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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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Florida Derby Coverage: Riddle Me This

Hallandale Beach, Fla., March 27, 2009--As everyone knows, the newspaper business has gone the way of the rest of the country--only there’s some evidence that the country actually might be in better shape.

Just recently, the Seattle Post Intelligencer went from a staff of approximately 80 beat reporters to a total of 20 on-line. Whether editors are included among the 20 I do not know. This, of course, is a.k.a. major surgery.

Those mainstream broadsheets and tabloids that continue to swim as fast as they can before the tide of red ink drags them completely to the bottom are drastically cutting coverage in virtually every area.

To no one’s surprise, horse racing is having difficulty making the cut.

Since some major tracks moved to a 72-hour entry box, providing greater access to the information customers need in order to prosper in a data-driven game, today’s Florida Derby was drawn Wednesday.

Back in the day, there were more free-loaders than reporters in the Gulfstream Park press box. Publicity Director Joe Tannenbaum always wore an orchid-colored suit on Florida Derby day, replete with ever-present fedora.

The outfit was enough to make even Gene Stevens blush.

Anyway, in those days Tannenbaum needed to secure a Gulfstream Park rate at the swanky Diplomat Hotel for out-of-town media, who came in about a week early bearing expense accounts.

A-list entertainers routinely played the Diplomat back then. It was all pretty cool.

Tannenbaum arranged for a press hospitality suite at the hotel where a handful of veteran reporters would play poker almost until dawn, the game breaking up in time to go to the barns for interviews.

We’re referring to the reporters who weren’t out drinking and carousing. I never did, of course. I only heard tell of it.

The post draw in those days was 48 hours in advance of race day and was accompanied by a press breakfast. Questions followed the bacon and eggs and usually was hosted by Tannenbaum who said nice things about his bosses and visiting media. Tannenbaum loved press guys.

Thursday was the only morning the poker players could have shuffled past dawn, get to the track in time for breakfast, ask questions their questions, write their stories, await cocktail hour following the last race, then begin the process all over again.

Guys like that also gave the phrase “greatest generation” credibility.

The Florida Derby wasn’t the Kentucky Derby, but that never stopped hordes of beautiful women from attending the races in all their finery and millinery. Tannenbaum wasn’t the only person wearing orchid. Many in a crowd of 30,000 did, too.

When entries were drawn this past Wednesday, the only people covering from out of state were Jennie Rees of the Louisville Courier-Journal and, swelling the count of out of town mainstream press to one.

Who knows, if Jennie worked for a newspaper in Chicago or St. Louis or Baltimore, she, too, might have been among the missing. Rees once described the Courier-Journal as a “three-year-old paper.” Everyone knew what she meant. It’s probably keeping her beat afloat.

My hotel is one that attaches a copy of USA Today to the door latch of the room, an old-school guilty pleasure.

And I truly was surprised when the sports section of Thursday’s USA Today included not even a hint that a lightly raced undefeated three-year-old and betting favorite in a number of Derby futures pools had drawn post 4 and was installed the early line 9-5 Florida Derby favorite.

Not even a short paragraph, which I’m sure annoyed Tom Pedulla, USA Today’s ace racing and college sports beat writer.

Of course, if the Eastern Regionals of the NCAA Tournament were held in Miami, site of opening-round play, instead of Boston, Pedulla would be covering the Florida Derby. Maybe he still will, but I’m taking the under.

Rees must have written her Florida Derby advance Thursday. She was not in attendance yesterday. Columnist Vic Ziegel of the New Daily News was.

Ziegel, a true wordsmith, loves racing for the colorful stories it provides, just like the late Red Smith. He covers the Triple Crown for his paper and gets to write the Florida Derby every year because he’s already in the neighborhood covering Yankees and Mets spring training.

“I can’t believe they still allow me to do this,” Ziegel said outside the Gulfstream Park paddock yesterday.

Parenthetically, racing writers for the Daily News and Post New York probably manage to have jobs because the other newspaper exists: That rivalry is hotter than Duke-North Carolina.

The Associated Press has a racing writer, Rich Rosenblatt, who’s based in New York. He was here last year. He covered the 2008 Tampa Bay Derby, too. But he won’t be here tomorrow.

Tim Reynolds, the locally based AP sportswriter, will be here to see if one of today’s entrants goes on to become the 22nd Kentucky Derby winner to prep in the Florida Derby.

Or if today’s winner becomes the third Florida Derby winner in the last four years to repeat in Louisville, thus joining Barbaro and Big Brown.

I never knew the answer to this ancient riddle: “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s there, does it make a sound?”

