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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Friday, April 17, 2015

Charles Town Classic: Prepping For Dollars

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., April 17, 2016—The best horse in America runs Saturday—in Charles Town, West Virginia.

Oh well, so it wasn’t Hot Springs.

Now we have nothing against the good people of the Mountain State, mind you. God knows they’re a tough lot, know how to cope with hard work and on-the-job adversity.

But the racing in minor league, as glorified bullrings usually are. And the minor leagues have its place, although that position has become increasingly difficult to defend in these trying times.

To make it work, West Virginia racing had to be propped up by casino dole. And with that they put all their Thoroughbred eggs in one Classic basket, throwing dollars at their only national event.

The result has been that the equine equivalent of the 1 percent has swooped in with the “big hoss” and snatched up all those golden eggs without drawing an anxious deep breath. Just ask Mike Smith.

However, not all the members of the group that own Shared Belief are 1 percenters themselves so it makes sense that they take a little financial pressure off the table in the form of an easy payday.

But that’s about as much slack as this racing fan is going to cut the group. There’s only one event that American race fans would like to see now—in advance of the Classic rematch, that is. And that race is just over the horizon after Saturday’s at 6:05 p.m.

The anticipation comes from the fact that the next one will be very competitive but certainly within this brilliant gelding’s wheelhouse. After all, he was very successful turning back to one turn earlier this year and the spacing of seven weeks is ideal.

Of course, it’s the Metropolitan Handicap, better known as the Met Mile, on the Belmont Stakes undercard, offering a purse of $1.5 million, the lion’s share of which must be earned.

It’s not that Shared Belief has anything to prove at this point, but running flat out in a one turn mile in top competition with no breather is available will only add to his legend.

Some of America’s best runners figure to show up for this kind of cash and the race has been, according to reports, the long term goal of 2013 Belmont Stakes-winning Palace Malice.

If there is one knock on these huge festival event programs, watered-down same-meet weekend cards notwithstanding, is that the marquee event will gain all the media attention so that the storyline becomes: “Today’s Belmont Stakes… and in other races…”

An aside: Almost every horseplayer I speak with is lamenting that Memorial Day 2015 won’t be the same without the Met Mile. That’s true, and there’s something else, too:

If there doesn’t happen to be a Triple Crown on the line, the appearance of America’s leading race horse could knock the Belmont Park spring meet’s signature event right off the back page.

But that was a business decision that the NYRA made--and the Charles Town Classic was a business decision that Jerry Hollendorfer and friends made.

This weekend, Shared Belief exits the cozy confines of the Golden State for the three-turn rigors of the Mountain State.

What awaits next is the visit to the Empire State. You hate to get ahead of yourself in the horse racing game. This time it’s justified.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, April 05, 2015

No Slouching Towards Louisviile

SOUTH OZONE PARK, NY, April 4, 2015—From New York City to Lexington to Arcadia, many of this country’s elite three year olds put on a superb show that is sure to whet the appetites of America’s Race fans one month from today.

In each of three nine-furlong Grade 1s, the cream rose, other logical favorites, save Daredevil, gave it their best and a couple of upstarts, especially the Wood Memorial and Blue Grass runners-up, are peaking right on top of the Kentucky Derby.

That’s the thing about three year olds in the spring; they’re all just like boxes of chocolate. You never know what you will find or how far down the bottom really goes.

It was refreshing to see good energy return to the racetrack by the bay and in a strange way, prevailing northeast-crosswinds that sometimes reached 35 m.p.h. added to a charged atmosphere while having a ruinous effect on running times all afternoon.

But as that turned out, it played to the strength of Frosted, the colt who had a stranglehold on the Fountain of Youth until his epiglottis became entrapped and he stopped dramatically after it appeared into the Gulfstream stretch that the dance was done.

And so a minor surgical procedure to correct that issue, opening the blinkers a bit which allowed him to relax in the early going, a rider switch to Joel Rosario and, also significantly, a return to Queens where he showed at 2 he just might make a serious three year old.

All of it came together a furlong from home when a very confident Rosario allowed him to pick up Tencendur to reach even terms before the rider threw one more cross and he ran away, straight and strong through the Big A finish line.

Runner-up Tencendur revealed his true potential yesterday. Following a late-run fourth in the Withers following a New York-bred maiden breaker, he ran in spots when adding blinkers for the Gotham but that experiment paid dividends yesterday.

Under new rider Jose Ortiz, Tencendur stalked comfortably in the three-path throughout, moved up outside on the turn to take the lead and set sail to the wire after switching to his correct lead into the straight.

But Frosted moved with him from behind, took aim after he was straightened away by Rosario and it looked like it would only be a matter of time before he would pick him up.

