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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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

For Horse Trainers, Doing Good Work Is Not Enough

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 16, 2009--Why is Todd Pletcher the trainer of Quality Road? For that matter, why is Rachel Alexander under the care of Steve Asmussen?

Were Jimmy Jerkens and Hal Wiggins, respectively, some kind of underachieving slackers?

How can 71-year-old Bennie Stutts, who made a career looking for a talented horse like Smooth Air and developed him into a multiple graded-stakes winner and earner of nearly $1-million, be left holding a shank with nothing on the business end?

Under Stutts, Smooth Air brought a lifetime mark (14) 6-3-3, including three G2 wins, into the prestigious Metropolitan Handicap recently at Belmont Park. It was his first start since suffering from colic and necessitating his being declared from the G3 Texas Mile.

After getting legged up at Calder for his first start in three months, Smooth Air ran a winning race in the Met, only to just miss with a gritty placing to a more seasoned rival, the accomplished mile specialist, Bribon.

The horse is now in the barn of a budding training star, youthful Chad Brown, who, while accomplished, has not been around long enough to be described as the Flavor of the Month--more like a Flavor of the Week.

But that’s just how it is in the game these days, especially of late. But it’s not the kind of scenario that develops just at the very highest, glamour levels.

Trainer John Toscano Jr. basically has been a claiming trainer all his life. He did flirt with the Kentucky Derby a few years ago with the success of Lanes End Stakes winner Sinister G., and has saddled several New York-bred stakes winners.

Back in the day when he first started out, Toscano had to cash bets to survive. I know this first hand. It was the late 1960s when there were as many people in section 3P of the Aqueduct grandstand as there are now in attendance on any winter’s afternoon in New York.

This past January, Toscano claimed Eldaafer from Kiaran McLaughlin for $20,000. After being haltered, Eldaafer won two races, including a starter allowances, and finished a wide-trip third to Atoned in the Nasty N Bold overnight stakes, May 27.

Sometime between May 27 and June 5, the owner, racing as an LLC, transferred Eldaafer to the barn of Diane Alvarado, a former assistant to David Jacobson. Clearly, Alvarado figures to get her ticket punched to the Hall of Fame because within a matter of days she transformed Eldaafer into a winner of the $200,000 Grade 2 Brooklyn Handicap.

No one ever said life is fair but stuff like this turns bad luck into a dirty name.

Toscano lived with Eldaafer for four months, allowed the four-year-old gelding to mature, fixed the issues that turned the former allowance runner into a $20,000 claimer, found his hole card and turned him into a graded stakes winner.

Unlike Asmussen, who had class enough to credit Wiggins on multiple occasions from the Preakness Stakes winner’s circle, there was no mention of Toscano from the new trainer in a TVG interview following the Brooklyn on Belmont Stakes eve.

There was only the owner saying how he claimed the horse after studying the pedigree--as if it takes a genius to roll the dice for $20,000 for an offspring of A.P. Indy, from the multiple stakes-winning mare, Habibti.

I can’t understand how on Belmont Stakes morning Toscano could wake up before sunrise and want to drive to his barn on the Belmont Park backstretch. What’s the point? What does a trainer have to do to make a few dollars in the racing business?

How could any horseman have done better work than Toscano did this winter with Eldaafer? How does any trainer like Toscano survive? To love this game is to sometimes be cursed by the gods.

This is not about the relative merits of the four new trainers. All are having good years and two are a cinch to wind up in the Hall of Fame. I just don’t understand how trainers with 200 horses can do a better job than those that train 20 or 30 head?

Pletcher was not the only trainer to profit from Q.R.’s owner’s largesse. Tony Dutrow and Kiaran McLaughlin were other recipients of horses formerly in Jerkens’ care. In three years, Jerkens won at nearly a 19 percent rate for Edward Evans with over $2 million in earnings.

Despite the burgeoning number of so-called super trainers, not all owners harbor unreasonable expectations.

Marc Keller--who’s been enjoying the sport a lot more since Grand Couturier won back to back renewals of the G1 Sword Dance and Bribon won the Met Mile--stood by trainer Bobby Ribaudo through leaner times, continuing to invest his money in moderately price high-quality stock until it paid off.

Saul and Max Kupferberg remained loyal to John Parisella even when their horses no longer were competitive at NYRA tracks. Now, after investing money in acquiring new horses, they’re winning regularly again.

These are the kind of sporting owners, the ones who invest in human relationships as well as bloodstock, that are a pleasure to cheer for. If there were more like them the whole industry would be better off.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Einstein Luckless in Foster, Seattle Is Smooth in Phipps, and One Really Hot Filly

ELMONT, NY, June 13, 2009--Meanwhile, if you want to beat Anthony Dutrow, you’re going to need another sheikh.

Such was the dominance of the Godolphin-Darley Stable connections that started Music Note, Seventh Street and Sea Chanter under one flag in Saturday’s Grade 1 Ogden Phipps Handicap.

The three-ply entry was thought to be so powerful that the New York Racing Association canceled show betting, something they don’t normally do.

In the past, their policy has been to bite the bullet in the name of good public relations and huge show handle.

It turned out to be the right decision since Seventh Street and Sea Chanter finished second and third, returning the minimum $2.10 to place in the one-turn mile and a sixteenth.

So, next time bring another sheikh, and whomever else you like, because next time Seattle Smooth, who extended her win streak to five with a strong finish rally beneath Ramon Dominguez to get up by a head in 1:42.13 on the fast track, is going to be double tough
“I do think Seattle Smooth is a very good two-turn filly,” said winning trainer Dutrow. “She was good today, she had to be, but I like her at two turns and I know she loves Saratoga.”

