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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Sunday, July 12, 2015

Bets N’ Pieces

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., July 12, 2015—Having a big personality sometimes gets the kind of attention no one seeks in this game. Like Frank Stronach, Jeff Gural is prone to making bold statements.

How refreshing!

With the Meadowlands Pace scheduled for Saturday, July 18, The Meadowlands already has taken blood samples from some of the top horses competing next weekend and has sent them to labs in Hong Kong for out-of-competition testing.

Like Stronach, Gural puts up his own money and walks his talk. “I want it to be perfectly clear that our testing continues at a very high level during our most important stakes races,” Gural said in a statement this week.

“It is important to us that our customers know there is a level playing field for them to wager on all season long, especially when it comes to our marquis events.” Testing will continue this week following the completion of stakes elimination events.

Horse racing fans and gamblers in any breed must admire and should support executives who hold horseplayer’s interests in high regard. In fact, harness bettors already are.

I’m not a fan of the Super Hi Five both for its high degree of difficulty and expense, consequently, I seldom if ever jump into that pool.

The Meadowlands instituted an 8 percent takeout rate on a non-jackpot Super Hi Five wager that attracted nearly $152,000 in handle. Given the circumstances, that’s a huge number. Good for them.

The field for the Meadowlands Pace has been drawn and after drawing post position 4, Jiggle It Wiggleit was made the 4-5 early line favorite.

Holding a Good Thought for Jockeys Everywhere

It’s been a tough time for jockey Rajiv Maragh as all tethered to the game got yet another reminder of how dangerous the sport can be.

Maragh was involved in a spill Friday afternoon and word as of Saturday was that his injuries would not require surgery, amazing considering that he fractured several vertebrae in his back, a broken rib, and a small lung puncture—as if there can be such things.

The accident occurred as a rival, ridden by Ruben Silvera, crossed over into the path of Maragh’s mount, Yourcreditisgood, who clipped the heels of Mini Muffin in Friday’s fifth race, unseating Maragh.

Silvera’s mount eventually was disqualified from fifth and placed last. Neither horse was seriously injured. Maragh returned to the saddle this winter at Gulfstream Park after a long convalescence from another accident.

Apprentice jockey Tyler Gaffalione, the leading rider at the recently concluded spring meet, will return to the saddle this afternoon. Gaffalione was injured during training hours Friday morning and took off his Friday mounts after riding in one race.

Gaffalione did not ride yesterday but is listed on nine horses this afternoon. Jockeys are well paid compared to the rest of the world, just not the sports world. Jerry Bailey always said that athletes in other sports don’t have ambulances following them onto the field of competition. Good point.

A Key Race Takes Exactly Six Minutes

If simulcast players were paying attention to two of the features on the loaded cards at Delaware Park and Arlington Park, they could have cashed in on Walk Close in Saturday’s Modesty Handicap in Arlington Heights.

Both that Chris Clement-trained, James Graham-ridden filly and Ceisteach were coming out of the listed Keertana Stakes on May 16 at Churchill Downs. The former just failed catching Ceisteach as the favorite in Louisville.

The latter showed that her Keertana score was more than just being able to control the pace in that 11-furlong go-round and that no one fits her better than Channing Hill, who was winning for the third time in as many tries aboard the Tom Proctor 4-year-old.

The Modesty was her first start in graded company but won’t be her last. Saturday’s Arlington card was billed as Million Preview day, which means that the Grade 1 Beverly D. could be up next.

Either that or something long in Saratoga which, almost unbelievably, is only 12 days away. In fact, it will be interesting to see what happens when next these ladies hook up.

Kreesa Is King

Or “good horses are good horses,” which is how trainer David Donk expressed it. “Even as a fan I was impressed today…it was a pretty loaded field,” added Donk.

It was indeed. Wicked Strong, who will be well regarded should he run in the August 8 Whitney in Saratoga, was 2-1/2 lengths behind him when King Kreesa stopped the clock at 1:32.34 for the mile over a firm Widener course.

