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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Wednesday, May 07, 2008


Remembering Hall of Famer Frank Whiteley and the Legendary Ruffian


If asked, any turf writer will tell you that one of the best parts of his job--cashing a bet and eating lunch notwithstanding--is time spent in the mornings, before the afternoon’s parimutuel blood-letting.

On those occasions, you try to show up at the barn about 10 a.m., after training hours and before the barn phone starts ringing off the hook--the worst part of a trainer‘s job. By comparison, training horses is a lot easier than cooling out owners.

And so you’d greet your subject: “how are you, Bill,” “hey Nick,” “good morning, Shug.” Dealing with the media is all a big part of it now. Some successful of trainers even have their own publicists. A good idea for some things, but you can‘t look a press release in the eye.

Back in the day you were a little more formal, something like, “good morning, Mr. Whittingham,” “Could I have five minutes Mr. Gaver?” Anything less and you ran the risk of being chased out of the shed with a pitchfork-bearing horseman in close pursuit.

Last week, in the run-up to Kentucky Derby, the sport lost a great horseman. Frank Whiteley Jr. was gone, succumbed at his home in Camden, South Carolina, where he wintered every year getting the babies and the lay-ups ready. He rarely arrived in New York prior to the Belmont Park spring/summer meet.

To me, he was always Mr. Whiteley. I never could run very fast.

You never went to the Whiteley barn to pass the time of day, not like talking KU hoops with Shug, or the other Wildcats with Todd, or the Yankees with Nick. Whiteley just didn’t have, or want to make, the time.

Frank Whiteley was all business all the time. He could spin a yarn if he were in the mood, which was seldom. His stories usually went better over a cocktails but he didn‘t socialize much, especially with writers. I think his son David, a talented horse trainer himself, inherited some of that, sans charm.

Whiteley was a great horseman and has Hall of Fame credentials to prove it. Besides, no one goes around calling someone the “Fox of Laurel,” or anywhere else, for that matter, unless you were crazy like one, and took the time to cover all the angles.

I remember making the walk-over from the Whiteley barn to Belmont Park’s paddock for the Coaching Club American Oaks with Ruffian. No one knew then it would be her last race. At the time, her ill-fated match with Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure was not even on the drawing board.

Her main rival was a real comer, a late developing King Ranch filly called Equal Change. If Ruffian was big black and beautiful, Equal Change was a scopey, powerful and chestnut, I recall.

From the once powerful string of Robert Kleberg, whose family owned a significant piece of Texas, Equal Change was fresh with a pedigree suited to the mile and a half. This would be no automatic coronation of a New York filly triple crown winner.

An announcement came over the speaker system on the Belmont backstretch, like it did for every race: “Bring your horses over for the eighth race.” No one at the Whiteley barn was in any particular hurry. I asked Frank Tours, press liaison between the racing office and the horseman, what gives?

“Frank wants to get to the paddock last.”

“Why?”

“The filly’s high strung and you don’t want them in front of a big crowd too long. It’s an advantage to spend as little time around all those people as possible. Besides, she’s the star, and Frank knows it.”

With entourage in tow, Ruffian walked through the tunnel and up a slight incline toward the paddock. Having reached that point, Whiteley waited a minute before crossing over into the approach to the walking ring, the area adjacent to the present racing secretary’s office.

Ruffian’s handlers stopped right there so that the filly could survey the landscape, her ears signaling, before finally entering the ring. Whiteley, who once bragged he never read Preston Burch’s primer on training, covered all the bases.

Equal Change made a strong late run from the middle of Belmont’s sweeping far turn, loomed a possible upsetter approaching midstretch, but Ruffian held her safe. No filly ever finished in front of her.

Whiteley kept her in a jam-packed winners’ circle only long enough to take a picture before having her whisked back to the barn, making only the mandatory stop at the spit barn for post-race tests.

I never spent too much time around Whiteley, not that he’d allow, and neither did any of my contemporaries, for that matter. I can say only that actor Sam Shepard, a horseman himself, gave a good portrayal of Whiteley’s no-nonsense attitude in last year’s made-for-TV movie on Ruffian.

Acknowledging that he had much to work with, Whiteley took over the training of the six-year-old Forego and earned a third consecutive Horse of the Year title for Mrs. Gerry’s gelding. Forego won another championship at 7, but Horse of the Year went to then undefeated Triple Crown champion, Seattle Slew.

