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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Friday, July 04, 2014


For July 4th Horseplayers, It’s Morning in America


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 3, 2014—The second half of the racing season began this past Tuesday and we’re preferring to see what remains of 2014 as a glass that is half full despite racing’s myriad problems.

All know what those negatives are: Permissive medication, coupled with the reality wrought be negative perception; a continued lack of transparency on several important fronts, and of alphabet horsemen’s groups that still expect the customer to pay for everything from a higher tax on wagers to improved testing protocols.

Despite all that, there are a number of positive takeaways that will be our focus, the hope that positive storylines continue moving the game forward while it continues to work out its problems in a meaningful way.

On balance, the racing between the fences has been stellar, but only at the higher echelons of the sport. The emergence of Palace Malice and Untapable as legitimate superstars in their divisions has been a welcome breath of freshness.

But the day-to-day sport has been underwhelming and with the exception of the sport’s highest profile venues, there simply remains too much racing. What is needed, particularly when it comes to smaller foal crops and field size, is addition by subtraction.

Providing their good health, the next starts for Palace Malice and Untapable will be most welcome wherever their connections decide to ship them. Of particular note is the ambitious campaign mapped out by Cot Campbell, one that includes Palace Malice appearances in the Whitney, Woodward, Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders’ Cup Classic.

It simply does not get any more high profile than that.

Whether the colt holds on to his divisional lead or returns to take measure of older horses at Santa Anita this fall, the homespun California Chrome saga, despite the disappointing Triple Crown finale and post-race histrionics, elevated racing to a place above-the-fold.

It will be interesting to see whether there’s more there there, such as a Horse of the Year title. Is he legitimately top class or was his success largely attributable to a blend of early development and experience. It will be fascinating theater provided by the dual classics winner and his connections.

The failure of California Chrome to seal the deal resulted in the emergence of a talented new challenger for the second half of the three-year-old year, Belmont Stakes-winning Tonalist, a late developer that figures to bring the Travers into sharp focus.

The Triple Crown chase nonetheless concluded on another positive note thanks to a policy change in the NYRA’s racing office that created the best event day this side of Breeders’ Cup, carding 10 stakes races including five Grade 1s.

That’s what makes tomorrow’s card so interesting. The Stars and Stripes Festival program attracted seven European grass runners, among others that started over there and wound up here with some of the best trainers in the game. There will be five graded stakes, including events for top sprinters and aspiring second-season sophomores.

The most encouraging and dramatic sign of progress in the first half of 2014 is a relatively new development; the emergence of the horseplayer as a political force that can affect change, almost at warp speed compared to the glacial pace at which progress is usually made in this sport.

Can’t speak for other betting-boycott supporters but I take no comfort from the fact that Churchill Downs Inc. took it on the fiscal chin to the tune of nearly $48-million in handle. That comes to $1.3 million every racing day not named Oaks or Derby. Without those days, business was down approximately 25 percent.

For all the slings and arrows shot its way, none of this would have been possible if it were not for dissenting voices on the Internet and social media. From websites speaking truth to power, to grass roots participation from fans in racing chat rooms, industry organizations took note.

The perfect storm for change turned out to be a disqualification in the final race of the day this winter at Gulfstream Park, allowing a carryover jackpot to continue. The DQ, in and of itself a controversial call, was met with great consternation and suspicion.

The response on the Internet was immediate and forceful, resulting in subsequent dialogue between fans and racetrack executives. The result was policy changes meant to improve the race adjudication process.

The back-and-forth bore fruit in that the response was in the main positive for bettors although, to date, not all promises have been kept. Horseplayers have long memories.

While no pleasure was taken from CDI’s travails, what was gratifying to see is what can happen when a disparate group of gamblers get together in a common cause. Bettors got mad as hell and decided not to take it anymore. Each passing day, the influence of a grass roots organization such as the Horseplayers Association of North America continues to gain influence and beginning to get invited to sit down at the table.

And, so, as the nation celebrates its freedoms this weekend, there is reason for a very small segment of the American people to feel optimistic about the future. We know it won’t happen overnight but it finally looks like we won’t get fooled again.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, June 29, 2014


Rough Riding Saturday at Belmont Park


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 29, 2014—I couldn’t help but wonder if Johnny Velazquez was going to go all Vasquez-McCarthy/Romans-Musselman on the Ortiz brothers, Irad and Jose, for two occurrences that happened within two hours of each other on the racetrack at Belmont Park.

In the Manila Stakes, Irad was aboard the heavy favorite Green Mask for Christophe Clement; Johnny was riding the very sharp price shot, the appropriately named Long On Value.

