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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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Saturday, February 15, 2014


Of Derby Preps, Rivalries, and a Trip to Dubai


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL—February 15, 2014—The racing schedule for racing’s glamour division finally has reached the point in the 2014 Triple Crown prep season when races begin to matter.

Saturday’s Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby, run over a synthetic surface, has been a jumping off point for more Preakness winners than Derby heroes but its 10 points could loom large on May’s first Saturday.

In its initial season last year, had the late scratch of Black Onyx come before advance Derby betting began, Fear the Kitten would have the 20th runner, getting in with a grand total of six points.

As it turned out, late running money finisher Golden Soul was the 19th runner in the gate with 14 points, making 10 points a solid bubble number.

The El Camino attracted eight runners of which three were promising, well regarded types going in; Enterprising, Tamarando and Dance With Fate. The trio finished 1-2-3, with Tamarando—Hollandorfer and Baze, of course--coming from last to defeat Dance With Fate.

Favorite Enterprising finished third and the time of 1:51.23 for the mile and one-eighth was very solid over a surface that played decidedly dull in recent days. These preps should be all this formful.

Monday’s G3 Southwest Stakes, lengthened to 1-1/16 miles and is the second leg of the Arkansas route to Kentucky. The two-turn event drew 12 entrants and 11 betting interests, of which I’d have little difficulty making a case for seven of them.

Most of the attention rightfully will be focused on the seasonal debut of Strong Mandate (2-1) for D. Wayne Lukas. When last seen he was an excellent third from post 13 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, a surface that flattered inside speed that weekend at Santa Anita.

But fractions of 22 3/5 and 45 4/5 are very hot going two turns, especially when racing wide all the way. And like stablemate Will Take Charge, the bad weather in Arkansas didn’t seem to interrupt his training any.

Strong Mandate shows seven works dating back to Dec. 17, the last three was a 2/47 five furlong breeze in 1:00 3/5, a bullet 1/61 in 1:00 2/5, then a half-mile blowout in the slop in 48 3/5, best of 79, reminiscent of Will Take Charge before his top notch placing in Lea’s Donn.

He might get beaten for a number of reasons, but conditioning won’t be one of them. “We hold this horse in such high regard,” Lukas told Oaklawn staffers this morning. “We’re excited to see him run.”

The major competition figures to come from Tapiture, the impressive winner of the G2 Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill in his juvenile finale. Twenty-two days later, trainer Steve Asmussen got him started with a soft half-mile then put him on the fence Jan. 5.

There was a series of five subsequent works; two and five-eighths of a mile, two at six furlongs and a half-mile blowout this week. He’s ready to roll. (There will be more on the Southwest Stakes in Monday’s Feature Race Analysis).

Next weekend begins the 50-point preps as Gulfstream Park hosts the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth and Fair Grounds the G2 Risen Star.

Impressive Holy Bull winner Cairo’s Prince, who breezed a soft half-mile in 48 3/5 Saturday morning, will skip this dance, but it will be a very salty group that remains. Top Billing, Commissioner, General A Rod, Wildcat Red and Almost Famous, among others, should make things interesting and, of course, a good betting race. While far from a two-horse race, many are anxious to see the rematch between Commissioner and Top Billing.

On the absence of Cairo Prince, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said: “The Holy Bull was quite an impressive race by all figures. These horses aren’t machines. You can’t run them every four weeks, even if you want to. We just thought we’d wait – the best chance to get ready for the Florida Derby is wait.”

Go West Young Macho Man, Go West: It’s been four months since his victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic but the big Florida-bred need only wait another week to get back to Santa Anita.

The determination was made this morning following Mucho Macho Man’s brilliant workout that his next start will be the Santa Anita Handicap where he will meet Will Take Charge, narrowly beaten by the Macho Man last November.

“This horse is telling us he’s ready now,” said trainer Kathy Ritvo after the recent impressive winner of the Sunshine Millions Classic worked five furlongs in 58.14 and galloped out six furlongs in 1.10.77. “We know about going to Santa Anita now, so it’s nice to go back.”

MMM will have another strong work in South Florida and then go West, where he will get his final preparations, all this following his dominant 14-length victory at Gulfstream January 18. “He did it nice and easy, too,” Ritvo said. “The track was fast but he just did it easy. He’s a happy horse. He’s just doing really, really well right now.”

But was it too easy, considering he was untested and going very easily the final eighth of a mile while his main rival, another hardy individual, had his feet held to the fire in the Donn and is coming back on shorter rest, a conditioning advantage in this instance.

“He galloped out in 10-and-change this morning and he’ll have another strong work here before shipping out,” said Tim Ritvo, Gulfstream Park President and husband to Kathy. “And that’s why he’ll have another strong work here and one more before the race out there.”

If these two horses can remain healthy, this could just turn into a rivalry for the ages. Hold good thoughts.

Albertrani Finally Got Lucky; Ran the Best Horse to Do It: Trainer Tom Albertrani had two horses in the two graded events at Gulfstream Park Saturday. In The Very One, he was finally going to get Anjaz to the races after events either got cancelled or were rescheduled from her preferred turf to the dirt.

The field was about to be sent on their way when the announcement came that Anjaz suffered a minor injury in the starting gate was would be a late scratch. “As soon as they closed the back door, she started kicking it,” Albertrani explained. “She had a tendency to do it in the past. We have schooled her and thought it was past us. We’ve had some tough luck with her.”

The race was won by Inimitable Romanee, making her season’s debut, trained to the minute by Graham Motion and well ridden by Alan Garcia who gave his mare a perfect trip rating behind the speed before tipping wide for the drive and drawing away. “It was a really good feeling at the quarter-pole to have plenty of horse,” Garcia said.

In the nominal feature, the Grade 2 Mac Diarmida, classy gelded five year old Twilight Eclipse confirmed his preference for the Gulfstream course, winning for the second time in three starts after winning the Pan American here last season.

Under flawless handling from Jose Lezcano, Twilight Eclipse took command in the stretch and never was seriously threatened after doing so.

“We were in a good spot,” Albertrani said post-race. “I just wanted [Lezcano] to ride with confidence, let Alpha go if he wanted to go and put yourself in position. We told him to take him back where his normal running style would be and go from there.”

So what about a defense of his Pan American title? “We’re all talking [owners West Pont Thoroughbreds] about going to Dubai with him. We got the invite to go, depending on the outcome today. I think that’s the way we’re going to go, to the Golden Shaheen.”

Written by John Pricci

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