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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Thursday, January 22, 2015


Kentucky Derby Prep Season: Game On


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 21, 2015—Are you ready for some prep ball?

Finally, things are beginning to heat up as the Road to Kentucky Derby takes its first serious step Saturday when Gulfstream Park renews the Grade 2 Holy Bull Stakes at 1-1/16 miles.

But before taking a look ahead, there already has been some interesting action in racing’s glamour division and a few recent participants might turn out to be players in Louisville.

Whether they’re elite players or not will shake out in the days and weeks ahead. Thus far, it’s been a promising start.

Two weeks ago Calculator earned an impressive maiden score at the expense of some classy runners in Santa Anita’s Grade 3 Sham Stakes, ridden and performing as though he were much the best.

Ground loss didn’t matter, early button-pushing didn’t matter but what mattered was the impressive way he drew off that belied a lineage that’s admittedly a bit short on the maternal side of his pedigree.

Of course, he will be given ample opportunity to outrun his ancestry in the future; the 1-1/16 miles of the San Felipe seems the logical place to find out more about Peter Miller’s trainee.

Don’t quite know what to make of Monday’s Smarty Jones group but at first blush it seems as if some might make it to the elite level. The winning Far Right is decidedly OK, making amends for a tough trip run in last season’s Delta Jackpot.

Runnerup Bayerd appeared to have every chance but couldn’t get there and race favorite Mr. Z has too many bad habits to be taken seriously at this point. Neither of the two Steve Asmussen-trained runners lifted a hoof.

Neither do I know how to gauge the G3 Lecomte bunch. Last weekend wasn’t the first time that International Star fooled me, still believing that his future is on grass. But he does love his job, as his (7) 3-2-0 lifetime slate indicates.

I’m not sure what followed International Star home but the score was authoritative enough for his connections to look forward to the Risen Star, where the waters figure to be much deeper.

Now I know the California Derby is run on Polytrack, and that the race often has been a better predictor of Preakness success than the race run two weeks in Louisville but I liked what I saw of the top three finishers, especially the first and third horses.

While many horses race well on dirt coming off Polytrack, many others don’t and I find that pedigree study only confuses the will-he, won’t-he issue; it’s just better to wait for the evidence to come.

It was Jerry Hollendorfer’s eighth Cal Derby victory [yawn], but I appreciated the way his perfect-trip winner Cross the Line lengthened his stride as he--well, crossed the line. However, I was taken more with how stablemate Stand and Salute performed through the straight.

Either by accident or design, Russell Baze gave him a great education. Just at the point of the turn where the running was supposed to begin, Stand and Salute sounded a retreat.

Then when asked, virtually a few seconds later, he showed an excellent turn of foot at headstretch that carried him into the 6-path and he continued to rally strongly only to get nailed in the last jump for place, failing to switch to his correct lead until it was too late.

(See the bet-back replay and judge for yourself). It has been quite a while but John Brunetti has bred a three year old worth keeping an eye on.

There are some unusual dynamics going in both Saturday’s two-turn Holy Bull and Hutcheson, the latter a seven-furlong sprint that used to jump-start the sophomore season back in the day.

What’s interesting is that two of the major players are cross-entered, thereby giving their connections options.

The two colts entered in each race are Mucho Macho Man winner Bluegrass Singer and Illinois Futurity winner Dom the Bomb. Each of those wins came at longer distances than the Hutch.

HRI has learned that Bluegrass Singer will run in the Holy Bull; alas, we shall see.

Make no mistake, the Grade 2 headliner features a “now horse” vs. two proven classy juveniles of 2014; G1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile third Upstart and G2 Remsen Stakes runner-up, Frosted. Both colts were wide-trip compromised in those events.

Both are working very well for their seasonal debuts and will give good accounts of themselves. Whether their apparent class edge can overcome Gulfstream-loving Bluegrass Singer given his early speed, the short stretch at Saturday’s distance, and Javier Castellano is the issue.

The field, from the rail out, with Gulfstream line-maker Jay Stone’s early odds and our Projected Performance Ratings, are Frosted 5-2 (89); Keen Ice 6-1 (82); High Noon Rider 15-1 (82); Bluegrass Singer 4-1 (96); Juan and Bina 20-1 (76); First Down 12-1 (78); Frammento (83) 12-1 ; Upstart 9-5 (88); Dom the Bomb 30-1 (81) and Decision Day 30-1 (82).

