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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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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Wildcat Red, Intense Holiday Debut at #7 and #9 on HRI’s Derby Power 10

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., February 22, 2014---Right now, with apologies to our West Coast friends, it certainly appears that the most accomplished three year olds in the country are preparing for “America’s Race” and having fun in the sun of South Florida.

Of course, we're capable of making an about face if Lewis Memorial winner Candy Boy does what’s expected of him in the Santa Anita Derby. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

Since this marks the 2014 debut of the HRI Kentucky Derby Power 10, the sixth annual, staffer Tom Jicha spoke for all of us when he wrote recently that accomplishment and demonstrated ability in top company should count for something.

Hence the presence in the Power 10 of undefeated juvenile champion Shared Belief; Remsen winner and Champagne runner-up Honor Code, and Champagne winner and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up Havana.

The Power 10, therefore, is meant to be an amalgam of accomplishment and promise and, at this early stage, not a Derby predictor. So let's take a ride, bumpy road and all.

The Kentucky Derby three year olds of 2014 are ranked in 1 through 10 (dead heat for 9th this week) with power points in parentheses:

1. CAIRO PRINCE (27) As everyone knows, this colt would be undefeated if not for overconfident handling when second in the Remsen, losing a head-bobber to Honor Code, spotting him six pounds. Kiaran McLaughlin’s colt won the Holy Bull impressively, showing an electric turn of foot soon after entering the straight to blow the Grade 2 wide open and won by nearly 6. McLaughlin made the right call skipping the Fountain of Youth in favor of the Florida Derby.

2. TAPITURE (25) His effort in the Southwest Stakes was so impressive that observers might be hard pressed to decide if he or Cairo Prince made the best impression this season. Their runs were virtual carbon copies; settling close to the early pace, moving into contention on the far turn, before drawing away with authority in the lane. Trainer Steve Asmussen thought his colt moved forward but needs a little more education. He'll get plenty of that in the Rebel and Arkansas Derby. After that, back to Churchill where he won the G2 Jockey Club Stakes at 2.

3. HONOR CODE (21) missed almost a month of training with a minor ankle issue but has worked twice since Shug McGaughey got him off the deeper Payson Park surface. He started breezing again a fortnight ago, twice seven days apart, but has yet to have a serious drill. That time will come soon since Oaklawn’s Rebel Stakes, his scheduled season’s debut, comes on March 15. From there, it’s the Arkansas Derby or the Wood Memorial, site of his Remsen win last year.

4. SHARED BELIEF (19) Racing analyst Laffit Pincay said on Saturday’s Hank Goldberg radio show that Shared Belief missed another work which means the San Felipe is out and might force Jerry Hollandorfer to enter the Derby off one prep; a tall order for a champion yet to race on a dirt surface. That prep reportedly will come in the East somewhere. Does that mean the Blue Grass on Polytrack for the gelding with the tender feet? Shared Belief deserves this ranking out of respect; next time it could be different.

5. CANDY BOY (15) Loved the fact this guy has plenty of experience in top company and his Lewis win was accomplished with deceptive ease, just getting warmed up as he reached the finish line in full stride with energy in reserve. It was a great learning experience for a horse than made a wild middle move in his prior run but waited, and waited some more, until Gary Stevens gave him his cue. John Sadler, who’s not had much luck outside of California, is awaiting the Santa Anita Derby. Good plan.

6. TOP BILLING (13) Following a tough-trip second in his season’s debut, he won a first level allowances very impressively before finishing third in the Fountain of Youth. The only thing he lost yesterday was a horse race, overcoming an extremely wide draw but not a biased surface that carried speed all day long. At least his show finish earned him 10 Derby points which puts him on the service road to the Derby. He figures to earn enough credit in the Florida Derby to get him all the way to Louisville.

7. WILDCAT RED (11) Don’t look now but this colt is starting to get some respect and it’s about time. He just missed from the rail going a flat mile in the Gulfstream Park Derby, dominated the Hutcheson, then took advantage of Saturday’s speed trap. But he deserves much credit for staring down Golden a Rod, the GP Derby winner that took him by the throatlatch right from the jump. Fast, honest and hickory game. Who could ask for anything more from a race horse?

