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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Sunday, October 07, 2018


Some Super and Not So Super Preps


Some great drama and some great and some not so great performances as Supe Prep Weekend II played out on Saturday.

As this is written, it’s approximately one hour to first post at Longchamp then, after a couple of more Grade 1s stateside, we’ll have some idea who the major players will be four weekends from now.

A short take on the high and low lights that transpired in the following major fall events, broken down by region.

And none of this would have been possible had God not invented the DVR. No major in depth revelations, but here are some good places to start when compiling your own analysis.


BELMONT PARK

BELMONT TURF SPRINT: Since there’s no Eclipse category for turf sprinters—nor should there be—and this ungraded race is intended as a prep, NYRA should do the horsemen a favor and schedule this race at 5-1/2 furlongs, five if possible.

In our view, 6 furlongs into the shorter Breeders’ Cup sprint doesn’t go--and I’m a big turnback fan on a daily basis. Short turf sprints are for fast specialists, period.

Defending champion and Belmont course loving, the redoubtable Disco Partner did his thing as expected, improving his record to 9-for-14 over the course and 6-for-9 at the trip. If the Churchill Lawn takes a toll on the speed he could be fine, but we’ll take a position against.

If he goes, looks like Mike Michael would train late-scratch Churchill winner Maniacal up to the race.

An aside: Christophe Clement’s and Todd Pletcher’s uncoupled mates canceled each other out up front, while their late running mates completed the exacta.

G1 BELDAME: No Elate? No problem for Jose Ortiz. Taking this storied 9 furlong event back to back, Ortiz got had Wow Cat break with her field, allowed her to find her stride in good rhythm, launched mid-turn, winning by a non-threatened 3-1/4 lengths in full stride at the line with apparent energy in reserve. Chad Brown trained multiple Group 1 winning Chilean import is coming up to the Distaff the right way, in peaking form.

G2 HILL PRINCE:
Have At It benefitted from an ideal run, sitting off a ridiculously loose soft-pace setting, never leaving the fence under heady David Cohen handling, striking feat in the Breeders’ Cup hearts of absolutely no one.

Ridiculously overbet Brown trainee Raging Bull had—ahem—absolutely no punch. Back to the drawing board with an eye toward his 4-year-old season. For Peter Brant, the game giveth then it taketh away in less than an hour. A shout-out to Chris Clement, his second stakes win of the afternoon.

G1 CHAMPAGNE
:
Has Jose Ortiz stopped looking around yet? In a wow performance, after breaking with the field, Complexity scooted away and Ortiz began sneaking peeks, under his arms, over his shoulder, looking everywhere for competition that never materialized.

Nursing a length lead down the long backstretch run, tripping the timer in 45.31 at the half, he began separating himself at the turn—still looking for rivals—opened five and headstretch and was ridden out for a 3-length score in a lively 1:34.63, showing no signs of shortening stride at the wire despite his speed-oriented pedigree. His performance was, well, freakish, and it gave Brown his second Grade 1 of the day.

Two others caught the eye. Despite a troubled beginning, Shug McGaughey trainee Code of Honor, farther back than anyone anticipated, made a wide sweep into the lane and continued very well to the wire, lengthened stride very nicely late. The winner’s stablemate Maximus Aurelius works faster in his trials than he ran down the Belmont backstretch. Even farther back than Code of Honor, Aurelius Maximus rallied very well while wide through the lane, losing show by the bob of a head. He’s bred to go as far as they write races.


KEENELAND

G2 WOODFORD: Hard-hitting Bucchero (30) 11-6-3 got away quickly after overcoming bumped break, settled into stride and sat a perfect rail trip, getting first run, taking his second straight Woodford. Horse for course is now (3) 2-1-0 in Lexington. Runnerup Will Call was very good. Dawdling early, he tipped six wide into the lane and roared home, nearly getting up. He’ll be second off the layup when he gets to Churchill, where he’s 2-for-2 lifetime. Talented 4-year-old now (12) 6-2-1 lifetime and figures to be live in Louisville.

