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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Monday, April 14, 2014

California Chrome Notwithstanding, Derby Chaos Reigns

SARATOGA SPRINGS, April 14, 2014—Barring last-minute qualifiers from Saturday’s Lexington Stakes and late injury defections, the field for the 140th Kentucky Derby is all but set. And if there weren’t a modicum of clarity at the top, the Derby field--at least from a handicapping perspective--is in disarray.

California Chrome is a clear cut Derby favorite and solid support can be garnered for Santa Anita Derby runnerup Hopportunity, Wood Memorial winner Wicked Strong, and undefeated, albeit lightly raced Florida Derby winner, Constitution. After that, it’s Katy bar the door.

With three weeks remaining, the Derby 140 picture is so muddled that fans might have an easier time making a case for California Chrome to become thoroughbred racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner than for any of his rivals to upset the Derby applecart.

How in the name of sanity are handicappers supposed to evaluate Saturday’s winner in Hot Springs in a Derby context in that not only did Danza’s win come in his second run this season, his fourth lifetime overall and his first start around two turns, but the Grade 1 was his “a other than" win?

In short, what does his victory say for the vanquished?

Ride On Curlin is hickory, honest, and his development has been managed adeptly by trainer William Gowan. With rating tactics, we thought he had an excellent chance to upset the Arkansas Derby and indeed finished up very nicely for the place. But should the top Derby contenders be very afraid?

Formerly undefeated Bayern showed in his third lifetime start that he’d prefer to run freely rather than be rated, at least at this point of his career. But what can anyone expect from such an inexperienced young horse in three weeks time?

Clearly, Strong Mandate has not yet made the transition from 2 to 3. Tapiture, high on everyone’s list going into the Arkansas Derby as the co-favorite, might have run himself out of serious Derby contention with a good, albeit wide, mid-race move that he failed to sustain.

Even back in the day, it was unreasonable to expect anything near a peak performance for any three-race Derby prepster, but the time you least want a letdown is in the final tune-up. And then you had better be going in the right direction at the finish, not retreating slightly as Tapiture did Saturday.

As for the Blue Grass, who knows? When Street Sense prepped on Polytrack prior to his 2007 Kentucky Derby victory, he was a champion at 2 and had a strong Northern Florida campaign that winter. Coming from arrears with a fast finish behind Dominican in slow time was just what he needed.

Dance With Fate was an impressive Blue Grass winner, giving him two wins on synthetics, one on turf, and was second in the G1 FrontRunner on Santa Anita dirt at 2. The last Blue Grass winner to repeat in the Derby was Strike the Gold 23 years ago but Dance With Fate is peaking right on schedule.**

It should be noted that Blue Grass runnerup Medal Count, who broke maiden going a mile in his racing debut at Ellis Park last year, trained well at his Churchill Downs base but never has run for money there. His pedigree certainly is long enough and lack of conditioning won't be a concern.

Can’t imagine what Lexington Stakes last-gaspers have in store for the Derby faithful, but this certainly looks like a year when adaptability and good training over the Churchill Downs strip could pay off handsomely in the storied mile-and-a-quarter-without-any-water.

HRI Derby Power 10 Consensus, Week 8 (reflects two dead-heats):

1. California Chrome—32
2. Constitution—28
3. Wicked Strong—22
4. Hoppertunity—18
5. Wildcat Red—15
6. Vicar's In Trouble--11
7. Intense Holiday—10
8-tie General A Rod—7
8-tie Samraat--7
10. Danza—6
11-tie Candy Boy--5
11-tie Chitu--5

**Subsequent to posting, connections of Dance With Fate announced they will skip the Derby in favor of giving their horse more time between starts

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, April 12, 2014

Lots of Winners and Losers on Final Big Prep Weekend

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 12, 2014—If you’re a Kentucky Derby fan, let’s put aside the parimutuel events of Saturday’s two final major preps, the Grade 1 Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby.

Based on Saturday's results, the big winners were Dance With Fate, who zoomed from Derby obscurity to third on the qualifying list, and Danza, also coming from nowhere to finish in sixth position.

Ride on Curlin’s Arkansas Derby placing was good enough to raise his seed to #12; Tapiture, safely in at #14 despite his disappointing Arkansas Derby, and Blue Grass runnerup Medal Count also appears safely in at #18.

Those that ran themselves out of serious consideration include Vinceramos, Harry’s Holiday, Big Bazinga, Coastline, Strong Mandate and Commissioner. Of those, Big Bazinga made a good effort to finish fourth in the Blue Grass but the rest disappointed--Strong Mandate and Commissioner in a big way.

