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, November 22, 2008

Saturday’s Graded Stakes Favorites Demand Closer Inspection

Today’s feature races from most major venues around the country will make most weekend warriors anticipate next weekend’s holiday programs even more. A trio of Grade 3s, two from coast to coast; Aqueduct’s Discovery Handicap at a mile and an eighth and the Vernon O Underwood for sprinters 3 & up going three-quarters at Hollywood Park.

In the Midwest, Churchill Downs will offer the Falls City at nine furlongs on grass, a race supported by the ungraded Bet On Sunshine Handicap featuring the 6-for-6 Euroears, the scourge of the Fair Grounds last season.

Further to the south and east, Calder Race Course is presenting the Radar Love, another ungraded sprint but at the hybrid distance of 6-½ furlongs. Completing the CDI triad, Fair Grounds features two-year-olds sprinting 5-½ furlongs in the Old Hickory for boys and the Pontalba for the fillies.

As stated in today’s feature race analysis, the Discovery can be an interesting betting race depending on how you view the chances of Lieutenant Ron, the 6-5 early line choice.

The question is how Lieutenant Ron handles the nine furlong distance. He meets a handful of proven distance performers today, so either you take the short price on a horse with superior performance figures or you throw deep.

Lieutenant Ron is coming off a new top pace figure and has run much, much faster than the competition on more than one occasion. His pedigree is on the short side with both sire and grandsire throwing offspring who most effective distances have been less than seven furlongs.

The good news is that his trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin, is profitable with runners returning on this type of rest, going long for the first time and with graded runners. Alan Garcia, who won four races on Friday’s program, won’t hurt his chances.

The Falls City at Churchill features 6/5 early line favorite Thorn Song. When last seen in Kentucky, Thorn Song was winning the G1 Shadwell Turf Mile in fast time. When last seen anywhere else he set a pressured pace before tiring badly in the Breeders’ Cup Mile.

Today Thorn’s Song returns to his favorite venue, having won four of five starts on this ground. He’s been consistently fastest, gets along very well with Robbie Albarado. He owns a win and a second at nine furlongs but clearly prefers going shorter. Possible price shots include Mr. Sidney (15-1), Canela (8-1) and Yate’s Black Cat (5-1).

Mr. Sidney is a lightly raced four-year-old making his turf stakes debut for Bill Mott and Johnny Velazquez. Never having taken a backward step on Equiform performance figures, he’s 2-for-2 on grass and demonstrated on Keeneland’s Polytrack last out that he can handle faster fractions and still finish well after making a premature move to the lead.

Canela hails from the hottest human connections in Kentucky. Trainer Michael Maker has been a record setting performer at this meet and not many riders in the country are riding with more confidence than Julien Leparoux, a turf ace. Yate’s Black Cat, meanwhile, earns good figures with consistency, draws the fence, and is the longer uncoupled mate of the favorite.

The G3 Underwood is interesting for the return of Bob Black Jack (2-1), last seen in Big Brown’s Kentucky Derby, earning his way in with a runnerup finish to Colonel John in the Santa Anita Derby.

This looks like the proper return spot for Bob Black Jack with two wins and a second from three starts at six furlongs, and he’ll try to become the sixth horse from the Derby to win his next start. His recent five furlong work in :58-flat was fastest of 84 works by a three-year-old on Cushion Track last week.

The logical alternatives are unlikely to make you rich. Johnny Eves (3-1) with Garrett Gomez is the most accomplished sprinter in the field and can be depended on to run well consistently. Noble Court (5-2) is a promising sprint performer who keeps improving for John Sadler and easily could continue developing.

Of the price shots, only Wiredfortwotwenty (8-1) seems viable, the Brian Koriner barn winning with three of its last nine starters through Thursday with only one off-the-board finisher of that group. He will try to become the third subsequent winner from the seventh race on Oct. 9.

[CORRECTION: In the Nov. 20 blog, "Marketers Should Put Cart Before the Horse," Zarkava's significant 2008 victories were incorrectly reported. HRI regrets the error.]