The runner-up was followed in close order by Vyjack and equally disappointing Reload and Grand Arch, both likely prepping for the G2 Fourstardave, August 15.

Will there be a rematch with King Kreesa? “Why not,” responded Donk. “It’s Saratoga.”

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, July 06, 2015

From Belmont to Gulfstream, Holiday Stars Shine

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., JULY 6, 2015--It might not have been Asbury Park on the Fourth of July but it was a pretty damn good substitute. Eclipse worthy efforts all over the lot, equine and human.

The best part was the fun atmosphere, one of those rare reminders when going to the races was a more exhilarating experience, a time when there was more spring in the step, more money in the 401K.

Thanks to Belmont Park and Gulfstream Park, it was a little like Breeders’ Cup weekend in both New York and Florida. July 4th was a Big Apple monster and, after a one-year hiatus, welcome back to South Florida, Summit of Speed.

Of course, there always will be performances that were not so memorable, in fact, were disappointingly forgettable. Let’s start with those and, not showing any dis-favoritism, we’ll take them in chronological order.

It was a strange performance and I need to start wondering whether Tonalist has made a successful transition from 3 to 4. After outclassing rivals in his season’s debut with a furious rally, he can be “forgiven” for his runner-up finish behind an explosive Honor Code in the Met Mile.

But his Suburban was a head-scratcher. He went from not really firing approaching headstretch to almost certain winner in midstretch, to a one-paced nose loser. It’s impossible to envision 3-year-old Tonalist doing that at Belmont Park in 2014.

Everybody has their favorite jockey or one they believe is pound for pound the best money rider in the business: Javier Castellano, Mike Smith and Johnny Velazquez leap to mind. In a life-dependent situation, my money will go on the latter.

Having admitted that, I must wonder if he fits Tonalist as well as Joel Rosario did last year. Maybe it’s just me but his Suburban was a strange effort. Meanwhile, a salute to “throw-last-race-out” handicappers willing to give Effinex another chance and to trainer Jimmy Jerkens for figuring it all out.

Private Zone just loves this game. He made all the fast-paced running under pressure in the Met Mile then comes back four weeks later with a never-in-doubt Grade 3 Belmont Sprint Championship score with Martin Pedroza confidently riding like he owns him.

Derek Ryan might have been a little over-excited, calling Irish Jasper, the filly he owns and trains, the best three year old filly in America, but that sure was one powerhouse performance in the G3 Victory Ride.

Javier Castellano was pretty effusive, too, thanking Ryan for the mount since “anyone can ride this filly.” Ryan is looking forward to the G1 Test at Saratoga, as are we.

After winning an allowance race on the Belmont undercard, Bill Mott said he ran Speightster in the wrong race, referring to the G2 Woody Stephens. After watching him re-break on the lead approaching the three-sixteenths in Saturday's Dwyer, we know exactly what he meant.

Following the G3 mile Mott mentioned the G1 King’s Bishop on Travers day, which is exactly where he belongs next. The sky just might be the limit.

Meanwhile, 2014 Juvenile-winning runner-up Texas Red looks like he’s all the way back. Kent Desormeaux thought he couldn’t lose at the quarter pole and, except for a exceptional performance, he would have been right.

Brother Keith thinks the race sets him up nicely for the Travers. Well all-righty then.

We made space in our heart ad mind for Force the Pass at Gulfstream this winter, thinking he was an excellent prospect, and really fell in love after he completed a Pick 4 on Penn Mile night, knifing his way through to nail victory in the shadow of the line.

But we didn’t think he’d make the leap to 10 furlongs and the Belmont Derby's Grade 1 company. Oh me of little faith.

Not only was he good enough, he dominated. Unfortunately, Bolo did take a bad step and Divisidero’s deep-running style was bound to get him in trouble sooner or later; it was later.

But it wasn’t going to matter this day. The colt’s reward will be the summer off to prepare for a fall campaign.

Trainer Alan Goldberg’s done everything right so far and Joel Rosario has proven a very confident partner.

But the star of the day clearly was the undefeated Lady Eli, who won under arrogant handling from Irad Ortiz Jr.

