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, March 24, 2014

Turfway, Sunland Make Litttle Impact on HRI Power 10

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 23, 2014—The positioning in advance of Saturday’s entrance into the final round of playoffs for the big dance is over now that Saturday’s Spriral Stakes and Sunday’s Sunland Derby is in the books.

Wish I knew what to make of Turfway Park’s Polytrack bonanza. We Miss Artie picked up all the pieces with Johnny Velazquez, timing the last run exquisitely. The runnerup did most of the hard work chasing throughout, staying very well before getting tagged right at the wire.

Show finisher Coastline looked the part of a winner every step of the last half-mile of the 9 furlongs, sitting perfectly from close range outside, having things unfold for his benefit but disappointingly did not kick on to win, hanging badly through the final furlong.

The winner should have little difficulty getting 10 furlongs in six weeks but his problem is two-fold: can he get there fast enough on a dirt surface. And, thus far, he hasn’t been the same horse on anything other than grass or all-weather surfaces.

It’s easier to get a read on the Sunday’s Sunland Derby on dirt, and the 9-furlong time of 1:47.88 was two-fifths of a second off the track record. It was won on the pace by the speedy, classy stalker Chitu, who outlasted stablemate Midnight Hawk.

There’s a two-fold problem here as well: speed was deadly at Sunland on Sunday and his stablemate simply doesn’t finish what he starts in two-turn events. The surface carried Chitu home with Martin Garcia asking him for his life in the final furlong.

What the Kentucky Derby’s race shape doesn’t need at this point is another serious horse that races on or near the early lead. Of course, if the closer’s aren’t fast enough…

As a result, there wasn’t much shake-up in the HRI Power 10 this week except that California-based three-year-olds occupy three of the top five slots.

By Saturday nigh, however, we figure to be looking at a whole different ballgame. Finally, we’re approaching to the races that truly matter.

There certainly will be changes next week as half of the Power 10 is very likely to see action including Cairo Prince who has dominated the top position since the poll was first conducted five weeks ago.

Cairo Prince will almost certainly stamp himself the Derby favorite with a victory in Saturday’s Florida Derby, a position that only would be strengthened should Intense Holiday add the Louisiana Derby to his Risen Star triumph.

As colleague Tom Jicha noted last week, the 2014 sophomore class is still seeking a horse capable of stringing together back-to-back graded stakes; thus far there have been 17 graded events each boasting a different hero.

The HRI Kentucky Derby Power 10, Week 5

1. Cairo Prince (36)
2. Candy Boy (26)
3. Tapiture (22)
4. (tie) California Chrome (18)
4. (tie) Hoppertunity (18)
6. Intense Holiday (12)
7. Wildcat Red (10)
8. Samraat (8)
9. General A Rod (7)
10. Strong Mandate (5)

The HRI Power 10 is a consensus of HRI staffers and contributors, written by John Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, March 16, 2014

With a Rebel Yell, a Shift in the Derby Power 10

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 15, 2014—The running of the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes Saturday at Oaklawn Park wasn’t exactly what you would call a wild west rodeo, but it was pretty damn close.

The Oaklawn stewards got it right when they did not alter the first two placings in which Hoppertunity outfought Tapiture for a narrow, hard earned win.

The Rebel performances by both horses were highly creditable, each proving that he rates among the elite three year olds of 2014. Tapiture, highly rated in most polls going in, lost the photo but little of his stature.

In the race, Strong Mandate, the eventual fourth place finisher who figured to show more speed than he did in the Southwest, did so. Ride On Curlin, who had the worst of the Southwest wide trips, was committed to the pace after breaking sharply from an inside post.

While those two tested each other up front in cat-and-mouse style, Hoppertunity was sitting in perfect stalking position outside. His trip turned out to be the difference in the final result.

Meanwhile, sitting inside and near the fence, Ricardo Santana Jr., was loaded, waiting for time and opportunity to strike with Tapiture. That chance never came, so Santana made his own opportunity, coming out from behind horses trying to find running room.

What he did was understandable, but bumping a rival out of the way is not allowed. If you're in a jackpot, you're supposed to await a seam to open. But Tapiture got through and began his surge,

Hoppertunity proved a half-length the better horse. Strong Mandate was still hanging in between rivals, trying to re-rally as Hoppertunity continued to grind his way down the center of the wet-fast strip. It was a very dramatic finish, but one that left a bit of a sour taste.

