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, June 13, 2009


It Doesn’t Take a Genius to Recognize a Unique Thoroughbred


ELMONT, NY, June 12, 2009--All you need to know about the seven year old Einstein, aside from the fact that he’s been considered the leading thoroughbred in America for the past month and a half, you can find in the past performances of three of his last four starts:

May 2nd Churchill Downs: The Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic on the Kentucky Derby undercard: First by a hard fought head.

Mar. 7th Santa Anita: Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap: First by a length.

Nov. 28th Churchill Downs: The Grade 2 Clark Handicap: First by a length and a half.

Already a major winner on three disparate surfaces, what he will attempt today will make history. With a victory in today’s G1 Stephen Foster, he will become the first horse ever to sweep three Grade 1 races on different surfaces in the same year: artificial, turf and dirt.

In any other year, this singular distinction might make him an odds-on choice to capture a Horse of the Year title. But this is no ordinary season, especially when the competition looming on the horizon is of the female persuasion.

Rachel Alexander, if she stays within her division and wins out the rest of the year, coupled with her Preakness Stakes victory, would make a most compelling case for the ultimate honor.

So would Zenyatta, should she remain undefeated and stretch that achievement to 14 straight victories in major competition, surpassing Hall of Famer Personal Ensign.

Isn’t it amazing how difficult this game can be? Maybe that’s why most true thoroughbred racing fans stay engaged their entire lives.

In last year’s Foster, Einstein finished second to a horse named Curlin. In 2008, Einstein also was winning his first of two Turf Classics. Somehow calling him honest does him a disservice. A very cool horse would be more like it.

Further, to say that Helen Pitts-Blasi does a good job with him would also be to understate the case. She has managed his career through a remarkable (25) 11-3-2 lifetime campaign with winnings of over $2.6 million, most of it earned the hard way.

Turf probably is his best game, as his 7-for-17 record suggests, although he is 1-for-1 on Polytrack and 2-for-3 with one placing on the Churchill Downs main track. He is 3-for-5 beneath today’s rider, Julien Leparoux.

No Grade 1 is ever easy and, while there are no household names in today’s cast, there are some accomplished hard hitters in the group. On performance figures, Einstein is not especially fast, he just wants to beat you, doing whatever it takes to win.

Finallymadeit (8-1) is at least as fast as today’s 124-pound highweight who’s spotting from two to 11 pounds to his rivals. The Florida-based five year old finished ahead of Einstein when second in the G1 Donn Handicap. Given his speed and heart, he always takes some beating.

Fastest on performance figures is the gelded five-year-old Researcher (4-1), fresh off a victory in the Charles Town Classic and the winner of half his eight starts at today’s nine furlongs, with three seconds.

Asiatic Boy, a major Group winner in Europe and Dubai, is the overnight second choice (7-2) and debuts for the Kiaran McLaughlin-Alan Garcia team. A winner of over $3-million via a 7-for-15 lifetime mark, he’s won two of three at the distance and makes his first start with Lasix off a strong Belmont Park workline.

And then there’s the somewhat enigmatic four year old, Macho Man (10-1), who’s won half his four starts at Churchill and is 2-for-5 at today’s trip. He attracts Robby Albarado and has been working bullets at the Louisville track.

In his last start, Churchill’s G3 Alysheba, Macho Man raced extremely wide on the turn and into the stretch, losing any chance. That trip made sense if it was an intended prep for today‘s Grade 1.

But Einstein (2-1) does want to beat you and he probably will never have a better opportunity to win a G1 on the main track, Churchill being his preferred dirt surface. He couldn’t be coming up to the race any better, especially considering that Pitts-Blasi is a profitable 27 percent efficient with her turf-to-dirt runners.

Post time for the Stephen Foster is slated for 5:29 PM EDT and is one of five graded stakes on the program, featuring an all-stakes Pick Four.

Why a 50-Cent All-Graded-Stakes Pick Five is not being offered admittedly is way above my pay grade..

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, June 11, 2009


The Romancing of a Crown


ELMONT, NY, June 7, 2009--Maybe it was their youth, or the lack of what big-market snobs might call sophistication. But, in any case, Chip Woolley and Tim Ice were a very welcome addition to the Triple Crown trail.