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, January 17, 2015


Eclipse Saturday: Upsets By Day, Formful By Night


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 17, 2015—Justice was served and form held at Gulfstream Park Saturday night when California Chrome, the 17th dual classicist of 17 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners, was named Horse of the Year 2014 and champion three year old by a wide margin over his Breeders’ Cup Classic conqueror Bayern by a margin of 193 to 56.

Eclipse Awards voters, consisting of members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Daily Racing Form, and the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, cast ballots ranking the top three horses and individuals in each championship category, scored on a 10-5-1 point system basis.

The top three finalists in each division were released on January 7, but the final tallies represented are first place votes only.

Todd Pletcher won an unprecedented seventh Outstanding Trainer title, eclipsing his own record by a relatively comfortable margin over Chad Brown, with Art Sherman third and Bob Baffert finishing fourth.

The Breeders’ Cup had a good night at the event as seven 2014 race winners--counting Main Sequence in both the championship older male and turf categories--walked away with Eclipse honors.

Ken and Sarah Ramsey were repeat winners as Outstanding Breeder and Owner—their fourth trophy as owner--by a solid edge over Adena Springs, as was Outstanding Jockey Javier Castellano, owning a definitive margin over John Velazquez and Mike Smith. Drayden Van Dyke easily won Outstanding Apprentice honors.

There were some surprises as American Pharoah, forced to miss the Breeders’ Cup with an injury, was voted Champion Two Year Old over Juvenile winner Texas Red. American Pharoah won the Grade 1 Frontrunner easily with Texas Red third.

It was American Pharoah’s second Grade 1 win, after having won the 7-furlong Del Mar Futurity, so it seemed a victory for handicapping over common sense and championship achievement.

Some consider the Older Male category an upset because Turf Champion Main Sequence eked out a win over accomplished dirt runner Palace Malice. Clearly, there must be a delineation in future voting between main track racing—the American game—and grass racing.

And, lest we forget, two time defending Horse of the Year champion Wise Dan, a perfect 4-for-4 on the year including three Grade 1s and a Grade 2, which he won after escaping a serious bout of colic and winning the 1-1/16 miles Bernard Baruch at about 90%, stopping the timer in a sensational 1:39. Hardly seems fair that he was shut out.

But he did lose out to two top-class animals; the 2015 Horse of the Year and another “perfect” horse, Turf Champion Main Sequence, who went 4-for-4, all Grade 1s, good enough to become a Horse of the Year finalist.

Many of the night’s winners were odds-on favorites: Untapable was a unanimous choice for champion three year old filly, 265 to naught, and two others came close, also females, with champion filly sprinter, Judy the Beauty, 261 to 1 to 1 to 1, and Filly Turf Champion, New York-bred Dayatthespa, 261 to 2 to 1 to 1.

Other talented and worthy Champions were Juvenile Filly Take Charge Brandi; Older Female Close Hatches, a winner of four straight graded stakes before falling apart in the Distaff; Sprinter Work All Week, and Steeplechaser Demonstrative.

Special Eclipse Awards for Lifetime Achievement went to legendary race caller Tom Durkin and to Old Friends Farm, that honor accepted by founder Michael Blowen. Old Friends is one of America’s premier facilities for retired Thoroughbreds. Jose Arias received his as Handicapper of the Year.

Ultimately, however, the year belonged to a shiny chestnut colt by a $2,500 sire from an $8,000 mare, a four-time Grade 1 winner, the last three year old champion to win it all since Curlin was 2007 Horse of the Year, trained by 77-year-old Art Sherman, HRI’s horseman of the year.

Alas, there was no Triple Crown, but there was a Santa Anita Derby that came before the Derby and Preakness and, after finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he came back to win the grassy Grade 1 Hollywood Park, showing both class and versatility. Fairy tales do come true.

“Thanks to all the fans that love this horse; we wouldn’t have horse racing without all of our great fans.” With that, owner Steve Coburn said it all.

