John Pricci

HorseRaceInsider.com 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 MSNBC.com, 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, September 06, 2008


Trouble Lies Just Above the Surface


There’s a strong possibility that the first Saturday card of what used to be the Belmont Fall Championship Meet--but now could be termed the Fall Championship Prep Meet--might fall victim of Hannah, today’s forecast calling for as much as six inches of rain in the New York metropolitan area.

The first two of 10 Grade 1 events at this session, the Garden City for three-year-old fillies turf fillies and Ruffian for older females on dirt, are the focus of today’s program. These events are meant to build an Eclipse resume by either confirming established championship form or by throwing new hooves into the ring.

One of the elements that distinguishes this meet is the participation of European shippers which either are seeking Grade 1 credentials or establishing a front for an assault on the Breeders’ Cup, where championship scores can really change.

Yet today’s Garden City drew one, modest European shipper, Shaker, who brings a meager 1-for-9 slate across the pond despite competing in very moderate company. Shaker never has run in anything but listed stakes, sent off at double-digit odds in five of those nine starts.

This might be circumstantial evidence on which to build a case but with the Breeders’ Cup being run on the Left Course, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more of the same, i.e., less European participation at this meet than in past sessions.

While synthetic tracks like the one installed at Santa Anita is considered more Euro-friendly, the narrow turf course and balmy temperatures do not favor European style, particularly after a long, tough season on the expansive undulating courses of Europe.

But the Euros are not the only ones that might not support New York’s stakes program by prepping for the Cup at Belmont. Some of the locals figure to ship elsewhere to get a run over artificial ground, even if not all synthetic tracks are created equal. And that’s a problem.

According to David Grening’s on-line story at http://www.drf.com, Todd Pletcher and Kairan McLaughlin are sending at least one horse elsewhere to prep for the Cup on a synthetic surface. Last year, six Breeders’ Cup winners at Monmouth Park prepped at Belmont Park. This year, I’m betting under that total.

Even over conventional tracks, it’s tough for outlanders shipping into SoCal. In six editions of Breeders’ Cup, 20 of 43 race winners either prepped at a Southern California track or were SoCal-based. Indeed, West Coasters have won more than their fair share no matter what the venue.

Since all synthetics are not the same, it’s no given that Polytrack form will hold up on the new Pro-Ride track at Santa Anita, a surface that has drawn raves in Australia as a training surface. Same goes for Hollywood Cushion Track.

Based on empirical data, the news that Curlin will run in the Jockey Club Gold Cup is not necessarily great news for Belmont Park on Sept 27. Santa Anita’s Goodwood on the same day might be the more preferable option.

If you have to meet Curlin--if indeed that’s where the 2007 Horse of the Year runs after the JCGC--you might as well do so for all the marbles, on a foreign surface, and in a warm climate.

Like it or not, the Santa Anita surface will share the storyline with the horses at the 25th Breeders’ Cup. Synthetic tracks rule in California, and many of the prominent local horsemen have yet to land on the same page regarding the surface.

John Sherriffs, trainer of the mighty Zenyatta, told the LA Times this week that artificial surfaces are “too hard on young horses.” And that “being a logical person, and seeing how things are now, you ask yourself, why go against City Hall?”

Trainer Gary Sherlock said that the track was “pretty good” at the end of the meet, although he was among the minority, according to the story. Leading trainer John Sadler thought the speeding up of the Del Mar surface resulted in “not more, but different” injuries, while owner Tom Gerrity said it was “like running on concrete.” Gerrity had a filly suffer a broken knee in a training accident last month.

There’s no doubt that the tweaked Del Mar surface has been an improvement on the dirt surface of 2006 that helped produce 19 catastrophic breakdowns. Last year, that number was reduced to six; this year, eight. But there were 69 career or season-ending injuries in the first two weeks of the 2008 meet.

At Saratoga this summer, by comparison, there was one breakdown during the races, and that was on turf.

The synthetic surface controversy won’t end anytime soon. Said outspoken future Hall of Fame, Bob Baffert: “This was sold to us as being better than dirt. If it’s not better than dirt, why have it?”

That’s probably what the Belmont Park racing office will be thinking as it tries to fill its stakes races this fall.

Written by John Pricci

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