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, September 30, 2007


Race for Horse of the Year Wide Open


Elmont, NY--Going into the Jockey Club Gold Cup, racing fans had to wonder whether they were looking at a present and perhaps future true star as Lawyer Ron stepped onto the track in the centerpiece of Belmont Parks Breeders Cup Preview program.

And what a long, strange trip its been.

There were all those speed crazy wins at Oaklawn Park en route to last years Kentucky Derby. No matter how much Bob Holthus and John McKee tried to slow him down, they couldnt. But even though he was headstrong to a fault, he would win anyway.

Then came the Kentucky Derby. Tough post, tougher trip. He finished nowhere.

After some R & R, he reappeared in the St. Louis Derby. I didnt remember there was such a thing. However, there he was, and he won it, looking a little more settled, a little more mature, in the process.

But then came the Super Derby where he reverted to his headstrong ways. He opened a clear lead, setting a strong pace for the Louisiana Downs surface and could not hold Strong Contender safe as the odds-on choice.

Exit Holthus. Enter Todd Pletcher, at first, to no avail. Even more headstrong in Louisville than he was in Bossier City, he chased speedy fractions again before finishing off the board behind Invasor, Bernardini and Premium Tap in the Horse of the Year crowning Breeders Cup Classic.

At 4 he came out firing for Pletcher. A little more settled, he won an allowance come-backer in Florida before shipping back to his old Oaklawn stomping grounds and won the Grade 2 Oaklawn Park Handicap by open lengths. Clearly, he had made the transition from 3 to 4.

Turning back in distance for the Met Mile off an Oaklawn two-turner was near impossible, especially with a streaking Corinthian waiting in the wings. But after mid-moving from the rail to take the lead between calls, finishing third to Corinthian by little more than a length was at least a moral victory.

Entering him back in three weeks in the G3 Salvator Mile made no sense, unless, of course, youve got the Classic in mind. Lawyer Ron finished second to a hot, streaking Monmouth lover named Gottcha Gold.

Back with rest for the storied Whitney in Saratoga, he blew the doors off 10 rivals running nine furlongs faster than anyone in this history of Saratoga ever did. For an encore, he doubled his Whitney winning margin to win the Woodward by 8- lengths as he widened his lead with every stride. In its way, it was more impressive.

So, Lawyer Ron reached his full potential in Saratoga as a 4-year-old. Or is he simply a horse for the Spa course, albeit a great one? A new training style employed by a new teacher, added maturity. Budding superstar, or equine flavor of the month? That was the Jockey Club question.

As it turned out, however, Pletcher was right. Dont know why everyones down on Curlin, the trainer said this week. I dont see how you can say anything bad about whats done or what he will do in the future.

Like pull the minor upset in the JCGC at Pletchers direct expense and run himself right back into the Horse of the Year picture.

It was a finish that didnt deserve a loser as the 3-year-old and the 4-year-old raced head to head down the long Belmont straight. Only this time, it was Steve Asmussens horse on the outside, it was the Asmussen horse that would win this photo, just as the Pletcher trained filly Rags to Riches won the Belmont Stakes photo, a picture that would have made Curlin the protem Horse of the Year champion following the Jockey Club.

With the popular Street Sense tasting defeat Saturday at Turfway Park, with Lawyer Rons newly minted invincibility dulled, and with Curlins deceptively clever neck victory in 2:01.20, its a whole new ballgame. The Breeders Cup. Starting to get real interesting about now.

Completing the all Grade 1 Pick Four were:

The Vosburgh: You rarely see a two-speed number at the Grade I level sprinting. But Fabulous Strike and Talent Search hooked up from the jump, raced through fractions of :21.89 and :44.51, at which point Talent Search shortened stride while Fabulous Strike was resurgent under the crafty Ramon Dominguez. Discreet Cat stalked in perfect position beneath Garrett Gomez but was one-paced through the stretch, clearly a horse that needed the effort. He should get enough out of the race to contend going a mile and 70 yards at Monmouth Park. Todd Beattie said he would train the winner up to the Breeders Cup Sprint.

