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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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Sunday, February 09, 2014

Mott Trainee Lea(ds) Champ Home in the Donn

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., February 9, 2014—It’s one of the first phrases you hear when you become a racing fan and the late Dan Fogelberg even wrote about it in his Kentucky Derby tribute “Run for the Roses:”

“It’s the chance of a lifetime in a lifetime a chance.” And it was a chance meeting at Churchill Downs that put owner Willis Horton in position to live the dream, an Eclipse Award as 2014 Horse of the Year.

“I met Wayne at Churchill Downs," Horton told Gulfstream officials earlier this week. “At the time, we hadn't been having any luck. We had just left the track when I made the suggestion that we go back to the track and the first good trainer we run into, we'll have him start training our horses.

“Wayne was going down the steps as we were coming up, and I collared him.”

Horton, a retired cattle rancher from Arkansas, has been in racing a long time and has had many trainers in a racing career that began with Quarter Horses and is now the owner of a defending divisional champion in search of bigger game. And now it’s up to Lukas to make the dream a reality.

To achieve the ultimate goal, you run in Grade 1 company and the Donn was the first meaningful G1 of the year. In a handicap that was run in track record time of 1:46.96, Will Take Charge was an on-rushing second to Gulfstream repeat winner Lea, finishing a length and a half behind but 9-1/4 lengths in front of longshot show finisher Viramundo.

All Will Take Charge did yesterday was lose a horse race, not his stature as one of the top handicap horses in the country. In the Donn, the 2013 three-year-old champion carried 123 pounds, giving the five-year-old Lea six pounds while enduring a much tougher journey.

“We got blocked for a bit and couldn’t get out, so we couldn’t move as quickly as we wanted to,” Lukas said post-race. “That’s just horse racing. We also didn’t have a race over the track, which turned out to be a disadvantage. [Lea] had to set a new track record to beat us, so that’s all you need to know. Kudos to the winner.”

The other disadvantage turned out to be his running style. According to Patrick Cummings, the business manager of Trakus and on hand to deal with any technical difficulties that could arise when a big-time network comes in to do a broadcast, only six horses in the 42 races run at the Donn distance at Gulfstream since Trakus technology was installed came from farther back than 4-1/2 lengths after the first half mile.

At that point, Will Take Charge was not that far back but in taking him off the rail for running room, he steadied his mount to shift him outside. With a half-mile remaining in the Donn, the champion was five lengths back, perhaps a bit more between calls. Lea raced outside and in the clear throughout; Will Take Charge rallied even wider.

“I saw when [Will Take Charge] broke free I knew he’d be running at us,” said winning trainer Bill Mott. “We were good enough to scoot away from him. It’s a long year and the big races are at the end of the year, and there’s a lot of good racing in between. Right now I’d love to point him for the Whitney at Saratoga.”

Mott was thinking of the nine furlong Grade 1 Saratoga, of course, but, like he said, there’s a lot of racing in between. Lea’s style would seem a natural for the Metropolitan Handicap on Belmont Stakes day, especially since he was so impressive winning the Hals Hope, a one-turn mile.

But don’t blame Mott for doing some dreaming of his own. Since Lea was transferred to his barn late last year, the Claiborne/Dilschneider bred and owned Lea is 2-for-2. “Whenever you have a horse with Bill Mott, you know they’re going to run well,” co-owner Dell Hancock said. “For him to run like that, it’s exciting.

“I Was Wrong at the Top of My Voice”—That quote, unfortunately, was mine as I approached the window to bet my money on Heart Stealer to upset Groupie Doll in the champ’s career finale, the Hurricane Bertie. The tack turned out to be wrong with a capital R.

It was one of the finest efforts of a 23 race career in which she won back-to-back Eclipse Sprint titles, 12 victories in all, and over $2.6 million in career earnings and now will begin a new career as a broodmare for new owner and breeder Mandy Pope, who purchased the mare for $3.1 million following her victory in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint.

“I’m so happy for Mandy and for Groupie, going out a winner like this,” said William ‘Buff’ Bradley, the only trainer the mare has known, and whose family mated Bowman’s Band to Deputy Doll which begat Groupie Doll. “Mandy has put so much into it; she walked up with the horse; she’s been there with her all week.”

Perhaps the six year old saved her best for last; from the Official chart footnote:

“Groupie Doll, slow to gather stride, dropped out of striking distance in the opening stages, gathered momentum nearing the bend, shifted outside advancing on the leaders five deep on her own courage through the bend, was urged to wrest command in that path entering the upper stretch, drew well clear under firm urging and was taken in hand in the final sixteenth once the issue was decided.”

