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, April 05, 2014

California Chrome Was Wicked Strong

SOUTH OZONE PARK, NY, April 5, 2014—The first of Saturday’s prime time Derby prep double-header produced a colt unlike any other seen on the trail thus far, a horse that can come from off the pace successfully. All he needed was a fair surface.

Aqueduct provided that kind of ground Saturday and Wicked Strong provided the late kick, the same tack he used last year to come within a half-length of upsetting both Cairo Prince and Honor Code in the Remsen Stakes at the same Wood Memorial distance.

Now, with highly regarded Honor Code sitting out the Triple Crown with an injury and Cairo Prince squarely on the Derby fence with 24 qualifying points for the big dance, Wicked Strong vaulted himself into the role of strong Derby contender.

The colt has turn-move Derby style, finishes what he starts, and owns more than enough pedigree to get him 10 furlong. In Rajiv Maragh, he has a rider that gets along with him in a big way.

The allowance race that Wicked Strong exited had produced two next out winners including Florida Derby champion Constitution, and his sneaky-good fourth place finish there was good enough to produce a third on Saturday.

Can you say, right place, right time?

Wicked Strong was on the wise guy radar screen while the crowd was fascinated by Social Inclusion, a winner of both lifetime starts at Gulfstream Park by 17-1/2 non-threatened lengths. While he didn’t win the Wood, run in 1:49.31, the fastest running since Bellamy Road, he acquitted himself well.

It appeared Social Inclusion didn’t enjoy his first foray into New York. He galloped well enough over the Big A’s sand and loam earlier in the week but was bothered in the post parade, a little obstreperous and hot on a spring day in Gotham where the post time temp was a less than balmy 54 degrees.

Breaking from the extreme outside in a field reduced to 10 by the late scratch of Kid Cruz, Social Inclusion broke well enough but not a sharply as usual. Not only did that result in a loss of first-turn ground but the speedy Schivarelli had shaken loose and provided no willing target.

It took a bit more than five furlongs for him to shake clear of the leader, at which point formerly undefeated Samraat jumped all over him. To his credit the 8-5 choice opened ground but by midstretch he had begun to tire from the trip and perhaps the added half furlong as well.

Meanwhile, Samraat was resurgent but by this time Wicked Strong began to crank up big time on the stretch turn and was in full flight. It became apparent with a sixteenth of a mile remaining that this dance would be over.

The victor won with authority, even if he does continue to run a bit serpent-like down the lane. What that will mean in a 20-horse rodeo in a month’s time is anyone’s guess. But Derby style is important, and that issue is not in doubt.

“When I saw him laying five lengths off the lead just galloping I really felt we had a big shot,” said trainer Jimmy Jerkens. “I said to Rajiv ‘it’s great to save ground…but if you can get him to that crown on the stretch, go ahead’. They were taking off out there all day.”

Jerkens was asked about his prospects for this year’s Derby. Five years ago Jerkens was preparing Florida Derby winner Quality Road for the race but never made it to Louisville because of the colt’s serious quarter-crack issues.

“I’d love to get another crack at it, that’s for sure. Looks like a horse where distance won’t bother him.”

Despite suffering his first defeat in six starts, Rick Violette has not lost any confidence in Samraat; in fact, quite the opposite. “It’s his best race,” the trainer said.

“It’s the first time he’s been surrounded and covered up and he handled it. He came back three times. I thought he was going to be fourth, and he kept finding more, finding more. Good horses rally from this and get better. He got a huge education.”

Gary Contessa was realistic in his assessment of fifth finisher Uncle Sigh. “He broke a little awkwardly and was not quite the same horse. He was in behind horses for the first time and Corey [Nakatani] said he was very green. We expected to be right next to Samraat, not seventh and taking dirt.”

Manny Azpurua, the 85 year-old conditioner of Social Inclusion, also has lost little faith. “It was very good. Next time he’ll win; he’ll kill them.” But Azpurua might have to wait until the Preakness for that. Losing the place photo by a nose to Samraat gives him 20 qualifying points, unlikely to be enough.

Owner Ron Sanchez will also have to wait, too, next to a phone that might never ring. Reportedly offered $8 million for 75% of Social Inclusion before the Wood, he opted to roll the dice and wait until after the race. As for the Derby, his colt is in a four-way tie at 19th with 20 qualifying points.

About the 30 minutes after the Wood, California Chrome turned out to be everything Social Inclusion wasn’t and then some. California’s chestnut flyer was awesome, dominating the Santa Anita Derby by a geared-down 5-1/4 lengths beneath Victor Espinoza.

