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John Pricci 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, 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, March 01, 2014

Big Show in Big Apple; Samraat, Bayern Break Into HRI Power 10

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 1, 2014— The Gotham was billed all week as a rematch between undefeated Samraat and Mr. Sigh, the ding-dong 1-2 Withers finishers that left the rest of the horses behind.

It turned out to be anything but a two horse race. It was a three-horse race! And one hell of a three-horse race it was.

The prep season has only begun to get serious and the rest of the members of the 2014 class will be hard pressed to put on a show like the one seen yesterday at the Big A.

It’s not often you get a three-horse battle at any age from the quarter-pole home, with each of the horses at some point looking like it might win.

In Trouble, who should have name changed to in close, battled fiercely from the fence in an excellent sophomore and two turn debut. It was a modest, albeit realistic pace, and he was pressured throughout.

Uncle Sigh, who did the hardest work in the 50-pointer, chased the leader, battled between rivals on the turn and didn’t given an inch through the lane, succumbing grudgingly in the final strides.

One day, he’s going find himself outside his arch rival and he just might reverse both recent hard-fought defeats. But then why should he beat Samraat at all? No one else has, and they tried to do it five times. He just refuses to be beaten.

This year’s Vyjack? Could be, could be not. And I don’t want to consider the 10 furlongs question for this trio. It’s hoped they all come out of the race in good order and take the next step, logically the Wood Memorial, but at nine furlongs, wherever it is.

Turfway Park featured the Battaglia Memorial, an excellent betting race going in, but one that was dominated by one man, Wayne Catalano, who saddled the first two finishers that left serious daylight between themselves and all others.

Solitary Ranger took the lead from along the inside going into the first turn of the mile and a sixteenth, was pressured throughout and, instead weakening, drew off with authority at headstretch beneath Florent Geroux, winning by 4-3/4 lengths.

Stablemate Poker Player, favored at 8-5, erased all but 4-3/4s of an 18-length deficit after the first half mile, most of that during an explosive, wide turn move that was strong enough to catch and defeat third finisher Harry’s Holiday by five.

The winner returned a very generous $21.80 considering he was coming off victories in two of his last three starts, which began with the G3 Arlington Washington Futurity at 2.

Catalano is concerned that the graded Spiral Stakes might be a sixteenth of a mile too far but that the nine furlongs would be within Poker Player’s wheelhouse. That certainly was the case for Spiral/Derby doubling Animal Kingdom three years ago.

Making his first start for trainer Nick Zito, Spot rallied strongly into the stretch and ran down the heavily hyped No Nay Never to win the Grade 2 Swale at Gulfstream in 1.22.44 under a well-judged ride by Jose Lezcano.

No Nay Never, making his first start since August and debut on dirt after breaking his maiden at Keeneland, before shipping to Europe to win two group stakes including the G1 Prix Morny at Deauville.

Zito will be enjoying this one for a while and thinks running back in the Florida Derby in four weeks might be a bit ambitious. He deserves to enjoy this one for a while.

There were two defections from the HRI Power 10 that debuted last week with Havana, who scratched from the Swale having popped a quarter-crack, and Shared Belief, whose tender tootsies have kept him out of training for several weeks, is currently convalescing in Northern California.

Undefeated Gotham winner Samraat earned his way into the Power 10 at #9 and undefeated and promising Bayern, one of next Saturday’s San Felipe serious contenders, rounds out the group.

HRI Power 10 Week 2

1. Cairo (28)
2. Tapiture (26)
3. Candy Boy (21)
4. Honor Code (20)
5. 5-tie Top Billing (17)
6. 5-tie Wildcat Red (17)
7. Strong Mandate (14)
8. Intense Holiday (10)
9. Samraat (7)
10. Bayern (5)

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Wildcat Red, Intense Holiday Debut at #7 and #9 on HRI’s Derby Power 10

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., February 22, 2014---Right now, with apologies to our West Coast friends, it certainly appears that the most accomplished three year olds in the country are preparing for “America’s Race” and having fun in the sun of South Florida.

Of course, we're capable of making an about face if Lewis Memorial winner Candy Boy does what’s expected of him in the Santa Anita Derby. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

Since this marks the 2014 debut of the HRI Kentucky Derby Power 10, the sixth annual, staffer Tom Jicha spoke for all of us when he wrote recently that accomplishment and demonstrated ability in top company should count for something.

Hence the presence in the Power 10 of undefeated juvenile champion Shared Belief; Remsen winner and Champagne runner-up Honor Code, and Champagne winner and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up Havana.

