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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Friday, April 10, 2009


Mullins Case Has Messengers Shooting Messengers


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 9,2009--I must admit something up front. I don’t have any sympathy for the trainer of the protem favorite for Kentucky Derby 135. How am I supposed to regard someone in the same business who refers to me as an idiot because I bet on the outcome of horse races?

Jeff Mullins said he made an “innocent mistake” because he didn’t know the rules regarding New York’s detention barn, meaning that he hasn’t read a trade paper, magazine, blog or the rules of racing for each jurisdiction in which he races.

But I certainly hope he’s aware that horseplayer dollars make the mares, and the horses go, too. Since, in that context, I make a contribution to his livelihood by helping to provide for purse money and, it should be noted, have put more than my fair share of children through school, I resent being called stupid.

Of interest to me is how some of the Internet media has lined up on the issue of Mullins’ entering the NYRA detention barn to administer an item sold in many tack shops around the country for $12 and which, by definition, is not a banned substance.

Internet media reaction has run the gamut from throw-the-book-at-Mullins to Kool-Aid-spewing apologies, arguing that the media shouldn’t complain about racing getting bad press when it’s the press who are fanning the flames, especially during a high profile season, for that would do more harm than good.

Let’s assume for a moment that the latter stance is correct. Then who is supposed to speak for horseplayers and the public at large?

Here’s my question: Would it be unreasonable to expect that the men and women who care for the animals on which I bet, and who guide the destiny of their horses and mine, to know the rules?

Forgive me, but I don’t I don’t think so.

The product that Mullins was allegedly going to give Gato Go Win, called “Air Power,” is described as a “horse cough medicine.” But that’s where it begins to get fuzzy for me. If a horse has a “cough,” should it be racing? And aren’t the chances good that the rest of the barn would be coughing, too?

In an advertisement for the product that appears on Equidaily.com, there is an illustration showing that Michael Matz of Barbaro fame uses and endorses the product. And Matz has no history of medication violations, unlike Mullins.

Last year Mullins received a “mepivacaine” violation and in 2005 one of his horses failed a pre-race blood test when excess amounts of sodium bicarbonate was found in one of his horses. This mixture, euphemistically called a “milkshake,” is universally banned because it‘s suspected to act as a masking agent and artificially prevents horses from tiring quickly.

New York racing rules allow for the use antibiotics, vitamins, electrolytes and food supplements, as long as they are administered orally and do not contain any drug or any properties acting as such.

The rules also state that medication may not be given to a horse while it is in the detention barn. That in part is why Mullins has hired defense attorney Karen Murphy who owns an excellent record defending horsemen in previous cases against the NYRA, as was the case some years ago involving Dr. Michael Galvin.

“We feel that this substance isn’t something that should be used on race day. We view it as having drug-like properties,” Joe Mahoney, Public Information Director for the State Racing and Wagering Board, told HRI yesterday in a phone interview.

“The [apparatus] used to administer the substance has been sent to the laboratory at Cornell. It could take weeks before this issue is resolved. We’re still gathering information. We want to be complete and thorough, that’s our number one obligation.

“As far as what [Mullins] told the media [in printed reports regarding a search prior to his entering the detention barn], it’s in conflict with the information we’re receiving from the association. It wasn’t in plain view.

“But, at the end of the day, the detention barn procedure worked.”

In a Thoroughbred Times post yesterday, Steve Blanchard, vice president of sales and marketing for Finish Line Horse, the maker of “Air Power,” said that Jeff Mullins misused his company’s product when the trainer administered Air Power in the detention barn to a horse about to race.

“My position is to train all of our employees in presentation and explanation of all our products,” Blanchard told T.T. “They have all been trained that you tell trainers not to bring our product into a detention barn. I do believe that even without our direction, all trainers know that.”

So, while it is true that not every rules violation is “cheating,” and that the racing media must explain the difference between the two to those who don't follow the sport regularly except for racing’s high profile events, neither should we knee-jerk into a defensive posture when incidents like the Mullins case occurs.

The racing industry, like politicians, uses the media when it’s to their benefit. At times like these the media is a double-edged sword. This story and, more so, the Paragallo case, has drawn swift reaction from racing’s regulators. This is a good thing: Acknowledge the problem; work to fix it.

But like it or not, it’s the media’s job to police the police. It’s the public’s job to police both. Perceptions notwithstanding, the media does want to be fair. All it needs is a good reason.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, April 04, 2009


Can the First Saturday in May Come Soon Enough?


SOUTH OZONE PARK, NY, April 4, 2009--After The Pamplemousse was scratched from the Santa Anita Derby, the Big Three became the Big Two. At Aqueduct, meanwhile, all were looking forward to a battle among the Big Two and a Half (West Side Bernie).

