John Pricci

HorseRaceInsider.com 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 MSNBC.com, 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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Sunday, July 23, 2017


Saratoga Diary Prep: Spa Off to Blazing Start


Dear Diary,

I know you’re anxious to celebrate your 40th anniversary—yes, since 1977—but it can’t be a real diary unless you’re there. I will be, but first some matters on the home front that need my attention.

So, let’s call this the inaugural Simulcast Edition of Saratoga Diary, and that’s a good thing, too. No distractions like dinner plans, cocktails, visiting with old friends, favorite places. What remains is what happened between the fences.

I might not have been there but over 64,000 people were the first two days of Saratoga-148. Those are wow numbers, or as TJ was saying in the Gulfstream press box about Friday’s opening; that’s almost Travers-like.

Unlike Del Mar’s disappointing start, Saratoga opened on a roll with all-sources handle up 14% to $20.3 million on opening day. Saturday’s numbers were just as strong: $24.9 million from all sources.

Off the top, the headlines are: What’s with the main-track surface? Consecutive-years fast start for Kiaran McLaughlin. The Ortiz Brothers Show. And wait, there’s more:

Chad Brown, Bobblehead of Renown with a Saturday trifecta. Slow starts for Hall of Famers, Javier and Johnny V. The Greatness of Lady Eli. And what’s up with the Todd Two-Year-Olds?

FRIDAY JUL 21: Opening Day. It was clear from the jump, the “And They’re Off at Saratoga” for mid-level claimers, that the amount of kickback on the first turn was extraordinary. Can you say cuppy track?

Well, if you waited for the third race under similar conditions, but for better horses, can you say dead track, too? Fifty-two to the half; one-seventeen to the quarters; a mile and an eighth in one-fifty-five plus, are you kidding?

Roller, harrows and water, please.

In the opener, the Ortiz Brothers put on a show as Irad the Older got the best of Jose the Younger following a truly stirring head-to-head duel from which favored Indycott got the best of River Date, with Rudy Rod going 1-2.

And score the first win for someone who has become a perennial leading owner, Michael Dubb. Boy, those NYRA Board members always have been tough to beat, right?

Race 2: Beaux Arts was very good breaking maiden in juvenile turf sprint for Russell Cash and race produces first Horse to Watch: Misty Forest, a little too hyper pre-race but was going well at the finish after a bit of a circuitous journey. Lady of Miracle put in a good, sustained run down the lane; nice race to build on.

R4: The obstreperous Takaful finally ran back to his impressive sprint debut making the dull track look exceedingly fast. He raced 6 furlongs in 1:09.89 and I swear he galloped out like 20 in front at mid-first turn.

Takaful just never stopped running and was the first of Kiaran MLaughlin's double. Chad Brown’s Patternrecognition went well late and is sure to be odds-on, and a most likely winner—next out.

R5: Sagamore Farm and trainer Horacio De Paz putting it all together this season, getting it done with juvenile maiden breaker Southhampton Way under clever handling from Ricardo Santana Jr., the first of a natural double for the Midwest star.

Todd Pletcher firster Honey Glow, heavily bet from the bell, broke flat-footed, was pushed hard to keep pace on the turn, never changed leads and stopped badly. It’s one thing to get beat but…phew!

Purrfect Miss unseated Manny Franco at the gate but put in a solid rally through the stretch; note. Well backed Amazing Belle had no apparent excuse.

R6: Itsinthestars belongs in your stable mail. She cranked up with a 4-wide move at the turn, momentum carrying her 6-wde into lane. Think Javier Castellano was too aggressive, angling out early far turn, where if she stayed covered a bit longer, her game late effort might have paid dividends.


G3 SCHUYLERVILLE: Dream It is looked like a winner every step beneath Luis Contreras, who came down from Canada with trainer Barbara Minshall to get the money. Minshall had her set for dirt debut coming off the WO synth. The filly ran away through the lane despite staying on her left lead.


G3 LAKE GEORGE: As aggressive as he was earlier, Javier used perfect timing to get much-improved newly-blinkered Proctor’s Ledge home a decisive winner with a strong rally, looking like a potential repeater. Party Boat was going well late through the lane for Motion/Rosario team. Dream Dancing appeared dull and quiet in the post parade and run to her looks.

SATURDAY, JUL 22: Main track was a little quicker than opening day, but was still tiring.

R1: A two-horse race on paper turned into a romp for Mr. Crow beneath Luis Saez, getting Todd off the duck. Favorite Marshall Plan was too high pre-race, and too dull during the running; note pre-race behavior next out!

R2: Really annoyed as Voodoo Song, 9-2 pre-loading but 5-2 midway down the backside, ran off and hid from two-turn turf rivals first-time for Linda Rice on the recent retirement of trainer Mike Hushion. Note that the filly was still headstrong despite removing blinkers.

