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, February 08, 2015


Going Cross Country and Back to the Future


“The three favorites dominate at the top of the lane in the San Antonio…

“California Chrome and Shared Belief…here’s the race we’ve been waiting for…

“California Chrome digs deep, he finds more…

“Shared Belief is stretching him every yard of the way…

“What a thriller this runner, Shared Belief has him, and is just exuding class…”



HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., February 8, 2015—Even on the following morning, basking in the afterglow of what had to be the greatest Grade 2 stakes in the history of the sport, two tremendous Thoroughbreds made everyone who ever loved this game remember what it was like when they happened upon their first great racing moment.

It was everything that Trevor Denman was seeing and more, a moment that carried him back in time to all the great race calls of his career, a cadence that rekindled the excitement and hair-raising exhilaration that made Thoroughbred racing fans recall why they fell in love with the game in the first place. For several shining moments, everything that was old became new again.

In the manner of the Affirmed-Alydar battles, or the second that Personal Ensign’s number was posted, keeping her undefeated career and legend assured in a most thrilling manner, or the way Victory Gallop won a photo worth--in the words of the other legendary race caller of the modern era--five-million dollars, so did a diminutive black four-year-old gelding etch his image into our horse-racing memory banks forever.

If he has the good fortune to remain healthy, it will be move over Kelso, take one step to the right Forego, and make room for one that just might be great enough to sit on the top shelf beside you. Racing fans could only hope for a bright, unseen future, and for other radiant moments that made all of racing’s problems disappear, if just for an instant.

As the race caller said, it was the race that everyone waited to see, until after 7 p.m. back East in an era when post times are not set in stone but mere suggestions.

With three furlongs remaining, Victor Espinoza could wait no longer, dispatching the interloper on the lead in the hopes of separating himself from the challenger to come. No racetracker we spoke over dinner at Facinos in Hollywood Saturday night thought Shared Belief would catch California Chrome at the three-sixteenths pole.

But Mike Smith, exuding confident class of his own, went to a steady hand drive, got on even terms with the defending Horse of the Year then quickened away, separating himself with even every stride as the wire neared and California Chrome began to shorten stride. He left no doubt as to which the best horse on Saturday.

And perhaps on Saturdays to come. On the NTRA conference call, Art Sherman was lamenting Chrome’s final breeze in which he wanted him to go a second faster so as to put more speed into his runner.

If indeed the San Marcos was an unintended prep for Dubai, the race highly likely served that purpose: “This race will make him stronger for Dubai,” Sherman said on Tuesday’s call, even if he did or still does prefer to remain at home. It was his first start in two months.

But Saturday clearly belonged to Shared Belief and his connections, Jungle Racing et al, and Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, who was the picture of happiness on video screens everywhere. He should be. Having done a masterful job, the Breeders’ Cup Classic is fading in the rear view and getting smaller by the moment.

Hollendorfer promised after the race that he sees more improvement in his horse. “He’s a young more and is going to mature some more,” the trainer said. “We’re thinking about that Santa Anita Handicap next, for sure.”

After facing Shared Belief on even terms yesterday and getting the drop on him, Sherman and company have to find the answer to this question: What’s in our best interest and might be a little less daunting next month, a rematch with Shared Belief or an 8,315.76 mile trip to the Middle East?

Close call, just like yesterday’s stretch run, right up to the point when Smith asked Shared Belief to kick it into high gear.

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Constitution gamely holds Lea safe at the wire.
Photo credit: Kenny Martin

Pletcher Takes Donn, South Florida and Queens, Too: As often before, on a majority of prime event days at this time of year, Saturdays belong to Todd Pletcher.

Prior to yesterday’s storied Grade 1 at Gulfstream, and as we’ve seen similarly in recent years, a maiden allowance debut and victories in three graded stakes, including the first of consecutive Grade 1s, the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap, were mere prelude to an early race that has catapulted many of its winners to championship status.

The Donn Handicap victory of 2014 Florida Derby winner Constitution, stretched his undefeated Gulfstream Park slate to 4-for-4 at the direct expense of race favorite Lea, also seeking his fourth victory in Hallandale without defeat and a repeat score in the Donn.

Like the San Marcos, the runner-up ran an excellent race but was defeated on the square without excuse, having the length of the stretch to run down a winner who not only fought him off determinedly but also dealt with pressure from uncoupled stablemate Commissioner virtually throughout.

Constitution had not run since finishing third in the Clark Handicap, his second start last fall after returning from injury, a hairline fracture of the right cannon bone. It was his first start in 71 days and a masterful training feat by Pletcher, who this year has his Florida division training over the deeper surface at Palm Beach Downs.

It was Pletcher’s second Grade 1 victory in 30 minutes, as it was Javier Castellano’s. The defending Gulfstream riding champion won four races on the afternoon including the good turf horse Mshawish in the GP Turf ‘Cap and the G3 Suwannee River with the filly Sandiva, and reaching the 4,000 career victory plateau on Sunday.

