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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Sunday, March 22, 2015


Sometimes Horses ARE Wishes


HALLANDALE BEACH, March 21, 2015—Events that happen at and around the racetrack is something that non-racing fans will never get. Maybe that’s just as well.

Maybe this whole thing is meant to exist as an anachronism in the modern world, a niche for those who do get it, who appreciate the beauty and occasional brutal ironies that live side by side, holding up a mirror to everyday life.

It doesn’t always happen in this fashion, of course, because that would be perfect and this game is anything but. Only sometimes it appears like it does. Like when a jockey returns after a lengthy convalescence from an injury, he always seems to win with that first mount back.

Or when there’s a horse sale coming fast featuring the first crop of an accomplished recent retiree. Its handlers want the sire to get off to a fast start and what better advertising than an open-lengths romp by its first offspring to race?

On the elevator down from the press level at Gulfstream Park to the first floor Saturday evening, I rode down with a couple who acted as if they had been there before.

The gentleman, noticing the press credential plastered to the middle of my chest, asked “any good stories today?”

“How about Jimmy Jerkens saddling the first horse he ran in a stakes after losing his father this week?” I said.

As we exited he said, “It was a big loss, wasn’t it,” more of a declarative statement but one requiring an answer. “I’ve been doing this more than 40 years, it might be the biggest loss ever,” I said.

Jimmy Jerkens is a man of few words, a lot like his dad in that way, acting almost as if they are/were embarrassed by success, certainly humbled by it, anyway.

The sport lost The Chief only three days prior and there stood Allen Jerkens’ son in the winner’s circle where his father was honored with a moment of silence two days before, fighting off but eventually giving into his emotions.

Classic Point had just finished making a winning season’s debut at the age of six, going after the odds-on Merry Meadow, reaching even terms with Sweet Whiskey into the stretch before out-finishing her to the wire, gamely holding You Bought Her safe in the late strides.

The past performances might have said otherwise but Classic Point was carrying a lot more on her shoulders than just Paco Lopez. She was carrying the weight of tradition and hopeful expectation, but she made it to the Inside Information finish line first.

“It was only three days ago,” Jimmy Jerkens said of his father’s passing, “and it’s going to take a long time to get over it. I've been around him a long time. Obviously the circumstances make it a little special,” he said with understatement, typical of the Jerkens tribe.

As the winning trainer left the emotional winner’s circle ceremonies, he did so to an ovation from the crowd; at once a salute to the man, his pedigree, and the sport they both love.

Sometimes, going to the racetrack is a privilege. It certainly was at Gulfstream Park on Saturday.

BETS ‘N PIECES: For Sheer Drama, the Royal Delta Stakes was nothing at all, just a day at the beach track. That’s because the filly of the same name made fast work of the Grade 2 mile and a sixteenth.

Heavy favorite House Rules attempted to give trainer Jimmy Jerkens his second stakes win of the day but Sheer Drama would have none of it.

Deftly rated by Joe Bravo, David Fawkes filly set a solid but controlled tempo, stalked by the recent Rampart winner but by the five-sixteenths pole, Bravo was still in control while Javier Castellano was busy on House Rules.

Fawkes had her at tops; good job!

Fast Company: Not so much fast, although for Palm Beach Downs it was moving right along. But the Todd Pletcher paid or Itsaknockout and Materiality worked a half-mile in company in 48 3/5, galloping out six furlongs in 1:12. Can you say sitting on ready?

But can you say ready for Upstart, who also worked brilliantly? Meanwhile, earlier this week, War Story, one of the favorites for Saturday’s Louisiana Derby, worked five furlongs in 58 4/5 at the Fair Grounds.

Breeze Softly, Keep a Stiff Underfoot: Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum picks for the Dubai World Cup are out: He believes the race is among African Story, Prince Bishop and Hokko Tarumae.

Hamdan believes that the new dirt surface is different than the old dirt at Nad Al Sheba and that American horses (read California Chrome) may have a problem with the “stiffer underfoot.”

