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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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Race Riding or Reckless Riding, That Is the Question

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 27, 2009--The news that jockey Jaime Theriot would appeal a 30-day suspension meted out by the Illinois Racing Board for his role in an accident that left Rene Douglas partially paralyzed in a Chicago hospital was inevitable.

Thirty days, as opposed to the usual seven given for careless riding. Is the larger penalty supposed to represent justice for an accident that barring a miracle has changed a man’s life forever?

Is 30 days enough if Theriot was careless to the point of recklessness? Is a thousand thirty days enough? If what the doctors fear is true, is it just that Theriot goes back to work at all?

Pity that any suspension was levied out without a full hearing. And had Theriot not filed an appeal, there would have been no hearing. Theriot would just have to live with the knowledge of his actions; Douglas would have to live with the consequences.

Does the longer suspension mean that Theriot was reckless when he sought running room with a raging mount? Or was he just race riding, just trying his best to win?
Three weeks ago, the sports world went gaga when Calvin Borel literally scraped paint in midstretch, squeezing tightly between a rival and the fence to win the Kentucky Derby.

What if, at the instant Borel threaded his mount between another rival and the fence, his rival lugged in? Mine That Bird might not be alive today, much less trying to win a second jewel. For that matter, neither might Borel and his dream of a personal trifecta.

Had there been a Derby incident, would Borel’s tactics been viewed as reckless? But get through he did, becoming a national sports hero courted by both Leno and Letterman.

Race riding is dangerous business. It’s why these underappreciated athletes earn big money--20 percent of them, anyway--while the rest labor in the shadows cast by the game’s stars simply trying to support themselves and their families.

Jockeys talk about the danger of the profession all the time and in the same fashion. They acknowledge danger as part of the business but they don’t think about it. If they did they wouldn’t be able to do the job.

A jockey’s livelihood demands split-second decisions and taking risks. You hear the apt quote regarding their job description all the time: Jockeys are the only athletes followed by an ambulance while they’re working.

A good point was made this week that what Theriot did is something that occurs many times every racing day. Horses get steadied and checked all the time, only this time it resulted in an accident.

The question remains: race-riding or recklessness?

Parenthetically, in New York right now, a relatively new jockey on the circuit has been so reckless that the rider was approached by a present and future Hall of Famer who proffered advice. Their attempt at a heads-up was summarily and rudely rejected.

The same sources informed HRI that the rider in question dangerously rail-rode Rajiv Maragh in a recent Belmont Park race. Hopefully, the stewards there will investigate the matter before something untoward occurs or a messenger is shot.

The 30-day suspension has pinned a guilty sign on Theriot’s back without benefit of a full investigation that goes with the appeals process.

If transparency truly existed and stewards were made to submit full written reports in the commission of their duties, all might have a better understanding of what happened last weekend and what punishment, if any, is appropriate.

Theriot’s career recently had taken off. No one knows what effect Saturday’s incident will have on his professional future. Or how living with the knowledge of what happened in the 2009 Arlington Matron Handicap will affect him personally.

Bumping incidents happen dozens of times a day, but the majority are ignored, no inquiry is posted, no objection lodged. No physical harm, no outcome altered, no foul. It never happened.

Just as racetrackers must admit when an otherwise sound horse takes a bad step resulting in tragedy that it’s part of the game, so, too, is what happened to Rene Douglas, only on a larger, human scale.

So it’s very important that people know whether Theriot was race riding or being reckless. Either way, the 30-day ban isn’t tough love and doesn’t send a message. Justice was not served by this ad hoc decision and neither was it good public relations.

There might be extenuating circumstances that makes sense of all this, but since there are no uniform standards, no mandated transparency, rule-makers will continue making things up as they go, even in an over-regulated industry.

Until the results of the hearing are known, the 30-day suspension by the Illinois Racing Board is the collective action of judge, jury and executioner before the fact. And how does that do anyone involved in this sad situation any good?

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bo Derek, Move Over

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 23, 2009--Sorry Mommy. I should have respected you more. And it will never happen again.

Bettors who were thinking of taking advantage of the prevailing conditions in yesterday's Grade 2 Milady Handicap at Hollywood Park, taking a sharp, improving four-year-old with a rider seeking his third Eclipse Award, over a mare making her first start in seven months under a steadying 126 pounds, must have forgotten just how wondrous she is.

Zenyatta won the mile and a sixteenth two turner comprehesively despite some anxious moments at the half mile pole when her rider, Mike Smith, tried to go inside of one horse. It's first first thing you learn when you still have the bug: Go around one, inside of two.

