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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Saturday, June 20, 2009

All Eyes on…Colonial Downs?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 19, 2009--Like many horseplaying weekend warriors, I’m assuming that at sometime during the work week we cull from a list of stakes races available for the upcoming Saturday and decide which two or three tracks appear the most interesting.

Interesting, of course, means many things: “These are interesting times we live in,” meaning, mostly bad times. “That’s an interesting color combination you’re wearing,” meaning, you probably got dressed in the closet that morning.

“This is an interesting race,” however, means really difficult, an excellent chance for value or I’m clueless as to which horse might win. For me, this is like looking into the eyes of the sun because, mama, that’s where the fun is.

But it’s always wise to approach these days with an open mind. Do the homework, essentially to eliminate the no-hopers, but try not to get locked in until you can see real time odds, never a bad idea no matter what the scenario.

The three tracks I chose for this Saturday are Belmont Park, Arlington Park and Colonial Downs. Belmont is always entertaining and there are two stakes scheduled today. But the weather handicappers insist it will rain the entire weekend.

I’m a little old school when it comes to wet tracks: “Dark Day Don’t Play” goes the credo. And today’s sealed wet tracks are gimmicky fast and, considering New York’s liberal scratch policy, the fields figure to be small.

We’ll be concentrating on the action from Arlington Heights and Kent, Virginia as the weather people insist there’s only a slight chance of precipitation at either venue. Arlington’s Prairie Stakes Festival Day offers a stakes-laden program for Illinois-breds and Colonial, where it’s all-turf-all-the-time, is a popular simulcast venue.

Colonial Downs has a big Saturday in store with an all-stakes Pick 3 culminating with the important and always entertaining Grade 2 Colonial Turf Cup for three-year-olds at 8.5 furlongs. Here, then, a handicapping sketch of the all-stakes Pick 3.

Smart and Fancy (7-5), trained by Tony Dutrow with Edgar Prado down from New York to ride, will be a tough out, especially since this is the same team that won last year’s Buckland Stakes for fillies and mares at 5.5 furlongs. Fastest on performance figures, she makes her second start this year, working four times since winning Pimlico’s The Very One on May 15.

The best way to find value would be trying to get Ahvee’s Destiny (3-1) out of the money. Trained by prolific turf-sprint specialist Linda Rice, ‘Ahvee’ seems to prefer faster, shorter-cropped courses than the lush, more demanding Colonial course. But she shouldn’t be allowed to knock Pick 3 players out of their sequence.

Interesting money possibilities include the fresh, fast working Citi Charisse (20-1) from live connections; quick Charlie Papa (10-1), who handles the deepish Tampa course and could be at home here. But it's a fast-working, course and distance loving Kosmo’s Buddy (15-1), from live ship-in connections, that's the most interesting. His best performance figures have been earned either at the trip or over this course, making him very interesting at early line odds.

The second leg is the G3 All Along at 9 furlongs for fillies and mares, 3 & up. Get ready to spread ’em. Not that the race is all that wide open but the early-line favorites look like the best horses. We left open the following:

Tejida (12-1) was no match for two of today’s rivals in her last three starts, but has good back figures, handles the distance and has been tempered in a series of G3s. With her best effort coming on yielding ground, she might like the footing in her course debut. Corey Nakatani rides for Michael Matz.

I Lost My Choo (5-2), the defending champion in this race and 2-for-2 under Jose Lezcano, comes off a breakthrough performance prepping for this, and Indescribable (7-2), fast and G1 tough, is a three-time G3 winner for the Mott/Desormeaux team. They’re both worthy favorites.

Icon Project (6-1), Dyna’s Lassie (12-1) and Astrologie (4-1) merit consideration. Icon Project, hindered by a slow start, dawdling pace and a tougher G2 rival (Criticism) last out, is working strongly at her Florida base and picks up Leparoux.

Dyna’s Lassie is coming off a pace low and her best Equiform figure came at 9 furlongs. She owns a win and a second in two course appearances. Astrologie was beaten by Criticism (today’s New York Handicap favorite at Belmont Park) in two U.S. starts at 12 furlongs and might be well suited to the distance, switching to Garrett Gomez for Christophe Clement.

The centerpiece Colonial Turf Cup has attracted some impressive individuals in the past. This collection seems a group on the come. No less than seven horses can win the big pot. No one should be surprised if Rescue Squad (6-1), Straight Story (10-1), Take The Points (3-1), Final Count (12-1), Mark S The Cooler (10-1), Battle Of Hastings (2-1) or Lime Rickey (3-1) finish first.