Perhaps the competition shouldn’t show up at all for the G1 Go for Wand on August 2 at the Spa. Zenyatta likely would beat her but then how would anyone know?

Wonder how Seattle Smooth is going to like two turns on a Pro Ride surface?

Speaking of fillies, a quick one broke her maiden at Churchill Downs in the sixth race on the Stephen Foster undercard.

Hot Dixie Check was very impressive, running off the screen for Steve Asmussen and Robby Albarado. She looks like a cinch to show up for the opening day Schuylerville. She runs for the Grace Stable of Barbara Banke, a.k.a. Mrs. Jess Jackson.

And finally the old saw about if it weren’t for bad luck… Clearly, Einstein didn’t have any of the good kind, trying to jam his way between horses, stopped, altered inward, re-rallied, and just missed the place.

The horse that beat him for second, Asiatic Boy, didn’t have a good trip either, looking for the same hole as Einstein but was luckier in that he was able to get outside for running room, a gamer-than-Tracy second.

But Macho Again, finally, after two years of trying in top company, got his Grade 1 under a confident and clever Robby Albarado, who had himself a day at the Downs yesterday.

Clearly, the G3 Alysheba prep worked for him, as he stretched to his best distance and looped the group despite moderate fractions. At nine furlongs with the right trip, Macho Again can beat almost any man’s horse.

With his newly found confidence, hopefully he’ll do just that, albeit a bit more consistently. Good job all around.

Written by John Pricci

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It Doesn’t Take a Genius to Recognize a Unique Thoroughbred

ELMONT, NY, June 12, 2009--All you need to know about the seven year old Einstein, aside from the fact that he’s been considered the leading thoroughbred in America for the past month and a half, you can find in the past performances of three of his last four starts:

May 2nd Churchill Downs: The Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic on the Kentucky Derby undercard: First by a hard fought head.

Mar. 7th Santa Anita: Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap: First by a length.

Nov. 28th Churchill Downs: The Grade 2 Clark Handicap: First by a length and a half.

Already a major winner on three disparate surfaces, what he will attempt today will make history. With a victory in today’s G1 Stephen Foster, he will become the first horse ever to sweep three Grade 1 races on different surfaces in the same year: artificial, turf and dirt.

In any other year, this singular distinction might make him an odds-on choice to capture a Horse of the Year title. But this is no ordinary season, especially when the competition looming on the horizon is of the female persuasion.

Rachel Alexander, if she stays within her division and wins out the rest of the year, coupled with her Preakness Stakes victory, would make a most compelling case for the ultimate honor.

So would Zenyatta, should she remain undefeated and stretch that achievement to 14 straight victories in major competition, surpassing Hall of Famer Personal Ensign.

Isn’t it amazing how difficult this game can be? Maybe that’s why most true thoroughbred racing fans stay engaged their entire lives.

In last year’s Foster, Einstein finished second to a horse named Curlin. In 2008, Einstein also was winning his first of two Turf Classics. Somehow calling him honest does him a disservice. A very cool horse would be more like it.

Further, to say that Helen Pitts-Blasi does a good job with him would also be to understate the case. She has managed his career through a remarkable (25) 11-3-2 lifetime campaign with winnings of over $2.6 million, most of it earned the hard way.

Turf probably is his best game, as his 7-for-17 record suggests, although he is 1-for-1 on Polytrack and 2-for-3 with one placing on the Churchill Downs main track. He is 3-for-5 beneath today’s rider, Julien Leparoux.

No Grade 1 is ever easy and, while there are no household names in today’s cast, there are some accomplished hard hitters in the group. On performance figures, Einstein is not especially fast, he just wants to beat you, doing whatever it takes to win.

Finallymadeit (8-1) is at least as fast as today’s 124-pound highweight who’s spotting from two to 11 pounds to his rivals. The Florida-based five year old finished ahead of Einstein when second in the G1 Donn Handicap. Given his speed and heart, he always takes some beating.

Fastest on performance figures is the gelded five-year-old Researcher (4-1), fresh off a victory in the Charles Town Classic and the winner of half his eight starts at today’s nine furlongs, with three seconds.

Asiatic Boy, a major Group winner in Europe and Dubai, is the overnight second choice (7-2) and debuts for the Kiaran McLaughlin-Alan Garcia team. A winner of over $3-million via a 7-for-15 lifetime mark, he’s won two of three at the distance and makes his first start with Lasix off a strong Belmont Park workline.

And then there’s the somewhat enigmatic four year old, Macho Man (10-1), who’s won half his four starts at Churchill and is 2-for-5 at today’s trip. He attracts Robby Albarado and has been working bullets at the Louisville track.

In his last start, Churchill’s G3 Alysheba, Macho Man raced extremely wide on the turn and into the stretch, losing any chance. That trip made sense if it was an intended prep for today‘s Grade 1.

But Einstein (2-1) does want to beat you and he probably will never have a better opportunity to win a G1 on the main track, Churchill being his preferred dirt surface. He couldn’t be coming up to the race any better, especially considering that Pitts-Blasi is a profitable 27 percent efficient with her turf-to-dirt runners.

Post time for the Stephen Foster is slated for 5:29 PM EDT and is one of five graded stakes on the program, featuring an all-stakes Pick Four.

Why a 50-Cent All-Graded-Stakes Pick Five is not being offered admittedly is way above my pay grade..

Written by John Pricci

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