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 05, 2014


Keeneland Dirt Surface, Wise Dan, Pletcher Colts Star on Another Big Prep Weekend


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., October 5, 2014—Win or lose, or should I say lose, then win, a little, watching the races on Friday’s Keeneland opener was fun again.

Less than a decade ago, nearly half of all main track sprints were won by speed horses, most likely those racing closest to the fence.

Nearly half; think about that, this ain’t no bullring we’re talkin’ here. And, going long? How about MORE than half were won by early pace types?

Friday’s wet surface, one that officially went from muddy to good then back to muddy after a pre-Alcibiades deluge, played like a fast track; very encouraging early on.

The racing over it on the first two days appeared to match the favorable reviews of the surface of horsemen who spoke with Jennie Rees of the Louisville Courier-Journal.

The word used to describe God’s brown earth after an eight year hiatus in Lexington was “bounce” with just the right amount of cushion over a base that combines the best drainage elements of the old Polytrack with new high-tech elements.

It was fascinating to learn that GPS technology is used to set the level of the harrows used to grade the track to keep it uniform, especially important given its 6-inch cushion.

Horsemen also commented that they were pleased with its uniformity and the tighter cushion that gives the surface its bounce.

And, so, for the first time in nearly a decade, we can think beyond just the Keeneland turf course because, unless horses showed a clear preference for Keeneland’s Polytrack surface, handicapping here was an exercise in futility.

WISE DAN: LEGEND

As the HRI faithful knows, I was late to the Wise Dan party. I believed, fairly or not, that the connections should have set the sights higher than being MERELY one of the best turf milers this country has ever produced.

Then came the Bernard Baruch, a race that reduced trainer Charlie LoPresti to tears as his gallant 7-year-old made the transition from near death-bed experience to his 14th victory in 15 career turf runs, racing 1-1/16 miles in 1.39+ a tick over the Saratoga course record--all without being fully cranked.

Going into Saturday’s Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile, I had my doubts. He had to work hard to win that comeback from colic issues, perhaps too hard so that he might not be at tops.

Then after he turned his head, missing the break to be last of eight away from the barrier, he found himself in a difficult position between horses through most of the backstretch and half the second turn.

At that juncture, Johnny Velazquez, riding with great confidence, angled his mount to the far outside and into the clear.

After straightening away, Wise Dan appeared to stay one-paced for a couple of strides and, I’m thinking, “not today.” Then he settled, lengthened his stride and refused to lose in that final sixteenth of a mile, the stuff of legends.

LoPresti, once again emotional, summed it all up, simply but eloquently: “He owes us nothing but he just keeps on givin’.”

Pre-race, the trainer was miffed that the two-time defending Horse of the Year was not prominently included in this year’s discussion, seemingly everyone will to concede that title to either 3-year-olds Shared Belief or California Chrome should they win the Classic.

LoPresti left the door open for a Classic run although breeder-owner Morton Fink said absolutely not. We’ll see what happens when the dust settles.

Interesting to conjure would be victories by Shared Belief in the Classic and Wise Dan in the Mile. A win on November 1 gives Shared Belief an undefeated career slate of 7-for-7 including three over older horses.

But a win in the Mile gives Wise Dan a three-peat in the event, matching the singular achievement of Goldikova and giving him the defending champion a 5-for-5 slate for 2014.

Thought-provoking, indeed, and, in that context, it will be an interesting indication should Wise Dan take back the #1 spot in the NTRA National Thoroughbred Poll he surrendered to Shared Belief last week.

PLETCHER SEIZES THE DAY, TWICE

It started at Belmont Park where Daredevil, appearing fortunate to get another wet track and especially blessed to draw the outside in a six-horse field, took advantage of those dynamics in the G1 Champagne.

But it wasn’t so much the victory but the manner of it; geared down inside the final sixteenth, winning as Javier Castellano pleased by 2-1/2 lengths: “He’s a special horse,” said Castellano.

“He trains very well for us on a fast track,” Pletcher said.

Well OK, then.

Meanwhile, runnerup Upstart ran very well after getting away tardily from an inside post, needing to make a strong run to reach contention then kick on behind a perfect-trip runner who was just getting started.

However, it was the effort of Carpe Diem at Keeneland that had handicappers buzzing after the G1 Breeders’ Futurity with a two-turn, 6-1/4 length victory in 1:43.38 for 1-1/16 miles, the final sixteenth in 6:43.

And so it appears it will be no walkover for the West’s best juvenile, American Pharoah, 27 days from today.

Less than 24 hours later, Blofeld took the G2 Belmont Futurity, overcoming a bit of trouble curling into the turn of the 6 furlong event.


Written by John Pricci

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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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