Have no idea of knowing whether ‘Chrome’ was scheduled to breeze over the track but there are plans in place for a slow half mile, somewhere in the neighborhood of 49 seconds. The World Cup is also scheduled for next Saturday…

As of now, six other three year olds are expected to challenge Upstart and the Todd pair in the Florida Derby. Gulfstream’s crowning event will be drawn Tuesday evening in the paddock at 5 p.m. The other seven stakes on the card will be drawn Wednesday.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, March 06, 2015


Shared Belief, Undefeated Three-Year-Olds Not a Bad Saturday Parlay


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 6, 2015—Some good action at the Betting Bays By the Beach but tomorrow is the day where racing will be celebrated big time in Arcadia and Oldsmar.

Saturday’s Big ‘Cap day at Santa Anita Park, a.k.a. the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, a.k.a. the first ever “hundred grander” in the U.S. There’s always a “big hoss” in it and this weekend is no exception.

OK, so real handicap racing is a bygone era but as long as they card these race, someone has to be the highweight: Say hello to Shared Belief (3-5), toting 125 pounds.

Oddly, this impost was a pound more had he had been assigned in the weaker (Grade 2), shorter, and less prestigious Gulfstream Park Handicap.

Forgot to mention, the tougher Gulfstream Park Handicap. Let that sink in for a moment.
So, tell me what would have been tougher? Meeting 12 rivals for a cool million in your home state at 10 furlongs after just having beaten the 2014 Horse of the Year vs. the Moreno (6-1), one of three G1 winners but 0-for-6 at the trip, and Bronzo (10-1), a G1 winner in Chile and 10-furlong winner of an overnight handicap there?

Or shipping 3,000 miles to meet Private Zone, Honor Code and Wicked Strong going a flat mile for $300K?

Duh.

But sometimes the Big ‘Cap turns out funny, not ha-ha funny, for the favorite or one of 12 rivals just might get in the way and impede his progress. That’s happened before you may recall.

However, running flat out against two horses that just might be at their best at a mile and a seasonal debutter from the very excellent 2014 three-year-old crop in no day at Hallandale Beach.

Throw in the G1 Kilroe (turf) Mile and the G2 San Felipe and that’s quite a day at the races.

Meanwhile, in Northern Florida, the always entertaining Hillsborough and Florida Oaks are good table setters for the Tampa Derby in which Stonestreet Stables will battle itself; the seasonal-debuting 2014 juvenile talent Carpe Diem (8-5) vs. undefeated, freaking Ocean Knight (2-1).

The plan was to go to the Gotham with Ocean Knight but the owners didn’t wish to roll the weather dice; that decision looks pretty good considering that Aqueduct canceled racing Friday.

On the Left Coast, while awaiting the Big One, it will be a battle of undefeateds; the 4-for-4 uber game come-again winner of the San Felipe, Dortmund (8-5), vs. the 3-for-3 Ocho Ocho Ocho (4-1), away since winning his 2014 two-turn debut, the Delta Jackpot.

Say this for Triple Eights: To date, he’s been faster on our Energy Ratings scale, by a significant margin, is training super well, and gets Mike Smith, who seems to secure a call on every good horse he’d like to ride these days.

Should the Northeast thaw out in time for Gotham’s Gotham, it will feature a battle of disappointing Withers colts, El Kabeir (8-5) and Classy Class (7-2).

If the heavily campaigned (by 2015 standards) El Kabeir has any high-test left in the equine tank, he lays over the group. If not, Classy Class could beat him, taken to improve along developmental lines and the promise of rating tactics on Saturday.

The Gotham boasts a legitimate dark horse of the kind one seldom sees anymore, a colt named Tiz Shea D (15-1).

He won his only start in very fast time. But just does one translate 5-1/2 furlongs at Parx into a mile and a sixteenth Grade 2 in New York?

Damned if I know; maybe trainer Bill Mott does.

Here, meanwhile, the dynamic and circumstances appear all wrong for Wicked Strong to make a winning return; but Private Zone vs. Honor Code might be worth the price of admission which, if you’re in the neighborhood, is free!

