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, June 06, 2014


History In the Waiting


ELMONT, NY, June 6, 2014—Tomorrow is the day and everyone knows it. The only ones that don’t are the horses, although California Chrome could be an exception. After all, what were the odds he would be in this position when he hit the ground in SoCal three years ago?

Incalculable.

Racing fans have been waiting 36 long years to see the next and 12th Triple Crown winner. And tomorrow is the last day of the first week in June, the longest duration possible in this outmoded schedule but totally apropos when long awaited history is on the line.

I am haunted by history, so much a part of my work disciple, and so much a part of Thoroughbred racing, although, as they must, all things will change. All 11 Triple Crown winners beat no more than eight rivals.

California Chrome has 10, most of which are very solid, indeed.

It’s no coincidence that in the most recent decade, 2001-2010, there were four failed attempts at immortality: War Emblem, Funny Cide and Smarty Jones, back-to-back-to-back and, of course, the Big Brown debacle six years ago.

Of the 20 3-year-olds in history that have tried and failed, dating back to Pensive in 1944—three other dual classicists never made it into the starting gate at America’s biggest oval—the most egregious losses were, in our view, Spectacular Bid, Real Quiet and Smarty Jones.

Of that triad, Spectacular Bid, “the best horse ever to look through a bridle,” was the most shocking of all, by poles the best horse to fail the Test of the Champion. And if he could "get beat..."
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Spectacular Bid was so good, in fact, that when he came back to Belmont Park in the fall of his 4-year-old season, not a single horse lined up against him.

The classy gray apparently was so insulted that he never raced again, and so the 1980 Woodward Stakes, timed in 2:02 with Shoemaker sitting motionless in the boot, was the 26th and final victory of a stunning 30-race career.

California Chrome is not in Spectacular Bid’s class--then neither were more than a handful of North American Thoroughbreds since Bid’s sophomore season in ‘79—but California’s comet doesn’t need to be.

California Chrome already has done enough, he has beaten the odds by untold lengths, is a large part of racing’s current and future past and he stands on the precipice of history.

Is he good enough? Of course. Will California Chrome do it? I think he will, but no one has the answer for sure. Someone inside Belmont Park’s jock’s room might know and, of course, co-owner Steve Coburn does, but

I don’t. I only know I’ll be rooting like hell.

If he is to become a member of the Triple Crown Dozen, I don’t expect that he will save the game. Too much water under that bridge for one feel-great story to overcome, and that’s not the fault or responsibility of Lucky Pulpit’s son.

I’m with the great Frank DeFord—forever linked with horse racing because his daughter Alex loved to watch Ruffian run--on this one; California Chrome won’t save horse racing. But he will put a smile on everyone’s face until the cracks of age begin to show.

In fact, a historic victory by California Chrome in Belmont 146 ironically could backfire, serving as a fretful reminder of the sport’s glorious past and what it could still be if all racing practitioners truly did “what’s best for the horse.”

Alas, all things change and time unrelentingly marches forward. It didn’t have to be this way but money, big money, has a way of mucking things up. It’s like Jackie said in Killing Them Softly, “America’s not a country, it’s a business.”

And so, too, is horse racing a business and not a sport. California Chrome is the very best part of what Thoroughbred racing is and can still be. But, paraphrasing Hyman Roth, California Chrome’s winning the Triple Crown “has nothing to do with business.”

For the fans, the business end of the sport is wagering and you can bet there will be plenty of that on Saturday.

Conditions are expected to be perfect on Long Island tomorrow and the Belmont 146 program is, without question, the greatest racing card in the history of New York racing not named Breeders’ Cup. And it might even beat one of those, too.

The Belmont Stakes profile, otherwise known as once around big, Big Sandy, is that most winners are mid-pack finishers. Pace and pace-presser runners have been up against in the modern era’s bigger Belmont fields.

In fact, three of every four superfecta finishers in this young century have come from behind to some degree.

The “best horse” can fit this profile and, if he had a target, say, the likes of Social Inclusion, whose connections chose pragmatism over valor and will run in the “Woody” instead, his task might have been made easier.

But without a true speed horse in the field, and given his inside draw, Victor Espinoza might just go on with it, assuming a clean start, and any one of 10 rivals will be taking aim from that point forward.

The Derby trips and Preakness trips of the major Belmont contenders have been documented ad nauseum, and we’ll take one that’s perhaps a bit more subtle than the rest for win betting purposes: Commanding Curve.

While he did not have Derby trouble per se, the lack of a strong pace, the dry, cuppy surface, and the race shape scenario all worked against him yet he came within 1-1/2 lengths of ‘Chrome’ with a solid rally down the center of the Churchill strip.

Commanding Curve has been extremely well managed by his coterie of West Point cadets and trainer Dallas Stewart for mapping out a meticulous prep schedule.

After skipping the first of the Louisiana Derby series, he needed a run while racing wide in the Risen Star, then finished well for show too late after encountering trouble early and forced to rally wide on the far turn in the La. Derby, before his career best effort at Churchill.

Improving incrementally in recent starts, he’s never done anything wrong figure-wise and then had a stunning half-mile blowout over tomorrow’s racetrack. He is set to peak precisely at 6:52 p.m. Saturday. At 15-1 on the early line, he is a win and exotics filler.

But man does not live by exactas alone. In tomorrow’s Feature Race Analysis, some super-exotic and, hopefully, wise ideas.

Written by John Pricci

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