G2 THOROUGHBRED CLUB OF AMERICA: Vertical Oak was very good, proving the speed of the speed, but Golden Mischief was better, chasing the pace, steadied between horses on the turn, then re-rallied gamely for the score. Perfect tripping Chalon, sitting off dueling leaders clear, tipped into 5-path entering the straight under what appeared an overconfident Javier Castellano. Flicking at her with a downturned right stick, he did not ask in earnest until inside the furlong pole and the ground loss very likely cost her the win.

G1 FIRST LADY: About 10 minutes after getting his picture taken in New York, Chad Brown-trained A Raving Beauty, with Johnny at the controls of a soft pace on ground that had some cut to it, was nursed throughout, separated herself in midstretch, needed every bit of that advantage as Dona Bruja stormed down the center of the course and made it an exciting finish, ultimately running out of ground at the end. It was Brown's third Grade 1 of the day.

Well backed European Crown Walk had a perfect rail trip behind the leaders beneath Mike Smith but the filly appeared to be a grinder, not a turn-of-foot type. Either that or she may prefer top of the ground footing. But you’d have to wonder if any of these would match up should one of the Arc horses ship west.

R9 G1 BREEDERS FUTURITY: It was a mess from the start as favorite Dream Maker was caught in a gate sandwich and eliminated at that point. Albin Jiminez sent Knicks Go to the front, first-time long with first-time Lasix, rated the colt cleverly and had more than enough to pull off the 70-1 shocker by 5-1/2 dominant lengths.

Two horses caught the idea: Derby Date gave an amazing effort, 5 wide 1st turn, 4 wide the rest of the way, making a huge turn move as to loom a possible win threat but understandably tired late. Standard Deviation was even farther back than Derby Date. Also compromised by a wide draw, he lost ground throughout, angled 7-wide into the lane while making very good ground but missing the place by 3/4s of a length, hanging a bit at the end. But it was a very promising second run.

G1 SHADWELL TURF MILE: Next Shares saved ground throughout under a heady Tyler Gaffalione, got through easily on the fence into the lane before drawing off with authority. West Coaster clearly appreciated getting off those billiard tables in SoCal, following up on his Kentucky Downs score in his prior start.

Third finisher Qurbaan suffered through a wide trip and should continue moving forward while Analyze It continued his schizophrenic season with a strong and promising first half season and not so much this summer and fall. In an attempt to change his style, he rated off the pace, did lose ground throughout but never loomed a threat.


SANTA ANITA

G1 SANTA ANITA SPRINT CHAMPIONSHIP: The champ is back and ready to defend his title. Roy H. was supposed to be vulnerable to his strong working rival, Ransom the Moon. Leaving the three-eighths, ‘Ransom’ had all the wide momentum and appeared to be going stronger of the two into the lane, which is exactly where Paco Lopez pulled the string, getting first run on his speed pace setting stablemate, Distinctive B, continuing stoutly to the wire as ‘Ransom’ flattened out. The champ vs. bullet Imperial Hint is s highly anticipated match.

G2 CITY OF HOPE MILE: Fly to Mars and Sharp Samurai put on their usual good show and made the last race of the day worth waiting for, rating a 10 on the drama scale. But the fact that a sharp recent claimer was 2-1/4 lengths farther, even in a swiftly run 1:32.47, raises eventual class questions come the first weekend in November especially on ground that is likely to play much differently.

Bets n' Pieces: The remaining serious preps are taking place today and tomorrow topped by seven Group 1s from Longchamp Sunday morning EDT, including the fabled Arc.

Stateside over the next two days are today’s two Grade 1s from Belmont, the Frizette and Flower Bowl and the G1 Spinster and G3 Bourbon at Keeneland. The remaining graded stakes is Monday’s G3 La Woman for filly sprinters at Santa Anita.

Two-year-olds will prep in today’s Futurity and Matron Monday at Belmont, first time each will be raced on the turf at 6 furlongs; Keeneland will offer the Indian Summer for juvenile filly sprinters and the babies will go longer at Santa Anita, with the mile Zuma Beach and the Surfer Girl for fillies.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, September 30, 2018


After Super Saturday, Classic Questions Remain


With the exception of the Road to the Kentucky Derby, I’m in the camp that believes Grade 1 races are championship caliber events that stand on their own, not just mere preps.

But this is the business that has chosen us and we grudgingly accept the way today’s game is played. Like many Americans in this age of lawlessness, what choice do we have? Congressional seats aren’t the only things that could change in November.

