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, November 30, 2014

Joy to the Racing World

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., November 30, 2014--Remember all the way back to May, when California Chrome, glistening chestnut that he is, was the Prince of Thoroughbred Racing, the heir apparent to who knows what, maybe even a Triple Crown? Well, not so much, as it turned out.

But racing and sports fans in general loved him, this gallant also-ran in Tonalist's Belmont. And his owners were beloved, too--until the rant. And for a while, didn't it seem as if the fans were taking it out on the horse?

Horseplayers have a short memory; they must given the often cruel nature of the handicapping game; the bad trips, the bad rides, the bad rulings.

Bad picks? Not so much.

And, so, putting all this in perspective, I fight to remember the reason I try not to fall in love with horses. It clouds objectivity, it places your opinion in a lock-box, your judgment becomes blurred.

Trainers say it all the time, but Saturday was one of the few times this handicapper will say it: I was genuinely happy for the horse.

Now if only he and Shared Belief can remain healthy, what a 2015 racing it could be.

It's fun to dream about a barnstorming tour but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Wouldn't it be something if California Chrome and Shared Belief took their act on the road, together, putting on a show all over the country? Talk about a way to put horse racing back on the front page...

Of course, even if they remain healthy, it won't happen because the camps have a different agenda. Shared Belief is a gelding; for him there is racing life beyond 2015. For California Chrome, the breeding shed beckons and you can be sure that Team Chrome will be judicious in choosing their spots.

But now that everyone knows that California Chrome can handle the grass, indeed loving the turf if his stride, or should we say glide--is any measure, his connections will have plenty of options.

So it probably must be that Shared Belief needs to chase Chrome around the country to make this dream matchup come true. His connections appear sporting enough--right, Jim?--and Shared Belief is a champion with something left to prove--right, Jerry? After all, the Derby winner is back.

California Chrome is racing's best draw now. Even considering the Hollywood Derby field wasn't all that, let's recall that three-year-olds swept the money positions, and then some, beating older rivals in final two open Grade 1s of the season. What a great supporting cast these two stars could have.

I wonder if there's an enterprising racetrack that would, that could, throw enough money at any existing Grade 1 purse to insure that both horses show up in the same race?

It's good to have California Chrome back. Where's the NTRA Poll when you really need one?

Not Close, And No Cigar

There were some nice horse on display in Saturday's Cigar Mile at the Big A but no truly outstanding performers. Taking nothing away from Private Zone, a remarkable racehorse, issues notwithstanding, but if there were a true one-turn miler in the final Grade 1 of the New York season, the feeling is that he would have been run down, given a final quarter-mile of :26.05.

Speed horses had the advantage on the final Saturday of the main-track year in Queens and Private Zone beneath Martin Pedroza, who took full advantage by allowing the speedster to pull to the lead but not in run-off fashion.

After stumbling at the break, Bob Baffert's place finisher Secret Circle did his best Bayern imitation, drifting in and tightening up three rivals to his inside. The Sprint runner-up tried to make a race of it but drifted out at headstretch and was all out to hold the place, shortening stride perceptibly nearing the wire, looking like a horse that will be freshened up again, awaiting the 2015 Breeders' Cup.

Itsmyluckyday has been a nice horse throughout his career but failed to beat a single horse in the Cigar, not the most compelling swansong in racing history. He disappointed in the Kelso then showed no interest on Saturday, underscoring what can happen when you reach the bottom of the well; those Saratoga Grade 1s come at a cost. See Rachel Alexandra among many others.

There was little that was memorable about the Frizette, including Condo Commando's lengthy victory margin, made possible by the biased surface, the competition, and the program scratch of the speedy Jacaranda.

I imagine that some of the Remsen colts will improve as they continue to develop, but can't say any of them raised my blood pressure Saturday.

Stars of the Future, Indeed

From virtually the same connections that brought you Itsmyluckyday comes Mr. Jordan, a nearly white Thoroughbred that kept his record clean at 3-for-3, winning his two-turn debut geared down after being pressed on the pace throughout.

Mr. Jordan will be hell to pay in the early three-year-old stakes in late January at Gulfstream Park East. His pedigree is sprinty on top (Kantharos), but grand-sire Cloud Hopping has gotten runners that can go long.

Now we fully understand that Churchill's Grade 2 Jockey Club Stakes is highly anticipated as a potential barometer for what might happen in the feature race run on the first Saturday of every May. But not so yesterday.

And, now, from the folks that brought you Bayern, comes Dortmund.

A $140,000 2-year-old purchase in May, the son of Big Brown from the Tale of the Cat mare, Our Josephina, was uber impressive taking a preliminary allowances 30 minutes before the feature.

Despite breaking maiden by nearly 5 lengths over 10 rivals, he beat 11 competitors Saturday, Baffert removing the blinkers before stretching him out off his 6-1/2 furlong debut.

Stalking the leaders from out in the middle of the track beneath Martin Garcia after exiting the mile chute, Dortmund swooped the leaders at headstretch, drawing off under no pressure and galloping out strongly, slowing down only after reaching the backstretch.

