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, December 31, 2017


RIP 2017


Although I was around him often during the Foolish Pleasure, Genuine Risk, Gulch and Manila years, I never really got to know LeRoy Jolley. We were both younger then and I doubt whether I had the patience to probe further.

Guess his “we don’t play this game in short pants" line following the ill-fated match race offended my sensibilities. Jolley was all business at the barn--which is not to say that his sense of humor was lacking.

Like on that Sunday at Belmont Park when Jolley’s Meadow Star was preparing to match race West Coast sensation, Lite Light. That filly was owned by perhaps the first extremely successful hip hop artist, soon to become overnight legend, M C Hammer.

Hammer introduced himself to Jolley before the race and said: “You’re the first white man I ever met named Leroy.” Jolley loved it.

Maybe Jolley couldn’t help what I always took to be a cool demeanor. Should I have expected anything less from the son of another old school horseman, a man named Moody?

But I did expect he would be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. It’s a deserving tribute to a horseman who developed three Hall of Fame horses, three divisional champions, and two Derby winners including the filly, Genuine Risk.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0w9x0ZT_VHg&feature=youtu.be

RIP, Mr. Jolley.

However, I was lucky enough to get to know Jack Van Berg a little. Like most people who met him, I liked him. Also an old school Hall of Famer and the son of a taskmaster father, legendary Marion Van Berg, JVB liked that I dubbed his champion “America’s Horse.”

I got to know him early Belmont Stakes week, 1987. Newsday’s handicapper/columnist was privileged to step into a limo with Jack and the redoubtable Woody Stephens for an appearance on a sports show hosted by then up-and-comer Greg Gumbel.

Van Berg, of course, was seeking a Triple Crown sweep with Alysheba and an aggregated purse bonus worth $5 million. Stephens was after a sixth straight Belmont victory with the speedy Gone West.

So we all took a ride into the city for a taping of cable-TV sports interview shows. But the show wasn’t the thing; it was being able to sit across from two legendary Hall of Fame trainers and I never needed my notebook; I still remember every entertaining line.

Van Berg was nervous. Alysheba would attempt to win the Triple Crown without the benefit of the diuretic Lasix, allowed in Kentucky and Maryland but banned in New York at the time. Stephens, looking to build on his Belmont legend, was, well, Woody.

“Woody, I really need that money,” Van Berg said to Stephens. “You’ve already got five Belmonts,” which might have been the first thing Woody mentioned to Van Berg as we piled into the black stretch. But there was one line he uttered for sure.

Upon reaching Manhattan, Woody leaned up against the window, looked up, and said, “see that Jack? Those buildings get mighty tall once you cross the Hudson,” a line that would render any notebook superfluous.

Stephens failed to win his sixth straight Belmont with Gone West--then neither would Leroy Jolley win that particular edition with Gulch. It was Bet Twice who blew the 1987 Belmont field away by 14 lengths.

Alysheba was a one-paced fourth virtually throughout. His Triple Crown and $5-million quest failed, a fact that failed to impress hometown race caller Marshall Cassidy, who announced as the field reached the finish line: “Gone West won’t win this one.”

Alas, these legendary horsemen are gone. In part, the game became great because of their presence and, sadly, less so now that they have left the course. On any level, they are irreplaceable.

AVOID THE HOLIDAY RUSH…


The Eclipse Award committee did just that years ago when it sent advisories suggesting that Eclipse voters await the results of Santa Anita’s traditional Grade 1 opening-day features, the Malibu and La Brea, and yesterday’s American Oaks, before casting ballots.

Sage advice for me this year since my official ballot will be changed to reflect Tuesday’s La Brea results. In the female sprint category, I am moving Ami’s Mesa from first to third and elevating Unique Bella to the top of that category.

Ami’s Mesa’s 4-for-5 slate, which included a nose defeat in the BC Sprint, is no longer superior to Unique Bella’s, who was soundly defeated by ‘Ami’ in that championship event.

But Bella wound up with the better overall record at 5-for-6, including that Grade 1, and defeated elders in the G3 LA Woman. On Tuesday she defeated dual G1 winner, Paradise Woods. Our revised Female Sprint 1-2-3s are Unique Bella, By the Moon and Ami’s Mesa.

