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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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Two Winners; Singular Achievement

LAS VEGAS, Jan. 25, 2008--Call it the duel in the desert. Da-da-da-da-da-dum. Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-dum. Da-da-da-da-da-dum.

It began with 683 handicappers on Thursday in a ballroom at the Orleans. It's called the Horseplayer World Series and, in the immortal words of Frank Pentangeli, there were more people than a ballgame in there.

Yesterday at the Red Rock Resort and Casino, 276 more joined the fray on day one of the co-sponsored DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championships. When the tournaments conclude with the final race from Golden Gate Fields Saturday afternoon at 4:15 p.m. Vegas time, prize money totaling $1.75-million will have been won.

On the morning of Day 2 at the HWS, David Curich, a weekend warrior who qualified by winning the Daytona Beach Kennel Club tournament, was in first place, having picked seven winners from 11 chances opening day. "A little handicapping and a little luck," said the 40-year handicapping veteran.

Luck ran out Friday as Curich slid to 17th, $800 behind new leader Ken Hopkins, who sprinkled in enough longshots from a glut of short-priced winners from coast to coast. He accumulated mythical earnings of $2,134.60, good enough to accumulate $9,100 in folding money.

Horsemen and industry people have been doing well in these tournaments. While horseman Kevin Matties of Saratoga Springs slipped from second on Day 1 to 25th yesterday, brother Gregg came from nowhere to place 28th going into the final session.

Anthony Pecoraro was in sixteenth at the end of Day 2, although HRI was unable to confirm at posting whether or not it indeed was the Delaware-based trainer.

But there is no denying that Doug Bredar is the racing secretary at Louisiana Downs and he was enjoying a good afternoon, 15th place on opening day of the NHC. While Bredar works at an NTRA member track, he does not get paid by that organization, thus becoming eligible after qualifying.

Ron Geary, president and CEO of Ellis Park, and his son Mark, an executive at the Western Kentucky track, failed to make the leader board on Day 1, nor did Bill Downs, the track announcer at Beulah Park.

(There were no sightings of the Beulah Twins, either as contestants or handicapping advisers to Downs. Nor were visuals made on Florida-based jockeys, although there was a Gary Bain on the NHC leader board).

While you may work in the industry and be allowed to compete, tournament players cannot own nor be related to horsemen having horses running in a mandatory contest race. There were two such possibilities for Saturday's program but those players have been given a new mandatory race, the Aqueduct finale.

There are 15 NHC contest races daily; eight mandatory, seven optional. Players may select from seven different tracks Saturday including Santa Anita, which canceled for a second consecutive day today. The NTRA's Eric Wing, in his best Michael Buffer impression, announced that Santa Anita intends to race Saturday barring more precipitation.

Are we to expect three-quarters of a mile in 1:05?

Many veteran contest players were having problems staving off a lengthy parade of winning favorites. Kathy Kissman, a worker at Ballys who competed in the 2001 NHC, qualified for this edition on line but admitted she was out of her comfort zone making win-place wagers on logical favorites. A trifecta specialist, she'll try to adjust better on Saturday.

Defending champion Stanley Bavlish is living the dream, even if the longshots he specializes were not winning. I'm not having a great day, but the best part of these things is having the opportunity to meet people in the business.

"I was at the Eclipse Awards on Monday sitting at a table with Bob Baffert, and he's still angry with Kent for moving too soon [on Real Quiet]."

Mimicking the story-teller by pounding the fist of his left hand into his right--"I told him to wait, I told him to wait,"--"I discovered that the biggest names in the game are no different than any of us.

"It's been great. Doug O'Neill came up to me at the dinner and introduced himself to me," he said with no small measure of incredulity.

In its first year, the Red Rock has a magnificent chandelier that greets you as you walk through the front doors of the hotel. Elevators and spiral staircases take you to a second floor that houses a casino replete with a poker room, restaurants, various other eateries, and a state of the art but not particularly spacious sports and race book.

But its lighting and graphics are excellent, easy on the eyes. A ballroom might have been a more comfortable venue but a decision was made to start out on a modest scale.

In its ninth season, the NHC still seeks a permanent home. It might this high scale edifice located about 10 miles from the strip; west, then north, on I-215 from Tropicana Ave. Traffic patterns were especially dense at mid-day due to the re-routing caused by the Monte Carlo fire. Thankfully there were no serious injuries.

Whatever happens Saturday, there will be winners but no losers. All NHC players qualified in satellite contests, a clear accomplishment. The Shurman brothers, noted in our Friday blog, were either on or near the leader board today and their handicapping colleague Steve Wolfson Sr. was in third prior to the posting of final Day 1 results.