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, November 21, 2008

No Work Stoppage at Aqueduct; Uncoupled Entries Coming in 2009

South Ozone Park, Queens, NY, Nov. 20, 2008--Back in the day when I was gainfully employed, arriving at the Rockaway Blvd. entrance of Aqueduct-by-the-Sea at 10:40 a.m. would be considered late. There were all those trip notes to transcribe into the previous day’s result charts. Only then could the parimutuel blood-letting begin anew at first post.

The wide double-gate at the entrance was shuttered, but a smaller one was open and I was able to drive through. There were no security guards, or parking personnel, to verify credentials, and general parking was now free. Just as well since there were no other cars, or people, to service.

The admission gates on the N.E. grandstand entrance were closed to the public according to the large sign, adorned in Aqueduct’s blue-and-yellow motif. But I’m sure it will be booming in 2010 when the VLT players, blank stares affixed, rush through at that end of the building that will house a new kind of iron men, equipped with lights, buttons, bells and spinning reels full of bars, cherries and 7s.

And round and round the reels will go and where they stop it is hoped that people will be staring at them, a fervent wish of track management, keepers of the state coffers and, if they know what’s good for them, present and future horseplayers. No one has the luxury of caring less.

If enough slots fetishists deposit enough quarters to keep not only the mares, but the horses and geldings going, too, the building once again will have the energy that was missing today. That’s nowhere close to a perfect world but right now it’s the only world that the Thoroughbred business has, the only one that’s making financial sense.

I continued driving to the other end of the building and attempted to park in front of the clubhouse area normally reserved for working press. Tony Johnson came over and told me that that area had become a preferred lot, but I was welcome to park anywhere else close by. But as usual Johnson, who’s been so accommodating for close to three decades, hooked me up with a spot.

Johnson, like so many other employees in ran into on my way to the press box, was concerned that the rumors that have been circulating for a few months were true, that Aqueduct would be closed in February and March so that work could begin in earnest in the grandstand’s designated VLT area.

The Aqueduct grandstand doesn’t house horseplayers anymore. It’s been closed for some time, the interminably delayed VLT-area building process now approaching eight years--eight years of Albany politics that irresponsibly has dawdled over the awarding of a racing franchise and VLT franchisee. Considering that New York State currently is in a $12 billion hole, the legislators should be subpoenaed to testify as to their dalliance.

Halfway through the program, to the relief to Tony Johnson and the other NYRA employees I spoke with, NYRA President Charlie Hayward came up to the press box bearing news on the winter work stoppage.

“I don’t know where this rumor even got started," Hayward said. We just got our franchise, we just got money from the state. We want to run in the winter. We haven’t even had a meeting to discuss it. Delaware North [the VLT franchisee] told us they don’t want to disrupt racing and that there was no need to.”

That wasn’t the only rumor that was dismissed. There was another that the NYRA would be granted permission by the State Racing and Wagering Board to conduct wagering with uncoupled entries in all races where the same trainer has more than one starter, but for different owners, beginning January 1.

“The Board cannot say whether they are in favor of a ruling or not,” Hayward explained. “They have solicited industry comment on it. No one knows how that will come out, but [if the comments are favorable] they could write a rule and submit it [to legislators] for approval. We’ve had to cancel superfecta wagering or force horses out of races. We just want a rule that’s consistent with other jurisdictions.”

Hayward said he was confident the rule regarding uncoupled entries, which NYRA has petitioned the SRWB since January 2007, would be changed but not by New Year’s Day.

As I looked around Thursday morning, and again when I turned on CNBC after arriving home later in the afternoon, I decided to take any good news I could get no matter how inconsequential. A win is a win, especially for those NYRA employees who were looking down the barrel of a dark and cold February and March.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Marketers Should Put Cart Before the Horse

Saratoga Springs, NY, November 19, 2008--While Eclipse balloting for 2008 Horse of the Year between reigning champion Curlin and the undefeated Ladies Classic winner, dominant filly Zenyatta, figures to be a contentious vote, the elevation of the great three-year-old filly Zarkava to European Horse of the Year status earlier this week came as a surprise to no one.