Rescue Squad has moved forward in all five career starts; Straight Story impressed visually and showed development in his three-year-old debut. Take The Points is fastest at 9 furlongs on Pro Ride, which often translates well to turf. While unproven at the trip, Mark S The Cooler earned an excellent figure in his recent Hollywood Park mile.

Final Count has improved with distance and never has regressed. Battle Of Hastings, ditto, and is coming off a turf decline line. Lime Rickey, among the fastest here, earned his best figure at 9 furlongs. Among the big seven; Take The Points, Mark S The Cooler, Battle of Hastings and Lime Rickey loom most probable.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, June 19, 2009

After Mother Goose, What Next for Rachel Alexandra

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 18, 2009--Following four recent workouts--her last an absolute beauty--and after another scheduled for next week, Rachel Alexandra will leave her Churchill Downs base and ship to Belmont Park for the Grade 1 Mother Goose a week from Saturday.

Rachel and the game’s other “big mare,” Zenyatta, were the focus of a point-counterpoint match between a couple of turf writers who vote in the weekly NTRA poll that ranks the nation’s 10 top racehorses.

I, too, am an NTRA voter, although I didn’t this time since I was traveling last weekend and just forgot to vote.

But even if I had, I’ll be damned if I would have willingly accepted blame for how the poll turned out. One person, one vote, majority rule. As simple as that. It’s never any one person’s fault. Sometimes it’s actually the fault of the pollsters.

Like the Racing Hall of Fame and Eclipse Awards, the lack of defined criteria is the culprit. Is the top horse “the best horse,” a subjective measure of innate ability by the voter, the correct standard?

Or is it the horse that’s accomplished the most between the fences?

Here’s the dilemma: If Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra were to meet in a Grade 1 dirt race somewhere with an honest pace and a dry surface, and my life depended on picking the winner, I would, without hesitation, take Zenyatta, “the better horse.”

In a perfect world, each would have had comparable records, blending accomplishment with eye-pleasing athleticism and heart. But in the game of thoroughbred racing, perfect is an oxymoron.

Had I voted this week, I could not have ranked “the better filly” with a single Grade 1 victory in her only start of the year over the winner of five straight races and two Grade 1s, including America’s most coveted three-year-old filly event and an American classic over males.

For purposes of comparison, there is no comparison.

Of course, there’s still an entire half-season to sort everything out. Einstein could have secured the #1 spot and rendered the distaff argument moot had Julien Leparoux beat Alan Garcia to the hole at headstretch of the G1 Stephen Foster last weekend. But he didn’t.

There’s been little talk out of SoCal for the past month regarding Zenyatta’s future plans, an indication that her connections will stay on the same course that brought her up to the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic so successfully in 2008.

That would be the boring low road, but it‘s their mare.

Fans are beginning to hope that the Travers will become the race of the year by attracting the Preakness-winning filly into the fray with the two high-flying birds already committed to the race, Derby winner Mine That Bird and Belmont upstart Summer Bird.

At the moment, the bird horses are planning to get there via West Virginia and the Jersey Shore. For Rachel Alexandra, no plans have been announced beyond the June 27 Mother Goose.

But there’s another way for Rachel to top not only Zenyatta, but Einstein, Mine That Bird, and all the rest. Should she handle a handful of Mother Goose routinely and without reaching bottom, five weeks is perfect timing for the G1 Haskell on a surface whose natural bias suits her talents perfectly.

Belmont hero Summer Bird is committed to the Haskell. Certainly, no one can argue with his class or ability to get that job done at 9 furlongs; just conjure up visions of that wild-horse show finish at Oaklawn Park.

And now that the colt has more experience, confidence, the new blinkers that have sharpened his focus and Kent Desormeaux, he‘ll continue to be a factor in every remaining race this year. But it’s sometimes difficult for the Belmont winner to turn back successfully at Monmouth Park. Jess Jackson and Steve Asmussen know all about that.

Another talented colt recently committed to the Haskell is Big Drama, who finished first in six straight starts before his fifth-place Preakness run. Multiple stakes-winning Musket Man, highly competitive in the Derby and Preakness, is another probable starter in a deep group of Haskell hopefuls.

If, however, Rachel Alexandra makes her second start against Grade 1 males and wins, never mind the weekly NTRA poll. Just hand her connections the Horse of the Year Eclipse trophy right there in the Monmouth Park winner’s circle.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

For Horse Trainers, Doing Good Work Is Not Enough

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 16, 2009--Why is Todd Pletcher the trainer of Quality Road? For that matter, why is Rachel Alexander under the care of Steve Asmussen?