R3: Graham Motion may have a juvenile turf star in the scopey Untamed Domain. While ground saving, she was forced to check entering the turn, moved up again, then angled out gradually through the stretch and ran down Another, who got first run and was finishing well herself. Everything being equal, bet both back.

R5: Todd FTS Machismo, a $500K purchase, was bet from the bell, chased the pace from perfect outside stalking position, was pushed hard to keep up at headstretch and, like Friday’s well bet newcomer, stopped.

It’s one thing to get beat, but there’s no other word to describe these performances: embarrassing. Not Arrogate-embarrassing, but disconcerting nonetheless.


G3 SANFORD
: Scooped me but I was not alone, as Firenze Fire was a double-digit ship-in for Jason Servis, who insists the colt will get added distances in the future. We assume he was thinking Hopeful and Champagne. Free Drop Billy, 15-1 ML to 3-1 fave, was a very good late-run second; follow progress.


G1 DIANA: Turf specialist or not, Lady Eli is one of the best fillies I’ve ever seen, ranking among the all-time great mares in my view. She has been the best story in racing since staring down death, as laminitis claims too many equine lives.

Lady Eli’s with a last-strides victory, improving her lifetime slate to (12) 9-3-0, finally got her Spa Grade 1, but that, too, is not the story.

A feel-good filly, she was very high pre-race, breaking out with shoulder sweat in the parade, Irad doing his best to keep her quiet. But she didn’t look like a very happy camper.

Breaking through before the start, the kiss of death for 99 of 100 horses, she settled off a moderate pace, was patiently and confidently handled, tipped 5-across the track into the lane, Irad only hand-riding vigorously.

Quidura, a very nice filly from Motion’s barn and getting eight pounds from Lady Eli, she got first run and was holding her off. But watch the replay for the picture of a horse that just refuses to lose.

She had every excuse and got the job done. I don’t throw the word great around often. In fact, I use the term “G-word” instead, but I’m making an exception here:

Lady Eli has to be great race horse to do what she’s already done. Trainer Chad Brown, a man of few words, never mind hyperbole, said: “Today she proved she's one of the all-time greats.” That she surely did.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, July 18, 2017


Time for Del Mar and Saratoga Boutique Shopping--and Betting


Are your bags packed? Are you ready to go?

It’s here; boutique meet time, no more waiting. If you live out West, you need to go out and buy a new hat: Tomorrow, Wednesday, is opening day at Del Mar.

For the turf and surf venue, it will be a season like no other. First, they get to feature the Horse of the World on its opening Saturday in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap. Of course, that horse is the planet traveling Arrogate.

The San Diego is, of course, the bridge race to the next month’s G1 Pacific Classic. But what makes Del Mar 2017 so special is that it will host its first ever Breeders’ Cup event on November’s first Saturday.

But if you live east of the Mississippi, the world’s best extended race meet, the one held in Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, begins its storied session on Friday.

Indeed, it’s the time of year in New York when a Scribner gets to reprise that wonderful line written by the late, great Red Smith. “Take the Northway to Exit 14, turn right, and go back a hundred years.”

Actually, it’s more like 154 years since John Morrissey founded the first meeting at the Race Course on Union Avenue, across the street from the present site, just over there in “Oklahoma” somewhere. The year was 1863.

Now, however, let the official ‘Midsummer Derby’ hype machine begin: If all present elite three-year-olds run well in their preps and remain healthy, Travers 148 will be the deepest and most contentious in the modern era.

While we don’t expect to see another blow-your-doors-off sub two-minute clocking, we do expect so see the man who engineered last year’s record breaker to return with a horse named, ironically enough, West Coast. And he might bring a stablemate or two with him.

As I conjure all this, I wonder, does Bob Baffert lose any important races he ships to anymore? This year, it feels like the answer should be a resounding no.

Maybe we’ll get a clue this weekend when Kentucky Oaks and Acorn winning Abel Tasman ships in for the Coaching Club American Oaks.

Apparently, she, like Arrogate, has met Bullet Bob’s personal workout “standards.” Go ahead, you argue with him. I tried to beat West Coast at Los Alamitos. Instead, he won going away despite having to overcome freakishly awful trip dynamics.

As stated here Sunday, and while we anxiously await the passing of the next 72 hours, West Coast will be joining the winners of all three Triple Crown races, along with the Jim Dandy and Haskell winners and prepsters and, highly likely, a Baffert to be named later.

Races for Friday opening program will be drawn today, Tuesday. The past performances for tomorrow’s Del Mar lid lifter have been available for days.