It all comes down Saturday, the final day at both the HWS and NHC, when the scores, real or imagined, can really change.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Bred To Bet vs. Pick 4 King in Horseplayer World Series

LAS VEGAS, Jan. 24, 2008--George Grennan Jr. and Paul Sherman arrived at the 2008 Horseplayer World Series via routes that are at once different yet the same. Each can be found regularly at Suffolk County OTB on Long Island, and each qualified by winning satellite contests. But that's where the similarity ends.

In March, Grennan won the first of two annual Suffolk OTB contests to qualify for the HWS. Stewart arrived at the HWS via a most unusual qualifying contest at Louisiana Downs racetrack. In that contest qualifiers were graded on the number of Pick 4s they could bet in a month, spanning a period of six months from June through October.

Thirty days hath September; 11 Pick 4s hath Stewart. But there was a catch. According to tournament rule, only winning Pick 4s that paid minimum odds of 750-1 counted toward the contest.

You can do the math.

For Grennan, there was no choice other than to become a full time horseplayer. I went to John Adams High School which butted up against Aqueduct. My friends and I got 50 cents for lunch money every day. We'd spend lunch hour rounding up nickels and dimes until we had enough for the daily double, he remembered.

'One day we hit one for $200 and went home by limousine. It was one of those cars that used to take people right from Aqueduct to the trotters. We lived in Howard Beach. It only cost us five bucks.'

Four decades later, Grennan is one of 681 horseplayers competing in the 2008 HWS. A 'sheets' player since the mid-80s, Grennan combines a gift for finding value with an ability to 'read between the lines.'

"Some trainers can move horses up pretty good," he said.

Grennan's first three plays on opening day of the HWS finished first, second and third. It was a morning when horseplayers throughout the contest area were lamenting the wet tracks at Gulfstream and Fair Grounds and a lack of turf racing virtually everywhere, including Tampa Bay Downs, where the track was fast but the grass races were rescheduled.

There would no relief from Southern California, either. Santa Anita canceled their races owing to rain and continuing problems with Cushion Track. Reports began circulating that Santa Anita might cancel Friday too so that the surface might be whipped into shape for Saturday's nationally televised Sunshine Millions program. The Sunshine Millions is expected to be the focus for Saturday's final day of the National Handicapping Championships at the Red Rock Resort and Casino.

For his part, Stewart didn't see his first live race until the age of 21, when brother Bill took him to Belmont Park. "We hit the double, and that was it," said the man who's been spending recent years making up for lost time.

Stewart is a self-described 'handicapping tour veteran,' playing in about 20 contests a year in six different states and another three on-line. The Louisiana Downs contest that qualified him for the HWS was played with real dollars from Stewart's own simulcast outlet. By rule, all bets had to be placed at the same venue, a photo ID of the winning ticket had to be presented for verification, accompanied by a W2G IRS form.

"I've got plenty of those now," he said.

By finishing second in a handicapping contest at Aqueduct early this year, he also qualified for the NHC, which begins Friday. But don't count on brother Bill to act as his surrogate at the HWS while he plays in the NHC, which doesn't allow proxies. Bill, now living in California, also qualified for both contests.

Paul Stewart now has qualified for the NHC for six consecutive years. In fact, he and brother Bill have competed against each other on five occasions. They are now tied with the brothers Gallo, Randy and Ross, as families with the most winning trips into same-contest finals.

Paul and Bill Stewart are members of what might best be termed racing's only Grade 1 contest conglomerate. The father and son team of Steve Wolfson Sr. and Steve Jr. hail from the famed Wolfson family of Triple Crown winner Affirmed, the chestnut colt owned and bred by recently deceased racing family scion Louis Wolfson. They are part of a five-member group that also includes fellow contest handicapper Mitch Sherman.

All five barnstormers will be in action this weekend. When they are not in the thick of the competition, they are there is support of each other. Paul is a sheets player; brother Bill and Sherman are trip handicappers and, as you might surmise, the Wolfsons are pedigree experts, among other things.

"Actually, I did a little advance pedigree work myself for this weekend and it took me two to three days," said Stewart. "It's a lot of work, but I don't know of a better way to spend your retirement," explained the youthful 54-year-old. "I've made great friends over the years. I enjoy the camaraderie, and I know plenty of people in this room," he said, swiveling around to survey the cavernous Mardi Gras Ballroom at the Orleans.

So, like Butch and Sundance, you might be thinking: "Who are these guys?"

They are five horseplayers good enough to qualify for this weekend's handicapping bonanza, and at least four of them have qualified for the NHC every year since 2003.

While two entries in the same contest are not permitted, Stewart qualified for the NHC by finishing second in the Connecticut OTB contest at Bradley and by winning the on-line contest on the same day.

"Guess I'm the only player in history to qualify twice in one day. Actually finished second in Bradley twice. The same guy beat me both times."