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For Pletcher, winning Saturday races takes determination.
Photo by Toni Pricci

BETS ‘N PIECES: So how popular was Saturday’s San Marcos with the betting public? Including the final leg of the special Cross-Country Pick 4 wager, the San Marcos alone attracted mutual handle of nearly, $3,763,596...

The special X-C wager attracted $472,922. While failing to meet the $500K guarantee, the bet still proved popular with the players we spoke with. However, the Stronach Group could have saved themselves some embarrassment by advertising the wager properly. The Pick 4 was promoted as a “0 Takeout” wager when in reality it was a wager that was scheduled to pay a capped 31% bonus to winning bettors, which was effectively a no takeout bet. The issue caused quite a stir on the Internet…

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Javier Castellano explains how it's done to Caton Bredar.
Photo by Toni Pricci

It appeared the much maligned California stewards got one correct yesterday when they disqualified runner-up Diamond Bachelor and placed it behind original fourth finisher Power Foot, elevated to third as stablemate Power Ped was moved up a notch to second place. Actually, the winning Finnegans Wake, loving the SoCal waters, a brand new horse under Peter Miller’s care, angled out at headstretch and bumping with Power Ped knocking him slightly off stride. We needed that 10-1 to win but the stewards did the right thing here; the incident likely did not cost Power Ped the placing…

Every bit as impressive as Shared Belief was, he must share kudos along with Far From Over and Dortmund, each overcoming extremely difficult trips to win the G3 Withers and G2 Robert B. Lewis, respectively. Beaten favorite El Kabeir was not nearly as sharp, or as strong, as he was in winning the Jerome previously. He probably will get a bit of a break now and await the Wood Memorial, giving him two months of freshening before leaving Queens for Kentucky.







Written by John Pricci

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Friday, February 06, 2015


I Left My Heart in San Antonio


HALLANDALE BEACH, February 6—It is three-track stakes smorgasbord that only HRI’s beloved WMC would hate. In short, a racing day with the potential to be one that racing fans will celebrate for days to come.

There are a half-dozen added-money events at Gulfstream Park, including an all-Graded Stakes Pick 4. Three graded stakes will be run at Santa Anita and two more graded events run in New York, weather permitting.

Further, there’s even a unique Cross Country Pick 4 featuring the G1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap and G1 Donn from Hallandale Beach and the G2 San Marcos and G2 San Antonio Invitational in Arcadia with a limited 31% bonus available to winning X-C bettors.

If three year olds peak your wagering interest, there’s the G3 Withers from Aqueduct, on paper a battle between El Kabeir and Classy Class.

From SoCal, another two-horse confrontation looms with Dortmund vs. Firing Line in the Robert Lewis Memorial. Action also includes round two of Churchill Downs futures pool for those so inclined.

For the pure fan, however, today is all about the battle of two premier four year olds at Santa Anita; Horse of the Year California Chrome against the sensational Shared Belief.

The bonus for fans and bettors alike is that a Cross Country Pick 4 will be televised nationally on Fox Sports 1 Saturday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. EST.

The final race on the day, with a scheduled post time of 7 p.m. EST, is an epic match, for me a battle of heart vs. mind. Emotionally, I’m all in on California Chrome. Financially, I will use him to complete an exacta under Shared Belief.

I admit that I don’t know with any certitude which will make the better four year old by season’s end.

I only know that, thus far, Shared Belief has run consistently faster when measured against the speed of the surface and that he distributes his energy with greater efficiency.

Further, his third place finish after the horrendous trouble he encountered at the start of the Breeders’ Cup Classic proved he can bounce back from adversity. Lesser horses wouldn’t have bothered to show up after such a calamitous, jarring start.

California Chrome has yet to prove that he can handle the same kind of knockout punch but his tactical style and considerable class enables him to make his own good trip. Further, he loves the Arcadia strip while I’m not sure that dirt is even Shared Belief’s best game.

The luck of the draw favors Shared Belief. With his tractability from post five in the field of nine, jockey Mike Smith can play it off the break. The team projects to have a good trip from comfortable stalking position.

Post eight for California Chrome is not a pronounced disadvantage in that it allows Victor Espinoza to see what his main rival is at right from the jump.

The problem is that the very speedy Alfa Bird is drawn immediately to his outside, which could force Espinoza’s hand. Thus far, Alfa Bird’s best efforts have come while in front.

Both riders, I’m sure, will be aware that the very sharp Hoppertunity is breaking from the pole and that Martin Garcia easily could wind up in the catbird seat while the big horses cat-and-mouse with each other.

Personally, anticipation for a momentous event could not be higher.

The storied G1 Donn Handicap is the last of 13 races to be run at Gulfstream Park, where poor, little Lea will face not one, not two, but three* independent challengers from the Pletcher juggernaut.

Cases can be made for all four, although Commissioner appears to lead the quarter based on our Projected Performance figures.

John Velazquez rides while Joel Rosario takes a return call on Lea. The Bill Mott charge will be seeking his fourth Gulfstream main track score without defeat. We believe he will.

See Saturday’s Feature Race Analysis for a betting schematic on both big races.