AN INQUIRY NEEDED AT SANTA ANITA, OFFICIAL OR OTHERWISE

Knowledgeable racing fans understand the concept of “giving a horse a run,” especially lightly raced, young horses in their developmental stage.

One such case was on display yesterday when highly regarded Restoring Hope, a true ‘steam” horse when he debuted at Los Alamitos DEC 17. After entering the stretch very wide, he flew home in the middle of the track and just missed on juvenile debut.

Entering him back quickly going two turns this week—“I didn’t want to wait too long to run him back,” Bob Baffert told TVG pre-race, the even-money co-favorite chased the pace under stout restraint throughout and was never truly asked for best by Drayden Van Dyke.

Understandable enough, especially after the longer uncoupled Baffert, Regulate, was coming on but ultimately proved no match for the well-meant co-choice, Peace. Baffert’s successful young horses have all used a pattern very similar pattern to Restoring Hope.

But what happened opening day was, frankly, a disgrace.

Many observers, myself included, weren’t expecting an optimal effort from Collected, the BC Classic runnerup who was using the opening day Grade 2 San Antonio as a bridge to the rich Pegasus on January’s last Saturday.

So a less than serious effort was expected, especially after Baffert told a national racing audience that he let the horse down for a few weeks following the Classic before he began training him up again.

But his lack of effort at 1-5 before a Santa Anita opening day crowd of 40,000+ was awful. Allowed to take the first turn needlessly wide after breaking alertly, jockey Mike Smith made no attempt to save ground at that or any other point in the 1-1/16 miles.

Smith kept him wide and never asked for speed after entering the backstretch…”and Collected is actually behind [stablemate] Hoppertunity, and that’s the first surprise,” said race caller Michael Wrona.

At that stage Smith appeared to grab him again, never attempting to cover him up at any stage. Leaving the half-mile pole, Smith was still “bidding his time.” By the time the wire to wire winner was passing the three-eighths, Collected was still “bringing up the rear.”

Into the stretch it was “there goes Collected to the extreme outside…and is just grinding down on the outside…”

Grinding, yes. Flatter than a latke, yes. But at no stage was Collected whip-urged. Smith threw crosses and showed Collected the stick in scrub-like fashion and was lucky to win a close show photo, saving bridge-jumpers who “invested $100,000,” according to Wrona.

As Jolley indelicately said, this game is not played in short pants. But if you’re going to give your horse a run, show your audience and customers some respect. Lots of opening-day-trippers probably never even noticed.

But the large pumped-up crowd fell silent, according to a TVG analyst. All I know is that if I were watching the proceedings with some newbie who wanted to know what I thought of the race, I would have been too embarrassed to give him an honest assessment.

Hallandale Beach, FL, December 31, 2017


Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, December 17, 2017


Saturday Simulcast Warrior


Two very interesting race cards on Florida Saturday but a somewhat predictably mundane winter racing card in New York.

Love the idea that the Aqueduct main track has been converted to an all-seasons dirt surface, and thrilled that the turf course has been widened to accommodate diversity, quality and quantity.

But for many racing fans, there’s nothing like a respite from a Northeast and mid-Atlantic winter schedule. In South Florida, there was an embarrassment of graded riches; five Grade 3s, each meant to kick off divisional series. Bettors responded with all-sources handle of $12 million.

As quality laden as the Gulfstream program was, it was rivaled in our eyes by Tampa Bay Downs which apparently knows a good Saturday formula when it sees one:

Card as many stakes as possible and throw in lots of juvenile races with big fields. It also helps when the turf course is one of the best in America.

Eight of 10 races were run for juveniles, including traditional series starters, the Sandpiper for fillies and the Inaugural for colts soon-to-be three year olds, with two more stakes for Florida-breds; the City of Ocala and Marion County.

Pole Position Can Be a Killer


Take your pick of two fillies who failed at odds on; Curlin’s Approval, who finished second at 1-1 in the G3 Rampart at a flat mile or Dearest at 1-2. In the case of the former, there is the possibility that she may been beaten by a better filly.

Although the trip handicapper in me believes that had Curlin’s Approval been stalking Lewis Bay instead of the other way around, the result might have been different, the operative word remains “might.”

You may recall that Lewis Bay—who finished third in the 2016 Kentucky Oaks and second in the Mother Goose, both Grade 1s of course—is a good filly. After all, it has been 385 days since fans last saw her race.

