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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Friday, January 30, 2009

Serious Derby Colts in Action This Weekend at Gulfstream Park

South Ozone Park, NY, January 29, 2009--If you’re based on the East Coast, Friday marks the traditional first step on the road to Triple Crown glory, first stop Churchill Downs on May 2.

As Yogi might say, Saturday comes early this year.

At Gulfstream Park, the old school Hutcheson Stakes is the first race out of the three-year-old blocks. Why old school? Seven furlongs, that’s why.

“The Hutch” is back in its rightful place on the South Florida racing calendar--an important beginning, not the mid-meet after-thought it’s been in recent years.

Old schoolers believe that seven furlongs is a great wake-up call from season-ending juvenile slumber, a spot to shake out the physical and mental cob-webs.

At the highest levels, seven-eighths might be the most demanding distance there is, requiring a blend of condition, speed and class.

The many aspiring classicists that debut in a spot like this might not be fully cranked but they do need to be fit. A trainer could do more harm than good by getting his horse blitzed first time out, possibly requiring even more time to regroup. And how much can an under-trained, non-competitive horse truly benefit from the effort? Debuts are an interesting and delicate balancing act.

Having the Hutch horses race on Friday gives accomplished runners their moment in the spotlight so that fans can assess where their favorites are developmentally even with three more months remaining in the prep process.

Saturday’s featured Holy Bull at nine furlongs gives the more advanced sophomores a chance to get started for those trainers not wishing to turn their horses back into a sprint and getting them all speed crazy.

Actually, this is a great East Coast schedule that provides something for everyone, this weekend including supporting maiden and allowance races at meaningful distances that have attracted another serious horse or two.

In fact, a one-mile maiden race for three-year-olds on Saturday will mark the debut of Nicanor, the most hyped first time starter since The Green Monkey--and we all know how that turned out.

The well documented interest in Nicanor is because he’s the late Barbaro’s kid brother from the same human connections. If fact, Edgar Prado made a public pitch to ride the colt and will his wish from Michael Matz in Saturday’s eighth at Gulfstream.

The race drew 13 entrants and Nicanor will break from post four at 4-1 on the early line. I’m as interested as anyone, but I’m not up to all the hype.

Maybe it’s because of what tragically happened to his brother that I find the interest in him tinged with a certain ghoulish creepiness. Or maybe it’s just me. But first thing’s first.

Friday’s Grade 2 Hutcheson attracted eight entrants of which three are serious Derby aspirants at this point in the season: Hello Broadway (5-2), Break Water Edison (3-1) and Capt. Candyman Can (3-1).

These are three very good colts and it will be interesting to note their progress throughout the spring.

When last seen, Break Water Edison and Hello Broadway finished 1-2 in the one-mile G3 Nashua Stakes. Both colts raced well and their Equiform performance figures were among the fastest posted by a juvenile going a mile or farther in 2008.

Each coming off a layup from November 2, Hello Broadway has worked eight times and appears the sharper of the two coming into the race. More of a forward factor, he has an edge over Break Water Edison, who’s worked 10 times in the interim.

The bad news for BWE is that his rail draw likely means he’ll need to be hustled early, something trainer John Kimmel would rather avoid. However, Kimmel and Barclay Tagg, trainer of the early line favorite, will need to keep tabs on Ian Wilkes’ colt.

Capt. Candy Man has speed and stamina when he needs it, was toughened in three juvenile graded stakes, and arguably may be the most accomplished. A little closer to the race having finished second in the G2 Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs Thanksgiving weekend, he might prove sharpest of the three.

Saturday’s Holy Bull has also drawn a sizable field, 11, with early line choices West Side Bernie (3-1) and Beethoven (4-1) drawing posts 10 and 11, respectively.

West Side Bernie, a worthy runnerup in the Delta Jackpot, and Beethoven, winner of the Jockey Club Stakes, do not have the race to themselves, especially from out there in Big Brown land.

Danger To Society is undefeated in two starts, is well regarded by trainer Ken McPeek, who’s 31 percent in 2009, nicely drawn inside and is already a nine-furlong winner over the track. Regular rider Robby Albarado is aboard the 5-1 early-line third choice.

Saturday’s opener is interesting, too, as explosive Aqueduct maiden winner Well Positioned gets his season started for owner Paul Pompa Jr. and trainer Pat Reynolds. Pompa owned Big Brown before selling a major interest in the colt to IEAH Stable prior to the Derby campaign.

