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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Sunday, November 30, 2008


All Too Familiar Tale of Triumph and Tragedy


South Ozone Park, NY, November 29, 2008--It matters not whether you’re a horse lover or a horseplayer; if you love this game there are days when it will break your heart. It was one of those days yesterday at Aqueduct Racetrack.

If you wagered on Tale of Ekati to win the Cigar Mile, you were rewarded as justice was served. But if you love the animals, too, it was difficult to watch.

Imagine for a minute that you were Larry Jones, who announced earlier this year that 2009 would be his last as a trainer. And after the Remsen it would appear that “Cowboy Larry” might take one good, final shot at the Kentucky Derby before hanging up his hat in the stable office.

But first he needed to experience déjà vu all over again.

Before saddling Old Fashioned, the undefeated odds-on favorite to win the 95th Remsen Stakes, he got one more haunting reminder of what had happened to the horse he had trained for this year’s classic.

In no small way was it ironic what happened to the impressive winner of the Grade 2 nine-furlong Demoiselle for juvenile fillies. Beneath Garrett Gomez, Springside had come from last to annihilate five other females including G1 Frizette winner Sky Diva--the 35 cents to a dollar favorite--by 9-½ widening lengths.

But then, at about the same spot Eight Belles began to go wrong at Churchill Downs, Springside took a bad step.

“As she was galloping out she swapped leads and I heard a pop,” explained Gomez. “All the way around she was very willing. When I moved to the outside she was really impressive. She never indicated that anything was wrong. Hopefully, I got her stopped in time.”

Gomez jumped off the filly before reaching the mile pole on the lower first turn and his quick reaction might have saved her. Trainer Josie Carroll barely had an eighth of a mile to celebrate the runaway victress of the 87th renewal of the G2 fixture.

According to Dr. Greg Bennett, Springside suffered a fracture to her right-front pastern. It was not comminuted, the skin was in tact, but neither was a simple break. The filly will be shipped to the New Bolton Center at Pennsylvania University Sunday morning for observation. New Bolton was home to Barbaro in his final days after the Preakness.

In the Grade 1 Cigar, Wanderin Boy wasn’t as fortunate. He shattered his left-front sesamoid bones and, unable to be saved, was euthanized shortly after 5 p.m.

Wanderin Boy had chased the pace of speedy California invader Monterey Jazz throughout a strongly run race and he went wrong soon after he and John Velazquez reached the top of the straight. In two previous starts he was third, then second, to reigning Horse of the Year Curlin in the G1 Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup, respectively.

Meanwhile, Tale of Ekati followed the leader from fourth while saving ground under Edgar Prado in the Cigar. Soon after entering the straight, the team shot through an opening on the fence to take command but quickly was replaced by Harlem Rocker who lugged in at that exact juncture, forcing Prado to take up and alter course outside.

Tale of Ekati re-rallied gamely but failed to catch the leader by a nose in 1:35.01. Clearly, he had more than a nose worth of trouble and was awarded the win. Todd Pletcher, trainer of Harlem Rocker, didn't see it that way. "Tale of Ekati didn't appear to really check and he had every opportunity to go by our horse. In my opinion he was never going by. I'll talk to [owner Frank Stronach] and see if he wants to appeal the ruling."

Bribon and Arson Squad finished strongly as a team for third and fourth, Bribon doing a head better in the late going.

In the end, however, it was this year’s maligned three-year-old class that had finished one-two vs. their elders in the final Grade 1 of the New York season.

And now it looks as if Jones will have a highly promising three-year-old for his final season as a trainer.

Old Fashioned broke like a shot, taking early command before jockey Ramon Dominguez backed down the pace. Under control in moderate fractions, Old Fashioned improved his lead with Dominguez motionless until midstretch, where he resorted to light, left-handed encouragement to keep his colt running a straight course. Appropriately, his time of 1:50.33 was 1.38 seconds faster than filly Springside.

Old Fashioned raced his final three furlongs in a very worthy :36.15, a final eighth in :12.22. “They let us run out there pretty easy,” said Jones, assessing his horse’s performance. “I was very grateful to see the fractions, especially as they came around the far turn.”

“It was pretty impressive,” said Dominguez, stating the obvious.

If Old Fashioned is the goods, then perhaps runnerup Atomic Rain has a future, too, despite finishing 7-¼ lengths behind. The Smart Strike colt was making his first start since breaking his maiden going five furlongs at Monmouth Park on June 5, making the Remsen a very tall order given the severe rise in class and distance.

