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, February 06, 2015

I Left My Heart in San Antonio

HALLANDALE BEACH, February 6—It is three-track stakes smorgasbord that only HRI’s beloved WMC would hate. In short, a racing day with the potential to be one that racing fans will celebrate for days to come.

There are a half-dozen added-money events at Gulfstream Park, including an all-Graded Stakes Pick 4. Three graded stakes will be run at Santa Anita and two more graded events run in New York, weather permitting.

Further, there’s even a unique Cross Country Pick 4 featuring the G1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap and G1 Donn from Hallandale Beach and the G2 San Marcos and G2 San Antonio Invitational in Arcadia with a limited 31% bonus available to winning X-C bettors.

If three year olds peak your wagering interest, there’s the G3 Withers from Aqueduct, on paper a battle between El Kabeir and Classy Class.

From SoCal, another two-horse confrontation looms with Dortmund vs. Firing Line in the Robert Lewis Memorial. Action also includes round two of Churchill Downs futures pool for those so inclined.

For the pure fan, however, today is all about the battle of two premier four year olds at Santa Anita; Horse of the Year California Chrome against the sensational Shared Belief.

The bonus for fans and bettors alike is that a Cross Country Pick 4 will be televised nationally on Fox Sports 1 Saturday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. EST.

The final race on the day, with a scheduled post time of 7 p.m. EST, is an epic match, for me a battle of heart vs. mind. Emotionally, I’m all in on California Chrome. Financially, I will use him to complete an exacta under Shared Belief.

I admit that I don’t know with any certitude which will make the better four year old by season’s end.

I only know that, thus far, Shared Belief has run consistently faster when measured against the speed of the surface and that he distributes his energy with greater efficiency.

Further, his third place finish after the horrendous trouble he encountered at the start of the Breeders’ Cup Classic proved he can bounce back from adversity. Lesser horses wouldn’t have bothered to show up after such a calamitous, jarring start.

California Chrome has yet to prove that he can handle the same kind of knockout punch but his tactical style and considerable class enables him to make his own good trip. Further, he loves the Arcadia strip while I’m not sure that dirt is even Shared Belief’s best game.

The luck of the draw favors Shared Belief. With his tractability from post five in the field of nine, jockey Mike Smith can play it off the break. The team projects to have a good trip from comfortable stalking position.

Post eight for California Chrome is not a pronounced disadvantage in that it allows Victor Espinoza to see what his main rival is at right from the jump.

The problem is that the very speedy Alfa Bird is drawn immediately to his outside, which could force Espinoza’s hand. Thus far, Alfa Bird’s best efforts have come while in front.

Both riders, I’m sure, will be aware that the very sharp Hoppertunity is breaking from the pole and that Martin Garcia easily could wind up in the catbird seat while the big horses cat-and-mouse with each other.

Personally, anticipation for a momentous event could not be higher.

The storied G1 Donn Handicap is the last of 13 races to be run at Gulfstream Park, where poor, little Lea will face not one, not two, but three* independent challengers from the Pletcher juggernaut.

Cases can be made for all four, although Commissioner appears to lead the quarter based on our Projected Performance figures.

John Velazquez rides while Joel Rosario takes a return call on Lea. The Bill Mott charge will be seeking his fourth Gulfstream main track score without defeat. We believe he will.

See Saturday’s Feature Race Analysis for a betting schematic on both big races.

*correction made 020615 at 3:37 p.m.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, February 01, 2015

Ocean Knight: Still No Telling How Good

OLDSMAR, FL., February 1, 2015—It was billed as Tampa Bay Derby Preview Day. It was that and more, maybe even much more.

The lynchpin to the day was the G3 Sam F. Davis Memorial at a mile and sixteenth and, from ground level, it appeared that all of the dozen three year olds broke in a line as a crushing of manes and tails raced to the first

And this could not good for the underplayed race favorite, who despite one race of experience, a sprint on the winter dirt track at Aqueduct, this couldn’t be a good thing.

