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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Monday, July 06, 2015


From Belmont to Gulfstream, Holiday Stars Shine


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., JULY 6, 2015--It might not have been Asbury Park on the Fourth of July but it was a pretty damn good substitute. Eclipse worthy efforts all over the lot, equine and human.

The best part was the fun atmosphere, one of those rare reminders when going to the races was a more exhilarating experience, a time when there was more spring in the step, more money in the 401K.

Thanks to Belmont Park and Gulfstream Park, it was a little like Breeders’ Cup weekend in both New York and Florida. July 4th was a Big Apple monster and, after a one-year hiatus, welcome back to South Florida, Summit of Speed.

Of course, there always will be performances that were not so memorable, in fact, were disappointingly forgettable. Let’s start with those and, not showing any dis-favoritism, we’ll take them in chronological order.

It was a strange performance and I need to start wondering whether Tonalist has made a successful transition from 3 to 4. After outclassing rivals in his season’s debut with a furious rally, he can be “forgiven” for his runner-up finish behind an explosive Honor Code in the Met Mile.

But his Suburban was a head-scratcher. He went from not really firing approaching headstretch to almost certain winner in midstretch, to a one-paced nose loser. It’s impossible to envision 3-year-old Tonalist doing that at Belmont Park in 2014.

Everybody has their favorite jockey or one they believe is pound for pound the best money rider in the business: Javier Castellano, Mike Smith and Johnny Velazquez leap to mind. In a life-dependent situation, my money will go on the latter.

Having admitted that, I must wonder if he fits Tonalist as well as Joel Rosario did last year. Maybe it’s just me but his Suburban was a strange effort. Meanwhile, a salute to “throw-last-race-out” handicappers willing to give Effinex another chance and to trainer Jimmy Jerkens for figuring it all out.

Private Zone just loves this game. He made all the fast-paced running under pressure in the Met Mile then comes back four weeks later with a never-in-doubt Grade 3 Belmont Sprint Championship score with Martin Pedroza confidently riding like he owns him.

Derek Ryan might have been a little over-excited, calling Irish Jasper, the filly he owns and trains, the best three year old filly in America, but that sure was one powerhouse performance in the G3 Victory Ride.

Javier Castellano was pretty effusive, too, thanking Ryan for the mount since “anyone can ride this filly.” Ryan is looking forward to the G1 Test at Saratoga, as are we.

After winning an allowance race on the Belmont undercard, Bill Mott said he ran Speightster in the wrong race, referring to the G2 Woody Stephens. After watching him re-break on the lead approaching the three-sixteenths in Saturday's Dwyer, we know exactly what he meant.

Following the G3 mile Mott mentioned the G1 King’s Bishop on Travers day, which is exactly where he belongs next. The sky just might be the limit.

Meanwhile, 2014 Juvenile-winning runner-up Texas Red looks like he’s all the way back. Kent Desormeaux thought he couldn’t lose at the quarter pole and, except for a exceptional performance, he would have been right.

Brother Keith thinks the race sets him up nicely for the Travers. Well all-righty then.

We made space in our heart ad mind for Force the Pass at Gulfstream this winter, thinking he was an excellent prospect, and really fell in love after he completed a Pick 4 on Penn Mile night, knifing his way through to nail victory in the shadow of the line.

But we didn’t think he’d make the leap to 10 furlongs and the Belmont Derby's Grade 1 company. Oh me of little faith.

Not only was he good enough, he dominated. Unfortunately, Bolo did take a bad step and Divisidero’s deep-running style was bound to get him in trouble sooner or later; it was later.

But it wasn’t going to matter this day. The colt’s reward will be the summer off to prepare for a fall campaign.

Trainer Alan Goldberg’s done everything right so far and Joel Rosario has proven a very confident partner.

But the star of the day clearly was the undefeated Lady Eli, who won under arrogant handling from Irad Ortiz Jr.

When you're sitting 11th in the middle of the course down the backstretch and repeatedly look over your right shoulder for late threats, as if you have the 10 fillies in front of you measured, that’s arrogance.

Her turn of foot in the G1 Belmont Oaks was electric as she separated herself from the herd soon after straightening away. It easily was her biggest challenge to date and it was like breaking so many equine sticks.

