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, March 06, 2009

Three Hall of Fame Categories a Real Horse Race

Saratoga Springs, NY, March 5, 2009--I always look forward to receiving my Hall of Fame ballot in the mail. It provides a chance to recall good memories, and handicap the races after they’ve been run. I find it easier that way.

Much has been written and said regarding the process of selecting nominees. I don’t particularly care for the present method either, but it is what it is. Besides, the game has a lot weightier issues with which to deal. I’ll take a pass this year.

With one exception: There has to be the same number of nominees in each category with a minimum of three or higher. When there are only two candidates, it gives a not-so-subtle impression that the nominating committee favors one particularly popular candidate.

And we’re not going to name names here.

(Bob Baffert).

The following is ballot is sure to raise some discussion, such is the degree of difficulty in categories where a clear choice was not easily made. Resultantly, the list of new Hall of Fame members, to be announced April 20, should be interesting, indeed:

A final note: I believe all Halls of Fame should be occupied by candidates who were dominant performers and not compilers of statistics. But, like baseball, horse racing is stats oriented.

Unlike automatic benchmarks such as 3,000 hits (Pete Rose?) and 300 wins for a pitcher, racing doesn’t have universally accepted standards.

My personal standards are 15 percent lifetime wins for jockeys and 4,000 career victories; 20 percent win ratio for trainers and for horses one truly dominant stakes season, especially in the short-career era. Good production records as sires or broodmares breaks ties, etc..

One man’s ballot:

TRAINER: Bob Baffert over Robert Wheeler. Deserving of first-round status based on consistent accomplishment at the highest levels of the sport. It’s one thing to have the stock to work with. It’s another to get the job done against rivals that also have the stock to win the big one.

His career highlights include four Double Crowns--meaning eight three-year-old classics, coming within a scant nose from making history--and seven Breeders’ Cup wins, twice winning two on one program. He developed 10 champions and, at 56, is the fifth leading money-winning of all time.

Baffert’s won three Eclipse Awards, was leading trainer at no less than 20 Southern California race meets and storied races too numerous to mention. He’s saddled graded stakes winners at a 23 percent rate over a most prolific career. Most deserving, indeed.

Now the categories become difficult and are sure to become rife with controversy, the kind of good controversy that any sport would happily live with.

JOCKEY: Randy Romero, over Alex Solis and Eddie Maple. Romero was much sought after in his day, winning with 18 percent of his stakes mounts, 17 percent graded, with an overall win percentage of 16.46 and riding 4,294 winners.

The jockeys like to use earnings as their barometer for success, me, not so much. But in deference, Romero ranks 52nd on the list of the 100 leading money-earners of all-time. In winning percentage, Romero ranks 32nd on the all-time list. Of the 31 ahead of him, 13 are in the Hall of Fame.

As a rule, most jockeys do well at a particular meeting or circuit. Level of competition, familiarity and past success breeds more live mounts. Noteworthy, then, that Romero was a leading rider at 10 different tracks.

In terms of individual highlights, he rode five champions, including the undefeated Personal Ensign, five straight winners at Keeneland, six winners on one card, and four stakes one afternoon at Gulfstream Park.

The intangible, of course, is his extraordinary courage, coming back to ride in four months after suffering first and second degree burns over 60 percent of his body in a sweatbox accident to enjoy his most success. Even now, it’s dialysis four times per week. Still, separating him from the two other nominees was difficult.

CONTEMPORARY HORSE-MALE: Best Pal, over Tiznow and Point Given. Voters could be talking about this year’s category a long time. Tiznow and Point Given were undeniably brilliant.

Tiznow remains the only dual (repeat) winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic and was Horse of the Year at 3. Point Given went 9-for-13 including the Preakness, Belmont and Mid-Summer Derby, also a Horse of the Year at 3. They were dominant but raced only two seasons with 28 career starts between them.

Best Pal raced for seven years, started 47 times, won 18 with another 15 in-the-money finishes. Of those 18 wins, 17 were stakes. True, while much of his success was limited to California, he was one of only four horses to ever win the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup and Charles H. Strub Stakes triad.

Only seven horses among the top 100 money earners all-time have more wins, five are in the Hall of Fame.

Enjoying “people’s horse” status for his honesty and longevity, he was facile enough to win five stakes at 2, including two Grade 1s. In the history of the game, he’s a storied geldings, not quite Kelso or Forego but close enough to earn this vote.

CONTEMPORARY HORSE-FEMALE: Sky Beauty, over Silverbulletday and Open Mind. Almost impossible to choose between three nominees who enjoyed dominating careers, but each with flaws. Open Mind was 12-for-19 in her career, and Silverbulletday was 15-for-23. But neither ever beat an older horses when they were 3 or 4.

