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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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Russ Harris, Coastal and the 1979 Belmont Stakes

ELMONT, NY, June 2, 2009--With so many handicappers and Triple Crown fans intent on riding the Charitable Man bandwagon into the Belmont Stakes winners‘ circle on Saturday, I offer this embellishment-free memory.

I do this because I can never look at another impressive Peter Pan Stakes winner and not think of Coastal, and I can’t think of Coastal without thinking about a recently retired colleague and competitor, Russ Harris.

For better or worse, much of what I have evolved into as a public handicapper I owe to Harris, who recently retired as lead handicapper, reporter and columnist for the New York Daily News. A dedicated journalist, Harris also served in the stewards stand in what has been a distinguished career in thoroughbred racing spanning a half century. And you'd have to go back that far, to Dave "King" Wilson in New England, one of the original speed handicappers, to find anyone who might have picked more winners than Russ Harris.

My understanding of the game over the years has matured, but one never knows what might have been had I not made the decision to change my approach to picking winners, going from the visual school of trip handicapping to the world of speed figures and trends analysis.

My first meaningful professional experience began here, in the long shadows of Belmont Park, at Newsday in 1976, whose offices were in nearby Garden City then. And before long, the dog-eat-dog world of New York tabloid journalism had spread to the press boxes of New York's racetracks.

Working in close proximity and reading the competition daily, it was impossible not to know who you had to beat for bragging rights at the end of any race meet. And it seemed as if John Piesen of the New York Post and myself were always chasing “the reverend,” as Harris was called, the nickname a paean to his button-down manner.

Matching myself against Harris every meeting, I went through a streak where Harris kicked butt over a sustained period. Using my trip notes, I had the edge when it came to ferreting out longshots but could never match him in number of winners picked. In those days newspapers didn’t keep bankroll stats as most do today.

So I reasoned that if I had a good set of figures I would know where Harris was coming from. Then, if I had no firm opinion about the most likely winner of a particular race, I probably could match his speed-figure selection and scoop him with the bias play or tough tripper.

I wanted it all which, in retrospect, is not the best approach. Most good handicappers specialize, and at the beginning I found myself all over the handicapping map not knowing what to trust; the figures or my own lyin’ eyes. I thought it was possible to have the best of both worlds.

Very often it worked, more often it didn’t. It was so frustrating. I watched replays intently--and they were not as readily available as they are today--transcribing trip notes into charts scissored from the Racing Form, adding the figures later. I wanted the whole package. I never missed a day of live racing--six days a week back then.

Meanwhile, Harris did the handicapping from his study on the Main Line in Philadelphia, graced the press box with his presence on Saturdays and walked and talked with such superior bearing that you couldn’t wait for him to return home until the following week.

But I’ve never met a handicapper worth his salt who wasn’t egocentric. You needed to guard against adopting a messiah complex, but more often the game is so humbling that you need a defense mechanism or the bad picks and constant bad beats will erode your confidence completely.

And lack of confidence leads to indecision. Indecision leads to mistakes. Mistakes lead to the poor house.

To my knowledge, Harris never suffered a crisis of confidence. If he did, it never showed. When Coastal upset the 1979 Belmont over Triple Crown aspirant Spectacular Bid off a big-figure, 13-length romp in the Peter Pan, Harris wouldn’t let anyone forget.

He beat the 1-5 Spectacular Bid with the 4-1 Coastal.

Having a flare for the dramatic, Harris rose from his seat in the Santa Anita press box in 1986, cheering the European longshot Mile winner Last Tycoon home with the seldom heard horseplayer’s exhortation: “VIVA LA FRANCE!… VIVA LA FRANCE!… VIVA LA FRANCE!

He might have been called the reverend but that never kept him from visiting the betting windows more than occasionally.

One day, Piesen related a story of how he was recounting some recent good fortune to Harris, picking two handfuls of winners on one particular Aqueduct afternoon: “If I worked for your outfit,” Harris told Piesen flat out, “they would build a statue for me on South Street.”

Harris was no less guarded but he did mellow some on the road. One night after the races with our wives, we went for a bite after the first night of the “World Series of Handicapping” at Penn National Race Course in tiny Grantville, Pa., the granddaddy of all handicapping tournaments.

That night Harris and I swapped family stories and I learned of his love for history and his intention to return to school for his doctorate. Eventually he got it, too, from Lehigh University, after submitting a 378-page thesis on Charles de Gaulle’s relationship with six American presidents. At 75, he became Doctor Harris.

Strange what the mind conjures up. When I think of him now, I remember a photograph of Harris and other reporters interviewing a trainer after the Flamingo Stakes, the black-and-white photo hanging on the fourth-floor wall just around the corner from the rickety elevator at Hialeah Park.

