace: Bred by Mandy Pope's Whisper Hill Farm, the daughter of leading sire Tapit and champion Havre de Grace, the 2-year-old filly is royalty. Standing in her stall Thursday morning, she rubbed her head on Nicks' shoulder and relished a pat on the neck. "Think she's been spoiled her whole life? She was told how pretty she is before she stood up. End of the meet, maybe the beginning of Belmont. So far, so good. I've only had her about a week. She's been at GoldMark. No pressure involved. I learned a long time ago working for Bill (Mott), when they stick their heads over the screens, they're all equal until proven different, if you look at it from a racing perspective. Is it exciting to have that type of pedigree walk in? Absolutely."
Miles Of Humor: Another Whisper Hill Farm homebred, the chestnut son of Distorted Humor owns one win in four starts. A big horse, with a sleepy eye on a quiet morning. Nicks gave him a pat on his head as he walked past. "Maiden winner at Belmont, one other than at the end of the meet."
Pirellone: PHS Racing's 3-year-old son of Gio Ponti has produced one win, a second and a third in three starts. "He finished second here at Saratoga last summer, broke his maiden at Belmont, finished third in a stake, got hurt, should be ready in two or three weeks. Coming back good, he's a lot bigger horse this year."
Crowning Affair: Whisper Hill homebred daughter of Giant's Causeway failed to sell for $425,000 at Keeneland September in 2014, she sports a 1-for-4 career mark. "Broke her maiden at Gulfstream at the winter meet, she just got here from GoldMark. She'll be ready toward the end of the meet. I just unloaded her half hour ago."
Tapitation: New York-bred 4-year-old son of Tapit is 5-for-12, including a win in the Kingston at Belmont. He finished third in the Forbidden Apple July 16 at Belmont. Registered gray/roan, he looks like he should be flying through the air in a Disney movie. "The white horse. New York-bred stake on the 26th is the goal. Shows up every time. He's doing well, he ran well at Belmont the other day, finished third, no pace."
Tizacity: Dark bay daughter of Tizway cost $425,000 across the street in 2014. She finished second in her debut at Gulfstream but dropped her basket Wednesday, acting up in the paddock and at the gate before finishing fifth in a 7-furlong maiden. Tall and lanky, she stares down Nicks from the back of her stall like she knows he's miffed. "Threw a fit in the tunnel, behind the gate. She's actually all right, she made a bunch of mistakes the first time and made more this time. When I got her, she would freeze up behind the gate. A project. She's a pretty thing and has some talent. If we ever get her going in the right direction, she'll be OK. Just time, I need to take her behind the gate myself for a while."
I'm Amazing: A maiden after three starts, the big gray colt has a big role to play. "The 1.6 million-dollar I'm Amazing. He was second at Belmont, then came back with a bad fourth. First time, he beat half of them at Gulfstream, sent him to Belmont thinking the bigger track would help him and he got caught in the last jump. Then he ran back, they took him back and he finished fourth."
Unspoken Mission: Whisper Hill bid $90,000 for the New York-bred daughter of Mission Impazible at Fasig-Tipton last summer, she's yet to race, but breezed 3 furlongs on the dirt Sunday. A stuffed dolphin, a mirror, some knobs and what looked like a wooden soldier on a string surrounded the sleeping filly Thursday morning. "What's that tell you about her? She will run the stall, only early in the morning, the rest of the time she's like this. She'll be ready by the end of the meet. She'll be all right."
Ruckus: Two-year-old finished a long way behind Bobby On Fleek in his debut at Belmont Park in July. "By Midnight Lute, he ran at Belmont and ran terrible. He's shown some talent, but he didn't show it in the afternoon. We'll try again on August 6. He's built like a 4-year-old. Big and backwards."
Pawleys Express: PHS Racing's homebred made a belated debut at Belmont Park in July. "Broke her maiden first time out at Belmont for a maiden claim. She won by 5 or 6, 4-year-old maiden first time. She'll run in the starter in the next book. It's a good condition to have."
Mylute: Six-year-old veteran has danced many dances and will make his third start for Nicks, fresh off a win against allowance foes at Belmont July 17. "He'll run in the Alydar, he's good, he was third in the Westchester and then we won a beaten allowance race, that's the only two times we've run him. We got him after Todd (Quast) ran him in the Commonwealth. With him, we try to stay away from the regular routine that everybody does with horses. Train him less. Like me or you, we might still be able to run three quarters of a mile, but we don't need to train as hard to run the three quarters of a mile, because we aren't going to make it if you train on us much. We jog him a day, gallop him a day, work him every 10, 12 days and he ran one of his fastest numbers. Energy levels."
Tap To It: A debut winner last year at Saratoga, the daughter to Tapit finished second in the Spinaway, sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies and fifth in the Margate in February at Gulfstream. "She's back galloping at GoldMark."