*correction made 020615 at 3:37 p.m.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, February 01, 2015


Ocean Knight: Still No Telling How Good


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OLDSMAR, FL., February 1, 2015—It was billed as Tampa Bay Derby Preview Day. It was that and more, maybe even much more.

The lynchpin to the day was the G3 Sam F. Davis Memorial at a mile and sixteenth and, from ground level, it appeared that all of the dozen three year olds broke in a line as a crushing of manes and tails raced to the first

And this could not good for the underplayed race favorite, who despite one race of experience, a sprint on the winter dirt track at Aqueduct, this couldn’t be a good thing.

Either go on with it, or take back, jock, I thought to myself. If not, you’re going to be five wide into the first turn. For such an inexperienced horse, especially racing over the often quirky Tampa Bay surface, it would be race over, even before clearing the first bend.

But fortunately for the large crowd and the simulcast bettors across the country who wagered a record Preview Day $9.8 million on the 12-race program, Irad Ortiz Jr. went on with it, got around a few rivals, winding up in about the 4 path at mid first turn.

As the leaders straightened into the backstretch, Ortiz--having a good karma day after his Testa Rossi was elevated from second to first in the G3 Endeavour a half hour before the Davis—remained wide but used the colt slightly to secure a clear comfortable outside position.

Down the backside, Ortiz found himself even a bit wider but still comfortably clear and at about the five-eighths pole, Ortiz decided to put a little pressure on second favorite My Johnny B. Goode, immediately to his inside, beneath the meet’s leading rider Antonio Gallardo.

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Gallardo asked his horse to get closer to the leader and away from the favorite, at which Ortiz grabbed a little bit more rein—he wasn’t ready to move yet.

But when they reached the bend, Ocean Knight was asked and readily join the team to make it three across the track, Ortiz taking a peek behind as if he had the first two measured.

His momentum enabled him to join longshot leader Divining Rod after easily racing passed Johnny B. Goode, at which point Ocean Knight started looking around, drifting to the center of the track, showing his inexperience.

Ortiz then brought him closer to the inside horse and the favorite wore down the game frontrunner.

The deck was stacked against Ocean Knight: inexperience; unfamiliarity with Tampa; two turns; post 11 of 12 on a surface that was kind to speed types racing closest to the inside.

The running time of 1:43.74 was precisely 20/100s off the 1-1/16 miles stakes and track record following a tepid half-mile 48.75 and an equally docile six furlongs in 1:12.97. In comparison, fillies going 1 mile 40 yards early in 23.02 and 46.80.

The Stonestreet Stable folks were an excited group as they awaited Ocean Knight’s return to the picture taking ceremonies. Assistant trainer Neal McLaughlin, deputizing for brother Kiaran, smiled wider than I had even seen him smile before.

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“I don’t know how you’re going to sleep tonight,” I said as McLaughlin joined the owners. “It’s exciting, isn’t it?” he asked walking away. “I’ll go wherever this horse takes me.”

In the immediate future, that would be right back to Tampa on March 7 for the Tampa Bay Derby.

Ocean Knight got to the finish as quickly as he could be sure took his time returning to the front-side, Ortiz allowing the young colt to look around and enjoy the surroundings before galloping back.

Meantime, most of the other horses and riders were back and Rajiv Maragh walked right by alone, smiling, shaking his head and saying to absolutely no one “I’d sure like to ride that one.,” clearly referring to the winner.

Ocean Knight broke his maiden on the winter track in New York on December 13 before shipping to McLaughlin’s winter headquarters at Palm Meadows, Gulfstream’s satellite training facility.

So why the late start? “Some baby things,” explained Neal. “He’s been training well since Saratoga but was a little slow to learn his lessons, going to the gate, part of the process of bringing a horse up to his first start.”

And what about that first start? “[To win the way he did] took a lot of ability.’ And today? “That’s what we’re here to find out. This race, the Tampa Derby if all goes well. The spacing works for us…But we’ll talk it over to the owners who have some other nice three year olds.”

“We knew he was fast, said Barbara Banke, who campaigned Ocean Knight’s sire, multiple Horse of the Year champion Curlin with her late husband Jess Jackson. “He had been hauling everything else around the training center all year long."

“…On the turn we thought he had had it but he was wide and it's tough to run down speed. And any time I can race a Curlin like this one, I would. They're sturdy and they're fast. It does bring back memories…"

"I had ridden this guy before,” said the winning rider, “so I knew he would wait until I asked him…Mr. McLaughlin told me to just relax, wait with him and set him down into the stretch.

“You rode him great,” McLaughlin said to Ortiz, who immediately deflected the compliment. “I didn’t do anything...”

“When I asked for run he just went after the horse on the lead a like a good horse should. I really hope I get to ride him back in those big races coming up."

Maragh, and probably every other rider in the room, will be waiting in the wings. But as long as Ortiz is as brilliant as he was on Ocean Knight Saturday, there shouldn’t be a need to find a replacement.


Photos by Toni Pricci

(top) Ocean Knight and Irad Ortiz get ready

(middle) Son of Curlin passes first big test

(bottom) Neal McLaughlin liked what he saw



Written by John Pricci

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