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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Friday, March 27, 2015

This Weekend, Racing Takes the World Stage

HALLANDALE BEACH, March 27, 2015—Unless Dubai Sky turns out to be the second coming of Animal Kingdom, the 2015 Kentucky Derby winner will race in the next 15 days.

This is that time in the prep season when the scores can really change, figuratively and literally—when it comes to qualifying Derby-entrance points.

Down Louisiana way, International Star, the horse with the winning ways who lights a raging fire under no one, is a 3-1 favorite to sweep the Fair Grounds three-race series of the Lecomte, Risen Star and tomorrow’s Louisiana Derby.

His versatile attributes have been well documented and his outside #9 slip will make him no less formidable on the day.

Once again, he will have War Story (4-1) to beat, the colt that continues to train lights out and will have a new passenger in Joe Talamo, as Kent Desormeaux switches or was pushed off War Story, the rider leaving that runner with too much to do in the Risen Star.

Of perhaps it was Wayne Lukas who invited him to rider Mr. Z (4-1), who removes blinkers but adds Desormeaux, after getting out of Hot Springs town to join the cast in New Orleans.

It was, in Lukas’ opinion, either the quirky hard-hitter will prefer the Fair Grounds surface to Oaklawn Park’s, or he’s getting out of Dodge before American Pharoah returns two weekends from now for the Arkansas Derby. Either seems prudent.

Lukas has said that his tough little customer worked well, i.e., ran a straight course without blinkers or tomorrow is a take’m back experiment. Desormeaux has a knack for such a ploy, albeit sometimes to the extreme.

Todd Pletcher, who has to run all his three year olds somewhere, opted to send the lightly race Stanford (5-1), second to Materiality at Gulfstream Park at nine furlongs last out, and Dale Romans is back with Keen Ice (5-1), a fast-finish third in the Risen Star.

We’re betting that Talamo will be the difference and prefer War Story in a minor upset.

In South Florida, Gulfstream Park is going all in: 14 races; eight stakes, seven graded, beginning at noon and scheduled to end with a G1 Florida Derby finale post-time of 6:48 p.m. (I’ve already made a future book wager on over 6:48).

In all, 134 horses were entered overnight, averaging slightly more than nine runners per race. Half the races will be run on the turf and possible showers predicted for Friday should only help the Hallandale grass course, provided it’s not too much, too soon.

The centerpiece of the championship meet, of course, is a million-dollar Grade 1. It has drawn nine runners but it’s The Big Three that have attracted virtually all of the attention; the very talented New York-bred Upstart (8-5) vs. the Todd Pletcher pair of Itsaknockout (2-1) and Materiality (7-2).

Ami’s Flatter (8-1), a solid Tampa Bay Derby runner-up to Carpe Diem is the only other horse in single digits on Gulfstream oddsmaker Jay Stone’s early line.

The Florida Derby is billed as a rivalry, likely owing to the controversial disqualification of Upstart from first in the Fountain of Youth, elevating a clearly bothered Itsaknockout to the top spot—“I don’t like winning races that way”—said Pletcher following the post draw.

Indeed, both races drew fields of nine and in each case the early line favorite drew the extreme outside slip. “I didn’t know the Gulfstream stewards would be [handling the draw],” joked Violette when asked at Tuesday’s post-draw conference.

“It’s not as if the nine post is all that bad,” Violette said in earnest afterward, “it’s just that he always seems to draw wide and I would like to see how he handles being down inside, how he tips out or cuts the corner.

“But he’s a good horse and good horses are supposed to be able to do anything.”

For his part, Itsaknockout demonstrated the ability to overcome trip adversity despite his inexperience. He appeared to be running one-paced when he settled and surged forward, albeit greenly, just prior to meeting interference. He, too, is a good horse.

But his uncoupled mate is the more intriguing of the duo. He went from a maiden sprint win into a nine furlong overnight stakes and displayed an uncommon turn of foot, drawing away impressively late and in fast time.

That’s the good news and the bad. Good horses run fast but most modern runners before more time than three weeks between starts. His trainer admits it’s a cause for concern.

Pletcher, of course, won the Florida Derby with Constitution most recently, also while making his third lifetime start, so it has been done. His biggest obstacle will be Upstart, touted by Violette to be close to his ‘A’ race.

“He worked fast last weekend,” the trainer said Tuesday,” and when he works fast is when he runs his best races. But I still left a little bit on the tank.

“Everyone is pointing for the next one. But this is still a million dollars and it’s a Grade 1.”

BETS ‘N PIECES: Oddsmaker Jay Stone is completing his first assignment as an oddsmaker and he’s done an excellent job. The late Chuck Streva would be, for anyone, a very tough act to follow.

