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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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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Speed Kills at Gulfstream Park; Castellano Sets Meet Record

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 12. 2014--It's the first lesson taught in Handicapping 101: Speed is always dangerous.

It certainly was today when recent maiden winner Social Inclusion improved his lifetime record to 2-for-2, stretching out successfully to ruin the three year old debut of Honor Code, setting a track record in the process.

Unofficially, it was the fourth track record set at this meeting, all of them at distances of one mile or more.

The upset, engineered by trainer Manuel Aspurua and under excellent rating from Luis Contreras, also ruined Javier Castellano's bid to break his own Gulfstream record of 112 victories set last year. Castellano already had ridden four winners on the card.

Castellano got his 113th meet victory and fifth of the day aboard Bartiromo in the 9th race for trainer Chad Brown

The karma for the returning Remsen winner and highly regarded Kentucky Derby contender was not great from the start. He was a little quiet in the paddock and was washy in the final minutes of the parade postward.

Further, he was obstreperous at the gate, and it took a few extra members of the starting gate crew to coax him into stall number 4.

A little wide rounding the first turn, the winning leader, with an opening gambit of 24:32, was in complete control. Castellano, sensing what was happening, pushed Honor Code through between horses, getting within about four lengths of Social Inclusion as he commenced his turn run. Honor Code never looked the part of a winner.

When it was over, the dominant winner stopped the timer in 1:40.97. The victory wasn't totally unexpected as the second choice got late money that dropped his odds from 3-1 to 2-1 at a minute before post.

With Honor Code holding second by a daylight margin over third choice We're All Set, bettors who wagered over $390,000 to show on Honor Code never had a anxious moment.

The most disappointing aspect of the defeat was that Honor Code needed to be encouraged by Castellano to gallop out past the wire.

It appeared that Honor Code needed the race badly and will move forward in his second start.

The question is whether Shug McGaughey will run out of racetrack before getting the Remsen winner at absolute tops for the big dance on May's first Saturday, little more than seven weeks away. It will be interesting, to say the least.

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, March 10, 2014

Chrome Shines in California Sun; Cairo Still Tops HRI Power 10

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 9, 2014—It’s been good news and bad news for Shug McGaughey in the last 72 hours. The good news is that four seemingly sacrificial three year olds will serve to welcome Honor Code back to the races on Wednesday.

The bad is the loss of Top Billing from the Florida Derby due to a cracked cannon bone suffered in a Payson Park workout Saturday morning. The news could have been worse as Top Billing*, at the moment, is expected to resume his career following surgery.

To what extent the right front cannon non-displaced fracture takes a toll is unknown but for now the prognosis is good. He was scheduled for surgery Sunday in Kentucky with Dr. Larry Bramlage. "They'll put a couple screws in it, and probably a plate, and it should come together. They'll take the plate out so we're talking about three or four months. Dr. Bramlage feels like he should be able to come back fine."

In an allowance race Wednesday, it is of great interest to see how well Honor Code has recovered from bruised hind ankles, also suffered while training at Payson Park. Javier Castellano rides the 3-5 early line favorite.

McGaughey said that winning would be nice but having “something to push on with” is what’s important, and that he could return in the Florida Derby depending on how he races over the speed favoring course.

If not, it will be on to Aqueduct a week later, April 5. We believe the Remsen winner is 3-5 to have his final Derby prep in Queens.

Honor Code worked a half-mile in :48 and galloped out in a minute-and-change for Wednesday's allowance prep. "I'd like to see a good race from him. Hopefully he'll be good enough to win, but as long as we can get the kind of race into him where we can go forward, that'll be good enough."

"I think [Social Inclusion] has got speed and I would like for [Honor Code] to have a target. That's why I wanted to do something sharp with him, to put him in the game."

California Chrome established himself as a major Derby player in Saturday’s San Felipe and Graham Motion had himself a heck of a day at Tampa Saturday, winning the Hillsborough in the last jump and the Tampa Derby by daylight.

It’s hard to know what was behind Ring Weekend in Oldsmar--or even what he’s made of as a maiden winner now once removed. But say this; not many Tampa Derbies are won on the lead and Vinceremos seems to show up, well, wherever he shows up. It was a huge forward move by the winner.

Cairo Prince, early favorite for the Florida Derby March 29, took another step toward the event with a half-mile work Saturday, a half-mile in 49.60, galloping out five-eighths in 1:03.80 at his Palm Meadows base.

“He looked great doing it and we’re on course for the race. He’s doing great,” confirmed Kiaran McLaughlin.

Gulfstream Park Derby winner General a Rod was also on Saturday’s tab, going an easy half-mile breeze on Saturday for trainer Mike Maker in :51.26. “We just worked him easy and he was push-button, as always,” said Maker. “He was more aggressive after the race and full of himself so he probably wanted to work sooner than I decided.”

To his credit, Maker is playing the shipping game by shifting LeComte winner and Risen Star third Vicar's in Trouble into Hallandale Beach for the Florida Derby on Gulfstream’s speed friendly track rather than remain at the Fair Grounds with the stretch that never seems to end.

Obviously, Saturday’s results and last week’s defections changed the HRI Power 10 standards decidedly into Week 3. Cairo Prince remains the top vote getter among the HRI staffers and contributors.