Talk about analogous situations. Apparently, the answer eventually reveals itself.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Pletcher Focused on the Derby

Boynton Beach, Fla., March 25, 2009--Several months after I had taken a buyout from Newsday, I spent my first full season in South Florida looking for work.

It was winter, 1997. Eibar Coa was a new 10-pound bug boy at the meet and a young former Wayne Lukas assistant was striking out on his own at Gulfstream Park.

In the early double one afternoon, the young trainer had a maiden claimer that looked interesting, and not only because the mount attracted no less than leading rider Jerry Bailey.

I can’t remember the filly’s name, but I remember being happy to collect 9-2 after she broke maiden, looking like a winner at every pole.

“It was a tough decision,” said Todd Pletcher inside his office on the north side of Barn 11 at Palm Meadows training center, an impressive facility that even Frank Stronach’s most ardent critics admit has set the bar in state of the art equine housing.

“Wayne was loaded that year. He had lots of two-year-olds that could really run. And I had seven horses.”

Now Pletcher has over 30 horses inside Barn 11, a like number inside Barn 12 and a like number in the next barn, too. Pletcher has 97 head in all here, notwithstanding sizable divisions at every major racing venue in America.

That’s one of the knocks you hear about Pletcher from rival trainers and horseplayers alike. “He’s got all the horses.”

Inside Barn 11, stall 5, stood the probable favorite for tomorrow’s Florida Derby, Dunkirk, a gray colt by Unbridled’s Song, from the A.P. Indy mare, Secret Status, looking like a million bucks, actually more like 3.7 million bucks.

Dunkirk was a bargain compared to the $16-million the same owners spent for a horse called The Green Monkey which, in case anyone’s forgotten, never won a race and unceremoniously was retired.

Another knock on Pletcher is that with seemingly all the talented horses in the world at his disposal, he’s never won the Kentucky Derby. Pletcher thinks this is the best horse he ever will have led over to the Churchill Downs paddock for the feature race on May’s first Saturday.

It was nearly 10 a.m. and Pletcher was spending much of his time on the phone. I watched Dunkirk get gently rubbed on by three attractive female handlers, one applying an electro-magnetic blanket on his back that seemed to make the rest of him feel good all over. He stood quietly, as if asleep, the women continuing their petting and rubbing.

“You wouldn’t mind being rubbed on by three women, would you?” Pletcher asked.

It was still early morning for me. I thought I might find good use for the blanket.

“All the horses get treated with it once a week,” he volunteered.

While Pletcher took another call from yet another owner, I stood outside his office reading the contents on three clipboards. The bottom of the pages were held down by clips so they would shuffle in the breeze.

The clipboards held three color-coded spreadsheets. He probably learned the color-coding trick from the fastidious Lukas.

The first was a chart for the grooms, all 30 of them, each having about three or four to rub and do up before feed time later that morning and every morning, 24/7/365.

Next came the set list, horses scheduled to go to the track for work or maybe just to hack around. The instructions were spelled out.

Twenty four horses would jog this day, 43 were scheduled to gallop, and another 28 would be shed walked. They were listed on the clipboard designated as the Day Board.

I couldn’t tell what the other two were supposed to do.

Between Barns 11 and 12 was what you’d envision to be a “yard.” It looked all very European-like. Sets came and went, grooms with hoses and buckets of sudsy water washed away the morning’s dust, the sweaty grime while other handlers held the shank, keeping the horse calm and his head in the process when necessary.

Dunkirk arrived in this world last spring, developed “a shin,” a minor ailment common to two-year-olds, was sent back to the farm for R & R before returning in late summer. He had his first breeze in October.

“We were high on him from that first breeze,” the trainer said. “He went in :36 like this,” Pletcher putting one hand on top of the other--like gripping a baseball bat--while he made a motion to indicate how one might hold something back, preventing it from doing too much, too soon.

“Then another :36, and another. To show that kind of speed with a pedigree meant to go long…

“But the important work is the first time you go five-eighths, that’s where you begin to separate, and it was the same thing. He does everything the same way.”

“He’s done everything we’ve asked, and he’s done it easily. We started him out going seven-eighths, that’s not easy. Then we brought him back at a mile and an eighth and he won by almost five again. Now he has to take the next step.”

Pletcher is confident he will, although “you wouldn’t want a very good horse like Jimmy’s [Jerkens] out there loose on an easy lead.”

Pletcher entered a horse named Europe, owned by the same people, to keep the pace honest. At $2-million-plus, he’s believed to be the most expensive rabbit in racing history. But he’s no cinch to start. Pletcher just wanted to keep his options open.

And you need to win this for the earnings, don’t you?

“Second’s worth one-fifty [thousand], and that might be enough.”

And if not?