Then, of course, there was the Big-I-Don’t-Know at Hawthorne Race Course, which seems appropriate for a track located just outside Cicero, Illinois. Wonder if post positions are drawn by lot there or whether some other arrangement could be made, say, pay-for-play?

Another story for another indictment.

The scratch of The Pamplemousse didn’t exactly come as a surprise to those in the know. Sort of:

Interviewed by Santa Anita publicists this week, these trainers had the following comments: Mike Machowsky said: “I haven’t been impressed with the way The Pamplemousse has been training. Said Greg Gilchrist: “I’ve heard stories that The Pamplemousse is not doing well. I don’t know. That’s just the story I heard.”

But, then, there were these. From Hector Palma: “I like The Pamplemousse. He’s been training well.” Cliff Size Jr. said: “Julio’s horse [The Pamplemousse] looked good.” And from Eddie Truman: “I watched all three work Tuesday. They all looked good.”

That’s the racetrack for you. Can’t know for sure who you’re supposed to believe.

But apparently, Canani believed examining veterinarian Dr. Jill Bailey, who “pointed out an issue to Julio,” according to Dr. Rick Arthur, medical director to the California Horse Racing Board.

After the “issue” was confirmed by Canani’s vet, Dr. Helmuth Von Bluecher, they determined that “there were further diagnostics to do,” a decision was made to scratch.

Apparently, no one wanted to talk about the big old knot The Pamplemousse has on one of his tendons, the same tendon that other vets failed to pass when several offers were made previously to purchase the horse.

All the speed horses don’t need the lead to be at their best and all the horses are doing great.

And you thought obfuscation was the exclusive province of politicians, perhaps?

Canani was not available for comment prior to this post and indicated that the horse was still being pointed toward the Kentucky Derby. He has $180,000 in graded earnings.

Even if “further diagnostics” determine this was all much ado about nothing, the incident couldn’t have come at a worse time. Is there time to recover and ship to Keeneland or Oaklawn next week for the Blue Grass or Arkansas Derby?

Or maybe a week later for the Lexington Stakes? Or Canani could train The Pamplemousse up to the Derby. Or there’s a release forthcoming that says the horse has been retired and will stand at stud at XYZ Farm.

And so it goes in the seven-figure world of Triple Crown racing.

* * *

Whenever a horse explodes to victory, the racetrackers say “he freaked.” They also use that term when a horse just seems to sometimes defy logic, only they say the horse IS a freak.

Is that I Want Revenge? A dirt freak?

He might not be that but it’s clear he’s a damn good horse.

Because you don’t switch surfaces again--though it was inner dirt to outer dirt--stretch out, get left at the post, bumped in the stretch, come through a narrow opening with a burst of speed, finishing up the final furlong in less than :12 seconds going 9 furlongs.

Wow!

He missed the break, unprepared because he was distracted by another horse, jockey Joe Talamo said, adding that it might have been a blessing since he relaxed nicely going down the backstretch.

Then, showing maturity beyond his years, he didn’t rattle when caught behind a world of horses, got a break when Atomic Rain actually bumped him toward the hole he eventually went through, before ultimately setting sail for the wire, winning more cleverly than he had a right to under the circumstances. Reiterating, a good racehorse.

West Side Bernie improved as expected, apparently happy to return to sand and loam after a failed return to Turfway Park, finishing strongly for the place but never placing the winner in danger.

In terms of the big one in four weeks, ‘Revenge’s’ people must be happy to know their horse is talented, supremely versatile, at gutsy.

* * *

The scratch of The Pamplemousse changed the dynamics of the Santa Anita Derby, though not completely, since it was front end positioning that would determine the outcome.

With a soft pace on early, Garrett Gomez would not be fooled, and neither would his colt, despite clipping heels early on.

And so Gomez rode his San Felipe back, making a mid-race move for the lead, maintaining his position, then withstanding stretch challenges, mostly from Chocolate Candy who flew down the center of the course but, like West Side Bernie in the Wood, never placed the leader in ultimate danger.

Super Saturday was formful with three logical winners, all doing as expected, including Musket Man and Giant Oak in Illinois. But two continued to show high class, and one was exceptional.

Two more big preps next week. If they’re anything like this weekend’s, May 2nd can’t come soon enough.

Written by John Pricci

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Derby Trail Goes Cross Country; Value Available


SOUTH OZONE PARK, NY, April 3, 2009--Four colts from HorseRaceInsider’s Kentucky Derby Power Ten will be in action on both coasts this weekend while in Cicero, Illinois, 11 more three-year-olds will try to give their connections a chance to go for racing’s brass ring.

I Want Revenge, blowout winner of the Gotham, drew the rail and was installed the 4-5 early line favorite in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct Race Track.

Imperial Council, the Gotham runnerup, looms the main rival as the 2-1 second choice from post six.

