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, January 14, 2018


Hard Work Being a Weekend Warrior


Damn, there’s just no down time in this game. Maybe a Christmas fortnight to New Year’s, but then there’s the December 26 Santa Anita opener. What’s a weary horseplayer to do?

I mention this because while at Gulfstream Park playing their program yesterday, my head was on a swivel as if I were auditioning for a role in “The Exorcist, Part IV.”

Rival CDI, meanwhile, put on a great card for their Grade 3 LeComte program, an obvious first stop on the N’Orleans road to Louisville. More on that later, and the Silverbulletday, too.

But then there were look those interesting races at Oaklawn; don’t normally look until Monday’s Smarty Jones. Tampa Bay, one of my favorites, especially races over that magnificent grass course, wasn’t even on the radar yesterday.

Neither was the G2 La Canada—and that was my bad, and my loss--in more ways than one. Coming out, of that race, I decided that I have a new favorite filly to root for: Mended.

Earlier at the Gulfstream winter meet, this girl embarrassed a group of her peers in the Glass Slipper on Claiming Crown day, winning her 10th straight by a dominating 6-3/4 lengths.

After the race, trainer John Martin told HRI’s Tom Jicha he would do everything he could to protect her winning streak. Instead, Martin shipped her 3,000 miles and risked it all in the two-turn Grade 2 against the toughest competition she would meet in her life.

Setting her customary early pace, she was pressured throughout. Mopotism who finished well behind Unique Bella and Paradise Woods in the G1 La Brea last time, was tracking comfortably and made was appeared to be a certain winning move at headstretch.

But after getting the lead inside the furlong pole, Mended (7-1) battled back, coming again to take the slimmest of leads a jump before the wire, but lost a head-bobber to Mopotism (2-1) in a three-way photo. The exacta was a generous $49.60: Damn, Part II.

At Gulfstream, Graham Motion’s well prepared Ultra Brat won the G3 Marshua’s River at a very square 4-1, with season-debuting favorite Dream Dancing a good-finish second. She should be at top next out, better at least Heavily-backed Gianna’s Dream was awful.

When the gritty Heart to Heart missed the break in the G2 Fort Lauderdale, it left Shining Copper on a soft lead, enabling for his come-again victory over longshot One Go All Go. Mike Maker’s charge was a 5-1 overlay.

Worthy of note here is that had third-finishing Channel Cat--the 8-1 part of the uncoupled Todd Pletcher entry won the finale--a single ticket would have been worth $2.3 million.

As it was, multiple tickets that included Pletcher’s winning favorite, Maraud, returned $104,000. For those inclined, there’s $1.8 million worth of leftovers for today’s Rainbow 6 sequence.

At Oaklawn, interesting to note that Team Lukas/Stevens (Winning Colors, among many others) won a pair of three-year-old races in Hot Springs. Cool; Hall of Fame is as Hall of Fame does.

Farrell made a successful return in the 1-1/16 miles Pippin Stakes, holding off both Steve Asmussen favorite Terra Promessa and his uncoupled Ever So Clever (5-1).

The Pippin was Farrell’s fifth win without defeat at the trip. Terra Promessa backed up badly in late stretch but was effectively done by the quarter-pole. It was her first start since Saratoga and note she has rebounded big-time off poor efforts in the past.

In New Orleans, Wonder Gadot did all the dirty work but last-run longshot (McPeek/Geroux) got the money in the Silverbulletday. ‘Gadot’ virtually on a hard-chase throughout—not an easy thing, especially at Fair Grounds—yielded grudgingly. Very nice Oaks quality filly.

In the LeComte, it was a case of I’ll see your three Asmussens and raise you one Hollendorfer.

West Coast ship-in Instilled Regard, toughened recently in battles at Los Alamitos and Santa Anita, did knock back down from an early scrum into the first turn. Javier Castellano insisted on good early position so he took it.

In being aggressive, Castellano forced formerly undefeated Principe Guilherme even wider, Florent Geroux electing to allow the favorite to drop farther back than expected before relaunching. It was an excellent runnerup finish from which he should benefit.

Asmussen finished 2-3-4, his Snapper Sinclair an excellent used-throughout third. In fact, the fourth finisher, late running Zing Zang, finished very well after the fact and appears looking for more ground to eat up.