Like Samraat, he was surrounded, albeit briefly at the start after breaking a bit out of hand and getting jostled leaving the barrier. But he was quickly righted by Espinoza, assumed a comfortable stalking position outside maiden Dublin Up, opened ground quickly at headstretch and turned the storied West Coast fixture into a romp.

It will take something completely unexpected and otherworldly next weekend to prevent California Chrome from arriving in Louisville as a clear-cut Derby favorite. Rebel winning Hoppertunity ran very well but was daylight behind at the end.

As for Candy Boy, he seemed to come down with a case of Cairo Prince. The 55-day respite from the Robert B Lewis to the Santa Anita Derby produced a horse that appeared short of condition.

If the race was intended strictly as a prep, it can move the colt forward the right way—if indeed he makes it to Louisville. In finishing third, Candy Boy wound up with 30 points--likely enough but no cinch. He currently ranks 16th.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Constitution, Pletcher, Castellano Seize Florida Derby Day

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 29, 2014—There were many questions requiring answers, or at least some elucidation, at Gulfstream Park and the Fair Grounds going into the Kentucky Derby’s first Super Saturday:

Ever intense, Todd Pletcher takes measure of the competition.
Photo by Toni Pricci
Ever focused, Todd Pletcher takes measure of the competition.
Is Cairo Prince a special horse? Can Wildcat Red get all nine furlongs, never mind 10 five weeks from now? With a position outside and favorable dynamics, won’t General A Rod turn the Fountain of Youth tables and, finally, is Todd Pletcher asking too much of Constitution?

By the time the three-year-olds reached the finish line in Gulfstream Park’s premier event for horses of any age, the answers were: Probably not but impossible to say; Red stayed nine furlongs but 10 is something else entirely; no, and apparently not. In fact, Constitution will turn out to be even better than his undefeated record indicates.

His rider thinks so, his trainer thinks so, and so does the consortium that owns him.

“In his first race he broke bad, they went 22 and 44, and he still had something in the tank, that impressed me,” said Javier Castellano, the meet’s leading rider, who rode four other winners on the program, four for Florida Derby winning trainer Todd Pletcher. “I’ve never seen a first time starter do that the way he did,” Castellano added.

“I’m very, very proud of him,” said Pletcher, who added four winners to his meet leading total after having already secured his 11th consecutive Gulfstream trainer’s title weeks ago. Perhaps it even gave him a leg up on a seventh Eclipse Award.

“It’ a testament to the quality of horse he is,” Pletcher said of Constitution, “to go from a maiden to an allowance to a Grade 1, show a different running style and get some dirt in his face, putting in an effort like that against much more seasoned horses.”

And so the regally named Constitution--“we name horses like they’re going to be in the stud barn,” said co-owner Winstar Farm CEO Elliott Walden. The colt now will leave for Kentucky in about a month’s time trying to become the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win the Derby without having raced at 2.

Meanwhile, Kiaran McLaughlin will be going back to the drawing board with Cairo Prince who loomed a winner with that quick turn of foot at the three-eighths pole but failed to go on with it, appearing short of condition. It was his first start since winning the Holy Bull Stakes nine weeks ago.

“If we get in, we’re goin’,” McLaughlin of a Derby run. Right now Cairo Prince has 24 qualifying Derby points, including 10 earned for finishing fourth in the Florida Derby. “If it’s not enough, we’ll run somewhere else. He came up a little short. Maybe the nine weeks was telling on him.”

It is now Post Time.
Photo by: Toni Pricci
It is now Post Time.
Meanwhile, Wildcat Red has stamped himself, again, as the toughest member of this sophomore class. When hooked, he gives no quarter. “You know when you get in a battle with Wildcat Red it’s going to be tough. You’ve got to keep working to beat him,” said Pletcher.

“Probably the pace was too fast,” said trainer Mike Maker’s assistant Elesar Chavez. “We’ll see what Mike says for next time, but he looks like he can go longer and we’re going to look at the Kentucky Derby.”

Maker was not in Hallandale but in New Orleans, saddling Vicar’s In Trouble for the Ramseys to a comprehensive wire-to-wire victory in the Louisiana Derby over Intense Holiday, who defeated Maker’s colt in the Risen Star last time out.

Interestingly, Vicar’s In Trouble trained at Gulfstream under Maker’s direction instead of remaining in New Orleans. In fact, Maker left Chavez in charge here to tighten the girth on the speedy Louisiana-bred that will join stablemate We Miss Artie in the Louisville starting gate.

Louisville is next stop for Constitution
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Louisville is next stop for Constitution.
Harry’s Holiday could be Maker’s third Derby entrant, but he’s currently on the points bubble; 19th of 20. A synthetic specialist, Harry’s Holiday was runnerup to We Miss Artie in the Spiral Stakes. He could race again in Keeneland’s Lexington Stakes and make the cut.