In Southern California, the Santa Anita Derby has drawn three colts that have accounted for the last nine major preps for Derby-aged runners. Speedster The Pamplemousse was installed a slight favorite (9-5) over budding rival Pioneerof The Nile (2-1).

Chocolate Candy, who made his bones in Northern California, drew the rail and is the early line third choice at 6-1.

In the Midwest, Tampa Derby winner Musket Man will try to improve his lifetime mark to five wins in six starts as second favorite Giant Oak attempts to regain some of the reputation he’s lost in what has been a disappointing campaign thus far.

All three races are at 9 furlongs. The Illinois Derby is a Grade 2; the Santa Anita Derby and Wood are both Grade 1.

For all, it will be the ultimate prep before answering the Churchill Downs’ starter’s call at 6 o’clock on the first Saturday in May.

Today the scores can really change. The only remaining significant preps are next weekend when Keeneland plays host to the storied Blue Grass Stakes and Oaklawn Park presents the Arkansas Derby.

With the possible exception of the Lexington the following weekend, all that remains is the waiting.

It has been a good prep season for a collection of the three year olds that has its share of top class runners. I Want Revenge loves dirt, has worked very well since the Gotham, and will debut in silks of Sheikh Iavarone’s IEAH consortium which recently acquired a half interest.

All he needs is to run the Gotham back to go into Louisville as one of Derby 135’s prime contenders and he had better, too, since he figures to get a serious challenge from Imperial Council.

The Shug McGaughey trainee figures to benefit from the added sixteenth of a mile, bigger main track circumference, and reunites with regular rider Edgar Prado.

The Santa Anita Derby, however, is providing a lot more drama which, considering the locale, makes sense. The camps associated with the two favorites are beginning to talk a little smack.

The tension heightened a bit when Zayat Stable shipped a “rabbit” cross country to keep the pace honest, fearing The Pamplemousse would get loose on an easy lead.

The Pamplemousse and “The Nile,” as he’s called around the barn, are each riding three-race win streaks with the former having an advantage of a win at the distance in the G3 Sham.

Chocolate Candy, meanwhile, has won both his starts at 3 and four of his last five, the latest being a 9-furlong score in the G3 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields.

In Illinois, Musket Man, the field’s only graded stakes winner, gets a new, name-brand rider in Eibar Coa--as if anything were wrong with Daniel Centeno--as does second choice Giant Oak.

Shaun Bridgmohan will try to change the karma for the Chris Block colt who suffered through a horrible trip in the G3 Risen Star then caught slop in the G2 Louisiana Derby.

The track likely will be fast in all locations, with precipitation anticipated in New York Friday but clearing today with winds, gusting to 40 m.p.h. at times, drying the track nicely.

It’s expected to be sunny in both Cicero and Arcadia this afternoon.

Making money on these races is challenging but worth the effort. The Wood appears a two-horse race; the Santa Anita Derby has three deserving headliners, and although there are two likely choices in Illinois, that Derby is a lot more open than the other bellwether preps.

In New York, the result is a foregone conclusion should I Want Revenge (4-5) run back to his Gotham performance figure. Normally, you would expect a regression with such a huge improvement, but that kind of development is common with spring three-year-olds.

Imperial Council (2-1) is developing quite nicely at 3. His winning debut at Gulfstream came replete with a New Pace Top on the Equiform scale and his Gotham was a reversal, distributing his energy much later in the race. He appears to be sitting on a big race.

West Side Bernie (6-1), awful at Turfway Park last out, returns to a dirt surface and ran very well at today’s distance two back at Gulfstream. At early line odds and reuniting with Stewart Elliott, aboard for his last win at 2, Bernie’s an interesting price shot.

In the Midwest, as stated, Musket Man (7-2) and Giant Oak (9-2) more than have a license. Musket Man is handier and has won over three different tracks in his five-race career. He also owns, on balance, the best performance figures.

Giant Oak (9-2) is ripe for a turnaround. The poor trip and wet track compromised him for sure, now he stretches out with a suitable pedigree, gets the rider switch and trainer Block is 23 percent efficient in third start following a layoff.

After impressing with a Gulfstream win at this distance, Free Country (6-1) never seemed comfortable at Tampa Bay, then caught slop in New Orleans. Ken McPeek, profitable with shippers, removes the blinkers after sharpening his speed and switches to talented local Eddie Razo Jr. A wake-up effort at fair odds is a distinct possibility.

Out West, Chocolate Candy would need a career best effort to beat either of the favorites, but an interesting price play is Take The Points (10-1). He made a good run in his Pro Ride debut, chasing lone speed The Pamplemousse in the Sham and holding fairly well.

Owning tactical speed and kick, Pletcher trainee seems to prefer running at a target. Coming off a New Pace Top, he figures to move forward.

Written by John Pricci

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