She ran 10 furlongs 1.49 seconds faster than Force the Pass did winning the Belmont Derby; males going two turns generally run about 3/5s of a second faster than females. It’s difficult to fathom but this three year old filly got 10 furlongs in 1:59.27.

"As we stretch out our turf horses, you wonder if they're going to lose their turn of foot,” trainer Chad Brown said post-race. “The term 'breathes different air' gets thrown around a lot but this one 'breathes different air', for sure. She’s certainly has the most devastating turn of foot I’ve ever worked around,” said Bobby Frankel’s former assistant, which says all you need to know about Lady Eli.

Brown also won the River of Memories on Sunday with Goldy Espony, shortly after his runners finished 1-2 in the Grade 1 United Nations; Big Blue Kitten and Slumber.

Parenthetically, for those horsemen tempted by big Middle East money, check out Mane Sequence’s dreadful performance in the event that started last year’s four-race Grade 1 win streak that carried him to the Horse of the Year Eclipse finals.

Lights, Camera, Action

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Victor Espinoza shares his Triple Crown glory with Gulfstream Park fans

For racetrackers, there’s nothing like a live show and after a one-year hiatus, while Gulfstream and Churchill ironed out their differences one bloody punch at a time, one of our fave big-race days, the Summit of Speed, born at Calder in 2001, had its debut at the new Gulfstream.

Not only did the event not disappoint, it was special. Bill Kaplan, Stanley Gold and Larry Pilotti, who get along with their babies as well as any top horsemen in the country, swept four juvenile races; Kaplan going 2-for-2 with first-time starters and Pilotti finishing ahead of Gold’s 2-3 finishers in the Birdonthewire Stakes.

But it was Gold’s filly, Ballet Diva, who stole the show in the Cassidy Stakes for the baby girls.

By Hear No Evil, we’re not sure how far she’ll go her gallop out following another dominating performance was strong.

The Jacks or Better Farm home-bred was a bullet away from the barrier for the second consecutive time and in both starts never was seriously asked for speed, much less her best.

"I saw her come out, I blinked, and boom, she's out in front," Gold said afterwards. "The time wasn't really impressive but it was faster than the boys and the track wasn't all that fast."

"As long as she stays healthy, they’re going to have a lot of fun,” said jockey Jose Caraballo. “She does everything so easily. She’ll go longer; she’s not a speed-crazy filly.”

The juvenile events were two of five listed stakes on a nine-stakes, 12-race program which included four graded events.

There also was a three-win performance by Gulfstream’s championship-meet record-holder, Javier Castellano, and a special appearance by 'Triple Crown Espinoza', who proved popular with fans who lined up for a city block to collect live, autographed posters provided by Gulfstream.

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A Horse and Jockey for the Course, Merry Meadow and Javier Castellano

Equine stars on the Summit of Speed program included Merry Meadow, who underscored her love of the Hallandale surface with a comprehensive victory in the Grade 2 Princess Rooney, a Breeders’ Cup “win and you’re in” event. Mark Hennig accompanied Castellano from New York to tack her up.

Favorite Tale, given most of the winter off by trainer Guadalupe Preciado, shipped south from Parx Racing to saddle Favorite Tale, who led the G2 Smile Sprint band on a merry chase. Preciado pointed for this race:

“We hoped he could run a good race here because last year the owners wanted to go to the Breeders' Cup, but he's not eligible, and it costs a lot of money,” Preciado explained. “I told them let's wait a year because hopefully he could win a race and get in. So this was perfect.”

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Favorite Tale with Edgard Zayas slouching toward Lexington

Among those behind Favorite Tale were 2014 Eclipse champion Work All Week who raced one-paced under urging throughout.

Apparently, working bullets at Churchill does not translate well to Gulfstream’s speed-kind surface, thus completing a disappointing weekend for two of 2014's champions and a former Belmont Stakes/Jockey Club Gold Cup titlist.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, June 05, 2015


Only American Pharoah Knows


ELMONT, NY, June 5, 2015—I have seen the figures, the ones I respect, watched the first two legs of the Triple Crown series several times each, looked at historical factors, pedigrees, workouts—well, most of you know the drill.

My investment of time has led me to a startling conclusion; that the 3-5 favorite for the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes is the best of his generation, maybe several generations.

But I can’t reprise Joe Namath that American Pharoah will be America’s 12th Triple Crown winner.

