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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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Saturday, January 25, 2014


Cairo Prince, Top Billing and Velazquez Rock Gulfstream Park


HALLANDALE, FL, January 25, 2014—Kiaran McLaughlin isn’t the kind of trainer who criticizes jockeys, but he was very upset when overconfident handling from Luis Saez cost him a victory in last year’s Remsen Stakes.

Cairo Prince galloping out after dominating his Holy Bull rivals
Photo by Toni Pricci
Cairo Prince galloping out after dominating his Holy Bull rivals
“And maybe the two year old championship,” McLaughlin speculated after Cairo Prince’s completely comprehensive victory in the Holy Bull Stakes, the first serious stop on the South Florida Derby trail. "But we can’t think about that now. We just have to hope he keep going forward. He made my job look easy.”

So did Saez. After breaking cleanly with Cairo Prince in the 11-horse Grade 2 mile and a sixteenth, he positioned the 2.10-to-1 favorite comfortably wide off a 23.63, 46.75 half-mile pace as Coup de Grace and Almost Famous duked it out on the lead, tracked intently by a surprisingly pumped-up Mr. Speaker.

Approaching the final turn, Almost Famous put Coup de Grace away, took the lead under pressure as Mr. Speaker went up to engage the leader. But just as quickly, Cairo Prince was on them in an instant, Saez virtually motionless as he reached even terms approaching headstretch.

He confidently guided the grandson of Holy Bull only this time he asked his colt for more and Cairo Prince responded with the excellent turn of foot he first displayed winning the Nashua Stakes in his second lifetime start.

“Today he rode him perfectly,” McLaughlin said.

And rode him out to a 5-3/4 length score in 1.42.16, with a final sixteenth in 06.75, 50 one-hundredths faster than it took sophomore Top Billing to win the day’s fourth race. The track record of 1:42.73 was set by the older River Seven in last month’s Harlan’s Holiday Stakes.

“Obviously, we’re holding a strong hand with this colt,” said McLaughlin. “You just hope we keep going forward because things happen to horses all the time. We just want to keep him the same happy and healthy horse.”

Where he goes next is at issue. McLaughlin indicated he could run in two more Derby preps, or train up to a race like the Florida Derby, March 29. The Fountain of Youth, the race Remsen winner Honor Code is pointing for might, comes up a little too quickly for Cairo Prince. So what about that matchup?

“We gave him six pounds in the Remsen and got beat a nose. We felt we were the best horse.” McLaughlin then was asked his impressions of the race run by Top Billing earlier in the day.

Kiaran McLaughlin's high opinion of his horse was validated in the Holy Bull.
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Kiaran McLaughlin's high opinion of his horse was validated in the Holy Bull.
“I’m glad he opted for the fourth race today.”

For two of the day’s other major players, excitement started long before the Holy Bull horses entered the Gulfstream Park walking ring.

For Johnny Velazquez--it was when he entered the ring to ride Monopolize for main client Todd Pletcher to the cheers and well wishes of appreciative fans lining the ring, Johnny's smile wider than the backend of a Clydesdale. It was his first ride since the Breeders’ Cup when he suffered a spill that resulted in the removal of his spleen.

Velazquez was excited, as was his wife Leona, who was there to greet him when he walked into the paddock. “I’m feeling a little bit of everything,” she said, speaking without hesitation but with some reservation. It’s been a lengthy, arduous rode back “and he’s been working like a dog to get fit. He’s very strong right now.”

The doctors gave permission to resume riding on January 10 and he was exercising horses the next day. But Saturday was the the first time he raced for money since November 1. How did it feel?

Johnny & Leona Velazquez are happy to be back.
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Johnny & Leona Velazquez are happy to be back.
“Tiring,” he said, showing the same smile he wore in the paddock before escorting Monopolize to the racetrack. The team finished fifth of seven “but it felt good, felt really good. I’m just looking for a horse now fast enough to carry me around."

But race riding is about timing and confidence as much as it is about strength and that likely will take a little time.

Velazquez had mounts on the day’s two stakes and finished second on Aurelia’s Belle behind the dominating Onlyforyou. Velazquez added the $40,000 in place purse money to his total as racing’s all-time money-winning rider.

