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, 2015

Violette Responds to Florida Derby Non-Inquiry

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 28, 2015—Just received a text response from Upstart's trainer, Rick Violette, concerning the stretch incident in Saturday's Florida Derby. In mid-stretch, the winning Materiality came out beneath left-handed urging from Johnny Velazquez and into the path of Upstart, forcing Jose Ortiz to steady his mount.

No head-on replay was shown at the track following the race.

It is extremely unlikely that the incident cost Upstart the win. That, however, is not the point. The Gulfstream Park outrider, whose job it is to signal the stewards should a jockey want to lodge a foul claim, signaled the "all clear" to the officials before Ortiz had a chance to lodge an objection. When he reached the outrider, he was told it was "too late."

With or without the rider's objection, the stewards were obliged to lodge an inquiry of their own. There certainly was enough there to indicate to the connections and the public that the officials actually witnessed the stretch run of Gulfstream's signature event.

Of course, Upstart was the horse disqualified from first in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. It was a controversial call which, for the record, then and now, we thought to be correct. In our view, Saturday's non-decision decision would have been correct, too--again, not the issue.

Once more, incidents like these show how racing's officiating process in deeply flawed yet there remains no transparency in stewards stands throughout the U.S.

Violette's text message: "[The decision] turned quick official into rush-to-go-home official. Did an injustice to the horse, the owner, and the betting public. Regardless of the ultimate decision, robbed the connections of any revue. There was contact and for the stewards not to put up the inquiry on their own underscores the depth of their inconsistency. To call it official after it was clearly heard on the companies [sic] walkie talkies underlines their lack of competence."

International Star Sweeps; Birdatthewire Impressive in Gulfstream Oaks

He’s not the fastest and not the flashiest three year old of 2015 but who can argue that International Star is neck and neck the grittiest member of his generation.

In gamely beat Stanford--who Materiality made look like a second tier three year old in the Islamorada at Gulfstream only to prove that assessment inaccurate in Saturday’s Louisiana Derby—International Start proved that he carries guns into knife fights.

He just won’t let you finish in front of him.

His praises were being sung long before Saturday because of his uncommon versatility as to distance, style and surface preferences while beating you inside, outside, doing whatever it takes. On Saturday, he did a little of everything.

His praises were being sung long before Saturday because of his uncommon versatility as to distance, style and surface preferences while beating you inside, outside, doing whatever it takes. On Saturday, he did a little of everything.

He showed tactical speed to come out of the first turn in good shape despite breaking from the extreme outside in the field of nine.

International Star was rated along very well by Miguel Mena through the backstretch run, rallied inside on the final turn, tipped out with momentum for the drive, and out-willed the stubborn Stanford to the finish by a neck.

They both put 4-1/2 lengths between themselves and co-favorite War Story, who has talent but not nearly the grit of the winner. Keen Ice was going forward at the finish to place fourth, but was one-paced through deep stretch.

Meanwhile, International Star swept the Louisiana route to Kentucky, winning three straight, never losing a race beneath Miguel Mena.

One of the few Ken Ramsey runners not by his very successful stallion Kittens Joy, but purchased at auction for what is now a bargain price of $85,000, increased his lifetime earnings to nearly one million dollars.

International Star has now won going long, short, on turf, synthetics and dirt, trainer Mike Maker keeping him happy throughout it all…

I’m a Chatterbox was a clear cut winner of the Fair Grounds Oaks, always looking like a winner as the 3-5 choice but required a final eighth in :07 to get there, a driving winner.

A Star in the Making At Gulfstream, meanwhile, Birdatthewire was driving hard, too, to take the Gulfstream Park Oaks, only she had every reason to get beat but didn’t, showing uncommon ability and beating a nice filly, Eskenforthemoney, in the process.

The chart footnote does no justice to her manner of her winning trip. Check out the replay, or just take winning trainer Dale Romans’ explanation of what happened as gospel:

“I was worried down the backside,” Romans admitted. It looked like [Irad Ortiz] lost his irons. He was standing up trying to pull her up. He said she was just getting so rank with him and wanted to go.”

“She got very strong from the first turn to the backside,” explained Ortiz. “I was trying to get her to relax because she comes from behind--that’s her race…She was pulling, but when I asked her to run she took off.”

“That was really impressive,” added Romans. “It was good to see that she could overcome that adversity. She should improve with distance. We just have to get her to turn off a little bit.”

Birdatthewire overcomes adversity to win Gulfstream Oaks

Materiality Is for Real; Stewards Show Disregard for Horsemen, Bettors

Before the instant analyzing begins, what was revealed in the moments after the Florida Derby and Louisiana Derby were run 30 minutes part is that both races were great theater and, despite the narrow winning margins, the best horses won.

Over a very tiring Gulfstream surface--at once tightened up and firm after post-training maintenance but a victim of gusting winds and cloudy skies before the Hallandale opener—two three-year-old laid their bodies down and the stronger one survived.

Indeed, the track maintenance crew added extra water to the surface throughout the day but the prevailing gusts from out of the West blew the top-soil over toward the inside, the part of the track that was dull all week to begin with.

But in the end, it was just like winning rider Johnny Velazquez said: [Materiality] hooked up with the other horse at the half mile pole and kept fighting; that was a whole lot of running.”

And he did it racing on the inside portion of the track, but that didn’t make the defeat easier to accept for Upstart’s trainer, Rick Violette.

“I don’t want to hear from the guys that say don’t worry about the ‘nine hole’ because it made all the difference.

