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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Tuesday, June 06, 2017

When Testing a Champion, Everything Matters

One day after these thumbnail sketches were posted, it was learned that Classic Empire has had a re-occurrence after the foot abscess that hampered him in Florida this winter. Consequently, he has been declared from the Belmont Stakes. Hopefully for all concerned, this turns out to be a mid-season blessing. No easy game, this...

The first big handicapping lie I can remember with respect to the Belmont Stakes is that at a mile and a half, post positions don’t matter.

My position, regardless of surface, distance, configuration—whatever the parameters may be—is that post positions always matter. Post positions determine tactics and tactics determine race shape. Period.

So, as we await the pulling of the pills for Saturday’s "Test of the Champion,"--to be streamed live at noon Wednesday at and the NYRA Now app, including the Met Mile and Woodford Reserve Turf--here are profiles of the expected entrants as of mid-afternoon Tuesday.

Horses listed alphabetically:


EPICHARIS: His head defeat to Derby jumping-jack Thunder Snow [subsequently a very good 2nd in Epsom Derby] stands between this grandson of Sunday Silence and an undefeated five-race career. A tactical speedster with a very stout pedigree, he looks seasoned enough to handle the demands of the Champion’s Test. Has appeared quite handy in morning jogs and gallops. Legitimate dark horse has targeted this for some time.

GORMLEY: Needs to put it together once and for all. Never had a chance in rough house Derby, not to mention breaking from slip #18 on the inside-speedy sloppy strip. Owns solid pedigree for the route and another with a nice blend of galloping speed and heart, as was demonstrated when chasing the Santa Anita Derby’s hot pace then sticking it out for the win. Has worked thrice since the Derby, increasing the tempo and distance coming up to Saturday’s marathon.

HOLLYWOOD HANDSOME: Even today, $200K for offspring of a new unproven sire is a sizable some, so his name might be well earned. And his form is better than it appears on paper, benefiting from class tests in Louisiana and Illinois. He overcame a slow pace to win a recent Churchill allowances, has worked crisply since, and Dallas Stewart has several examples of horses outrunning huge odds in big spots. But this is a giant leap for a horse whose breeding line is dubious at the trip.

IRISH WAR CRY: We applaud Graham Motion’s decision to enter after the Curlin chestnut “told” him to do so. He regressed badly off a lifetime best effort in the Holy Bull and bounced again off a huge Thoro-Graph top in the Wood, going from serious contender entering the Churchill far turn to empty entering the stretch. Had two in-reserve stamina builders at Fair Hill base, his 1:14 six-furlong company breeze Sunday the convincer. Rates among division’s very best.

J BOYS ECHO: His Gotham was a coming out party, a career best in which he beat subsequent Preakness-winning Cloud Computing by a comprehensive 3-1/2 lengths. Following his New York run came rough trips in both the Blue Grass and Derby, especially the latter. It didn’t take long before Dale Romans jumped off the fence and into the Belmont with both feet. His recent five furlong breeze was his best work ever, Romans said. Has the right style and pedigree for the job; improvement expected.

LOOKIN AT LEE: We understand that he hasn’t finished first since the Ellis Park Juvenile, but since stretching to two turns we’ve never seen him give a poor effort; in fact, to the contrary. A last-run finisher, he sprints home late regardless of pace, distance or surface, showing an affinity for two-turn racing against the division’s best. Half-mile blowout Sunday was excellent, finishing up as if it were a spirited gallop. Steve Asmussen reunites 2016 Belmont-winning team, tapping Irad Ortiz Jr. Pedigree won’t stop him.

MEANTIME: Cannot be too quick to dismiss a horse due to having only four career starts. After a second to Patch in a Gulfstream flat-mile debut, he turned back to finish third to highly promising sprinter Time To Travel before breaking maiden by 7-1/2 lengths in a nine-furlong, two-turn debut. Finished second to undefeated Timeline in the Peter Pan, the traditional local prep. He’s the only runner with a recent race over the track. Solid five furlongs Saturday convinced Brian Lynch to take a shot. ‘Money Mike’ Smith lands here!