Virtually in a jackpot from the start, Irad was doing his best to settle his rank mount while between horses as Velazquez saved ground rating on the fence. Apparently looking for daylight, Irad raced thisclose to Johnny, so much so that be bounced him off the fence several times before leaving the backstretch.

But the worst of it took place on the turn. Their positions on the course virtually unchanged, Irad tried to cut the corner approaching headstretch, angling his mount inside. In doing so, he cut off Long On Value in the process, forcing Velazquez to check out of harm’s way.

Losing his position, Johnny had to await the straight before he could angle his mount to the outside for running room. Long On Value closed strongly through the lane but the late running Cabo Cat got the first run to victory.

It’s anyone’s guess that the incident cost Velazquez the win but it can be said with some certitude that Long On Value would have finished closer.

Still trapped inside, Irad continued his bull-headed ways. He angled Green Mask outside in midstretch, herding Bashart for a sixteenth of a mile, likely costing his uncoupled stablemate fourth money. Velazquez was irate and made his feelings known in the jocks’ room afterwards.

Two hours earlier, Jose Ortiz, talented enough to have a five-winner Thursday, had the mount on the speedy Princess Violet. From our multiple head-on-replays vantage point, Jose rode carelessly and put Velazquez in a dangerous spot.

It is one thing to have a target on your back, as did a rare 1-20 favorite, Untapable, in the Grade 1 Mother Goose Stakes, and you'd expect your rivals to ride your horse, too. Riders get paid to box their rivals in, tighten things up--race-ride, but not to the extent someone could get hurt.

We’re not saying that Jose set out to hurt Velazquez who, incidentally, is not that far removed from surgery that removed his spleen following a Breeders’ Cup spill last fall and, coincidentally, hit the ground on Wednesday when his turf mount tired and collided with another rival. But I saw no concerted effort from Ortiz to straighten his mount at point of contact.

In Wednesday's race, parenthetically, Jose rode runnerup Ballerina Belle, the filly placing gamely after Ortiz allowed her to drift in through upper stretch. Shortly thereafter, Roses for Romney, having been placed in close quarters, clipped the heels of Ballerina Belle and fell fatally to the ground.

In all, three riders were unseated in Wednesday’s eighth race. Subsequently, Jose Ortiz was given three days by the stewards who never posted an inquiry, allowing the result to stand in a race where three riders hit the deck and one horse lost its life.

The Mother Goose, the field broke cleanly and straight away from the barrier out of the mile and a sixteenth chute. But as the leaders reached the gap where the clubhouse turn meets the straightaway, Ortiz on Princess Violet, racing from a chute for the first time, veered in sharply toward the open space, bumping hard with Untapable.

Simultaneously, Joel Rosario aboard House Rules, was trying to get off the rail as if he sensed what was coming. He attempted to move away from the rail so as not to put himself or his mount in harm’s way but at that point it was bang and bang.

Velazquez was forced to check sharply or clip heels. Soon thereafter, Johnny dropped back and began to place his mount outside in about the 4-path. Ground loss is the least of it when you’re on tons the best filly.

Here how the Equibase chart read for the Mother Goose:

“UNTAPABLE broke well, was forced inward after the runnerup came in suddenly and sharply approaching the end of chute, got checked, then appeared to rub shoulders with HOUSE RULES while carrying that rival over to the rail afterwards, recovered, and was steered towards the middle of the strip…

“PRINCESS VIOLET broke on top and maintained the advantage, arrived at the beginning of the main track with UNTAPABLE in close attendance to her inside, veered in sharply, herding that opponent towards the inside and into making light contact with HOUSE RULES…

“HOUSE RULES left the starting gate in good order, was moving willingly when getting forced over towards the rail coming to the end of the chute from pressure originating from the runner up, dropped back considerably with the loss of momentum…”

The incident did not result in a disqualification since Princess Violet finished behind the winner, but that doesn’t mean the very talented Ortiz shouldn’t ponder his tactics while on his enforced vacation.

Velazquez has been a mentor to both Ortiz brothers but it might be true what is said about unpunished good deeds.

In any case, things are getting a little sloppy out there between the fences. With Saratoga fast approaching, it may be the perfect time for the stewards to have a sit down with everyone in the room.


Untapable, Unbeatable

If the racing season ended tomorrow, Untapable would win the divisional title by unanimous acclamation. There simply is no more for her to prove against her peers.

The filly is on her way to Steve Asmussen’s barn at Saratoga’s Oklahoma training track and yesterday she got a 9-1/4 length head start, racing a mile and a sixteenth and taking only 1:41.48 to get there.

