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, November 14, 2008

A Big Sport and a Giant Killer

Saratoga Springs, NY, November 13, 2008--A pair of trainers were in the news this week. One is planning to retire for good at the end of 2009; the other is just getting back to work and probably will never retire.

The Turf Publicists of America announced Wednesday that Larry Jones, trainer of a pair of terrific three-year-old fillies, Proud Spell and Eight Belles, has been chosen as the organization's winner of the Big Sport of Turfdom award. The award is presented annually to a mensch, someone who gives back to racing and its fans through the media.

Eric Wing said it best when he explained in a TPA release that "Larry has always been generous and gracious… but never [more] than in the aftermath of the tragic accident involving Eight Belles at the Kentucky Derby."

Not only did Jones meet with the media after the race and in the ensuing days but he made himself available for a round table discussion on a Preakness network broadcast even while coming under attack from the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals. He stood up at a time when the industry needed him most. No one would have blamed him if he took a pass.

“This award is wonderful, my highest achievement in the sport. I've always felt horsemen have an obligation to keep fans well informed. Hopefully we've done that," said Jones, who’s saddled five graded stakes winners this year in addition to his brilliant 3-year-olds ladies.

As any person would, Jones reacted emotionally after the accident and has been reticent to talk about his feelings beyond stating the obvious. Considered a young man in his profession, Jones hit his stride last year, gaining a national following for his work with the gifted Hard Spin in last year’s Triple Crown series.

Jones' announced intention to retire lifted more than one set of eyebrows. But maybe he just decided it was time to enjoy the fruits of his success. Recall that Hard Spun was purchased by Sheikh Mohammed last year for an estimated $30 million. Given that a trainer’s percentage of a purchase is normally in the 10 percent range, his decision likely wasn’t a difficult one financially.

Allen Jerkens, meanwhile, whose next birthday will be his 80th, can’t wait to get back to work. Jerkens was released from a rehabilitation center Wednesday after having two heart valves repaired and a pacemaker installed last month.

After getting home, Jerkens said to his wife Elizabeth that he’d “like to see the horses." That statement lifted no eyebrows. “We drove to the barn and he sat on the bench outside,” Elizabeth told a NYRA press representative, “and they brought out every single one of the horses for him.”

Jerkens plans on visiting his barn regularly but it will be some time before he’s spotted aboard his pony, Circus. “They don’t really recommend it because of the pacemaker,” said Jerkens. “We’ll have to figure out something.”

Jerkens didn’t get to see the races during his rehab stint but was upset that he couldn't get the Turner Classic Movie channel to help pass the time. This was no surprise becuse he might be the biggest “Honeymooners” fan ever, a real media old-schooler. There my be lots of Ralph, Alice, Norton and Trixie fans out there, but if they wanted to take him on line-for-line sound off, my money would be on “the Chief.”

Last Saturday, Whirling Agatha was Jerkens’ first winner of the Aqueduct meet and his first since October 24. His other winner at the recently concluded Belmont meet came on September 7.

“We haven’t been setting the world on fire,” Jerkens said. “Even at Saratoga, we won only a few races,” which isn't really an understatement but classic Allen Jerkens. He might be a genius but I’m not sure he could even spell hyperbole.

The thing about this maestro, the entire backstretch will tell you, is that he’s not satisfied even when he’s winning two a day. There was always something that went wrong, or something that might have worked out better. This is a Hall of Famer who raises self deprecation to an art form.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, Jerkens and Elizabeth will fly south with the rest of the snowbirds to Florida for the winter. That’s a good thing, the sun--like it does for Tesio’s horses--will help him heel. Truth is he doesn't usually set Florida on fire either, but comes back to New York in the spring and wins everything in sight.

“The purses may be a little bigger at Gulfstream but you get 12-horse fields,” said Jerkens. “At Calder, you’re running against six or seven.”

Doom and gloom. He must be feeling better already.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

On the Racetrack, Never Jam Up a Hustler

I first entered a racetrack press box at Aqueduct in 1970. I had just started what I hoped would be a career as a racing writer and handicapper for a briefly resuscitated New York Daily Mirror when I met one of the heroes of a mostly misspent youth and immediately sought his counsel.

Mannie Kalish wrote a handicapping column for the New York Post. In it, he gave out two or three spot plays a day and, seemingly, one or two of them would win every time I went to the races or visited Tony, who owned a store-front on 43rd Ave. in Corona, Queens.

A tailor by trade, Tony crafted magnificent custom leather jackets and coats. He also had a hand-book on the side. He took a liking to me, partially because I also had a couple of vowels in my name and had a knack for talking and picking horses.