Her honor, of course, was well deserved such was her dominance. She was one of seven horses to earn Cartier Racing Awards distinction, including older male Duke of Marmalade, three-year-old colt New Approach, stayer Yeats, sprinter Marchand d’Or, juvenile colt Mastercraftsman, and juvenile filly Rainbow View. Obviously, Zarkava also earned a Cartier for champion three-year-old filly.

Defeating older males in the legendary Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe was quite an accomplishment, indeed, but it was far from her only achievement. Her five victories this year enabled her to retire the undefeated winner of seven lifetime starts, including a victory over Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Goldikova.

A winner at a mile, mile and a quarter and mile and a half, it is a record worthy of Horse of the Universe acclaim. But just as so many of the best of our champions are whisked away to the breeding shed prematurely before their stature has a chance to increase public awareness, so, too, has her retirement by H.H. Aga Khan sparked displeasure among European race fans. They can’t understand why a filly, who can produce only one foal at a time, can’t race in her four-year-old season.

More than any other horse on the planet, it’s true that Zarkava has the least to prove. The vanquished listed above includes a peer, three-year-old filly Goldikova, who was so impressive beating older males in the Mile at Santa Anita in conditions that were not her favorite, displaying an electric turn of foot. But according to many European observers, Goldikova never demonstrated she was Zarkava’s class when they met in competition.

Of course, we’ll have to take those people at their word. European horse people are no less cash oriented than their American compatriots. Zarkava is gone, as is Derby champion New Approach, and her fellow three-year-old, Classic-winning Raven’s Pass.

Clearly, it was a very strong year for racing in the Old World. Then, with their season virtually complete, many shipped 6,000 miles into the heat of Southern California and dominated all the big match-ups.

But there will be no Classic repeat attempt for Raven’s Pass; no Arc challenge for New Approach, the rabbit-aided Newmarket course-record winner of the Champion Stakes. Sorry, but racing fans everywhere will not get another chance to see only the third horse in history to complete a Dewhurst, Derby and Champion triple.

You would think that we’d all be used to this kind of disappointment by now. With Curlin gone, there are no stars looming on the horizon, unless the Zenyatta people decide to take the cellophane off the behemoth filly, go on a nation-wide tour, and take on the boys at least once. Certainly, her physicality seems up to the challenge but I assume the chances of that happening are slim and none if their goal to is keep her undefeated. Unfortunately, with the Breeders’ Cup returning to Santa Anita in 2009, there’s no compelling reason beyond sportsmanship for her ever to leave the confines of the Golden State.

One area in which Europeans are more civilized than the Yanks is the voting process itself. A recent blog by HRI’s Vic Zast on whether race fans should be part of the Eclipse Award process created quite a stir, Zast making a reasonable suggestion that if fans were permitting to vote, ballots could be screened via membership in one of the newly formed grass roots racing organizations, avoiding possible ballot stuffing.

That doesn’t appear to be a problem in Europe. The eight Cartier Awards were decided by a combination of points achieved in established classic races, which seems a most sensible standard for gauging excellence, the opinions of racing journalists chaired by media veteran Brough Scott, and votes from Thoroughbred fans tallied by the Racing Post and Daily Telegraph.

If only we could be that sophisticated. Then perhaps the industry would pay to create a prime time awards special on network television featuring A-list musical entertainment and hosts and exciting clips of racing's equine and human stars that put a face on an industry peopled by many powerful and fascinating household names. Then try to attract international participation for broadcasting the program in racing capitals around the world. Act important and the public just might get the message you're sending. That, or limit your thinking to the confines of the same box.

If prime time reality television has proven anything it’s that the public will watch programming featuring some entertainment component. Think of it as marketing concept that puts the cart before the horse. Racing's high-profile sponsors just might find that notion appealing.

Written by John Pricci

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