And so it’s January 30, and it’s Game On.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Changing Face of Eclipse Accomplishment

South Ozone Park, NY, January 28, 2009--This being awards season, some final thoughts on Eclipse recognition before getting on to new business.

And I’m thinking now Clint Eastwood must know how Jess Jackson felt, and vice versa.

Actually, there might have been more justification for snubbing Eastwood and his “Gran Torino” than overlooking Jackson’s contributions to his industry this past season.

After all, 2008 was a year when those who toil in the Hills of Hollywood enjoyed an excellent season and gave so many superb performances.

Could it be, I’m wondering, in light of last year’s Screen Actors Guild strike, that perhaps Hollywood’s practitioners saved their best efforts for what is referred to in the sports world as a “walk year?”

Actually, it wasn’t so much that Jackson wasn’t honored as the sport’s leading owner as much as it was that he didn’t even make the cut.

A ludicrous disgrace.

Jackson campaigned the defending Horse of the Year to a repeat title in thoroughbred racing’s defining category, first one in over a decade.

I can remember when, back in the day, justifiably or not, that probably would have been enough.

But no need to pine nostalgic here. An in-the-money finish, at least, was certainly deserved, for all the well documented reasons.

While Jess Jackson is a man of extraordinary means, he’s no member of racing’s good old boy network. Whenever he saw something wrong or unfair, he spoke his mind.

And good old boys don’t do that.

The fact that he did so in front of a Congressional hearing eliminated any chance he might have had at winning an industry popularity contest.

But even if he had finished third in the final accounting, the vote still went to the wrong owner.

I am no Frank Stronach apologist, but running a racetrack operation and a breeding and racing empire are vastly different areas. Sometimes this line is badly blurred.

Stronach the racetrack operator and Stronach the owner-breeder don’t belong as part of the same currency much less the flip side of the same coin.

But the balloting in the owner category could just as well have been conducted in Daley’s Chicago or on the Redneck Riviera.

According to Daily Racing Form reports, sixteen individuals or consortiums received votes among the 242 ballots cast, and Stronach nosed out IEAH Stable and partners, 47-46.

With Jackson not making the cut, IEAH, with 11 Grade 1 victories with eight different horses, was a prohibitive choice. If not, the competition would most likely come from Zayat Stables, not Stronach.

But even as IEAH was the choice of two of three voting organizations, the National Turf Writers and DRF staffers, the fix was in when NTRA racing officials at Stronach-owned voted for their man by a 17-4 margin.

While racing secretaries by trade are considered great handicappers, perhaps it’s time to suspend their voting privileges if conflicts get in the way of objectivity.

Balloting history is replete, not only in the above example, with racing executives voting for the owners and trainers who brought the “big horse” to their racetrack…as if soft highweight assignments weren’t enough inducement.

This obvious conflict of interest should no longer stand.

And neither should categorizing owners as separate entities, effectively punishing partnerships.

Balloting data supplied to voters does not currently include listings of such partnerships under the “graded wins” or “earnings” categories of listed rankings.

Consequently many IEAH winners, like West Point Stable in 2007, weren’t included. For voting purposes in the future, horses should be listed in the names of the managing owners that do the syndicating. Until a better solution comes along, that would be more equitable.

Further, votes should not be accepted nor calculated until after New Year’s day so that late-season graded wins and earnings won’t be marginalized. Late season results could prove the difference in categories that are too close to call.

In the age of Internet voting, there’s no reason why voters shouldn’t be made to wait until the last possible moment before casting a ballot.

Additionally, an Eclipse panel created among representatives of the three voting blocs should be empowered to suspend future voting privileges of individuals it deems as not taking their responsibilities seriously.

Fair minded people will know it when they see it. There simply was no reasonable defense for not casting championship ballots for Zenyatta or Stardom Bound, no justification whatsoever.

That’s what abstentions are. Wouldn’t it have been more honest had a voter abstained rather than cavalierly cast a ballot for Ginger Punch, and Sky Diva and Rachel Alexander, respectively, in the older mare and juvenile filly divisions?

And hasn’t time come to consider a category for Synthetic Surface Performer of the Year, or something to that effect? Current voting reflects the results of competition on two surfaces, only now there are three.