BETS N' PIECES

Ready, Aim, Fire: While much of the evening went formfully, the Eclipse program followed a series of upsets on the racetrack led by Sr. Quisqueyano’s change-of-pace victory in the featured Sunshine Millions Classic and Pink Poppy’s tactical score in the Millions Filly & Mare Turf.

Trainer Peter Walder trusted his instincts with his new acquisition and clearly read the situation correctly.

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Sr. Quisqueyano looking good in first start for Peter Walder

“We just back off him,” said the trainer of his new five year old acquisition. “These older horses sometimes are over-trained. He’s an old veteran, he knows what he’s doing. We just played with him a little bit and he went into this race bouncing.”

Then he went out and bounced out of the #1 slip like he meant business before second favorite Wildcat Red and 60-1 I’m Steppin’ It Up quarter-horsed it into the first turn.

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Sr. Quisqueyano gamely holds East Hall and Catholic Cowboy safe

Wildcat Red clearly wanted control of the race but the outsider would have none of it with that team setting fractions of 22.77 and 46.17. “Edgard (Zayas) was confident he could stalk. Today he proved he doesn’t need the lead,” Walder said.

“The horse likes to be on the lead but there was so much speed in the race I had to stalk,” said the talented young rider who likely will follow the lead of Luis Saez and so many top riders who made a successful transition from South Florida to New York.

“When I saw [the leaders] starting to tire I went to the lead a little early because I know he’s really a brave horse once he’s in front,” said Zayas.

The victory proved a pleasant distraction for Walder who has had a hard time focusing recently after his grandfather became very ill and had to be ambulanced back to Canada.

“I have my barn to help me focus,” Walder said. “He’s been my life, my grandparents have been my life. This helps quite a bit.”

When focused, Peter Walder wins races at a high percentage. He does it by spotting his horses very carefully although yesterday he was being aggressive. “I told the owner [Ron Paolucci] I wish I had more time to work with him but a [six-horse] field for $250,000, you got to take a shot.”

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Peter Walder Center Stage


Leparoux Call Audible...On Himself Julien Leparoux is having a strong Gulfstream Park meet and has been riding with a lot of confidence.

Known as a patient rider, especially on turf, the 2006 Eclipse Award Outstanding Apprentice and Outstanding Jockey of 2009, Leparoux made a wide, sweeping mid-race move down the backstretch and blew the Millions’ Filly & Mare Turf wide open.

Not bad considering this was his first ride on the filly who just missed in her stakes debut in December while coming from far back.

“We were sitting fifth,” Leparoux explained, “but they started backing up on us and I didn’t really want to fight with her.

“She’s a big, long-striding filly, so I let her run free. I started riding her early so she’d keep on going and she did fine, finished up nice, never got tired.”

It was the 11-1 outsider’s first stakes victory, coming in her third start for trainer Marty Wolfson.

“The way she trains, she’s very forward,” said trainer Marty Wolfson. She doesn’t do anything wrong and she’s very sound. She beat some nice fillies today.”

Indeed she did. After scratches, Pink Poppy was facing nine rivals, six of them stakes winners, two of those graded.

“We just wanted to win a stake with her,” Wolfson added. With Leparoux’s help, it was mission accomplished.

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Not even Pegasus can catch Marty Wolfson's Pink Poppy

Photos by Toni Pricci


Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, January 11, 2015


Taking the Lea(d) At the Wire


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 11, 2015—For Lea, winning his season’s debut following an 11-month layup wasn’t supposed to be easy, and it wasn’t.

Or as winning trainer Bill Mott said after the race, “give credit to the horse.”

That’s easy. Lea is a damn good race horse. If he weren’t, he never would have won his return, making a phenomenal late run to get up in the final strides.

Give some credit to the trainer, too. Not only did he get him ready to win off the bench but it’s a tribute to Mott’s horsemanship that he’s even racing at all this year.

“We missed so much time with him and you can’t blame the owners if they wanted to retire him to stud; he’s already a Grade 1 winner.”

That’s thanks to Mott as well. Yesterday was Lea’s third run for the Hall of Famer and the five year old First Samurai horse remained undefeated in Hallandale and at the one mile trip.