The Power 10, therefore, is meant to be an amalgam of accomplishment and promise and, at this early stage, not a Derby predictor. So let's take a ride, bumpy road and all.

The Kentucky Derby three year olds of 2014 are ranked in 1 through 10 (dead heat for 9th this week) with power points in parentheses:

1. CAIRO PRINCE (27) As everyone knows, this colt would be undefeated if not for overconfident handling when second in the Remsen, losing a head-bobber to Honor Code, spotting him six pounds. Kiaran McLaughlin’s colt won the Holy Bull impressively, showing an electric turn of foot soon after entering the straight to blow the Grade 2 wide open and won by nearly 6. McLaughlin made the right call skipping the Fountain of Youth in favor of the Florida Derby.

2. TAPITURE (25) His effort in the Southwest Stakes was so impressive that observers might be hard pressed to decide if he or Cairo Prince made the best impression this season. Their runs were virtual carbon copies; settling close to the early pace, moving into contention on the far turn, before drawing away with authority in the lane. Trainer Steve Asmussen thought his colt moved forward but needs a little more education. He'll get plenty of that in the Rebel and Arkansas Derby. After that, back to Churchill where he won the G2 Jockey Club Stakes at 2.

3. HONOR CODE (21) missed almost a month of training with a minor ankle issue but has worked twice since Shug McGaughey got him off the deeper Payson Park surface. He started breezing again a fortnight ago, twice seven days apart, but has yet to have a serious drill. That time will come soon since Oaklawn’s Rebel Stakes, his scheduled season’s debut, comes on March 15. From there, it’s the Arkansas Derby or the Wood Memorial, site of his Remsen win last year.

4. SHARED BELIEF (19) Racing analyst Laffit Pincay said on Saturday’s Hank Goldberg radio show that Shared Belief missed another work which means the San Felipe is out and might force Jerry Hollandorfer to enter the Derby off one prep; a tall order for a champion yet to race on a dirt surface. That prep reportedly will come in the East somewhere. Does that mean the Blue Grass on Polytrack for the gelding with the tender feet? Shared Belief deserves this ranking out of respect; next time it could be different.

5. CANDY BOY (15) Loved the fact this guy has plenty of experience in top company and his Lewis win was accomplished with deceptive ease, just getting warmed up as he reached the finish line in full stride with energy in reserve. It was a great learning experience for a horse than made a wild middle move in his prior run but waited, and waited some more, until Gary Stevens gave him his cue. John Sadler, who’s not had much luck outside of California, is awaiting the Santa Anita Derby. Good plan.

6. TOP BILLING (13) Following a tough-trip second in his season’s debut, he won a first level allowances very impressively before finishing third in the Fountain of Youth. The only thing he lost yesterday was a horse race, overcoming an extremely wide draw but not a biased surface that carried speed all day long. At least his show finish earned him 10 Derby points which puts him on the service road to the Derby. He figures to earn enough credit in the Florida Derby to get him all the way to Louisville.

7. WILDCAT RED (11) Don’t look now but this colt is starting to get some respect and it’s about time. He just missed from the rail going a flat mile in the Gulfstream Park Derby, dominated the Hutcheson, then took advantage of Saturday’s speed trap. But he deserves much credit for staring down Golden a Rod, the GP Derby winner that took him by the throatlatch right from the jump. Fast, honest and hickory game. Who could ask for anything more from a race horse?

8. STRONG MANDATE (9) D. Wayne Lukas colt is like the proverbial box of chocolates; you just never know. In the G1 Hopeful he delivered a near 10-length tour de force performance. After his Champagne no-show he was an excellent, wide-running third in the Juvenile. His Southwest placing to Tapiture was good once overlook his snake-like stretch run. “He got bumped leaving the gate and was wide the whole trip,” Lukas said. “[Tapiture] ran exceptional. We’ll just go back to the barn and look at the Rebel Stakes.” Exactly.

9-tie INTENSE HOLIDAY (8) Flattered Cairo Prince when the Holy Bull show finisher returned, laid his body down in the final furlong, and got up in the last stride to win the Risen Star. It was his third straight good two-turn effort; the Remsen, Holy Bull and Saturday’s score. Credit Todd Pletcher for getting him off the Gulfstream strip and put him on the road to Louisville that courses through New Orleans.