MULTIPLIER: Love his progress into this as he shunned the Derby on short rest after his breakthrough Illinois Derby to run in Baltimore, showing lots of determination by beating half the field despite impeded stretch progress--after first altering course at headstretch--a better-than-it-appears running line. Peaking for Brendan Walsh who said the colt is a difficult ride and that Joel Rosario will benefit from his recent Preakness experience.

PATCH: Didn’t get enough credit for his Louisiana Derby placing as a third-time starter. Blind in his left eye, he broke from post 20 on Churchill’s sloppy, inside strip. After getting sloughed at headstretch, beating six horses was some kind of miracle. Recent company work impressed favorably and pedigree is among fields’ stoutest. Agree with Mr. Pletcher that his grinding style suits the task and the colt reunites with Johnny, aboard for lone win. Being lightly raced is a concern, but 12 furlongs often is a great equalizer.

Entered the Preakness having won three of his last four then finished boldly down the center of the strip to finish third. The fact that everyone saw it might result in a lower price than reality dictates—he was 11-1 when he won the Lexington and 31-1 in Baltimore. Stamina exists on the bottom side of his pedigree and all siblings are winners--and not necessarily early developers, so there are things to like. Does added ground mitigate his late burst? We’ll find out in four days.

TAPWRIT: Right up there with Classic Empire in suffering through horrendous trip at Churchill. How he managed to rally as well as he did to finish ahead of 14 rivals is a credit to his talent and tenacity—and he probably got nothing out of his Blue Grass. When I think about how this race might be run, I recall the bold sweep he made on the turn at Tampa and maintained his momentum to the finish, albeit at 1-1/16 miles. That gives him Belmont style. Has worked thrice since the Derby; intriguing player.

TWISTED TOM: Think Chad Brown got lucky in Baltimore with a horse who sat a garden pocket trip to win his first classic? Maybe so, but that luck was in our view the residue of design: He passed the Derby in favor of the Preakness with Cloud Computing and he’s skipping the Belmont with that one because of 12-furlong doubts--and he's been dying to run Twisted Tom a mile and a half. Undefeated in three starts since adding blinkers, he worked a strong five-eighths Saturday and gets first-time Javier. Ignore at your peril.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, June 04, 2017

BETS ‘N PIECES: Tripping Through a Saturday Notebook

FOREVER YOUNG: The big racing events of Saturday can wait: THE story of the day occurred in the second half of the early double at Gulfstream when Jerry Bozzo saddled 19-10 Cotton Tooyah to victory in a $20,000 maiden claimer.

Mr. Bozzo is 96, the oldest person ever to train a winning racehorse. We’re pretty sure that record in worldwide. Noble Threewitt was formerly the oldest trainer to saddle a winner when he was a young buck at 95 11 years ago at Santa Anita.

Bozzo, who will be 97 in October, is probably the only modern trainer to have graduated from MIT, the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I’m doing it because I’m enjoying it,” Bozzo said post-race. “I want to be around [horses].”

AND THE WINNER ISOscar Performance. It was good to see the most impressive American 2-year-old on turf last year finally rebound, even if it were at my direct expense. (Guess Good Samaritan and Ticonderoga will forever be pace-challenged).

I had serious doubts before yesterday. Goes without saying that Jose Ortiz and Brian Lynch deserve much of the credit, especially the former, for victory in the Grade 3 Pennine Ridge after removing Lasix. Firmer footing likely was the biggest difference-maker.

TWO FOR THE MONEY NYRA tracks and other venues that do the same--have it right when they post multiple-pools probable payoffs at their lowest denominations. Those having, say, a 50-Cent Pick 3 for a dollar, will have no problem figuring they will collect twice that…

With all the grief stewards have been getting, the Penn judges got all objections correct, especially the tricky PA Governors Cup where there were two separate claims. They rightfully disqualified Bold Thunder for knocking Richard's Boy off stride jumps before the wire while leaving third finishing Rainbow Heir as is. The Penn Oaks was not an easy call either, but Dynatail was allowed to preserve her hard earned victory.

The interesting thing about sprinters is that you never know when they will be at their best. Most are precocious from the start but often squander the opportunity. Case in point would be Limousine Liberal, winner of Churchill’s G3 Aristides.