I’ve resisted voting for Sky Beauty in other years. In compiling a 15-for-21 lifetime slate, a better percentage than her Hall of Fame rivals, she never won a race outside of New York. But at 4 she went 5-for-6, four of them G1. At 5 she won again, and was retired one race after finishing second to last year’s inductee, Inside Information, in the G1 Shuvee.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Fountain of Youth Wide Open; Sham Not So Much

Saratoga Springs, NY, February 27, 2009--Two significant Kentucky Derby preps today, one with major implications, as the road to Louisville begins to heat up with the calendar rapidly approaching March.

The Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, while a one turn mile, remains meaningful, such is the talent level among the dozen entrants that will spring from the Gulfstream Park gate down the chute for that long backstretch run.

Santa Anita offers the G3 Sham Stakes at nine furlongs. What the two turner provides in race dynamics it lacks in major faces. So if neither race excites, not to worry. Next week the scores can really change.

Next Saturday’s Gotham will provide serious clues regarding how a pair of brilliant speedsters, Haynesfield and Mr. Fantasy, can stand a significant class rise and quality pace pressure.

The Gotham will also show if the talented, lightly seasoned Imperial Council is as good as the hype. And we’ll see just how the solid Left Coaster, I Want Revenge, handles real dirt in his debut over Aqueduct’s winter-track surface.

There’s significantly more brilliance (read ability) in the Fountain of Youth than will be on display in the Sham. A lot more.

Such are the lofty Equiform performance figures earned by two of the Fountain’s dozen, Notonthesamepage and This Ones For Phil, final numbers of 80.25 and 81, respectively. That kind of gas would win most Breeders’ Cup Sprints, and it’s only February.

How those sprint figures translate to eight furlongs is the question. But brilliance, especially that kind of zip, must be highly respected. At 4-1 and 3-1, respectively, they are the early line choices for what has been a traditional stepping stone to the Florida Derby.

If only strict adherence to performance figures made things easy. If my life depended on it, I’d look to handicap a walkover. And this is far from a walkover as you can get. For my life it would be This Ones For Phil, and not just because he’s “fastest.”

The facts are that he’s handled pace pressure before, unlike many of today’s rivals, and is proven at the distance. [And trainer Rick Dutrow does well from outside posts in three year old stakes at Gulfstream, if you recall].

In this case, an outside position is an advantage. With all the speed inside, Edgar Prado can read and react; sit off a suicidal pace or put pressure on a soft one. Is the colt set up for a regression? If he doesn’t bounce, he’s Secretariat. Still, he’s the most likely winner. And a bad bet.

The problem is knowing where to go. While ‘Phil’ must be included in the wagering mix, at least defensively, bettors must lose the second choice to secure value. If you’re right about ‘Phil,’ you must beat Notonthesamepage, hoping the other speeds run him into the ground.

Capt. Candyman Can is right behind the two favorites on performance figures, has the right running style, a great post, and the strong finishing Julien Leparoux. He’s a very logical alternative, But Ian Wilkes is a Carl Nafzger protégé.

As such, Wilkes doesn’t want another peak performance in a one turn race. If the goal is Louisville, he runs evenly here, moves forward in the Florida Derby, and peaks in Kentucky. Or the other way around.

It’s unfortunate that guessing is a prescription for parimutuel disaster.

There are three interesting price horses in the Fountain of Youth: Theregoesjojo (15-1), Break Water Edison (15-1) and Quality Road (8-1).

‘Jojo’ looked like Cujo coming down the stretch winning his Gulfstream debut, his first race since July’s Bashford Manor. Trainer Ken McPeek, 32 percent at the meet, is good with stretch-outs, his colt’s distance pedigree is there and Kent Desormeaux is three for his last five rides for the outfit. The inside post can be a blessing or curse, depending on the break. Jojo’s developing very nicely.

Taking Break Water Edison would an act of faith. He hates racing inside and drew the rail in his Hutcheson debut. He was so bad that you wonder how much he got out of it. Trainer John Kimmel adds blinkers, the colt moves outside, stretches to his best distance, and ran fast enough at two to compete here. But that last race..?

Quality Road is a huge talent. A poor start compromised him when beaten by ‘Jojo’ in his first start this year. Following his good placing, he’s worked five times--25 furlongs in 28 days--and his recent five furlongs of :58.4 was the fastest of 109 three year olds to work that week on Palm Meadows deepish surface. Trainer Jimmy Jerkens is 26 percent with first-time Lasix runners. I’d take 6-1 or more.

The best Sham horses on performance figures are The Pamplemousse (9-5), Mr. Hot Stuff (7-2) and Take the Points (3-1), also entered in the Fountain of Youth but expected to run here.