“After the Claiming Crown, which is just impossible, the rest seemed to fall into place a little easier than I expected," Stone said.

“When you have trainers like Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown, jockey Javier Castellano, and they’re running hot, it’s been fairly easy to find the morning line favorite. I think I’ve made ever first-time-starter for Pletcher the morning line favorite; he’s just so good at having them ready.

“The turf races, with the big fields and the importance of trips, I would say have been the hardest.”

When it comes to making an early line, Gulfstream and Saratoga are the most difficult. Outfits from all over the country are targeting the same races. These tracks are fortunate to have Stone and Eric Donovan’s assessments of how the public inevitably will back their choices.

NO MAS: It has been widely reported on the Internet that wagers will be hubbed through an outlet in South Africa with a parimutuel takeout of 27%, including the straight pools. This rate is an abomination.

And so, like many players, I will be boycotting the races tomorrow in Dubai with the possible exception of very small wagers on Mane Sequence and California Chrome, price dependent, of course. Either way, I will root: “USA, USA, US…”

There is, however, no truth to the rumor that the event will be relocated to Parx Racing for the 2016 season.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sometimes Horses ARE Wishes

HALLANDALE BEACH, March 21, 2015—Events that happen at and around the racetrack is something that non-racing fans will never get. Maybe that’s just as well.

Maybe this whole thing is meant to exist as an anachronism in the modern world, a niche for those who do get it, who appreciate the beauty and occasional brutal ironies that live side by side, holding up a mirror to everyday life.

It doesn’t always happen in this fashion, of course, because that would be perfect and this game is anything but. Only sometimes it appears like it does. Like when a jockey returns after a lengthy convalescence from an injury, he always seems to win with that first mount back.

Or when there’s a horse sale coming fast featuring the first crop of an accomplished recent retiree. Its handlers want the sire to get off to a fast start and what better advertising than an open-lengths romp by its first offspring to race?

On the elevator down from the press level at Gulfstream Park to the first floor Saturday evening, I rode down with a couple who acted as if they had been there before.

The gentleman, noticing the press credential plastered to the middle of my chest, asked “any good stories today?”

“How about Jimmy Jerkens saddling the first horse he ran in a stakes after losing his father this week?” I said.

As we exited he said, “It was a big loss, wasn’t it,” more of a declarative statement but one requiring an answer. “I’ve been doing this more than 40 years, it might be the biggest loss ever,” I said.

Jimmy Jerkens is a man of few words, a lot like his dad in that way, acting almost as if they are/were embarrassed by success, certainly humbled by it, anyway.

The sport lost The Chief only three days prior and there stood Allen Jerkens’ son in the winner’s circle where his father was honored with a moment of silence two days before, fighting off but eventually giving into his emotions.

Classic Point had just finished making a winning season’s debut at the age of six, going after the odds-on Merry Meadow, reaching even terms with Sweet Whiskey into the stretch before out-finishing her to the wire, gamely holding You Bought Her safe in the late strides.

The past performances might have said otherwise but Classic Point was carrying a lot more on her shoulders than just Paco Lopez. She was carrying the weight of tradition and hopeful expectation, but she made it to the Inside Information finish line first.

“It was only three days ago,” Jimmy Jerkens said of his father’s passing, “and it’s going to take a long time to get over it. I've been around him a long time. Obviously the circumstances make it a little special,” he said with understatement, typical of the Jerkens tribe.

As the winning trainer left the emotional winner’s circle ceremonies, he did so to an ovation from the crowd; at once a salute to the man, his pedigree, and the sport they both love.

Sometimes, going to the racetrack is a privilege. It certainly was at Gulfstream Park on Saturday.

BETS ‘N PIECES: For Sheer Drama, the Royal Delta Stakes was nothing at all, just a day at the beach track. That’s because the filly of the same name made fast work of the Grade 2 mile and a sixteenth.

Heavy favorite House Rules attempted to give trainer Jimmy Jerkens his second stakes win of the day but Sheer Drama would have none of it.

Deftly rated by Joe Bravo, David Fawkes filly set a solid but controlled tempo, stalked by the recent Rampart winner but by the five-sixteenths pole, Bravo was still in control while Javier Castellano was busy on House Rules.

Fawkes had her at tops; good job!

Fast Company: Not so much fast, although for Palm Beach Downs it was moving right along. But the Todd Pletcher paid or Itsaknockout and Materiality worked a half-mile in company in 48 3/5, galloping out six furlongs in 1:12. Can you say sitting on ready?

