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, April 03, 2009

Psst, Want a Value Play in the Belmont?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 2, 2009--So, who do you like in the Belmont Stakes?

I’m not kidding, even if the season indicates this might be some kind of belated April Fools' joke.

Even as fans and players try to decide who will win the 135th Kentucky Derby, and with Super Saturday looming, it’s never too early to start thinking Belmont.

Perhaps we might not have given the press release received this morning a second thought had it not come from the same people that brought My Memoirs over from Europe to compete in the 1992 Belmont.

In case your memory needs jogging, Pine Bluff was holding on desperately along the inside in midstretch as A.P. Indy forged forward to join him in a head-to-head battle from which Neil Drysdale’s colt would emerge victorious.

But there was an instant, leaving the sixteenth pole, when the issue was very much in doubt as My Memoirs, beneath Jerry Bailey, was beginning a strong late run.

Near the finish, A.P. Indy was getting the best of Pine Bluff, but My Memoirs kept charging, a rally that would fall short by three-quarters of a length. And that Belmont was clocked in 2:26: race horse time.

The new shooter this year, from the same Team Valor outfit that shipped My Memoirs to Elmont, is named Gitano Hernando, who won his three-year-old debut over the weekend at 10 furlongs on the turf at Doncaster.

Gitano Hernando came from far back to win going away by 2-½ lengths, drawing away inside the final sixteenth according to reports. It was his first start since breaking his maiden on a synthetic surface at Wolverhampton last fall.

The colt is being trained at facility in Newmarket by Marco Botti, who will saddle him in the Belmont. The colt’s next start will be the Dee Stakes, at around the same time the connections of American-based three-year-olds are feasting on crab cakes in Baltimore.

My Memoirs also used the Dee Stakes as his final prep. Botti is considering giving him another run between the Dee and Sunday’s season’s debut, a handicap in which he earned a 99 Timeform rating.

‘Gitano’ was supposed to run in the newly created Kentucky Derby Trial Stakes at Kempton but failed to crack the entries. The winning Mufaaz earned an automatic berth in the Churchill Downs starting gate on Derby day.

Barry Irwin, manager partner of Team Valor, stated in the release that they chose the Dee at Chester Race Course because it’s circular nature more closely resembles racing at an American racetrack.

Irwin said the Chester races develop in much the same way American races do and that the timing, coming after the Kentucky Derby, is good for a horse pointing to the Belmont.

A son of the long-winded Hernando, pointing a European runner to the Belmont as opposed to the Derby makes eminently more sense.

First, there’s no circus atmosphere and 19 rivals with which to contend. The wide expanse of Belmont’s mile and-a-half course with its sweeping turns is more in the European style. Belmont was, after all, modeled after Longchamp.

Of course, there is the 12-furlong distance. American horses are bred for speed, not stamina, and consequently are not true stayers. It’s inherent class that enables them to win at the true classic distance at this stage of the three-year-old season.

Finally, a fresh European invader is likely to catch American colts that have either run the Derby prep gauntlet or have competed in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, rigors for which most are ill suited by lineage.

Trainer Marco Botti, 32, certainly has the pedigree for classics success. His father, Alduino, and uncle, Giuseppe, based in Milan, are highly successful horsemen that run a thriving breeding operation and have won 30 training titles between them.

This is the fourth year Botti has been on his own after having worked for, among others, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum’s Godolphin operation.

Considered a rising star in Europe, Botti saddled 10 winners in 2006, including a Group 3; 17 the following year with a Group 3 and two Listed stakes winners; had 45 last year and already has 10 in 2009, the last being Gitano Hernando.

The colt’s win last Sunday came in a modest Class 3 handicap, but he moved strongly off a lively pace with three furlongs remaining and stayed on very well while leading through the final quarter-mile.

After the race, jockey John Egan said he was impressed and that the colt has the ability to stay the Belmont distance.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Florida Derby Coverage: Riddle Me This

Hallandale Beach, Fla., March 27, 2009--As everyone knows, the newspaper business has gone the way of the rest of the country--only there’s some evidence that the country actually might be in better shape.

Just recently, the Seattle Post Intelligencer went from a staff of approximately 80 beat reporters to a total of 20 on-line. Whether editors are included among the 20 I do not know. This, of course, is a.k.a. major surgery.

Those mainstream broadsheets and tabloids that continue to swim as fast as they can before the tide of red ink drags them completely to the bottom are drastically cutting coverage in virtually every area.

To no one’s surprise, horse racing is having difficulty making the cut.

