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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Tuesday, May 30, 2017


Great Work by Man and Beast This Holiday Weekend


Disclaimer: For the curmudgeons who hate when turf writers report on the accomplishments of “the super-trainer” and their horses then read no further. This piece is not for you so you might as well surf right on out of here now

While the recent holiday was a solemn commemoration of heroes and patriots past and present, the weekend was a reminder to racing fans just how good this game can be at its highest levels.

If one were to remove Bob Baffert and Chad Brown from the holiday weekend equation, not many other major storylines would exist. For a journalist, ignoring these stories would tantamount to dereliction of duty.

In the past, we’ve never been shy to criticize some of his methods, deeds and words of Mr. Baffert. But since the goal is to strive for balance, we must recognize excellent horsemanship. His work with the eight-month layup Cupid on Saturday was extraordinary.

The first hint that something good would happen for the 4-year-old returnee in the Grade 1 mile and a quarter Gold Cup was when Rafael Bejarano opted to ride the Tapit gray rather than stay with eventual post-time favorite American Freedom.

And when you dissect Cupid’s workline, only one name could come to mind in comparison; the legendary Charlie Whittingham. The following are the dozen published workouts reported in BRIS past performances dating back to February:
21May SA 6f 1:12H 3/10; 12May SA 7f 1:25 2/5 Hg 1/2; 16Apr SA 7f 1:25 3/5 H 2/2; 10Apr SA 7f 1:25 1/5 Hg 1/1; 04Apr SA 1m 1:38 H 1/1; 27Mar SA 5f 1:01 1/5 H 22/53; 20Mar SA 5f :59 1/5 H 1/26; 14Mar SA 5f :59 2/5 H 2/23; 07Mar SA 5f 1:00 2/5 H 6/28; 01Mar SA 4f :48 H 9/43; 23Feb SA 4f :47 3/5 H 7/78 and 16Feb SA 4f :48 3/5 H 52/146. All works recorded on fast tracks.

That’s 66 furlongs in all, 8-1/4 miles of timed workouts, and consider how the pattern was built: It began with three half-miles, slowly at first then gradually faster. Following that came four 5-furlong moves--the heart of any training regimen. There, too, the tempo increased until it reached the Whittingham part of the program:

The fast and strong one-mile stamina builder, followed by three 7-furlong drills, with a capital ‘D’, two from the gate before concluding with a sharp 6-furlongs in 1:12—not watch-busting but fast enough to sharpen and continue stamina building.

With stablemate American Freedom setting the tempo under Martin Garcia by making Midnight Storm track the pace instead of setting it, Bejarano sat in the cat-bird seat fourth waiting for the right time to move; the far turn.

As he inched his mount up closer then abreast of the leaders, the rider was showing confidence with each measured step, taking command soon after entering the straight. Cupid won with some reserves in the tank, actually widening his advantage on the gallop out.

Parenthetically, there was at incident at the start that caused a bit of an Internet and Twitter stir. Garcia’s mount broke out of hand and bore out into the improving Follow Me Crev for several strides immediately after the start.

The chatter was that while the bump might not have been intentional, Garcia was in no hurry to correct his course. After several head-on views, it was impossible for us to determine whether Garcia was deliberate in his reaction to the incident: As is.

The stewards explained afterward that they did not see sufficient cause to post an inquiry. But in a Grade 1 race, in which the winning stablemate might have benefitted, a look-see was indicated.

Follow Me Crev finished well for place but it is extremely doubtful that the incident cost him the race. However, the California stewards owed bettors enough respect to at least light the lamp, however briefly, to signal that they were paying attention.

As far as the winner is concerned, Baffert had it right pre-race: “It’s not ideal; it’s not my normal routine,” Baffert told Daily Racing Form. “But the race is not coming up . There are nice horses but there are no superstars.”

Time will tell whether that assessment also applies to Tapit’s gray son.

The talent, courage and heart of the great Lady Eli—note the ‘G’ word--once again was on the display as she won the appropriately named Grade 1 Gamely, doing all the dirty work necessary to get her job done.