But Instilled Regard was in a class of his own in the LeComte, galloping out way ahead of the group. He might indeed have Derby talent but this is awfully early for a peak effort. Very interesting to see how he bounces out of this, and where Hollendorfer goes with him next.

They finally ran the Jerome at the Big A and Firenze Fire, who has had his training interrupted by the inclement New York winter, showed his class to wear down Seven Trumpets nearing the wire over a sealed wet track, strong handling from Manny Franco.

Wish the Pegasus were next Saturday instead of one week later. Following one track exclusively would be light work compared to Saturday’s simulcast circus.

Made myself a day’s pay. When I left the track, however, I found myself asking, no one in particular: “Did you want fries with that?”

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, January 07, 2018


Monsters Unmasked from Coast to Coast


On Cross-Country-Saturday, the rich just kept getting richer. At Santa Anita, McKinzie, saddled by 2017 Eclipse Award finalist Bob Baffert, made short work of the Sham Stakes field, cruising to victory in the West Coast’s first stop on the Kentucky Derby trail.

At Gulfstream Park, Mask, saddled by 2017 Eclipse Award finalist Chad Brown, crushed the competition in the Mucho Macho Man, South Florida’s first step on the road to Kentucky.

Both horsemen have colts among the three finalists for the 2017 Juvenile championship, neither of which are named McKinzie or Mask.

Rating kindly beneath 2017 Eclipse finalist Mike Smith, McKinzie showed emphatically that he don’t want--and he don’t need--no stinking blinkers.

Settling into a wide 3-path throughout off the speed of even-pace setting All Out Blitz, it was Smith who came wide a blitz on the far turn, his momentum carrying his mount into the lead at headstretch before drawing off without need of pressure.

All Out Blitz proved easily second best, staying on after McKinzie took the lead and galloping out with energy after the finish in a good speed performance.

Second favorite Shivermetimbers clearly disappointed, stalking the pace after breaking a bit flat-footed and could not match strides with the first two finishers after being asked to do so on the final turn.

McKinzie’s final quarter-mile was a highly respectable 24.41, stopping the timer in 1:36.58 for the two-turn mile. Said Baffert post race:

"He just broke, got into good position, (and) didn't get rank with the blinkers off," Baffert said. "He was good, and when horses come to him, he really gets into the bridle. He got a lot out of this,” indicating that the March 10 San Felipe could be next.

At Gulfstream, the normally all-business Chad Brown was smiling widely in the winners’ circle, pleased but not necessarily surprised that his colt wound up on the lead, or in the winners' circle, for that matter.

“We had a good post and figured he’d break better in his second start,” said Brown following his colt’s sophomore debut at a flat mile. And break better he did.

Mask, whose stablemate Good Magic is an Eclipse finalist in the Juvenile category, broke sharply and inherited a clear lead in moderate fractions, a pace greatly moderated by a strong westerly wind that had the infield flags saluting crisply all afternoon.

The Mucho Macho Man was billed as a showdown: Mask, a second-time starter heavily bet from the bell, versus undefeated Dak Attack, 2-for-2 in Kentucky for Dale Romans, who had to adapt the colt’s training owing to shin issues that is so common with babies.

The Romans colt broke sharply and was but was taken in hand by Robby Albarado, in for the ride, but forced to race between horses down the long backstretch run. Those tough circumstances, plus some feel-good histrionics in the ring pre-race, could not have helped.

Despite that, nothing that he or any of Mask’s rivals could have done differently would have made a bit of difference. The $685,000 purchase who probably gets his speed from the Yonaguska mare, Hidden Expression, opened ground on his own at the turn and was not much more than knuckled-on by Javier Castellano into the lane.

image
Mask, an Embarrassment of Riches for Chad Brown
Photo Credit: Lauren King
In the straight it was all Mask, and we mean all Mask. Castellano sat motionless through the final furlong and eased his mount a sixteenth of a mile from the wire while increasing the margin.

The vastly experienced Bal Harbour rallied nicely on the fence through the lane to secure the place as Dak Attack remained one-paced to the end, holding the show in an effort sure to move him forward.

So while Mask didn’t necessarily prove anything by 12-clipping his field to death, coming his final quarter mile in 24:72, his future seems boundless, if he goes from start two to start three the same way he went from sprint debut to Mucho Macho Man, timed in 1:37.65.