It’s like the man who trains him, Bob Baffert, said: “This is a tough race. If he’s a great horse, he’ll win; if he isn’t, then he won’t.”

Certainly, everything he’s done since losing his sprint debut has been absolutely top class. He would not be a champion if he weren’t at least that. But he’s more, a “freak,” high praise in racetrack speak.

However, it’s only a latter day “super-freak” that can achieve what he will attempt to accomplish on Saturday.

Clearly, horses don’t do what he does in the morning, the way he does it, before bringing it in the afternoon. His last workout for the Belmont was something that even very good horses would find awfully difficult.

To work five furlongs in 1:00 1/5, even over a dullish Churchill Downs strip, was very good, a high-energy, within-himself move but it proves nothing. Kentucky Derby winners are supposed to work crisply without drawing a deep breath.

American Pharoah’s workout was accomplished under a pull. He wanted his head but Martin Garcia--Dortmund’s rider who flew in from SoCal just to work the stable leader--wouldn’t give it to him.

It’s what happened thereafter that sets the 2014 juvenile champion apart. Galloping into and around a turn, to the end of the Churchill backstretch, he laid down furlongs of 13s, completing the one-mile gallop-out in 1:39 1/5.

You simply don’t see that every day and this was the second time he did it; he worked almost identically, nearly duplicating time, in preparation for the Derby.

What I enjoy most about watching him is the way he changes over to his correct right lead in the stretch. It’s very smooth, maybe not the smoothest ever but he appears to skip into the lead change, and his gait really never changes. In over four decades, he may be the best mover I’ve ever seen.

I have no idea if he will win tomorrow; no hedge, just the truth. It may turn out American Pharoah, with no discernable weakness, is that next super-freak but he may not be able to control his destiny.

The key to the champion’s test is the competition between Victor Espinoza and Johnny Velazquez as they parry for the lead from the start of their long journey. Early pace is the key to this would-be crown. Velazquez’s tactics will determine whether the early fractions will be to the favorite’s liking, especially at a mile and a half.

The rock-and-hard-place scenario can shift quickly here. Velazquez cannot permit American Pharoah to dictate his own comfortable tempo. While speed is an important asset going Big Sandy’s entire circumference, it’s a rare horse that can stalk and still win.

So, will he win? Let’s put it this way: I’d rather miss three weddings than attend one funeral. The handicapping/wagering dynamics are these:

Early line odds of 3-5 are likely at post time. While the Triple Crown focus is rightfully on three races in five weeks, it’s four races in eight weeks that might be more significant. Any doubt as to his greatness will disappear with victory on Saturday.

We’re going back to our Churchill choice: Frosted. The wide-trip Derby fourth is on a good development trajectory. He’s fast enough, bred enough, fresh enough, and Kiaran McLaughlin is en fuego. He owns a home-track edge.

The reason for his current improved form has been well documented: the throat procedure, tinkered-with blinkers and a rider switch all worked big-time. His Wood Memorial was impressive, his Derby effort was re-affirming and perhaps then some.

We’ll be betting Frosted to win; 4-1 or more is the requirement. And we’re making an exacta box with American Pharoah. After all, we love good animals, what’s the difference if we lose another wager.

As to the super-exotics we’re still working that out. Check tomorrow’s Feature Race Analysis for details.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, May 24, 2015


A Tale of Two Franchises


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., May 24, 2015—In the last two weeks, it has been the best of times for a couple of Stronach Group racetracks.

It began a week ago Saturday night after all of Pimlico’s final numbers were fully digested. The Preakness metrics were off the charts, which flew in the face of national television rating that were down slightly.

Not sure what these counter-intuitive results mean in the overall, considering here was a budding superstar that delivered on U.S. racing biggest stage which drew a huge national audience, yet two weeks later American sports fans weren’t glued to their HDTVs.

Surely, that won’t be the case a fortnight from now, or will it? As my good friend, the late Jack Wilson constantly counseled, “better say maybe big Johnny.”

Keeping in the spirit of the latest television commercial that continues to amuse, the Preakness numbers were “stupid good.”

It started on Black-Eyed Susan day when attendance of 42,700, representing a 23% rise. And handle of nearly $18.5 million was the highest in a decade, up an astounding 63 percent from 2014’s $11.3 million.

Now attendance and handle metrics may not hold the weight they once did, it’s still the fastest way to know how a track is doing: Thumbs up or thumbs down.