I never told him I was a big Kalish fan, figuring he’d chase me out of the store never to return. Tony never read the Post, only the Telly--slang for “Morning Telegraph,” the East Coast version of the Racing Form in those days that sold for 50 cents--and “Il Progresso,” the Italian newspaper, not the soup.

Each night Tony sent me a few blocks past Linden Park to the corner candy store on Roosevelt Ave. to pick up the Telly and the Daily News and Mirror--the real Mirror, not the ersatz one. The two tabloids sold for a total of eight cents.

Tony gave me a dollar and always told me to keep the change. I didn’t tell him that I saved up all that change so I could come back to the shop the following Saturday and try to beat his brains in. Even then I wanted to be a weekend warrior.

Given that all successful handicappers are egomaniacs, Kalish’s bearing indicated a quiet, arrogant confidence. After introducing myself, I asked a few questions. He answered them honestly and without hesitation.

“Develop your opinion, kid, writers are a dime a dozen,” he said, never removing the binoculars from his eyes as he watched the horses in pre-race warm-ups. I didn’t think that was the right time to tell him I spent some of my formative years locked in my room writing treatises on existential loneliness.

Wanting to show off my knowledge, I talked about a horse that had run the day before. The horse had terrible recent form but, after getting a rush of late money, went to the front and, as the racetrackers say, improved his position, winning by a short pole.

“Some betting coup, eh Mr. Kalish?” This time he put down the binoculars and looked me in the eye. “Listen kid, on the racetrack, you never jam up a hustler.”

I later learned that Kalish got his job by touting Ike Gellis, the Post’s sports editor, who, having put the early edition to bed, would drive out to the track for the last half of the card virtually every day.

Gellis got some of the better priced winners that didn’t make it into print. He’d bet a few dollars for Kalish, per rule, mostly parlays in those pre-exotics days, and everyone was happy. Kalish even mentored a young computer genius who was just trying to get into the game.

I didn’t even know what a computer chip was supposed to do. But here was Kalish who found a trainer he liked for the fledgling owner. And so the association of trainer “Lefty“ Nickerson and Marty Wygod began. Wygod, of course, is a prominent California breeder who raced, among others, the recent juvenile filly champion, Sweet Catomine.

I thought of this on the red-eye back from Los Angeles on the Sunday after Breeders’ Cup. I went to the closing-day program with an old friend who now lives with his family in LA, but went to Union College in Schenectady, only 30 minutes from my Saratoga Springs condo.

And on the last race on the final day of the meet, I saw a genuine put-over, a betting thing of beauty. The word coup wouldn’t apply here. The horse’s form was good going into the race, a highly competitive scramble for mid-range claiming fillies sprinting down the hill at Santa Anita.

After watching a Chris Paasch interview, who had teamed up with Mike Smith to win a Cal-bred sprint stakes--Smith‘s only mount this day and two days after the team had combined to win the Juvenile Fillies with Stardom Bound--I turned the pages of the program and upon seeing the trainer’s name I said to my buddy Dave: “What the hell is Gregg Matties doing here?”

I explained to Dave that Matties is part of a crafty racetrack family who live in the Saratoga area. Gregg’s father, Paul Sr., a.k.a. Chick, was partners with the official winner of the inaugural World Series of Handicapping at the Orleans in Las Vegas. Gregg’s brother Paul, a professional horseplayer, perennially makes the finals of the NTRA/DRF handicapping championship. Another brother, Kevin, a.k.a Duke, is also in the family business.

Gregg, who races horses in New York, was denied stalls earlier this year, the result of a Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau investigation into exacta pool irregularities involving one or more of his horses.

The TRPB investigation went nowhere, however. Apparently investigators found that when their horses were bet, they ran well, but when they weren’t, they didn’t. It seems the apple didn’t fall all that far from the money tree. Imagine that?

Anyway, here was Ms. Wonder Woman, claimed by the Matties Racing Stable for $40,000 at Del Mar, Aug. 28. And now here she is, 59 days later, in for $32,000, in the final race of the Oak Tree meet. In her most recent race, a 40K claimer, she was fourth, beaten 1-½ lengths. The start before she finished second by a length to a subsequent repeat winner.

Matties had started six horses at the Oak Tree meet, winning three. In this spot he freshened a newly acquired filly, entered her below the level of the claim, and switched riders to Garrett Gomez. Think she was live?

The finale was competitive, as most 6-½ furlong turf sprints are down the hill at Santa Anita. Quoted at 6-1 on the early line, she was the 5-2 favorite on the opening flash, virtually held those odds throughout, until drifting to 4-1 at post time.