Ultimately, we’ll find out whether or not Dance With Fate is well named, but this much is certain: Until approximately 6:40 p.m. on May 3rd, it will be enough to know that he can handles any footing, albeit excelling on synthetic ones.

Saturday’s completely authoritative score in the Blue Grass, ending the All-Weather Derby prep era in Lexington, now has a Grade 1 win to go with his Grade 1 placings in the 2013 Del Mar Futurity and Front Runner at Santa Anita.

With a turf victory at the allowance level two starts back, he’s now has won twice on synthetics and once on grass to go with a Grade 1 placing on dirt.

Well prepared by trainer Peter Eurton, he was confidently handled while moving wide into contention at headstretch beneath Corey Nakatani, racing under the line is full stride appearing not to reach bottom. It was an impressive run that validates his entry into the Derby.

In finishing second, Medal Count, winner of the G3 Transylvania on the Keeneland Poly eight days ago returned with an excellent effort, earned 40 qualifying points in the process and punched his ticket to Louisville if his people are so inclined.

Pacesetting Pablo Del Monte added a G1 stakes placing to go with his two prior daylight wins over the Keeneland surface at 2.

Any chance that defending Eclipse Award-winning owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey would have a third horse in the Louisville starting gate evaporated when the talented turf runner Bobby’s Kitten was unable to transfer that form to synthetic.

Neither of Todd Pletcher’s dirt horses made an impression: G3 Palm Beach grass winner Gala Award, obstreperous while being loaded, and G3 Sam F Davis winner and G2 Tampa Bay Derby runnerup, Vinceramos, never threatened at any time.

Well, you didn’t expect the Toddster to get shut out on such an occasion, did you? Quick, prior to Danza’s shocker in the Arkansas Derby, name the last runner he saddled that paid off at 41-1. You probably shouldn’t tax the gray matter on that one.

Much of the credit must go to not only Pletcher, who had Danza ready to win a solidly run Arkansas Derby off a single third-place finish at 7 furlongs March 1st at Gulfstream Park. The race was his fourth lifetime start and his first around two turns.

But the major props belong to Joe Carpe Diem Bravo, who shut up the fence with the Street Boss colt with five-sixteenths of a mile left to run. After establishing some separation soon after entering the straight, the stretch run lacked any real drama.

Now, before anyone thinks that Gary Stevens opened the rail with the formerly undefeated Bayern, he did his best to slow his speedy mount down throughout, keeping him about three paths wide all the way.

Racing wide of the fence helps runners to relax.

Bayern, meanwhile, was a sort of Samraat of the Arkansas Derby. Approaching midstretch it appeared he would finish out of the money but Stevens kept him alive and just missed the place spot to the late surging, six-wide rallying Ride On Curlin.

Ride On Curlin, getting a switch to Jon Court, is a good, very honest colt. Rating experiments generally don’t turn out well but this one did. He likely would have been significantly closer if not for the ground loss.

Coming off two big efforts, Tapiture was flat, failing to give Steve Asmussen his fourth winner of the day—all were ridden by Ricardo Santana, who lost the mount on Tapiture in favor of Joel Rosario. Sometimes the obvious move doesn’t turn out so well.

The Derby qualifying list is very interesting at the bottom with Cairo Prince and Uncle Sigh tied for 20th.

Should no one emerge from the last ditch Lexington next Saturday, it will be interesting to see how that scenario will shake out. Of course, three weeks is an eternity in Kentucky Derby time.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, April 05, 2014

California Chrome Was Wicked Strong

SOUTH OZONE PARK, NY, April 5, 2014—The first of Saturday’s prime time Derby prep double-header produced a colt unlike any other seen on the trail thus far, a horse that can come from off the pace successfully. All he needed was a fair surface.

Aqueduct provided that kind of ground Saturday and Wicked Strong provided the late kick, the same tack he used last year to come within a half-length of upsetting both Cairo Prince and Honor Code in the Remsen Stakes at the same Wood Memorial distance.

Now, with highly regarded Honor Code sitting out the Triple Crown with an injury and Cairo Prince squarely on the Derby fence with 24 qualifying points for the big dance, Wicked Strong vaulted himself into the role of strong Derby contender.

The colt has turn-move Derby style, finishes what he starts, and owns more than enough pedigree to get him 10 furlong. In Rajiv Maragh, he has a rider that gets along with him in a big way.