8. STRONG MANDATE (9) D. Wayne Lukas colt is like the proverbial box of chocolates; you just never know. In the G1 Hopeful he delivered a near 10-length tour de force performance. After his Champagne no-show he was an excellent, wide-running third in the Juvenile. His Southwest placing to Tapiture was good once overlook his snake-like stretch run. “He got bumped leaving the gate and was wide the whole trip,” Lukas said. “[Tapiture] ran exceptional. We’ll just go back to the barn and look at the Rebel Stakes.” Exactly.

9-tie INTENSE HOLIDAY (8) Flattered Cairo Prince when the Holy Bull show finisher returned, laid his body down in the final furlong, and got up in the last stride to win the Risen Star. It was his third straight good two-turn effort; the Remsen, Holy Bull and Saturday’s score. Credit Todd Pletcher for getting him off the Gulfstream strip and put him on the road to Louisville that courses through New Orleans.

9-tie HAVANA (8) Another getting a late start in his three year old season, he, too, was nearly undefeated at 2, winning the G1 Champagne Stakes over Honor Code before finishing a very good second from post 12 in the Juvenile on Santa Anita’s inside-speed surface last fall. He is scheduled to debut in the 7-furlong Swale March 20, which doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for a second prep The Arkansas Derby or Blue Grass would be the most viable options 23 days later

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, February 21, 2014

Fountain of Youth, Risen Star Will Help Focus Derby Picture

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., February 21, 2014—The Road to the Kentucky Derby Prep Season is over and now it’s on to the Championship season.

I’ll see your 10 points and raise you 50.

Two real good races are on tap Saturday, both from a sport and betting perspective. Full fields on display with nary a layover in either event.

In South Florida, 13 will answer the starters’ call with what should be co-favorites, Commissioner (3-1) and Top Billing (7-2), having drawn the pole and the 12 post, respectively, the latter having a short run to the first turn and the former the shortest way home, assuming a clean break.

Additionally, the race will end at the first finish line, a sixteenth of a mile down the stretch from, well, the finish line.

Meanwhile, down on the Bayou, the Risen Star is so attractive that it even includes two also-eligibles, bringing the total number of entrants to 16.

If you have an opinion, bring money.

The Todd Pletcher and Shug McGaughey trained three year olds are meeting for the second time at the meet when Commissioner won a head-bobber over Top Billing at 9 furlongs, his season’s debut.

His fans will point to the fact that he looked his rival in the eye and stared him down. Top Billing fans will counter with having the tougher trip, especially when made a sandwich in midstretch.

In a Fountain of Youth context, both were flattered when Top Billing came back to win a first level allowances at today’s mile and a sixteenth with an electric, circle-the-field, see-you-later last-to-first romp.

If you blinked, you missed it.

Meanwhile, General a Rod (5-1), winner of the Gulfstream Park Derby over Wildcat Red (6-1) on New Year’s Day has been storing his energy and has worked brilliantly for his return.

His trainer, Mike Maker, is winning with just about one of every three starters this meet. He’s been winning most of those races recent with Javier Castellano, who abandons Wildcat Red for “a-Rod.” His pedigree wants all of today’s trip.

Wildcat Red has been slighted by some believing he’s a sprinter/miler type. Ultimately, that might be true but, for now, his tour de force in the shorter Hutcheson has him razor sharp for today’s trip, which he should handle. Luis Saez is a more-than-capable pinch-rider.

In Nola, Pletcher will be represented by Intense Holiday, a late running third behind impressive winner Cairo Prince in the Holy Bull. He finished one-paced but made a big run to get there.

The Holy Bull was the colt’s first start since last year’s sneaky-good fourth in the Remsen Stakes. Race shape dynamics at Fair Grounds is much more suitable to his late-run style. Mike Smith rides Intense Holiday (8-1) from post 9.

This wide open mile and a sixteenth features a number of major contenders, from the rail out:

Albano was a very game, wide-run second to runaway winner Vicar’s In Trouble in the G3 Lecomte, his two turn debut. Albano (12-1), a tactical speedster, breaks from the rail beneath Kerwin Clark.

