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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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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Monday, March 24, 2014

Turfway, Sunland Make Litttle Impact on HRI Power 10

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 23, 2014—The positioning in advance of Saturday’s entrance into the final round of playoffs for the big dance is over now that Saturday’s Spriral Stakes and Sunday’s Sunland Derby is in the books.

Wish I knew what to make of Turfway Park’s Polytrack bonanza. We Miss Artie picked up all the pieces with Johnny Velazquez, timing the last run exquisitely. The runnerup did most of the hard work chasing throughout, staying very well before getting tagged right at the wire.

Show finisher Coastline looked the part of a winner every step of the last half-mile of the 9 furlongs, sitting perfectly from close range outside, having things unfold for his benefit but disappointingly did not kick on to win, hanging badly through the final furlong.

The winner should have little difficulty getting 10 furlongs in six weeks but his problem is two-fold: can he get there fast enough on a dirt surface. And, thus far, he hasn’t been the same horse on anything other than grass or all-weather surfaces.

It’s easier to get a read on the Sunday’s Sunland Derby on dirt, and the 9-furlong time of 1:47.88 was two-fifths of a second off the track record. It was won on the pace by the speedy, classy stalker Chitu, who outlasted stablemate Midnight Hawk.

There’s a two-fold problem here as well: speed was deadly at Sunland on Sunday and his stablemate simply doesn’t finish what he starts in two-turn events. The surface carried Chitu home with Martin Garcia asking him for his life in the final furlong.

What the Kentucky Derby’s race shape doesn’t need at this point is another serious horse that races on or near the early lead. Of course, if the closer’s aren’t fast enough…

As a result, there wasn’t much shake-up in the HRI Power 10 this week except that California-based three-year-olds occupy three of the top five slots.

By Saturday nigh, however, we figure to be looking at a whole different ballgame. Finally, we’re approaching to the races that truly matter.

There certainly will be changes next week as half of the Power 10 is very likely to see action including Cairo Prince who has dominated the top position since the poll was first conducted five weeks ago.

Cairo Prince will almost certainly stamp himself the Derby favorite with a victory in Saturday’s Florida Derby, a position that only would be strengthened should Intense Holiday add the Louisiana Derby to his Risen Star triumph.

As colleague Tom Jicha noted last week, the 2014 sophomore class is still seeking a horse capable of stringing together back-to-back graded stakes; thus far there have been 17 graded events each boasting a different hero.

The HRI Kentucky Derby Power 10, Week 5

1. Cairo Prince (36)
2. Candy Boy (26)
3. Tapiture (22)
4. (tie) California Chrome (18)
4. (tie) Hoppertunity (18)
6. Intense Holiday (12)
7. Wildcat Red (10)
8. Samraat (8)
9. General A Rod (7)
10. Strong Mandate (5)

The HRI Power 10 is a consensus of HRI staffers and contributors, written by John Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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