The Joe Hirsch Turf Classic: Talk about scraping paint! Johnny Velazquez was trapped aboard heavy favorite English Channel but he squeezed through a narrow opening on the fence and drew off to become only the third horse to win this race twice and become Americas best hope to win the Breeders Cup Turf. Figure that hell be double tough since he won the G1 United Nations over the Monmouth grass the last two years running. After getting through and winning the race by 2- lengths, he galloped out strongly and was about 15 in front of the group in less than a quarter of a mile.

The Beldame: It appeared Velazquez would get his natural double aboard Indian Vale, again saving ground with horse into the stretch. Instead, it was Dominguez who would get his second G1 of the day and third winner overall aboard stretch running Unbridled Belle giving Pletcher his second G1 of the day. Pletcher had started the weekend 4-for-31 at Belmont Park and things got worse when Wait A While disappointed in Saturdays Flower. But Pletcher fillies finished 1-2 here and the upset winner of the Delaware Handicap on July 15 won here, too. Shes in the Breeders Cup Distaff. It was her first win in five starts at nine furlongs and three starts at Belmont Park. Ginger Punch could have clinched the Eclipse title for older fillies and mares with a Beldame victory, but instead settled for third. Resultantly, this category, like that Horse of the Year, is wide open.


Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, September 29, 2007


Super Primo Good Prep Weekend, Part 2


By the time this weekend ends, the Breeders Cup picture will have some much needed clarity.

Theres another round of preps next weekend, too, some from Europe as wellthink theres something called the Prix de lArc de Triomphe on the horizon.

But the issue of favoritism in some of the mega categories will have been established, including that for Horse of the Year.

No less than five Grade 1s are on tap Sunday, four in one place, Belmont Park, and the other at Santa Anita, featuring juvenile colts in the Norfolk.

Too early to tell, of course, but it looks like California has some catching up to do in this category. But they usually do by the first Saturday in May which is, of course, when the scores can really change for the present two-year-old class.

But I digress.

The $400,000 guaranteed Pick Four at Belmont starts with the Vosburgh and ends with the Jockey Club Gold Cup, with the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic and Beldame in between.

Throw in the Miss Grillo, for juvenile fillies on turf, and you have great Sunday fare. Time-wise, Belmonts 11-race card will get you almost all the way to the Norfolk.

The Vosburgh, of course, features the return of Discreet Cat from a six-month layoff. Trainer Rick Mettee said this week that he wished the race were a little farther, six and half or seven furlongs, and perhaps the competition a little softer.

But, as goodfella Jimmy Conway reminds us: It is what it is.

What it was was a horse capable of winning the Cigar Mile on this circuit by running eight furlongs in 1:32 2/5. To say this kind of brilliance is uncommon would be to seriously understate the case.

Discreet Cat is (was?) something else. Where he is now, exactly, is the question.

A very sharp race likely will put him in the Sprint. Something less probably relegates him to the new Breeders Cup Dirt Mile (a mile and 70 yard two-turner due to the Monmouth configuration). But first theres the matter of handling late developing three-year-old First Defence and his Vosburgh friends.

Todd Pletchers English Channel will try to become the third horse to win the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic twice. In relative terms, this renewal comes up a tad soft. English Channel is 1-for-5 at a mile and half, but perhaps his preference for Belmont--never worse than second in three Grade 1s--will prove an equalizer.

The Beldame, the third of four weight-for-age events, gets recent Ruffian winner Ginger Punch, which is somewhat of a bonus. Bobby Frankel doesnt normally run them back on relatively short rest. But hes trying to take while he thinks the takings good.

If Ginger Punch runs too well tomorrow, dont plan on seeing her at Monmouth. A victory would be her third Grade 1 this year, probably good enough for an Eclipse Award. Maybe West Coaster Balance will have something to say about that. She finally gets off the artificial and onto real dirt again.