If it’s Fair Grounds that must mean Tom Amoss, who will saddle the very formidable Rise Up (4-1) with main southeast man Gerard Melancon from post 2.

Amoss is having his usual good Fair Grounds session, batting 27% from 95 starters through Monday’s racing, and last year’s G3 Delta Jackpot winner, fastest in the field on our own performance figures, is working strongly for his season’s debut. He figures to be in the race from the start.

Steve Asmussen will find out if he has another serious Derby runner in addition to Tapiture, who freaked winning Monday’s Southwest, when he saddles Gold Hawk (6-1) beneath Corey Nakatani from post 6. Empire Maker colt was a little obstreperous while being loaded into his Lecomte slip but still managed third.

Bob Baffert is shipping Hoppertunity in from the West Coast and is bringing Martin Garcia along with him. That team leaves from post 8 at 8-1. Hoppertunity broke maiden by 3 impressive lengths last out and Bullet Bob is 30% efficient with his shippers and 32% effective with last out maiden winners.

Commanding Curve (20-1) earns good energy figures with consistency for Dallas Stewart and main man Robby Albarado and 20-1 on the early line seems, well, way out of line.

Favorite Vicar’s in Trouble (5-2) is saddled with post 14 for Mike Maker, Rosie Napravnik and the Ramsey family. He’ll need all his brilliance to handle that assignment—that, and a tougher crew than he vanquished in the Lecomte.

The Into Mischief colt stalked the Lecomte pace before taking over before blowing the race wide open at headstretch, drawing off to win by nearly 7.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, February 15, 2014

Of Derby Preps, Rivalries, and a Trip to Dubai

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL—February 15, 2014—The racing schedule for racing’s glamour division finally has reached the point in the 2014 Triple Crown prep season when races begin to matter.

Saturday’s Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby, run over a synthetic surface, has been a jumping off point for more Preakness winners than Derby heroes but its 10 points could loom large on May’s first Saturday.

In its initial season last year, had the late scratch of Black Onyx come before advance Derby betting began, Fear the Kitten would have the 20th runner, getting in with a grand total of six points.

As it turned out, late running money finisher Golden Soul was the 19th runner in the gate with 14 points, making 10 points a solid bubble number.

The El Camino attracted eight runners of which three were promising, well regarded types going in; Enterprising, Tamarando and Dance With Fate. The trio finished 1-2-3, with Tamarando—Hollandorfer and Baze, of course--coming from last to defeat Dance With Fate.

Favorite Enterprising finished third and the time of 1:51.23 for the mile and one-eighth was very solid over a surface that played decidedly dull in recent days. These preps should be all this formful.

Monday’s G3 Southwest Stakes, lengthened to 1-1/16 miles and is the second leg of the Arkansas route to Kentucky. The two-turn event drew 12 entrants and 11 betting interests, of which I’d have little difficulty making a case for seven of them.

Most of the attention rightfully will be focused on the seasonal debut of Strong Mandate (2-1) for D. Wayne Lukas. When last seen he was an excellent third from post 13 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, a surface that flattered inside speed that weekend at Santa Anita.

But fractions of 22 3/5 and 45 4/5 are very hot going two turns, especially when racing wide all the way. And like stablemate Will Take Charge, the bad weather in Arkansas didn’t seem to interrupt his training any.

Strong Mandate shows seven works dating back to Dec. 17, the last three was a 2/47 five furlong breeze in 1:00 3/5, a bullet 1/61 in 1:00 2/5, then a half-mile blowout in the slop in 48 3/5, best of 79, reminiscent of Will Take Charge before his top notch placing in Lea’s Donn.

He might get beaten for a number of reasons, but conditioning won’t be one of them. “We hold this horse in such high regard,” Lukas told Oaklawn staffers this morning. “We’re excited to see him run.”

The major competition figures to come from Tapiture, the impressive winner of the G2 Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill in his juvenile finale. Twenty-two days later, trainer Steve Asmussen got him started with a soft half-mile then put him on the fence Jan. 5.

