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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Sunday, January 25, 2015


Talented from Day One, Holy Bull Winner Is No Upstart


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 25, 2015—It was a state-bred maiden race at Saratoga; didn’t look like anything out of the ordinary on paper. But when the betting opened it became apparent that a dark bay named Upstart might be OK.

Ante post, he was the 3-2 choice over six rivals and he made that quote look generous, indeed. All he wanted to do was run, run, run, but Jose Ortiz didn’t want him to move yet.

On the turn, the $130,000 Saratoga yearling still wanted to go—“traffic, hard held,” the chart footnote reads--but with the straight in sight, Ortiz let out a notch of rein and Upstart did the rest.

It was an impressive enough score, which is nothing unusual for Saratoga, but what happened after Upstart reached the wire 5-1/4 lengths in front of Tizquick was.

The ridgling galloped out, slowed to a canter, then to a walk on the backstretch. But instead of turning around and galloping back toward the winners’ circle, Ortiz walked him slowly over to the inside portion of the track, stopped, and gave him a feel for the rail.

I only remember seeing this maneuver before steeplechase events; the riders giving their mounts a “feel for the hedge/fence,” some familiarity with the obstacle the horse will be asked to traverse.

What jumped to mind in this case is that the outfit must really like this youngster. Finally, Ortiz galloped him back slowly but trainer Rick Violette couldn’t wait, running out to the middle of Saratoga Race Course to greet horse and rider. High fives ensued.
What happened next was even more unusual. Needing a bridge race to get to the Champagne Stakes—yes, from New York-bred maiden to open Grade—Violette ran him back nine days later in the state-bred Funny Cide Stakes, which he had every right to lose.

“We weren’t supposed to win that day,” said Violette after the Holy Bull, referring to the very speedy Funny Cide favorite, Bustin It. Upstart, however, as Tom Durkin probably said, would not be denied, grabbing the lead late, willing victory by a length at the end.

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Upstart dominates in the Holy Bull

“We got lucky,” said Violette. “I didn’t want to run him back in the Hopeful, thought that might be too tough a spot, and the timing [to the Champagne] was better.”

Upstart finished a good second in the Champagne, Ortiz shifting him off the deeper portion of the sealed, sloppy track on the backstretch while the winning Daredevil was just cruising along comfortably in front in the better going, setting a moderate pace.

Next stop California where Upstart’s fortunes weren't much better. With speed horses ruling the day, especially those racing toward the inside, Upstart broke from the extreme outside in a field of 11 going a two-turn mile and a sixteenth.

Upstart broke slowly, raced wide throughout, was forced to move into contention probably sooner than Ortiz wanted, the premature move eventually costing him the place as Carpe Diem came charging down the middle of the track to nail him.

On Saturday, the ridgling broke with his field, lost ground throughout, but he kept racing comfortably, keeping the pressured speed-type Bluegrass Singer in close range before going after him in earnest approach headstretch. From there he drew off with a thoroughly comprehensive 5-1/2 length score in 1.43.61.

“I hope it wasn’t too fast,” said Violette, “but that’s one of the advantages of running today, you have two weeks to play with.”

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Rick Violette has reason to smile.

Playtime will come in either the Gotham at Aqueduct March 7 or Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Feb. 21. Either way, Upstart will have a three-prep campaign into the Kentucky Derby. His Holy Bull victory was worth 10 points, giving him 16 Derby qualifying points.

Meanwhile, it was also a very solid performance by the classy Frozen, the non-threatening runner-up.

“One horse scratched. Kiaran’s [McLaughlin] horse was between a rock and a hard place from the rail. They were coming off the bench, too. When they went 24 [seconds], I said, ‘We’re in a good spot. When they went 48, I said ‘we’re in exactly the right spot.’ You couldn’t have asked for a better ride.”

“Rick did a tremendous job getting him ready,” said rider Jose Ortiz. “By the half-mile pole I let him go…and when we turned for home we rolled. He jumped into the bit…he was really very good.”

Good enough to run his final sixteenth in 6.55 while gearing down.

Now Violette must decide what’s next, which is a bit of a political quandary. He has stalls in Florida, where stall space is at a premium, but he’s also the head of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and is New York-based throughout the year.

Our guess is that the Fountain of Youth is the better option, giving him a chance to decide whether the final prep will be the Florida Derby or Wood Memorial. Does Violette want four or five weeks between final prep and Derby?

That’s why trainers get the big bucks.

Ya Gotta' Have Heart: The Holy Bull was preceded by the Hutcheson on the five-stakes program, four of which were graded.



The only drama in the seven furlong dash was whether X Y Jet, loose on an easy lead beneath Edgard Zayas, would take it wire to wire, or whether odds-on 3-5 choice Barbados, with Luis Saez, would run him down.

