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, December 31, 2017


RIP 2017


Although I was around him often during the Foolish Pleasure, Genuine Risk, Gulch and Manila years, I never really got to know LeRoy Jolley. We were both younger then and I doubt whether I had the patience to probe further.

Guess his “we don’t play this game in short pants" line following the ill-fated match race offended my sensibilities. Jolley was all business at the barn--which is not to say that his sense of humor was lacking.

Like on that Sunday at Belmont Park when Jolley’s Meadow Star was preparing to match race West Coast sensation, Lite Light. That filly was owned by perhaps the first extremely successful hip hop artist, soon to become overnight legend, M C Hammer.

Hammer introduced himself to Jolley before the race and said: “You’re the first white man I ever met named Leroy.” Jolley loved it.

Maybe Jolley couldn’t help what I always took to be a cool demeanor. Should I have expected anything less from the son of another old school horseman, a man named Moody?

But I did expect he would be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. It’s a deserving tribute to a horseman who developed three Hall of Fame horses, three divisional champions, and two Derby winners including the filly, Genuine Risk.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0w9x0ZT_VHg&feature=youtu.be

RIP, Mr. Jolley.

However, I was lucky enough to get to know Jack Van Berg a little. Like most people who met him, I liked him. Also an old school Hall of Famer and the son of a taskmaster father, legendary Marion Van Berg, JVB liked that I dubbed his champion “America’s Horse.”

I got to know him early Belmont Stakes week, 1987. Newsday’s handicapper/columnist was privileged to step into a limo with Jack and the redoubtable Woody Stephens for an appearance on a sports show hosted by then up-and-comer Greg Gumbel.

Van Berg, of course, was seeking a Triple Crown sweep with Alysheba and an aggregated purse bonus worth $5 million. Stephens was after a sixth straight Belmont victory with the speedy Gone West.

So we all took a ride into the city for a taping of cable-TV sports interview shows. But the show wasn’t the thing; it was being able to sit across from two legendary Hall of Fame trainers and I never needed my notebook; I still remember every entertaining line.

Van Berg was nervous. Alysheba would attempt to win the Triple Crown without the benefit of the diuretic Lasix, allowed in Kentucky and Maryland but banned in New York at the time. Stephens, looking to build on his Belmont legend, was, well, Woody.

“Woody, I really need that money,” Van Berg said to Stephens. “You’ve already got five Belmonts,” which might have been the first thing Woody mentioned to Van Berg as we piled into the black stretch. But there was one line he uttered for sure.

Upon reaching Manhattan, Woody leaned up against the window, looked up, and said, “see that Jack? Those buildings get mighty tall once you cross the Hudson,” a line that would render any notebook superfluous.

Stephens failed to win his sixth straight Belmont with Gone West--then neither would Leroy Jolley win that particular edition with Gulch. It was Bet Twice who blew the 1987 Belmont field away by 14 lengths.

Alysheba was a one-paced fourth virtually throughout. His Triple Crown and $5-million quest failed, a fact that failed to impress hometown race caller Marshall Cassidy, who announced as the field reached the finish line: “Gone West won’t win this one.”

Alas, these legendary horsemen are gone. In part, the game became great because of their presence and, sadly, less so now that they have left the course. On any level, they are irreplaceable.

AVOID THE HOLIDAY RUSH…


The Eclipse Award committee did just that years ago when it sent advisories suggesting that Eclipse voters await the results of Santa Anita’s traditional Grade 1 opening-day features, the Malibu and La Brea, and yesterday’s American Oaks, before casting ballots.

Sage advice for me this year since my official ballot will be changed to reflect Tuesday’s La Brea results. In the female sprint category, I am moving Ami’s Mesa from first to third and elevating Unique Bella to the top of that category.

Ami’s Mesa’s 4-for-5 slate, which included a nose defeat in the BC Sprint, is no longer superior to Unique Bella’s, who was soundly defeated by ‘Ami’ in that championship event.

But Bella wound up with the better overall record at 5-for-6, including that Grade 1, and defeated elders in the G3 LA Woman. On Tuesday she defeated dual G1 winner, Paradise Woods. Our revised Female Sprint 1-2-3s are Unique Bella, By the Moon and Ami’s Mesa.

AN INQUIRY NEEDED AT SANTA ANITA, OFFICIAL OR OTHERWISE

Knowledgeable racing fans understand the concept of “giving a horse a run,” especially lightly raced, young horses in their developmental stage.

One such case was on display yesterday when highly regarded Restoring Hope, a true ‘steam” horse when he debuted at Los Alamitos DEC 17. After entering the stretch very wide, he flew home in the middle of the track and just missed on juvenile debut.

Entering him back quickly going two turns this week—“I didn’t want to wait too long to run him back,” Bob Baffert told TVG pre-race, the even-money co-favorite chased the pace under stout restraint throughout and was never truly asked for best by Drayden Van Dyke.

Understandable enough, especially after the longer uncoupled Baffert, Regulate, was coming on but ultimately proved no match for the well-meant co-choice, Peace. Baffert’s successful young horses have all used a pattern very similar pattern to Restoring Hope.

But what happened opening day was, frankly, a disgrace.

Many observers, myself included, weren’t expecting an optimal effort from Collected, the BC Classic runnerup who was using the opening day Grade 2 San Antonio as a bridge to the rich Pegasus on January’s last Saturday.

So a less than serious effort was expected, especially after Baffert told a national racing audience that he let the horse down for a few weeks following the Classic before he began training him up again.

But his lack of effort at 1-5 before a Santa Anita opening day crowd of 40,000+ was awful. Allowed to take the first turn needlessly wide after breaking alertly, jockey Mike Smith made no attempt to save ground at that or any other point in the 1-1/16 miles.

Smith kept him wide and never asked for speed after entering the backstretch…”and Collected is actually behind [stablemate] Hoppertunity, and that’s the first surprise,” said race caller Michael Wrona.

At that stage Smith appeared to grab him again, never attempting to cover him up at any stage. Leaving the half-mile pole, Smith was still “bidding his time.” By the time the wire to wire winner was passing the three-eighths, Collected was still “bringing up the rear.”

Into the stretch it was “there goes Collected to the extreme outside…and is just grinding down on the outside…”

Grinding, yes. Flatter than a latke, yes. But at no stage was Collected whip-urged. Smith threw crosses and showed Collected the stick in scrub-like fashion and was lucky to win a close show photo, saving bridge-jumpers who “invested $100,000,” according to Wrona.

As Jolley indelicately said, this game is not played in short pants. But if you’re going to give your horse a run, show your audience and customers some respect. Lots of opening-day-trippers probably never even noticed.

But the large pumped-up crowd fell silent, according to a TVG analyst. All I know is that if I were watching the proceedings with some newbie who wanted to know what I thought of the race, I would have been too embarrassed to give him an honest assessment.

Hallandale Beach, FL, December 31, 2017


Written by John Pricci

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