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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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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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Sunday, February 09, 2014

Mott Trainee Lea(ds) Champ Home in the Donn

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., February 9, 2014—It’s one of the first phrases you hear when you become a racing fan and the late Dan Fogelberg even wrote about it in his Kentucky Derby tribute “Run for the Roses:”

“It’s the chance of a lifetime in a lifetime a chance.” And it was a chance meeting at Churchill Downs that put owner Willis Horton in position to live the dream, an Eclipse Award as 2014 Horse of the Year.

“I met Wayne at Churchill Downs," Horton told Gulfstream officials earlier this week. “At the time, we hadn't been having any luck. We had just left the track when I made the suggestion that we go back to the track and the first good trainer we run into, we'll have him start training our horses.

“Wayne was going down the steps as we were coming up, and I collared him.”

Horton, a retired cattle rancher from Arkansas, has been in racing a long time and has had many trainers in a racing career that began with Quarter Horses and is now the owner of a defending divisional champion in search of bigger game. And now it’s up to Lukas to make the dream a reality.

To achieve the ultimate goal, you run in Grade 1 company and the Donn was the first meaningful G1 of the year. In a handicap that was run in track record time of 1:46.96, Will Take Charge was an on-rushing second to Gulfstream repeat winner Lea, finishing a length and a half behind but 9-1/4 lengths in front of longshot show finisher Viramundo.

All Will Take Charge did yesterday was lose a horse race, not his stature as one of the top handicap horses in the country. In the Donn, the 2013 three-year-old champion carried 123 pounds, giving the five-year-old Lea six pounds while enduring a much tougher journey.

“We got blocked for a bit and couldn’t get out, so we couldn’t move as quickly as we wanted to,” Lukas said post-race. “That’s just horse racing. We also didn’t have a race over the track, which turned out to be a disadvantage. [Lea] had to set a new track record to beat us, so that’s all you need to know. Kudos to the winner.”

The other disadvantage turned out to be his running style. According to Patrick Cummings, the business manager of Trakus and on hand to deal with any technical difficulties that could arise when a big-time network comes in to do a broadcast, only six horses in the 42 races run at the Donn distance at Gulfstream since Trakus technology was installed came from farther back than 4-1/2 lengths after the first half mile.

At that point, Will Take Charge was not that far back but in taking him off the rail for running room, he steadied his mount to shift him outside. With a half-mile remaining in the Donn, the champion was five lengths back, perhaps a bit more between calls. Lea raced outside and in the clear throughout; Will Take Charge rallied even wider.

“I saw when [Will Take Charge] broke free I knew he’d be running at us,” said winning trainer Bill Mott. “We were good enough to scoot away from him. It’s a long year and the big races are at the end of the year, and there’s a lot of good racing in between. Right now I’d love to point him for the Whitney at Saratoga.”

Mott was thinking of the nine furlong Grade 1 Saratoga, of course, but, like he said, there’s a lot of racing in between. Lea’s style would seem a natural for the Metropolitan Handicap on Belmont Stakes day, especially since he was so impressive winning the Hals Hope, a one-turn mile.

But don’t blame Mott for doing some dreaming of his own. Since Lea was transferred to his barn late last year, the Claiborne/Dilschneider bred and owned Lea is 2-for-2. “Whenever you have a horse with Bill Mott, you know they’re going to run well,” co-owner Dell Hancock said. “For him to run like that, it’s exciting.

“I Was Wrong at the Top of My Voice”—That quote, unfortunately, was mine as I approached the window to bet my money on Heart Stealer to upset Groupie Doll in the champ’s career finale, the Hurricane Bertie. The tack turned out to be wrong with a capital R.

It was one of the finest efforts of a 23 race career in which she won back-to-back Eclipse Sprint titles, 12 victories in all, and over $2.6 million in career earnings and now will begin a new career as a broodmare for new owner and breeder Mandy Pope, who purchased the mare for $3.1 million following her victory in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint.

“I’m so happy for Mandy and for Groupie, going out a winner like this,” said William ‘Buff’ Bradley, the only trainer the mare has known, and whose family mated Bowman’s Band to Deputy Doll which begat Groupie Doll. “Mandy has put so much into it; she walked up with the horse; she’s been there with her all week.”

Perhaps the six year old saved her best for last; from the Official chart footnote:

“Groupie Doll, slow to gather stride, dropped out of striking distance in the opening stages, gathered momentum nearing the bend, shifted outside advancing on the leaders five deep on her own courage through the bend, was urged to wrest command in that path entering the upper stretch, drew well clear under firm urging and was taken in hand in the final sixteenth once the issue was decided.”

Groupie Doll was nearly eight lengths behind after the first quarter-mile: “I love her going out a winner. Seeing her on the backside, I was about sick to my stomach. I just thought, ‘Man, she got left at the gate,” Bradley said. “There’s too much to do.” He was right, after the half, her deficit was 9-1/2 lengths. “But when she made that move on the turn, she was just gone.”

And now the champ’s gone from the racetrack and is off to the breeding shed.

Thanks for the memories, mommy.

“I Didn’t Think He Could Fly That High”—Falling Sky came to George Weaver last summer at Saratoga. The trainer took his time getting acquainted, tinkered with him a bit, and when he was ready for a run, shipped the colt to Laurel for his first start since the Kentucky Derby, where the Sam F. Davis winner beaten off in the slop by Orb, 53 lengths behind the winner.

He just had a terrible trip down there so Weaver shipped him down to his South Florida training base at Palm Beach Downs and began getting him ready for a four-year-old campaign, entering him in a Gulfstream allowance race on January 11. “We didn’t want to run him a mile but that was the only race they had.”

And he couldn’t have been too thrilled to see the name of Revolutionary on the overnight. Falling Sky made a winning effort setting the pace throughout but was worn down late by the Louisiana Derby winner, who was making his first start since the Belmont Stakes. Weaver thought that it would be a good race to build on. He had no idea how good it might be.

“We thought in that race, internally, he ran a very, very good seven furlongs. We thought cutting him back to seven-eighths today that he would run a big race. It was an awesome race.”

I watched the race live from the viewing stand with HRI’s Tom Jicha and after they went an eighth of a mile, I said they were going slow. When 22.61 seconds was posted a furlong later, I said: “See, I told you.”

Like Weaver, I was unprepared by what would follow. The next quarter was run in 21.76, the following one in 23.49—that’s three-quarters in 1:07.86! If that weren’t enough, he closed the deal with a final eighth of 12.79. The final time of 1:20.65 is a new stakes record.

The plan is to keep him around one turn for the time being. Would Weaver consider a year-end goal of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint? “Sure.” Can’t blame the trainer for being optimistic given Saturday’s going-away, 5-1/2 length romp.

Written by John Pricci

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