But can you say ready for Upstart, who also worked brilliantly? Meanwhile, earlier this week, War Story, one of the favorites for Saturday’s Louisiana Derby, worked five furlongs in 58 4/5 at the Fair Grounds.

Breeze Softly, Keep a Stiff Underfoot: Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum picks for the Dubai World Cup are out: He believes the race is among African Story, Prince Bishop and Hokko Tarumae.

Hamdan believes that the new dirt surface is different than the old dirt at Nad Al Sheba and that American horses (read California Chrome) may have a problem with the “stiffer underfoot.”

Have no idea of knowing whether ‘Chrome’ was scheduled to breeze over the track but there are plans in place for a slow half mile, somewhere in the neighborhood of 49 seconds. The World Cup is also scheduled for next Saturday…

As of now, six other three year olds are expected to challenge Upstart and the Todd pair in the Florida Derby. Gulfstream’s crowning event will be drawn Tuesday evening in the paddock at 5 p.m. The other seven stakes on the card will be drawn Wednesday.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, March 06, 2015

Shared Belief, Undefeated Three-Year-Olds Not a Bad Saturday Parlay

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 6, 2015—Some good action at the Betting Bays By the Beach but tomorrow is the day where racing will be celebrated big time in Arcadia and Oldsmar.

Saturday’s Big ‘Cap day at Santa Anita Park, a.k.a. the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, a.k.a. the first ever “hundred grander” in the U.S. There’s always a “big hoss” in it and this weekend is no exception.

OK, so real handicap racing is a bygone era but as long as they card these race, someone has to be the highweight: Say hello to Shared Belief (3-5), toting 125 pounds.

Oddly, this impost was a pound more had he had been assigned in the weaker (Grade 2), shorter, and less prestigious Gulfstream Park Handicap.

Forgot to mention, the tougher Gulfstream Park Handicap. Let that sink in for a moment.
So, tell me what would have been tougher? Meeting 12 rivals for a cool million in your home state at 10 furlongs after just having beaten the 2014 Horse of the Year vs. the Moreno (6-1), one of three G1 winners but 0-for-6 at the trip, and Bronzo (10-1), a G1 winner in Chile and 10-furlong winner of an overnight handicap there?

Or shipping 3,000 miles to meet Private Zone, Honor Code and Wicked Strong going a flat mile for $300K?


But sometimes the Big ‘Cap turns out funny, not ha-ha funny, for the favorite or one of 12 rivals just might get in the way and impede his progress. That’s happened before you may recall.

However, running flat out against two horses that just might be at their best at a mile and a seasonal debutter from the very excellent 2014 three-year-old crop in no day at Hallandale Beach.

Throw in the G1 Kilroe (turf) Mile and the G2 San Felipe and that’s quite a day at the races.

Meanwhile, in Northern Florida, the always entertaining Hillsborough and Florida Oaks are good table setters for the Tampa Derby in which Stonestreet Stables will battle itself; the seasonal-debuting 2014 juvenile talent Carpe Diem (8-5) vs. undefeated, freaking Ocean Knight (2-1).

The plan was to go to the Gotham with Ocean Knight but the owners didn’t wish to roll the weather dice; that decision looks pretty good considering that Aqueduct canceled racing Friday.

On the Left Coast, while awaiting the Big One, it will be a battle of undefeateds; the 4-for-4 uber game come-again winner of the San Felipe, Dortmund (8-5), vs. the 3-for-3 Ocho Ocho Ocho (4-1), away since winning his 2014 two-turn debut, the Delta Jackpot.

Say this for Triple Eights: To date, he’s been faster on our Energy Ratings scale, by a significant margin, is training super well, and gets Mike Smith, who seems to secure a call on every good horse he’d like to ride these days.

Should the Northeast thaw out in time for Gotham’s Gotham, it will feature a battle of disappointing Withers colts, El Kabeir (8-5) and Classy Class (7-2).

If the heavily campaigned (by 2015 standards) El Kabeir has any high-test left in the equine tank, he lays over the group. If not, Classy Class could beat him, taken to improve along developmental lines and the promise of rating tactics on Saturday.

The Gotham boasts a legitimate dark horse of the kind one seldom sees anymore, a colt named Tiz Shea D (15-1).

He won his only start in very fast time. But just does one translate 5-1/2 furlongs at Parx into a mile and a sixteenth Grade 2 in New York?

Damned if I know; maybe trainer Bill Mott does.

Here, meanwhile, the dynamic and circumstances appear all wrong for Wicked Strong to make a winning return; but Private Zone vs. Honor Code might be worth the price of admission which, if you’re in the neighborhood, is free!

Written by John Pricci

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