While Brown remained noncommittal as to where the colt will run next, it seems unlikely it will be the Holy Bull and more likely the Fountain of Youth, unless he decides he wants more time between races leading up to the Florida Derby.

Showing an affinity for Gulfstream, it doesn’t make much sense to do anything but leave him in SoFla and allow him to develop at Palm Meadows. Apparently, those company works with Stellar Wind paid dividends.

As for stablemate Good Magic, he could take the New York or Lexington route to Louisville. Love this time of year, even as the rich get richer.

Speaking of Three-Year-Olds…

Too bad that Bolt D’Oro, who might hold a slight exit-poll edge over Good Magic in Eclipse voting, has had his three-year-old debut delayed after apparently getting cast in his stall. The March 2 San Felipe seems to make the most sense for his belated debut.

The Jerome, a flat mile for three-year-olds in New York that was lost to the intemperate weather, has been rescheduled and will be run on Saturday. The race will be redrawn from the original nominees, though there could be supplemental noms.

Meanwhile, the Louisiana Derby lid-lifter, the Lecomte at a mile 70 yards, has been drawn—love, love, love that Fair Grounds draws entries this far in advance!—and it has drawn a better than limit field; 14 in the body plus an also-eligible.

Three of those are legitimate headliners: Principe Guilherme, 2-for-2 by an aggregate 17-1/4 lengths; Instilled Regard placed second in G1 Los Al Derby last time and getting first-time Castellano, and the filly Wonder Gadot, also cross-entered in the Silverbulletday, with Velazquez.

Meanwhile, her stablemate Flameaway was a very game winner of the Kitten's Joy, setting the pace under pressure and repelling a host of stretch challengers, adding a turf victory to his prior scores on synthetic and dirt surfaces. Very nice colt!

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, December 31, 2017


RIP 2017


Although I was around him often during the Foolish Pleasure, Genuine Risk, Gulch and Manila years, I never really got to know LeRoy Jolley. We were both younger then and I doubt whether I had the patience to probe further.

Guess his “we don’t play this game in short pants" line following the ill-fated match race offended my sensibilities. Jolley was all business at the barn--which is not to say that his sense of humor was lacking.

Like on that Sunday at Belmont Park when Jolley’s Meadow Star was preparing to match race West Coast sensation, Lite Light. That filly was owned by perhaps the first extremely successful hip hop artist, soon to become overnight legend, M C Hammer.

Hammer introduced himself to Jolley before the race and said: “You’re the first white man I ever met named Leroy.” Jolley loved it.

Maybe Jolley couldn’t help what I always took to be a cool demeanor. Should I have expected anything less from the son of another old school horseman, a man named Moody?

But I did expect he would be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. It’s a deserving tribute to a horseman who developed three Hall of Fame horses, three divisional champions, and two Derby winners including the filly, Genuine Risk.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0w9x0ZT_VHg&feature=youtu.be

RIP, Mr. Jolley.

However, I was lucky enough to get to know Jack Van Berg a little. Like most people who met him, I liked him. Also an old school Hall of Famer and the son of a taskmaster father, legendary Marion Van Berg, JVB liked that I dubbed his champion “America’s Horse.”

I got to know him early Belmont Stakes week, 1987. Newsday’s handicapper/columnist was privileged to step into a limo with Jack and the redoubtable Woody Stephens for an appearance on a sports show hosted by then up-and-comer Greg Gumbel.

Van Berg, of course, was seeking a Triple Crown sweep with Alysheba and an aggregated purse bonus worth $5 million. Stephens was after a sixth straight Belmont victory with the speedy Gone West.

So we all took a ride into the city for a taping of cable-TV sports interview shows. But the show wasn’t the thing; it was being able to sit across from two legendary Hall of Fame trainers and I never needed my notebook; I still remember every entertaining line.

Van Berg was nervous. Alysheba would attempt to win the Triple Crown without the benefit of the diuretic Lasix, allowed in Kentucky and Maryland but banned in New York at the time. Stephens, looking to build on his Belmont legend, was, well, Woody.

“Woody, I really need that money,” Van Berg said to Stephens. “You’ve already got five Belmonts,” which might have been the first thing Woody mentioned to Van Berg as we piled into the black stretch. But there was one line he uttered for sure.

Upon reaching Manhattan, Woody leaned up against the window, looked up, and said, “see that Jack? Those buildings get mighty tall once you cross the Hudson,” a line that would render any notebook superfluous.

