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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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Monday, March 10, 2014

Chrome Shines in California Sun; Cairo Still Tops HRI Power 10

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 9, 2014—It’s been good news and bad news for Shug McGaughey in the last 72 hours. The good news is that four seemingly sacrificial three year olds will serve to welcome Honor Code back to the races on Wednesday.

The bad is the loss of Top Billing from the Florida Derby due to a cracked cannon bone suffered in a Payson Park workout Saturday morning. The news could have been worse as Top Billing*, at the moment, is expected to resume his career following surgery.

To what extent the right front cannon non-displaced fracture takes a toll is unknown but for now the prognosis is good. He was scheduled for surgery Sunday in Kentucky with Dr. Larry Bramlage. "They'll put a couple screws in it, and probably a plate, and it should come together. They'll take the plate out so we're talking about three or four months. Dr. Bramlage feels like he should be able to come back fine."

In an allowance race Wednesday, it is of great interest to see how well Honor Code has recovered from bruised hind ankles, also suffered while training at Payson Park. Javier Castellano rides the 3-5 early line favorite.

McGaughey said that winning would be nice but having “something to push on with” is what’s important, and that he could return in the Florida Derby depending on how he races over the speed favoring course.

If not, it will be on to Aqueduct a week later, April 5. We believe the Remsen winner is 3-5 to have his final Derby prep in Queens.

Honor Code worked a half-mile in :48 and galloped out in a minute-and-change for Wednesday's allowance prep. "I'd like to see a good race from him. Hopefully he'll be good enough to win, but as long as we can get the kind of race into him where we can go forward, that'll be good enough."

"I think [Social Inclusion] has got speed and I would like for [Honor Code] to have a target. That's why I wanted to do something sharp with him, to put him in the game."

California Chrome established himself as a major Derby player in Saturday’s San Felipe and Graham Motion had himself a heck of a day at Tampa Saturday, winning the Hillsborough in the last jump and the Tampa Derby by daylight.

It’s hard to know what was behind Ring Weekend in Oldsmar--or even what he’s made of as a maiden winner now once removed. But say this; not many Tampa Derbies are won on the lead and Vinceremos seems to show up, well, wherever he shows up. It was a huge forward move by the winner.

Cairo Prince, early favorite for the Florida Derby March 29, took another step toward the event with a half-mile work Saturday, a half-mile in 49.60, galloping out five-eighths in 1:03.80 at his Palm Meadows base.

“He looked great doing it and we’re on course for the race. He’s doing great,” confirmed Kiaran McLaughlin.

Gulfstream Park Derby winner General a Rod was also on Saturday’s tab, going an easy half-mile breeze on Saturday for trainer Mike Maker in :51.26. “We just worked him easy and he was push-button, as always,” said Maker. “He was more aggressive after the race and full of himself so he probably wanted to work sooner than I decided.”

To his credit, Maker is playing the shipping game by shifting LeComte winner and Risen Star third Vicar's in Trouble into Hallandale Beach for the Florida Derby on Gulfstream’s speed friendly track rather than remain at the Fair Grounds with the stretch that never seems to end.

Obviously, Saturday’s results and last week’s defections changed the HRI Power 10 standards decidedly into Week 3. Cairo Prince remains the top vote getter among the HRI staffers and contributors.

Ranked in order, based on a blend of accomplishment and promise, with power points in parentheses Note that there’s a good deal of separation between Cairo Prince and Tapiture from Candy Boy and Honor Code, and again between those two and the remainder:

HRI Derby Power 10, Week 3

1. Cairo Prince (30)
2. Tapiture (28)
3. Candy Boy (23)
4. Honor Code (19)
5. Intense Holiday (14)
6. California Chrome (13)
7. Wildcat Red (12)
8. Strong Mandate (11)
9. Samraat (8)
10. Kobe’s Back (5)

* correction 031014

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, March 08, 2014

The Dude Abides

HALLANDALE BEACH, March 8, 2014--—If all the renewals were like yesterday’s, the Big Cap would be the BIG CAP again. And unless Meydan, for some reason, installs a dirt track, the Santa Anita Handicap will continue attract many of the best older horses in America.

Saturday’s renewal was billed as the “Epic Rematch,” of course. After all, the last time the win and place horses continued their battle from the previous year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic was in 1988; in the end Alysheba over Ferdinand.

The rematch was the draw, not the fact that redoubtable Game On Dude was trying to become the first horse to win the Big Cap thrice, thus surpassing three dual winners; Lava Man, Milwaukee Brew and the legendary John Henry.

On Saturday at Santa Anita, Game On Dude became a bone fide legend. Yes, speed had a big advantage in Arcadia yesterday, with four of the seven dirt races won wire to wire, one from a chaser, one from a close-up inside stalker and, oh yes, Sahara Sky.

Game On Dude, who I believed was done, D-U-N, stunned everyone at the track, those in simulcast land and still more on national television. He just didn’t become the first three-time winner of this West Coast classic, he made his rivals look outmatched.

Even as Hear the Ghost chewed on him through fast splits; 22.91, 45.34 and 1:09.39, the Dude had the audacity to trip the timer in 1:32.57 for the mile and stopped it completely after a mile and a quarter in 1:58.17.

Are you kidding me? Seven year olds not named Kelso or Forego or John Henry are not supposed to do things like this. As the kids would say; it was awesome. Awesome Again, as the pedigree would say.

And there was Bob Baffert telling the national TV audience that he was sand-bagging us this week, how a lot of people had written him off, and how quietly confident that the Dude was going to run his race because he’s doing so well. Mike Smith said the same thing, only before the race.

“When he runs his race he belongs on the track with anyone,” said Smith. But then it was Baffert, too, who, on a national conference call Tuesday, said “Game On Dude has some big ones left in him.”

