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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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Where The Rubber Meets The Surf

Horseplayers love this time of year. Its when racings two exquisite boutique meets, one on each coast, provide glimpses of what thoroughbred racing can be when its done right.

And you cant mention one, Saratoga, without the other, Del Mar. That would be like using the name of Affirmed without completing the sentence with the name of Alydar.

(Didnt Alydar always finish second)?

Anyway, Saratoga and Del Mar are all about a respite from the same old, same old, a chance to get out of town and spend summers dog days enjoying mountain air or ocean breezes. But thats where the similarities end.

This piece might emanate from the East Coast but its not about provincial bias. Its just that when it comes to day-to-day racing fare theres simply no comparison.

Dont blame Del Mar, though. Saratogas just been at it much longer, and with better horses.

But nowhere does hope spring eternal than at the racetrack and today is, after all, opening day.

And why is this Del Mar meet different from any other?

Glad you asked, Virginia.

Gone, presumably, will be the speed-biased racing on the main track. Good-bye dirt. Good-bye Cushion Track. Hel-lo-o-o-o-o Polytrack!

The artificial surface has to be an improvement on recent years past. Certainly, Del Mar was in need of a safer oval and daily field size was in need of more participants.

Interesting to see how Polytrack effects baby racing. Not at this meet, per se, but down the road when two-year-olds stretch out in advance of the Breeders Cup Juvenile and as a foundation for the classics to come.

Del Mar already has had some problems with the new surface, albeit minor in nature. As a result of fine harrowing and the subtle changes in temperature, the surface was much faster on Monday than it was when first tested late last week.

Were sure all will make the necessary adjustments. Or try, anyway.

That aside, Del Mar is here and thats a good thing. Let the summer season begin!

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

There Oughta’ Be A Law

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Read that somewhere.

But thats the kind of weekend it was for Todd Pletcher, leading trainer in the universe.

The sheer volume of all aspects of his operation; from the number of horses in his care, to his graded stakes wins (on track to break his own record), to purse earnings (ditto), continues to astound.

Look at what happened last weekend: King of the Roxy; Cotton Blossom; Indian Vale; Safari Queen and Host; all of them favorites, all of them lost.

But then, look what happened last weekend. Honey Rose was placed first in a listed stakes at Ellis Park; Unbridled Belle won the million dollar Delaware Handicap, Sunriver won the Grade 2 Bowling Green and Pavarotti took the Round Table.

Four-for-nine in stakes for the weekend. Not bad.

Of all those performances, one was an eye-opener and it wasnt Unbridled Belles perfect-trip tour de force in the DelCap. But did you see the Bowling Green?

It is very unusual for horses to win graded stakes on both dirt and turf, but now Sunriver has. If his Bowling Green is any measure, his future in surely on the grass.

Pletcher is still mystified by the two dirt performances earlier this year. Then he worked Sunriver on turf just to see if it would wake him up mentally. He worked fantastic and the decision was made to run him on grass.

He won that allowance race as if breaking so many sticks. But it didnt prove anything despite his going to the front and improving his position with complete authority.

On Sunday, he did it again. But this time it was different.

He was in with tougher and, while setting a moderate pace, was pressured throughout. At headstretch, Garrett Gomez pushed the button and the response was electric.

It wasnt so much how he opened up ground; instantly, but how he looked doing it.

If you missed it, catch a replay. Old-timers used to call good turf horses daisy cutters for the way they skimmed over the top of the ground.

They would have loved Sunriver.

He absolutely just skims over the top of the grass. Hes very spectacular over it, said Gomez in post-race quotes. I think he can just keep extending himself and getting better.

He will need to. Pletcher said the Arlington Million is next. Not only will the competition go up several notches but the Arlington course is less forgiving. Theres more cut in the ground, and most often its less than firm.

Early speed does relatively well in the Million. And so we shall see if Sunrivers near perfect turf action works as well in Chicago as it does in New York.

Im quite sure Pletcher hopes so. There were those five stakes he was supposed to win last weekend and didnt, now did he?

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Unforgettable New York-Bred Funny Cide

The "gutsy gelding" will race no more.

If any horse earned a well deserved pensioners life, it was Funny Cide.

He was conditioned by a trainers trainer, for everyone in racing knew how good a horseman Barclay Tagg was. The rest of the world found out in 2003 when the gutsy gelding, so dubbed by race caller Tom Durkin at the finish of a thrilling classic horserace, won the Kentucky Derby.

He won the Preakness, too, by a short pole, when rider Jose Santos, stupidly accused of carrying an electrical device in his Derby win, apparently felt that a margin victory was needed to vindicate himself and the horse.

The combination of that big Preakness effort, a wet track, a talented, fresh rival and a fast workout all conspired to tax his reserves. His Triple Crown bid fell short but that didnt stop him from becoming a local hero on a national scale.

Clearly, Funny Cide was the feel-good story of 2003 and began a renaissance of sorts for the sport because of a yellow bus filled with small town school-mates from upstate New York.

Between Funny Cide and a generally well reviewed, commercially successful feature film, Seabiscuit, racing got on a 15-minute roll.

The gutsy gelding moniker stuck. Another accolade might have been overachiever.

Funny Cide was always blessed with speed, his juvenile season a testimony to that. But it took Tagg and assistant Robin Smullen to slow him down by calming him down and stretching him out.

In Santos, he had a partner who believed and got along with him very well on the track. Funny Cide also put an entire wing of the breeding industry, the New York-bred program, on the national map.

I remember asking one of his owners, the late Gus Williams, after Funny Cides victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, just how important a victory in the upcoming Breeders Cup Classic would be.

The hell with the Breeders Cup, said Williams. I just want to win five more Gold Cups.

Alas, Funny Cide would never threaten to surpass the mighty Kelsos JCGC record and by the following year he began losing steps.

The rigors of a hard fought Triple Crown series two years earlier were beginning to take a toll. Younger and stronger rivals came along and they showed him no mercy, no respect.

The last two years were a hard struggle for him. He began to show signs of non-competitiveness even while taking class drops, from the top of the graded stakes ranks to the Grade 3s, until finally even listed and restricted races were becoming a challenge, too.

But Funny Cides popularity never wavered. Many books and T-shirts and ice cream and beers were sold with his likeness.

In his final race, the Wadsworth Memorial Handicap at Finger Lakes, as far from Times Square as you can get without a passport, he drew an announced record crowd of 12,000 for the July 4th program.

And the western New York upstate crowd cheered raucously as he circled the ring and his class was too much for the best local rivals that could be hustled to face him, many losing their composure as the classy state-bred amped up the kind of electricity never before experienced in the rural Canandaigua paddock.

The track was wet and sealed and Funny Cide struggled to find his best stride. In the end, he out-willed, as opposed to outrunning, his rivals.

The good news is that Funny Cide is not leaving the racetrack. He will remain with the Tagg outfit as a stable pony and hell make a formal farewell appearance at Saratoga Race Course, Aug. 10.

The record book will show that Funny Cide ran in 38 races, compiling an across-the-board slate of 11-6-8, with accumulated earnings of over $3.5 million.

But Funny Cide wasnt about records. He was about speed and guts and how the outside of a horse can be good for the inside of a fan. He deserved to go out a winner.

Written by John Pricci

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