For Shug McGaughey-- the excitement came when he entered the winners’ circle after Top Billing’s very impressive victory in an ‘a-other-than’ allowances at a mile and a sixteenth in 1:42.86 coming from last, as impressively as any late runner can be over Gulfstream’s speed-friendly circumference.

“That was a powerful race,” said McGaughey, “he’s learning. I was a little nervous running him back in three weeks, but he has an unbelievably good mind.”

And a balanced, very athletic frame, with not a lot of size but one that makes him as nifty as horses need to be.

As to his next start, that has to be determined. “Well, you know there’s not going to be an allowance race. We’ll put our heads together and run him somewhere... but we’re not going to overcook him.”

Top Billing is owned by his breeders, Will Farish and E. J. Hudson Jr.

Shug McGaughey's Derby prospect lives up to his Top Billing
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Shug McGaughey's Derby prospect lives up to his Top Billing
Ridden by Joel Rosario, who partnered with Orb to win last year’s Kentucky Derby for McGaughey, the colt was content to race last of seven down the backside but was in a good rhythm, picking up the pace leaving the half-mile pole, still last, without being asked.

Then Top Billing showed a big turn of foot while four wide on the turn, engaged the well regarded Surfing USA momentarily approaching headstretch, before momentum carried him away to victory, ridden out.

He certainly looked like the top prospect McGaughey believed he was before Saturday's tour de force.

Onlyforyou-- lived up to her billing in the Grade 2 Forward Gal, but not her name, winning for virtually everyone in simulcast land by 2-3/4 lengths as the prohibitive 3-10 favorite. remaining undefeated.

“It kind of speaks for itself,” said winning trainer Todd Pletcher. “Anytime you have one win three in a row, it’s not very many of them that do that.”

The question is whether there will be life beyond yesterday’s 7 furlongs, clocked in 1:22.50.

“She’s a big scopy good-looking filly that has tactical speed. She’s trained like she’ll run further. If we’re going to run back at Gulfstream we’re going to have to stretch out. We’ll have to see how we feel about that.”

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, January 24, 2014


This Time, McGaughey’s Been There, Done That


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, January 23, 2014—Conjure up the image of walking a furlong or two in this man’s shoes:

You’re a Louisville native, not interested in becoming a basketball star, so you become a horse trainer and a damn good one, too.

Shug McGaughey plotting a course toward 2014 Classics
Photo by Toni Pricci
Shug McGaughey plotting a course toward 2014 Classics
So good, in fact, that the horses you train win often enough to earn you a place in horse racing’s pantheon, a.k.a. the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

No one ever held it against you, but there was a hole in your resume that needed filling, a lofty goal that many of the best practitioners in your business never have attained; training the winner of the Kentucky Derby.

But it was on the first Saturday in May, 2013, that you could finally cross this goal off your professional bucket list.

Now, picture yourself as Claude R. (Shug) McGaughey and what would you be feeling as you watched Orb cross the finish line first?

“Relief.”

If that’s too low key, not living enough in that moment, then your emotional compass is probably about the same as the developer of the great Personal Ensign, Easy Goer, and all the rest.

“I’m not the type that shows a lot of emotion,” McGaughey said inside Barn 11 on the Gulfstream Park backstretch on a brisk, high-sky sunny morning. “Someone once told me for every good thing that happens to you in this game there are twenty that can go wrong. That’s probably about right.”

When it came to that first Derby win, however, it was more like 20 things had gone right. “Every time I needed it to not rain so that he could train, it didn’t rain. Every time I needed him to work, he worked, and he worked good,” said McGaughey, recalling his good fortune.

The Hall of Famer won’t have to wait much longer to see how things are going this year. Mr. Speaker, one of three 2014 Derby hopefuls, will have to show that he has classics potential in Saturday’s mile and a sixteenth Grade 2 Holy Bull Stakes.

A second hopeful, Top Billing, will test his Derby worthiness in an allowance race earlier on the card.

The first thing McGaughey will look for before the Holy Bull field even travels a half-mile is whether or not Mr. Speaker can handle the Gulfstream surface. The good news is that only three of his 10 rivals have more racing experience; the bad is that every one of them have experience on dirt, something he lacks.

