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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Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Untapable Question: Do Colts Hold Haskell Advantage?


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 22, 2014—For myself and many others, the best part of betting on the horses is the handicapping process; trying to figure things out, predicting the future.

In that context the learning process never ends, which is another thing that pleases inquiring minds. This came to mind with respect to Sunday’s Grade 1 Haskell, deep in both quality and contentiousness.

When it comes down to the betting, it is likely at post time that a filly will lead them. And this always comes as big news whenever a filly meets colts in a big spot. Think Rachel Alexandra’s Preakness and Woodward; think Zenyatta’s Classics, both of them.

The storyline goes that racing females and males is commonplace in Europe, but not so much here when the fairer sex meets the perceived stronger animal. Racing even compensates for this by giving females a weight allowance.

I’ve always believed that if a filly was exceptional and held a perceptible class edge that she should win, since she’s “the best horse.” And a break in the weights certainly doesn’t hurt the cause.

But then I don’t train horses of either sex, and my riding experience is limited to carousels; no whip-switching necessary. So, I figure, that an exceptional filly will beat a good colt.

It was good to have this opinion validated on yesterday’s NTRA Haskell/Jim Dandy conference call by a man who has trained over 1,500 winners, and by another who’s ridden no fewer than 5,893 of them.

Both Christophe Clement, who will saddle Travers starter Tonalist in Saturday’s Jim Dandy, and stakes-placed Life in Shambles in Friday’s Curlin Stakes, and Jerry Dale Bailey, who practically retired the Eclipse trophy by winning it seven times, concurred:

Essentially, they agreed that in the lower classes, a filly generally will be at a strength disadvantage when meeting a colt, but that an exceptional filly can do it all because she’s the better equine athlete.

Clement, who hasn’t even seen Friday’s Curlin PP’s, did not offer specific opinions on Sunday’s Haskell, in which the sensational Kentucky Oaks-winning Untapable will take on a deep field of males and thought the filly would not be out of her element.

“There’s no need to run against colts in this country because fillies have their own program here and don’t need to face colts,” said Clement, “and a filly running in the Haskell is a very popular move.”

“[Generally] good fillies can compete anywhere, but in the lower classes they probably are a little weaker,” he added.

“Even if [the Haskell] didn’t set up for her I’d like [Untapable], but the race does set up for her,” said current NBC analyst Bailey. “She’s one of top three three-year-olds in the country, at least.”

Are fillies disadvantaged when racing against colts? “I don’t think they are,” Bailey said. “When you get a special filly I think they can do anything, even if in theory they are meeting stronger males.”

Dale Romans, also on the call and who will run Belmont show finisher Medal Count at the Jersey Shore Sunday afternoon, is not really concerned about the Haskell’s dynamics--or anything else it seems.

“He’s some of the best stock I’ve had in the last 10 years,” shared Romans. “If I thought I knew why I’d go out and buy every Dynaformer I could find. He never has a bad day.

“This horse is unique, does whatever we want; if you want him to go fast, he goes fast; want him to go slow he goes slow. If there’s no speed, like in the Belmont, he’ll lay closer, if there’s a lot of speed he can come from way back.

“I thought he was talented the first time I breezed him [at 2] but I left him at Ellis [Park] because I didn’t think he could win a race at Saratoga. He really didn’t put it all together until we got back to Keeneland this spring.

“He can do anything. Not many horses show his turn of foot at 7-1/2 furlongs on grass and stay a mile and a half on dirt. He should have been no worse than third in the Derby but got stopped cold at the eighth pole.”

There will be considerably less traffic for him to negotiate at Monmouth Park with a projected field of nine at this stage, which includes Medal Count.

“We’ve all seen many times when there’s lots of speed in the race and it never develops. He’s versatile. And when I have a horse that I know belongs, I take them over there and let the chips fall.”

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, July 06, 2014


Stars n’ Stripes Grades: Box Office A, Execution B+


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 6, 2014—At the bottom line, the first Stars and Stripes Festival program held over the July 4th weekend, essentially Saturday’s five graded stakes program including two Grade 1s for three-year-olds on grass, was very successful.

More than 11,000 fans showed up on a glorious afternoon, or about twice the new normal, and the $16 million simulcast handle on the 10-race card beat last year’s totals—a tough comparison since the 2013 holiday program was conducted over a very long “weekend”—by $6 million.

And 11 races were carded last year so, yes, Virginia, quality does count.

The quality of yesterday’s graded stakes was very good but not very "top class.” In the Belmont Oaks, there were only two Grade 1 winning fillies, both American, one coming over Polytrack, and there was no international talent owning a Group 1 title.

The Belmont Derby boasted only one Grade 1 winner, Blue Grass Stakes winning Dance With Fate, but he was a program scratch, leaving the field without a horse that could truly be considered Grade 1. Potentially, yes, but not in reality, including the four Europeans.

It was going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible to attract a true international Group winner at this time of year with all the classic racing being conducted “over there” at this time of the year.

But that can change next year as new events take time to gain status traction; throwing seven figure purses at it alone did not yield max results.

The hunch is that next year, after the “world” had a chance to study the results, a few of Europe’s best runners might be reserved for Belmont Park.

European horse owners who normally might be motivated by prestige instead might ask themselves the following: Why be 20-1 at Ascot when I can be 5-2 in America for a million and a quarter?

The racing was very entertaining with a number of close, exciting finishes and a breakthrough performance by Clearly Now, a colt the racing gods owed a good-fortune run following one tough trip after another dating back to his 3-year-old year.

And he won the Belmont Sprint Championship Stakes by nearly 10 lengths and in track record time for the seven furlongs, despite remaining on his left lead right to the line.

