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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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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Saturday, June 06, 2009

Due Diligence Could Have Altered Outcome for Team Borel

ELMONT,NY, JUNE 6, 2009--And so, in this most unusual of Triple Crown seasons, it was a son of Birdstone--the sire that upset Smarty Jones in this classic in 2004--that upset this year’s 6-5 Belmont Stakes favorite, another son of Birdstone, 50-1 Kentucky Derby pin-up Mine That Bird, and denied jockey Calvin Borel his ticket to racing immortality.

Before the excuses for Mine That Bird begin, stop and pay tribute to Summer Bird and his trainer Tim Ice, who decided after the colt finished a strong third in the Arkansas Derby in only his third lifetime start, that the classic on the first Saturday of June was more appropriate for his horse than the one run on the first Saturday in May.

It was a Cajun delight all right, but not the one the crowd or Calvin Borel was anticipating. Borel will be lamenting what might have been tonight while fellow Cajuns Tim Ice and Kent Desormeaux will pop a couple of cold ones and suck on the heads of more than a few crawfish.

For Desormeaux, it was vindication for last year’s Belmont debacle aboard a failed Triple Crown champion, the odds-on favorite Big Brown, and relieves the bitter taste left by Real Quiet.

At about the same point of the turn that Desormeaux began pulling up Big Brown and easing him to the finish, the same point on the track that Birdstone went after Smarty Jones five years ago, Desormeaux first found a seam.

And after saving ground down the long backstretch on the best part of the Belmont surface this day, the inside, Desormeaux allowed his forward momentum to carry him outside for a free run at the battling leaders, who were now beginning to tire.

Desormeaux timed his move perfectly, winding up 2-¾ lengths to the good of Dunkirk, the rail path enabling him to come again to displace Mine That Bird, who fired prematurely and wide, tiring to finish third, a neck behind Dunkirk.

After the agonizing defeat on Real Quiet and the inglorious Big Brown fiasco, Desormeaux's well engineered ride, his fourth winner on the card, gave him his first Belmont victory.

For birthday boy Tim Ice, who brought a fresh horse to Belmont to win the champion’s test in only the colt’s fifth lifetime start, there’s nothing like celebrating your 35th in the winners’ circle following a classic.

The week must have seen like a blur to Borel, seeing himself on Leno and Letterman and, ringing the bell Thursday at the New York stock exchange, the social gatherings, the sightseeing with fiancée Lisa Funk.

So he took a week off from work, the week before the biggest day of his professional career. Without older brother Cecil to keep him focused, the responsibility fell on long time friend and agent, Jerry Hissam.

It made no sense to have not a single ride on the undercard. Actually, he had one, in a grass race, and took off that mount. Worse, it wasn’t clear watching Calvin ride Mine That Bird that he watched any of the races that occurred earlier in the day.

Here’s what Borel would have seen, according to official chart footnotes: First winner: “Moved through on rail to gain the lead“... Second: “Set rapid pace in two path, angled in…” Third: “Well placed along the rail.”

Fabulous Strike went wire to wire in the two-path. Gabby’s Golden Gal sprinter clear soon after the start (from post two going a mile). Munnings “moved up quickly along inside.” And, finally, the Belmont:

Dunkirk “sprinted clear along the rail…fought back gamely along the rail…” And Summer Bird: “Steadied along the rail… Raced in traffic on the inside…”

What Borel did was to circle the field four wide on the final turn. The fraction from the mile marker to the mile and a quarter point in the race went in :23.80. Mine That Bird made up 5-½ lengths, making his mid-move a ridiculous :22 3/5 with a quarter mile left to run. Mine That Bird was beaten three lengths for all of it. The ground loss and premature move was too much to overcome.

Borel didn't see it the same way, but this is where he crawls in a little deeper. "I knew the fence wasn't good," he said. "It's kind of deep down there... It's very--track is deep, you know. If anything, maybe moved a little earlier than I was supposed to...I wasn't going to take the race out of him because I knew someone was going to plod on this and beat us, and that's what happened."

And then, this: "Not that I moved him too early. It might have looked like he was a little fresher but they're going a mile and a half. Like I said, maybe might have moved a little tad early but he took me there... When they're moving that easy and the horses are coming back to you that fast, it might look like he got there quicker."

That's why this is a humbling game. Borel gave the kind of ride many informed people called the greatest race ride they've ever seen. But that was at home, where Borel won the bulk of his 4,500 races. This wasn't home, this was the infamous Big Sandy.

Calvin did not give it, or the race's history, enough respect. He rode overconfidently, having to justify the kind of pressure making guarantees places on you. He should have known better. And if he didn't, that's what agents are for. Friends don't let friends ride cold. Borel would have found no shortage of live mounts in one of the five undercard stakes.

Hopefully, he will learn from the experience. People are still rooting for him and Woolley said that he would ride him back next time out no matter where that race turns up.

Borel made the kind of move that gets you beat in this classic. The ride Desormeaux gave Summer Bird is the kind that wins Belmonts. Ask Tim Ice and the colt's owners, the Doctors Jayaraman.

Then ask the people at Gainesway Farm just outside Lexington. They probably could give you chapter and verse on just how America's hottest stud horse won a classic at Belmont Park, too.

And then consider that Summer Bird was the best horse on Saturday and that Mine That Bird, under the circumstances, might have been as well. In this game, that's as close as one gets to a win-win.

Written by John Pricci

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Two More Grade 1s: One Formful, One Not So Much

ELMONT, NY, June 6, 2009

4:45 PM The Grade 1 Acorn, was the race that Hal Wiggins had on his dance card for Rachel Alexandra. Remember Rachel Alexandra? Remember Wiggins, her former trainer?

Bob Baffert would soon prefer to forget them, and he must have relayed that to his third-year-old filly, Gabby’s Golden Gal.

Taking advantage of the prevailing conditions, the Medaglia D’oro filly, beaten 29-¼ lengths by Rachel Alexandra in the Kentucky Oaks, handled Big Sandy and the one-turn mile just fine thank you, romping away to an open lengths score by dictating the tempo from the inside throughout.

As if on a treadmill, nothing was able to offer the speedster an anxious moment, including odds-on Justwhistledixie, who could not get untracked while racing well off the inner rail. Casanova Move, breaking and racing on the inside throughout, finished third.

Gabby’s Golden Gal, off at 13-1, got her mile in 1:34.79.

5:34 PM: The G1 Woodford Reserve Manhattan Handicap was competitive going in and one of the form horses, Gio Ponti, won it with a well timed move beneath Garrett Gomez, storming down the middle of the course to run by the dueling Cowboy Cal and Cosmonaut, before holding off the improbable Marsh Side and the ageless 10-year-old, Better Talk Now.

The mile and a quarter, over ground that was upgraded to yielding, was a moderate 2:02.81.

Written by John Pricci

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