“The last race really made us scratch our heads,” said Kiaran McLaughlin. “We did everything we could to change everything we possibly could, including the jockey, just because we were changing everything. It all worked out. It's just a special win.”

El Kabeir, far behind the wind-compromised pace down the backside, made a solid late rally into the lane and was going in the right direction to the finish.

He might not measure up to the best of the best in this group but he certainly earned his way to Kentucky with his going-in the-right direction show finish.

Say this about Carpe Diem. Just maybe, nobody, with the exception of Todd Pletcher, realizes how good he is or can be.

No, he hasn’t been matched up with Bob Baffert’s California flyers. But if the Blue Grass showed anything, is that there highly likely is more in that considerable tank of his.

He stalked the lone pacesetter until Johnny Velazquez was ready. When the rider moved his hands entering the far turn, it appeared for a moment it might be a blow-by but, as Pletcher explained later, with that soft pace you knew [Ocho Ocho Ocho] would not give it up readily.

But after entering the stretch, he separated himself from the group, idled a bit, and had to be reminded by Velazquez that the job was not yet done. The colt responded and bounded under the wire with energy in reserve.

“Down the lane, I asked him and he responded right away,” said Velazquez. “Once he gets to the lead, he wants to wait, so I have to make sure I keep his mind on running.”

Who knows how much more effective he might be with pace in front of him, and he gets to use his considerable energy and talent all at once?

Whether Carpe Diem was waiting or not, Danzig Moon, a once-removed maiden going in was going to be coming. When last they met in Tampa, Carpe Diem was 12 lengths in front of him. On Saturday, Danzig Moon got nine of those lengths back.

And considering that Triple Eight got relatively nothing out of his season’s debut in the San Felipe, he did well to continue on for third after giving Carpe Diem a tussle for more than a quarter-mile.

Three-thousand miles to the West, it was Dortmund doing what he does best, the only thing re really knows how to do: Win.

But what’s interesting is the personal belief that the best race he’s ever run came at Churchill Downs as a two year old when he came from off the pace, racing outside all the way.

No chance of that in the Santa Anita Derby, of course, once he drew the rail. He likely would need to break sharp—which he did, albeit bobbling a bit and throwing a shoe—and show some athleticism which, for such a huge animal, he has.

“Even though he's won all his races, he's still learning," jockey Martin Garcia said post-race. "He can play around a bit, but when someone comes to him, or I ask him to go, he becomes push-button and he just takes off.” Which is just what he did on Saturday by 4-1/4 lengths.

Stablemate One Lucky Dane finished second, earning 40 qualifying points and a trip to Kentucky. And the third and fourth finishers, Bolo and Prospect Park, also now likely have enough to get into a starting gate that suddenly filling up fast.

Umpteen major preps down, one to go next weekend. This sophomore class just continues to put on a good show, leaving you begging for more.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, March 28, 2015

Violette Responds to Florida Derby Non-Inquiry

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 28, 2015—Just received a text response from Upstart's trainer, Rick Violette, concerning the stretch incident in Saturday's Florida Derby. In mid-stretch, the winning Materiality came out beneath left-handed urging from Johnny Velazquez and into the path of Upstart, forcing Jose Ortiz to steady his mount.

No head-on replay was shown at the track following the race.

It is extremely unlikely that the incident cost Upstart the win. That, however, is not the point. The Gulfstream Park outrider, whose job it is to signal the stewards should a jockey want to lodge a foul claim, signaled the "all clear" to the officials before Ortiz had a chance to lodge an objection. When he reached the outrider, he was told it was "too late."

With or without the rider's objection, the stewards were obliged to lodge an inquiry of their own. There certainly was enough there to indicate to the connections and the public that the officials actually witnessed the stretch run of Gulfstream's signature event.

Of course, Upstart was the horse disqualified from first in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. It was a controversial call which, for the record, then and now, we thought to be correct. In our view, Saturday's non-decision decision would have been correct, too--again, not the issue.

Once more, incidents like these show how racing's officiating process in deeply flawed yet there remains no transparency in stewards stands throughout the U.S.

Violette's text message: "[The decision] turned quick official into rush-to-go-home official. Did an injustice to the horse, the owner, and the betting public. Regardless of the ultimate decision, robbed the connections of any revue. There was contact and for the stewards not to put up the inquiry on their own underscores the depth of their inconsistency. To call it official after it was clearly heard on the companies [sic] walkie talkies underlines their lack of competence."

International Star Sweeps; Birdatthewire Impressive in Gulfstream Oaks

He’s not the fastest and not the flashiest three year old of 2015 but who can argue that International Star is neck and neck the grittiest member of his generation.