Consequently, I’ve given the traditional opening day feature, the Oceanside Stakes for three year turf milers, a cursory look and have left eight of the 14 entrants open for further review.

In the interests of full disclosure, we’ve come close but never have we divined the winner of the Oceanside: It was only fair for me to admit this. This renewal is a skullbuster. End of disclaimer.

With truly no disrespect to Del Mar intended, on balance the day-to-day fare there is routinely outclassed by its Saratoga brothers and sisters.

Of course, this does not mean that western horses won’t continue to clean eastern clocks when they ship in, simply because the play the game at a much faster pace. Advantage to speed, always; it’s racing’s universal bias, turf notwithstanding.

(We took a little break before we resumed this, returned to the Oceanside PPs and now have whittled the race down to a workable four or five contenders. Per usual, our findings will be posted in Feature Race Analysis).

The Saratoga race meet will get off fast with five graded stakes opening weekend. The traditional Schuylerville for juvenile fillies opens the lid, to be followed closely by the Lake George for three-year-old turf fillies. Both races are Grade 3.

A big field is expected for the latter but it’s most likely that Chad Brown’s Fifty Five and Dale Romans’ Sweeping Paddy will attract the most betting action.

Saturday warriors will also get treated to a graded double bill; the Sanford for juvenile colts, and the Diana, an always coveted Grade 1 prize for turf fillies and mares.

Abel Tasman will be a strong favorite to win Sunday’s Grade 1 Coaching Club Oaks and deservedly so, but perhaps Salty, who showed she might be something special in Florida this winter, will make a good race of it.

Thus far, Salty has been unable to live up to her promise for one reason or another, but if she can finally put it all together for Mark Casse…

We’re planning to visit the Spa from the Whitney through Travers. Can’t wait to get back to the old stomping grounds. Happy handicapping, y’all.

CHECK THIS OUT:
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As racing analyst for Rodger Wyland’s Big Board Sports talk show on ESPN radio, 104.5-FM The Team, and WNYT-13, NBC-TV’s Albany affiliate at the 11 pm hour prior to every racing day, we’ll take an in-depth look at that day’s featured event.

The selection will be presented in HRI’s daily Feature Race Analysis, per usual, with an important wrinkle. But you’ll have to stream it to get the play.

Xpressbet has given us a $100 daily bankroll and we’ll be betting it all in that day’s feature; straight wagers and exotics, too.

You can listen live at http://1045theteam.com/author/rodgerwyland/ Our handicapping segment begins promptly at 11:15 a.m. each weekday, dark Tuesdays notwithstanding.

HALLANDALE, FL., July 18, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, July 09, 2017


Star-Studded Summer Saturday in New York


For publicists, the results from yesterday’s prime time Stars N Stripes holiday program at Belmont Park was a headline writer’s dream:

“Keen Ice stays cool under pressure.” Mind Your Biscuits gets the gravy.” “Practical Joke all business…, etc, etc.”

And if you’ll allow your humble Scribner one: “And the Belmont Derby Award goes to… Oscar Performance.”

Most performances were noteworthy Saturday and business was outstanding, with $19.2 million bet cross-country including $3M on-track. The results included a nice mix of favorites, mid-price winners, and an occasional bomber.

On the two-legged side, from held well with the brilliant Jose Ortiz riding a complete handful of winners, and Joel Rosario with a riding trifecta, a maiden allowances and two stakes.

On the trainer’s side, it was more of the usual suspects; Chad Brown with a pair, including a 1-2-3 sweep in the Belmont Oaks, and Todd Pletcher, who got Keen Ice to win for the first time since he upset American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers.

While the day belong to the two local riding starts, the week belonged to young Tyler Gaffalione who rode a record-equaling seven winners at Gulfstream on Tuesday--more on Tyler later.

I’m sure Chad Brown is right and I’m wrong but in our view Practical Joke is more than a one-turn miler, even if it’s been his game.

There’s nothing wrong with milers--they make the best modern studs, after all—but I’m not convinced nine furlongs is outside his range; possibly even 1-1/4 miles on under the right circumstances.

Practical Joke was a top miler yesterday for sure, with Rosario bringing him out carefully over the heels of rivals for a clear run. The Joker responded with a final quarter-mile burst in 23.61 seconds.

“The pace wasn’t that strong and he had to give six to eight pounds to everyone in the race,” Brown correctly noted.

There was no talk of what’s next but with the same folks owning Cloud Computing, my surmise is that Practical Joke will be Haskell bound while the Preakness winner ships upstate for the Jim Dandy. It’s a plan that makes sense for both horses.

Before the Belmont Sprint Championship, trainer Chad Summers said that he didn’t want the race to be “a heart attack finish” for Mind Your Biscuits. “I want to send a message.”

