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 06, 2013


Toasting the Champagne


ELMONT, NY, October 5, 2013—I wish I could remember more about Donut King, learning later in life only that the horse was named for owner Verne Winchell, who owned the highly successful California-based franchise. But that was 52 years ago.

Two years later, little Roman Brother, sporting the readily identifying silks of Harbor View Farm, made his usual late run to win beneath a well named “Gentleman John” Rotz.

Buckpasser gave a hair-raising performance in 1965 and five years later, within a span of three years, 1970 -- 1972, two of the best juveniles I’ve ever seen, Hoist The Flag and Secretariat had their victories expunged courtesy of the New York stewards.

As best as I can remember, I believe Secretariat’s was understandable but not so Hoist the Flag’s. Having won by double digits, the Sid Watters Jr. trainee never would have been disqualified given today’s rules and the brilliant colt’s complete domination.

The modern day judgment call, even when I disagree, is a better way to go.

Of course, the great Seattle Slew announced his presence in 1977, followed in rapid succession by Alydar and Spectacular Bid, with Easy Goer virtually closing out the decade of the 80s.

By that time the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile took precedent and, for me, it wasn’t until 2010 and 2011 when brilliant miler Uncle Mo and the somewhat ill-fated Union Rags brought back some needed electricity to the most significant event in the history of juvenile racing.

Personally, then, it’s been quite some time since I eagerly awaited the one turn mile at Belmont Park: Hopeful monster Strong Mandate vs. Honor Code vs. Havana.

It looked like it would be a match for the ages--but two out of three ain’t bad.

After breaking sharply away from the barrier Strong Mandate was seventh in the blink of an eye, never to be heard from again.

Wayne Lukas blamed himself, saying he should have come to Belmont earlier, that jockey Jose Ortiz was saying the colt wasn’t really comfortable on a surface that’s more demanding than Saratoga’s.

For the time being, I’m willing to swill the Kool Aid. Clearly, Strong Mandate bore no resemblance to the one on display upstate. He might not win but figures to be much better in the Juvenile, his next start.

Then so will the 2013’s one-two finishers—Bahama and Honor Code—who just have easily been two-one. From appearing to have the race well in hand, it was fortunate that the wire came up when it did.

Just like the day he broke his maiden, coming from a crazy 22 lengths back, Honor Code came flying late and just missed getting all the money.

Honor Code might not be a better colt at Santa Anita, but only because Shug McGaughey left the door open for the nine-furlong Remsen at Thanksgiving weekend rather than ship to California.

“You’d always like to go to the Breeders’ Cup but he’s a young horse and it would be only his third start,” said McGaughey.

“Obviously, next spring would be our main objective. [But] whatever [owners Lane's End Racing and Dell Ridge Farm] want to do is going to be fine with me."

The Juvenile would be Havana’s third start, too, and he was stretching from 5-1/2 furlongs to a mile yesterday and not seven as did Honor Code.

“He wasn't 22 lengths out of it today, McGaughey said, “it was only 12 or 15. Having to go wide probably cost us the race but Havana got the jump at the head of the stretch and opened up and we were unlucky to not catch him”

Which is not to say that Havana had it easier. Forced to chase the pace from along the inside down the long backstretch, Havana was part of the pace, the middle of the race, and finish. Not all that enviable, especially coming off a lone 5-1/2 furlong run.

“I thought there were a couple that could press us,” said Todd Pletcher after winning his fifth Champagne…

“I think Irad [Ortiz] did a good job of not giving up that position but not forcing it too much, either… I could see the other horse revving up and I knew he had a big run from Saratoga. I was hoping we'd have enough to hold on."

Havana did, in a solid 1:35.81.

Pletcher was asked if he’d go with confidence to the Breeders' Cup: "I think so. I can't imagine the horses we ran against today aren't going to be certainly some of the favorites for it.” Then he offered this:

“I think there's room for improvement. I think he can move forward for his third start."

If he does, it would provide Pletcher with what his two most recent Champagne winners, Shanghai Bobby and Uncle Mo, afforded him: an Eclipse championship.

Written by John Pricci

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