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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Saturday, April 05, 2014


California Chrome Was Wicked Strong


SOUTH OZONE PARK, NY, April 5, 2014—The first of Saturday’s prime time Derby prep double-header produced a colt unlike any other seen on the trail thus far, a horse that can come from off the pace successfully. All he needed was a fair surface.

Aqueduct provided that kind of ground Saturday and Wicked Strong provided the late kick, the same tack he used last year to come within a half-length of upsetting both Cairo Prince and Honor Code in the Remsen Stakes at the same Wood Memorial distance.

Now, with highly regarded Honor Code sitting out the Triple Crown with an injury and Cairo Prince squarely on the Derby fence with 24 qualifying points for the big dance, Wicked Strong vaulted himself into the role of strong Derby contender.

The colt has turn-move Derby style, finishes what he starts, and owns more than enough pedigree to get him 10 furlong. In Rajiv Maragh, he has a rider that gets along with him in a big way.

The allowance race that Wicked Strong exited had produced two next out winners including Florida Derby champion Constitution, and his sneaky-good fourth place finish there was good enough to produce a third on Saturday.

Can you say, right place, right time?

Wicked Strong was on the wise guy radar screen while the crowd was fascinated by Social Inclusion, a winner of both lifetime starts at Gulfstream Park by 17-1/2 non-threatened lengths. While he didn’t win the Wood, run in 1:49.31, the fastest running since Bellamy Road, he acquitted himself well.

It appeared Social Inclusion didn’t enjoy his first foray into New York. He galloped well enough over the Big A’s sand and loam earlier in the week but was bothered in the post parade, a little obstreperous and hot on a spring day in Gotham where the post time temp was a less than balmy 54 degrees.

Breaking from the extreme outside in a field reduced to 10 by the late scratch of Kid Cruz, Social Inclusion broke well enough but not a sharply as usual. Not only did that result in a loss of first-turn ground but the speedy Schivarelli had shaken loose and provided no willing target.

It took a bit more than five furlongs for him to shake clear of the leader, at which point formerly undefeated Samraat jumped all over him. To his credit the 8-5 choice opened ground but by midstretch he had begun to tire from the trip and perhaps the added half furlong as well.

Meanwhile, Samraat was resurgent but by this time Wicked Strong began to crank up big time on the stretch turn and was in full flight. It became apparent with a sixteenth of a mile remaining that this dance would be over.

The victor won with authority, even if he does continue to run a bit serpent-like down the lane. What that will mean in a 20-horse rodeo in a month’s time is anyone’s guess. But Derby style is important, and that issue is not in doubt.

“When I saw him laying five lengths off the lead just galloping I really felt we had a big shot,” said trainer Jimmy Jerkens. “I said to Rajiv ‘it’s great to save ground…but if you can get him to that crown on the stretch, go ahead’. They were taking off out there all day.”

Jerkens was asked about his prospects for this year’s Derby. Five years ago Jerkens was preparing Florida Derby winner Quality Road for the race but never made it to Louisville because of the colt’s serious quarter-crack issues.

“I’d love to get another crack at it, that’s for sure. Looks like a horse where distance won’t bother him.”

Despite suffering his first defeat in six starts, Rick Violette has not lost any confidence in Samraat; in fact, quite the opposite. “It’s his best race,” the trainer said.

“It’s the first time he’s been surrounded and covered up and he handled it. He came back three times. I thought he was going to be fourth, and he kept finding more, finding more. Good horses rally from this and get better. He got a huge education.”

Gary Contessa was realistic in his assessment of fifth finisher Uncle Sigh. “He broke a little awkwardly and was not quite the same horse. He was in behind horses for the first time and Corey [Nakatani] said he was very green. We expected to be right next to Samraat, not seventh and taking dirt.”

Manny Azpurua, the 85 year-old conditioner of Social Inclusion, also has lost little faith. “It was very good. Next time he’ll win; he’ll kill them.” But Azpurua might have to wait until the Preakness for that. Losing the place photo by a nose to Samraat gives him 20 qualifying points, unlikely to be enough.

Owner Ron Sanchez will also have to wait, too, next to a phone that might never ring. Reportedly offered $8 million for 75% of Social Inclusion before the Wood, he opted to roll the dice and wait until after the race. As for the Derby, his colt is in a four-way tie at 19th with 20 qualifying points.

About the 30 minutes after the Wood, California Chrome turned out to be everything Social Inclusion wasn’t and then some. California’s chestnut flyer was awesome, dominating the Santa Anita Derby by a geared-down 5-1/4 lengths beneath Victor Espinoza.

Like Samraat, he was surrounded, albeit briefly at the start after breaking a bit out of hand and getting jostled leaving the barrier. But he was quickly righted by Espinoza, assumed a comfortable stalking position outside maiden Dublin Up, opened ground quickly at headstretch and turned the storied West Coast fixture into a romp.

It will take something completely unexpected and otherworldly next weekend to prevent California Chrome from arriving in Louisville as a clear-cut Derby favorite. Rebel winning Hoppertunity ran very well but was daylight behind at the end.

As for Candy Boy, he seemed to come down with a case of Cairo Prince. The 55-day respite from the Robert B Lewis to the Santa Anita Derby produced a horse that appeared short of condition.

If the race was intended strictly as a prep, it can move the colt forward the right way—if indeed he makes it to Louisville. In finishing third, Candy Boy wound up with 30 points--likely enough but no cinch. He currently ranks 16th.

Written by John Pricci

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