Were Jimmy Jerkens and Hal Wiggins, respectively, some kind of underachieving slackers?

How can 71-year-old Bennie Stutts, who made a career looking for a talented horse like Smooth Air and developed him into a multiple graded-stakes winner and earner of nearly $1-million, be left holding a shank with nothing on the business end?

Under Stutts, Smooth Air brought a lifetime mark (14) 6-3-3, including three G2 wins, into the prestigious Metropolitan Handicap recently at Belmont Park. It was his first start since suffering from colic and necessitating his being declared from the G3 Texas Mile.

After getting legged up at Calder for his first start in three months, Smooth Air ran a winning race in the Met, only to just miss with a gritty placing to a more seasoned rival, the accomplished mile specialist, Bribon.

The horse is now in the barn of a budding training star, youthful Chad Brown, who, while accomplished, has not been around long enough to be described as the Flavor of the Month--more like a Flavor of the Week.

But that’s just how it is in the game these days, especially of late. But it’s not the kind of scenario that develops just at the very highest, glamour levels.

Trainer John Toscano Jr. basically has been a claiming trainer all his life. He did flirt with the Kentucky Derby a few years ago with the success of Lanes End Stakes winner Sinister G., and has saddled several New York-bred stakes winners.

Back in the day when he first started out, Toscano had to cash bets to survive. I know this first hand. It was the late 1960s when there were as many people in section 3P of the Aqueduct grandstand as there are now in attendance on any winter’s afternoon in New York.

This past January, Toscano claimed Eldaafer from Kiaran McLaughlin for $20,000. After being haltered, Eldaafer won two races, including a starter allowances, and finished a wide-trip third to Atoned in the Nasty N Bold overnight stakes, May 27.

Sometime between May 27 and June 5, the owner, racing as an LLC, transferred Eldaafer to the barn of Diane Alvarado, a former assistant to David Jacobson. Clearly, Alvarado figures to get her ticket punched to the Hall of Fame because within a matter of days she transformed Eldaafer into a winner of the $200,000 Grade 2 Brooklyn Handicap.

No one ever said life is fair but stuff like this turns bad luck into a dirty name.

Toscano lived with Eldaafer for four months, allowed the four-year-old gelding to mature, fixed the issues that turned the former allowance runner into a $20,000 claimer, found his hole card and turned him into a graded stakes winner.

Unlike Asmussen, who had class enough to credit Wiggins on multiple occasions from the Preakness Stakes winner’s circle, there was no mention of Toscano from the new trainer in a TVG interview following the Brooklyn on Belmont Stakes eve.

There was only the owner saying how he claimed the horse after studying the pedigree--as if it takes a genius to roll the dice for $20,000 for an offspring of A.P. Indy, from the multiple stakes-winning mare, Habibti.

I can’t understand how on Belmont Stakes morning Toscano could wake up before sunrise and want to drive to his barn on the Belmont Park backstretch. What’s the point? What does a trainer have to do to make a few dollars in the racing business?

How could any horseman have done better work than Toscano did this winter with Eldaafer? How does any trainer like Toscano survive? To love this game is to sometimes be cursed by the gods.

This is not about the relative merits of the four new trainers. All are having good years and two are a cinch to wind up in the Hall of Fame. I just don’t understand how trainers with 200 horses can do a better job than those that train 20 or 30 head?

Pletcher was not the only trainer to profit from Q.R.’s owner’s largesse. Tony Dutrow and Kiaran McLaughlin were other recipients of horses formerly in Jerkens’ care. In three years, Jerkens won at nearly a 19 percent rate for Edward Evans with over $2 million in earnings.

Despite the burgeoning number of so-called super trainers, not all owners harbor unreasonable expectations.

Marc Keller--who’s been enjoying the sport a lot more since Grand Couturier won back to back renewals of the G1 Sword Dance and Bribon won the Met Mile--stood by trainer Bobby Ribaudo through leaner times, continuing to invest his money in moderately price high-quality stock until it paid off.

Saul and Max Kupferberg remained loyal to John Parisella even when their horses no longer were competitive at NYRA tracks. Now, after investing money in acquiring new horses, they’re winning regularly again.

These are the kind of sporting owners, the ones who invest in human relationships as well as bloodstock, that are a pleasure to cheer for. If there were more like them the whole industry would be better off.

Written by John Pricci

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