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, April 18, 2009

Square Eddie Returns to Keeneland;Quality Road Works at Belmont

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 17, 2009--Today’s Grade 2 Coolmore Lexington is the last serious chance that Kentucky Derby prepsters have to earn graded cash and make it into the dance.

And it’s a damn good betting race if, that is, you take a winning position against early line favorite Square Eddie (9-5) and get it right. Easier said than done, of course, especially when the object is to beat a deserving favorite.

There’s no argument that, on demonstrated class, accomplishment and ability, Square Eddie is the “best horse” in the mile and a sixteenth two-turner for three year olds. But that doesn’t does not come without extenuating circumstances.

When last seen, the G1 Breeders’ Futurity winner on Keeneland’s Polytrack as a juvenile was finished second to The Pamplemousse in the G3 San Rafael on the Santa Anita Pro Ride. In between came a game second to Midshipman in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Unfortunately, he came out of the San Rafael with an injury and it was announced that he was off the Derby trail. That was then.

But now he’s made such a remarkably quick and complete recovery that he was able to work four times in preparation for a race in which no one, including his connections, believed he’d have a chance to compete, much less be favored to win.

Trainer Doug O’Neill said that the colt has kept himself remarkably fit with aerobic exercise and now, if he runs well and comes back well, you might see him again in two weeks. He doesn’t need the graded earnings so a win is not crucial.

Of the four recent workouts, O’Neill indicated the last two, both at three-quarters of a mile, were remarkable. The penultimate work was such that he invited owner Paul Reddam to see the latest work so that all would be on the same page about today‘s race.

Accomplishments notwithstanding, Square Eddie ran faster at 2 than most of his rivals have run this year on the Equiform scale. Given the anticipated development from 2 to 3, his performance figures are likely to improve accordingly, allowing him to maintain that edge.

After Square Eddie, the interesting runners in today’s race are Pitched Perfectly (15-1), Brave Victory (8-1), and Parade Clown (15-1). Should the favorite disappoint, any of these would have more than a puncher’s chance to upset the group.

Pitched Perfectly makes his first start since a private purchase by Lael Stables and Barclay Tagg from the Gray Contessa barn following a very fast effort on New York‘s winter track.

Not only did Pitched Perfectly earn the best performance figure in the field going long this year--enough reason to back him at the price--but Tagg is 31 percent efficient with new acquisitions.

Brave Victory was training well and fit the race shape very nicely for the G2 Swale on the Florida Derby undercard but for some reason never picked up his feet. His late kick might have been compromised by a speed-kind surface but that was never an issue.

The son of Lion subsequently has worked sharply at Churchill Downs, gets a switch to hot-riding Johnny Velazquez and show up here trying two turns. Nick Zito is crafty in this kind of scenario and for a career is profitable with his sprint to route stretch-outs.

Finally, there’s the very interesting, albeit slow, Parade Crown who appears to be rounding into top form. After a terrible sprint debut on this track at 2, he immediately began a distance campaign which, despite moderate results, has proven to his best game.

It was his latest at Turfway in the G2 Lane’s End that sticks out. After relaxing off the early pace for the first time since he adding blinkers five starts ago, he made a strong mid-race move to take the lead between calls but tired as the winning Hold Me Back zoomed on by.

But it clearly was an improved effort. Today, the blinkers are removed, indicating a complete change of tactics to a possible one-run scenario that could prove most beneficial. A rider switch to the hot, patient last-run specialist Julien Leparoux augurs well.

Good News for Quality Road Fans

For the second time since winning the Florida Derby and suffering a quarter crack, major Kentucky Derby contender Quality Road worked six furlongs in 1:12.03 at Belmont Park Friday morning, galloping out an additional furlong in 1:25.55.

“His foot looked like it’s all right,” said trainer Jimmy Jerkens. “Usually when you get this far, it’s OK.”

Jerkens said the colt would have one more work in New York next weekend, weather permitting, before shipping to Churchill Downs.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Musical Jockeys as Agents Sing Different Tune

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 15, 2009--The Oklahoma training track opened here this morning under far more temperate skies compared to the place from which I’ve just returned: Elmont, New York.

There’s a racetrack there, too, and it’s going to open soon, even as hale stones made an appearance on tax day. Fortunately, the event waited until we were well clear of the Westchester-Putnam line.