Groupie Doll was nearly eight lengths behind after the first quarter-mile: “I love her going out a winner. Seeing her on the backside, I was about sick to my stomach. I just thought, ‘Man, she got left at the gate,” Bradley said. “There’s too much to do.” He was right, after the half, her deficit was 9-1/2 lengths. “But when she made that move on the turn, she was just gone.”

And now the champ’s gone from the racetrack and is off to the breeding shed.

Thanks for the memories, mommy.

“I Didn’t Think He Could Fly That High”—Falling Sky came to George Weaver last summer at Saratoga. The trainer took his time getting acquainted, tinkered with him a bit, and when he was ready for a run, shipped the colt to Laurel for his first start since the Kentucky Derby, where the Sam F. Davis winner beaten off in the slop by Orb, 53 lengths behind the winner.

He just had a terrible trip down there so Weaver shipped him down to his South Florida training base at Palm Beach Downs and began getting him ready for a four-year-old campaign, entering him in a Gulfstream allowance race on January 11. “We didn’t want to run him a mile but that was the only race they had.”

And he couldn’t have been too thrilled to see the name of Revolutionary on the overnight. Falling Sky made a winning effort setting the pace throughout but was worn down late by the Louisiana Derby winner, who was making his first start since the Belmont Stakes. Weaver thought that it would be a good race to build on. He had no idea how good it might be.

“We thought in that race, internally, he ran a very, very good seven furlongs. We thought cutting him back to seven-eighths today that he would run a big race. It was an awesome race.”

I watched the race live from the viewing stand with HRI’s Tom Jicha and after they went an eighth of a mile, I said they were going slow. When 22.61 seconds was posted a furlong later, I said: “See, I told you.”

Like Weaver, I was unprepared by what would follow. The next quarter was run in 21.76, the following one in 23.49—that’s three-quarters in 1:07.86! If that weren’t enough, he closed the deal with a final eighth of 12.79. The final time of 1:20.65 is a new stakes record.

The plan is to keep him around one turn for the time being. Would Weaver consider a year-end goal of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint? “Sure.” Can’t blame the trainer for being optimistic given Saturday’s going-away, 5-1/2 length romp.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, February 07, 2014

NYRA Fires Shot Heard Round the Racing World

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., February 7, 2014—The big news today took place fifteen hundred miles to the north of here and had nothing to do with frigid temps or impending storms when the New York Racing Assn. announced it will host a 13-race card with 10 added-money stakes on Belmont day worth $8 million in purse money.

"This is the premier day of racing at Belmont Park, anchored by the historic Belmont Stakes," said Martin Panza, NYRA's Senior Vice President of Racing Operations in a press release. "I see June 7 as a summer time Breeders' Cup-type event. Fans and New York horsemen deserve a day like this."

“We want to grab attention of racing fans in typically big New York style,” said NYRA President Chris Kay on a subsequent national conference call. “We want this to be a summer time championship day of racing.”

Until I read Panza’s quote, I flashed back to a time when the industry was learning that Breeders’ Cup Ltd. was intending to host a Lasix-free event in an effort to keep pace with the rest of the international racing world.

As you might imagine, that idea was not warmly received by horsemen, just as former NYRA president Charles Hayward was not pleased when the Breeders’ Cup, according to Hayward, reneged on a handshake promise to bring the event back to Belmont Park.

After Hayward was dismissed, NYRA’s then-current state of disarray was the reason Belmont Park was passed over, whispered Breeders’ Cup officials at the time.

While the furor was raging, Saratoga was ending and the return to Belmont Park that Fall prompted wealthy horse owner Mike Repole to say that if Breeders’ Cup went through with its anti-Lasix stance and continued to bypass New York, he would put up the millions needed to host an event like this personally, in direct competition with Breeders’ Cup.

It didn’t take long for media wise guys to dub the event, the Bleeders’ Cup.

Whether or not this is some trial balloon for a big Fall day in the future remains to be seen, as will Breeders’ Cup’s anti-Lasix agenda, a stance on which they caved this year when California horsemen threatened to boycott Santa Anita’s Cup entry box in November.

There are many issues that will come out of this and the good news is that if it generates any controversy, much of it will be of a positive nature. For now, it’s time to enjoy the prospects of what this means not only for Belmont Stakes day 2014 but the future of the NYRA franchise itself, which will be up for bid in the not-too-distant future.