Self effacement isn’t in the playbook of what one HRI reader referred to as hair-sprayed trainers with a mega-stable. Another fan commented it truly was the Triple Crown of the little guy, correctly crediting Hal Wiggins with Rachel Alexandra’s Preakness victory.

Not only was the humility of Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winning trainers forever on display but so too was their loyalty. Only until after repetitious media questioning did Woolley allow slip that Calvin Borel’s Belmont ride was less than satisfactory.

“We just got beat, outrun,” Woolley said over and over, as if he knew no one was buying it. “I managed to get him beat twice at Sunland Park,” the analogy went, but no one was swallowing that one, either.

Calvin Borel was given all the time he needed by Woolley to await the Belmont decision of Rachel Alexandra’s people because, he said: “I owe him; he won me a Derby.” And on the morning after the Belmont Stakes he doggedly refused to toss Borel under a yellow cab.

Didn’t Woolley think the inside was the best part of the drying surface last Saturday? “We were pretty busy around here and I only saw a couple of races.”

Finally, only after more questioning about the rail path being the best part of Saturday’s surface, he allowed this: “Probably so.”

And, now, the perceived premature move? “The early move killed him.”

It took persistence but Woolley conceded what most objective observers were thinking, before permitting himself to wax on the whole experience: “This has been great. [The five weeks] flew by. I’ve really enjoyed it because I may never be in this position again.”

Any regrets regarding the Preakness placing and his third place Belmont finish? “He ran in all three and showed up every time. [If I had to] give up the other two, I much rather win the Derby.”

Don't you just love it when political correctness finishes a bad second to candor?

Woolley then reminded his questioners that Mine That Bird also is a multiple winner over a synthetic surface, so the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Pro Ride is the new goal.

And so Woolley will point his gelding to the Classic and work backward from there in seeking the best route to So Cal. He‘ll consider “all the races you already know.”

He then was asked to volunteer an opinion on various state of the game issues. On changing the Triple Crown: “Who am I to argue with Wayne Lukas?”

On New York racing and slots revenue: “New Mexico only has 1.5 million people and they handle one-hundred million a year on slots. Imagine what they could do here? They could fix all the potholes. I can’t understand why any state would allow money to cross its borders.”

And the game itself: “My biggest thrill in racing [as a fan] was watching Holy Bull win the Blue Grass at Keeneland. Horses need to come back and be the star of the show.”

At 35, the trainer of Summer Bird, Tim Ice, is 10 years younger than Woolley and has been training on his own for all of 13 months. But his father trained horses and he’s been around them since he was 13. It was something he needed to do, and it shows.

In this short period Ice has become responsible for 25 head, about half belonging to Drs. Kalarikkal and Vilasini Jayaraman, the owner/breeders of Summer Bird.

Ice has toiled in the relative obscurity of Louisiana Downs but that all changed in a little more that 2 minutes, 27 seconds last Saturday. Next year he’d like to move his operation to the northeast, perhaps to Delaware Park, maybe even New York.

At no time Sunday morning was there a sense from Ice what he just 13 hours earlier, except for a cell phone that had been ringing incessantly from 4:30 AM with congratulatory messages.

So, then, how did he celebrate his 35th birthday and winning the Belmont Stakes on the same day. “I was here [barn 12-A at Belmont Park] until 10 o’clock then went back to the hotel.”

The most significant day of his young life, however, might have been January 29, the day Summer Bird arrived at his Louisiana Downs barn from California. “I have to thank ‘Dr. Jay’ for sending him to me and giving me this opportunity.”

Consider that debt paid in full.

And the confidence showed by the owners already has paid dividends. Even before Summer Bird won the Belmont Stakes two owners approached him and asked Ice to train their horses. But it remained all about the horse.

“From the first day, [Summer Bird] acted very classy. John Sadler had him in California and thought he was a nice colt. He had trained very well out there so now the Breeders’ Cup is in our thinking.”

And so is Saratoga. “Originally, we were thinking about the Secretariat Stakes [Grade 1 on turf for three-year-olds] but after yesterday I’m not so sure.

