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John Pricci

HorseRaceInsider.com executive editor John Pricci has over three decades of experience as a thoroughbred racing public handicapper and was an award-winning journalist while at New York Newsday for 18 years.

John has covered 14 Kentucky Derbies and Preaknesses, all but three Breeders' Cups since its inception in 1984, and has seen all but two Belmont Stakes live since 1969.

Currently John is a contributing racing writer to MSNBC.com, an analyst on the Capital Off-Track Betting television network, and co-hosts numerous handicapping seminars. He resides in Saratoga Springs, New York.

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Saturday, January 25, 2014


Cairo Prince, Top Billing and Velazquez Rock Gulfstream Park


HALLANDALE, FL, January 25, 2014—Kiaran McLaughlin isn’t the kind of trainer who criticizes jockeys, but he was very upset when overconfident handling from Luis Saez cost him a victory in last year’s Remsen Stakes.

Cairo Prince galloping out after dominating his Holy Bull rivals
Photo by Toni Pricci
Cairo Prince galloping out after dominating his Holy Bull rivals
“And maybe the two year old championship,” McLaughlin speculated after Cairo Prince’s completely comprehensive victory in the Holy Bull Stakes, the first serious stop on the South Florida Derby trail. "But we can’t think about that now. We just have to hope he keep going forward. He made my job look easy.”

So did Saez. After breaking cleanly with Cairo Prince in the 11-horse Grade 2 mile and a sixteenth, he positioned the 2.10-to-1 favorite comfortably wide off a 23.63, 46.75 half-mile pace as Coup de Grace and Almost Famous duked it out on the lead, tracked intently by a surprisingly pumped-up Mr. Speaker.

Approaching the final turn, Almost Famous put Coup de Grace away, took the lead under pressure as Mr. Speaker went up to engage the leader. But just as quickly, Cairo Prince was on them in an instant, Saez virtually motionless as he reached even terms approaching headstretch.

He confidently guided the grandson of Holy Bull only this time he asked his colt for more and Cairo Prince responded with the excellent turn of foot he first displayed winning the Nashua Stakes in his second lifetime start.

“Today he rode him perfectly,” McLaughlin said.

And rode him out to a 5-3/4 length score in 1.42.16, with a final sixteenth in 06.75, 50 one-hundredths faster than it took sophomore Top Billing to win the day’s fourth race. The track record of 1:42.73 was set by the older River Seven in last month’s Harlan’s Holiday Stakes.

“Obviously, we’re holding a strong hand with this colt,” said McLaughlin. “You just hope we keep going forward because things happen to horses all the time. We just want to keep him the same happy and healthy horse.”

Where he goes next is at issue. McLaughlin indicated he could run in two more Derby preps, or train up to a race like the Florida Derby, March 29. The Fountain of Youth, the race Remsen winner Honor Code is pointing for might, comes up a little too quickly for Cairo Prince. So what about that matchup?

“We gave him six pounds in the Remsen and got beat a nose. We felt we were the best horse.” McLaughlin then was asked his impressions of the race run by Top Billing earlier in the day.

Kiaran McLaughlin's high opinion of his horse was validated in the Holy Bull.
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Kiaran McLaughlin's high opinion of his horse was validated in the Holy Bull.
“I’m glad he opted for the fourth race today.”

For two of the day’s other major players, excitement started long before the Holy Bull horses entered the Gulfstream Park walking ring.

For Johnny Velazquez--it was when he entered the ring to ride Monopolize for main client Todd Pletcher to the cheers and well wishes of appreciative fans lining the ring, Johnny's smile wider than the backend of a Clydesdale. It was his first ride since the Breeders’ Cup when he suffered a spill that resulted in the removal of his spleen.

Velazquez was excited, as was his wife Leona, who was there to greet him when he walked into the paddock. “I’m feeling a little bit of everything,” she said, speaking without hesitation but with some reservation. It’s been a lengthy, arduous rode back “and he’s been working like a dog to get fit. He’s very strong right now.”

The doctors gave permission to resume riding on January 10 and he was exercising horses the next day. But Saturday was the the first time he raced for money since November 1. How did it feel?

Johnny & Leona Velazquez are happy to be back.
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Johnny & Leona Velazquez are happy to be back.
“Tiring,” he said, showing the same smile he wore in the paddock before escorting Monopolize to the racetrack. The team finished fifth of seven “but it felt good, felt really good. I’m just looking for a horse now fast enough to carry me around."

But race riding is about timing and confidence as much as it is about strength and that likely will take a little time.

Velazquez had mounts on the day’s two stakes and finished second on Aurelia’s Belle behind the dominating Onlyforyou. Velazquez added the $40,000 in place purse money to his total as racing’s all-time money-winning rider.

For Shug McGaughey-- the excitement came when he entered the winners’ circle after Top Billing’s very impressive victory in an ‘a-other-than’ allowances at a mile and a sixteenth in 1:42.86 coming from last, as impressively as any late runner can be over Gulfstream’s speed-friendly circumference.

“That was a powerful race,” said McGaughey, “he’s learning. I was a little nervous running him back in three weeks, but he has an unbelievably good mind.”

And a balanced, very athletic frame, with not a lot of size but one that makes him as nifty as horses need to be.

As to his next start, that has to be determined. “Well, you know there’s not going to be an allowance race. We’ll put our heads together and run him somewhere... but we’re not going to overcook him.”

Top Billing is owned by his breeders, Will Farish and E. J. Hudson Jr.

Shug McGaughey's Derby prospect lives up to his Top Billing
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Shug McGaughey's Derby prospect lives up to his Top Billing
Ridden by Joel Rosario, who partnered with Orb to win last year’s Kentucky Derby for McGaughey, the colt was content to race last of seven down the backside but was in a good rhythm, picking up the pace leaving the half-mile pole, still last, without being asked.

Then Top Billing showed a big turn of foot while four wide on the turn, engaged the well regarded Surfing USA momentarily approaching headstretch, before momentum carried him away to victory, ridden out.

He certainly looked like the top prospect McGaughey believed he was before Saturday's tour de force.

Onlyforyou-- lived up to her billing in the Grade 2 Forward Gal, but not her name, winning for virtually everyone in simulcast land by 2-3/4 lengths as the prohibitive 3-10 favorite. remaining undefeated.

“It kind of speaks for itself,” said winning trainer Todd Pletcher. “Anytime you have one win three in a row, it’s not very many of them that do that.”

The question is whether there will be life beyond yesterday’s 7 furlongs, clocked in 1:22.50.

“She’s a big scopy good-looking filly that has tactical speed. She’s trained like she’ll run further. If we’re going to run back at Gulfstream we’re going to have to stretch out. We’ll have to see how we feel about that.”

Written by John Pricci

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