Tough beat, Paul. Perhaps the third-time-charm thing might work out better for you next year. Unless, of course, you win the whole thing this time, in which case you'll be back to defend your title in 2009.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

New Best Friends Reunited at Horseplayer World Series

LAS VEGAS, Jan. 23, 2008--Although the two largest handicapping contests in America dont start until tomorrow; the 3-day Horseplayer World Series at the Orleans and the 2-day National Handicapping Championships Friday and Saturday at the Red Rock Resort and Casino, horseplayers from all over began converging on the Orleans this morning.

There are two ways to get into the HWS: become certified in a qualifying contest or walk in, plunk down your g-note and take a seat.

The Mardi Gras Ballroom at the Orleans is a cavernous place. When you walk inside it conjures up more World Series of Poker than Horseplayer World Series. Table after table are lined up like so many soldiers in row almost as far as the eye can see.

Randi Muniz and her contest staff barely had time to pick up their heads as players queued up to sign in, pick up their information packets, and were assigned seats from which they will view the agonies and ecstasies that will play themselves out in the next 72 hours at eight different racetracks across the country.

Edward Wright, a 51-year-old horseplayer from New York City, was one of the first seated and hes anxious for the contest to begin. Hes been waiting more than a year for it, in fact qualifying in what he termed a mini-contest at Delaware Park in early January, 2007. This made him the first contestant qualified for the fourth annual HWS and apparently he wanted to take the catbird seat in front of banks of large-screen TVs that surround the contest area.

This is Wrights second trip back to the HWS. Last year he walked in off the street, signed up and finished in a dead-heat for 27th among 715 players, taking home $1,787 in prize money.

Coming from someone such as myself, who went 0-for-14 years in the original but now defunct World Series of Handicapping at Penn National Race Course, thats a damn good maiden debut.

Wright fell in love with the game like many horseplayers do; by winning his first bet. In 1985, Wright, who prefers grass racing and uses a trip handicapping approach, walked into an NYC-OTB parlor, looked at the entries for the next race in New York and decided to play an exacta box, E-F. Back in the day, OTB used letters instead of numbers in a silly attempt at branding its product.

Wright knew what an exacta was but didnt know how to mark his slip to reflect the reverse, or boxed wager. As post time neared, and with anxious bettors behind him in line yelling horseplayer obscenities, he simply told the clerk just give me another ticket.

When Tara K.--Ill never forget her name-- finished first, and the F horse placed, the old E-F exacta, which he now had twice, paid over $500 per ducat.

For the next year, Edward Wright paid for the privilege of cashing that first bet. I started looking at the form and was betting on horses that won two or three races in a row. You know, how were they going to lose? I didnt realize it was one thing to beat $10,000 claimers three times but another to win an allowance race.

Although he lost that first full year, he really enjoyed the game. I read all the books and gradually I started to learn what to do. So how did he plan to bring home the lions share of $750,000 this weekend?

Wright was distracted before he could answer. Hey, how you doin? he asked Louis Licata of Cleveland, who went to Thistledown when he was 12 and has been playing the horses ever since. Annes with me, he informed Edward.

Anne Moore, also of Cleveland, qualified at a satellite contest for the HWS. Louis will be at the Orleans tomorrow cheering her on, but the next day hell be shooting for first prize of $500,000 in the NHC. Licata, who plays in about six contests a year, and Moore met Wright at last years HWS.

Apparently the couple that plays together stays together even when ones punting on the other side of town.

I used to play sprints, I loved speed, Licata said of his approach. But now I on concentrate on grass races. And Anne?

I love maiden races, Moore said, a horseplayer for about three years. The fewer the starts, the better. I watch the post parade and try to find the happy horse, said Moore, a student of equine body language. She can pick up kidney sweat from a half a mile away, Licata said, showing no small amount of pride.

You know, its a shame, he added, that both contests had to take place the same weekend. I love this contest. Its wide open; you can play any track you want. But the NHC is really exciting. There have eight mandatory races and when you get down to the end, everybodys looking at the same race. I think its the loudest noise I ever heard.

Wright, meanwhile, was enjoying the camaraderie of it all but was ready to turn his attention to business. Last year, the winning total [from 11 mythical $20 win-place HWS wagers on each day] was $2,929. I figure that $3,000 can win it this year. Ill just try to build a bankroll the first day then [play it off the standings after that].

There will be over a thousand horse stories in Sin City this weekend and this has been three of them. So grab those trip notes and speed figures. Its going to be a bumpy ride.

* * *

The Steam at the Orleans: The hottest bet in town doesnt have four legs, a mane and a tail. In fact, it has is 44 legs, 22 on each side of the ball. High ankle sprains to Future Hall of Fame quarterbacks notwithstanding, the New York Football Giants have been the side in early Super Bowl wagering. The Perfect Pats opened a two-touchdown favorite but are now minus-12. But its the money line thats interesting. The game opened at a somewhat moderate -500 +375, meaning if you like the Patriots you bet $500 to make $100. A c-note on the Giants gets you $375. Today at 2 p.m. EST, the line moved to -425, +325.

Written by John Pricci

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