I remember, too, sharing a cab ride in Louisville with Newsday colleague Paul Moran on our way to cover the Kentucky Derby. I was lamenting about one thing or another, as press guys will, how the paper just didn’t appreciate their handicapper enough, ya-da, ya-da.

“What are you worried about,” said Moran, “one day Harris will retire and you’ll get his job at the Daily News.”

Harris finally walked away, in the same year I became eligible for Medicare. That figures. Numbers don’t lie.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Horseplayer’s Appetite Demands a Varied Menu

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 29, 2009--My friend “The Vinman” is at it again. I know that there are several Vinmans populating racing chat rooms everywhere, but we‘re talking about the REAL Vinman here.

For better or worse, he’s the one from New Jersey. Had to mention that as people from the Garden State get very sensitive about, you know, living in the shadows.

Anyway, The Vinman I know is best described as a horse-playing nerd--and I mean that in the best possible way. On this site, we often muse about the intellectual stimulation and challenge that handicapping thoroughbreds affords.

The Vinman is who we have in mind when making that point. He’s so fastidious in his research that his findings can make your hair hurt. He is nothing if not exhaustively thorough.

His mission in life is to create the perfect parimutuel wagering menu, one bet at a time. And damn, if he’s not getting closer to that goal all the time.

Most of Vinman‘s friends are horseplayers who have implicit faith in their leader. He is the creator of all good things syndicate. And on major event days they have had their super-exotic moments in the sun. Just ask the IRS.

If you’re a long-time Pick 6 player in New York, you may remember a time when the sequence ended with the feature race of the day. A typical horseplaying no-lifer, the Vinman thinks about things the rest of us commonly accept as our punishing fate.

Reasoning that for Pick 6 purposes a full field of turf sprinters, or maidens, is preferable to five “good horses” in the day’s big race featuring an odds-on favorite. A large-field finale would hold the promise of the kind of score Pick 6 players covet.

Further, since Pick 6 bettors also play the late Pick 4, which ended with the final race of the day, that would mean one less race requiring exhaustive research; the work already done.

Either way, dove-tailing is good. If alive in the Pick 6; make a defensive play in the Pick 4. If not; there’s another chance to make a lot for a little at half the cost.

The Vinman made his pitch to former New York Racing Association executive Bill Nader and the shift was made to the last six races on any program. It works.

On Thursday I received a copy of Vinman’s latest missive, this one addressed to NYRA President Charlie Hayward. It was nine pages, 4,594 words short. This did not include 25 pages of attachments, delivered to Hayward and COO Hal Handel in three-ring binders.

Hair hurting yet?

The attachments contained spreadsheets charting betting handle on the $1 Pick 4 and Pick 5 at Oak Tree Santa Anita 2008; the 50-Cent Pick 5 at Monmouth on Breeders’ Cup weekend 2007, and the $2 Pick 6** offered at Hollywood Park with a mandatory payout.

Would you be surprised to learn that the Pick 6 with mandatory payoff attracted handle of $3.3 million, a record for a non-Breeders’ Cup pool?

The most surprising discovery was the enormous popularity of the 50-Cent Pick at Balmoral--Balmoral Harness. After the Pick 5 went un-hit for three nights--unusual given the low cost--the carryover reached $76,000, attracting handle of $218,384. The 50-Cent Pick 5 was hit, paying $18,192.70

In addition to the above, Vinman projected how much wagering would be generated on a 50-Cent Pick 5 at Saratoga, based on last year’s Pick 4 Spa handle. Using the Pick 5 Oak Tree handle as a base, and weighing it against the Pick 4 pool as a percentage of Pick 4 handle, an assessment was made of the Pick 5‘s popularity.

Based on analysis of the data above, and extrapolating from Pick 4 handle of almost $1.5 million, handle on a Travers day 50-Cent Pick 5 would have reached $389,318. Further, 50-Cent Pick 5 handle for the 2008 meet would have exceeded $100,000 on eight occasions.

(I tried to reduce Vinman’s projections down to their essence. Anyone interested in receiving the spreadsheets, indicate such in the comments section below, provide an e-mail address, and I’ll forward his complete study).

Cutting to the present chase, then, Vinman would like to see a 50-Cent Pick 5 with carryover offered at the upcoming Saratoga race meet.

While instituting a 50-Cent Pick 3 seems superfluous, offering a $50-Cent Pick 4--available at 15 other tracks--and a 50-Cent Trifecta--currently available at nine tracks, including some majors--makes sense.