Smith, forced to steady, recovered quickly, rallied up outside her vaunted stablemate, Life Is Sweet, the momentun carrting her five wide into the Holly Park stretch. Under a vigorous hand ride, she opened ground effortless as her main rival ducked to the inside. But the saving of ground and the four-pound weight pull were hardly enough. She won geared down and with her ears pricking, looking for more competition.

John Shirreffs not only had her ready but the mare looked absolutely great. Even watching the television monitor, her coat was radiating good health and condition, and she won in the same style her fans have become accostomed to: Circle them when ready and draw away. She she begins to roll, there is not a mare that can rally from behind her and catch up. A truly remarkable mare.

In winning her 10th straight without defeat, she now needs three victories to tie Hall of Famer Personal Ensign, who holds the modern day record of 13 straight victories without defeat for a career. Stable mate Life Is Sweet, who saved ground inside the favorite into the stretch, darting through on the fence soon after straightening away but could not match strides with the long striding champion.

At the moment, it would appear that Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta might be two of the best horses in training. We're not even into June and it's already been a remarkable year for the ladies. And one of them's a Perfect 10.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

I’m Betting Shirreffs Horse

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 22,2009-In terms of the short handicapping comments found at the end of a past performances line, rarely do you see the term “inhaled rivals.”

Obviously, the blurb suggests complete domination whereby a particular horse is so disdainful of its rivals that it sits back until it’s good and ready before unleashing an explosive kick as to label its rivals imposters, unworthy to grace the same racetrack.

It’s also the kind of comment associated with the highest class racehorse, usually a deep closer whose turn of foot renders trip handicappers breathless as they witness what turns into a complete and utter mismatch.

It’s the kind of comment which all on levels would be associated with the undefeated, wondrous Zenyatta, who brings a nine-for-nine record into Saturday’s Grade 2 Milady Handicap, a race she won last year and trying to win again.

Finally, her long awaited five-year-old debut is here.

When last seen on a racetrack in October 2008, Zenyatta was inhaling what most agreed was the strongest field of fillies and mares assembled all year in the former Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

Unleashing her patented and powerful fast finish, she defeated seven rivals--including the 2007 Eclipse older female champion--which had won over $9-million between the fences of America’s best tracks.

While Zenyatta’s return is eagerly anticipated, it will be no cakewalk despite her early line odds of 3-5. Why? Because even though she won this race last year, it’s her five-year-old debut following a long layup, a scenario that always carries with it a degree of uncertainty.

And one other thing: That “inhaled rivals” comment didn’t belong to Zenyatta. It belonged to Life Is Sweet, one of Zenyatta’s Milady rivals, earned when she won her most recent start, the Grade 1 Santa Margarita at Santa Anita, March 14.

Life Is Sweet is undefeated in three starts as a four-year-old, including two G2s, the El Encino and La Canada. Double Eclipser Garrett Gomez, aboard for all three wins, will fly home from New York to retain the mount.

Life Is Sweet (5-2) will get four pounds from the high-weighted favorite, 122 to a steadying 126, and one last thing: Like Zenyatta, Life Is Sweet is trained by John Shirreffs.

Owned by two strong SoCal outfits, Zenyatta by Mr. and Mrs. Jerry Moss and Life Is Sweet by her breeders, Pam and Marty Wygod, Sherriffs could not have made this decision lightly. Obviously, one could still scratch.

Indeed, Shirreffs wanted to keep the two fillies apart until absolutely necessary, shipping Zenyatta cross-country to Churchill Downs for the Louisville Distaff, but scratched when the Oaks day track came up a sea of slop.

How much bearing the presence of previously undefeated lone-speed filly One Caroline entered into Shirreffs decision to scratch is a mater of conjecture. As it turned out, worries were moot after One Caroline was rated into submission by Edgar Prado and suffered her first career loss.

Both Shirreffs mares have the same come-from-behind style, Zenyatta being more of a come-from-the-clouds type.

Zenyatta is the fastest filly in the Milady according to anyone’s performance figures. Presuming that Shirreffs had her fit enough to run in the Louisville Distaff, recent works should have forwarded her conditioning and sharpness.

Stabled at Hollywood Park, Zenyatta worked six furlongs in 1:13 2/5 and the same distance in 1:12 3/5 on May 7 and May 15, respectively. The latter was a best of five bullet and both moves were termed breezing.

Given what’s at stake for Zenyatta; a possible divisional championship repeat, a conceivable Horse of the Year title, and a chance to eclipse Personal Ensign’s modern undefeated record in 13 straight victories, Shirreffs must believe that Zenyatta clearly is the better mare.

But in today’s eighth race at Hollywood, I’m not sure I’d be willing to bet on that. This should be fun.

Written by John Pricci

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