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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Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Romancing of a Crown

ELMONT, NY, June 7, 2009--Maybe it was their youth, or the lack of what big-market snobs might call sophistication. But, in any case, Chip Woolley and Tim Ice were a very welcome addition to the Triple Crown trail.

Self effacement isn’t in the playbook of what one HRI reader referred to as hair-sprayed trainers with a mega-stable. Another fan commented it truly was the Triple Crown of the little guy, correctly crediting Hal Wiggins with Rachel Alexandra’s Preakness victory.

Not only was the humility of Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winning trainers forever on display but so too was their loyalty. Only until after repetitious media questioning did Woolley allow slip that Calvin Borel’s Belmont ride was less than satisfactory.

“We just got beat, outrun,” Woolley said over and over, as if he knew no one was buying it. “I managed to get him beat twice at Sunland Park,” the analogy went, but no one was swallowing that one, either.

Calvin Borel was given all the time he needed by Woolley to await the Belmont decision of Rachel Alexandra’s people because, he said: “I owe him; he won me a Derby.” And on the morning after the Belmont Stakes he doggedly refused to toss Borel under a yellow cab.

Didn’t Woolley think the inside was the best part of the drying surface last Saturday? “We were pretty busy around here and I only saw a couple of races.”

Finally, only after more questioning about the rail path being the best part of Saturday’s surface, he allowed this: “Probably so.”

And, now, the perceived premature move? “The early move killed him.”

It took persistence but Woolley conceded what most objective observers were thinking, before permitting himself to wax on the whole experience: “This has been great. [The five weeks] flew by. I’ve really enjoyed it because I may never be in this position again.”

Any regrets regarding the Preakness placing and his third place Belmont finish? “He ran in all three and showed up every time. [If I had to] give up the other two, I much rather win the Derby.”

Don't you just love it when political correctness finishes a bad second to candor?

Woolley then reminded his questioners that Mine That Bird also is a multiple winner over a synthetic surface, so the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Pro Ride is the new goal.

And so Woolley will point his gelding to the Classic and work backward from there in seeking the best route to So Cal. He‘ll consider “all the races you already know.”

He then was asked to volunteer an opinion on various state of the game issues. On changing the Triple Crown: “Who am I to argue with Wayne Lukas?”

On New York racing and slots revenue: “New Mexico only has 1.5 million people and they handle one-hundred million a year on slots. Imagine what they could do here? They could fix all the potholes. I can’t understand why any state would allow money to cross its borders.”

And the game itself: “My biggest thrill in racing [as a fan] was watching Holy Bull win the Blue Grass at Keeneland. Horses need to come back and be the star of the show.”

At 35, the trainer of Summer Bird, Tim Ice, is 10 years younger than Woolley and has been training on his own for all of 13 months. But his father trained horses and he’s been around them since he was 13. It was something he needed to do, and it shows.

In this short period Ice has become responsible for 25 head, about half belonging to Drs. Kalarikkal and Vilasini Jayaraman, the owner/breeders of Summer Bird.

Ice has toiled in the relative obscurity of Louisiana Downs but that all changed in a little more that 2 minutes, 27 seconds last Saturday. Next year he’d like to move his operation to the northeast, perhaps to Delaware Park, maybe even New York.

At no time Sunday morning was there a sense from Ice what he just 13 hours earlier, except for a cell phone that had been ringing incessantly from 4:30 AM with congratulatory messages.

So, then, how did he celebrate his 35th birthday and winning the Belmont Stakes on the same day. “I was here [barn 12-A at Belmont Park] until 10 o’clock then went back to the hotel.”

The most significant day of his young life, however, might have been January 29, the day Summer Bird arrived at his Louisiana Downs barn from California. “I have to thank ‘Dr. Jay’ for sending him to me and giving me this opportunity.”

Consider that debt paid in full.

And the confidence showed by the owners already has paid dividends. Even before Summer Bird won the Belmont Stakes two owners approached him and asked Ice to train their horses. But it remained all about the horse.

“From the first day, [Summer Bird] acted very classy. John Sadler had him in California and thought he was a nice colt. He had trained very well out there so now the Breeders’ Cup is in our thinking.”

And so is Saratoga. “Originally, we were thinking about the Secretariat Stakes [Grade 1 on turf for three-year-olds] but after yesterday I’m not so sure.

“People tell me you have to go to two places, Del Mar and Saratoga,” said Ice. “I’ve been to Del Mar, and to take a horse like this and go to Saratoga would be amazing.

Ice will get there via the Jersey Turnpike. Next up will be the $1-million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park then, if all goes well, the Travers.

“This whole thing was unbelievable. Watching the horse come down the stretch was like an out-of-body experience.”