Trainer Mike Tomlinson’s Speightstown colt eventually wore down the frontrunner and extended his undefeated dirt career to three victories, having taken the Spectacular Bid here earlier this meet, after making his first two starts on turf.

“It was a tougher race than it should have been [on paper] so my hat’s off to the second-place horse,” said Tomlinson afterward. “I asked Luis [Saez] after the race, ‘was it that hard’?” He said he had the horse measured,” of the come-again runner-up.



It’s a good sign Saez felt that X Y Jet would not re-break in the shadow of the wire and grab the favorite right at the end, the trainer said.

“At some point or another they’re going to get tested. Any good horse has to have heart.”

Bets 'N Pieces The graded stakes portion of the program started with the Sweetest Chant, a Grade 3, and barely one on that on paper. But makes no mistake; we’’ be hearing a lot more from Consumer Credit, the filly with that big late-running engine.

From headstretch to inside the furlong pole, Chad Brown’s filly was churning her legs as if she would run the leaders down but remained one-paced to the point one had to wonder whether she ever would fire.

But with a sixteenth remaining, the gears shifted, shoe powered to the lead and was drawing away with every lengthening stride. It was Chad Brown’s filly’s first start in graded company, her first as a three year old, and her third win in succession.

At one mile, she barely seemed warmed up. When she gets going and begins running longer, she might carry young Edgard Zayas right into the big time with her.

Going into the Grade 2 Forward Gal for three year old fillies at seven furlongs, our thinking was we remember seeing stronger renewals. Coming out of the event, little had changed, except that the first two finishers just might be better than that, possibly a lot better.

Before the winning Birdonthewire left her Kentucky home, she was breaking her maiden at the expense of Lassofthemohicans going a two-turn mile and a sixteenth. That filly returned to break maiden subsequently at Gulfstream by five going a flat mile.

After Saturday’s victory, Birdatthewire had become the fifth filly from nine subsequent starters to exit that maiden event with a repeat victory next time out; a super key race indeed.

Considering both maiden breakers were returning going seven-eighths, logic dictates that they might get even better when they stretch back out. We’ll be watching.

The final stakes of the day, the Kittens Joy, was a listed event but the pair that finished noses apart, each trained by Bill Mott, appear to have graded talent and will prove that assessment somewhere down the line.

The fillies were owned by two of Mott’s bigger clients, Juddmonte Farms and Benjamin Leon, in partnership with Three Chimneys Farm.

As it turned out, Juddmonte filly Courtier did all the dirty work on the lead but Dubai Sky benefitted from a perfect ground-saving trip and a fortunate head bob for a nose victory, Johnny Velazquez nailing Joel Rosario’s mount right at the line.

Both fillies were coming off two straight scores and only a dead heat would have extended the streak for both. The winner is now undefeated in blinkers and it’s interesting to note, too, that neither filly runs on race-day Lasix.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, January 22, 2015


Kentucky Derby Prep Season: Game On


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 21, 2015—Are you ready for some prep ball?

Finally, things are beginning to heat up as the Road to Kentucky Derby takes its first serious step Saturday when Gulfstream Park renews the Grade 2 Holy Bull Stakes at 1-1/16 miles.

But before taking a look ahead, there already has been some interesting action in racing’s glamour division and a few recent participants might turn out to be players in Louisville.

Whether they’re elite players or not will shake out in the days and weeks ahead. Thus far, it’s been a promising start.

Two weeks ago Calculator earned an impressive maiden score at the expense of some classy runners in Santa Anita’s Grade 3 Sham Stakes, ridden and performing as though he were much the best.

Ground loss didn’t matter, early button-pushing didn’t matter but what mattered was the impressive way he drew off that belied a lineage that’s admittedly a bit short on the maternal side of his pedigree.

Of course, he will be given ample opportunity to outrun his ancestry in the future; the 1-1/16 miles of the San Felipe seems the logical place to find out more about Peter Miller’s trainee.

Don’t quite know what to make of Monday’s Smarty Jones group but at first blush it seems as if some might make it to the elite level. The winning Far Right is decidedly OK, making amends for a tough trip run in last season’s Delta Jackpot.

Runnerup Bayerd appeared to have every chance but couldn’t get there and race favorite Mr. Z has too many bad habits to be taken seriously at this point. Neither of the two Steve Asmussen-trained runners lifted a hoof.

Neither do I know how to gauge the G3 Lecomte bunch. Last weekend wasn’t the first time that International Star fooled me, still believing that his future is on grass. But he does love his job, as his (7) 3-2-0 lifetime slate indicates.

I’m not sure what followed International Star home but the score was authoritative enough for his connections to look forward to the Risen Star, where the waters figure to be much deeper.

Now I know the California Derby is run on Polytrack, and that the race often has been a better predictor of Preakness success than the race run two weeks in Louisville but I liked what I saw of the top three finishers, especially the first and third horses.