“If we had [Materiality] on our hip the whole way maybe the result would have been different.

He beat us fair and square. He is obviously a very nice horse, he comes off a really fast race and didn’t regress.”

“Our biggest concern was just coming back in 22 days off a really huge effort. SO we monitored how he was training,” explained Todd Pletcher, who won the Florida Derby with a third-time starter for the second straight year.

“He’s a big, strong colt and he holds his weight really well. He’s got a big appetite.” And seemingly a heart just as big.

As Velazquez intimated, it takes a whole lot of running to put 12-1/2 lengths on the third finisher, Ami’s Flatter.

Materiality showed class and courage in Florida Derby

Materiality’s stablemate Itsaknockout, undefeated after being elevated from second to first in the Fountain of Youth, didn’t display the same turn of foot he showed as the Fountain of Youth runner-up.

He, too, was down on the inside much of the way in the slower going and showed some grit to come on for fourth after running one-paced around the second turn.

A familiar scene from the Gulfstream Park Winners' Circle

The buzz immediately after the finish concerned whether there would be a foul claim by the connections of the runner-up. Materiality drifted out in midstretch, brushing Upstart, both horses losing a little momentum for an instant.

There were reports that the outrider tried to make contact with all the jockeys as they were pulling up. None of the jocks said anything but Upstart’s rider Jose Ortiz said later he never got the opportunity.

When he approached the outrider, he reportedly was told it was, “too late, [the stewards were given the ‘all clear’. The race was declared official extremely quickly and as this was written no one had seen a head-on replay.

I sent a text message to Rick Violette not long after learning of the “all clear” incident but received no response.

Subsequently, I have seen the head-on and the winner definitely drifted out into the path of the runner-up and brushed him slightly while under left-handed urging.

The incident did not affect the ultimate result but it certainly would not have been a frivolous foul had Ortiz claimed. And the public was owed the courtesy of a head-on view, at least. Violette certainly was.

Dubai in the Morning: The Bet and Breakfast program from halfway around the world was very entertaining, the performances outstanding in spots.

So world class horseman Michael DeKock says he now must learn the words to “My Old Kentucky Home.” Maybe when he gets here he’ll be forced to learn some different tunes.

There’s that old standard, “Moon Over Miami.” How about “California Here I Come,” or “New York, New York,” with which you get a choice of Sinatra, Liza or Jay Z & Beyonce.

Can’t knock the performance of Mubtaahij, that’s for certain. Had to love the way he stretched out to the wire in a wow-like performance.

But we don’t know what he beat in the UAE Derby, then there’s the shipping…and did we mention this deep three year old class? Of course, no Dubai shipper has ever had success in Louisville.

Don’t think Dubai will ever see Dubai Bob again, but as long as they run the Golden Shaheen, Baffert will have a speedster to run, and Victor Espinoza gave Secret Circle the perfect trip to win the six furlong sprint.

As far as Main Sequence is concerned, maybe it was the lack of Lasix, the shipping, the competition or being used earlier than usual.

After breaking fairly well—actually good for Main Sequence—Rajiv Maragh put him in the game earlier than usual and that dramatic late kick of his.

Perhaps the outside post was of no help to California Chrome. He was in the bridle all the way, stalking four wide throughout, and it’s just so difficult to keep that momentum going.

But he runs hard all the time—such a cool dude. However, even his A+ race unlikely would have been enough to handle Prince Bishop. What a race he ran.

William Buick was cooler than, as Stewart Scott popularized—the flip side of the pillow. He allowed the gelded eight year old to drop way out of it, made a long sustained run into contention approaching the turn.

Then, he drafted him behind a rival for about a sixteenth of a mile, tipped outside into the straight, and drew off under a fierce drive, winning as much the best horse.

And mucho props to trainer Saaed bin Suroor, winning his seventh World Cup out of 20 runnings. Just call him the Charlie Whittingham of Dubai.

Bets 'n Pieces

The racing on Saturday's loaded stakes card at Gulfstream produced some terrific, competitive racing but slow running times throughout the day owing to a tiring strip made more demanding by windy conditions which seemed to take all the moisture from the surface as quickly as the water truck could spray it on. And that was following the soaking rains of Friday night.

Commissioner finally got that graded takes win with a hard-drive victory over a very stubborn Sr. Quisqueyano in the G3 Skip Away for Pletcher and Javier Castellano... War Correspondent accomplished the same goal, dropping out of the G1 Gulfstream Turf Handicap to take the G3 Appleton at one mile over firm turf for Christophe Clement and Velazquez, displaying an excellent turn of foot once clear...

Having gone to the well once too often--his fifth start since Dec. 13 and exiting an extremely hard fought length defeat to Honor Code after chasing Grade 1 winner Private Zone throughout the Gulfstream Park Handicap, Valid had no resistance to offer when challenged by Pants On Fire to take the Sir Shackleton overnight stakes for Kelly Breen and Paco Lopez, holing off a strong, late rally from Confrontation...

Bill Mott had Lady Lara sitting on ready and she gamely wore down favored Sandiva to win the G2 Honey Fox beneath Junior Alvarado, down from New York for the assignment. Beauty Parlor made her 4YO and U.S. debut to take G3 Orchid beneath a heady Velazquez, giving Clement his seventh victory in this race. Viva La France

Irad Ortiz gave Imagining a good trip and pulled a minor upset to defeat favored Twilight Eclipse, forced to chase a slow pace throughout, tiring late to third when the sprinting began in deep stretch. Shug McGaughey saddled the winner.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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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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