The last Saturday in September and first weekend of October are intended to whet our appetites for championship defining events to come. In the handicap division, the table was supposed to set up the big East Meets West confrontation, but some of the air was pinpricked out of the balloon we expected.

Instead we are left with the notion of what might have been instead of what was originally believed. Personally, I woke up wondering: Whose idea was it to replace Irad Ortiz Jr. with a 10-pound bug boy?

Do I know what it’s like to be on the back of a Thoroughbred when most of the chips have been pushed in the center of the table? Of course not. And I know when you’re on the best horse, you bring the race to the competition.

But Saturday bore witness to a form of equine hara-kiri committed at the big racetrack on Long Island. What were you thinking, rider?

"The track was fast and I had to go harder than usual because Mendelssohn (No. 3) was very quick out of there and I needed to make the lead. I had to use a lot to make the lead. We just went a little fast,” Ortiz Jr. told the NYRA press staff post-race.

Indeed, the damp track was fast. Very fast running times were the rule of the day and the surface slanted toward speed—not overwhelmingly so, but enough. But the thing is that Diversity proved--albeit in restricted company-- he is not a need-the-lead type.

I can understand that Ortiz was worried that the high class three year old, getting four pounds and likely to have benefitted from his frontrunning Travers placing, might shake loose. Diversify was in the Classic via his Whitney score; he could have sat just off the 3-year-old’s hindquarters.

But to quarter-horse out of the gate in a lead-at-all-cost gambit badly compromised his chances badly. Well, it’s done, and everyone, especially riders as talented as Irad at timing late rallies, are entitled to a mulligan. But as far as a Classic run now, who knows?

While we’re giving out mullligans, how about one for Accelerate, who did not win the Awesome Again impressively enough in the minds of some critics.

After all, didn’t his gate antics compromise him, or his very wide first turn and overall wide run? Didn’t he hunker down when necessary to get it done, his fourth Grade 1 this year, beating an Eclipse champion in the process? Wasn’t he clearly best on the day?

Further, who is to say that trainer John Sadler didn’t leave something in the tank for November? He was a little circumspect about that, albeit confident that Accelerate would win.

Not so Bob Baffert and Mike Smith, pre- and post-race, who said that West Coast was 80%. Although he tired perceptibly in the last 80 yards, West Coast and Smith did a lot of dirty work, attacking the challenge aggressively. He ran terrific off the layup

My body-language reading is probably as good as my recent handicapping, none too good recently. But it appeared that Baffert was happier and more content in defeat than Sadler was in victory.

Under the lights, meanwhile, Mind Your Biscuits proved himself to be one of the most extraordinarily versatile horses we’ve seen in a half-century of race watching. A deadly come-from-behind sprinter, a top class miler, and now impressive graded stakes winner at nine furlongs—over the Breeders’ Cup surface to boot. He is the package.

The New York-bred five year old dominated what turned out to be overmatched rivals, and didn’t necessarily have an easiest trip. Forced to rate under stout restraint from between horses most of the way, gifted young Tyler Gaffalione let out a notch at the right moment, extricating and separating himself from his rivals into a stalk-and-pounce with a half-mile remaining.

When the fresh, layup runner Toast of New York made a three wide challenge entering the far turn, Gaffalione was forced into making his run before reaching headstretch.

From midstretch home, 'Biscuits' sprinted to the wire sharply and ran through the finish line in full stride, continuing well thereafter, as if one more furlong is not out of the question. With his stud plans already set, there's no downside to a go at the big balloons Classic--writing a $150,000 check to enter notwithstanding.

There are two other viable options. While Imperial Hint is a formidable Sprinter--Saturday’s Vosburgh winner was beaten over a Churchill Downs--but if there's a better six furlong sprinter in America, I don't know who it is.

Still, anyone who saw the 6-furlong Golden Shaheen in Dubai this spring will never forget it. It was the most incredible sprint finish we've seen since the 1986 handicap champion Turkoman won the Tallahassee Stakes at Hialeah 32 years ago.

So now the East vs. West battle for the handicap division title may be between Accelerate and Mind Your Biscuits. In any case more big names have joined the party, not to mention a couple of top class three year olds and Europeans added tp the mix.