If honeymooning President Kay and his newly minted Senior Vice-President of Racing Operations were interested in making a statement, it comes through loud and clear.

It says if we have anything to do with it, true New York racing is making a comeback with this shot heard around the racing world. No top hat and tails required.

JOCKEY CLUB TOUR ON FOX TAKES STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION: Even before the first horse enters the Gulfstream Park starting gate Sunday, kicking off “The Jockey Club Tour on Fox,” the series caught a flyer with Thursday’s announcement of the talent team the network assembled for the broadcasts.

While I’m familiar--but not very well acquainted--with the work host Greg Wolf and reporter Alyssa Ali, I do respect the fact that analyst Simon Bray learned his training craft from two of the very best ever; the legendary late Sir Henry Cecil and Hall of Famer Bill Mott.

However, I’m very familiar with the work of two fellow New York racetrackers, analyst/co-host Richard Migliore and handicapping analyst Andy Serling. In Migliore and Serling, Fox has two of the most insightful commentators as there is in the game.

As the winning rider of 4,450 races, there isn’t much Migliore can’t tell you about a race horse. It’s what happens when you start sleeping in stalls at the age of 12.

A winner of eight New York riding titles and an Eclipse Award as the top apprentice of 1981, Migliore has become a national broadcast figure with his work on HRTV and with the many hats he wears on the NYRA circuit.

What sets Migliore apart from those in a similar role is his skill as a communicator; an educator without being sophistic or patronizing. That coupled with his talent for reading equine body language and workouts should help viewers, both novice and pro alike, improve their opinions.

Opinions are something that Serling is well familiar with. He has lots of them, on a lot of subjects. As a public handicapper by trade, I have an appreciation for the art/science of handicapping and, like every horseplayer, he’s going to be wrong more than he’s right.

But this is a business that will call you genius if you’re wrong only on two of every three calls you make. Right or wrong, Serling will tell you what he thinks without hedging, is a tireless researcher, and bets his own money. No one could ask more of any handicapper.

The series will feature the Grade 1 Donn Handicap Sunday which includes the return of 2013 three year old champion Will Take Charge vs. 10 rivals, and also the final career run of the popular filly and mare sprint champion, Groupie Doll, in the G3 Hurricane Bertie.

The next stop on the tour will be the Dubai World Cup on March 29, a.k.a Florida Derby day.

BUSINESS NOT AS BRISK AS WINTER WEATHER: Exiting last year with flat wagering handle after a positive start, it was not too encouraging a start for the Thoroughbred industry in 2014 with handle off slightly at about $2-million year over year, a small percentage loss of 0.23.

But there’s something counter-intuitive going on with the numbers: How can purse increases of 1.35 percent be justified when handle decreases? Further, why should national handle drop at all when the number of racing days increased by 4.45 percent, from 292 in 2013 to 301 this year?

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, February 01, 2014

Traffic Building on Derby Trail

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, February 1, 2014—The Grade 3 Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream Park took on an international flavor when Wildcat Red drew off with authority to win the 7-furlong sprint by 4-3/4 widening lengths in 1:22.21, taking his first steps on the Derby trail.

Owner Salvatore Delfino color coordinated with his silks as Jose Garoffalo leads Wildcat Red to the winners circle
Photo by Toni Pricci
Owner Salvatore Delfino color coordinated with his silks as Jose Garoffalo leads Wildcat Red to the winners circle
“Hopefully, the Fountain of Youth is the next step,” Garoffalo said, “especially since [impressive Holy Bull winner] Cairo Prince will not run in the race. Today I think [Wildcat Red] proved he can run long. Horses are more relaxed running longer.”

“He can rate and you can put him anywhere you want,” said winning rider Javier Castellano, who was Garoffalo’s first choice for the Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year’s Day but Castellano had a prior commitment. He was open for the Hutcheson and after working him last week—“I was very impressed”--accepted the call.

Wildcat Red, narrowly beaten in the GP Derby, was to go long for the first time in the Holy Bull, but a throat infection and some respiratory distress kept him in the barn. “It wasn’t a big deal but we just didn’t want to take a chance.”

The Fountain of Youth was supposed to attract Cairo Prince, who now will train up to the Florida Derby. Honor Code will miss the race with ankle issues behind, and the brilliant Havana has taken longer than expected to come to hand and will opt for the Swale instead. Without the Holy Bull winner, the Grade 2 route isn’t as daunting as it first appeared.