And, so, the 135th Derby winner arrived at Churchill Downs in the back of a old pickup and wound up on the cover of Sports Illustrated. A 35-year-old trainer made his bones testing a champion. A filly dropped out of the sky to win a Preakness and do a photo shoot for another female who always gets her way, Anna Wintour. America had a love affair with a selfless, two-legged athlete and a stud horse became a superstar with his very first foal crop. What could have been better?

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Quality Rival Awaits Saratoga

ELMONT, NY, June 7, 2009--Inside Barn 56 at Belmont Park, hard by the training track, Jimmy Jerkens was sitting on the other end of a shank while a blacksmith applied a new set of shoes.

It was now about 40 minutes since he was applying a curry comb to a horse called Shine Upon.

“It’s busy this morning. If you want to talk you’ll have to come over here,” Jerkens said.

No worries, even if the hour was approaching 11 AM, late in a racetracker’s work day. But there were still chores to be done, especially if you’re a hands-on horseman, one who learned from one of the very best.

Meanwhile, around the corner and three stalls down, Quality Road was having his feet done up by groom Greg Fredericks.

“He’s getting to be a little bit of a handful now, getting rank. He wants to do something,” Fredericks said. “I think he’s gonna’ breeze real soon.

“I‘ve been doing this for 20 years and never had a horse pop one on me before. Finally, I get a horse like this, and he pops two,” said Fredericks, who by this time was applying the first of two tall standing bandages to the colt‘s hind legs.

The Florida Derby champion is still licking his wounds after popping two quarter cracks in preparation for the Kentucky Derby. Saturday was Belmont day and, instead, the division’s protem leader in March was in his stall and missing the entire Triple Crown series.

Was Jerkens a little disappointed when he saw the horse his colt turned away in the Florida Derby, Dunkirk, come again to save the place in the Belmont Stakes, outfinishing Derby hero Mine That Bird?

“Not really, what can you do? All three horses ran great--and you couldn’t do any better than those three races. These [three-year-olds] are a lot better than people want to give them credit for.”

For those unfamiliar with Jerkens, or his legendary Hall of Fame father, H. Allen Jerkens, the word that would best describe them both is phlegmatic.

They neither get too high nor too low, allowing for an occasional smile when most trainers would be over the moon. At times they speak so softly you have to strain to hear them. But they always have something to say.

“He’s healing real good under the patch,” he said. “We had him re-patched and re-shod yesterday. He’s galloping again, anyway. He may breeze real soon.”

The irony that he was re-patched and shod on the morning of the Belmont Stakes was lost on no one. And, in a perfect world, what to do from this point forward?
“We hope to have him ready for the Jim Dandy.”

But having a horse racing fit and ready to take on the division’s best is another matter. Is Jerkens concerned that the other three-year-olds could surpass Quality Road in physical development and maturity?

“You see it every year,” he said. “It‘s what happens with these young horses.”

I went back around the corner to take another look at Quality Road before leaving. By now he was almost done up in all fours, continuing to stand quietly, an intelligent, good patient, as laid back as his handlers.

The athletic barrel so prominent in the Florida Derby walking ring was still there but appeared less defined. Certainly nothing that a little exercise couldn’t cure. Providing, of course, the healing process continues unabated.

Should he make it all the way back--to the same colt that was on display last fall in New York and this winter in Florida--he promises to make racing’s second season very interesting.

Quality Road’s style gives him a tactical edge over his main rivals, one that also makes him a serious challenger to the Preakness winning filly, Rachel Alexandra, should she venture back into open competition against males.

“But we can’t have any setbacks from here on,” Jimmy Jerkens said.

The next morning, Fredericks got his wish, the colt got some exercise, and Jerkens got an idea how the new patch is holding up. Barely a lung opener, he worked three-eighths of a mile in :38.83, breezing. Hopefully, it was a good first step back.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, June 06, 2009

Due Diligence Could Have Altered Outcome for Team Borel

ELMONT,NY, JUNE 6, 2009--And so, in this most unusual of Triple Crown seasons, it was a son of Birdstone--the sire that upset Smarty Jones in this classic in 2004--that upset this year’s 6-5 Belmont Stakes favorite, another son of Birdstone, 50-1 Kentucky Derby pin-up Mine That Bird, and denied jockey Calvin Borel his ticket to racing immortality.

Before the excuses for Mine That Bird begin, stop and pay tribute to Summer Bird and his trainer Tim Ice, who decided after the colt finished a strong third in the Arkansas Derby in only his third lifetime start, that the classic on the first Saturday of June was more appropriate for his horse than the one run on the first Saturday in May.