Lady Eli now owns a Grade 1 victory at two, three, four and five. Of course, for the mare to be alive at all after contracting laminitis in both front legs after stepping on nail is extraordinary enough. To be this effective is a tribute to her amazing constitution and her trainer’s horsemanship.

Making her second start this year following a head defeat to Dickinson in Keeneland’s G1 Jenny Wiley, Lady Eli was compelled to keep Grade 1 local speedster Avenge honest as she sat off her hip before pouncing, then holding off strong-finishing Goodyearforroses.

With ears pricking, Lady Eli galloped back to the winners circle with good energy, almost as if she hadn’t even run.

Because of her history, I hold my breath a little every time she goes postward, as many fans would. She’s the epitome of what it means to be a Thoroughbred.

The rest of Brown’s weekend was just as spectacular. On Saturday, he broke the maiden of first-time starter Rubilinda, who made it look easy by finishing with a rush and drawing out after missing the start completely. It was the sensational Frankel’s first American win.

Brown’s weekend concluded with a hat trick of New York-bred stakes as he took the Mount Vernon with Fourstarcrook, the Critical Eye with an exciting undefeated Kathryn the Wise, before winning the Kingston with Offering Plan.

Brown nearly won a fourth stakes, the Bouwerie, but Noble Freud settled for second following a troubled beginning. Some guys just done have any luck.




Written by John Pricci

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Friday, May 19, 2017


HRI Staff Selections: Black-Eyed Susans for Preakness Heroes


Tom Jicha

Black Eyed Susan

1. Dancing Rags--Grade 1 winner will appreciate the distance
2. Shimmering Aspen--Locals do well on Preakness weekend
3. Summer Luck--Big weekend for Team Casse?
4. Moana--Maiden to stakes, but who's to question Todd?
Preakness

1. Always Dreaming--No one has been close to him as a 3YO.
2. Classic Empire--Nightmare trip in Derby; juvenile champ could rebound big.
3. Hence--Another who had no chance to show his stuff in Louisville.
4. Lookin at Lee--Needs pace meltdown by top two; could get it

Mark Berner

Black Eyed Susan


1- Lights of Medina
won two straight at route; top fig in last.
2- Shimmering Aspen makes route bow after three sprint wins.
3- Dancing Rags had trouble in needed return; added distance suits.
4- Full House trained sharply and never has finished worse than third.

Preakness

1- Always Dreaming confirmed impressive campaign with very strong Derby win.
2- Classic Empire was game in Arkansas comeback win and still managed fourth in rough-trip Derby.
3- Gunnevera had no chance after getting jammed up early in Derby and should be more effective with less traffic.
4- Cloud Computing has early speed and power which can carry him a long way here.

Indulto

Black-Eyed Susan

1-Dancing Rags – G1 winner for Motion needed her last
2-Summer Luck – Consistently competitive at this level, gets Javier
3-Shimmering Aspen – May never look back seeking fourth in a row
4-Lights of Medina – Pletcher charge looking for third straight

Preakness

1-Always Dreaming – Derby winners usually triumph
2-Classic Empire - Should be much closer in smaller field
3-Hence – Needs fast track for best effort
4-Conquest Mo Money - Skipped Derby for this

John Pricci


Black-Eyed Susan

1-Moana
– Carefully managed campaign; Always Dreaming redux?
2-Full House – Mini-turnback, dynamics, post draw and huge drill could spell upset
3-Shimmering Aspen -
4-Dancing Rags – Grade 1 winner at 2 has disappointed but Motion has come alive and distance suits.

Preakness

1-Always Dreaming – May be breathing rarified air; uber athletic and tireless thus far
2-Classic Empire – Main rival looks all set now; match racing may be his only chance
3-Gunnevera – Needlessly wide in FL Derby and wide again while unable to handle slick strip; best value
4-Cloud Computing - No backward steps, training with a vengeance, has position and Javier

[See Friday and Saturday's Feature Race Analysis for wagering status]

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, May 16, 2017


Big A Turf II, a Win-Win for NYRA


Two weeks ago, the New York Racing Association revealed that Aqueduct’s inner dirt track is in the process of being converted to a second turf course, and that the main dirt track will be renovated and converted to accommodate year-round racing.