Either go on with it, or take back, jock, I thought to myself. If not, you’re going to be five wide into the first turn. For such an inexperienced horse, especially racing over the often quirky Tampa Bay surface, it would be race over, even before clearing the first bend.

But fortunately for the large crowd and the simulcast bettors across the country who wagered a record Preview Day $9.8 million on the 12-race program, Irad Ortiz Jr. went on with it, got around a few rivals, winding up in about the 4 path at mid first turn.

As the leaders straightened into the backstretch, Ortiz--having a good karma day after his Testa Rossi was elevated from second to first in the G3 Endeavour a half hour before the Davis—remained wide but used the colt slightly to secure a clear comfortable outside position.

Down the backside, Ortiz found himself even a bit wider but still comfortably clear and at about the five-eighths pole, Ortiz decided to put a little pressure on second favorite My Johnny B. Goode, immediately to his inside, beneath the meet’s leading rider Antonio Gallardo.

Gallardo asked his horse to get closer to the leader and away from the favorite, at which Ortiz grabbed a little bit more rein—he wasn’t ready to move yet.

But when they reached the bend, Ocean Knight was asked and readily join the team to make it three across the track, Ortiz taking a peek behind as if he had the first two measured.

His momentum enabled him to join longshot leader Divining Rod after easily racing passed Johnny B. Goode, at which point Ocean Knight started looking around, drifting to the center of the track, showing his inexperience.

Ortiz then brought him closer to the inside horse and the favorite wore down the game frontrunner.

The deck was stacked against Ocean Knight: inexperience; unfamiliarity with Tampa; two turns; post 11 of 12 on a surface that was kind to speed types racing closest to the inside.

The running time of 1:43.74 was precisely 20/100s off the 1-1/16 miles stakes and track record following a tepid half-mile 48.75 and an equally docile six furlongs in 1:12.97. In comparison, fillies going 1 mile 40 yards early in 23.02 and 46.80.

The Stonestreet Stable folks were an excited group as they awaited Ocean Knight’s return to the picture taking ceremonies. Assistant trainer Neal McLaughlin, deputizing for brother Kiaran, smiled wider than I had even seen him smile before.

“I don’t know how you’re going to sleep tonight,” I said as McLaughlin joined the owners. “It’s exciting, isn’t it?” he asked walking away. “I’ll go wherever this horse takes me.”

In the immediate future, that would be right back to Tampa on March 7 for the Tampa Bay Derby.

Ocean Knight got to the finish as quickly as he could be sure took his time returning to the front-side, Ortiz allowing the young colt to look around and enjoy the surroundings before galloping back.

Meantime, most of the other horses and riders were back and Rajiv Maragh walked right by alone, smiling, shaking his head and saying to absolutely no one “I’d sure like to ride that one.,” clearly referring to the winner.

Ocean Knight broke his maiden on the winter track in New York on December 13 before shipping to McLaughlin’s winter headquarters at Palm Meadows, Gulfstream’s satellite training facility.

So why the late start? “Some baby things,” explained Neal. “He’s been training well since Saratoga but was a little slow to learn his lessons, going to the gate, part of the process of bringing a horse up to his first start.”

And what about that first start? “[To win the way he did] took a lot of ability.’ And today? “That’s what we’re here to find out. This race, the Tampa Derby if all goes well. The spacing works for us…But we’ll talk it over to the owners who have some other nice three year olds.”

“We knew he was fast, said Barbara Banke, who campaigned Ocean Knight’s sire, multiple Horse of the Year champion Curlin with her late husband Jess Jackson. “He had been hauling everything else around the training center all year long."

“…On the turn we thought he had had it but he was wide and it's tough to run down speed. And any time I can race a Curlin like this one, I would. They're sturdy and they're fast. It does bring back memories…"

"I had ridden this guy before,” said the winning rider, “so I knew he would wait until I asked him…Mr. McLaughlin told me to just relax, wait with him and set him down into the stretch.

“You rode him great,” McLaughlin said to Ortiz, who immediately deflected the compliment. “I didn’t do anything...”