If the Eclipse Awards are to have clarity and worth in the future, periodic tweaking must acknowledge the sport’s changes and more sincerely validate accomplishment.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Stardom Bound Deserving and Worthy of Derby Run

South Ozone Park, NY, January 27, 2009--The news that juvenile filly champion Stardom Bound is pointing for the Grade 1 Las Virgenes on February 7 at Santa Anita as a prelude to her run in the Santa Anita Derby in April is welcome news.

But the notion that her primary objective of the spring is the Kentucky Oaks seems disingenuous on its face. Why run against the boys unless your aim is to beat them? And she won’t make an all-time list if she happens to beat them at Santa Anita.

Sorry, wrong Derby.

So, let’s be honest. The real goal for Stardom Bound is the Kentucky Derby. In these times, you don’t spend $5.7 million on a filly, even a champion, to win the Oaks.

At this point, beating up on more West Coast fillies isn’t going to prove much. Been there. Done that.

Which is why Zenyatta should have run in the boys Classic and not the Ladies Classic, but that‘s another story.

The history of the IEAH folks who bought Stardom Pound is one of making astute purchases. See Big Brown and many of the other Grade 1 winners that made them the leading owner in that category in 2008.

But with Big Brown and Rick Dutrow and a miserably failed Triple Crown attempt came all the attendant negative publicity, and the IEAH group, fairly or unfairly, became the outfit that turf writers enjoyed beating up on the most.

Given the history of last year’s Kentucky Derby and the tragic accident involving the filly runnerup, Eight Belles, who could blame Michael Iavarone and all the others if they don’t wish to answer those kind of questions for the next three months?

“Don’t you think that fillies are at a physical disadvantage against males?” “Given what happened last year, do you think it’s a good idea?” “Aren’t you afraid another accident like last year’s would be the kind of calamity that would kill the game forever?”

We’re not going to pretend these aren’t valid questions. But here’s a few others.

“Aren‘t there circumstances when racing females against males is permissible?” “Don’t certain body types, or running styles, mitigate the perceived risks?”

“Is the defense that breakdowns are an unfortunate part of the game no longer tenable?” “Is the sport going to run scared the rest of its days?”

Real questions that deserve real answers.

There’s a history of celebrated fillies that have become a special part of racing lore mostly because they beat males: Shuvee. Affectionately. Winning Colors. Priceless Gem. Genuine Risk. Rags To Riches.

So it’s been done here before, just like it’s done everywhere else in the world.

Foundation; soundness; superior ability. Satisfy those parameters and running fillies against colts is not dangerous.

However, the mainstream press that covers the Triple Crown doesn’t appreciate this. And ambitious columnists looking for a fresh angle won’t care and will sound an alarm anyway.

And, as for groups such as PETA, any organization wishing to call fish “sea kittens” should never be taken seriously ever again. If the industry can’t win that battle, how can it ever expect to survive?

The thing we know about Stardom Bound at this point in time is that she is in the conversation when someone wants to know who the “best,” or “most talented,” or “classiest” three-year-old is.

Further, she has the right body type and Derby style. A strong, late finisher who runs turns well; the stress factor is reduced significantly for rally types. And she gets a five-pound head-start, too, 121 vs. 126.

The one fear observers have is that fillies who try to do too much to compete with males, and over-achieve as a consequence, force themselves beyond their physical limitations.

Ruffian’s ability to match strides with Foolish Pleasure was beyond her limitations. She couldn’t race within herself and beat a Kentucky Derby winner. She was hell-bent-for-leather speed. Those types are never easy on themselves.

Not like Stardom Bound, who runs hard only after you flip on the switch.

Of the leading two dozen Derby horses that have raced a mile or farther as late-season juveniles or early season sophomores, only three have run the same better final figures on the Equiform performance-figure scale.

Her temperament, style, ability and class notwithstanding, Stardom Bound's greatest Derby attribute is her juvenile foundation: Five starts, two around two turns, both resulting in dominating performances.

Getting her started in February, then seeing if she passes the colt test in the Santa Anita Derby gives her two Derby preps, just the way new trainer Bobby Frankel likes it. If something happens in the interim, the Oaks on the same weekend would be a great fall-back position.

But considering this filly’s talent, that’s all the Oaks should be. If the Derby were run tomorrow, Stardom Bound would be no worse than third choice in the betting. That, too, makes her worthy and capable of success on racing’s greatest stage.

Written by John Pricci

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