When you're sitting 11th in the middle of the course down the backstretch and repeatedly look over your right shoulder for late threats, as if you have the 10 fillies in front of you measured, that’s arrogance.

Her turn of foot in the G1 Belmont Oaks was electric as she separated herself from the herd soon after straightening away. It easily was her biggest challenge to date and it was like breaking so many equine sticks.

She ran 10 furlongs 1.49 seconds faster than Force the Pass did winning the Belmont Derby; males going two turns generally run about 3/5s of a second faster than females. It’s difficult to fathom but this three year old filly got 10 furlongs in 1:59.27.

"As we stretch out our turf horses, you wonder if they're going to lose their turn of foot,” trainer Chad Brown said post-race. “The term 'breathes different air' gets thrown around a lot but this one 'breathes different air', for sure. She’s certainly has the most devastating turn of foot I’ve ever worked around,” said Bobby Frankel’s former assistant, which says all you need to know about Lady Eli.

Brown also won the River of Memories on Sunday with Goldy Espony, shortly after his runners finished 1-2 in the Grade 1 United Nations; Big Blue Kitten and Slumber.

Parenthetically, for those horsemen tempted by big Middle East money, check out Mane Sequence’s dreadful performance in the event that started last year’s four-race Grade 1 win streak that carried him to the Horse of the Year Eclipse finals.

Lights, Camera, Action

Victor Espinoza shares his Triple Crown glory with Gulfstream Park fans

For racetrackers, there’s nothing like a live show and after a one-year hiatus, while Gulfstream and Churchill ironed out their differences one bloody punch at a time, one of our fave big-race days, the Summit of Speed, born at Calder in 2001, had its debut at the new Gulfstream.

Not only did the event not disappoint, it was special. Bill Kaplan, Stanley Gold and Larry Pilotti, who get along with their babies as well as any top horsemen in the country, swept four juvenile races; Kaplan going 2-for-2 with first-time starters and Pilotti finishing ahead of Gold’s 2-3 finishers in the Birdonthewire Stakes.

But it was Gold’s filly, Ballet Diva, who stole the show in the Cassidy Stakes for the baby girls.

By Hear No Evil, we’re not sure how far she’ll go her gallop out following another dominating performance was strong.

The Jacks or Better Farm home-bred was a bullet away from the barrier for the second consecutive time and in both starts never was seriously asked for speed, much less her best.

"I saw her come out, I blinked, and boom, she's out in front," Gold said afterwards. "The time wasn't really impressive but it was faster than the boys and the track wasn't all that fast."

"As long as she stays healthy, they’re going to have a lot of fun,” said jockey Jose Caraballo. “She does everything so easily. She’ll go longer; she’s not a speed-crazy filly.”

The juvenile events were two of five listed stakes on a nine-stakes, 12-race program which included four graded events.

There also was a three-win performance by Gulfstream’s championship-meet record-holder, Javier Castellano, and a special appearance by 'Triple Crown Espinoza', who proved popular with fans who lined up for a city block to collect live, autographed posters provided by Gulfstream.

A Horse and Jockey for the Course, Merry Meadow and Javier Castellano

Equine stars on the Summit of Speed program included Merry Meadow, who underscored her love of the Hallandale surface with a comprehensive victory in the Grade 2 Princess Rooney, a Breeders’ Cup “win and you’re in” event. Mark Hennig accompanied Castellano from New York to tack her up.

Favorite Tale, given most of the winter off by trainer Guadalupe Preciado, shipped south from Parx Racing to saddle Favorite Tale, who led the G2 Smile Sprint band on a merry chase. Preciado pointed for this race:

“We hoped he could run a good race here because last year the owners wanted to go to the Breeders' Cup, but he's not eligible, and it costs a lot of money,” Preciado explained. “I told them let's wait a year because hopefully he could win a race and get in. So this was perfect.”

Favorite Tale with Edgard Zayas slouching toward Lexington

Among those behind Favorite Tale were 2014 Eclipse champion Work All Week who raced one-paced under urging throughout.