Message received, loud and clear.

The Biscuit might not be the most brilliant sprinter in America but he just might be the best sprinter in America. His Golden Shaheen in Dubai last March was a defiant much-the-best victory; his Sprint Championship was defiantly dominating.

Rosario didn’t feel he needed to be cute this time, cruising up outside rivals on the turn, taking the lead at headstretch and, at just the moment when it appeared Awesome Slew would pose a serious threat, Rosario got busy and Mind Your Biscuits did the rest.

The four-year-old Posse chestnut stopped the 7-furlong clock at 1:21.84 with a final furlong in 11.94. As Summers said earlier, his colt just might be better at seven-eighths than he is a three-quarters.

And what did the trainer think of his sprinter’s finish? “It makes me think a mile won’t be a problem.” Off yesterday’s run, it would be impossible to disagree.

Mind Your Biscuits will run next on the Travers undercard August 26. “The Forego is our next goal, and hopefully an Eclipse Award as well.” Given Saturday’s effort, those goals are within reach.

The guess is that Chad Brown was thinking why run four fillies in the Belmont Oaks when three will do. So he scratched Fifty Five and watched New Money Honey, Sistercharlie and Uni finish 1-2-3 in the 1-1/4 miles Grade 1 on the Inner turf.

And if it weren’t for Catch a Glimpse last year, the win would have been Brown’s fifth consecutive victory in the former Garden City Breeders’ Cup, nee the Rare Perfume.

"They all ran terrific,” said Brown. “[New Money Honey] got position early and they were moving along pretty good. Javier just backed off a little bit and had first run… My other two horses were two first-time Euros, they broke a little slow and were pretty far back.

Especially the Oaks favorite, Sistercharlie, a private purchase following her second place finish in the G1 Prix Diane just 20 days ago.

Running last of 12 much of the way, she rallied outside into the lane and finished well through the straight, albeit lacking the turn of foot she showed in France. The feeling is that given more time and similar conditions, she will beat her mate when next they meet.

Two things we know for sure about Keen Ice’s upset in the Suburban: Todd Pletcher is correct to target the Jockey Club Gold Cup this fall, 1-1/4 miles being the key, as he stated after the race Saturday, but indicated Sunday morning he will get ready for that with a Whitney run at Saratoga, August 5.

The other is that a slow pace and Jose Ortiz’s hands and quick thinking can wake up any horse.

On paper, Matt King Coal was lone Suburban speed, but does it ever pay to take a horse out of its best game? Isn’t it worth a gamble to find out if speed will come back to you? But Javier Castellano didn’t wait to find out.

Consequently, heavily favored chased the pace throughout, taking the lead prematurely while driving and trying to spot his two major rivals six pounds. It wasn’t the way to go.

And we don’t play the red board here; I mentioned this to a friend not a sixteenth of a mile away from the barrier.

It might not have mattered in the end because Keen Ice ran great, finishing with a flourish, putting some sprint in his step as he crossed the finish line. It’s taken a year or so but it appears that Pletcher’s finally got him figured out.

Given his pedigree, I have no good explanation as to why I questioned Oscar Performance’s ability to get 10 furlongs. Not only did he get his job done while under pressure throughout, he drew off inside the final eighth with exclamation.

Under the circumstances, it was a visually stunning career-best effort. All credit to the horse, Ortiz, and masterful management from Brian Lynch, in the midst of a career year. BTW: the vanquished Irish-bred runnerup, Called To The Bar, is a very nice horse.

A New Riding Star Emerges: While the day belonged to Jose Ortiz, the week belonged to Tyler Gaffalione. In fact, 2017 thus far has belonged to this classy, hard-working young man from Davie, Florida.

As of Sunday morning, Gaffalione is the country’s leading rider with 166 winners, 14 more than runnerup Irad Ortiz Jr.

And for those who may believe he’s beating up on lesser reins-men in SoFla, recall that he rode the Gulfstream winter meet while Ortiz remained at Aqueduct for the winter, which makes comparisons pretty well balanced.

Gaffalione was in New York yesterday riding 83-1 chance Makarios to a sixth place finish in the Belmont Derby, and also finished fourth with his only other mount, a 15-1 chance on the early line.

The third-generation horseman will remain in Florida for now but does plan to ride at Saratoga on Gulfstream’s dark Mondays and Wednesdays and also venture north for the occasional stakes mount.

Aggressive when he needs to be on Gulfstream’s routinely speed kind oval, he rides the turf course with great patience and confidence, showing the kind of coolness and savvy of a rider far beyond his 22 years.

With a little more seasoning, Gaffalione will rank among the nation’s elite. In fact, the young man is practically there right now.

Written by John Pricci

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