One thing is certain: As a result of Super Saturday, the Breeders’ Cup Classic got a lot more interesting.

BREEDERS’ CUP BETS ‘N PIECES

Belmont Park
:
Imperial Hint was awesome taking the G1 Vosburgh in what had to be the most dominant performance of the day. Trainer Luis Carvajal wanted an easy race and he got one, though we thought Javier Castellano eased up his mount in the extreme…
If Channel Maker catches soft ground in Churchill NOV 3, he will be a tough out, a high class European notwithstanding. If the ground is good to firm, Robert Bruce is more than capable of turning Saturday’s Joe Hirsch Turf Classic tables.
Forty Under got superb handling from Manny Franco, who didn’t rattle on the far turn when rivals swooped by to his outside, winning the G3 Pilgrim, demonstrated a nice turn of foot and professionalism to handle adversity. It wasn’t a fear-engendering performance but good enough to give Bill Parcells et al a chance in racing’s ‘Big Game’.

Churchill Downs: Seeking the Soul made an excellent impression winning the G3 Ack Ack, outkicking all comers off the slow one mile pace in a worthy 1:35 1/5. Dallas Stewart taking the same scheduling tack he used prior to winning last year’s Distaff with Forever Unbridled. He and owner Charles Fipke are considering both the Dirt Mile and Classic. Why not?
Quick Sand Aa looks like the clear favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Arabian Classic…just kidding. (Although maybe I should give BC Ltd. any ideas)!

Santa Anita: More malcontents. Some were unimpressed with Game Winner’s victory in the G1 American Pharoah. I am not among those. In stretching his record to 3-for-3 he ran down a legitimate speedster and separated himself from a perfect behind-duel stalker when the real running started. First rate two-turn debut in 1:43.77 (06.60).
Although slower (1-1/16 miles in 144.59 [07:12]) Bellafina was clearly more impressive visually than her male counterpart, a still somewhat green by drawing away 6-1/2 length winner of the G1 Chandelier. She will need to be a little more professional in Louisville.
Vasilika’s victory in the G1 Rodeo Drive was very game but in the final analysis, workmanlike would be more apt.

Gulfstream Park:
Juvenile filly Cookie Dough overcame post 12 at 1-1/16 miles to win the restricted My Dear Girl by 7-1/2 dominating lengths in a lethargic 1:47.50 (07:19), a race that ended at the speed-friendly first finish line.
But she was conservatively 6 or 7 wide on first turn, stoutly restrained while 3 or 4 wide between horses in solid early fractions, engaged the leader on the far turn and drew off as very much the best. Blazing Brooke was a solid-finish six wide third.
Well Defined got away with very soft, albeit pressured, fractions to win the In Reality by the same margin as Cookie Dough. The difference was a 31:23 final 5/16s en route to a final clocking of 1:44.97. Favorite Garter and Tie was second and it was 14-1/2 back to the third horse. Ignore Florida-based Breeders’ Cup juveniles at your peril.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, September 23, 2018


When Will ARCI’s Integrity Apparatus Act Exactly


In this week’s episode of how to make the game better, we only need return to a few weeks ago when, after a couple of tough stewards’ calls, my judgment of what constitutes a foul changed.

For various and sundry reasons. I now believe a foul is a foul. Race riding is out of control and somebody is going to get hurt, or worse.

My evolution was underscored yesterday as the tote board lights were blinking in Bensalem: The beef was between Cotillion favorite Monomoy Girl and runnerup Midnight Bisou, the field’s other two-turn Grade 1 winner.

The issue was affirmed when veteran TVG analysts Mike Joyce and Kurt Hoover, while voicing-over continual head-on replays of the incident--agreed that it could go either way (each believed the result should stand) but were as baffled as the viewers.

“It depends on how they interpret the rules in Pennsylvania, I’m not sure,” said Joyce. Hoover wasn’t sure either sure—and that made three of us.

The point is everyone, including knowledgeable veterans, isn’t sure what the parameters are at every track. Offensive holding isn’t any different in Pennsylvania than it is in Florida. Neither should what is permitted in racing.


Time has come for the Association of Racing Commissioners International to step up and insure that rules and regulations are fair and equitable throughout the 38 racing jurisdictions.