Usually, when horsemen try taking a base on balls by running back a recent winner on short rest in a softer spot, bettors know it’s a good percentage bet-against play. That tack would not have worked Saturday--but maybe ‘Liberal’s’ getting really good now.

His tendency was runaway speed early in his career but now the gelded 5-year-old is more settled. He mid-moved strongly to victory with a wide Derby-day sweep to win the G2 Churchill Downs Sprint and employed similar tactics Saturday, spotting the field four pounds and more ground. The blinkers, added last fall, certainly haven’t hurt…

That’s where Penn National is nestled, and we’re happy they got good weather, solid support, and $3.2 million in all-sources handle. (Imagine what the churn might have been with friendlier takeout rates?)

Anyway, loved that they supplemented the four major stakes, including the lynchpin Penn Mile, with strong supporting stakes, some for Pennsylvania-breds. Good performances and horses throughout the card with SoCal and New York runners winning twice each.

Javier Castellano, almost always a difference maker, had a riding triple (for Todd Pletcher once), Irad Ortiz Jr. with a double, one for Christophe Clement in the Penn Mile.

The half-million dollar event for 3-year-olds went to Frostmourne and, despite some ground loss as an outside mid-pack racer, Frostmourne displayed quite a turn of foot, making a big finish late, leveling out strongly through the wire. Nice prospect.

Stellar Wind twice defeated last year's champion older mare and Saturday won a stirring stretch duel in a Grade 1 race honoring the great Beholder. Now five, she added a second G1 this year, having won the Apple Blossom this spring.

Deserved credit goes to Victor Espinoza who would not allow the streaking Vale Dori to steal off with an easy lead, pressing throughout and nailing her by a head at the line even as Vale Dori was resurgent on the inside. John Sadler was the saddler.

Guess my East Coast bias is showing in that I’m always generous in my praise of Lady Eli for what she had to overcome and I hadn’t realized that the imported Brazilian champion Bal a Bali also had to overcome then rebound from laminitis.

And to become the only horse in history to win the G1 Kilroe and Shoemaker Miles in the same year, the latter in 1:32.22? Extraordinary for both the 7-year-old and his human connections.

Richard Mandella is still aces-full when it comes to pointing at spots and Mike Smith has been having himself a year. He seems to be a Hall of Fame hybrid, combining Bill Shoemaker’s hands and Laffit Pincay Jr.’s timing, a pluperfect combination on Saturday.

Yes, the fast pace set things up nicely for a late kicker but Smith had his mount in the best possible position. The pacesetting Heart to Heart was pressed too hard and ran too hard to lose, but his Grade 1 remains an elusive title.

The rapidly improving Farhaan had the style to get there as well and indeed was finishing furiously at the end but racing farther back than anticipated, Flavien Prat leaving him with a little too much to do.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Great Work by Man and Beast This Holiday Weekend

Disclaimer: For the curmudgeons who hate when turf writers report on the accomplishments of “the super-trainer” and their horses then read no further. This piece is not for you so you might as well surf right on out of here now

While the recent holiday was a solemn commemoration of heroes and patriots past and present, the weekend was a reminder to racing fans just how good this game can be at its highest levels.

If one were to remove Bob Baffert and Chad Brown from the holiday weekend equation, not many other major storylines would exist. For a journalist, ignoring these stories would tantamount to dereliction of duty.

In the past, we’ve never been shy to criticize some of his methods, deeds and words of Mr. Baffert. But since the goal is to strive for balance, we must recognize excellent horsemanship. His work with the eight-month layup Cupid on Saturday was extraordinary.

The first hint that something good would happen for the 4-year-old returnee in the Grade 1 mile and a quarter Gold Cup was when Rafael Bejarano opted to ride the Tapit gray rather than stay with eventual post-time favorite American Freedom.