Take the Points never has taken a backward step in four starts, earning a competitive figure last out, but is unproven at nine furlongs. He has stamina and grass on the bottom of his family, which augurs well for Pro-Ride, and attracts Garrett Gomez who must negotiate the 12 post.

Mr. Hot Stuff, like Take the Points, is unproven at the trip but jumped up big time in his last, like many three year olds this time of year, and he’s as “fast” as the favorite. The recent graduate is bred to run up the side of a mountain, as racetrackers say.

The Pamplemousse is a worthy and deserving favorite. Developing beautifully, he showed speed and class to win the G3 San Rafael and added distance poses little problem. He’s worked five times since the San Rafael, some of the bullet variety. Trainer Julio Canani, 38 percent at the meet, is an ace with distance types. Alex Solis will try to ride him to a third consecutive win.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, February 27, 2009

Have Lunch at the Track

Saratoga Springs, NY, February 26, 2009--Caught up with the Terry Finley show today on replay. Finley is the founder and president of West Point Thoroughbreds. WPT buys at auction, syndicates, and manages the careers of young race horses in partnership with public investors.

I wasn’t expecting much, figuring that it would be a new, clever way of marketing the brand and increasing exposure within the industry. But I was happy to learn it was something more.

In a Webinar lasting approximately 48 minutes, including a brief Q & A session following Finley’s remarks, the former West Point graduate and eight-year service veteran gave an unsolicited state of the industry address.

Again, I was expecting to get what I often hear whenever industry people make public statements; self serving, self congratulatory rhetoric about how we’re making some not-so-great things better.

And I would have been wrong twice within three paragraphs.

Not that there weren’t the usual platitudes but, on balance, Finley’s remarks rang true. One good thing in these dire times is that the economic pendulum has swung back in favor of the end user, he said.

I braced myself for the sales pitch. But there was none, unless it was buried in a subliminal frame.

Because in this environment stud fees have come down, and bottom level mares likely won't be put back into production, elements that are good for buyers and an industry that over-breeds and to date has done a poor job repurposing its retired racehorses.

Finley didn’t sugar-coat current realities, acknowledging the rough sledding ahead and how the industry needs to stabilize and move forward, underscoring by citing the big public negatives of 2008: Eight Belles and steroids.

It was refreshing to hear from a horseman that of racing’s four major components: breeders, owners, tracks and bettors, it was the bettors who were least recognized until now, and how many of them have lost confidence in the industry.

On that players would agree: they have lost confidence, and they resent paying more in takeout, I.e., when they‘re not shut out by a wagering platform dispute.

Indeed, progress has been made in ridding the game of steroids and the elimination and/or modification of toe grabs. And Finley did cite positive NTRA initiatives on injury and fatality reporting and prevention; safety equipment and environment; medication and testing; jockey safety and health, and aftercare and transition of retired stock, components needed for track certification within the NTRA franchise.

But there was no mention of NTRA’s neutral position on the enabling of equicide. Perhaps NTRA is hoping for funding from the American Horse Council organization which, incredibly, stands neutral on the horse slaughter issue. The public at large considers neutrality on this indefensible.

Finley is correct that the tracks, NTRA, and Breeders’ Cup take many unfair knocks, adding he’s tired of hearing it. Apparently he is unaware of the industry’s thin skin and penchant for shooting messengers.

And if it were not for an independent media, where would the impetus for change come from? What would be the incentive for eliminating the status quo? Which organizations would willingly jeopardize the bottom line in the interests of doing no harm?

But Finley is one of the game’s few practitioners to make a pro-active contribution, in this case launching an initiative he calls F.A.T.E.--Find A Thoroughbred Enthusiast. He is asking West Point’s associates to introduce three people to racing before the first Saturday in May.

“Buy them lunch, introduce them to the Racing Form and all the other aspects of the magic we live every day.

“What I'd suggest, if you derive any pleasure whatsoever from our business, is to make it a point and your mandate to bring at least three people into our great business.

"We have a chance to capture an all-new group of fans, a new group of bettors. We have an opportunity now to really make this business bigger and stronger.”

Finley wants bettors with a vested interest in the health of the game to take “fate” into their own hands. Bringing a few people to the track is certainly not an unreasonable request, although I suggest it should be a day that you don’t love the card.

I wrote a recent blog about how I introduced a young man named Brian to the Saratoga simulcast during the holiday season. He called last weekend to talk Derby Futures. He did his homework, asked intelligent questions, wanted to know if Old Fashioned was for real.

I can’t vouch for the answers but I did my best. OK, so for me, it’s one down, two more to go. The rest of it is up to all of us.

Written by John Pricci

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