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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Saturday, September 20, 2014

Bayern Gets Some Help, Leaves Chrome in His Wake

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September 20, 2014—There are several questions that need answering in regard to the return of dual classics winner California Chrome in the Pennsylvania Derby Saturday at Parx Racing.

Was his defeat a function of pace? Was he too discouraged by continually having the door slammed in his face when he tried to get out of the box being sealed by Edgar Prado throughout the million-dollar nine furlongs?

Was he simply a short, tired horse when he began to shortening stride with about three-sixteenths of a mile remaining, fading back to sixth without being abused by Victor Espinoza in the final sixteenth?

Was there any discomfort from the hoof that required mending after he grabbed himself in the Belmont Stakes?

Is his pedigree beginning to catch up with him after a tough classics campaign, or was he an early developer conditioned by racing and now is starting to go the other way.

My hope is that it’s A and B, not C and D, while all of the above remains in the mix. Since he appeared to be traveling well and comfortably throughout, a dislike for the surface is an unlikely culprit.

"The other riders, they worried about me, they didn't worry about the one in the front,” said Espinoza. “I knew I was in trouble in the first turn. They were like blocking in front of me. Sometimes the other ones don't ride to win, they ride to beat horses."

“But I really didn't abuse him too much today. I just let him run his race. I didn't want to override him. He had a long time off. This race, it set it up for the next one.”

It’s all too bad since it makes the Classic matchup between himself and Shared Belief just a little less special, a little less anticipated in the weeks ahead. Of course, there is the matter of Jerry Hollendorfer’s final prep race before the biggest multi-divisional race of them all.

“The other horse kept him down on the rail which I really didn’t want,” said trainer Art Sherman. “He is a lot more comfortable if you can ease him out. It didn’t happen. He hasn’t run in a long time, he probably needed the race.”

And next time?

“[With] a race under his belt he’ll be a lot stronger. We’ll bring him home and get him ready for the Breeders’ Cup.”

Unfortunately for Team Chrome, it won’t get any easier.

The soft early pace certainly was to the winner’s liking, as was the racetrack. But then so is racing. When he has his mind on running, Bayern is a good horse, maybe even better than the Derby-Preakness hero; perhaps even the equal of the undefeated three year old that already has beaten older.

Bob Baffert was honest and accurate in his assessment of the events: “That was just a powerful performance,” he said.

“[Bayern] broke well and they let us go. Martin [Garcia] hustled to get away from California Chrome. When California Chrome was pinned in there I knew it was going be tough for him. He was the target – we weren’t the target.

“But when Bayern runs like that, nobody’s going to beat him.”

Untapable Clinches Eclipse in the Cotillion

As far as the three year old filly division is concerned, the Breeders’ Cup Distaff will be a perfunctory exercise. By virtue of her third Grade 1 victory of the year and her fifth in sixth starts, all in graded stakes, Untapable is the undisputed champion no matter what happens in late October.

She suffered her only loss vs. males in August in Monmouth Park’s G1 Haskell. She won the Cotillion clear but it certainly wasn’t easy.

No matter how formidable favorites look on paper when shipping in, no win is automatic over the quirky Parx surface.

Still, given the way the race developed, given her pluperfect trip, given perfect handling, it should have been easier. In her defense, she was chasing a lively pace over a speed-kind surface.

Sometimes being taken out of your comfort zone, as she was on the Jersey Shore, or treading into the deep end of the pool, or dancing one too many dances, takes a toll.

Examples of this are all over the place.

Sadly, Princess of Sylmar paid the price of the sporting gesture her owner made on her behalf last year, and sending her 3,000 miles to do it.

I applauded ownership then; I feel badly for them now. I guess the lesson is that if you make a plan, you stick with it, no matter what you think your horse is “telling you.” In that context, horses often lie.

Said trainer Steve Asmussen: “I think a lot of little things added up to [the Haskell defeat] not being her day. I was very proud that she came out of a tough race like that, tough circumstances, to win a Grade 1.”