On the backsides of both downstate New York tracks, and in Lexington, and Stickney, Illinois, too, a familiar backstretch drama has been playing out for the past month and, in one case, even going back to last year.

It’s the familiar musical jockeys/musical agents go-round that would make for a different looking reality show than the one recently renewed by Animal Planet for a second season.

Anyway, perhaps you’ve seen a Dave Grening report in Daily Racing Form in which jockey agent Drew Mollica, who back in the day helped make the late Chris Antley a star, said that “he’s never been so personally and professionally embarrassed.”

The source of Mollica’s embarrassment was the result of his leaving jockey Richard Migliore to work for Eibar Coa, after Coa fired Matt Muzikar. Over the weekend, however, Coa and Muzikar, whose prior relationship was not without its moments, kissed and made up.

With Coa’s relationship with Muzikar now back on, Mollica was left at the altar and what I assume was an equally embarrassed and agent-less Migliore. Muzikar was a little cryptic about it all, saying only “nothing’s really changed. I got back together with him.”

Earlier this year, Coa credited Muzikar for helping him become only the fourth jockey in New York racing history to win more than 300 races in a single season. The other three are in the Hall of Fame. “This is since last year when I’ve been working with my new agent,” Coa said.

But despite winning all those races with his new agent, Coa felt compelled to place calls to super-agent Ron Anderson, apparently wishing to be elite level and rich at the same time.

These things happen, even among elite riders. Ultimately, of course, it’s about the Benjamins.

While Coa wasn’t returning Muzikar's phone calls since mid-March, the agent suspected he might on his way out. So he placed phone calls to Edgar Prado in Kentucky, who apparently also has a serious case of the Ron Anderson’s.

Prado wouldn’t commit to Muzikar, so the agent went back to talk with Coa after learning he had hired Mollica. When celebrations are held on the backstretch, party planners know not to invite Mollica and Muzikar to the same dance.

Where this leaves Prado’s current agent, Bob Frieze, known for his successful associations with Prado and Jerry Bailey--before Bailey fired him and hired, well, Ron Anderson--is not knowable at this time.

Meanwhile, it probably was pretty smart of Coa to hire Mollica, knowing it likely would light a fire under Muzikar.

Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

What’s really interesting is that while Coa and Muzikar were at odds, pre-Mollica, Muzikar had secured winning mounts on Musket Man in the Illinois Derby and General Quarters in the Blue Grass Stakes.

The jock’s share of those two pots represents for most people a year's pay for less than four minutes work. A top rider is worth his weight in Benjamins. Coa has committed to ride Musket Man in Kentucky. Julien Leparoux is likely to pick up the mount on General Quarters.

The Coa/Muzikar chatter over morning coffee wasn‘t the only jockey story that had training track railbirds chirping. Observers took time between gulps to cheer a jockey who's trying to get in shape for the Woodbine thoroughbred meet.

But it wasn’t a newcomer who was attracting encouragement from the railbirds. It was 63-year-old retired jockey Jorge Velasquez, a member of the Racing Hall of Fame since 1990.

Ironically, Velasquez had been working as an agent since his retirement and apparently has learned that 75 percent of 10 percent is greater than 25 percent of the same amount.

As it turns out, Migliore would not take Mollica back. He hired Roger Sutton, who guided up-and-comer Rajiv Maragh‘s recent fortunes. Maragh fired Sutton and hired the coveted Richard DePass, who left Cornelio Velasquez for Maragh.

Velasquez will now be handled by Kevin Meyocks, son of former NYRA President and current Jockey's Guild vice-president Terry Meyocks.

Any questions?

Revision made to this post on 4.16.09 correcting current status of 2009 Woodbine race meet

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

What Ever Happened to Juan Valdez?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 10, 2009--Some things, you know, are kicky. Such as when I received an e mail from Andrea Murta requesting an interview.

Murta is the New York correspondent for the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo and is writing a story on American horse racing which will appear in Sunday’s edition of her newspaper.

Since the paper is printed exclusively in Portuguese, I thought I’d share the interview with you because a) racing issues never get old for HRI’s audience and b) I'm assuming that, like me, your Portuguese might be a little rusty. Here goes:

Q: When do you think the sport began losing its audiences and why?