The ARCI is legally charged with the responsibility to ensure the integrity of racing and pari-mutuel wagering. It is the “mechanism for collective policy formation…integrity advocacy and the development of reforms…”

This is not an issue that requires further study. Everybody knows what a horse racing is and should be about; equanimity, fairness and reasonable expectations about what process looks like everywhere.

As a follow-up to press releases, some action might be nice, especially in light of the multi-jurisdictional nature of a supposed regulated sport. Is efficiency and effectiveness, the reason it exists too much to ask?

With respect to the Cotillion, the Pennsylvania stewards are to be commended for making a gutsy call. It was a million-dollar race, a Grade 1, and there was no contact. But there was plenty of herding and intimidation.

I can’t get inside the race-riding head of Florent Geroux on the leader, Monomoy Girl. But he allowed his filly to drift out, then in, directly in front Midnight Bisou beneath Mike Smith, then out again, carrying them even wider.

Given that the margin of victory was a decreasing neck, it was reasonable for the stewards to decide that the zig-zagging nature of Monomoy Girl’s and Geroux’s trip cost the runner-up outright victory.

McKinzie Returns in a Big Way

With the help of Smith, the bay son of Derby-winning Street Sense overcame a light bottom-side pedigree and a 196-day layoff to win the Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby by 1-3/4 lengths in 1:52.05 over a very dull Parx surface.

Rapidly developing runner-up Axelrod was a strong finishing second, 7-1/2 lengths ahead of 81-1 third finisher Trigger Warning. Both horses should continue their forward progression from the Pa Derby efforts.

As good as they were, the rest of the field performed poorly. Hofburg, second choice at 5-2 behind the winning 2-1 favorite, raced very wide on a track that played well to that trip but probably was better off without the blinkers.

Core Beliefs was a one-paced fifth, showing he remains a cut or two below Grade 1 class and the long season finally might have caught up with Bravazo. Mr. Freeze and Instilled Regard were awful in light of expectations.
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Undercard Overachievers

Firenze Fire continues to cut back in distance and continues to win, taking the six furlong G3 Gallant Bob over a determined and savage Whereshetoldmetogo by a neck. Seven Trumpets was a solid, tough trip third. As for the winner, BC Dirt Mile or Sprint would be next.

Despite its usurious takeout rates, Parx handled $8.3 million from all sources on the 13-race program…Bob Baffert won his second straight Pa Derby and third overall but Collected was terrible in his return… Unsurprisingly, Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro each scored a training double.

Chad Brown, Man of Renown

Brown made big news yesterday at Belmont Park by losing two of the seven races he entered. He might have saddled six winners had it not been for Sweet August Lady’s tough trip placing in the ninth. He eased the agony of defeat by taking both stakes.

Uni was very impressive taking the G3 Noble Damsel under very confident handling from Joel Rosario, remaining undefeated in three starts going one mile in turf. “I was only a passenger, she did all the work,” Rosario said.

It sure looked that way as she drew off with a final quarter-mile in 23.47.

Don’t know if Patternrecognition’s score in the G2 Kelso was good enough to rate a major Dirt Mile role but the handy speedster might be effective on the turnback if the connections go that way. Nice problem to have.

Then this barn is so embarrassingly rich in talent that long range plans might include the NYRA Mile instead. ‘Pattern’ got away soft with a 23.77 opening gambit and came home faster: 23.34. The mile ended a snappy 1:34.16.

Laurel Fall Festival Another Uptick for TSG

Off a record-setting Gulfstream season and with soon-to-reopen Santa Anita showing some upward mobility, Laurel killed it Saturday as its special big fall program topped by the G3 DeFrancis Dash was up 35% from 2017 at $5M.

That’s what full fields will get you, especially those replete with turf sprinters. It’s a formula that not only as worked by has been emulated anywhere and everywhere the horse population and sensible scheduling supports it.

On the racetrack, Switzerland more than made up for his Saratoga flop as he went to the front and literally improved his position, running the DeFrancis field off its feet in a never threatened 1:09.11, giving rider Feargal Lynch a stakes triple.

Good job all around, including Fire Key’s upset in the Sensible Lady Turf Dash, shipping down from New York for trainer Pat Kelly. Hard-hitting sprinter benefitted from a contested pace and deft Julien Pimentel handling for the nose victory.

Written by John Pricci

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