“It’s not easy to do…13 months and running against a really good filly,” said trainer Chad Brown, “She had minor stuff all last year but all the patience paid off. As a team we said in the paddock if she breaks really sharp, take it to the favorite.”

“I had a pretty good trip,” confirmed Irad Ortiz Jr. “I just let her break and be wherever she was comfortable. When I asked her she was there for me.” She will stay in training throughout 2018. Filly & Mare Sprint? Anyone?

Forced to leave quickly, Edgard Zayas broke Dearest very sharply from the pole but was joined immediately by True Romance who pressed her throughout, setting the table nicely for Rich Mommy, who sat comfortably outside beneath leading rider Luis Saez.

“The jockey followed instructions exactly and thank God it all worked out,” said winning trainer, Victor Barboza Jr. “It’s possible she will run next on Pegasus Day in the seven-furlong Grade 3 [Hurricane Bertie].”

It will be interesting to see how 7 furlongs works out; we’re a bit dubious.

Beauty Is As Beauty Does


When you look at Fear the Cowboy there’s not much that stands out about him—unless it’s his record you seek. His victory in the G3 Harlan’s Holiday improved his lifetime slate to (27) 9-7-2 and just might have run himself into the Pegasus World Cup:

“He’s an amazing horse; he’s traveled a lot these years,” explained trainer Efren Loza Jr. “Two days ago, we had to decide to ship him here or New Orleans, but he loves Gulfstream ([6] 4-1-1). The first time ridden by Javier – he did a good job.

“The Pegasus is a tough race but we are open to probably taking a chance because on this track he runs well.” Loza’s horses seem to run well on all tracks he ships to: Loza shippers win at a profitable 32% rate.

image
Irad Ortiz Jr. and Shug McGaughey embrace victory
Turf, Halls of Fame, Times Two

The My Charmer for fillies and mares was the first of two one-mile turf stakes. On Leave (4-5) had run consistently faster than Saturday’s group and against better rivals but was seeking her first graded win since the 2016 Sands Point to confirm the public’s faith in her. With one exception, her highest off-odds were 3-1 since that Saratoga Grade 2.

She rewarded Saturday’s backers in 1:35.35, but it would have been a lot more interesting had rallying Stormy Victoria gotten clear sailing. She didn’t and was a too-late third. Stable mail, please.

“I thought Irad rode a really good race,” said Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey. “I told him to be a little more aggressive than in California. He hand-rode her at the end and I thought she did it well.”

Said Ortiz: “I rode her last time and she got in a lot of trouble and that’s why she didn’t win, she got beat by a nice filly. I didn’t want to make the same mistake again. I warmed her up good and I put her right there. I knew she’d be all right at the end.”

In the Tropical Turf, Shakhimat could not have set the race up for himself any better than what transpired in the two-turn mile for males. He cruised to the lead after stalking a soft-paced, longshot leader and he kept rolling to the wire.

Trained by Canadian Hall of Famer Roger Attfield, Shakhimat needed 1:36.03 to get his job done, more a function of a half-mile in 49.74 than anything else. Attfield-trained Tower of Texas was third, split narrowly by Galton, denying the 1-2 Canadian finish.

“When I saw the first half-mile of the race and looked at the fractions, I said it’s all over as far as I’m concerned. His ears go up and he starts running that way. It worked out perfect--except we should have been second, too.”

Said jockey Zayas: “I was planning to stalk the pace and try to go as slow as I can. I didn’t want to keep fighting him, so I just put my hands down and let him roll from there. He was just playing at the end.”

“We’ll look at the Ft. Lauderdale,” added Attfield. “I don’t want to keep running the [stablemates] against each other if we can help it, but one of them will be in there, and it’ll probably be Shakhimat.”
image
Canadian Hall of Famer, Roger Attfield,
Announces Presence in South Florida



South Florida horseman David Fawkes shipped north from his Broward base to get the money with Surprise Wedding at Tampa Bay Downs, defeating among others, serious horse-for-course R Angel Katelyn in the City of Ocala.

But the Marion County featured an outstanding battle between budding speed rivals Three Rules and Mo Cash, the latter getting the better of Three Rules, a triumph of recency over freshness.

