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, February 25, 2012


Of Stakes Preps and the Breeders’ Cup Jinx


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla., February 25, 2012—Don’t know what it is about the Breeders’ Cup that seemingly takes a toll on its winners but what some of the wise guys describe as the “Breeders’ Cup Jinx,” it was alive and well at Gulfstream Park today.

It wasn’t as if the three Breeders’ Cup performers that raced in yesterday’s three graded stakes, the G3 Sabin, G3 The Very One and G2 Davona Dale were all victorious on the first Saturday in November last fall at Churchill Downs.

But two of them did, and the other ran second to an undefeated champion. Well, jinx form held in the Sabin as 3-year-old filly Eclipse champion Royal Delta, excusably not wound tightly with her eyes on a $10 million prize a half world away next month, finished third in a useful effort.

An hour later, Perfect Shirl, winner of the Filly & Mare Turf and from Roger Attfield’s barn, a man with insanely good statistics with lengthy-layoff returnees, ran like a short horse. “She probably needed the race,” said Attfield of the 19-10 The Very One favorite. The 5-year-old mare finished eighth.

Grace Hall, meanwhile, a good second to My Miss Aurelia for all the marbles last fall, ran on very well for place as the 4-5 Davona Dale favorite. She raced a little too fresh and on a pressured lead throughout. But don’t use that as an excuse.

The winner, Yara, battled with her every step of the way. Those who backed her were rewarded for their faith, to the tune of $131 to win. Hel-lo!

And there’s something else: The jinx has no geographical limitations. On the West Coast, Sprint champion Amazombie, making his season’s debut in the San Carlos, was a one-paced third to The Factor, who survived pace pressure and a stewards inquiry to win the G2 seven furlong sprint.

Of course, there’s a perfectly logical explanation to the jinx phenomenon. The Breeders’ Cup quite often is the final race of the season, especially for those that are highly likely to win a championship title.

As a conclusion to the previous season, the long range goal for top Breeders’ Cup performers is a repeat of an end of year championship that generally requires that those successful Breeders’ Cup camps often start the next season as soft as possible.

Lots of things can happen between February and November. Young champions are expected to do well at 3 and 4 and they come out firing, especially those with either perfect records or with something to prove.

There are many other factors that contribute to the jinx, of course, but if the aim is to peak in summer and fall, when championships are won, not come out firing when there’s still snow on the ground throughout much of country. Oddly, the jinx only seems to apply to horses that win or make strong efforts; also-rans seem to fare much better.

In Royal Delta’s case, her effort Saturday was to be expected. “It’s not a surprise,” said last year’s Eclipse winning trainer Bill Mott, an honor won because Mott had two runners peak in the biggest races of the year in their respective divisions. “The other filly is a good one, and we got a good race in our filly.”

The other "good filly" happens to be extraordinary, in fact. Awesome Maria, returning from a June layoff necessitated by sustaining a fracture that required surgery, began where she left off 2011, winning the Sabin in her season’s debut.

In repeating by a dominating eight lengths after overcoming a slow start and awkward position racing into the first turn, she won her fifth in succession and improved her lifetime slate to a very worthy (13) 8-3-1 record. Her only off-the-board effort came on “good” turf and, at that, finished only 1¾ lengths behind the winner.

“We were hoping to get a prep into her but as it turned out she didn’t need it,” said winning trainer Todd Pletcher for the account of Mrs. E Paul Robsham, who will try to make it a stable sweep with the brilliant, undefeated Discreet Dancer in Sunday’s G2 Fountain of Youth.

This filly is quite an actress, actually, and requires the maintenance normally reserved for a diva of her stature. She must have been impressed watching tapes of Zenyatta’s paddock dance and decided she would emulate them. It started here last year but Saturday seemed more pronounced.

She bounced around the paddock as if ready to complex, not with a nervous energy but with vivacity and grace, taking several steps at different junctures totally reminiscent of the great three-time champion and Horse of the Year, a goose-stepping kind of action.

At about the same time, she developed hypersensitivity in the starting gate, becoming agitated when her flanks brushed up against the inside of the stall. Pletcher began using the “Monte Roberts blanket,” one that covers her hindquarters when she is loaded into the gate and falls away when the starting latch is sprung.

“She’s 5-for-5 with it so this is no time to change. It’s not a problem even though she has to load first,” Pletcher explained. That extra minute or so is helpful to the assistant starters in helping to settle the filly. If she comes out of the race in good order, she’ll go next in the Rampart here at meet’s end.

El Padrino Passes Class Test at the Fair Grounds

Pletcher’s big day continued as El Padrino, who shipped from Florida to New Orleans, survived a stretch duel with a very game Mark Valesk,i and an inquiry, to win the 1-1/16th miles G2 Risen Star Stakes.

The stretch incident combined a little race-riding with some horsey intramurals as battling rivals came together several times from mid-stretch to the finish. Neither horse broke stride, El Padrino out-willed his inside rival in the final few jumps and the order of finish was allowed to stand.

“You know, I thought it was not a big deal,” said winning rider Javier Castellano. “Before the wire, we were real tight. We never had big contact, though.”

“Other than the brushing down the lane, I feel like if we were on the outside we probably would’ve won it,” said Rosie Napravnik aboard the runnerup. “[El Padrino] bumped me just slightly down the lane a few times and was more leaning on me the whole way than anything else.”

“I thought it was a huge effort,” said Pletcher, “shipping into the track for the first time and the track appeared it was playing to speed the last couple days.

“You hope it’s the kind of race that he’ll improve forward and become battle-tested a little bit. He’s getting a little bit more professional all the time and, hopefully, learning how to win. I think racing is going to help him.”

In addition to Discreet Dancer, Pletcher will saddle another undefeated colt, and probable Fountain of Youth favorite, Algorithms, who won the Holy Bull Stakes on January 29.

The victory of Algorithms came at the expense of Hansel, the juvenile champion of 2011, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile who was making his season’s debut in that wet-track one-turn mile.

Jinx? What jinx?

Written by John Pricci

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