Ms. Wonder Man made the start look bad, opening a three-length lead right out of the slip. And after posting fractions of :21 4/5, :43 4/5 and 1:06 2/5 for six furlongs, she coasted her final sixteenth in :06 4/5, running a tick faster, 1:12 3/5, than colts had earlier on the card.

The Matties-trained filly, with Gomez motionless in the final yards, won by the same short pole as the horse I had tried to impress Kalish with that afternoon 38 years ago.

Chick Matties would be proud of how his son properly measured his rivals before betting his money. And the late Mannie Kalish would have smiled, recalling the right dope he provided a handicapping upstart many years ago.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, November 08, 2008

Open Letter to Jess Jackson: Send Curlin Home a Winner

Saratoga Springs, NY, November 7, 2008--With the emergence of undefeated Zenyatta onto the national stage, the battle for Horse of the Year Eclipse honors has become a true horse race.

Zenyatta’s impressively comprehensive Ladies Classic victory has earned the tomboy four-year-old the respect of voters that extends beyond the borders of her Southern California home. Given that reality, don’t be terribly surprised to see Curlin back on the racetrack this year.

This summer at Saratoga, and again in the fall, the chatter surrounding another start for Curlin beyond the Breeders’ Cup Classic focused on the Japan Dirt Cup in December, Jess Jackson remaining serious in his quest to add to his colt’s racing legacy. HRI thinks there's a better way. Thus, we're going right to the man:

"Dear Mr. Jackson...

Please don’t do it. Don't send the colt to Japan, or anywhere else for that matter. You don’t owe the sport anything at this point. Despite your concerns and those of your trainer, you tried a turf experiment, to no avail. Then, after the season ending injury to Big Brown, you saved the Breeders’ Cup Classic. You said you'd run providing he trained well. That he did, but it didn't work out. Still, more people watched him on television this year than last.

Now it’s time to think of yourself, your trainer, and your horse. There's nothing left for the colt to prove. The Clark, over a Churchill track he likes, and where he’s already stabled, gives Curlin his best chance to go out a winner and simultaneously secure Horse of the Year honors.

No one’s going to remember that Zenyatta’s people had a chance to challenge Curlin and the rest of the boys in the Classic, opting instead to keep their filly undefeated and eschew a trip at 10 furlongs for the first time. Given Jerome Moss’s devotion to the sport, he was entitled to share in Breeders’ Cup glory. But in a Horse of the Year context, that’s another conversation.

Make it easy on yourself this time. If Curlin is to run again this year, race him at home if your trainer gives the green light. At the moment, Curlin and Zenyatta are in a Grade 1 tie with four victories each. But this is a deadlock that can be broken in the Clark.

In addition to giving it a go on turf and synthetic, you left big money on the table to bring Curlin back at four, not to mention seven-figure insurance premiums. If you think you owe anyone from this point forward, take a look in the mirror. You’re in debt to the man staring you in the face.

But I have selfish reasons, too. While Breeders’ Cup is the titular end of the racing season, 2008 is far from over.

When I returned to the media hotel after the Breeders’ Cup and checked my e mail, I opened a missive from a good friend who reminded me to stay strong; there were only 183 more days to the Kentucky Derby.

I thought, OK, but at that point I didn’t know for certain who was the more deserving juvenile champion. Vineyard Haven won Grade 1s impressively at Saratoga and Belmont Park, including the storied Champagne; Midshipmen won two Grade 1s at Santa Anita, including the title defining Juvenile. But how am I supposed to reconcile dirt Grade 1s vs. synthetic Grade 1s? I still don’t know. No one does with certitude.

Then I remembered the Cash Call Futurity. With a championship on the line, Bobby Frankel might have opted to race Vineyard Haven against Midshipmen in a winner-take-all. Neither he nor Bob Baffert could afford to duck a season-ending Grade 1 providing, of course, Mr. Baffert remained Midshipmen’s trainer.

Clearly it seems that Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai will win the Kentucky Derby, even if he has to buy every good horse available to do so. Now that he owns Vineyard Haven, these two colts are unlikely to meet each other until May's first Saturday. Either way, he will own the two-year-old champion.

There are plenty of racing fans that feel as I do. Watching top horses compete is the only thing that turns a wagering game into a sport. And my love for cashing tickets ranks way up at the top of life’s lists.

Undeniably, sir, you are a true old-school sportsman in an era bereft of such individuals, to say nothing of your willingness to shake the trees for the good of a game that came under great scrutiny this spring.

So, if Steve says Curlin’s doing good, run him in the Clark on Thanksgiving weekend, racing‘s last hurrah of the year. Curlin and his connections deserve to go out on a winning note.”


John Pricci, executive editor

Written by John Pricci

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