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 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.”
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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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Tuesday, November 21, 2017


Racing Family Comes Full Circle at Payson Park


Some people run away as children to join the circus. But not the late Hall of Famer Thomas Joseph Kelly, who ran off to join the racetrack when he was 13. When he passed, eight full decades later, he left as the patriarch of one of racing’s foremost families.

Last week, T.J.’s son, Larry, also a racetrack lifer, became the new General Manager of world renowned Payson Park Training Center in Indiantown, Florida, a two-hour drive north and west of Gulfstream Park.

The appointment is proof positive that what goes around indeed comes around again.

It started with Turnpike Tom, who served as apprentice for trainer Louis Fuestel. When making the transition from hot walker to groom to trainer, it’s no guarantee that one will someday land in racing’s pantheon.

But Kelly did get a pretty good start, having learned from the man who trained the mighty Man o’ War.

Of course, Payson Park long has been the winter home of Roger Attfield, Christophe Clement, Shug McGaughey, Bill Mott, among other racing notables. And when the 59-year-old Kelly joined the Payson family last week, the Payson circle was complete.

Payson Park is widely regarded as one of the best training centers anywhere in the world. It features a turf course and safe, deep dirt track over which hoof beats are barely audible.

European-style hacking trails add to the atmosphere. It allows horses to be horses and a great way to prepare youngsters for the rigors of future racetrack life.

Tom Kelly was the first trainer to use Payson as a training center. Born in Maryland and once a regular on that circuit, Kelly was a mainstay in New York during temperate times and raced primarily at Hialeah in winter. Payson is where some of the horses went for R & R.

The Kelly men are racetrackers through and through. T.J.’s younger brother, Edward (E.I.) Kelly, trained the 1959 sprint champion, Intentionally.

Tom’s wife Frances foaled three trainers; Pat, the oldest, best remembered for his work with New York-based millionaire Evening Attire, and Tim who left the backstretch to become a New York Racing Association official.

Also in the family is a Miami policeman, Dan, and sisters Patricia and Jean.

Laz, as T.J. called him, got his trainer’s license and saddled his first winner in Florida at age 17, 11 years after growing up on the racetrack. His first memory was, at age 6, jumping the fence behind Allen Jerkens’ Elmont barn to watch the reconstruction of Belmont Park.

Larry’s first racetrack responsibility, as with most backstretch apprentices, was walking hots. He was 10. T.J. would pick him up after school and they’d head back to Belmont in time for equine dinner, around 4 p.m.

In his early teens, he worked his way up the training ladder, mostly weekends while in high school. Once a month he got a hotwalker’s check for $140. He’d start the year in a public school in New York and complete the semester in a Catholic school in Miami.

He saddled his first horse while still in high school. In Florida he’d work mornings as a swing groom and eventually became T. J.’s assistant trainer after former assistant Pat went out on his own. He worked at Hialeah before running over to start school by 9:15.

One of his more memorable training victories came early in his career. There was a football coach loved to go to Hialeah and gamble. Larry told him a story about a horse he was running that afternoon and had to leave school early. The coach went with him.

Larry doesn’t remember the name of the horse when we spoke on the phone Monday, but did recall that he was an obstreperous full brother to Stage Door Johnny, who won the Belmont Stakes for Greentree Stable in 1968.

The horse either lugged in or bore out, he did everything except act like a professional race horse. Eventually, though, Kelly figured him out and that afternoon from an outside post, the longshot won and paid $78.

It was quite a payday for the teacher who bet $500 across the board and covered the exotic pools, too. The following day, coach pulled up to the high school in a spanking new Cadillac.

Although Kelly graduated from high school in 1977, he never picked up his diploma. He had taken a few days off to attend a Led Zeppelin concert in Tampa and never made it back south for the ceremony.

It seems that the Immigration Service raided the barn looking for undocumented workers. Kelly was picked up on the way as the outfit headed back to New York.

Larry’s first stakes horse, Roving Minstrel, was purchased from Roy Sedlacek, at that time trainer for George Steinbrenner. Kelly addled his share of stakes winners to the list as a private trainer but, stabled in the same barn, he always remained his father’s assistant.

The T.J. Kelly outfit was noted for stakes winners Plugged Nickel, Colonel Moran, Droll Roll, Misty Galore and Noble Dancer.

The Kellys also developed King’s Bishop, a $72,000 Keeneland purchase for Houston Astros founder Craig F Cullinan Jr. who later sold him to Allaire du Pont’s Bohemia Stable for the unheard of price of $800,000.

The Kellys trained for many high profile owners in the day; David P. Reynolds, Charlotte Weber and Marylou Whitney among them. While living on the Whitney Farm estate in Lexington, he met neighbor Virginia Kraft Payson, the Payson Park training center founder.

In 2007, after serving as a jock’s agent for about a year and then two years as assistant trainer to Wayne Lukas after Mike Maker went out on his own, Larry started his own horse transport business in South Florida.

The business succeeded because there was a horseman behind the wheel. He moved seven national champions, including Dreaming of Anna and Big Drama, among others, and with the exception of this year’s Breeders’ Cup, he transported Gunnevera everywhere he raced since he was a baby.

When it became known that Payson’s General Manager was retiring, trainer Jason Servis heard about the opening and recommended Larry Kelly for the position.

David Cole, longtime adviser to Mrs. Payson, spoke with Kelly on the phone. They exchanged faxed proposals and shortly thereafter Cole asked Mrs. Payson if she wanted to meet Larry. Mrs. Whitney’s Lexington neighbor said: “I don’t have to meet Larry, he’s a friend of mine.”

On November 13, Larry was given the keys and the responsibility to keep some of the biggest names in the game and their multi-million dollar horseflesh healthy and happy.

There is some minor hurricane damage to attend to, roof panels that need attention and a tractor that needs some TLC. “But the immediate goal is to keep these horses happy, making sure we continue to maintain the best dirt and turf training courses available.

“We have 497 stalls on the property and we’re at about half count now. They’re coming in every day,” he said.

“Pop trained for John S. Phipps, a direct descendent of the Phipps family, but Michael Phipps started all this. He, Townsend B. Martin, C.T. Chenery and Bull Hancock came up with the money to build a training center.

“I’m here to represent Mrs. Payson in a way she would want to be represented.”

Everything Larry Kelly has learned from age six has brought him to this moment. As racetrackers say; he’s as ready as hands can make him.

Written by John Pricci

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