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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Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Romancing of a Crown

ELMONT, NY, June 7, 2009--Maybe it was their youth, or the lack of what big-market snobs might call sophistication. But, in any case, Chip Woolley and Tim Ice were a very welcome addition to the Triple Crown trail.

Self effacement isn’t in the playbook of what one HRI reader referred to as hair-sprayed trainers with a mega-stable. Another fan commented it truly was the Triple Crown of the little guy, correctly crediting Hal Wiggins with Rachel Alexandra’s Preakness victory.

Not only was the humility of Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winning trainers forever on display but so too was their loyalty. Only until after repetitious media questioning did Woolley allow slip that Calvin Borel’s Belmont ride was less than satisfactory.

“We just got beat, outrun,” Woolley said over and over, as if he knew no one was buying it. “I managed to get him beat twice at Sunland Park,” the analogy went, but no one was swallowing that one, either.

Calvin Borel was given all the time he needed by Woolley to await the Belmont decision of Rachel Alexandra’s people because, he said: “I owe him; he won me a Derby.” And on the morning after the Belmont Stakes he doggedly refused to toss Borel under a yellow cab.

Didn’t Woolley think the inside was the best part of the drying surface last Saturday? “We were pretty busy around here and I only saw a couple of races.”

Finally, only after more questioning about the rail path being the best part of Saturday’s surface, he allowed this: “Probably so.”

And, now, the perceived premature move? “The early move killed him.”

It took persistence but Woolley conceded what most objective observers were thinking, before permitting himself to wax on the whole experience: “This has been great. [The five weeks] flew by. I’ve really enjoyed it because I may never be in this position again.”

Any regrets regarding the Preakness placing and his third place Belmont finish? “He ran in all three and showed up every time. [If I had to] give up the other two, I much rather win the Derby.”

Don't you just love it when political correctness finishes a bad second to candor?

Woolley then reminded his questioners that Mine That Bird also is a multiple winner over a synthetic surface, so the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Pro Ride is the new goal.

And so Woolley will point his gelding to the Classic and work backward from there in seeking the best route to So Cal. He‘ll consider “all the races you already know.”

He then was asked to volunteer an opinion on various state of the game issues. On changing the Triple Crown: “Who am I to argue with Wayne Lukas?”

On New York racing and slots revenue: “New Mexico only has 1.5 million people and they handle one-hundred million a year on slots. Imagine what they could do here? They could fix all the potholes. I can’t understand why any state would allow money to cross its borders.”

And the game itself: “My biggest thrill in racing [as a fan] was watching Holy Bull win the Blue Grass at Keeneland. Horses need to come back and be the star of the show.”

At 35, the trainer of Summer Bird, Tim Ice, is 10 years younger than Woolley and has been training on his own for all of 13 months. But his father trained horses and he’s been around them since he was 13. It was something he needed to do, and it shows.

In this short period Ice has become responsible for 25 head, about half belonging to Drs. Kalarikkal and Vilasini Jayaraman, the owner/breeders of Summer Bird.

Ice has toiled in the relative obscurity of Louisiana Downs but that all changed in a little more that 2 minutes, 27 seconds last Saturday. Next year he’d like to move his operation to the northeast, perhaps to Delaware Park, maybe even New York.

At no time Sunday morning was there a sense from Ice what he just 13 hours earlier, except for a cell phone that had been ringing incessantly from 4:30 AM with congratulatory messages.

So, then, how did he celebrate his 35th birthday and winning the Belmont Stakes on the same day. “I was here [barn 12-A at Belmont Park] until 10 o’clock then went back to the hotel.”

The most significant day of his young life, however, might have been January 29, the day Summer Bird arrived at his Louisiana Downs barn from California. “I have to thank ‘Dr. Jay’ for sending him to me and giving me this opportunity.”

Consider that debt paid in full.

And the confidence showed by the owners already has paid dividends. Even before Summer Bird won the Belmont Stakes two owners approached him and asked Ice to train their horses. But it remained all about the horse.

“From the first day, [Summer Bird] acted very classy. John Sadler had him in California and thought he was a nice colt. He had trained very well out there so now the Breeders’ Cup is in our thinking.”

And so is Saratoga. “Originally, we were thinking about the Secretariat Stakes [Grade 1 on turf for three-year-olds] but after yesterday I’m not so sure.

“People tell me you have to go to two places, Del Mar and Saratoga,” said Ice. “I’ve been to Del Mar, and to take a horse like this and go to Saratoga would be amazing.

Ice will get there via the Jersey Turnpike. Next up will be the $1-million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park then, if all goes well, the Travers.

“This whole thing was unbelievable. Watching the horse come down the stretch was like an out-of-body experience.”

And, so, the 135th Derby winner arrived at Churchill Downs in the back of a old pickup and wound up on the cover of Sports Illustrated. A 35-year-old trainer made his bones testing a champion. A filly dropped out of the sky to win a Preakness and do a photo shoot for another female who always gets her way, Anna Wintour. America had a love affair with a selfless, two-legged athlete and a stud horse became a superstar with his very first foal crop. What could have been better?

Written by John Pricci

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