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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Friday, June 05, 2009

Who Will Pass the Champion’s Test?

ELMONT, NY, June 4, 2009--The Kentucky Derby winner arrived Wednesday afternoon and got his first feel of the track early Thursday before Team Mine That Bird set sail for the New York Stock Exchange.

Ding, ding, ding on both counts, the first being more important. Paraphrasing trainer Chip Woolley, Mine That Bird hasn’t stepped on a track that he’s disliked, he just “skipped right over it,” etc., etc.

But perhaps I might even have been able to tell you that much before the move. Shortly after 7 a.m., old big sandy was sloppy and sealed--and everybody knows how much this gelding loves a sloppy track.

The weather forecast has changed since earlier this week. Weather handicappers now calling for showers on Friday, clearing and partly cloudy on race day, then more showers Sunday and Monday.

So, we’re expected to believe that the strong Belmont Stakes day program will be run in the seam of the weather zone. At this point, I’d probably be willing to lay 7-5 on a fast track at 6:27 p.m. Saturday, but not one point higher.

Today and Saturday, we’ll sketch out the 10 Belmont Stakes entrants from a handicapping perspective and will include ticket-constructing instructions in Saturday’s post.

To their credit, Belmont Park is offering Dime Superfecta wagering on all self-service machines both today and on Belmont day. Congratulations to the NYRA management on this decision, wanting to include all players instead of trying to extract every last buck from the crowd.

Customer, fan friendly service. What a concept.

Here, then, is a handicapping perspective of the Belmont Stakes field--in post order with early line odds--to be assembled for the 141st time tomorrow evening.

May they all run good, and come back good:

1-CHOCOLATE CANDY (10-1): In this, his 11th lifetime start, he is projected to run on dry dirt for the first time. As we have all learned, working on disparate surfaces and racing over them are distinctly different things. But so far, it’s been all good. Jerry Hollendorfer trainee has worked four time on the local surface and his workline is extremely solid and well designed for both the distance and five-week layoff. He’s a Grade 3 winner and is multiple G1-placed. This is one nice colt who appears on the brink of a career best effort. Of course, whether it’s good enough is to be determined. His people say he wants the distance and reunites with Garrett Gomez, who won the restricted Real Quiet Stakes on Hollywood Cushion Track, purported to be closer to dirt than any other synthetic surface. Has the potential to be a major player.

2-DUNKIRK (4-1): One of two wise guys horses in the field. So, will he or won’t he rebound from the Kentucky Derby? How can he not? He stumbled, got jammed, never settled and had awful action, indicating extreme dislike for the sticky wet surface. He’s 50-50 to run well or badly again but we think it’s more like 60-40 in the affirmative. I believe he will run his race. He’s trained well since the Louisville debacle, likes the local surface, and benefits from a switch to Johnny Velazquez, who’s pushing all the right positional buttons of late. Would not be surprised if Johnny doesn’t have him more forwardly placed than ever, putting pressure on Charitable Man somewhere along the way, possibly to the detriment of both. His maiden and allowance win at Gulfstream this winter were super impressive visually. But he’s live on that reputation long enough. The pedigree is there, being from Derby-winning and Belmont-winning families. No more excuses. It’s time to step up. If he does, can make things really interesting. An underlay at 4-1.

3-MR. HOT STUFF (15-1): It’s the same situation for this colt as it is for Chocolate Candy; possible first-time fast dirt track. Trainer Eoin Harty said at the post draw press conference he has absolutely no idea how the dark bay Tiznow runner would handle those conditions. Not sure if he was trying to take the pressure off the colt or himself with that line. But he’s another who must have a line drawn through his Derby performance. He was eliminated from serious contention soon after the start. Been working bullets at Keeneland for this but if his trainer doesn’t know, I certainly don’t. Edgar Prado rides for the first time. Winstar colt still eligible for preliminary allowances.

4-SUMMER BIRD (12-1): The Other Bird. The following, excerpted from Thursday‘s post, was the essence of a conversation we had with Summer Bird‘s trainer Tim Ice on Wednesday: “Didn’t you say before the Derby that you were pointing for the Belmont?” “Yes, Ice said.” “What made the Belmont more important in your mind than the Derby?” “The distance,” said Ice. “Why the blinkers?” “They’re for focus, it’s not meant to put speed into him,” Ice explained. “And the second workout, the one with Kent, went better. He worked with the blinkers? “Yes.” “Was it the tighter, wet track, the experience, or blinkers that made the second work so much better than the first?” “A little of everything.” This colt, as lightly raced at Dunkirk, also has talent. He didn’t start really running in the Arkansas Derby until the race was over, finished third by 1-¼ lengths to Papa Clem, catching them all within a sixteenth of a mile on the gallop-out. New rider Kent Desormeaux’s style figures to suit this guy and there’s no telling yet just how good he is. Despite only three lifetime starts, he finished ahead of 13 Derby runners, rallying very wide on an inside-favoring track. My wise guy horse.

5-LUV GOV (20-1): Bred by the owner Marylou Whitney, whose Birdstone upset Smarty Jones in this race, went from an impressive maiden win on the Derby undercard to the G1 Preakness and did not run terribly. After entering the stretch about eight wide, he closed ground and was beaten 8-¾ lengths for the whole thing while checking in eighth. The experience probably did him a world of good, however, this is an extremely tall order. He’s probably not as good now as he will be eventually. Reunites with rising star Miguel Mena, aboard for the maiden win on May 2, and was only beaten 2-¼ lengths by Summer Bird on March 19 at Oaklawn Park. But impossible to make a serious case for his chances, even if four-time Belmont winner Wayne Lukas is pulling the strings.

TOMORROW: Mine That Bird, Charitable Man, and all the rest.

Written by John Pricci

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