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, March 04, 2015


At the Sales, Luck Is What You Need


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 3, 2015—It’s not very often grizzled racetrackers get all gee whiz about watching Thoroughbreds run after training hours without watching an actual race, but that’s how the family spent Monday morning at Gulfstream Park.

On Wednesday the track held its first ever two-year-old-in-training sales, but Monday was the “breeze-up” portion of the program.

Buyers don’t need to watch the young horse workout live, as the Fasig-Tipton sales company records the trials so that video becomes a huge part of the sales pitch to future owners.

And so we all watched the first set of workouts as fans and the experience was fun, informational and educational.

We saw the first of three sets of two-year-olds breeze and late Tuesday put in a call to Bruno DeJulio; horse owner, consultant, pin-hooker and, of course, the man with a stopwatch in hand to get his impressions of what we witnessed.

And, so, how do these sales differ from the traditional yearling sales?

“It’s a completely different experience [than a traditional horse sale],” DeJulio said. And indeed, it was, especially recalling that Bayern and Dortmund were breeze-up sales graduates in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

“I look for money-ball pedigrees," DeJulio explained. "Understand that when you look at a pedigree page in a sales catalogue it’s like looking at a set of PPs; you’re not seeing the DNA that makes the pedigree what it is.”

And by watching horses race against the clock and how they move over the racetrack provides a look into the equine athlete, an insight that’s missing from a yearling sales catalogue.

image
Tote Board introduces horses to prospective buyers

“So what about saddle cloth number 105?” I asked DeJulio. “He’s a chestnut colt by Speightstown out of the Forest Wildcat mare, Stylish Wildcat," I said. He went in 10 1/5 [down a straightaway], running with abandon. I wrote down ‘scoots’ in my catalogue.”

“Actually, we teach them to do everything wrong. We don’t ask three year olds, we don’t ask five year olds, to go that fast. These are very young horses.

“You need trainers who are conscientious and know how build a good foundation. Jim Crupi and Rudy Delguidice do that.”

“The Stylish Wildcat is very fast. I got him in 10 1/5, 21 2/5 and 34 4/5. There were three sets yesterday. I clock at Gulfstream and Palm Meadows and can tell you the track was faster for the first set than it was later in the day.

‘He was one of the better gallop-outs in the first set. In that context, a tick or two can be very important…

“Let’s see what they paid for him [as a yearling], DeJulio continued. “They paid $230,000. That horse could sell anywhere from $350,000 to $500,000.”

image
Adena Springs' roan filly gallops down the
Gulfstream Park stretch

I asked “what about #133? He’s a bay by Unbridled’s Song out of Aspenglow. He went in 10 /5, looked like he had something left and I thought he had nice action.”

“He went in 10 2/5 and galloped out in 22 2/5 and 36 2/5. He was neither negative nor positive to me.

“The thing is that he’s an Unbridled Songs, and they’re known to have narrow airways, so you have to listen to them to know whether they can breathe through those airways or not.”

Clearly, buying untested race horses of any age makes handicapping turf sprints appear to be child’s play by comparison.

Finally I asked, “So who did you like?”

“I liked #147, a filly by Smart Strike. I had her in 10 1/5, 22 2/5 and 34 4/5. She’s bred to be a mile and a quarter horse in the middle of her three year old year.

“Her pedigree is balanced; she should go long or short, and should be at her best in the main meets of summer and fall.

“The last piece of the puzzle is what they paid as a yearling, $100,000, Maybe a quarter of a million gets it done for her. I thought her work was fantastic.”

“Finally, what about the half-brother to Hoppertunity and Executive Privilege, #69?”

image
Chestnut filly by Smart Strike was the star
in the first set of workouts.

“The interesting thing about him is that he’s not by a fashionable sire [Cowboy Cal] and the people who bought him for $500,000 are the same people who bought Carpe Diem for $550,000 as a yearling and sold him for $1.6 million to Stonestreet. But he was a Giant’s Causeway.

“Thing is you never know when you’re getting quality. You can buy the best horse from the best consignor, ridden by the best breeze-show rider with the best workout and everything you want in a pedigree.

“But everything has got to go right from there. What you really need is the luck.”

Now, finally, we’re getting to the crux of the matter.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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