There was a series of five subsequent works; two and five-eighths of a mile, two at six furlongs and a half-mile blowout this week. He’s ready to roll. (There will be more on the Southwest Stakes in Monday’s Feature Race Analysis).

Next weekend begins the 50-point preps as Gulfstream Park hosts the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth and Fair Grounds the G2 Risen Star.

Impressive Holy Bull winner Cairo’s Prince, who breezed a soft half-mile in 48 3/5 Saturday morning, will skip this dance, but it will be a very salty group that remains. Top Billing, Commissioner, General A Rod, Wildcat Red and Almost Famous, among others, should make things interesting and, of course, a good betting race. While far from a two-horse race, many are anxious to see the rematch between Commissioner and Top Billing.

On the absence of Cairo Prince, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said: “The Holy Bull was quite an impressive race by all figures. These horses aren’t machines. You can’t run them every four weeks, even if you want to. We just thought we’d wait – the best chance to get ready for the Florida Derby is wait.”

Go West Young Macho Man, Go West: It’s been four months since his victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic but the big Florida-bred need only wait another week to get back to Santa Anita.

The determination was made this morning following Mucho Macho Man’s brilliant workout that his next start will be the Santa Anita Handicap where he will meet Will Take Charge, narrowly beaten by the Macho Man last November.

“This horse is telling us he’s ready now,” said trainer Kathy Ritvo after the recent impressive winner of the Sunshine Millions Classic worked five furlongs in 58.14 and galloped out six furlongs in 1.10.77. “We know about going to Santa Anita now, so it’s nice to go back.”

MMM will have another strong work in South Florida and then go West, where he will get his final preparations, all this following his dominant 14-length victory at Gulfstream January 18. “He did it nice and easy, too,” Ritvo said. “The track was fast but he just did it easy. He’s a happy horse. He’s just doing really, really well right now.”

But was it too easy, considering he was untested and going very easily the final eighth of a mile while his main rival, another hardy individual, had his feet held to the fire in the Donn and is coming back on shorter rest, a conditioning advantage in this instance.

“He galloped out in 10-and-change this morning and he’ll have another strong work here before shipping out,” said Tim Ritvo, Gulfstream Park President and husband to Kathy. “And that’s why he’ll have another strong work here and one more before the race out there.”

If these two horses can remain healthy, this could just turn into a rivalry for the ages. Hold good thoughts.

Albertrani Finally Got Lucky; Ran the Best Horse to Do It: Trainer Tom Albertrani had two horses in the two graded events at Gulfstream Park Saturday. In The Very One, he was finally going to get Anjaz to the races after events either got cancelled or were rescheduled from her preferred turf to the dirt.

The field was about to be sent on their way when the announcement came that Anjaz suffered a minor injury in the starting gate was would be a late scratch. “As soon as they closed the back door, she started kicking it,” Albertrani explained. “She had a tendency to do it in the past. We have schooled her and thought it was past us. We’ve had some tough luck with her.”

The race was won by Inimitable Romanee, making her season’s debut, trained to the minute by Graham Motion and well ridden by Alan Garcia who gave his mare a perfect trip rating behind the speed before tipping wide for the drive and drawing away. “It was a really good feeling at the quarter-pole to have plenty of horse,” Garcia said.

In the nominal feature, the Grade 2 Mac Diarmida, classy gelded five year old Twilight Eclipse confirmed his preference for the Gulfstream course, winning for the second time in three starts after winning the Pan American here last season.

Under flawless handling from Jose Lezcano, Twilight Eclipse took command in the stretch and never was seriously threatened after doing so.

“We were in a good spot,” Albertrani said post-race. “I just wanted [Lezcano] to ride with confidence, let Alpha go if he wanted to go and put yourself in position. We told him to take him back where his normal running style would be and go from there.”

So what about a defense of his Pan American title? “We’re all talking [owners West Pont Thoroughbreds] about going to Dubai with him. We got the invite to go, depending on the outcome today. I think that’s the way we’re going to go, to the Golden Shaheen.”

Written by John Pricci

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