While mainstream America might have yawned at American Pharoah’s attempt to stay alive in a bid for racing immortality, they truly love their Preakness in Baltimore.

Thanks to an aggressive betting menu, a 14th race, and good weather--until the Preakness horses started their Maryland-My-Maryland parade, that is--handle was up a tad, from $83.7 million to $85.1 year over year.

Parenthetically, imagine what the handle might have been if bettors were allowed to churn a little more money but could not in the face of high takeout rates, and we’re not talking crab-cakes-to-go here.

Despite a 12% takeout in the Pick 5, the equal of Sam Houston Park’s, the lowest in North America, the blended rake at Pimlico is an extremely high 23.69%, which ranks it 35th of 62 tracks rated by the Horseplayers Association of North America.

But trust that management is duly aware of the takeout issue, but the priority remains, as it should be, to make Maryland racing the success it once was and a leader in a Mid-Atlantic region badly in need of a leading light.

Meanwhile, the Preakness crowd of 131,680 was a whopper, a record gathering that filled Old Hilltop from Turf Cub to apron, from corporate tent to bandstand. The previous standard of 123,469 was set last year.

After two weeks of living on the edge, Baltimoreans and Marylanders badly in need of something to celebrate. And the resilient citizenry bounced back, the same way New Yorkers and the country did 14 years ago.

But the business of America still remains business, and business has been good for another member of the Stronach track family.

Gulfstream’s Rainbow Pick 5 remains a phenomenon. There is no comparing Friday’s Rainbow 6 handle to last year’s since there was no racing on the comparative day, management choosing to remain dark Friday in advance of the 2014 Memorial Day weekend.

However, compared to Friday of the previous week, with handle for two of nine races was virtually flat, the other seven races showed a combined increase of 36.35% on handle of $5.16 million, compared with last week’s $4.18 million.

With a scheduled mandatory payout, Gulfstream guaranteed a pool of $350,000 from a jackpot pool roughly half that amount--in other words a real guarantee as opposed to the often ersatz promises whereby tracks certify that the betting pool will be roughly the same as it ever was.

On a terribly mundane and extremely difficult sequence, littered with bottom-level horses producing some implausible results, even with the benefit of red-board hindsight, bettors spent over $900,000 in search of a score, which is exactly what they got.

There were two lone-winner combinations alive that didn’t come to fruition. However, multiple winners cashed tickets worth $36,652, a hefty payout even when the minimum bet is $2, 10 times the cost of a Rainbow combination.

CHANGE IN THE WIND AT NYRA

In an April 28 press release, the Hong Kong Jockey Club announced that Bill Nader, its executive director and Chairman of the Asian Pattern Committee responsible for growing the local Far East sport into a major international player, is leaving his current position.

With his present contract due for expiration, Nader has pledged to stay through Hong Kong’s annual international racing festival in December, and will leave the Orient in January 2016 after helping with the transition and participating in the Asian Racing Conference.

While no future racing plans were announced, his return to the New York Racing Association was the talk of the Pimlico press box during Preakness week according to a highly placed Pimlico official.

The smart money has Nader returning to the New York Racing Association where his tenure as vice president and CEO was widely hailed throughout the industry and in the racing media as an overarching success.

NYRA’s current CEO Chris Kay has had his contract renewed for another year and Director of Racing Martin Panza’s contract is set to expire later this year. That same smart money is betting against that agreement being renewed.

For the first time in years, NYRA showed profits from its 2014 racing operations, somewhat improved the deplorable conditions that existed at Aqueduct Racetrack, and has fashioned plans to upgrade legendary Saratoga Race Course in time for the 2015 opening.

Despite all that, New York racing and its management team has been under siege, for reasons ranging from changes to its admissions policy, skyrocketing food prices for middle-of-the-road fare to the biggest issue of all, failure to change the perception that America’s most important franchise has been in steady decline.

It may not be the worst of times for New York racing, but it remains to be seen whether the reconstituted Board of Directors, constituted principally by Albany appointees, state government that oversees NYRA’s present and future, can turn things around under the direction of a new elected board chairman.

One thing is certain: If and when Bill Nader returns home to the New York Racing Association, morale will improve starting day one. Checking the native New Englander’s PPs, don’t bet against it.

Written by John Pricci

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