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 23, 2007


Jockey Santos Likely To Call It A Career


Unless he turns out to be another athlete who just cant walk away when it's time, it is anticipated that jockey Jose Santos will announce his retirement from riding the Friday before the Belmont Stakes. Its a case of one painful injury too many that left him one precarious fall away from possible permanent disability.

This is a jockeys life, one of guiding 1,100-pound highly strung beasts while in close quarters in the starting gate and often during a race, a career defined by split-second decisions made at 40 mph without the ability to call a T-O, baby.

Pound for pound, jockeys are among the greatest athletes in sports, certainly among the bravest. And the least understood, or appreciated.

In his prime, which began in this country in South Florida, Santos dominated his competition. Position-conscious and aggressive, he rode the sweet spot in almost every race, becoming the most sought after rider on that circuit. It was the same when he switched his tack to New York.

In the Big Apple, Santos learned patience--some say to a fault--but it was a style that trainers on the good-horse circuit demand. But he remained a great rider of speed horses and developed into one of the best grass riders in the game, where his gift for position and patience often paid great dividends.

He won classics with Lemon Drop Kid and Funny Cide, won an Ohio Derby with Skip Away, and rode champions such as Fly So Free, Meadow Star, Cryptoclearance, Gulch, Criminal Type, Rubiano, Chief Bearhart and Fleet Indian, among many others. Santos has ridden 4,084 winners from 25,936 starters for a worthy career win percentage of 16%--17% in stakes races--and has finished in-the-money 44% of the time. Its been a Hall of Fame career.

Santos suffered fractures of the T7 and T8 vertebrae in a spill last February. Attempts to stimulate bone growth to aid his recuperation have failed, and he has been in constant pain during the rehabilitation process.

Simply stated, Santos cannot risk the possibility of another spill. Jockeys put danger on the back burner as part of their lifes work. But they cannot, nor should they, ride with fear.


Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Don’t Count On Nafzger To Change His Mind


There will be no Triple Crown this year and now the quest is for a triple of another sort, the reunion of Street Sense, Curlin and Hard Spun, the trifecta finishers in the first two jewels, having at each other once again in the Belmont Stakes.

That would be truly unique. Never before have the trifecta finishers in the first two legs returned for a third time. Actually, the Derby trifecta repeating in the Preakness happened exactly once in 132 years, 10 years ago when Silver Charm, Free House and Captain Bodgit made a cold trifecta in Baltimore, with only the second and third finishers switching Derby positions.

The door was left a bit ajar yesterday when body-language handicappers observed a weakening in Carl Nafzgers anti-Belmont posture. Street Senses trainer said he would talk it over with owner Jim Tafel and make a decision by the end of this week. Handicapping the situation myself, my pick is it wont happen.

Nafzger might have been feeling a bit guilty about his whats the point answer when asked about a Belmont rematch with Curlin, and so he probably tempered his earlier remark. But, more than anything, trainers are creatures of habit. He won a Travers with Unshaded and hed like nothing more than another Midsummer Derby win to add to his Kentucky Derby victory.

And then theres owner Jim Tafels Chicago connections to consider and the possibility that Arlington Park, an old Nafzger stomping grounds, would sweeten the pot of the American Derby and move the turf event to Polytrack to serve as a Travers prep according to HRIs Vic Zast, who has Second City ties of his own. As does the colt.

Street Sense broke his maiden as an Arlington Park juvenile and theres another variable, too. According to Calvin Borel, Street Sense gets distracted at new tracks where the fans are positioned close to the action.

Arlington Park is not as confining as Keeneland and Pimlico and is familiar territory, unlike the other two were. The money would be significant, the competition not as salty, and he wouldnt have to race four times within eight weeks.

A freshening would make sense on many levels. And lets not forget that Nafzger also won the Breeders Cup Classic with Derby-winning Unbridled, another habit Nafzger would like to get used to. Of course, that would put him and the rest of this deep and talented three-year-old class on a collision course with the great, older Invasor. Now that would be discouraging.


Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, May 19, 2007


Derby Youth Becomes Preakness Man


In one of the gamest and most memorable performances seen in a racing classic of the modern era, Curlin relentlessly wore down a Kentucky Derby champion and snatched away the Triple Crown dreams of Street Sense and his fans in the shadow of the Pimlico finish line.

The promise that the lightly raced Curlin might become the first classics winner in more than a century to win Americas biggest race without the foundation gained by juvenile racing and in only its fourth lifetime start was delivered in another classic two weeks later at Pimlico.

Leaving the three-sixteenths pole, Calvin Borel, who engineered a Preakness ride even greater than his Derby masterpiece, came off the inside to intimidate and discourage the only rival that could beat him at that point, opening a clear and seemingly insurmountable lead with less than a furlong remaining.

But Curlin, his focus squarely on the hindquarters of his most impressive Derby rival, kept coming and coming until, bang, he grabbed him right on the line. And the two jockeys galloped out past the wire as a team, Borel, inside on the Derby winner, Robbie Albarado, who bailed out on Einstein two races earlier to avoid a fallen rival, on the outside, completing an all Cajun exacta.

The official winning Preakness margin was a head but the finish was thisclose. If both horses come out of their Preakness efforts in a satisfactory condition, it sets up the rubber match at Belmont Park where it was hoped racing would be collectively rooting on a 12th Triple Crown champion. Next year, on the anniversary of Affirmed and Alydar, maybe.

For Curlin, his upside remains squarely in tact. Racing a bit greenly in the Preakness, his sudden turn of foot catapulted him past rivals on the far turn as if they were standing still. But it seemed like it would all go for naught when Street Sense and Borel came out to greet him, and pass him, leaving the furlong grounds.

And it turned out to be a bad racetrack joke for Carl Nafzger, who perhaps should have known better and should not have broken out into an Ill-take-it-from-here smile. Instantly, a wide smile was replaced by a look of great concern. I think we got nipped, said Nafzger, turning left to inform owner Jim Tafel as the team hit the wire together.

A classy Borel offered no excuses. I saw [Curlin] kept coming, and I was worried. [Street Sense] gets into the crowd a little bit, and he gets to waitin. But no, no excuses.

The confidence trainer Steve Asmussen showed after the Derby once he was sure that Curlins energy and demeanor had not changed following the colts Herculean show finish in Louisville after a stutter-step start--an incident repeated yesterday when he bobbled out of the starting gate--was justified deep in the Pimlico straight. Indeed, Asmussen has a very good colt, too.

While the result for Street Sense might have been disappointing, his effort was not. He did everything right but win. Round 3 commences in Elmont in three weeks. If the events there are anything like what was on display in Louisville and Baltimore, great racing theater is assured. Again.

Horse races like yesterdays is what makes the quest for a Triple Crown so special. And why its one of the most coveted and difficult prizes to win in all of sports.


Written by John Pricci

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