While many horses race well on dirt coming off Polytrack, many others don’t and I find that pedigree study only confuses the will-he, won’t-he issue; it’s just better to wait for the evidence to come.

It was Jerry Hollendorfer’s eighth Cal Derby victory [yawn], but I appreciated the way his perfect-trip winner Cross the Line lengthened his stride as he--well, crossed the line. However, I was taken more with how stablemate Stand and Salute performed through the straight.

Either by accident or design, Russell Baze gave him a great education. Just at the point of the turn where the running was supposed to begin, Stand and Salute sounded a retreat.

Then when asked, virtually a few seconds later, he showed an excellent turn of foot at headstretch that carried him into the 6-path and he continued to rally strongly only to get nailed in the last jump for place, failing to switch to his correct lead until it was too late.

(See the bet-back replay and judge for yourself). It has been quite a while but John Brunetti has bred a three year old worth keeping an eye on.

There are some unusual dynamics going in both Saturday’s two-turn Holy Bull and Hutcheson, the latter a seven-furlong sprint that used to jump-start the sophomore season back in the day.

What’s interesting is that two of the major players are cross-entered, thereby giving their connections options.

The two colts entered in each race are Mucho Macho Man winner Bluegrass Singer and Illinois Futurity winner Dom the Bomb. Each of those wins came at longer distances than the Hutch.

HRI has learned that Bluegrass Singer will run in the Holy Bull; alas, we shall see.

Make no mistake, the Grade 2 headliner features a “now horse” vs. two proven classy juveniles of 2014; G1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile third Upstart and G2 Remsen Stakes runner-up, Frosted. Both colts were wide-trip compromised in those events.

Both are working very well for their seasonal debuts and will give good accounts of themselves. Whether their apparent class edge can overcome Gulfstream-loving Bluegrass Singer given his early speed, the short stretch at Saturday’s distance, and Javier Castellano is the issue.

The field, from the rail out, with Gulfstream line-maker Jay Stone’s early odds and our Projected Performance Ratings, are Frosted 5-2 (89); Keen Ice 6-1 (82); High Noon Rider 15-1 (82); Bluegrass Singer 4-1 (96); Juan and Bina 20-1 (76); First Down 12-1 (78); Frammento (83) 12-1 ; Upstart 9-5 (88); Dom the Bomb 30-1 (81) and Decision Day 30-1 (82).

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, January 17, 2015


Eclipse Saturday: Upsets By Day, Formful By Night


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 17, 2015—Justice was served and form held at Gulfstream Park Saturday night when California Chrome, the 17th dual classicist of 17 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners, was named Horse of the Year 2014 and champion three year old by a wide margin over his Breeders’ Cup Classic conqueror Bayern by a margin of 193 to 56.

Eclipse Awards voters, consisting of members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Daily Racing Form, and the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, cast ballots ranking the top three horses and individuals in each championship category, scored on a 10-5-1 point system basis.

The top three finalists in each division were released on January 7, but the final tallies represented are first place votes only.

Todd Pletcher won an unprecedented seventh Outstanding Trainer title, eclipsing his own record by a relatively comfortable margin over Chad Brown, with Art Sherman third and Bob Baffert finishing fourth.

The Breeders’ Cup had a good night at the event as seven 2014 race winners--counting Main Sequence in both the championship older male and turf categories--walked away with Eclipse honors.

Ken and Sarah Ramsey were repeat winners as Outstanding Breeder and Owner—their fourth trophy as owner--by a solid edge over Adena Springs, as was Outstanding Jockey Javier Castellano, owning a definitive margin over John Velazquez and Mike Smith. Drayden Van Dyke easily won Outstanding Apprentice honors.

There were some surprises as American Pharoah, forced to miss the Breeders’ Cup with an injury, was voted Champion Two Year Old over Juvenile winner Texas Red. American Pharoah won the Grade 1 Frontrunner easily with Texas Red third.

It was American Pharoah’s second Grade 1 win, after having won the 7-furlong Del Mar Futurity, so it seemed a victory for handicapping over common sense and championship achievement.

Some consider the Older Male category an upset because Turf Champion Main Sequence eked out a win over accomplished dirt runner Palace Malice. Clearly, there must be a delineation in future voting between main track racing—the American game—and grass racing.

And, lest we forget, two time defending Horse of the Year champion Wise Dan, a perfect 4-for-4 on the year including three Grade 1s and a Grade 2, which he won after escaping a serious bout of colic and winning the 1-1/16 miles Bernard Baruch at about 90%, stopping the timer in a sensational 1:39. Hardly seems fair that he was shut out.

But he did lose out to two top-class animals; the 2015 Horse of the Year and another “perfect” horse, Turf Champion Main Sequence, who went 4-for-4, all Grade 1s, good enough to become a Horse of the Year finalist.