When last they met, Three Rules got the best of Mo Cash while getting a couple of pounds. Saturday they were at levels but with conditioning likely proving the difference.
image
Will Shakhimat Enjoy a Similar Trip in
the Ft. Lauderdale?

Tripping Out

I must have been… allowing a Fair Hill prepared, Graham Motion-trained juvenile filly Peach of a Gal get the money going a mile and a sixteenth on the grass and paying $53.20, without me!

We were, however, locked in on Motion’s Almond Roca to win the Sandpiper in a minor upset over Toni Ann’s Miracle, shipping up from GP West seeking her fourth straight. But Motion’s filly was awesome, drawing off to win by 9-1/4 lengths in 1:10.01.

Tampa was a little glib Saturday, but it wasn’t that fast. This filly has a bright future, as does Tricks to Doo, winner of the Inaugural by 7-1/4 lengths in 1:09.58. These babies are stone runners; follow with interest. The 10-race card attracted an all-sources $4.5 million.

First-timer Swash and Buckle finished well too late after the fact and won’t be a maiden long. Added distance likely would help but is not mandatory; follow back. Same for Madame Milan, brutalized entering the stretch going a mile on turf before finishing well on the fence through the lane; note.

I’m a big Joel Rosario fan but thought he outsmarted himself aboard Locomotion, which he muzzled and suppressed early. Bill Mott trainee finished very fast late after altering course in the stretch; bet back.

Meanwhile, highly successful bloodstock agent Steve Young noted that Navistar is better than his winning effort suggested in that event. “He’s immature mentally and won despite it. He’s a good horse.” Young is a man of few words; note.

Old School Family Wins Big A Feature

Jimmy Ferraro, trainer of upset winner Aunt Babe, who gave underrated Eric Cancel a riding triple, learned a lot from his dad, Jimmy Sr., who learned a lot from “The Chief.” They were the best of friends.

So it was gratifying to see longshot Aunt Babe out-finish the two choices, including Miss Hot Stones--whose gift for speed was squandered early--before out-bobbing Pure Silver at the finish. Ferraro was humble in victory:

“We got the right spot. The race came up light. There were over 300 fillies who were eligible for this race and only six of them showed up... "I trained the mother [Bella Silver] for a little while, she had a lot of class too.”

But she’ll need to step up from here: "I just tried to give her a confident ride,” said Cancel. "In the future, she'll continue to be a decent filly. It's tough in New York, there's a lot of good horses but hopefully she'll get better…”

Heartwarming story on a winter’s afternoon that attracted handle worth $6.8 million from all sources.

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, December 17, 2017
Photos by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, November 26, 2017


Stakes with Plenty of Stuffing


It’s hard to believe it’s been 12 years since Churchill Downs inaugurated its “Stars of Tomorrow” program for juvenile runners only. Then you look at its history and, as the great Dick Enberg might say. “Oh, my.”

Its lynchpin, the Jockey Club Stakes, has taken a bit of an unfair hit in recent years for not being the harbinger of winning Kentucky Derby form it should be.

While it’s true that the 1-1/16 miles two-turner has produced only two winners--Super Saver who doubled up in 2009-10 and Real Quiet, runner-up in 1997 but a Derby hero the following year--the day has been a launching pad for numerous Grade 1 stars.

Shackleford, a future Preakness and Met Mile winner, raced on the day, as did 3-year-old champion Will Take Charge; Belmont Stakes winner Creator; a pair of Classic winners, Fort Larned and Gun Runner, and Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and this year’s protem Best in Show.

It’s difficult to know what lies ahead for Grade 2 Golden Rod winner Road to Victory, or Jockey Club Stakes winning Enticed, but their futures look extremely bright. Ladies first:

We’ve seen this movie before and Mark Casse, a force at the Churchill Fall meet for a decade, did it again. This time he shipped Road to Victory in off a single 7-furlong debut on Woodbine turf and parlayed that win into a two-turn dirt score, and did it the hard way.

Not only did she take on a seasoned, undefeated-in-three-starts speedster, Monomoy Girl, but did so on the hard chase most of the way. To credit the speedy surface in place at Churchill Saturday would be a disservice to the winner and runnerup.