Saratoga has a couple of worthy prizes for Untapable to win, namely the Coaching Club American Oaks and storied Alabama. Trainer Steve Asmussen brought up the CCOA Sunday morning and said he likely will have an "interesting conversation" with the owner about the possibility of a run against males in the Haskell Invitational.

The million dollar nine furlong Grade over a positional surface like Monmouth’s makes the most sense if the idea is to meet and defeat the boys. Interesting to see how the rest of her season shakes out.


Wild Horse Wildcat

Wildcat Red is back and he returned with a vengeance.

Making his first start since being outrun in the Kentucky Derby, the competition ran relays at the 1-5 favorite in yesterday’s Quality Road overnight stakes but Luis Saez, who flew south for the mount, didn’t rattle.

Saez allowed ‘Red’ to maintain his position on the rail off the leader’s flanks until he gave the speedster his cue.

Wildcat Red took the lead approaching the far turn, widened on his own on the turn, was ridden out to open daylight and was geared down in the final hundred yards, winning by 10-1/4 and timed in 1:42.70 for the mile and a sixteenth.

Trainer Jose Garaffalo said that the colt came out of the race in good form and will be pointed to the Haskell. His style also fits the Shore track ideally.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, June 07, 2014


Triple Frown


ELMONT, NY, June 7, 2012--In the final analysis, those were strong words coming from the disappointed co-owner of California Chrome, the horse that failed to make Triple Crown history.

California Chrome is a very good race horse and there have been plenty of other very good race horses that have failed to become immortals, as if that were some sort of equine shortcoming.

Steve Coburn, the owner who wears his heart on his sleeve and speaks with no filter, is a refreshing change in this age of ultra-correctness.

The words were indelicate, to be sure, but the message needing sending. After all, when it comes to the big picture, thoroughbred racing views its own world with blinkers on.

Coburn spoke of the meat grinder that is the Kentucky Derby prep schedule, a series of races demanding that horses reach near bottom so that they will have the conditioning needed to effectively compete at a mile and a quarter early in the three-year-old year.

Then those winners are put in history’s spotlight, a glare that brings with it the demand for an encore two weeks later. There is not another division that demands its best horses return to racing so quickly against more new rivals than old ones.

And, then, three weeks later, more new fresh challengers who waited on the sidelines in ambush of history. It is the right of bill payers to play the game the way they wish to play it, because “they’re doing what’s best for their horse.”

But for the best of those horses, the ones that traversed the Derby trail, the ones that were good enough to win the Derby and the Preakness two weeks later?

The cherry on top of that confection is to return three weeks later at a distance they won’t see again unless they race on grass or return for the following’s year’s Brooklyn.

Twelve furlongs is a trip for which no modern American-bred thoroughbred is suited by pedigree, especially with 20 years of legal, permissive medication flooding the gene pool.

In the heat of the moment, Coburn showed bad form in that he should have tipped his 10-gallon hat to the winner. His wife Carolyn stood behind her man during his nationally televised rant, at once seemingly embarrassed and offering advice of restraint.

He turned to her and appeared to mouth “I don’t care.” At that point it was clear that he was not thinking clearly but the message, however ill-spoken, however ill-timed, needed to be sent.

“I’m 61-years-old and I’ll never see another Triple Crown winner in my lifetime because of the way they do this.

“It’s not fair to those horses that have been in the [Triple Crown] game from day one.

“If you don’t make enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby you can’t run [for the Triple Crown] in the other two races.

“This is not fair to these horses that have been running their guts out for [racing] and for the [fans] that believe in them.

“This is a coward’s way out, in my opinion.”

In the heat of the moment, Coburn never considered that owner Robert Evans and trainer Christophe Clement wanted to run in the Derby, but when Tonalist got sick before the Wood Memorial and missed that prep, his Derby run was out of the question.

Evans and Clement truly did what was best for their horse and, it turned out, in more ways than one. They decided on the Peter Pan/Belmont route. Obviously, it was a prescient call that puts them in position to vie for a championship should they run the late-season table.

In the post-race conference, Evans said “I have no comment on that” when asked to respond to Coburn’s remarks. “We love California Chrome, but we love our horse, too,” is all he would offer.

“Some people talked about how California Chrome failed,” said the gracious Clement. “He won the Derby and he won the Preakness and that’s great. When he worked [at Belmont Park] there were 500 or 600 people there to see him. That’s great for racing.”

In the five weeks since the Kentucky Derby, the California Chrome entourage could not have been more giving of themselves. They danced every dance to the point of exhaustion and, at the point that they had enough, they sucked it up and gave some more.