The layoff, of course, was the biggest obstacle, but there also is the matter of drawing the pole position out of the mile chute and the race dynamics which also worked against him.


“There wasn’t really anybody in the race that I thought would probably go ahead and break loose,” said Mott. “

“Usually if one horse does that, it kind of spreads the field out a little bit. They were bunched up like a turf race.

“On this track I think it was an exceptional race. Usually the speed horses turn for home and they get loose from you, but he obviously is a good horse.”

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Lea gets up in the final strides.

His rider agreed: “It wasn’t an easy race to win. I’ve got to give him all the credit,” said Joel Rosario.

‘Every time I asked him a little bit he was there for me. He made my job easy. I was waiting for someone to go in or someone to go out so I could go in between. They just stayed there so at the three-sixteenths pole I had to go around.”

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Job well done all around

Was Mott concerned at that point? “I thought he could get beat. I could see that [Rosario] had plenty of horse, but he was waiting, waiting, waiting. Finally, he was able to tip out.”

More like angled out sharply. It appeared he wanted to follow second choice Valid through a hole at headstretch, but Valid stayed one-paced at the time, forcing Rosario’s hand.

“When you tip out here,” explained Mott, “you only have three-sixteenths of a mile to go. It’s not like you’ve got a quarter-mile stretch. It was interesting.”

Not only were the dynamics working against him but speed horses were challenged all day from a northwest wind gusting to about 25 m.p.h. into their faces, likely the reason for the slow splits and why Rosario probably had Lea covered up in the first place.

But that wind, and Lea’s remarkable late kick on the day, enable him to make up a two length deficit in a final quarter mile that went in a brisk 23.84 seconds.

“Not running for a year and to run like this? He’s very special,” Rosario said. That might be an understatement.

If all goes well, Lea will also try for a repeat score in the Grade 1 Donn, Feb. 6. If he makes the race, the competition will have him to beat.

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Lea hams it up for the camera.


BETS N PIECES:Track announcer Trevor Denman said it best: Sham Stakes winner Calculator “could not have been more impressive.” Having little choice but to race wide rounding the first turn, Elvis Trujillo kept him in the 3-path throughout, asked for his rally mid-far turn, got it, and drew out to a 6-length score, the two turn mile in 1:34.56. It was one hell of a maiden breaker for the colt which begs the question: How good is American Pharaoh, really…?

Lea was not the only Gulfstream Park lover in action yesterday as Parranda, eschewing Singapore, at least for now, to win for the seventh time in 13 local starts with authority in the G3 Marshua’s River for new trainer Christophe Clement: “She can always go to Singpore and come back. Why not?” he asked. Why not, indeed…

Saturday was the first time that trainer Todd Pletcher was not a happy camper in the winner’s circle following a stakes race victory. Following the victory of Mshawish in the G2 Fort Lauderdale Pletcher admitted that things “didn’t exactly go the way we drew it up. This is a very good race horse that needs to be covered up but he was outside all the way. He needs to be switched off or he’ll keep on running. He had to run a remarkable race to win this.” Leading rider Javier Castellano was aboard…

General a Rod will make his first start since last year’s Triple Crown series in an allowance sprint on Wednesday. “He hasn’t missed a beat since he’s been back,” said trainer Mike Maker, who indicated that if all goes well he might look for bigger game next month. “It should be a good steppingstone for him…I’d love to make the Donn if he’s good enough.” The General drew post 5 in a field of seven going seven furlongs…

This week the New York State Gaming Commission proposed a rule that would require specific minimum penalties for horsemen who commit multiple medication violations. The proposal would result in suspensions of 30, 60, 180, or up to 365 days, once a trainer reaches a certain points threshold, points accrued based on the classification of drug as outlined by the Association of Racing Commissioners International. Until cheating drugs such as Propoxyphene, a painkiller, are categorized as a Class 1 drugs, the proposal is just more window dressing…

Wildcat Red, under new rider Joel Rosario blew out five furlongs in 1:00.60 for Saturday’s Sunshine Millions Classic at nine furlongs, looking to turn the tables are local rival East Hall, who also blew out for the race with a sharp five-eighths in 59.87. “He went very, very easy, very comfortable,” said trainer Jose Garoffalo.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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