9-tie HAVANA (8) Another getting a late start in his three year old season, he, too, was nearly undefeated at 2, winning the G1 Champagne Stakes over Honor Code before finishing a very good second from post 12 in the Juvenile on Santa Anita’s inside-speed surface last fall. He is scheduled to debut in the 7-furlong Swale March 20, which doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for a second prep The Arkansas Derby or Blue Grass would be the most viable options 23 days later

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, February 21, 2014

Fountain of Youth, Risen Star Will Help Focus Derby Picture

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., February 21, 2014—The Road to the Kentucky Derby Prep Season is over and now it’s on to the Championship season.

I’ll see your 10 points and raise you 50.

Two real good races are on tap Saturday, both from a sport and betting perspective. Full fields on display with nary a layover in either event.

In South Florida, 13 will answer the starters’ call with what should be co-favorites, Commissioner (3-1) and Top Billing (7-2), having drawn the pole and the 12 post, respectively, the latter having a short run to the first turn and the former the shortest way home, assuming a clean break.

Additionally, the race will end at the first finish line, a sixteenth of a mile down the stretch from, well, the finish line.

Meanwhile, down on the Bayou, the Risen Star is so attractive that it even includes two also-eligibles, bringing the total number of entrants to 16.

If you have an opinion, bring money.

The Todd Pletcher and Shug McGaughey trained three year olds are meeting for the second time at the meet when Commissioner won a head-bobber over Top Billing at 9 furlongs, his season’s debut.

His fans will point to the fact that he looked his rival in the eye and stared him down. Top Billing fans will counter with having the tougher trip, especially when made a sandwich in midstretch.

In a Fountain of Youth context, both were flattered when Top Billing came back to win a first level allowances at today’s mile and a sixteenth with an electric, circle-the-field, see-you-later last-to-first romp.

If you blinked, you missed it.

Meanwhile, General a Rod (5-1), winner of the Gulfstream Park Derby over Wildcat Red (6-1) on New Year’s Day has been storing his energy and has worked brilliantly for his return.

His trainer, Mike Maker, is winning with just about one of every three starters this meet. He’s been winning most of those races recent with Javier Castellano, who abandons Wildcat Red for “a-Rod.” His pedigree wants all of today’s trip.

Wildcat Red has been slighted by some believing he’s a sprinter/miler type. Ultimately, that might be true but, for now, his tour de force in the shorter Hutcheson has him razor sharp for today’s trip, which he should handle. Luis Saez is a more-than-capable pinch-rider.

In Nola, Pletcher will be represented by Intense Holiday, a late running third behind impressive winner Cairo Prince in the Holy Bull. He finished one-paced but made a big run to get there.

The Holy Bull was the colt’s first start since last year’s sneaky-good fourth in the Remsen Stakes. Race shape dynamics at Fair Grounds is much more suitable to his late-run style. Mike Smith rides Intense Holiday (8-1) from post 9.

This wide open mile and a sixteenth features a number of major contenders, from the rail out:

Albano was a very game, wide-run second to runaway winner Vicar’s In Trouble in the G3 Lecomte, his two turn debut. Albano (12-1), a tactical speedster, breaks from the rail beneath Kerwin Clark.

If it’s Fair Grounds that must mean Tom Amoss, who will saddle the very formidable Rise Up (4-1) with main southeast man Gerard Melancon from post 2.

Amoss is having his usual good Fair Grounds session, batting 27% from 95 starters through Monday’s racing, and last year’s G3 Delta Jackpot winner, fastest in the field on our own performance figures, is working strongly for his season’s debut. He figures to be in the race from the start.

Steve Asmussen will find out if he has another serious Derby runner in addition to Tapiture, who freaked winning Monday’s Southwest, when he saddles Gold Hawk (6-1) beneath Corey Nakatani from post 6. Empire Maker colt was a little obstreperous while being loaded into his Lecomte slip but still managed third.

Bob Baffert is shipping Hoppertunity in from the West Coast and is bringing Martin Garcia along with him. That team leaves from post 8 at 8-1. Hoppertunity broke maiden by 3 impressive lengths last out and Bullet Bob is 30% efficient with his shippers and 32% effective with last out maiden winners.

Commanding Curve (20-1) earns good energy figures with consistency for Dallas Stewart and main man Robby Albarado and 20-1 on the early line seems, well, way out of line.

Favorite Vicar’s in Trouble (5-2) is saddled with post 14 for Mike Maker, Rosie Napravnik and the Ramsey family. He’ll need all his brilliance to handle that assignment—that, and a tougher crew than he vanquished in the Lecomte.

The Into Mischief colt stalked the Lecomte pace before taking over before blowing the race wide open at headstretch, drawing off to win by nearly 7.

Written by John Pricci

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