A: Attendance and handle began to flatten at the start of the last decade then showed shows of decreasing noticeably in the last few years. Actually, on-track attendance might have begun to lag earnestly in the 1980s with the proliferation of simulcast wagering. When the point of ticket-purchase changed, so did where the fans went to wager. It became a convenience market.

Current Internet wagering adds to this dynamic. In terms of developing new fans, there was a lack of leadership in the U.S. because there’s no central authority. The states and individuals tracks thought--and probably still think--of themselves as competitors. The states show no appreciation for this agri-business, only the revenue it raises. The rash of catastrophic breakdowns in our signature events this millennium has hurt the game significantly in terms of how racing is perceived by the general public.

Q: Is the current situation dangerous for the future of horse racing in the country?

A: Racing is at a crossroads. It must find ways to keep fans/bettors engaged and to attract new ones. In crisis there is opportunity. The industry has begun to make some strides. The hope is that it isn’t too little, too late.

Q: When was horse racing in its prime and what was different then?

A: In pre-World War II times, events like racing, college sports and boxing were king. In modern times, the golden era for racing was the 1970s as three American Triple Crown winners emerged. There was far less competition for the wagering dollar. Later, the growth in leisure time activities didn’t include going to the races.

To appreciate the beauty of thoroughbred racing is easy but to sustain it by teaching the audience how to appreciate it through the art/science of handicapping comes with a steep learning curve.

As the desire to learn waned as America turned its attention to money and consumerism, that lifestyle didn’t lend itself easily to the patience needed to learn anything. Better marketing practices would have helped here, but that’s too easy to say without proposing a solution to the problem.

Q: Have (cq) the economic crisis affected the races much? I have some numbers that show that the wagering is lower now than it was last year, when it already wasn’t ideal...

A: As stated, wagering flattened then started to decrease. Actually, racing was doing fairly well when compared to other industries after the market crash of September, 2008, including the first two months of 2009. Handle was down but not as low as the economy in general. But March was an eye-opener; down over 10 percent compared to 2008, the first double-digit decrease I can remember.

Q: Would a different model for horse racing, one that didn’t depend on bets, be feasible?

A: A different wagering model would be feasible but not the elimination of wagering altogether. Wagering dollars sustain purses. Without either there would be no industry. Besides, a big part of racing’s allure is that it’s a participatory sport.

Q: In Brazil there is a large discussion on whether horse racing is a real sport, because of the betting system. What do you think of that discussion, is horse racing a sport for you?

A: That same conversation is being held here as well and there is passion on both sides. In my heart of hearts, I don’t understand it. For me, the love of the contest as theatre, the appreciation of thoroughbreds as magnificent creatures, my personal enjoyment and need for wagering as an adjunct means of income, and the gratification that comes from correctly “predicting” future outcomes are notmutually exclusive events. I will never accept such limited thinking.

Q: Are the jockeys athletes like in any other sport?

A: Jockeys are the most underappreciated athletes in all of sports. Are golfers athletes? Race car drivers? Those games are tests of skill and physical stamina, which for me defines what athletics are. Not only is a jockey’s job inherently dangerous, but 110-pound people guiding thousand-pound animals through narrow openings with proper timing and strength without the benefit of being able to call a “time out” to strategize at 40 miles per hour is appreciated not nearly enough.

Q: How does the wagering, if so, interfere with the sport side of horse racing?

A: It only “interferes” with the sport side when that becomes the perception observers choose to see. Actually, wagering is an enhancement by providing a truly meaningful rooting interest, helping successful bettors identify with their favorite horsemen; the jockeys and trainers, an appreciation for their skill sets. Every person who ever wagered on a horse will tell you that the wager helps intensify interest by narrowing the focus and appreciation for the athletic event.
Q: Finally, have you heard of a female jockey from Brazil named Maylan Studart? If so, what do you think of her?

A: From the little I’ve seen, horses run for her, so, obviously, she’s able to communicate with her hands through the reins what she wants from her mount. As far as athletic X’s and O’s are concerned, I don’t follow winter racing in New York closely enough on a daily basis to have a firm opinion of her skill set. They’ll be plenty of time to observe her at Belmont Park and Saratoga later this summer.

Written by John Pricci

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