“When I asked for run he just went after the horse on the lead a like a good horse should. I really hope I get to ride him back in those big races coming up."

Maragh, and probably every other rider in the room, will be waiting in the wings. But as long as Ortiz is as brilliant as he was on Ocean Knight Saturday, there shouldn’t be a need to find a replacement.

Photos by Toni Pricci

(top) Ocean Knight and Irad Ortiz get ready

(middle) Son of Curlin passes first big test

(bottom) Neal McLaughlin liked what he saw

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Talented from Day One, Holy Bull Winner Is No Upstart

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 25, 2015—It was a state-bred maiden race at Saratoga; didn’t look like anything out of the ordinary on paper. But when the betting opened it became apparent that a dark bay named Upstart might be OK.

Ante post, he was the 3-2 choice over six rivals and he made that quote look generous, indeed. All he wanted to do was run, run, run, but Jose Ortiz didn’t want him to move yet.

On the turn, the $130,000 Saratoga yearling still wanted to go—“traffic, hard held,” the chart footnote reads--but with the straight in sight, Ortiz let out a notch of rein and Upstart did the rest.

It was an impressive enough score, which is nothing unusual for Saratoga, but what happened after Upstart reached the wire 5-1/4 lengths in front of Tizquick was.

The ridgling galloped out, slowed to a canter, then to a walk on the backstretch. But instead of turning around and galloping back toward the winners’ circle, Ortiz walked him slowly over to the inside portion of the track, stopped, and gave him a feel for the rail.

I only remember seeing this maneuver before steeplechase events; the riders giving their mounts a “feel for the hedge/fence,” some familiarity with the obstacle the horse will be asked to traverse.

What jumped to mind in this case is that the outfit must really like this youngster. Finally, Ortiz galloped him back slowly but trainer Rick Violette couldn’t wait, running out to the middle of Saratoga Race Course to greet horse and rider. High fives ensued.

What happened next was even more unusual. Needing a bridge race to get to the Champagne Stakes—yes, from New York-bred maiden to open Grade—Violette ran him back nine days later in the state-bred Funny Cide Stakes, which he had every right to lose.

“We weren’t supposed to win that day,” said Violette after the Holy Bull, referring to the very speedy Funny Cide favorite, Bustin It. Upstart, however, as Tom Durkin probably said, would not be denied, grabbing the lead late, willing victory by a length at the end.

Upstart dominates in the Holy Bull

“We got lucky,” said Violette. “I didn’t want to run him back in the Hopeful, thought that might be too tough a spot, and the timing [to the Champagne] was better.”

Upstart finished a good second in the Champagne, Ortiz shifting him off the deeper portion of the sealed, sloppy track on the backstretch while the winning Daredevil was just cruising along comfortably in front in the better going, setting a moderate pace.

Next stop California where Upstart’s fortunes weren't much better. With speed horses ruling the day, especially those racing toward the inside, Upstart broke from the extreme outside in a field of 11 going a two-turn mile and a sixteenth.

Upstart broke slowly, raced wide throughout, was forced to move into contention probably sooner than Ortiz wanted, the premature move eventually costing him the place as Carpe Diem came charging down the middle of the track to nail him.

On Saturday, the ridgling broke with his field, lost ground throughout, but he kept racing comfortably, keeping the pressured speed-type Bluegrass Singer in close range before going after him in earnest approach headstretch. From there he drew off with a thoroughly comprehensive 5-1/2 length score in 1.43.61.

“I hope it wasn’t too fast,” said Violette, “but that’s one of the advantages of running today, you have two weeks to play with.”

Rick Violette has reason to smile.

Playtime will come in either the Gotham at Aqueduct March 7 or Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Feb. 21. Either way, Upstart will have a three-prep campaign into the Kentucky Derby. His Holy Bull victory was worth 10 points, giving him 16 Derby qualifying points.

Meanwhile, it was also a very solid performance by the classy Frozen, the non-threatening runner-up.