Apparently, working bullets at Churchill does not translate well to Gulfstream’s speed-kind surface, thus completing a disappointing weekend for two of 2014's champions and a former Belmont Stakes/Jockey Club Gold Cup titlist.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, June 05, 2015

Only American Pharoah Knows

ELMONT, NY, June 5, 2015—I have seen the figures, the ones I respect, watched the first two legs of the Triple Crown series several times each, looked at historical factors, pedigrees, workouts—well, most of you know the drill.

My investment of time has led me to a startling conclusion; that the 3-5 favorite for the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes is the best of his generation, maybe several generations.

But I can’t reprise Joe Namath that American Pharoah will be America’s 12th Triple Crown winner.

It’s like the man who trains him, Bob Baffert, said: “This is a tough race. If he’s a great horse, he’ll win; if he isn’t, then he won’t.”

Certainly, everything he’s done since losing his sprint debut has been absolutely top class. He would not be a champion if he weren’t at least that. But he’s more, a “freak,” high praise in racetrack speak.

However, it’s only a latter day “super-freak” that can achieve what he will attempt to accomplish on Saturday.

Clearly, horses don’t do what he does in the morning, the way he does it, before bringing it in the afternoon. His last workout for the Belmont was something that even very good horses would find awfully difficult.

To work five furlongs in 1:00 1/5, even over a dullish Churchill Downs strip, was very good, a high-energy, within-himself move but it proves nothing. Kentucky Derby winners are supposed to work crisply without drawing a deep breath.

American Pharoah’s workout was accomplished under a pull. He wanted his head but Martin Garcia--Dortmund’s rider who flew in from SoCal just to work the stable leader--wouldn’t give it to him.

It’s what happened thereafter that sets the 2014 juvenile champion apart. Galloping into and around a turn, to the end of the Churchill backstretch, he laid down furlongs of 13s, completing the one-mile gallop-out in 1:39 1/5.

You simply don’t see that every day and this was the second time he did it; he worked almost identically, nearly duplicating time, in preparation for the Derby.

What I enjoy most about watching him is the way he changes over to his correct right lead in the stretch. It’s very smooth, maybe not the smoothest ever but he appears to skip into the lead change, and his gait really never changes. In over four decades, he may be the best mover I’ve ever seen.

I have no idea if he will win tomorrow; no hedge, just the truth. It may turn out American Pharoah, with no discernable weakness, is that next super-freak but he may not be able to control his destiny.

The key to the champion’s test is the competition between Victor Espinoza and Johnny Velazquez as they parry for the lead from the start of their long journey. Early pace is the key to this would-be crown. Velazquez’s tactics will determine whether the early fractions will be to the favorite’s liking, especially at a mile and a half.

The rock-and-hard-place scenario can shift quickly here. Velazquez cannot permit American Pharoah to dictate his own comfortable tempo. While speed is an important asset going Big Sandy’s entire circumference, it’s a rare horse that can stalk and still win.

So, will he win? Let’s put it this way: I’d rather miss three weddings than attend one funeral. The handicapping/wagering dynamics are these:

Early line odds of 3-5 are likely at post time. While the Triple Crown focus is rightfully on three races in five weeks, it’s four races in eight weeks that might be more significant. Any doubt as to his greatness will disappear with victory on Saturday.

We’re going back to our Churchill choice: Frosted. The wide-trip Derby fourth is on a good development trajectory. He’s fast enough, bred enough, fresh enough, and Kiaran McLaughlin is en fuego. He owns a home-track edge.

The reason for his current improved form has been well documented: the throat procedure, tinkered-with blinkers and a rider switch all worked big-time. His Wood Memorial was impressive, his Derby effort was re-affirming and perhaps then some.

We’ll be betting Frosted to win; 4-1 or more is the requirement. And we’re making an exacta box with American Pharoah. After all, we love good animals, what’s the difference if we lose another wager.

As to the super-exotics we’re still working that out. Check tomorrow’s Feature Race Analysis for details.

Written by John Pricci

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