Since some major tracks moved to a 72-hour entry box, providing greater access to the information customers need in order to prosper in a data-driven game, today’s Florida Derby was drawn Wednesday.

Back in the day, there were more free-loaders than reporters in the Gulfstream Park press box. Publicity Director Joe Tannenbaum always wore an orchid-colored suit on Florida Derby day, replete with ever-present fedora.

The outfit was enough to make even Gene Stevens blush.

Anyway, in those days Tannenbaum needed to secure a Gulfstream Park rate at the swanky Diplomat Hotel for out-of-town media, who came in about a week early bearing expense accounts.

A-list entertainers routinely played the Diplomat back then. It was all pretty cool.

Tannenbaum arranged for a press hospitality suite at the hotel where a handful of veteran reporters would play poker almost until dawn, the game breaking up in time to go to the barns for interviews.

We’re referring to the reporters who weren’t out drinking and carousing. I never did, of course. I only heard tell of it.

The post draw in those days was 48 hours in advance of race day and was accompanied by a press breakfast. Questions followed the bacon and eggs and usually was hosted by Tannenbaum who said nice things about his bosses and visiting media. Tannenbaum loved press guys.

Thursday was the only morning the poker players could have shuffled past dawn, get to the track in time for breakfast, ask questions their questions, write their stories, await cocktail hour following the last race, then begin the process all over again.

Guys like that also gave the phrase “greatest generation” credibility.

The Florida Derby wasn’t the Kentucky Derby, but that never stopped hordes of beautiful women from attending the races in all their finery and millinery. Tannenbaum wasn’t the only person wearing orchid. Many in a crowd of 30,000 did, too.

When entries were drawn this past Wednesday, the only people covering from out of state were Jennie Rees of the Louisville Courier-Journal and, swelling the count of out of town mainstream press to one.

Who knows, if Jennie worked for a newspaper in Chicago or St. Louis or Baltimore, she, too, might have been among the missing. Rees once described the Courier-Journal as a “three-year-old paper.” Everyone knew what she meant. It’s probably keeping her beat afloat.

My hotel is one that attaches a copy of USA Today to the door latch of the room, an old-school guilty pleasure.

And I truly was surprised when the sports section of Thursday’s USA Today included not even a hint that a lightly raced undefeated three-year-old and betting favorite in a number of Derby futures pools had drawn post 4 and was installed the early line 9-5 Florida Derby favorite.

Not even a short paragraph, which I’m sure annoyed Tom Pedulla, USA Today’s ace racing and college sports beat writer.

Of course, if the Eastern Regionals of the NCAA Tournament were held in Miami, site of opening-round play, instead of Boston, Pedulla would be covering the Florida Derby. Maybe he still will, but I’m taking the under.

Rees must have written her Florida Derby advance Thursday. She was not in attendance yesterday. Columnist Vic Ziegel of the New Daily News was.

Ziegel, a true wordsmith, loves racing for the colorful stories it provides, just like the late Red Smith. He covers the Triple Crown for his paper and gets to write the Florida Derby every year because he’s already in the neighborhood covering Yankees and Mets spring training.

“I can’t believe they still allow me to do this,” Ziegel said outside the Gulfstream Park paddock yesterday.

Parenthetically, racing writers for the Daily News and Post New York probably manage to have jobs because the other newspaper exists: That rivalry is hotter than Duke-North Carolina.

The Associated Press has a racing writer, Rich Rosenblatt, who’s based in New York. He was here last year. He covered the 2008 Tampa Bay Derby, too. But he won’t be here tomorrow.

Tim Reynolds, the locally based AP sportswriter, will be here to see if one of today’s entrants goes on to become the 22nd Kentucky Derby winner to prep in the Florida Derby.

Or if today’s winner becomes the third Florida Derby winner in the last four years to repeat in Louisville, thus joining Barbaro and Big Brown.

I never knew the answer to this ancient riddle: “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s there, does it make a sound?”

Talk about analogous situations. Apparently, the answer eventually reveals itself.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Pletcher Focused on the Derby

Boynton Beach, Fla., March 25, 2009--Several months after I had taken a buyout from Newsday, I spent my first full season in South Florida looking for work.

It was winter, 1997. Eibar Coa was a new 10-pound bug boy at the meet and a young former Wayne Lukas assistant was striking out on his own at Gulfstream Park.

In the early double one afternoon, the young trainer had a maiden claimer that looked interesting, and not only because the mount attracted no less than leading rider Jerry Bailey.

I can’t remember the filly’s name, but I remember being happy to collect 9-2 after she broke maiden, looking like a winner at every pole.