Vinman also would like to see a $1 Pick 6 with mandatory payout offered on an experimental basis.

Finally, another, new wager that might interest professionals, novices and the bankroll-challenged. The 50-Cent “Daily Showdown”--with carryover--is a variation on the “Place All” theme available out west. The difference, of course, is that your horse can finish first, second, or third.

Any change in the wagering menu requires State Racing and Wagering Board approval. Even if NYRA management and fans believe some of the above are no-brainers, there’s no such animal in the world of New York politics.

But who knows? In this environment interesting additions to the Saratoga wagering menu might have a chance. Revenue, anyone?

**Correcting dollar denomination

Written by John Pricci

Comments (8)


Friday, May 29, 2009

Blue Horse Shoe Loves Anacot Steel

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 28, 2009--Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin is one of the game’s most dominant trainers, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy cashing a ticket every so often.

But if he keeps touting his Charitable Man to win the Belmont Stakes every time he's asked for a quote, he’s not going to get any value.

Should Rachel Alexandra start, the Peter Pan winner would be the probable third betting choice in the June 6 classic.

“Part of me wants her to run and part of me doesn’t,” McLaughlin said on Thursday’s national teleconference. “But I think we can beat her.”

We’re sure McLaughlin thought long and hard before making that declaration. He knows something about winning the champion’s test, having won it with Jazil in 2006. McLaughlin also believes Rachel Alexandra’s demanding recent schedule will be a factor.

“Rachel is a superstar and the Preakness was a great day for our industry. But for both of them to run back [a third time] in thirty-five, thirty-six days, it’s hard to do. That will make it tough for her to win the Belmont at a mile and a half.”

Not that McLaughlin thinks the distance is any tougher on horses than the Derby. “The mile and a half probably takes more out of a filly,” said McLaughlin. "But I don’t think the [distance] takes more out a horse than a mile and a quarter does on the first Saturday in May. The faster fractions and bigger field make the Derby a tough race on a horse.”

As for the Derby winner, the former Wayne Lukas protege thought the wet track and Calvin Borel was the difference in Louisville but that the Preakness validated Mine That Bird. “I have a lot of respect for him, he’s a gutsy little gelding.”

Should Rachel start, like everyone else, McLaughlin expects her to be a pace factor. “If she runs, she’ll probably be forwardly placed and I do think we can beat her,” went the reiteration.

“It would mean a lot to the Belmont Stakes and the NYRA if she’s in it, but Mine That Bird brings a lot to the race.”

Northern California ace Jerry Hollendorfer, while less confident than McLaughlin, is pleased with the progress being made by tough-trip Derby competitor Chocolate Candy.

"He seems to be getting over the track very well,” Hollendorfer said. “When Garrett [Gomez] worked him, he said he got over the track well. We’re very happy to have Garrett on our horse.

"You can only guess [if your colt has improved since the Derby]. But we think we’re in a pretty good position, we think we can get the mile and a half.”

It appears that Hollendorfer may be seeing the same chink in the armor of the two favorites that McLaughlin sees: "I don’t know how they’ll bounce back, but I assume if both are starters they've been doing very well.

“Speed is an asset in any race and [Rachel Alexandra] brings a great deal of speed. The Belmont has been good for speed horses. I think Mine That Bird is a very legitimate horse. I don’t think there’s doubt in anyone’s mind that he’s a real runner."

The Derby winner is a different type, of course, and trainer Chip Woolley is well aware of the advantage pace horses have in this race.

“History says you need to be a little closer to the pace. So he’s got his work cut out,” Woolley said, but he won’t take the horse out of his best game:

“We’re not going to change his running style. It’s imperative we get the right trip and make our move at the right time. The main thing is just to ride with patience. If you push the button too early, you could come up empty at the wire.

“We were the best horse in the Derby that day, and I felt we were the best horse in the Preakness. Going into this I think we have the best horse.”

And three races in five weeks?

"If the horse hadn’t been on his very best game we probably would have passed [the Belmont] up."

Woolley said the gelding will get a month off and have three more races this year, concluding with the Breeders’ Cup Classic. As for the other two, "we haven’t really decided. We’re looking at all options, every major race around. It could be anywhere."

With the announcement of the filly’s Belmont status expected to come Monday at the earliest, Woolley still doesn’t have a rider:

“I’m gonna’ give Calvin as much time as possible. He won me the Derby. I owe him the opportunity if it’s possible. I don’t want Calvin sitting on the sidelines."

The only camp not heard from yesterday was the filly’s, but it probably didn't matter to McLaughlin, who said: “I wouldn’t trade places with anybody.”

Written by John Pricci

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