In gamely beat Stanford--who Materiality made look like a second tier three year old in the Islamorada at Gulfstream only to prove that assessment inaccurate in Saturday’s Louisiana Derby—International Start proved that he carries guns into knife fights.

He just won’t let you finish in front of him.

His praises were being sung long before Saturday because of his uncommon versatility as to distance, style and surface preferences while beating you inside, outside, doing whatever it takes. On Saturday, he did a little of everything.

His praises were being sung long before Saturday because of his uncommon versatility as to distance, style and surface preferences while beating you inside, outside, doing whatever it takes. On Saturday, he did a little of everything.

He showed tactical speed to come out of the first turn in good shape despite breaking from the extreme outside in the field of nine.

International Star was rated along very well by Miguel Mena through the backstretch run, rallied inside on the final turn, tipped out with momentum for the drive, and out-willed the stubborn Stanford to the finish by a neck.

They both put 4-1/2 lengths between themselves and co-favorite War Story, who has talent but not nearly the grit of the winner. Keen Ice was going forward at the finish to place fourth, but was one-paced through deep stretch.

Meanwhile, International Star swept the Louisiana route to Kentucky, winning three straight, never losing a race beneath Miguel Mena.

One of the few Ken Ramsey runners not by his very successful stallion Kittens Joy, but purchased at auction for what is now a bargain price of $85,000, increased his lifetime earnings to nearly one million dollars.

International Star has now won going long, short, on turf, synthetics and dirt, trainer Mike Maker keeping him happy throughout it all…

I’m a Chatterbox was a clear cut winner of the Fair Grounds Oaks, always looking like a winner as the 3-5 choice but required a final eighth in :07 to get there, a driving winner.

A Star in the Making At Gulfstream, meanwhile, Birdatthewire was driving hard, too, to take the Gulfstream Park Oaks, only she had every reason to get beat but didn’t, showing uncommon ability and beating a nice filly, Eskenforthemoney, in the process.

The chart footnote does no justice to her manner of her winning trip. Check out the replay, or just take winning trainer Dale Romans’ explanation of what happened as gospel:

“I was worried down the backside,” Romans admitted. It looked like [Irad Ortiz] lost his irons. He was standing up trying to pull her up. He said she was just getting so rank with him and wanted to go.”

“She got very strong from the first turn to the backside,” explained Ortiz. “I was trying to get her to relax because she comes from behind--that’s her race…She was pulling, but when I asked her to run she took off.”

“That was really impressive,” added Romans. “It was good to see that she could overcome that adversity. She should improve with distance. We just have to get her to turn off a little bit.”

Birdatthewire overcomes adversity to win Gulfstream Oaks

Materiality Is for Real; Stewards Show Disregard for Horsemen, Bettors

Before the instant analyzing begins, what was revealed in the moments after the Florida Derby and Louisiana Derby were run 30 minutes part is that both races were great theater and, despite the narrow winning margins, the best horses won.

Over a very tiring Gulfstream surface--at once tightened up and firm after post-training maintenance but a victim of gusting winds and cloudy skies before the Hallandale opener—two three-year-old laid their bodies down and the stronger one survived.

Indeed, the track maintenance crew added extra water to the surface throughout the day but the prevailing gusts from out of the West blew the top-soil over toward the inside, the part of the track that was dull all week to begin with.

But in the end, it was just like winning rider Johnny Velazquez said: [Materiality] hooked up with the other horse at the half mile pole and kept fighting; that was a whole lot of running.”

And he did it racing on the inside portion of the track, but that didn’t make the defeat easier to accept for Upstart’s trainer, Rick Violette.

“I don’t want to hear from the guys that say don’t worry about the ‘nine hole’ because it made all the difference.

“If we had [Materiality] on our hip the whole way maybe the result would have been different.

He beat us fair and square. He is obviously a very nice horse, he comes off a really fast race and didn’t regress.”

“Our biggest concern was just coming back in 22 days off a really huge effort. SO we monitored how he was training,” explained Todd Pletcher, who won the Florida Derby with a third-time starter for the second straight year.

“He’s a big, strong colt and he holds his weight really well. He’s got a big appetite.” And seemingly a heart just as big.

As Velazquez intimated, it takes a whole lot of running to put 12-1/2 lengths on the third finisher, Ami’s Flatter.

Materiality showed class and courage in Florida Derby

Materiality’s stablemate Itsaknockout, undefeated after being elevated from second to first in the Fountain of Youth, didn’t display the same turn of foot he showed as the Fountain of Youth runner-up.

He, too, was down on the inside much of the way in the slower going and showed some grit to come on for fourth after running one-paced around the second turn.