From about 9:30 a.m., about two hours before the first of 13 races, Coburn thanked an appreciative crowd who waved at him from the track apron. He took off his cowboy hat and waved back, making the crowd with their “Triple Chrome” banners even more supportive.

This love affair happened throughout the day, at least two or three more times between races. It lent itself perfectly to an electric atmosphere that fell with a thud as the Belmont 146 field passed the finish line.

The head victory by Tonalist over a remarkably game Commissioner was engineered beautifully by Clement, who labored to get his horse fit enough to go 12 furlongs, all while dealing with foot issues that required protective bar shoes during training hours.

He deflected concern earlier this week when he said “it was no big deal.” I would have to disagree, which only makes his accomplishment, and that of Tonalist, even more impressive.

As for California Chrome, he broke sideways coming out of the gate and bumped with Matterhorn. It was at that point that Art Sherman spoke off the record, saying that California Chrome might have hurt himself at the start.

“After we broke,” said Espinoza, “I could tell he was not the same like before. Before he’s running and he [takes] me right [into] the race, [he helps] me. Today I felt his energy was not like before. He was a little bit empty, I would say by the five-eighths pole.”

But, like before, he kept trying after entering the stretch five wide. In fact, it appeared that his pedigree deserted him a furlong from home but he kept trying, only he was being outrun at that point.

Espinoza eased California Chrome up two jumps from the wire, appearing to cost him a clear shot at fourth money, which he wound up sharing in a dead heat with Wicked Strong. Clearly, however, taking care of a very tired horse was the right thing to do.

In the clear light of day, it is hoped that, after a good night’s sleep, Coburn finds the time to tip his hat to the winners, who ran the best horse on the day. But his message about this series is right for the times and, more importantly, right for the horses.

The elder Sherman was not available for comment after the race, leaving those duties to Alan, his son and assistant.

“The horse tried hard,” said Alan Sherman. “It’s a long hard ride on these horses and that’s why the Triple Crown is so hard to win. The horse tried, that’s all I can ask for. He took me on the ride of my life.”

Grade 1 MANHATTAN

They just can’t keep good men down at Belmont Park.

First, Javier Castellano proved the difference in Coffee’s Clique’s narrow victory over Strathnaver.

Then, after getting all hot and dirty aboard Chad Brown’s empty trainee, Normandy Invasion, Castellano came back with a perfect timed score for Brown aboard Real Solution, taking the Grade 1 Manhattan by a length over Kaigun, with the Bill Mott trained Seek Again settling for third.

It was an odd event from the start as longshot Five Iron opened a 10-length advantage on the backside. As that was going on, Joel Rosario put Seek Again in position to take the first run on the eventual tiring leader.

But Seek Again was unable to sustain his rally into the stretch, which is where Castellano put Real Solution in the right spot to make his patented late run.

Real Solution has done that before but often has hung. But not yesterday as he wore down Kaigun inside the final furlong.

And when it was over, the ho hum of it was another victory by an offspring of Kitten’s Joy, another for 2013’s leading owners in America, Ken and Sarah Ramsey.

***

Close Hatches is all by herself... at the top of the filly and mare division.

In what should have been the filly race of the young decade but under the radar somewhat because (a) they’re fillies, and (b), they were running on the Triple Crown-bid undercard.

But when Close Hatches, Beholder and Princess of Sylmar lined up at the top of the stretch, a colleague leaned toward me and whispered: “Is this what you came to see?”

Yes, only, personally speaking, it would have been better had the photograph gone the other way.

With longshot Classic Point leading the way, the three “favorites” were biding their time, with Close Hatches having a tactical edge, in position to make the first run.

And run she did but, at once, Gary Stevens pressed the button on two-time champion Beholder and Javier Castellano likewise on Princess of Sylmar.

At the eighth pole, however, it became two-horse race and as Chic Anderson intoned 36 years ago, “we’ll test these two to the wire.”

And it was Close Hatches, in the role of Affirmed, Rosario subbing for Cauthen, and Princess of Sylmar as Alydar, Javier instead of Jorge, to the finish. And the photo went the same way:
Inside.

And, so, now, Close Hatches has finished ahead of the Princess three times, once again, reminiscent of Affirmed and Alydar.

Close Hatches now has a big leg up on the filly and mare championship, 3-for-3 on the year, including the Grade 1 Apple Blossom and yesterday’s Ogden Phipps.

The only disappointing aspect of the Big Three match-up, but this time, the champion couldn’t bring her racetrack with her.

But then the Breeders’ Cup Distaff is at Santa Anita again this year, right?