“He ran well,” said Prado, taking the ride for trainer Kelly Breen. “Unfortunately, the winner had everything his own way. But I was proud of him.”

Breen’s assistant, Miguel Santiago, was just as happy. “I think he’s got a bright future ahead of him. We’ll take him to Florida for the winter, regroup, and look ahead to next year.”

But now that undefeated Old Fashioned has gotten nine furlongs without too much difficulty, the question becomes whether he will get 10. “Judging by today,” answered Dominguez, “there’s no telling how far he can go.”

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, November 28, 2008


Today’s Stakes Programs: Past, Present and Future


South Ozone Park, NY, November 29, 2008--I’m a little jazzed about the middle of this big holiday weekend. Not only is it the best racing weekend remaining in 2008 but it should provide a glimpse as to what to expect next season.

The focal point is the youngsters, spearheaded by Churchill Downs’ Stars of Tomorrow program--all two-year-olds all the time on the closing-day program--Aqueduct’s Remsen and Demoiselle and Hollywood Park’s Miesque Stakes.

Also of consequence locally is the Grade 1 Cigar Mile. In addition to whatever light Friday’s Clark might have shed on the 2009 handicap division, the class not only is crying out for a leader but looking for any definition at all.

What that means is some members of this year’s much maligned three-year-old class--colts not good enough to be purchased by a sheikh and shuttled off to the breeding shed--must step up. It’s not unreasonable to think that some might do just that.

Besides, a three-year-old won the inaugural 20 years ago when Forty Niner took the NYRA Mile, the forerunner of the Cigar. So, could that be Visionaire or Kodiak Kowboy? The undefeated Storm Play or Harlem Rocker? Tale of Ekati?

It’s not likely to be either of the first two. Both are sprint/miler meant; the former a late-runner, the latter being faster but distance challenged. Storm Play could be any kind, as racetrackers say. He’s already won at nine furlongs and all three wins were in fast time.

Harlem Rocker, meanwhile, is a winner at both eight and nine and a half furlongs, but his form and scheduling has been a bit spotty, indicating some nagging issue perhaps. But he appears to be an individual that could improve with age. Which leaves Tale of Ekati.

Barclay Tagg’s colt is nothing if not enigmatic. Some days he leads you to think he’s a world beater. Other days he lifts your wallet. And he needs to show he’s the same class away from Aqueduct and while his Wood score did come at a mile and an eighth, his perceived ability to go farther doesn’t inspire confidence.

Maybe four-year-old Monterey Jazz, an absolute monster winning the G3 Texas Mile by eight lengths but hasn’t run since, is that horse. But he was much better when he got off the synthetic surface and, of course, the Breeders’ Cup returns to Pro-Ride next season. But first things first, like today’s Grade 1.

For myself and many others, though, it’s about the babies of either sex and next year’s classics. There are five juvenile races in New York, an even dozen at Churchill, and three more at Hollywood, which is enough future for anyone.

Aqueduct’s Remsen and Demoiselle are interesting, requiring horses advanced enough in fitness to handle nine furlongs.

At first blush, fans of Sky Diva might have been disappointed with her Juvenile Fillies effort but they shouldn’t be. She moved forward on the synthetic track while finishing third by three lengths to the remarkable certain champion, Stardom Bound, despite spotting her experience in a less than perfect-trip try. Sky Diva acts like she wants to run all day, resembling more her grand-sire (Unbridled) than sire (Sky Mesa). She’s supposed to win this.

The Remsen is more challenging. On Equiform performance figures, not so much. Old Fashioned, shipping in for Larry Jones, is a layover. And Jones, considering his entrant goes second-time Lasix, second-time long, and moving into graded stakes company, is profitable in all relevant categories.

But there are interesting alternatives. Idol Maker earned an excellent figure with winning his debut at Belmont going a mile, showing good energy distribution for Todd Pletcher. Rip Rap Rip is not as fast as either, but has an experience edge and never has gone backwards. American Dance is slower still, but is learning quickly.

At Churchill, the Golden Rod and Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, like their Big A counterparts, is Grade 2 but each is a sixteenth of a mile shorter. The Golden Rod should yield plenty of clues about heavy favorites Sara Louise (8-5) and Dream Express (9-5).

Sara Louise comes up to the added distance perfectly with the benefit of a win over the track for Dale Romans and Robby Albarado. Like Sky Diva, Dream Express moved forward in the Juv’ Fillies and, like Stardom Bound, came from the clouds for second. She has an Equiform edge, 75 to 73, but never has run on dirt. Kent Desormeaux rides back for Ken McPeek.