Ranked in order, based on a blend of accomplishment and promise, with power points in parentheses Note that there’s a good deal of separation between Cairo Prince and Tapiture from Candy Boy and Honor Code, and again between those two and the remainder:

HRI Derby Power 10, Week 3

1. Cairo Prince (30)
2. Tapiture (28)
3. Candy Boy (23)
4. Honor Code (19)
5. Intense Holiday (14)
6. California Chrome (13)
7. Wildcat Red (12)
8. Strong Mandate (11)
9. Samraat (8)
10. Kobe’s Back (5)

* correction 031014

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, March 08, 2014

The Dude Abides

HALLANDALE BEACH, March 8, 2014--—If all the renewals were like yesterday’s, the Big Cap would be the BIG CAP again. And unless Meydan, for some reason, installs a dirt track, the Santa Anita Handicap will continue attract many of the best older horses in America.

Saturday’s renewal was billed as the “Epic Rematch,” of course. After all, the last time the win and place horses continued their battle from the previous year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic was in 1988; in the end Alysheba over Ferdinand.

The rematch was the draw, not the fact that redoubtable Game On Dude was trying to become the first horse to win the Big Cap thrice, thus surpassing three dual winners; Lava Man, Milwaukee Brew and the legendary John Henry.

On Saturday at Santa Anita, Game On Dude became a bone fide legend. Yes, speed had a big advantage in Arcadia yesterday, with four of the seven dirt races won wire to wire, one from a chaser, one from a close-up inside stalker and, oh yes, Sahara Sky.

Game On Dude, who I believed was done, D-U-N, stunned everyone at the track, those in simulcast land and still more on national television. He just didn’t become the first three-time winner of this West Coast classic, he made his rivals look outmatched.

Even as Hear the Ghost chewed on him through fast splits; 22.91, 45.34 and 1:09.39, the Dude had the audacity to trip the timer in 1:32.57 for the mile and stopped it completely after a mile and a quarter in 1:58.17.

Are you kidding me? Seven year olds not named Kelso or Forego or John Henry are not supposed to do things like this. As the kids would say; it was awesome. Awesome Again, as the pedigree would say.

And there was Bob Baffert telling the national TV audience that he was sand-bagging us this week, how a lot of people had written him off, and how quietly confident that the Dude was going to run his race because he’s doing so well. Mike Smith said the same thing, only before the race.

“When he runs his race he belongs on the track with anyone,” said Smith. But then it was Baffert, too, who, on a national conference call Tuesday, said “Game On Dude has some big ones left in him.”

I guess.

Favorite Mucho Macho Man had every chance but wasn’t the same horse that dusted Florida breds at Gulfstream Park in January, and Gary Stevens gave all fair warning on the same teleconference. “I shut him down well before 16th pole. It’s one thing win by a margin [14 lengths] bit it still takes a toll on them.”

And it sure appeared that way. Stevens moved him up to challenge leaving the five furlong pole, battled semi-between as Will Take Charge swept up alongside but the Macho Man started to come out of the bridle before reaching the quarter pole, where Game On Dude began to separate himself from the challengers.

Meanwhile, the 2013 three year old champion was a good second for the second time this year, although his inability to change leads smoothly caused him to drift wide, making his job that much tougher. But Game On Dude crossed the wire the stronger of the two animals.

Misremembered, bred by Bob and Bill Baffert, provided the Hall of Famer with his most thrilling Big Cap victory, until Saturday. And, so, Game On Dude is back. That, or he never really left.

Three Year Old Star Is Born: Whatever happens in the Santa Anita Derby and beyond, one thing became eminently clear in the Grade 2 San Felipe: California Chrome is not your father’s Cal-bred.

Now, wasn’t it supposed to be Midnight Hawk in front, being entertained by Kristo, or vice versa? Instead, it was California Chrome showing a new dimension, one of pace setter, a pace setter that got stronger and the race lengthened.

And he made the stalking Midnight Hawk look ordinary when Mike Smith asked the question approaching headstretch, got a favorable response, just before California Chrome blew the doors of this mile and a sixteenth, drawing out by 7-1/4 lengths in 1:40.59.

The place finisher had another 6-1/4 lengths on Kristo, absolutely reaching bottom just to secure the show. For the winner, it was a tour de force romp in 1:40.59 over a very fast surface.

We all know Santa Anita’s a speed-biased type of track,” said winning trainer Art Sherman, “so it was really great to see him with the hold [Victor Espinoza] had on him.”

“He ran like I expected him to,” said Espinoza. “I wanted to try something new today, so I let him go right out of the gate. I don’t know if people expected me to go right to the lead, but I wanted to let him enjoy his race—I just let him go.

“In these races, you can’t just try and do too much with them. I think it’s important for him to do his thing for the first five-eighths and be happy.”

No one should bother splitting hairs off Saturday’s performance.

Palace Malice in Thrilling Gulfstream Comebacker: Making his four year old debut a winning one, Palace Malice looked beaten. Twice.

First, it was Uncaptured who had the 2013 Belmont Stakes winner collared and past in midstretch. Then, when that one appeared to hang nearing the sixteenth pole, Golden Ticket was a full stride and appeared set to blow by both horses.

But Palace Malice and Johnny Velazquez kept finding and dropped his head on the line a nose before his late running rival. Trainer Todd Pletcher saw it this way:

“He pressed solid factions, and was carrying top weight and he went a little wide. It looked like they took a couple of big runs at him and he fought back. It was a heck of a horse race and a huge effort coming off a layoff.

“It’s pretty rare you have a horse that can win the Belmont and also run 1:33 and change and stalk solid fractions. I think he put the Met Mile into play today.”

And served notice that he’ll be ready for Game On Dude and Will Take Charge and Mucho Macho Man when the time comes. Did anyone see Normandy Invasion’s come-backer a few weeks ago? If this keeps up, the elders just might steal the sophomore’s thunder.

Written by John Pricci

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