“It was a tough decision,” said Todd Pletcher inside his office on the north side of Barn 11 at Palm Meadows training center, an impressive facility that even Frank Stronach’s most ardent critics admit has set the bar in state of the art equine housing.

“Wayne was loaded that year. He had lots of two-year-olds that could really run. And I had seven horses.”

Now Pletcher has over 30 horses inside Barn 11, a like number inside Barn 12 and a like number in the next barn, too. Pletcher has 97 head in all here, notwithstanding sizable divisions at every major racing venue in America.

That’s one of the knocks you hear about Pletcher from rival trainers and horseplayers alike. “He’s got all the horses.”

Inside Barn 11, stall 5, stood the probable favorite for tomorrow’s Florida Derby, Dunkirk, a gray colt by Unbridled’s Song, from the A.P. Indy mare, Secret Status, looking like a million bucks, actually more like 3.7 million bucks.

Dunkirk was a bargain compared to the $16-million the same owners spent for a horse called The Green Monkey which, in case anyone’s forgotten, never won a race and unceremoniously was retired.

Another knock on Pletcher is that with seemingly all the talented horses in the world at his disposal, he’s never won the Kentucky Derby. Pletcher thinks this is the best horse he ever will have led over to the Churchill Downs paddock for the feature race on May’s first Saturday.

It was nearly 10 a.m. and Pletcher was spending much of his time on the phone. I watched Dunkirk get gently rubbed on by three attractive female handlers, one applying an electro-magnetic blanket on his back that seemed to make the rest of him feel good all over. He stood quietly, as if asleep, the women continuing their petting and rubbing.

“You wouldn’t mind being rubbed on by three women, would you?” Pletcher asked.

It was still early morning for me. I thought I might find good use for the blanket.

“All the horses get treated with it once a week,” he volunteered.

While Pletcher took another call from yet another owner, I stood outside his office reading the contents on three clipboards. The bottom of the pages were held down by clips so they would shuffle in the breeze.

The clipboards held three color-coded spreadsheets. He probably learned the color-coding trick from the fastidious Lukas.

The first was a chart for the grooms, all 30 of them, each having about three or four to rub and do up before feed time later that morning and every morning, 24/7/365.

Next came the set list, horses scheduled to go to the track for work or maybe just to hack around. The instructions were spelled out.

Twenty four horses would jog this day, 43 were scheduled to gallop, and another 28 would be shed walked. They were listed on the clipboard designated as the Day Board.

I couldn’t tell what the other two were supposed to do.

Between Barns 11 and 12 was what you’d envision to be a “yard.” It looked all very European-like. Sets came and went, grooms with hoses and buckets of sudsy water washed away the morning’s dust, the sweaty grime while other handlers held the shank, keeping the horse calm and his head in the process when necessary.

Dunkirk arrived in this world last spring, developed “a shin,” a minor ailment common to two-year-olds, was sent back to the farm for R & R before returning in late summer. He had his first breeze in October.

“We were high on him from that first breeze,” the trainer said. “He went in :36 like this,” Pletcher putting one hand on top of the other--like gripping a baseball bat--while he made a motion to indicate how one might hold something back, preventing it from doing too much, too soon.

“Then another :36, and another. To show that kind of speed with a pedigree meant to go long…

“But the important work is the first time you go five-eighths, that’s where you begin to separate, and it was the same thing. He does everything the same way.”

“He’s done everything we’ve asked, and he’s done it easily. We started him out going seven-eighths, that’s not easy. Then we brought him back at a mile and an eighth and he won by almost five again. Now he has to take the next step.”

Pletcher is confident he will, although “you wouldn’t want a very good horse like Jimmy’s [Jerkens] out there loose on an easy lead.”

Pletcher entered a horse named Europe, owned by the same people, to keep the pace honest. At $2-million-plus, he’s believed to be the most expensive rabbit in racing history. But he’s no cinch to start. Pletcher just wanted to keep his options open.

And you need to win this for the earnings, don’t you?

“Second’s worth one-fifty [thousand], and that might be enough.”

And if not?

“I won’t rush him just to make the Derby. There’s always the Preakness.”

The visit was ending and I looked around one last time. “When you were starting out back in ‘97, did you ever envision an operation like this? How do you manage to stay focused?”

“I wasn’t thinking about anything like this. It’s a challenge.”

The following day, I was telling a horseman I know about the kind of focus it takes to run an organization of that size at the highest level.

“I think Todd could run IBM if he wanted,” he said.

Written by John Pricci

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