The enigmatic Mr Speaker finally put it all together to win the Belmont Derby beneath a hedge skimming Jose Lezcano to defeat the only European that bothered to do any real running on the day—Adelaide, a very game, come-again second after being outrun by the winner in the final furlong.

Zivo, the New York-bred win machine seems to be getting even better. His previous win in the Commentator was a last-to-first, swoop-the-group victory.

On Saturday, he came from arrears again, only this time saving ground and winning by a clear margin over some very nice but not-ready-for-primetime horses.

Maybe’s Zivo's the player that’s ready for primetime, his victory started a natural double for Chad Brown and concluded a natural triple for Jose Lezcano.

That win would come in the Belmont Oaks with Minorette, who Brown predicted was ready for a new top. Nice training and handicapping, Mr. Brown.

NYRA could have carded an All-Graded-Stakes Pick 4 but stayed with the previous administration’s handle playbook, carding a full field of state-breds going long on turf.

The Belmont Sprint Stakes was just as spreadable as the finale, a promotional opportunity lost.

Clearly, the centerpieces were the Belmont Derby and Oaks which were good branding ideas, names with a little more panache than the former Grade 1s Jamaica and Garden City.

Renaming those stakes is how Vice President of Racing Operations Martin Panza was able to debut his new creations with Grade 1 status.

As stated, the event likely is to attract more foreign participation next year although that’s no out-bet given the present international racing calendar.

The experiment was worth trying and it did succeed. If not, then simply consider the day as a prep for Saratoga which promises to be a victory of quality over quantity. Alas, we shall see.


Written by John Pricci

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Friday, July 04, 2014


For July 4th Horseplayers, It’s Morning in America


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 3, 2014—The second half of the racing season began this past Tuesday and we’re preferring to see what remains of 2014 as a glass that is half full despite racing’s myriad problems.

All know what those negatives are: Permissive medication, coupled with the reality wrought be negative perception; a continued lack of transparency on several important fronts, and of alphabet horsemen’s groups that still expect the customer to pay for everything from a higher tax on wagers to improved testing protocols.

Despite all that, there are a number of positive takeaways that will be our focus, the hope that positive storylines continue moving the game forward while it continues to work out its problems in a meaningful way.

On balance, the racing between the fences has been stellar, but only at the higher echelons of the sport. The emergence of Palace Malice and Untapable as legitimate superstars in their divisions has been a welcome breath of freshness.

But the day-to-day sport has been underwhelming and with the exception of the sport’s highest profile venues, there simply remains too much racing. What is needed, particularly when it comes to smaller foal crops and field size, is addition by subtraction.

Providing their good health, the next starts for Palace Malice and Untapable will be most welcome wherever their connections decide to ship them. Of particular note is the ambitious campaign mapped out by Cot Campbell, one that includes Palace Malice appearances in the Whitney, Woodward, Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders’ Cup Classic.

It simply does not get any more high profile than that.

Whether the colt holds on to his divisional lead or returns to take measure of older horses at Santa Anita this fall, the homespun California Chrome saga, despite the disappointing Triple Crown finale and post-race histrionics, elevated racing to a place above-the-fold.

It will be interesting to see whether there’s more there there, such as a Horse of the Year title. Is he legitimately top class or was his success largely attributable to a blend of early development and experience. It will be fascinating theater provided by the dual classics winner and his connections.

The failure of California Chrome to seal the deal resulted in the emergence of a talented new challenger for the second half of the three-year-old year, Belmont Stakes-winning Tonalist, a late developer that figures to bring the Travers into sharp focus.

The Triple Crown chase nonetheless concluded on another positive note thanks to a policy change in the NYRA’s racing office that created the best event day this side of Breeders’ Cup, carding 10 stakes races including five Grade 1s.

That’s what makes tomorrow’s card so interesting. The Stars and Stripes Festival program attracted seven European grass runners, among others that started over there and wound up here with some of the best trainers in the game. There will be five graded stakes, including events for top sprinters and aspiring second-season sophomores.

The most encouraging and dramatic sign of progress in the first half of 2014 is a relatively new development; the emergence of the horseplayer as a political force that can affect change, almost at warp speed compared to the glacial pace at which progress is usually made in this sport.

Can’t speak for other betting-boycott supporters but I take no comfort from the fact that Churchill Downs Inc. took it on the fiscal chin to the tune of nearly $48-million in handle. That comes to $1.3 million every racing day not named Oaks or Derby. Without those days, business was down approximately 25 percent.

For all the slings and arrows shot its way, none of this would have been possible if it were not for dissenting voices on the Internet and social media. From websites speaking truth to power, to grass roots participation from fans in racing chat rooms, industry organizations took note.

The perfect storm for change turned out to be a disqualification in the final race of the day this winter at Gulfstream Park, allowing a carryover jackpot to continue. The DQ, in and of itself a controversial call, was met with great consternation and suspicion.

The response on the Internet was immediate and forceful, resulting in subsequent dialogue between fans and racetrack executives. The result was policy changes meant to improve the race adjudication process.

The back-and-forth bore fruit in that the response was in the main positive for bettors although, to date, not all promises have been kept. Horseplayers have long memories.

While no pleasure was taken from CDI’s travails, what was gratifying to see is what can happen when a disparate group of gamblers get together in a common cause. Bettors got mad as hell and decided not to take it anymore. Each passing day, the influence of a grass roots organization such as the Horseplayers Association of North America continues to gain influence and beginning to get invited to sit down at the table.

And, so, as the nation celebrates its freedoms this weekend, there is reason for a very small segment of the American people to feel optimistic about the future. We know it won’t happen overnight but it finally looks like we won’t get fooled again.

Written by John Pricci

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