“People tell me you have to go to two places, Del Mar and Saratoga,” said Ice. “I’ve been to Del Mar, and to take a horse like this and go to Saratoga would be amazing.

Ice will get there via the Jersey Turnpike. Next up will be the $1-million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park then, if all goes well, the Travers.

“This whole thing was unbelievable. Watching the horse come down the stretch was like an out-of-body experience.”

And, so, the 135th Derby winner arrived at Churchill Downs in the back of a old pickup and wound up on the cover of Sports Illustrated. A 35-year-old trainer made his bones testing a champion. A filly dropped out of the sky to win a Preakness and do a photo shoot for another female who always gets her way, Anna Wintour. America had a love affair with a selfless, two-legged athlete and a stud horse became a superstar with his very first foal crop. What could have been better?

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Quality Rival Awaits Saratoga


ELMONT, NY, June 7, 2009--Inside Barn 56 at Belmont Park, hard by the training track, Jimmy Jerkens was sitting on the other end of a shank while a blacksmith applied a new set of shoes.

It was now about 40 minutes since he was applying a curry comb to a horse called Shine Upon.

“It’s busy this morning. If you want to talk you’ll have to come over here,” Jerkens said.

No worries, even if the hour was approaching 11 AM, late in a racetracker’s work day. But there were still chores to be done, especially if you’re a hands-on horseman, one who learned from one of the very best.

Meanwhile, around the corner and three stalls down, Quality Road was having his feet done up by groom Greg Fredericks.

“He’s getting to be a little bit of a handful now, getting rank. He wants to do something,” Fredericks said. “I think he’s gonna’ breeze real soon.

“I‘ve been doing this for 20 years and never had a horse pop one on me before. Finally, I get a horse like this, and he pops two,” said Fredericks, who by this time was applying the first of two tall standing bandages to the colt‘s hind legs.

The Florida Derby champion is still licking his wounds after popping two quarter cracks in preparation for the Kentucky Derby. Saturday was Belmont day and, instead, the division’s protem leader in March was in his stall and missing the entire Triple Crown series.

Was Jerkens a little disappointed when he saw the horse his colt turned away in the Florida Derby, Dunkirk, come again to save the place in the Belmont Stakes, outfinishing Derby hero Mine That Bird?

“Not really, what can you do? All three horses ran great--and you couldn’t do any better than those three races. These [three-year-olds] are a lot better than people want to give them credit for.”

For those unfamiliar with Jerkens, or his legendary Hall of Fame father, H. Allen Jerkens, the word that would best describe them both is phlegmatic.

They neither get too high nor too low, allowing for an occasional smile when most trainers would be over the moon. At times they speak so softly you have to strain to hear them. But they always have something to say.

“He’s healing real good under the patch,” he said. “We had him re-patched and re-shod yesterday. He’s galloping again, anyway. He may breeze real soon.”

The irony that he was re-patched and shod on the morning of the Belmont Stakes was lost on no one. And, in a perfect world, what to do from this point forward?
“We hope to have him ready for the Jim Dandy.”

But having a horse racing fit and ready to take on the division’s best is another matter. Is Jerkens concerned that the other three-year-olds could surpass Quality Road in physical development and maturity?

“You see it every year,” he said. “It‘s what happens with these young horses.”

I went back around the corner to take another look at Quality Road before leaving. By now he was almost done up in all fours, continuing to stand quietly, an intelligent, good patient, as laid back as his handlers.

The athletic barrel so prominent in the Florida Derby walking ring was still there but appeared less defined. Certainly nothing that a little exercise couldn’t cure. Providing, of course, the healing process continues unabated.

Should he make it all the way back--to the same colt that was on display last fall in New York and this winter in Florida--he promises to make racing’s second season very interesting.

Quality Road’s style gives him a tactical edge over his main rivals, one that also makes him a serious challenger to the Preakness winning filly, Rachel Alexandra, should she venture back into open competition against males.

“But we can’t have any setbacks from here on,” Jimmy Jerkens said.

The next morning, Fredericks got his wish, the colt got some exercise, and Jerkens got an idea how the new patch is holding up. Barely a lung opener, he worked three-eighths of a mile in :38.83, breezing. Hopefully, it was a good first step back.

Written by John Pricci

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