Whiteley won about every storied event worth winning: the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Travers, Wood, Woodward, an unforgettable Brooklyn with Damascus, Carter, Marlboro Cup, Metropolitan Mile, a Preakness with Tom Rolfe, and the Belmont Stakes.

A handful of self taught horsemen are born with the ability to be recognized among the sport’s best of all time. But there’s only one Frank Whiteley.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, April 26, 2008


Big Brown Tops Powerful Pool 1 Futures Entry


Until the industry comes up with a better solution to the Kentucky Derby future book wagering scenario--namely to include a significantly greater number of horses--Pool 1 remains the only way to go.

Of course, value is in the eye of the beholder, and there were some bargains still available in Pools 2 or 3. But the bad news is that it probably would have taken a clunker of a race by a major contender to make its price appealing.

Think you might have gotten better than 5-1 on Pyro had his Blue Grass been run before Pool 3?
Under the present guidelines, had you taken the field--traditionally the favorite or near-favorite at the end of Pool 1 wagering--next Saturday you’d be sitting with, among others, a field-entry of Big Brown, Gayego, Recapturetheglory, Adriano, Cool Coal Man, Big Truck, Behindatthebar and the filly, Eight Belles.

If Rick Dutrow keeps his word, you’d be lucky to get 3-1 standing alone with Big Brown.

Off his strong, wide-both-turns placing in the Arkansas Derby, it’s unlikely 37-1 will be offered on Z Fortune at the Downs or anywhere else on Saturday.

Even if horseplayers or casual fans have serious concerns about whether early second choice Colonel John will handle the Churchill dirt, I don’t believe 19-1 will be readily available.

Anyone who saw Tale Of Ekati’s five furlongs in 1:00.40 at Keeneland April 23rd will get in line early to collect 33-1 on the winner of the Grade 1 Wood Memorial.

No Prado? No problem. Eibar Coa is 2-for-3 on Barclay Tagg’s three-year-old.

The Denis Of Cork people clearly overplayed their hand and consequently might not make it into the gate but, if he does, his ability and fondness for the Churchill surface would make 46-1 look like a gift-horse, Illinois Derby and all.

And while many fans doubt whether the fast, ultra-consistent Smooth Air can carry his ability the entire trip, all would line up to find out at 159-1. At least they should be, off his key-race Florida Derby placing alone.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, April 24, 2008


More Spin Than Hillary’s War Room


The racing business is no different than any other that’s built on spin.

I bring this up because on Monday, shortly after it was announced he would be inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame, jockey Edgar Prado explained to reporter Tim Wilkin why he committed to ride Adriano in the Kentucky Derby for trainer Graham Motion.

Loyalty.

Motion and Prado made their bones on the Maryland circuit and have enjoyed a highly successful relationship for many years. So after he rode Adriano to victory in the Grade 2 Lane’s End Stakes, Motion asked for a Derby commitment and got it.

Then what was all the jive about how Adriano’s April 13 workout at Churchill Downs--as opposed to the colt’s demonstrated success on Polytrack and turf--would be the deciding factor for Prado?

When the rider committed to Motion, he had yet to win the Wood Memorial aboard Tale Of Ekati or the Blue Grass Stakes on Monba. The Lane’s End was run March 22nd. The other two races weren’t run until April.

When exactly Prado got the calls from Barclay Tagg and Todd Pletcher, respectively, to ride in the Wood and Blue Grass is anyone’s guess. And it won’t do any good to ask now.

In all likelihood, the workout had nothing to do with Prado’s decision because had Tagg and Pletcher realized they wouldn’t necessarily get Prado back for the Derby, they might have gotten different Wood and Blue Grass jockeys.

The double-edge sword there is that Prado might not have had the chance to earn his 10 percent of two purses worth a combined $1.5-million. But who’s to say that Tale Of Ekati and Monba would have won their close Grade 1 finishes without Edgar’s Hall of Fame services?

Racing’s a funny business.

Perhaps turf writers only have themselves to blame when things come up different than originally presented.

Later in the Wilkin interview, Prado said: “At the time, we didn’t know how the other horses were going to run. I think [Adriano] has a chance. We’ll have to wait and see.”

Not exactly the vote of confidence Adriano fans were looking for. But maybe the good karma that loyalty engenders will compensate.

Guess you can’t believe everything you read. Not even when you write it.

Written by John Pricci

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