The allowance race that Wicked Strong exited had produced two next out winners including Florida Derby champion Constitution, and his sneaky-good fourth place finish there was good enough to produce a third on Saturday.

Can you say, right place, right time?

Wicked Strong was on the wise guy radar screen while the crowd was fascinated by Social Inclusion, a winner of both lifetime starts at Gulfstream Park by 17-1/2 non-threatened lengths. While he didn’t win the Wood, run in 1:49.31, the fastest running since Bellamy Road, he acquitted himself well.

It appeared Social Inclusion didn’t enjoy his first foray into New York. He galloped well enough over the Big A’s sand and loam earlier in the week but was bothered in the post parade, a little obstreperous and hot on a spring day in Gotham where the post time temp was a less than balmy 54 degrees.

Breaking from the extreme outside in a field reduced to 10 by the late scratch of Kid Cruz, Social Inclusion broke well enough but not a sharply as usual. Not only did that result in a loss of first-turn ground but the speedy Schivarelli had shaken loose and provided no willing target.

It took a bit more than five furlongs for him to shake clear of the leader, at which point formerly undefeated Samraat jumped all over him. To his credit the 8-5 choice opened ground but by midstretch he had begun to tire from the trip and perhaps the added half furlong as well.

Meanwhile, Samraat was resurgent but by this time Wicked Strong began to crank up big time on the stretch turn and was in full flight. It became apparent with a sixteenth of a mile remaining that this dance would be over.

The victor won with authority, even if he does continue to run a bit serpent-like down the lane. What that will mean in a 20-horse rodeo in a month’s time is anyone’s guess. But Derby style is important, and that issue is not in doubt.

“When I saw him laying five lengths off the lead just galloping I really felt we had a big shot,” said trainer Jimmy Jerkens. “I said to Rajiv ‘it’s great to save ground…but if you can get him to that crown on the stretch, go ahead’. They were taking off out there all day.”

Jerkens was asked about his prospects for this year’s Derby. Five years ago Jerkens was preparing Florida Derby winner Quality Road for the race but never made it to Louisville because of the colt’s serious quarter-crack issues.

“I’d love to get another crack at it, that’s for sure. Looks like a horse where distance won’t bother him.”

Despite suffering his first defeat in six starts, Rick Violette has not lost any confidence in Samraat; in fact, quite the opposite. “It’s his best race,” the trainer said.

“It’s the first time he’s been surrounded and covered up and he handled it. He came back three times. I thought he was going to be fourth, and he kept finding more, finding more. Good horses rally from this and get better. He got a huge education.”

Gary Contessa was realistic in his assessment of fifth finisher Uncle Sigh. “He broke a little awkwardly and was not quite the same horse. He was in behind horses for the first time and Corey [Nakatani] said he was very green. We expected to be right next to Samraat, not seventh and taking dirt.”

Manny Azpurua, the 85 year-old conditioner of Social Inclusion, also has lost little faith. “It was very good. Next time he’ll win; he’ll kill them.” But Azpurua might have to wait until the Preakness for that. Losing the place photo by a nose to Samraat gives him 20 qualifying points, unlikely to be enough.

Owner Ron Sanchez will also have to wait, too, next to a phone that might never ring. Reportedly offered $8 million for 75% of Social Inclusion before the Wood, he opted to roll the dice and wait until after the race. As for the Derby, his colt is in a four-way tie at 19th with 20 qualifying points.

About the 30 minutes after the Wood, California Chrome turned out to be everything Social Inclusion wasn’t and then some. California’s chestnut flyer was awesome, dominating the Santa Anita Derby by a geared-down 5-1/4 lengths beneath Victor Espinoza.

Like Samraat, he was surrounded, albeit briefly at the start after breaking a bit out of hand and getting jostled leaving the barrier. But he was quickly righted by Espinoza, assumed a comfortable stalking position outside maiden Dublin Up, opened ground quickly at headstretch and turned the storied West Coast fixture into a romp.

It will take something completely unexpected and otherworldly next weekend to prevent California Chrome from arriving in Louisville as a clear-cut Derby favorite. Rebel winning Hoppertunity ran very well but was daylight behind at the end.

As for Candy Boy, he seemed to come down with a case of Cairo Prince. The 55-day respite from the Robert B Lewis to the Santa Anita Derby produced a horse that appeared short of condition.

If the race was intended strictly as a prep, it can move the colt forward the right way—if indeed he makes it to Louisville. In finishing third, Candy Boy wound up with 30 points--likely enough but no cinch. He currently ranks 16th.

Written by John Pricci

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