However, the likely participation of impressive allowance winner Top Billing, and Commissioner, who had beaten Top Billing previously, will insure the Fountain of Youth will be far from a walkover.

Both Garoffalo and Delfino are from Venezuela and Wildcat Red is only the second horse Delfino has owned. Now both men are living the American dream. “I think all owners and trainers think about winning the Kentucky Derby,” the trainer said.

Samraat Stays Undefeated in G3 Withers: It’s not very often when a pair of New York-breds make their open company debuts in the same stakes, then go out and put on a dramatic show down the Aqueduct home straight.

There they were, Uncle Sigh, a 14-length maiden winner sprinting with his own kind last out, on the inside, and Samraat, a 16-length victor in the state-bred Damon Runyon Stakes, on the outside, throwing it down stride for stride until the very end. Both horses ran exceptionally well.

Nearing the finish, however, Samraat edged away and extended his undefeated career to four straight victories that began at Belmont Park, moved to the Aqueduct main track before taking his winter-track and two-turn debut by storm, widening his margin without being asked by regular rider Jose Ortiz.

Trainer Jose Garoffalo is pointing Wildcat Red to the Fountain of Youth
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Trainer Jose Garoffalo is pointing Wildcat Red to the Fountain of Youth
The interesting note about the Noble Causeway colt from the Indian Charlie mare, Little Indian Girl, is that he shipped down from New York to Palm Meadows with trainer Rick Violette’s Florida string then shipped back to Gotham for the Withers.

And speaking of Gotham, it would make sense for the colt to run in the race of the same name, the Gotham Stakes being a very good spot for Wood Memorial hopefuls, although he could train up to the Wood.

Either way, the waters will get a lot deeper next time, especially if he runs back in the Gotham, where Honor Code likely to make his season’s debut. That mile and a sixteenth will be the next stop for gallant runner-up Uncle Sigh.

Now it starts to get a little more interesting.

Pletcher 1-2 in the Sam F. Davis: Veteran handicappers are never surprised when trainer Todd Pletcher accomplishes the unusual, such as finishing one-two in a stakes that figures to be prologue for something a little more important next month.

But what bettors might consider shocking is that the nose winner, Vinceramos, who was cross-entered in the Hutcheson but opted to leave Hallandale Beach in favor of a longer prep in Oldsmar, would return 13-1.

But that was the case when the Winstar colt shot up the fence beneath Edgar Prado, who gave up five mounts on the Gulfstream card to ride in Vinceramos at Tampa Bay Downs, holding safe his fast-closing, higher regarded stablemate, Harpoon with Luis Saez.

When Javier Castellano asked Wildcat Red for his best, ''he took off.''
Photo by: Toni Pricci
When Javier Castellano asked Wildcat Red for his best, ''he took off.''
Contextually, it’s hard to know what to make of the two Pletcher runners as they are only two of 40 other Pletcher Triple Crown nominees—that’s right; a record 42 nominations or roughly 10 percent of all Triple Crown eligibles—and because it’s hard to evaluate the quality behind them at this juncture.

That answer will have to wait until the Tampa Bay Derby is contested Mar. 8. Barring the unforeseen, it appears to be a safe bet that both Vinceramos and Harpoon will be shipping north from Boynton Beach again.

Hey, it’s not easy keeping 42 potential Kentucky Derby starters separated.

Will Take Charge Donn Highweight: Champion three year old Will Take Charge is on his way Southeast from Oaklawn Park and will start as the 123-pound highweight in Sunday’s Grade 1 Donn Handicap, kicking off the Jockey Club Tour on Fox, a series of races the austere body hopes will play a part in reversing a trend.

The Donn will be the four-year-old’s first start since defeating Game On Due in the Clark, clinching the Eclipse title.* The first meaningful handicap of the year is quite a salty affair.

Multiple stakes winner Revolutionary, who made an excellent return from a layoff in an allowance race earlier at the meet, is rated second in the weights at 119. Alpha and Private Zone are next at 118, but Alpha is expected to run on the turf instead.

Next in line is Lea (117), who was very sharp winning the Hal’s Hope in his first start for trainer Bill Mott. In at 116 is Long River, who’s been beating up on New York’s weak handicap division; Neck N’ Neck, who prepped well with a strong-finish third over the surface, and River Seven, who showed an electric turn of foot while recording a track record score in the Harlan’s Holiday in December.

*correction made 11:16 a.m. on 020214

Written by John Pricci

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