First, one can only suppose what would have happened under dry conditions. That's the trouble with wet tracks; the results come with excuses built in.There was all that bumping going on but the first two finishers did prove they could handle a head to head fight.

What was hard to believe was that not only did Ride On Curlin not hold his ground, coming out to bump Strong Mandate, but under continued left-hand whipping by Kent Desormeaux, started a chain reaction that put Tapiture in very tight quarters, who by this time had secured room to run, but Hoppertunity was bothered, too, albeit to a lesser degree since he was outside.

Not taking punitive action against the first two finishers was the right thing to do. It was rough, but both horses had their chance to win and Hoppertunity was better on the day.

But I don’t understand how Ride On Curlin was not placed behind Strong Mandate.

Trying zealously to win is understandable. But horses are supposed to maintain a straight course. If they don’t, it’s on the rider to help the horse to do so.

Desormeaux never stopped whipping and driving while his mount continued to bear out; it was textbook careless riding.

The victory by Hoppertunity earned him 50 Derby qualifying points, punching his card to the big dance and giving trainer Bob Baffert a record fourth Rebel victory.

The win also strengthened Intense Holiday’s status, since he beat Hoppertunity at the Fair Grounds, and Cairo Prince’s, for defeating Intense Holiday at Gulfstream Park.

Resultantly, there were many shakeups in the Power 10. Honor Code dropped several slots with his second place finish in his season’s debut Wednesday, and Hoppertunity jumped from relative obscurity squarely into the middle of the Derby picture.

Suddenly Southern California-based sophomores occupy three of the top five slots—this week, anyway--and there were two dead heats among HRI’s top 11 Derby candidates..

Sitting on the sidelines had its usual effect, rewarding some while seldom diminishing the status of others. It’s how sports polls usually work: Nothing ventured, something gained.


1. Cairo Prince (36)
2. California Chrome (26)
3. Candy Boy (24)
4-tie Hoppertunity (19)
4-tie Intense Holiday (19)
6. Tapiture (18)
7. Samraat (12)
8. Honor Code (10)
9. Wildcat Red (9)
10-tie General A Rod (8)
10-tie Strong Mandate (8)

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, March 15, 2014

Healthy Centre Court Repeats in Grade 2 Honey Fox; Jenny Wiley Next

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 15, 2014—Trainers being interviewed in the winners’ circle generally smile a lot. Rusty Arnold was not only happy but had to be relieved.

Centre Court was back to defend her Honey Fox title and no one knew exactly what to expect from the filly that hadn’t run since Saratoga. The freshening not only was needed, it was mandatory.

Arnold expected her to run well but “this was a tough spot to bring her back,” he said of the winner of the Grade 2 mile and a sixteenth over a very firm turf course.

The problems began when she ran poorly in the G1 Just A Game on the Belmont Stakes undercard. The course was a bog and the filly never made an impact.

“I thought it was the soft turf, so I ran her back in the Diana and she raced wide. I entered her back again [G2 Ballston Spa] and didn’t run at all. She ended up last year on such a bad run.”

Something had to be wrong, so he sent her to Dr. [Larry] Bramlage and he found the problem, a pulled muscle. “I only wish that I had found the problem sooner,” he said. “Trainer error. We knew she be all right, we just had to give her time.”

And bring her back to one of her favorite grass courses; a win and a strong-finish placing before Saturday’s strong, late running finish, opening enough separation to hold off a flying Kitten’s Point, the finish line coming up just in time.

“Maybe I made her move a touch too early, but she hung on to it,” said winning rider Julien Leparoux. “I had to come a little wide on the second turn but I didn’t want to get her stopped.”

Arnold agreed. “She had to come wide, that was a big run. I know she got tired but when you don’t run in five or six months, that’s expected. She had a reason to get tired.”

It didn’t help her cause when she broke through the gate before the start. “I never had a horse run good who breaks through the gate, and she’s a good gate horse. Julien said she was standing funny and [the assistant starters] tried to move her behind. She just lunged forward, but it worked out all right.”

Last year, Centre Court used her Honey Fox victory as a springboard to the Grade 1 Jenny Wiley at Keeneland. Is she headed that way again?

“That’s the plan. That’s where we want to go.”

“She's a nice filly,” added Leparoux, “a great kick, and the main thing is that she came back good. Hopefully we'll have a good year with her.”

Written by John Pricci

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