Stephens failed to win his sixth straight Belmont with Gone West--then neither would Leroy Jolley win that particular edition with Gulch. It was Bet Twice who blew the 1987 Belmont field away by 14 lengths.

Alysheba was a one-paced fourth virtually throughout. His Triple Crown and $5-million quest failed, a fact that failed to impress hometown race caller Marshall Cassidy, who announced as the field reached the finish line: “Gone West won’t win this one.”

Alas, these legendary horsemen are gone. In part, the game became great because of their presence and, sadly, less so now that they have left the course. On any level, they are irreplaceable.

AVOID THE HOLIDAY RUSH…


The Eclipse Award committee did just that years ago when it sent advisories suggesting that Eclipse voters await the results of Santa Anita’s traditional Grade 1 opening-day features, the Malibu and La Brea, and yesterday’s American Oaks, before casting ballots.

Sage advice for me this year since my official ballot will be changed to reflect Tuesday’s La Brea results. In the female sprint category, I am moving Ami’s Mesa from first to third and elevating Unique Bella to the top of that category.

Ami’s Mesa’s 4-for-5 slate, which included a nose defeat in the BC Sprint, is no longer superior to Unique Bella’s, who was soundly defeated by ‘Ami’ in that championship event.

But Bella wound up with the better overall record at 5-for-6, including that Grade 1, and defeated elders in the G3 LA Woman. On Tuesday she defeated dual G1 winner, Paradise Woods. Our revised Female Sprint 1-2-3s are Unique Bella, By the Moon and Ami’s Mesa.

AN INQUIRY NEEDED AT SANTA ANITA, OFFICIAL OR OTHERWISE

Knowledgeable racing fans understand the concept of “giving a horse a run,” especially lightly raced, young horses in their developmental stage.

One such case was on display yesterday when highly regarded Restoring Hope, a true ‘steam” horse when he debuted at Los Alamitos DEC 17. After entering the stretch very wide, he flew home in the middle of the track and just missed on juvenile debut.

Entering him back quickly going two turns this week—“I didn’t want to wait too long to run him back,” Bob Baffert told TVG pre-race, the even-money co-favorite chased the pace under stout restraint throughout and was never truly asked for best by Drayden Van Dyke.

Understandable enough, especially after the longer uncoupled Baffert, Regulate, was coming on but ultimately proved no match for the well-meant co-choice, Peace. Baffert’s successful young horses have all used a pattern very similar pattern to Restoring Hope.

But what happened opening day was, frankly, a disgrace.

Many observers, myself included, weren’t expecting an optimal effort from Collected, the BC Classic runnerup who was using the opening day Grade 2 San Antonio as a bridge to the rich Pegasus on January’s last Saturday.

So a less than serious effort was expected, especially after Baffert told a national racing audience that he let the horse down for a few weeks following the Classic before he began training him up again.

But his lack of effort at 1-5 before a Santa Anita opening day crowd of 40,000+ was awful. Allowed to take the first turn needlessly wide after breaking alertly, jockey Mike Smith made no attempt to save ground at that or any other point in the 1-1/16 miles.

Smith kept him wide and never asked for speed after entering the backstretch…”and Collected is actually behind [stablemate] Hoppertunity, and that’s the first surprise,” said race caller Michael Wrona.

At that stage Smith appeared to grab him again, never attempting to cover him up at any stage. Leaving the half-mile pole, Smith was still “bidding his time.” By the time the wire to wire winner was passing the three-eighths, Collected was still “bringing up the rear.”

Into the stretch it was “there goes Collected to the extreme outside…and is just grinding down on the outside…”

Grinding, yes. Flatter than a latke, yes. But at no stage was Collected whip-urged. Smith threw crosses and showed Collected the stick in scrub-like fashion and was lucky to win a close show photo, saving bridge-jumpers who “invested $100,000,” according to Wrona.

As Jolley indelicately said, this game is not played in short pants. But if you’re going to give your horse a run, show your audience and customers some respect. Lots of opening-day-trippers probably never even noticed.

But the large pumped-up crowd fell silent, according to a TVG analyst. All I know is that if I were watching the proceedings with some newbie who wanted to know what I thought of the race, I would have been too embarrassed to give him an honest assessment.

Hallandale Beach, FL, December 31, 2017


Written by John Pricci

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