“One horse scratched. Kiaran’s [McLaughlin] horse was between a rock and a hard place from the rail. They were coming off the bench, too. When they went 24 [seconds], I said, ‘We’re in a good spot. When they went 48, I said ‘we’re in exactly the right spot.’ You couldn’t have asked for a better ride.”

“Rick did a tremendous job getting him ready,” said rider Jose Ortiz. “By the half-mile pole I let him go…and when we turned for home we rolled. He jumped into the bit…he was really very good.”

Good enough to run his final sixteenth in 6.55 while gearing down.

Now Violette must decide what’s next, which is a bit of a political quandary. He has stalls in Florida, where stall space is at a premium, but he’s also the head of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and is New York-based throughout the year.

Our guess is that the Fountain of Youth is the better option, giving him a chance to decide whether the final prep will be the Florida Derby or Wood Memorial. Does Violette want four or five weeks between final prep and Derby?

That’s why trainers get the big bucks.

Ya Gotta' Have Heart: The Holy Bull was preceded by the Hutcheson on the five-stakes program, four of which were graded.

The only drama in the seven furlong dash was whether X Y Jet, loose on an easy lead beneath Edgard Zayas, would take it wire to wire, or whether odds-on 3-5 choice Barbados, with Luis Saez, would run him down.

Trainer Mike Tomlinson’s Speightstown colt eventually wore down the frontrunner and extended his undefeated dirt career to three victories, having taken the Spectacular Bid here earlier this meet, after making his first two starts on turf.

“It was a tougher race than it should have been [on paper] so my hat’s off to the second-place horse,” said Tomlinson afterward. “I asked Luis [Saez] after the race, ‘was it that hard’?” He said he had the horse measured,” of the come-again runner-up.

It’s a good sign Saez felt that X Y Jet would not re-break in the shadow of the wire and grab the favorite right at the end, the trainer said.

“At some point or another they’re going to get tested. Any good horse has to have heart.”

Bets 'N Pieces The graded stakes portion of the program started with the Sweetest Chant, a Grade 3, and barely one on that on paper. But makes no mistake; we’’ be hearing a lot more from Consumer Credit, the filly with that big late-running engine.

From headstretch to inside the furlong pole, Chad Brown’s filly was churning her legs as if she would run the leaders down but remained one-paced to the point one had to wonder whether she ever would fire.

But with a sixteenth remaining, the gears shifted, shoe powered to the lead and was drawing away with every lengthening stride. It was Chad Brown’s filly’s first start in graded company, her first as a three year old, and her third win in succession.

At one mile, she barely seemed warmed up. When she gets going and begins running longer, she might carry young Edgard Zayas right into the big time with her.

Going into the Grade 2 Forward Gal for three year old fillies at seven furlongs, our thinking was we remember seeing stronger renewals. Coming out of the event, little had changed, except that the first two finishers just might be better than that, possibly a lot better.

Before the winning Birdonthewire left her Kentucky home, she was breaking her maiden at the expense of Lassofthemohicans going a two-turn mile and a sixteenth. That filly returned to break maiden subsequently at Gulfstream by five going a flat mile.

After Saturday’s victory, Birdatthewire had become the fifth filly from nine subsequent starters to exit that maiden event with a repeat victory next time out; a super key race indeed.

Considering both maiden breakers were returning going seven-eighths, logic dictates that they might get even better when they stretch back out. We’ll be watching.

The final stakes of the day, the Kittens Joy, was a listed event but the pair that finished noses apart, each trained by Bill Mott, appear to have graded talent and will prove that assessment somewhere down the line.

The fillies were owned by two of Mott’s bigger clients, Juddmonte Farms and Benjamin Leon, in partnership with Three Chimneys Farm.

As it turned out, Juddmonte filly Courtier did all the dirty work on the lead but Dubai Sky benefitted from a perfect ground-saving trip and a fortunate head bob for a nose victory, Johnny Velazquez nailing Joel Rosario’s mount right at the line.

Both fillies were coming off two straight scores and only a dead heat would have extended the streak for both. The winner is now undefeated in blinkers and it’s interesting to note, too, that neither filly runs on race-day Lasix.

Written by John Pricci

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