Conservatively, half of the 10-colt Jockey Club can win the wide open two-turner. Capt. Candyman Can (8-5) will try to sweep the Iroquois/Jockey Club double for Ian Wilkes and Julien Leparoux, who’s having of a career season

Written by John Pricci

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Some Races Make the Grade; Some Didn’t Deserve It


Saratoga Springs, NY, November 27,2008--In advance of the final grand weekend of racing this year that features Saturday’s Stars of Tomorrow and HolidayFest programs at Churchill Downs and Aqueduct, respectively, and the weekend’s Turf Festival at Hollywood Park, the American Graded Stakes Committee issued its list of graded stakes to be run in 2009.

Next year there will be 746 unrestricted stakes races with a minimum $75,000 purse of which 488 will be graded, seven more than 2008 and 65.4 percent of all added-money events.

If you believe that figure to be disproportionately high, you’re not in the minority. And you’re probably not a member of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, either.

What appears in line is the segregation of the graded events with 43.9 percent (214 races) being Grade 3, 32.6 percent (159) Grade 2, and 23.6 percent (115) Grade 1. This is an increase of five G1s and four G2s but two fewer G3s. The proportion seems fair.

Parenthetically, the number of graded stakes races continues to grow, making it a lot easier for owners to earn black type. You can bet that somewhere, a sales company, a breeder and a bloodstock agent is smiling.

Empirically it's just as tough to go from a G3 to a G2 as it is from a G2 to G1, and the percentages reflect that notion. Of course, there were some decisions that fans can have some fun chewing on. Like the Breeders’ Cup races, for instance.

I can’t argue with elevating the Sentient Flight Group Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint to Grade 1. I thought the race should have debuted at that level, given that it was certain to attract world class talent despite a lack of plentiful G1 opportunities for fast fillies.

Actually, I prefer champion females to race against males, weight allowance and all, but I understand the concerns for safety.

Elevating the TVG Dirt Mile is premature. If, as committee members Peter Willmott and Andrew Schweigardt explained in a Tuesday press conference, assigning grades is an evolutionary process based on recent five-year history, this rise reflects wishful thinking, not reality.

The two runnings of the Dirt Mile were entertaining, bettable events but were far from compelling or of true G1 class. It will be all that one day, an event that breeders will covet and fans will embrace as much as the original Breecers' Cup events. But when that happens the Dirt Mile probably will negatively impact the Sprint and Classic, as has been speculated in the past. We shall see.

Assigning the Grey Goose Juvenile Turf Grade 2 status is at once aspirational and a disservice. But it’s a start. With Saratoga’s With Anticipation now a G3 event, a meaningful juvenile turf program is sure to develop in the future, in its way dovetailing nicely with the advent of synthetic surfaces, and vice versa. But it's not close to there yet.

International participation will lend the Juvenile Turf true status, but grading it could have waited a bit longer. Had an Eclipse category existed first, both Juvenile Turfs could have debuted as G1 races. What’s particularly egregious is that a Grade 2 race by definition is not a championship event.

The Breeders’ Cup people appear happy: "We are pleased that the Graded Stakes Committee recognized the world-class quality of the competition in our new races and we believe its decision, along with the enthusiastic reaction of the top owners and trainers in the world, is another validation of our expansion from eight to 14 championship races,” said Breeders’ Cup Racing Senior Vice-President, Pamela Blatz-Murff.

Regarding other elevations, the rise of Keeneland’s Vinery Madison, Del Mar’s Pat O’Brien and Clement L. Hirsch all appear logical. These races already have the veneer of G1s, although I'm not sure why Del Mar needs two G1 sprints for older males at the same meet.

But making the Jamaica Handicap for three-year-olds turf runners is a curiousity. As an event the race lacks gravitas, unless the committee’s aim was simply to create a G1 in this category as what, a synthetic track prep? The sport would have been better served had one of the lower profile Derbies switched from dirt races to turf.

It was appropriate that the West Virginia Derby, Fayette and Colonial Turf Cup, especially the latter, were elevated from Grade 3 to Grade 2. And several ungraded races received graded standing, some overdue, such as Tampa’s Sam F. Davis. Heartening, too, was that such fixtures as the Massachusetts Handicap, the unique Fall Highweight Handicap and Derby Trail were reinstated.

It was disappointing, but understandably appropriate, that New York’s storied Suburban and Gravesend handicaps lost their graded status. Those races, as well as the always entertaining Deputy Minister, discontinued by Gulfstream Park management, are a specter of what they once were.

Written by John Pricci

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