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, 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.


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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Friday, April 03, 2009

Psst, Want a Value Play in the Belmont?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 2, 2009--So, who do you like in the Belmont Stakes?

I’m not kidding, even if the season indicates this might be some kind of belated April Fools' joke.

Even as fans and players try to decide who will win the 135th Kentucky Derby, and with Super Saturday looming, it’s never too early to start thinking Belmont.

Perhaps we might not have given the press release received this morning a second thought had it not come from the same people that brought My Memoirs over from Europe to compete in the 1992 Belmont.

In case your memory needs jogging, Pine Bluff was holding on desperately along the inside in midstretch as A.P. Indy forged forward to join him in a head-to-head battle from which Neil Drysdale’s colt would emerge victorious.

But there was an instant, leaving the sixteenth pole, when the issue was very much in doubt as My Memoirs, beneath Jerry Bailey, was beginning a strong late run.

Near the finish, A.P. Indy was getting the best of Pine Bluff, but My Memoirs kept charging, a rally that would fall short by three-quarters of a length. And that Belmont was clocked in 2:26: race horse time.

The new shooter this year, from the same Team Valor outfit that shipped My Memoirs to Elmont, is named Gitano Hernando, who won his three-year-old debut over the weekend at 10 furlongs on the turf at Doncaster.

Gitano Hernando came from far back to win going away by 2-½ lengths, drawing away inside the final sixteenth according to reports. It was his first start since breaking his maiden on a synthetic surface at Wolverhampton last fall.

The colt is being trained at facility in Newmarket by Marco Botti, who will saddle him in the Belmont. The colt’s next start will be the Dee Stakes, at around the same time the connections of American-based three-year-olds are feasting on crab cakes in Baltimore.

My Memoirs also used the Dee Stakes as his final prep. Botti is considering giving him another run between the Dee and Sunday’s season’s debut, a handicap in which he earned a 99 Timeform rating.

‘Gitano’ was supposed to run in the newly created Kentucky Derby Trial Stakes at Kempton but failed to crack the entries. The winning Mufaaz earned an automatic berth in the Churchill Downs starting gate on Derby day.

Barry Irwin, manager partner of Team Valor, stated in the release that they chose the Dee at Chester Race Course because it’s circular nature more closely resembles racing at an American racetrack.

Irwin said the Chester races develop in much the same way American races do and that the timing, coming after the Kentucky Derby, is good for a horse pointing to the Belmont.

A son of the long-winded Hernando, pointing a European runner to the Belmont as opposed to the Derby makes eminently more sense.

First, there’s no circus atmosphere and 19 rivals with which to contend. The wide expanse of Belmont’s mile and-a-half course with its sweeping turns is more in the European style. Belmont was, after all, modeled after Longchamp.

Of course, there is the 12-furlong distance. American horses are bred for speed, not stamina, and consequently are not true stayers. It’s inherent class that enables them to win at the true classic distance at this stage of the three-year-old season.

Finally, a fresh European invader is likely to catch American colts that have either run the Derby prep gauntlet or have competed in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, rigors for which most are ill suited by lineage.

Trainer Marco Botti, 32, certainly has the pedigree for classics success. His father, Alduino, and uncle, Giuseppe, based in Milan, are highly successful horsemen that run a thriving breeding operation and have won 30 training titles between them.

This is the fourth year Botti has been on his own after having worked for, among others, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum’s Godolphin operation.

Considered a rising star in Europe, Botti saddled 10 winners in 2006, including a Group 3; 17 the following year with a Group 3 and two Listed stakes winners; had 45 last year and already has 10 in 2009, the last being Gitano Hernando.

The colt’s win last Sunday came in a modest Class 3 handicap, but he moved strongly off a lively pace with three furlongs remaining and stayed on very well while leading through the final quarter-mile.

After the race, jockey John Egan said he was impressed and that the colt has the ability to stay the Belmont distance.

Written by John Pricci

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