He is a big, scopey chestnut whose next start is highly anticipated and belongs high at the top of anyone's list of Derby contenders.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, November 28, 2014

Horse of the Holiday Weekend

PLANTATION, FL, November 28, 2014--When last we checked in on our Derby hero, he was neither roughed, sloughed or rebuffed at the start of the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

In fact, he was outside in the clear all the way which was, of course, the good news and the bad news. That’s what happens on those inside-out speed tracks of Southern California.

What he was, however, was a horse in need of just one more race to be at tops. Under the circumstances, the California Chrome of spring likely would have surged ahead in midstretch and won the damn thing.

Instead, he remained one-paced and settled for third behind Bayern and Toast of New York, and he might even have cost himself a championship in the process.

One moment before the Classic latch was sprung, the dual Classics and Santa Anita Derby winner was a lock for the three-year-old championship; the only one that could have dethroned him at that point was Jerry Hollendorfer’s horse.

That was the universally shared belief anyway.

My Eclipse ballot for Horse of the Year has Main Sequence on top at the moment and Bayern a controversially begrudging sophomore titlist:

Begrudging for obvious reasons; controversially for equally understandable reasons.

For me and my voting colleagues, California Chrome gets an opportunity to shout “stop the presses!" All that is needed would be victory in the grassy Hollywood Derby over the weekend. Why?

Because the would-be champion is taking on a new challenge, a chance to show another dimension. Good horses are said to run on anything. At this level for me, it’s all about the sport.

I have watched video of his 52-second breeze on the Del Mar turf course and frankly I don’t know what to do with it. His action was fine, the effort little more than an open gallop.

But I can’t be sure the colt was enthusiastic about what he was doing, and if I can’t be sure about that, I certainly don’t know what’s going to happen on Saturday night.

That doesn’t mean he’s an automatic bet-against; he’s simply an automatic sit-and-watch. No one needs to bet this race to enjoy the built-in suspenseful uncertainty of it all.

So there’s a lot riding on this year's Hollywood Derby: I’m perfectly willing to elevate the Chromester from second within his own division--did I mention begrudgingly--and award him the entire enchilada.

And I'm not completely comfortable dong that, either: How do I “punish” a horse that’s a perfect 4-for-4 in traditional Grade 1 events, winning each with either a dramatic finish, with a flair, or both.

But when it comes to Horse of the Year--and we’ve written this ad nauseum--I’ll simply follow the counsel of the late, legendary Joe Hirsch: “The Horse of the Year can be anything.”

And until Bayern made the left-hand turn seen round the world from the Classic starting gate, California Chrome was the first horse on every fan's mind; not for the promise of what might be, but for what was in 2014.

The question now is whether what-was is the same as what-is.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, November 08, 2014

Gulfstream Park West: Previews of a Star?

HALLANDALE BEACH--November 8, 2014--You knew that Florida Millions Preview Day had to be good; the main event, after all, is still two months away.

The Preview program was pared from eight races to seven after Daring Kathy, undefeated on the Gulfstream Park West turf course, chased away all the competition from the Filly & Mare Turf, so much so that the race never filled.

But the program didn’t lack star power, certainly not after juvenile colt Mr. Jordan remained undefeated in two starts--and was ultra impressive doing so.

Paco Lopez took the mount for trainer Eddie Plesa, apparently still on a brief post-Breeders’ Cup vacation in California and among this missing on track. But not Paco, hard at work winning races.

Did I say winning races? Make that dominating races.

By the time he finished making it into the circle with Mr. (Not To Be Confused With Michael) Jordan, he was on a triple, eventually winding up with four on the day.

Who said you can’t go home to where you first got started, in the winter of 1996-7? And this is a good way to finish a career year?

It has been a bad year for Plesa either, jockey and trainer hooking up to do excellent work together. Just call it Theirluckyyear.

The other thing about Mr. Jordan, named for one of part-owner Leon Ellman’s grandchildren, is that he’s a cool looking horse, a big strapping gray with a presence about him, and his team was very anxious to see how he would run Saturday.

Plesa told the owners that if inexperience didn’t beat him, then he’d probably win the race. And the colt actually broke a beat slow but he rushed up toward the leaders to join the fray, but not in a rank sort of way.

Lopez established position along the fence as the leaders approached the turn of the 6-½ furlong sprint. Lopez asked him, then waited, then waited some more before tipping outside and into the clear at headstretch.

He drew off impressively, Lopez allowing him to gallop out with some vigor. “Before he even ran, Paco thought he’d go two turns. I haven’t plotted that out yet.“

“I love the horse,” said Lopez. “I wanted to teach him to come from behind and get a little bit of dirt in his face. He did pretty good.”

Better than pretty good. He won by three emphatic lengths without late urging in a solid 1:18.32 for that surface. And he’s got what the good ones have: gears.

“Maybe people thought he was just a speed horse who overshadowed everybody,” said Plesa of his 6-1/2-length wire score in his Monmouth Park debut in September.

“[Today] he overcame a start, he overcame horses in front of him. You have to have guts to win races.”

And, of course, the talent that was on display Saturday.

Mr. Jordan is the promising son of the promising young stallion Kantharos, selling for three times the sire’s sales average.

“I will sit down and come up with some sort of plan for him, Plesa said, There’s a lot to look forward to.”

Written by John Pricci

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