Artemis Argotera Has Four Legs Up on FIlly Sprint Title

If there was a superlative effort turned in by a three year old filly, it was at Belmont Park where Artemis Argotera, who blitzed the Ballerina field early in a speed exhibition at the Spa, turned back in distance to meet fresher, pointed rivals, and never looked the part of a winner until, truly, the very last jump.

And she did it from well back on a surface that has played kindly to speed types in recent days, one that yielded very fast times all day. Trainer Mike Hushion didn’t think she’d be that far back; neither did Rajiv Maragh.

Artemis Argotera is simply a remarkable talent as she nailed loose-leading La Verdad right at the line. Willnt completed the all-New York bred open Gallant Bloom trifecta. She, too, already might have the filly sprint championship locked up; more thought is required.

The trainer was happy to get this one out of the way. “Now we’ve got six weeks to the Breeders’ Cup. We can take our time with her,” Hushion said.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Parx Getting the California Chrome Treatment

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September 16, 2014----The publicists have been touting this Saturday as the most important day in Pennsylvania racing history, and the truth is that the notion is more fact than fiction.

After all, the Kentucky Derby winner is coming to town to run for a lot of money in the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby that on paper is more than a bridge to the Breeders' Cup Classic.

And a Derby winner has never will have run in this event until four days hence. Further, it will be a good spot to find out whether the California Chrome of fall is the same vintage as the California Chrome of spring.

What do you think?

Let's not forget, too, that the divisional leading filly, nothing less than a Kentucky Oaks winner and good enough to go favored against the boys last month in the Grade 1 Haskell, is also on the program in the G1 Cotillion.

And the listed Alysheba Handicap and the Grade 3 Gallant Bob sprint is nice icing to put on top of this confection.

What’s interesting about this challenge is that the horses of Ron Winchell--who owns the filly Untapable and West Virginia Derby-winning Tapiture and 50 percent of the shares in America’s leading sire Tapit--will be major players on the day.

In fact, he spoke like a man who believes he’s starting the horse to beat in the Pennsylvania Derby and not the popular Kentucky Derby winner. He thinks California Chrome will be vulnerable coming off a five month layup.

“Yes, I think so,” said Winchell on the NTRA conference call when asked if he thought California Chrome was vulnerable.

“We’re meeting him at the ideal time, sitting in a prime position. It’s our third start since the Derby. He has to come back going mile and an eighth against horses that have been racing in top form.”

“Oh yeah, he said that?” asked Art Sherman when he joined the call 45 minutes later. “Well I think the Awesome Again will be a much tougher spot. I don’t want to meet older horses until the Breeders’ Cup. My horse has already met the best horses.

But first there’s the matter of Saturday’s nine furlongs that attracted six others in the addition to the likely two favorites, two of which will be particularly formidable, making this a very good race on paper given the variables. Sherman knows it will be a tough.

The brilliant Bayern, seeking redemption from the Travers debacle, and Candy Boy, a Grade 1 veteran that finished second to Shared Belief at Los Alamitos then came within a nose of beating Tapiture in the West Virginia Derby.

“I had a gut feeling,” said Sherman of the group. I haven’t studied the form but I know Tapiture is a good horse and I expected the California horses to come.”

Sherman believes his horse is 100 percent fit. “Victor [Espinoza] got off him the other morning [following his final workout] and said that’s the best he’s ever felt since he first got on him.

“He knows him like the back of his hand and he couldn’t say enough good things about him. That gives me a lot of confidence.”

Sherman’s only trepidation was the rail post. “I’ve never been on the rail with him before and I just hope he gets a good trip. I think he’s better with a target so I’d like to see him third or fourth.

“He didn’t go far back on me [during the five month layoff to heal his injured foot], put on about 75 pounds. His last two or three works were just awesome. He’s gung ho after last weekend.

