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, 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.


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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.”

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.”

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.

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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Sunday, January 04, 2015

Baby Steps on the Road to Louisville; Gulf Bettors Abandoned by Stewards

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 3, 2014—Obviously trainer Marcus Vitali knew what he had.

In his only previous stakes start, the Vitali-trained Bluegrass Singer was a narrowly beaten third in the ungraded Buffalo Man at 6 furlongs--not a bad introduction to that level of competition.

Subsequently, Vitali entered him in a preliminary allowances going a mile in his return to Gulfstream where he broke his maiden earlier this fall, resulting in an open-lengths score.

On Saturday Vitali kept his options open, cross-entering him in the 6 furlong Spectacular Bid and the Mucho Macho Man at a flat mile.

And so Vitali took the long way to the winners’ circle, Javier Castellano took the short cut, and after dispatching chaser Juan and Bina and then the favorite, Mawthooq, Bluegrass Singer blew the race wide open leaving the quarter pole.

Confidently handled, Castellano did not get busy until midstretch and he had more than enough to withstand the energetic late run of Canadian-bred Ami’s Flatter, despite finishing on an incorrect inside lead.
Time for Vitali and the colt to look for bigger game. The Mucho Macho Man, formerly known as the Gulfstream Park Derby, is an ungraded event.

Home Jerome: At Aqueduct, meanwhile, El Kabeir indicated that he has some class to go with his considerable speedy talent.

Being able to sit off other horses comfortably in moderate fractions but losing ground throughout, El Kabeir won as much the best, passing his class test with style.

His comprehensive 4-3/4 length victory was accomplished after he also overcame a stutter-step start.

El Kabeir was well handled by veteran rider C. C Lopez, known for his prowess with speed types, and he showed the acumen here.

“It was nice seeing him sit off horses for the first time. I didn’t know if that scenario played out how he’d react, but certainly it worked out fine,” said winning trainer John Terranova.

The victory in the Grade 3 Jerome brought El Kabeir’s Kentucky Derby eligibility points total to 21; runners-up Carpe Diem and Texas Red earned 14 and 12, respectively, in their races last year.

As for his next start, Terranova has no set plans. “Obviously, we’ll discuss it. It may be the Withers back here, or maybe we’ll skip it and go to the Gotham, or maybe we’ll go out of town…

“Hopefully he'll keep progressing. He's gotten bigger and more filled out since the Kentucky race [last time out]. He's eating like there's no tomorrow. He's thriving off running."

Filly Division Gets Started As New Face Takes Old Hat: The first graded race of the day, this one for South Florida-based three-year-olds, was the G3 Old Hat at six furlongs, featuring the return of Saratoga’s Schuylerville winner, Fashion Alert.

But here was the thing about that speedy miss which seemed to go unnoticed by some handicappers. We had noted on our Energy Ratings scale that, for whatever reason, she regressed with each start after impressively winning her debut by open lengths.

And here’s another; in winning the Schuylerville under severe pressure, she left the impression that she just might be one-dimensional speed. That seemed to be the case Saturday after she did not leave the starting gate quickly from her pole position.

Lacking room inside on the backstretch a furlong after the start, Johnny Velazquez sent her up between fillies on the turn, riding her vigorously to do so. But at headstretch she was shuffled out of the race for good.

In the interim, Ekati’s Phaeton proved to be a very nice filly prospect under clever handling from Luis Saez, repulsing R Sassy Lass in the late stages.

Prevailing after setting a disputed pace throughout in fast fractions, trainer Bill Kaplan had this reaction: “You haven’t seen her speed yet. She’s got all the tools and she’s a real stout, big filly. She’s got the mind and the talent. What more can you use?”

Bettors Take Beating from Gulfstream Stewards: How could the stewards allow Crown the Kitten to race without blinkers in Saturday’s G3 Dania Beach.

Going into the race, Crown the Kitten had four lifetime starts. In the gelding’s 5 furlong debut at Belmont, he finished second by two lengths at 5-2.

But trainer Wesley Ward was impressed enough to send him to Ascot, where he has enjoyed success before. Stretching out to 7 furlongs on a straight course, he was entered in the Chesham with blinkers off, not surprising given the dynamics and overall scenario.

He finished ahead of four of his 13 rivals, showing early speed before tiring, beaten 12 lengths.

When he returned to the U.S., Ward re-added the blinkers and Crown the Kitten broke his by two lengths at even money at Kentucky Downs. Next out, he won Retama’s El Joven by 5-3/4 lengths at 2-5.

On Saturday, off two consecutive winning efforts, Ward removed the blinkers, Crown the Kitten broke sluggishly, trailed from so far back that the #10 Trakus chicklet didn’t appear on screen until the field went nearly half-way down the backstretch. He beat two rivals.

How is this permitted, a blinker change coming off consecutive victories? Where’s the protection for the betting public?

Had they been asked, the stewards’ reasoning should have been something like “if you want to train your horse, or teach him something, that’s what the mornings are for.” Will all this ever end?

Somewhere Over the Rainbow…is one prescient handicapper. A simulcast player from Portland, Oregon invested $33.60 and was alive to six of seven horses in the finale that would have produced a Rainbow score worth $317,161.44.

He accomplished this by singling sixth race winner Noble Prince at $98.20. The winning ticket was 8 with 9 with 9.11 with 1.5.9 with with Well done!

Photos by Toni Pricci

Top: Bluegrass Singer heading into The Circle

Below: Trainer Marcus Vitali

Written by John Pricci

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