And when you dissect Cupid’s workline, only one name could come to mind in comparison; the legendary Charlie Whittingham. The following are the dozen published workouts reported in BRIS past performances dating back to February:
21May SA 6f 1:12H 3/10; 12May SA 7f 1:25 2/5 Hg 1/2; 16Apr SA 7f 1:25 3/5 H 2/2; 10Apr SA 7f 1:25 1/5 Hg 1/1; 04Apr SA 1m 1:38 H 1/1; 27Mar SA 5f 1:01 1/5 H 22/53; 20Mar SA 5f :59 1/5 H 1/26; 14Mar SA 5f :59 2/5 H 2/23; 07Mar SA 5f 1:00 2/5 H 6/28; 01Mar SA 4f :48 H 9/43; 23Feb SA 4f :47 3/5 H 7/78 and 16Feb SA 4f :48 3/5 H 52/146. All works recorded on fast tracks.

That’s 66 furlongs in all, 8-1/4 miles of timed workouts, and consider how the pattern was built: It began with three half-miles, slowly at first then gradually faster. Following that came four 5-furlong moves--the heart of any training regimen. There, too, the tempo increased until it reached the Whittingham part of the program:

The fast and strong one-mile stamina builder, followed by three 7-furlong drills, with a capital ‘D’, two from the gate before concluding with a sharp 6-furlongs in 1:12—not watch-busting but fast enough to sharpen and continue stamina building.

With stablemate American Freedom setting the tempo under Martin Garcia by making Midnight Storm track the pace instead of setting it, Bejarano sat in the cat-bird seat fourth waiting for the right time to move; the far turn.

As he inched his mount up closer then abreast of the leaders, the rider was showing confidence with each measured step, taking command soon after entering the straight. Cupid won with some reserves in the tank, actually widening his advantage on the gallop out.

Parenthetically, there was at incident at the start that caused a bit of an Internet and Twitter stir. Garcia’s mount broke out of hand and bore out into the improving Follow Me Crev for several strides immediately after the start.

The chatter was that while the bump might not have been intentional, Garcia was in no hurry to correct his course. After several head-on views, it was impossible for us to determine whether Garcia was deliberate in his reaction to the incident: As is.

The stewards explained afterward that they did not see sufficient cause to post an inquiry. But in a Grade 1 race, in which the winning stablemate might have benefitted, a look-see was indicated.

Follow Me Crev finished well for place but it is extremely doubtful that the incident cost him the race. However, the California stewards owed bettors enough respect to at least light the lamp, however briefly, to signal that they were paying attention.

As far as the winner is concerned, Baffert had it right pre-race: “It’s not ideal; it’s not my normal routine,” Baffert told Daily Racing Form. “But the race is not coming up . There are nice horses but there are no superstars.”

Time will tell whether that assessment also applies to Tapit’s gray son.

The talent, courage and heart of the great Lady Eli—note the ‘G’ word--once again was on the display as she won the appropriately named Grade 1 Gamely, doing all the dirty work necessary to get her job done.

Lady Eli now owns a Grade 1 victory at two, three, four and five. Of course, for the mare to be alive at all after contracting laminitis in both front legs after stepping on nail is extraordinary enough. To be this effective is a tribute to her amazing constitution and her trainer’s horsemanship.

Making her second start this year following a head defeat to Dickinson in Keeneland’s G1 Jenny Wiley, Lady Eli was compelled to keep Grade 1 local speedster Avenge honest as she sat off her hip before pouncing, then holding off strong-finishing Goodyearforroses.

With ears pricking, Lady Eli galloped back to the winners circle with good energy, almost as if she hadn’t even run.

Because of her history, I hold my breath a little every time she goes postward, as many fans would. She’s the epitome of what it means to be a Thoroughbred.

The rest of Brown’s weekend was just as spectacular. On Saturday, he broke the maiden of first-time starter Rubilinda, who made it look easy by finishing with a rush and drawing out after missing the start completely. It was the sensational Frankel’s first American win.

Brown’s weekend concluded with a hat trick of New York-bred stakes as he took the Mount Vernon with Fourstarcrook, the Critical Eye with an exciting undefeated Kathryn the Wise, before winning the Kingston with Offering Plan.

Brown nearly won a fourth stakes, the Bouwerie, but Noble Freud settled for second following a troubled beginning. Some guys just done have any luck.

Written by John Pricci

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