As the publicists remind us, Lawyer Ron went into Saratoga a nice horse and emerged as protem handicap champion. But if he wants to win it all hell need to run the table; beating Curlin tomorrow and everyone else in the Classic.

This brings us to that three-year-old. Which one shows up, the Preakness hero or the dull Haskell third? Assistant trainer Scott Blasi said this week the colts much sharper now than before the Haskell. Good thing, if he wants to be competitive.

Finally, a gateful of two-year-olds will compete in the Norfolk. Six are coming straight from maiden races. But two, Salute the Sarge and Dixie Chatter, look like viable Juvenile colts. Sarge won the G3 Hollywood Juvenile Championship, G2 Best Pal and was narrowly beaten in the G1 Del Mar Futurity.

Chatter made a wide premature move to the lead in the stretch at Del Mar, but couldnt sustain that run. With Richard Mandella as teacher, however, expect improvement today and the time after that.

Happy hunting.


Written by John Pricci

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Friday, September 28, 2007


Are You Ready For Some Breeders’ Cup Preps?


As far as Breeders Cup prep weekends go, this is it. This is the big one.

There will be at least 11 events at three different tracks that will impact the upcoming World Championships, one way or another.

Everybody thought tomorrow was the big day, with four Grade 1s at Belmont Park alone, including the Jockey Club Gold Cup that features protem Classic favorite Lawyer Ron.

But check this out.

The Kentucky Cup Day program at Turfway Park is for those wishing to prep on Polytrack while staying away from the glaring lights of either coast.

The showpiece of the five-stakes program, of course, is the G2 Kentucky Cup Classic, matching the Kentucky Derby exacta of Street Sense and Hard Spun.

Enough said.

The Ky. Cup Juvenile Fillies is seeking a viable challenger for next months crowning event at Monmouth Park. Sky Mom, via Saratoga and Steve Asmussen; Bassinet winner and runner-up, Kadira and Dreabons Legacy, respectively, and Dale Romans Love Buzz, will all get serious consideration from the crowd.

A gate-load of three-year-old sprinters will be seeking their identity in the Ky. Cup Sprint, as will two-year-old colts in the G3 Ky. Cup Juvenile. Pulaski Runner, from Bob Holthus, seems a bit more advanced than the rest.

The Ky. Cup Distaff is the most interesting, Derby colts notwithstanding. The most intriguing of them is late developing Pleasant Hill, a winner of the Gardenia at Ellis Park last out and working bullets ever since for Greg Foley.

There are three Grade 1s at Oak Tree, where it appears that Cushion Track once again has proven to be superior to Polytrack early on in terms of bias and race shape: It has played more like legit dirt.

The first things that jump out at Santa Anita are bookend events. Belmonts Flower Bowl vs. Santa Anitas Yellow Ribbon; both Grade 1; both 10 furlongs; Belmont Parks Wait a While vs. Oak Trees Citronnade.

Could make for a nice collision course in four weeks.

The G1 Goodwood will be Swaps winner Tiagos first go against elders after having been reserved from the Pacific Classic. Hell meet legendary Lava Man attempting to rebound from a poly-hating Pac Classic.

The G1 Oak Leaf for juvenile fillies has a deep cast: Set Play the most accomplished; The Golden Noodle most interesting for carrying Jack Van Berg back into the national spotlight.

In addition to Wait a Whiles 10 furlongs in the Flower Bowl, the Pilgrim for juvenile turf horses is interesting in that Todd Pletcher is shifting to grass with The Leopard, most recently a huge disappointment in the Futurity.

As usual the Kelso Mile is a beauty, even if still a G2 event. Multiple G1 winner After Market ships in from California turning back in distance; Bobby Frankel will saddle the very interesting Art Master, while a resurgent Angel Penna Jr. brings late developing English Colony to the fray, a winner of four of five lifetime.

Wait until you see tomorrow's lineup.


Written by John Pricci

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