Many of the night’s winners were odds-on favorites: Untapable was a unanimous choice for champion three year old filly, 265 to naught, and two others came close, also females, with champion filly sprinter, Judy the Beauty, 261 to 1 to 1 to 1, and Filly Turf Champion, New York-bred Dayatthespa, 261 to 2 to 1 to 1.

Other talented and worthy Champions were Juvenile Filly Take Charge Brandi; Older Female Close Hatches, a winner of four straight graded stakes before falling apart in the Distaff; Sprinter Work All Week, and Steeplechaser Demonstrative.

Special Eclipse Awards for Lifetime Achievement went to legendary race caller Tom Durkin and to Old Friends Farm, that honor accepted by founder Michael Blowen. Old Friends is one of America’s premier facilities for retired Thoroughbreds. Jose Arias received his as Handicapper of the Year.

Ultimately, however, the year belonged to a shiny chestnut colt by a $2,500 sire from an $8,000 mare, a four-time Grade 1 winner, the last three year old champion to win it all since Curlin was 2007 Horse of the Year, trained by 77-year-old Art Sherman, HRI’s horseman of the year.

Alas, there was no Triple Crown, but there was a Santa Anita Derby that came before the Derby and Preakness and, after finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he came back to win the grassy Grade 1 Hollywood Park, showing both class and versatility. Fairy tales do come true.

“Thanks to all the fans that love this horse; we wouldn’t have horse racing without all of our great fans.” With that, owner Steve Coburn said it all.

BETS N' PIECES

Ready, Aim, Fire: While much of the evening went formfully, the Eclipse program followed a series of upsets on the racetrack led by Sr. Quisqueyano’s change-of-pace victory in the featured Sunshine Millions Classic and Pink Poppy’s tactical score in the Millions Filly & Mare Turf.

Trainer Peter Walder trusted his instincts with his new acquisition and clearly read the situation correctly.

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Sr. Quisqueyano looking good in first start for Peter Walder

“We just back off him,” said the trainer of his new five year old acquisition. “These older horses sometimes are over-trained. He’s an old veteran, he knows what he’s doing. We just played with him a little bit and he went into this race bouncing.”

Then he went out and bounced out of the #1 slip like he meant business before second favorite Wildcat Red and 60-1 I’m Steppin’ It Up quarter-horsed it into the first turn.

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Sr. Quisqueyano gamely holds East Hall and Catholic Cowboy safe

Wildcat Red clearly wanted control of the race but the outsider would have none of it with that team setting fractions of 22.77 and 46.17. “Edgard (Zayas) was confident he could stalk. Today he proved he doesn’t need the lead,” Walder said.

“The horse likes to be on the lead but there was so much speed in the race I had to stalk,” said the talented young rider who likely will follow the lead of Luis Saez and so many top riders who made a successful transition from South Florida to New York.

“When I saw [the leaders] starting to tire I went to the lead a little early because I know he’s really a brave horse once he’s in front,” said Zayas.

The victory proved a pleasant distraction for Walder who has had a hard time focusing recently after his grandfather became very ill and had to be ambulanced back to Canada.

“I have my barn to help me focus,” Walder said. “He’s been my life, my grandparents have been my life. This helps quite a bit.”

When focused, Peter Walder wins races at a high percentage. He does it by spotting his horses very carefully although yesterday he was being aggressive. “I told the owner [Ron Paolucci] I wish I had more time to work with him but a [six-horse] field for $250,000, you got to take a shot.”

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Peter Walder Center Stage


Leparoux Call Audible...On Himself Julien Leparoux is having a strong Gulfstream Park meet and has been riding with a lot of confidence.

Known as a patient rider, especially on turf, the 2006 Eclipse Award Outstanding Apprentice and Outstanding Jockey of 2009, Leparoux made a wide, sweeping mid-race move down the backstretch and blew the Millions’ Filly & Mare Turf wide open.

Not bad considering this was his first ride on the filly who just missed in her stakes debut in December while coming from far back.

“We were sitting fifth,” Leparoux explained, “but they started backing up on us and I didn’t really want to fight with her.

“She’s a big, long-striding filly, so I let her run free. I started riding her early so she’d keep on going and she did fine, finished up nice, never got tired.”

It was the 11-1 outsider’s first stakes victory, coming in her third start for trainer Marty Wolfson.

“The way she trains, she’s very forward,” said trainer Marty Wolfson. She doesn’t do anything wrong and she’s very sound. She beat some nice fillies today.”

Indeed she did. After scratches, Pink Poppy was facing nine rivals, six of them stakes winners, two of those graded.

“We just wanted to win a stake with her,” Wolfson added. With Leparoux’s help, it was mission accomplished.

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Not even Pegasus can catch Marty Wolfson's Pink Poppy

Photos by Toni Pricci


Written by John Pricci

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