Guard the Lines, Data Link's full sister, owned and bred by Stuart Janney  III of Orb fame, will attempt maiden victory in Saturday's ninth race.
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Guard the Lines, Data Link's full sister, owned and bred by Stuart Janney III of Orb fame, will attempt maiden victory in Saturday's ninth race.
“His father never ran on the turf and neither did his mother,” McGaughey has repeated all week, “but [Mr. Speaker] won twice on it [including a graded stakes]. “And Orb didn’t run his first race [last year] until January 28.”

As if the dirt question weren’t enough, there’s the matter of handling the undefeated Coup de Grace; the very talented Cairo Prince; Wicked Strong, and Intense Holiday, the last three finishing 2-3-4 behind McGaughey’s third prospect, well regarded Honor Code, in last year’s Remsen.

“It's a very tough race,” he admitted.

Ridgling Honor Code, meanwhile, is just getting started after having surgery to remove an undescended testicle. “He sometimes got off his back legs in the stall but he never showed any pain from it,” McGaughey explained. “A.P. Indy was that way, a lot of the Pulpits, too. We just thought we should take care of it so we did.”

Honor Code has started breezing again. “He’s only had three races but he's won around two turns, so that gives him a leg up.”

As for Mr. Speaker, racing on turf evolved naturally. He had been training on dirt but when Shug's outfit was stabled at Saratoga’s Oklahoma training track, McGaughey started working him on grass and just decided to run him on it.

“We’ve been working him behind horses [at Payson Park training center] and he ran into the kickback, so he should handle dirt.”

McGaughey believes that Top Billing, entered in Saturday’s fourth race—a salty allowance test--is “a top prospect. He’s very athletic and that gives you a lot of confidence.”

Top Billing has run twice. Stabled at Fair Hill training center last year, McGaughey ran him at Laurel. After racing seventh much of the way in the slop, he finished like a rocket to win the six furlong dash by 5-1/4 lengths.

The Curlin colt, from A. P. Indy’s daughter Parade Queen, made his second start at Gulfstream in an ‘a-other-than’ allowances. “We weren’t at all comfortable running him at a mile and an eighth but he was ready to run.”

Top Billing didn’t get any the best of it, either. Dawdling in seventh behind a pokey 49.03 half-mile, he rallied inside, came out for room entering the stretch, was made a sandwich between two rivals, and sprinted with eventual winner Commissioner, a highly regarded Todd Pletcher runner who edged clear late.

“He was a little hesitant to run into [the kickback] but he’ll be more tactical as he learns,” McGaughey said, before sharing “after the race some guy in Vegas called me. I didn’t know who he was. He started yelling ‘why didn’t you claim foul’?!”

“[The trouble] might have been a blessing because I would have had to run him back in a stakes; I waited all last year for a ‘non-winners of two’ but it never filled. So now I can run him back in an allowance race.”

That seven-horse allowances, going as the fourth race, features two recent Pletcher graduates, including an impressive Surfing USA, and Rockford, third to Exit Stage Left in the Gold Rush at Golden Gate last time out and now makes his Eastern debut going first time for Bill Mott.

Exit Stage Left came out of that race to win the California Derby, remaining undefeated in three starts for Jerry Hollendorfer.

On Saturday, two of three McGaughey Derby hopefuls will be ready to go. Will there be any added pressure now that he’s a Derby-winning trainer?

“There’s no pressure,” he said as a matter of fact. “Last winter went perfect, this winter we’ll wait and see.”

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, January 17, 2014


Macho Man Keeps His Eyes On the Prize


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, January 17, 2014—When the connections of 2013 Horse of the Year finalist Mucho Macho Man decided to begin their youthful six-year-old’s 2014 campaign in Saturday’s Florida Millions Sunshine Classic, it was done with the immediate future in mind. After all, that other Classic is still 10 months and more than three thousand miles away.

Eventually, a Breeders’ Cup Classic defense will take care of itself, but first things will be first. Five brave equine souls will take on the Classic champion--if the nine furlong event stays intact, that is.

And while the competition is badly overmatched on paper, there is always the pressure of getting around there safely and, hopefully, in front at the wire.

That pressure will mount as the racing world watches the Macho Man race as one of the shortest-priced favorites in Gulfstream Park stakes history as it awaits the Eclipse Award ceremonies scheduled to take place at the same venue in a matter of hours after the Sunshine Millions program is completed.

Mucho Macho Man, 2-for-2 beneath Gary Stevens, is the 2-5 early line favorite.