“He’s reaching his peak. [The spacing of six weeks] gives me enough time to prepare for the Breeders’ Cup. He won’t have a hard time going another eighth [of a mile], believe me.

“I think my horse and Jerry's [Hollandorfer] horse are the best three-year-olds in the country. I want to be at my best when I meet Shared Belief.”

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Kentucky Downs: Horseplayer Nirvana

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September 14, 2014—According to research by the Horseplayers Association of North America, the handle for the entire Kentucky Downs five-day race meet four years ago failed to reach the $4 million mark.

Two years later, track management instituted major decreases in takeout. Aided by an Instant Racing game that enables the track to offer huge purses, horsemen and horseplayers found their way to the old Dueling Grounds course.

Yesterday, Kentucky Downs set a handle record by booking over $4.2 million in bets on a 10-race card that included four stakes, including the Grade 3 Kentucky Downs Turf Cup. In all, 133 horses were entered overnight.

The old record of $3.5 million-plus was set last year on a 13-race program.

The five-day schedule includes two Saturdays and three Wednesdays, the weekday programs offering better fare than is generally offered at larger venues at midweek.

The short meet makes the product special, as does the fact that all races are run on turf. Last Wednesday, 106 horses ran in 10 races, an average of 10.6 horses per event, a huge modern-day figure at midweek--and that included a rare six-horse field.

A look at the quality on any race day gives it the feel of a poor man’s Keeneland.

Well supported by Midwest-based horsemen, Saturday’s card featured entrants from Bill Mott, Wayne Catalano, Wesley Ward and Graham Motion.

Neil Drysdale brought two horses from SoCal; Power Ped getting his first career win in an $80,000 maiden allowances, and then got a piece of the $200,000 More Than Ready Stakes with Power Foot, Rafael Bejarano in the boot.

But the star of the show is the course itself. Santa Anita notwithstanding, it’s the only course that features a right hand turn. The difference is instead of crossing the main track for a few strides finish-up in the straight by running uphill.

Experience is extremely helpful for horse, rider and handicapper. Speed was holding very well on Saturday over a firm course but races are not stolen here. Horses need to be well conditioned to handle the dynamics they face.

There are two more programs left for this season; the next two Wednesdays, Sept. 17th and 24th. Check it out for yourself.

Next Weekend’s Spotlight on Parx Racing

Parx management has dipped in to its usurious takeout fund to come up with a pair of million dollar events; the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby for the boys and Grade 1 Cotillion for the ladies this Saturday.

We avoid this circuit because of the takeout rates but we will be in action next weekend with the possibility of an all-stakes Pick 4 wager.

In addition to the Pennsylvania Derby and Cotillion, the Grade 3 Gallant Bob for sprinters is always a competitive event and the listed Alphabet Soup Handicap is expected to be a part of the sequence.

And, so, to single or not to California Chrome, that is the question.

If you’re thinking of beating him in this spot, find his most two recent workouts online before answering. Last weekend he showed that he’s lost none of his brilliance. Yesterday, he indicated his fitness for the task.

I do hope he comes back in top form. If he does, the meeting with Shared Belief at Santa Anita on the last weekend of October and a strong supporting cast of handicap stars should be nothing less than magical.

There's a story circulating that Untapable may pass the Cotillion to take a run at the Kentucky Derby winner, et al. Now that would be interesting.

The Euros Came; the Euro’s Conquered

On Saturday at Belmont Park, Annecdote went from Ascot in June to the Belmont Park winners circle in September while Ball Dancing went from Chantilly to Long Island in the same time frame.

And so went victories in the G3 Noble Damsel and G2 Sands Point, respectively.

Today at Woodbine, meanwhile, trainer David Simcock shipped to North America with Sheikhzayedroad and Trade Storm, and walked away with a pair of Canadian Grade 1s, the Northern Dancer and Woodbine Mile, respectively.

The common denominator in these four victories was turf. Expect more of the same on Breeders’ Cup weekend.

Written by John Pricci

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