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 12, 2014

Lots of Winners and Losers on Final Big Prep Weekend

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 12, 2014—If you’re a Kentucky Derby fan, let’s put aside the parimutuel events of Saturday’s two final major preps, the Grade 1 Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby.

Based on Saturday's results, the big winners were Dance With Fate, who zoomed from Derby obscurity to third on the qualifying list, and Danza, also coming from nowhere to finish in sixth position.

Ride on Curlin’s Arkansas Derby placing was good enough to raise his seed to #12; Tapiture, safely in at #14 despite his disappointing Arkansas Derby, and Blue Grass runnerup Medal Count also appears safely in at #18.

Those that ran themselves out of serious consideration include Vinceramos, Harry’s Holiday, Big Bazinga, Coastline, Strong Mandate and Commissioner. Of those, Big Bazinga made a good effort to finish fourth in the Blue Grass but the rest disappointed--Strong Mandate and Commissioner in a big way.

Ultimately, we’ll find out whether or not Dance With Fate is well named, but this much is certain: Until approximately 6:40 p.m. on May 3rd, it will be enough to know that he can handles any footing, albeit excelling on synthetic ones.

Saturday’s completely authoritative score in the Blue Grass, ending the All-Weather Derby prep era in Lexington, now has a Grade 1 win to go with his Grade 1 placings in the 2013 Del Mar Futurity and Front Runner at Santa Anita.

With a turf victory at the allowance level two starts back, he’s now has won twice on synthetics and once on grass to go with a Grade 1 placing on dirt.

Well prepared by trainer Peter Eurton, he was confidently handled while moving wide into contention at headstretch beneath Corey Nakatani, racing under the line is full stride appearing not to reach bottom. It was an impressive run that validates his entry into the Derby.

In finishing second, Medal Count, winner of the G3 Transylvania on the Keeneland Poly eight days ago returned with an excellent effort, earned 40 qualifying points in the process and punched his ticket to Louisville if his people are so inclined.

Pacesetting Pablo Del Monte added a G1 stakes placing to go with his two prior daylight wins over the Keeneland surface at 2.

Any chance that defending Eclipse Award-winning owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey would have a third horse in the Louisville starting gate evaporated when the talented turf runner Bobby’s Kitten was unable to transfer that form to synthetic.

Neither of Todd Pletcher’s dirt horses made an impression: G3 Palm Beach grass winner Gala Award, obstreperous while being loaded, and G3 Sam F Davis winner and G2 Tampa Bay Derby runnerup, Vinceramos, never threatened at any time.

Well, you didn’t expect the Toddster to get shut out on such an occasion, did you? Quick, prior to Danza’s shocker in the Arkansas Derby, name the last runner he saddled that paid off at 41-1. You probably shouldn’t tax the gray matter on that one.

Much of the credit must go to not only Pletcher, who had Danza ready to win a solidly run Arkansas Derby off a single third-place finish at 7 furlongs March 1st at Gulfstream Park. The race was his fourth lifetime start and his first around two turns.

But the major props belong to Joe Carpe Diem Bravo, who shut up the fence with the Street Boss colt with five-sixteenths of a mile left to run. After establishing some separation soon after entering the straight, the stretch run lacked any real drama.

Now, before anyone thinks that Gary Stevens opened the rail with the formerly undefeated Bayern, he did his best to slow his speedy mount down throughout, keeping him about three paths wide all the way.

Racing wide of the fence helps runners to relax.

Bayern, meanwhile, was a sort of Samraat of the Arkansas Derby. Approaching midstretch it appeared he would finish out of the money but Stevens kept him alive and just missed the place spot to the late surging, six-wide rallying Ride On Curlin.

Ride On Curlin, getting a switch to Jon Court, is a good, very honest colt. Rating experiments generally don’t turn out well but this one did. He likely would have been significantly closer if not for the ground loss.

Coming off two big efforts, Tapiture was flat, failing to give Steve Asmussen his fourth winner of the day—all were ridden by Ricardo Santana, who lost the mount on Tapiture in favor of Joel Rosario. Sometimes the obvious move doesn’t turn out so well.

The Derby qualifying list is very interesting at the bottom with Cairo Prince and Uncle Sigh tied for 20th.

Should no one emerge from the last ditch Lexington next Saturday, it will be interesting to see how that scenario will shake out. Of course, three weeks is an eternity in Kentucky Derby time.

Written by John Pricci

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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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