Castellano, who had his choice of three mounts and chose Constitution to win his first Florida Derby, apparently will stay with Constitution in Louisville. “Can you put that in writing?” joked Walden, who was spun by Castellano last year when he chose Normandy Invasion over Revolutionary.

“Constitution,” blurted Castellano, when asked if he will stick with the Florida Derby winner five weeks hence. “It’s tough for a lot of people to choose… I want to thank everybody for [my first Florida Derby]. Mr. Pletcher has given me a lot of opportunities.”

“Javier is loyal and when the time comes, I’m sure he’ll make the right decision,” said a politically correct Walden.

Javier Castellano following his first Florida Derby win
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Javier Castellano following his first Florida Derby win.
BETS N’ PIECES: Gulfstream Park set a handle record of $26.8 million, eclipsing last year’s record total of $24.6 million….Had Matador upset the Florida Derby, one Rainbow Six player would have collected a record parimutuel payout of $4.9 million. As it stands now, the jackpot for Sunday is over $4.4 million.

Following Sunday’s program, racing will resume Friday when Gulfstream begins a three-day race week schedule…Castellano also proved the difference in the Gulfstream Park Oaks, repulsing the final bid of sentimental favorite House Rules with In Tune. House Rules was saddled by H. Allen Jerkens…Trainer Joe Orseno had speedball Happy My Way all wound up, winning the Sir Shackleton by a short pole beneath Joe Bravo. His next start will be here as Orseno will remain in South Florida instead of shipping to Monmouth for the summer…

Anjaz finally settled down and led a solid group of older turf filly and mare on a merry chase to win the G3 Orchid beneath Rajiv Maragh who shipped down from New York south for the ride. It was the Irish-bred filly’s first stakes win in the U.S…Joel Rosario timed the late run of Newsdad perfectly to take the G2 Pan American at 12 furlongs, The six year old Bill Mott trainee also won the Pan Am in 2012.

A prominent member of the Constitution entourage
Photo by: Toni Pricci
A prominent member of the Constitution entourage.
Castellano was prescient at Wednesday’s post draw. “I have a lot of confidence in Constitution and I think I’m going to have a pretty good day…” ...”I underestimated the lack of speed in the Louisiana Derby,” said Pletcher of Intense Holiday’s place finish. Constitution got through under a heady ride to in Hallandale; Intense Holiday had to steady between horses at a crucial stage but it likely would not have changed the outcome.

Kiaran McLaughlin is a class act coming into the press area after Cairo Prince was defeated to patiently answer questions and was not afraid to second-guess the results…Winstar Farm and Twin Creek Racing are a good match: “Elliott and I have been friends when we trained together. At the sales we seem to like the similar frame of horse and a similar price range,” said Randy Gullett, a member of the Twin Creek team with Steve Davison. “Instead of bidding against each other we decided to partner.”

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, March 28, 2014

Florida Derby 2014: More Than a Great Betting Race

For all the Florida-based three year olds, it's come down to today's Grade 1 Florida Derby featuring the deepest field of talented sophomores assembled this year. Indeed, only eight were entered and that's because the Big Four chased some of them out of town.

I'm still clinging to the notion that, of the top four contenders, Cairo Prince is the "best horse." But before I know that for sure, I need to see him win one more against this type of competition--off an eight week layup. The competition was earning its laurels, not resting on them.

We're taking General A Rod because the last time he raced, he was meeting a bulldog of a speed horse on a speed-favoring surface, that's why Javier Castellano put him in the game so early. Castellano rides the undefeated Constitution, the summize being that's he's riding for the trainer as much as he chose to ride the horse, having previously committed.

Joel Rosario is more than an able substitute, just as Johnny Velazquez need not play second fiddle to anymore and he takes the mount on Wildcat Red. The speed of the speed, the rail, Johnny and Gulfstream Park--they are going to take plenty of beating.

But we like the way Michael Maker has handled 'A Rod", today very much looking like a coming out party. And of the big four, we're of the opinion that his pedigree is most likely to win out at today's 9 furlongs and beyond.

Racing fans such as myself need not make a wager to enjoy this one, but I will be betting just the same--with both hands.

We're taking the opportunity provided by the Florida Derby to debut an example of what The Pricci Data Bank might look like when it's published sometime in the near future. In addition to an Energy Distribution projection, a performance figure that each horse in a race could earn--the higher the figure, the better--a letter grade that reflects variables to include a race shape-post position summary, jockey and trainer profile, workout analysis, and a surface-distance suitability report.

See Saturday's Feature Race Analysis for the Data Bank projections and letter grades and the usual betting strategy for the centerpiece of the Gulfstream championship meet

Written by John Pricci

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