While the connections have not officially eliminated the possibility of a run in the Grade 1 Donn next month, we’re betting against that proposition. Unlike Saturday’s race, the timing just doesn’t fit. It is more likely that, if all goes well, the late June 2008 foal will await the month of March to make a second start.

From the beginning, owners Dean and Patti Reeves, with stable advisor Finn Green, have always acted in the colt’s best interests. That would eliminate the Donn from serious consideration and should put the kibosh on a trip to the United Arab Emirates.

The Santa Anita Handicap, given the Macho Man’s affinity for Santa Anita and the timing, makes a lot more sense, especially since he always has appreciated ample recovery time between starts.

Besides, he’s never run on a synthetic surface and there’s a half-world of difference between training on one and racing over it. Keep America’s most popular horse--as chosen by Thoroughbred racing fans—at home. There will be no shortage of prestigious or lucrative opportunities within these borders.

Three Year Old Preps on Both Coasts; Fillies, Too

The Grade 3 Lecomte that jump-starts Fair Grounds’ Road to the Kentucky Derby might come down to a battle between Steve Asmussen and Larry Jones runners. Respectively, they will saddle early line favorites Gold Hawk (3-1) and Albano (7-2).

Gold Hawk has yet to run in a stakes but has won both career starts, including his two-turn and Fair Grounds debut at a mile and 70 yards in late December. He won the race going away in solid time after surviving a bumping match and wide rally entering the stretch. A son of 2003 Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker, Derby pedigree should not be at issue.

Albano, meanwhile, is 2-for-3 and ended his juvenile season with a win the six-furlong Sugar Bowl Stakes in comparatively fast time. He is a half-brother to Mark Valeski which finished second two years ago in both the subsequently more meaningful Risen Star and Louisiana Derby.

The Lecomte is no two-horse affair, however. Smarty’s Echo (8-1), nowhere to be found in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile following a runner-up finish in Keeneland’s G1 Breeders’ Futurity, has been training up a storm for his return and clearly is much better than his Juvenile indicates.

The ubiquitous Ken and Sarah Ramsey will be represented by an interesting runner in the Michael Maker-trained Vicar’s in Trouble (9-2). He’s never been around two turns and broke his maiden in restricted Louisiana-bred company. But he won by 13 over Saturday’s surface and gets Rosie Napravnik, seeking her fourth consecutive Fair Grounds riding title.

Two fillies, Divine Beauty (8-5) and Unbridled Forever (9-5), deservingly will get the most support in the Silverbulletday Stakes, a race that successfully has helped launch three year old distaffers toward the Kentucky Oaks and beyond.

Divine Beauty, 2-for-2 lifetime, won the $60,000 Letellier Memorial Dec. 21 in fast time for the team of Larry Jones and Rose Napravnik. Jones is hoping that Divine Beauty will be in a position to give him a third Kentucky Oaks victory, following in the hoof prints of Proud Spell and Believe You Can.

The filly she must beat is the faster Unbridled Forever, most impressive breaking er maiden at seven furlongs by 5-1/2 lengths at Churchill Downs last fall after getting Lasix for the first time. Dallas Stewart taps main man Robby Albarado for the assignment. Lemons Forever, the dam of Unbridled Forever, won the Kentucky Oaks for Stewart as a 47-1 upsetter in 2006.

Hollandorfer and Baze in the California Derby Spotlight:

Exit Stage Left, undefeated in two career starts including the Gold Rush Stakes over Golden Gate’s synthetic surface, will be a tough out in the Northern California fixture but is no layover.

Morally Bankrupt, compromised by a tough trip when prepped in Santa Anita’s Eddie Logan, was 2-for-2 on an All-Weather surface in Great Britain. Royal Banker, second in that event, also has synthetic experience. These two, as well as good-finish Gold Rush runner-up Argyle Cut, makes the event even trickier than it appears at first glance.

Pletcher Takes Out Derby Insurance with Hartford:

Last week, is was Constitution which made a favorable impression as a seven furlong maiden breaker at Gulfstream Park. On Thursday, Hartford, made his debut at the same distance and was more impressive in our view.

Comfortably stalking the leader on the outside under Javier Castellano, the $700,000 Tapit colt assumed the lead willingly on his own and widened without urging to win by 5-3/4 lengths in 1:24.47 with a final furlong in 12.12 seconds in a highly professional performance.

Written by John Pricci

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