A replay or review of the chart will show that Monomoy Girl was forced into setting fast fractions for the distance and race dynamics--23.81 and 46.87--but it was the winner who applied that pressure while spotting ground to the leader.

Julien Leparoux, in the process of winning his fourth Golden Rod, knew exactly what was required: “I didn’t want the leader to get too far away from us,” the rider said. And he kept his own counsel.

“They went a little quick up front and she really didn’t get a breather down the backstretch, being pressed the whole way… Julien is a smart rider and I thought the race around the turn and up the backside took its toll,” said Brad Cox, trainer of the runnerup.

What Road to Victory accomplished was very rare in light of her inexperience, unfamiliarity with dirt, a second turn, and challenging dynamics. As she is scheduled to join Casse’s Florida division soon, look for her at Gulfstream Park this winter.

The same can be said for Enticed. He will join Kiaran McLaughlin’s Florida string but, unlike Mohaymen, this guy is built for the Derby grind. Making his two-turn debut following a third in the Champagne, he got about two races worth of education Saturday.

Check the video or take it from the official chart: “Enticed came out at the start, was bumped and bothered into the first turn, fanned into the eight path in the far turn, made a bid three wide down the lane, was under a long drive in the final stages and prevailed...”

Personally, we’re dubious of the eight-path estimate, but then neither was there mention that Enticed raced between horses through most of the backstretch run and was repeatedly gathered up to extract himself from possible jackpots to come.

“It was about as an eventful of a race as you can get as these babies are doing a lot of growing up and maturing – and Enticed did a lot of that today,” said Jimmy Bell, Racing Manager for Godophin/Darley.

“Maybe it was a little more experience than we asked for…” was the other way Bell put it.

DALLAS STEWART JOINS THE ELITE

It might have taken a bit longer to arrive than fellow Lukas graduates Todd Pletcher and McLaughlin, but Stewart has been enjoying a much deserved breakthrough season and he’s beginning to get the attention he’s earned.

Somewhat of a “wise guy” favorite for his longshot money finishers in major races and shocking upset of the 2006 Kentucky Oaks with Lemons Forever, the dam of Unbridled Forever and certain female titlist Forever Unbridled, Stewart has earned his way to the highest level.

Spacing races precisely this year while giving his runners plenty of down time to develop, he turned a three-race campaign into a highly likely Eclipse championship for Forever Unbridled and an upset Friday’s Grade 1 Clark with Seeking the Soul.

The late developing 4-year-old could join female stablemate Forever Unbridled in the Pegasus World Cup starting gate. Both runners are owned by Charles Fipke.

Stewart had Seeking the Soul primed for a peak performance in a Keeneland allowances last month, and he parlayed that into a Clark victory this weekend after a rider switch to birthday boy Johnny Velazquez. Sound familiar?

In addition, Stewart trains Tom’s Ready, another recent peak performance winner of the G3 Bold Ruler following his third in Saratoga’s G1 Forego. He is pointed to Saturday’s Cigar Mile and Mike Smith is shipping East for the ride.

Patience also played a role in Tom’s Ready’s development. Following an also-ran performance in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, Stewart gave the More Than Ready colt six months R & R before starting what turned out to be his best campaign to date.

HAVE A CIGAR


In our view, the New York Racing Association did the right thing, rescheduling its popular Cigar Mile Day program to December 2, a week later than in previous years. In doing so it got away from keen competition from Churchill Downs and Del Mar this weekend. They wrapped up their fall seasons this weekend.

The move also is a shot across the bow of Gulfstream Park, which begins its prime winter meet on Saturday with the Claiming Crown, a true handle magnet. Clearly, New York and Florida will own the upcoming weekend.

Right now there are 10 probable Cigar starters. The one-turn mile is the last Grade 1 of the year in New York. Dirt Mile runnerup Sharp Azteca is the probable favorite, followed by Practical Joke, never beaten around one turn, and strong-finish Sprint third Mind Your Biscuits.

Also expected are West Coast shipper Americanize, Beasley, Neolithic, Seymourdini, Summer Revolution, Tale of S'avall and the aforementioned Tom’s Ready. Vulcan's Forge, workmate of Neolithic, is another possibility.

The Cigar is one of four graded stakes Saturday, a program that includes the G2 Remsen and Demoiselle and the G3 Go for Wand.

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, November 26, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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