“I won’t rush him just to make the Derby. There’s always the Preakness.”

The visit was ending and I looked around one last time. “When you were starting out back in ‘97, did you ever envision an operation like this? How do you manage to stay focused?”

“I wasn’t thinking about anything like this. It’s a challenge.”

The following day, I was telling a horseman I know about the kind of focus it takes to run an organization of that size at the highest level.

“I think Todd could run IBM if he wanted,” he said.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Jerkens, Quality Road Headed in Right Direction

Hallandale, Fla., March 19,2009--How good can you read a road map? Well, neither can I. Because if you miss the exit for Florida’s Turnpike just west of Fort Lauderdale, you wind up on Route 75.

And if you’ve never traveled on 75 before, know that it takes roughly an eighth of a tank of gas to get from one exit from the next. The locals call this stretch of road Alligator Gator which, of course, eliminated any chance of stopping to use a Call Box.

Anyone who’s seen Apocalypse Now more than once knows that you never get out of the boat, in my case, the rented Matrix. Besides, who are you gonna’ call, Ponce de Leon?

Just as well, anyway. Was heading to Palm Meadows to visit with Jimmy Jerkens, who’s having some fun these days with a talented three-year-old named Quality Road. The big winner of the Fountain of Youth just might carry Jerkens all the way to his first Derby.

My circuitous journey took me back to Gulfstream Park, where Quality Road was scheduled for paddock schooling between the first and second races.

Finally, after the second race field of conditioned allowance fillies and mares left the ring, in came Jerkens followed closely by the colt and school-mate.

Following several turns of the ring, Jerkens ordered both horses to be put in adjacent stalls, where they stood quietly for several minutes, not turning a hair, in backstretch lingo. In the meantime, we talked.

Jerkens reiterated that when Quality Road came to him last summer, he was big, backward, awkward and lazy. “I didn’t even bring him to Saratoga.”

Quality Road finally had his first breeze last September and didn’t show anything special, if he showed anything at all. But in October, about six to eight weeks before making his first start on the Remsen undercard, the light bulb went on.

“After that he learned quickly,” Jerkens said. He was getting stronger and faster with every breeze, until the light bulb went on for the trainer, too. “It looked like he could really run.”

On November 29, he showed the rest of the world he could run, leading at every pole while setting an honest, pressured pace, until he drew off from 12 rivals and winning by nearly three lengths in 1:16-flat, race-horse time.

Of greater significance was the way he distributed his energy, running fast and evenly paced, earning an excellent speed figure by anyone’s measure, tipping his hand that more might be in the offing. He didn’t run again until January 10 at Gulfstream when he finished second to explosive Theregoesjojo after breaking last of 12.

Yesterday’s schooling schedule was unscheduled when the week began. Badly needed torrential rains deposited from five to eight inches of precipitation across a wide swath of South Florida forcing Jerkens to cancel an important scheduled work.

“We lost some training time with him. I had hoped to work him twice, this week and next, then we got mud.”

So why this?

“I school horses before every big race and this will keep his head on the game. He’ll get more out of paddocking than a [slow] gallop on a bad track.”

As Quality Road stood inside stall #9 in the Gulfstream walking ring, Jerkens was finalizing a plan.

“He’ll work a good three-quarters [of a mile] on Saturday and gallop out a strong seven-eighths. Then I might blow him out a fast quarter-mile the day before the race.”

If that regimen sounds familiar, it should. It was used often--even on race day--by Jerkens’ father, Hall of Famer Allen Jerkens, for whom Jimmy worked 20 years, 1977 to 1997, before striking out on his own.

And anyone who watched the assistant trainer manage that shedrow for 10 New York winters while “The Chief” brought the good stock to Florida knew it was only a matter of time before the younger Jerkens also became on of the game‘s elite trainers.

So does he think he has the horse to beat in next Saturday’s Florida Derby?

“I guess you’d have to think so. The way he ran last time…he was strong all the way.”
Not known for contributing locker room material, this was great expectations.

No matter how the Florida Derby turns out, it will be Quality Road’s last start before May 2nd. Where he will train, however, is very much up in the air.

“I’d like to keep him down here as long as I can, [Palm Meadows] stays open to the end of April.” Then what, Kentucky?

“No, probably bring him back to New York and go to Kentucky from there.”

I wondered why not Keeneland, where it’s quieter than Churchill and the Polytrack surface would help the colt stay fit.

“I don’t know. I don’t know why they even needed [Polytrack]. It’s hard to believe that you can’t keep a track safe.”

Wherever Jerkens prepares Quality Road for the Kentucky Derby, the bet is he won’t need a road map to find the winners’ circle.

Written by John Pricci

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