A familiar scene from the Gulfstream Park Winners' Circle

The buzz immediately after the finish concerned whether there would be a foul claim by the connections of the runner-up. Materiality drifted out in midstretch, brushing Upstart, both horses losing a little momentum for an instant.

There were reports that the outrider tried to make contact with all the jockeys as they were pulling up. None of the jocks said anything but Upstart’s rider Jose Ortiz said later he never got the opportunity.

When he approached the outrider, he reportedly was told it was, “too late, [the stewards were given the ‘all clear’. The race was declared official extremely quickly and as this was written no one had seen a head-on replay.

I sent a text message to Rick Violette not long after learning of the “all clear” incident but received no response.

Subsequently, I have seen the head-on and the winner definitely drifted out into the path of the runner-up and brushed him slightly while under left-handed urging.

The incident did not affect the ultimate result but it certainly would not have been a frivolous foul had Ortiz claimed. And the public was owed the courtesy of a head-on view, at least. Violette certainly was.

Dubai in the Morning: The Bet and Breakfast program from halfway around the world was very entertaining, the performances outstanding in spots.

So world class horseman Michael DeKock says he now must learn the words to “My Old Kentucky Home.” Maybe when he gets here he’ll be forced to learn some different tunes.

There’s that old standard, “Moon Over Miami.” How about “California Here I Come,” or “New York, New York,” with which you get a choice of Sinatra, Liza or Jay Z & Beyonce.

Can’t knock the performance of Mubtaahij, that’s for certain. Had to love the way he stretched out to the wire in a wow-like performance.

But we don’t know what he beat in the UAE Derby, then there’s the shipping…and did we mention this deep three year old class? Of course, no Dubai shipper has ever had success in Louisville.

Don’t think Dubai will ever see Dubai Bob again, but as long as they run the Golden Shaheen, Baffert will have a speedster to run, and Victor Espinoza gave Secret Circle the perfect trip to win the six furlong sprint.

As far as Main Sequence is concerned, maybe it was the lack of Lasix, the shipping, the competition or being used earlier than usual.

After breaking fairly well—actually good for Main Sequence—Rajiv Maragh put him in the game earlier than usual and that dramatic late kick of his.

Perhaps the outside post was of no help to California Chrome. He was in the bridle all the way, stalking four wide throughout, and it’s just so difficult to keep that momentum going.

But he runs hard all the time—such a cool dude. However, even his A+ race unlikely would have been enough to handle Prince Bishop. What a race he ran.

William Buick was cooler than, as Stewart Scott popularized—the flip side of the pillow. He allowed the gelded eight year old to drop way out of it, made a long sustained run into contention approaching the turn.

Then, he drafted him behind a rival for about a sixteenth of a mile, tipped outside into the straight, and drew off under a fierce drive, winning as much the best horse.

And mucho props to trainer Saaed bin Suroor, winning his seventh World Cup out of 20 runnings. Just call him the Charlie Whittingham of Dubai.

Bets 'n Pieces

The racing on Saturday's loaded stakes card at Gulfstream produced some terrific, competitive racing but slow running times throughout the day owing to a tiring strip made more demanding by windy conditions which seemed to take all the moisture from the surface as quickly as the water truck could spray it on. And that was following the soaking rains of Friday night.

Commissioner finally got that graded takes win with a hard-drive victory over a very stubborn Sr. Quisqueyano in the G3 Skip Away for Pletcher and Javier Castellano... War Correspondent accomplished the same goal, dropping out of the G1 Gulfstream Turf Handicap to take the G3 Appleton at one mile over firm turf for Christophe Clement and Velazquez, displaying an excellent turn of foot once clear...

Having gone to the well once too often--his fifth start since Dec. 13 and exiting an extremely hard fought length defeat to Honor Code after chasing Grade 1 winner Private Zone throughout the Gulfstream Park Handicap, Valid had no resistance to offer when challenged by Pants On Fire to take the Sir Shackleton overnight stakes for Kelly Breen and Paco Lopez, holing off a strong, late rally from Confrontation...

Bill Mott had Lady Lara sitting on ready and she gamely wore down favored Sandiva to win the G2 Honey Fox beneath Junior Alvarado, down from New York for the assignment. Beauty Parlor made her 4YO and U.S. debut to take G3 Orchid beneath a heady Velazquez, giving Clement his seventh victory in this race. Viva La France

Irad Ortiz gave Imagining a good trip and pulled a minor upset to defeat favored Twilight Eclipse, forced to chase a slow pace throughout, tiring late to third when the sprinting began in deep stretch. Shug McGaughey saddled the winner.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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