It was a Cajun delight all right, but not the one the crowd or Calvin Borel was anticipating. Borel will be lamenting what might have been tonight while fellow Cajuns Tim Ice and Kent Desormeaux will pop a couple of cold ones and suck on the heads of more than a few crawfish.

For Desormeaux, it was vindication for last year’s Belmont debacle aboard a failed Triple Crown champion, the odds-on favorite Big Brown, and relieves the bitter taste left by Real Quiet.

At about the same point of the turn that Desormeaux began pulling up Big Brown and easing him to the finish, the same point on the track that Birdstone went after Smarty Jones five years ago, Desormeaux first found a seam.

And after saving ground down the long backstretch on the best part of the Belmont surface this day, the inside, Desormeaux allowed his forward momentum to carry him outside for a free run at the battling leaders, who were now beginning to tire.

Desormeaux timed his move perfectly, winding up 2-¾ lengths to the good of Dunkirk, the rail path enabling him to come again to displace Mine That Bird, who fired prematurely and wide, tiring to finish third, a neck behind Dunkirk.

After the agonizing defeat on Real Quiet and the inglorious Big Brown fiasco, Desormeaux's well engineered ride, his fourth winner on the card, gave him his first Belmont victory.

For birthday boy Tim Ice, who brought a fresh horse to Belmont to win the champion’s test in only the colt’s fifth lifetime start, there’s nothing like celebrating your 35th in the winners’ circle following a classic.

The week must have seen like a blur to Borel, seeing himself on Leno and Letterman and, ringing the bell Thursday at the New York stock exchange, the social gatherings, the sightseeing with fiancée Lisa Funk.

So he took a week off from work, the week before the biggest day of his professional career. Without older brother Cecil to keep him focused, the responsibility fell on long time friend and agent, Jerry Hissam.

It made no sense to have not a single ride on the undercard. Actually, he had one, in a grass race, and took off that mount. Worse, it wasn’t clear watching Calvin ride Mine That Bird that he watched any of the races that occurred earlier in the day.

Here’s what Borel would have seen, according to official chart footnotes: First winner: “Moved through on rail to gain the lead“... Second: “Set rapid pace in two path, angled in…” Third: “Well placed along the rail.”

Fabulous Strike went wire to wire in the two-path. Gabby’s Golden Gal sprinter clear soon after the start (from post two going a mile). Munnings “moved up quickly along inside.” And, finally, the Belmont:

Dunkirk “sprinted clear along the rail…fought back gamely along the rail…” And Summer Bird: “Steadied along the rail… Raced in traffic on the inside…”

What Borel did was to circle the field four wide on the final turn. The fraction from the mile marker to the mile and a quarter point in the race went in :23.80. Mine That Bird made up 5-½ lengths, making his mid-move a ridiculous :22 3/5 with a quarter mile left to run. Mine That Bird was beaten three lengths for all of it. The ground loss and premature move was too much to overcome.

Borel didn't see it the same way, but this is where he crawls in a little deeper. "I knew the fence wasn't good," he said. "It's kind of deep down there... It's very--track is deep, you know. If anything, maybe moved a little earlier than I was supposed to...I wasn't going to take the race out of him because I knew someone was going to plod on this and beat us, and that's what happened."

And then, this: "Not that I moved him too early. It might have looked like he was a little fresher but they're going a mile and a half. Like I said, maybe might have moved a little tad early but he took me there... When they're moving that easy and the horses are coming back to you that fast, it might look like he got there quicker."

That's why this is a humbling game. Borel gave the kind of ride many informed people called the greatest race ride they've ever seen. But that was at home, where Borel won the bulk of his 4,500 races. This wasn't home, this was the infamous Big Sandy.

Calvin did not give it, or the race's history, enough respect. He rode overconfidently, having to justify the kind of pressure making guarantees places on you. He should have known better. And if he didn't, that's what agents are for. Friends don't let friends ride cold. Borel would have found no shortage of live mounts in one of the five undercard stakes.

Hopefully, he will learn from the experience. People are still rooting for him and Woolley said that he would ride him back next time out no matter where that race turns up.

Borel made the kind of move that gets you beat in this classic. The ride Desormeaux gave Summer Bird is the kind that wins Belmonts. Ask Tim Ice and the colt's owners, the Doctors Jayaraman.

Then ask the people at Gainesway Farm just outside Lexington. They probably could give you chapter and verse on just how America's hottest stud horse won a classic at Belmont Park, too.

And then consider that Summer Bird was the best horse on Saturday and that Mine That Bird, under the circumstances, might have been as well. In this game, that's as close as one gets to a win-win.

Written by John Pricci

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