Finally, sanity is prevailing.

In our view, this comes a decade or two behind schedule. In that context, the current NYRA administration deserves props for finally putting the Aqueduct main track on course to become a meaningful winter meet, more reflective of what New York racing should be.

It wasn’t very long after its inception in 1976 that the winter-track race meet became the tail that has wagged the NYRA dog and, sadly, if one can picture those optics, it certainly did not do NYRA’s national brand and image any favors.

The argument we made historically was that if the winter surface is so great, why wasn’t it installed on the main track in the first place? You can’t run a world class American race meeting if the only dirt options are six furlongs or two turns.

The one negative in all this is that, with respect to racing and training, many New York horseman consider the existing main track surface at Aqueduct to be the best of NYRA’s three dirt-racing surfaces.

In any case, it wasn’t long before the “turf course” announcement initiated speculation that the addition of a second grass course is prelude to an altered big picture, a plan that eventually could lead to the consolidation of racing downstate at one venue.

There are several scenarios being proffered, the most logical being the possibility that Aqueduct will serve as a temporary year-round venue while Belmont is shuttered for a complete makeover to be determined at some point in the near future.

Following this reconstruction period, Belmont would reopen as a permanent, state-of-the-art home for year-round racing in the metropolitan area.

This would dovetail nicely with the proposed building of an arena across Hempstead Turnpike that would be, among other things, the new home of the New York Islanders.

The perception is that this new “sports complex” would be Long Island’s answer to Madison Square Garden and Barclays Arena. There are millions of people who live east of the Nassau County line. Belmont Park already rests hard by the conveniently accessible Cross Island Parkway.

All this certainly is an intriguing notion.

The idea that Big A Turf II is a blueprint for a bigger plan was given further speculative life when Martin Panza, NYRA’s Senior Vice President of Racing Operations, declined to speak on this issue for the record but indicated that a big-picture announcement could be forthcoming later this year.

Panza also indicated in a Daily Racing Form story that NYRA is in talks with Gov. Cuomo and the horsemen concerning the future of racing in the New York metropolitan area.

A win-win would be that Belmont Park once again becomes a racing mecca while Cuomo grabs the land he so covets in Queens for further development.

“There is a much larger plan,” conceded Panza.

The short-term benefits of a second turf course and reconditioning the Aqueduct main track are obvious. Given the burgeoning popularity of turf racing with bettors and racing departments throughout the country, the move makes a lot of good business sense.

Modern turf courses are larger with better drainage. They provide additional racing lanes for extended race meets in the same manner that separate turf courses such as those in place at Belmont and Saratoga provide.

In addition to being able to card 7-furlong and flat-mile races out of a chute on a dirt surface that will play in the northern temperate zone, the benefit a new turf course will allow for the carding of shorter turf sprints, racing that almost always overfill at every class level.

An indication of the growing trend toward turf racing and greater American participation in international racing is another burgeoning trend, so much so that sales companies are now scheduling select sales that feature successful turf sires.

Yes, there is life beyond the Kentucky Derby.

It is rare that racing makes any progressive change at all, but one such as this is in New York is at once good for the business and the sport of Thoroughbred racing, a win-win.

When one considers New York racing specifically, a third win is at play; the ability to compete with the escalating threat to New York winter racing that has come from Maryland, specifically Laurel Park.

Over the past two seasons, The Stronach Group has made sizable eight-figure investments to their Laurel property. The quality of the racing there has improved markedly over all class levels and the handle numbers reflect as much.

Turf sprints and the ability to run 7-furlong and mile-chute races during late fall and early spring in the Northeast has given TSG an upward trajectory, as compared to New York’s, this past year in particular.

No one along executive row would admit this but if I were in one of those chairs, I’d sure being thinking about it. Then if any of my colleagues still had doubts about the validity of this concern, I'd suggest that they only need check out Linda Rice’s 2017 stats for confirmation.

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, May 16, 2017

Mark Berner is a bit under the weather. His Inside New York column will resume next Tuesday

Written by John Pricci

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