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, June 08, 2012

The Signs That Racing Wouldn’t Have Another Were Subtle But Right There

ELMONT, NY, June 8, 2012—As of this morning, all was well in the world outside the stable gates of Belmont Park. Everyone was looking forward to the challenge, the first horse in 34 years, etc. etc.

But what I didn’t realize, and what a lot of other people didn’t realize, it’s that it’s been 76 years since the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness didn’t run in the Belmont Stakes.

Well now I know, and wish I didn’t.

Hindsight being 20-20, we had made some observations then stored them in the paranoid file, and there was good reason for that.

I know that I’ll Have Another did everything I) had asked of him, he looked great and so what choice did I have to believe that all was well.

After the colt injured himself on a sealed, sloppy track in Saratoga’s Hopeful and when he reappeared in the Bob Lewis Memorial at Santa Anita in February around two turns, I took it as a positive.

He was training well and starting off in a Grade 2—a sign of confidence from the barn. And they were right, and he was good, even while drifting, at 40-1 no less. Good for them.

But I’ll Have Another showed that he might be a notch above the rest on the day of the Santa Anita Handicap—Big ‘Cap Day—and he didn’t even run in a race!

It was a public workout, between the sixth and seventh races, if memory serves. He looked good, like he always does when he trains, I was to learn later on.

But when Trevor Denman said he had just worked six furlongs in 1:10, I changed my assessment of the trial, from good to absolutely brilliant.

I told friends and colleagues it was perhaps the best workout I had ever seen in my life. Even bet a few dollars on him in the Derby winter book, and bet him with gusto in the Santa Anita Derby.

So I was happy to see I’ll Have Another win the Derby and Preakness, especially the Derby, if you catch my drift, even though I selected, and wagered heavily on, Union Rags.

But I did note that it was unusual to declare that after the Lewis, they would await another two months for the Santa Anita Derby. So that’s a five-month break, then one of two months but, after he won, it was like “O’Neill’s playing this one like a Stradivarius.”

Then news came that he was put on the vet list, a Southern California rule, for therapy known as Extracorporeal Shockwave Therapy, ESWT. O’Neill said he was using it for IHA’s back, the area behind the saddle was sore from irritation, or some such thing.

“I’m not buying it,” said an associate, a former trainer that once won a New York race meet. “I use it because I have a problem with my thumb. It’s for soft tissue issues.”

There’s no bigger soft tissue issue in racing than a tendon injury. Even if IHA’s connections decided to give him all the time and rehab required, it’s always something that will bear close scrutiny.

And when horses do make it back, often they don’t make it back 100 percent. And that’s a disservice to the colt. Retirement was the only option.

It was curious that O’Neill made a decision not to breeze the colt after the Preakness not too long after the race. “He gets a lot out of his gallops,” O’Neill said, and has been saying right along. Anyone who saw the daily videos bought into that premise, too; I know I did.

But it was strange. Wouldn’t you ordinarily wait a week or so before making that decision? Was O’Neill being extra special careful?

Given the media grinder he was going through, you can’t blame a man for that, no matter what you think about the way he conducts his business now, or in the past.

Call it a feeling, but on the SaratogaBets “Winners Circle” segment this morning, before I heard the news, I said to host Rodger Wyland that I had watched video of Thursday’s press conference when O’Neill said the same thing he’s been saying for weeks.

“He’s got that stride, his energy is good…” But he didn’t seem to have the same conviction. I didn’t trust that instinct—which is all it was—and figured, hey, if I were on this guy’s schedule the last five weeks, I’d be asleep at the dais.

A listener called in, asked if I had heard the rumor—which I hadn’t at that point—and if the drugs he gives his horses has anything to do with it. Like it or not, that subject has been front and center since late Saturday evening, May 5.

I said I didn’t know, but that anyone who saw the colt get done on his belly in Baltimore and refused to lose to Bodemeister, that those kind can hurt themselves.

You can’t win big races without getting to the bottom of them. Big efforts take a toll, and any figure filbert you consulted after the Preakness would tell you it was a lifetime best effort—after a span of two weeks!

…After a span of one month, after a span of two months, after a span of five months.

It’s all just so damn too sad. The New York Racing Association, even if they sometimes create their own problems, didn’t deserve this. The game didn’t deserve, or certainly need, this.

Nobody deserved it, not even O’Neill and Paul Reddam—and especially Mario Gutierrez who, at least, has much to be grateful for. For opne and all, it is about the horse.

I’m sure O’Neill would have loved his shot at the legendary status that goes with training a Triple Crown champion.

But the good news for him may be that he won’t find the unfriendly glare as bright if his horse had done something that, given the fragility of the breed, and the insane modern day five-week schedule, might never be done again under present circumstances.

Certainly not until breeders mate for stamina instead of speed, stop hot-housing yearlings--let them be horses, dammit--and trainers begin to train their two-year-olds again, only then will the bottom come with a proper foundation.

This whole thing just needs to go back to the future. It's subtle, but that's right there, too.

Written by John Pricci

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