***

How sweet it was for trainer Leah Gyarmati, the second distaffer to saddle a winner on the best race card ever presented in New York.

It was particularly rewarding because something wasn’t quite right with her 3-year-old miss, Sweet Reason.

“After the Gazelle, I didn’t like how she was looking,” said Gyarmati. “Nothing major, probably just wear and tear from the winter. We just did lots of work on that, and lots of vitamins.”

Three-year-olds are a little young to be suffering from tired blood but there was none of that yesterday, Sweet Reason lowering her body in earnest to edge the Todd Pletcher-trained 34-1 Sweet Whiskey.

Pletcher also saddled the odds-on Acorn favorite but, after stalking the pace down the backside, she never mounted a serious challenge. Unbridled Forever, third, loomed briefly, but hung in the final furlong.


***

Javier Castellano has been riding the turf, whether it be Gulfstream, the New York tracks, and even Penn National, as if they were all in his own back yard.

Once again Castellano was the difference, but a little good fortune never hurts. Strathnaver started her rally in Queens while the rest of the field was in Nassau.

She finished like a rocket beneath Mike Smith and actually struck the front one jump before the wire. Losing by a bob of the head is one thing; losing on he re-bob of a head quite another.

Somali Lemonade was pressured throughout the one-mile Grade 1 and was remarkably game to even snag a piece of the Just A Game purse.

Excellent work by Canadian-based Brian Lynch, who trained his horse to the minute for yesterday’s event. Of greater import, perhaps, is that he was smart enough to name Castellano at time of entry.

***

One of the best races on the NYRA schedule each year is the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap, best known as the Met Mile, an elongated eight furlong sprint in which horses run flat out from flag-fall to that’s all.

But the pace of Saturday’s renewal was moderate by Met Mile standards, 23 1/5, and Palace Malice, in the conversation for best older horse in America, was inside and not really going anywhere.

Johnny Velazquez was motivating him, maintaining his position, but when finally picked it up after entering the straight, he had nowhere to go.

But fortunately for last year’s Belmont winner, Johnny found a seam inside and up the fence went Palace Malice and ran away win in 1:33.56 for his fourth victory against no defeats this year.

Rarer still, he completed the True North/Met Mile double of Palace and Palace Malice.

No relation.

Goldencents made a worthy season’s debut, finishing an excellent second in a very deep field. The underrated Romansh finished a good third after chasing the pace wide throughout, but second favorite
Normandy Invasion never picked up his feet, beating only two of his 11 rivals.

Prototypical slot receiver Wes Welker finally gets a good payday with the well named Undrafted, taking the Grade 3 Jaiput under peerless rating and timing from Johnny Velazquez. As it turned out, he had the punch that the venerable Ben's Cat, looking for lifetime win #27 in his 40th start, lacked.

Marchman was a very good second, chasing a strong pace throughout, doing the dirty work at headstretch, but unable to withstand the winner, Ben's Cat checking in fourth.

The pacesetting Global Power stayed well cutting the pace, the 60-1 chance holding third and producing a $495 Dime Super with three logical rivals.

***

The Preakness as a prep for the 7 furlong Woody Stephens? Apparently, as Bob Baffert re-added blinkers, switched to Gary Stevens, who asked Bayern to take the lead at the 5-furlong pole, improving his position thereafter to win the Grade 2 by a short pole.

Odds of 9-1 certainly were fair on this crack sprinter, timed the distance in 1:20.75. Longshot Top Fortitude made a strong late rally for place beneath Mike Smith to complete the SoCal exacta.

***
Well, Joel Rosario won the first mile and a half race of the day from the outside post and he can only hope that history repeats..

Norumbega, as it turns out, wanted the mile and a half Brooklyn distance more than Micromanage.

The horse that ran too good to lose was Cat Burglar, chasing the pace for most of the 12 furlongs and was still there at the finish in a remarkably game performance, beaten less than a length, trying to match strides with the winner at the finish.

Two-twenty-seven and change, a pretty good go!

***

I know it was 8:25 when I entered the Plainfield Ave. gate of Belmont Park but the overwhelming impression was that the old ballpark looked great and NYRA seems prepared for whatever is to come. We shall see...

So, as Mr. Cub would say: The sun is shining, let's play 13.

Fast and firm, no portable rails up on either turf course.

The money showed early and late and Wabberjack too the opener; no discernable bias.

Linda Rice on a stakes roll; Palace yesterday, Kid Cruz today, with a powerful late run to take the Easy Goer. Good spot; very good effort.

Track looks honest. Both winners off the pace but in each case, the fractions were lively...

Written by John Pricci

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