I guess.

Favorite Mucho Macho Man had every chance but wasn’t the same horse that dusted Florida breds at Gulfstream Park in January, and Gary Stevens gave all fair warning on the same teleconference. “I shut him down well before 16th pole. It’s one thing win by a margin [14 lengths] bit it still takes a toll on them.”

And it sure appeared that way. Stevens moved him up to challenge leaving the five furlong pole, battled semi-between as Will Take Charge swept up alongside but the Macho Man started to come out of the bridle before reaching the quarter pole, where Game On Dude began to separate himself from the challengers.

Meanwhile, the 2013 three year old champion was a good second for the second time this year, although his inability to change leads smoothly caused him to drift wide, making his job that much tougher. But Game On Dude crossed the wire the stronger of the two animals.

Misremembered, bred by Bob and Bill Baffert, provided the Hall of Famer with his most thrilling Big Cap victory, until Saturday. And, so, Game On Dude is back. That, or he never really left.

Three Year Old Star Is Born: Whatever happens in the Santa Anita Derby and beyond, one thing became eminently clear in the Grade 2 San Felipe: California Chrome is not your father’s Cal-bred.

Now, wasn’t it supposed to be Midnight Hawk in front, being entertained by Kristo, or vice versa? Instead, it was California Chrome showing a new dimension, one of pace setter, a pace setter that got stronger and the race lengthened.

And he made the stalking Midnight Hawk look ordinary when Mike Smith asked the question approaching headstretch, got a favorable response, just before California Chrome blew the doors of this mile and a sixteenth, drawing out by 7-1/4 lengths in 1:40.59.

The place finisher had another 6-1/4 lengths on Kristo, absolutely reaching bottom just to secure the show. For the winner, it was a tour de force romp in 1:40.59 over a very fast surface.

We all know Santa Anita’s a speed-biased type of track,” said winning trainer Art Sherman, “so it was really great to see him with the hold [Victor Espinoza] had on him.”

“He ran like I expected him to,” said Espinoza. “I wanted to try something new today, so I let him go right out of the gate. I don’t know if people expected me to go right to the lead, but I wanted to let him enjoy his race—I just let him go.

“In these races, you can’t just try and do too much with them. I think it’s important for him to do his thing for the first five-eighths and be happy.”

No one should bother splitting hairs off Saturday’s performance.

Palace Malice in Thrilling Gulfstream Comebacker: Making his four year old debut a winning one, Palace Malice looked beaten. Twice.

First, it was Uncaptured who had the 2013 Belmont Stakes winner collared and past in midstretch. Then, when that one appeared to hang nearing the sixteenth pole, Golden Ticket was a full stride and appeared set to blow by both horses.

But Palace Malice and Johnny Velazquez kept finding and dropped his head on the line a nose before his late running rival. Trainer Todd Pletcher saw it this way:

“He pressed solid factions, and was carrying top weight and he went a little wide. It looked like they took a couple of big runs at him and he fought back. It was a heck of a horse race and a huge effort coming off a layoff.

“It’s pretty rare you have a horse that can win the Belmont and also run 1:33 and change and stalk solid fractions. I think he put the Met Mile into play today.”

And served notice that he’ll be ready for Game On Dude and Will Take Charge and Mucho Macho Man when the time comes. Did anyone see Normandy Invasion’s come-backer a few weeks ago? If this keeps up, the elders just might steal the sophomore’s thunder.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, March 05, 2014


Dick Powell is a racing renaissance man. A former lobbyist for New York racing, Powell is an industry consultant, writer, handicapper and lifelong horseplayer currently residing in Saratoga County. So it is no surprise he has strong feelings and serious concerns about what a full blown casino might mean for world class racing at Saratoga Race Course

A Full Blown Saratoga Casino? Be Very Afraid

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY--Like the people that read this column, I am always willing to take chances and admire those that do.

That said, how in the world can anyone think putting a full casino right next door Saratoga Race Course is a good idea? Who wants to take the chance of damaging the crown jewel of American racing? Not me.

When the New York casino constitutional amendment passed in 2012, it called for four casinos to be built outside of New York City. There are four regions that were carved out upstate in and around agreements with Native American gaming sites.

One such region is the Saratoga/Albany area and it will definitely have a casino with poker, blackjack, craps, roulette etc. Saratoga Raceway has a video lottery facility across Nelson Avenue with 1,782 VLTs.
The VLTs have been in operation there since March of 2014 and purses for the harness horsemen have more than tripled.

One could argue that part of the decline at Saratoga Race Course the past 10 years has been due to 1,782 VLTs only a few hundred yards away. If that is true, it is a very small part. Walk through the Raceway's gaming floor and you will see more walkers and oxygen tanks than horse racing products. There is little crossover but logistically it had to hurt some.

In 2001, when the VLT legislation was being proposed, I was the media spokesperson and strategist. Nobody wanted VLTs at Saratoga Race Course for many reasons and we knew that the ones next door might have some impact. That was more than balanced by 5,000 VLTs downstate at Aqueduct so the net effect was going to be extremely positive.

The late Bruce Hamilton, executive director of the Harness Breeders of New York, was the driving force behind the effort to get VLTs at New York racetracks and there should be a statue of him outside of every facility. He was indefatigable.

Now, Saratoga Raceway is pushing hard for the table games to complete the transition from a "racino" to a "casino." The problem is that table games attract an entirely different clientele. Horseplayers love to play cards and various games of skill.

From the 80/20 female-to-male ratio that exists now, it will change to about 50/50 and the increase in males will be ones that also like to play horses.

In the state-wide voter referendum in November, the voters of Saratoga County voted 57 percent to 43 percent against legalizing casinos anywhere in New York. So there is no real groundswell for support to have it here.

But the way the referendum worked, there is no follow-up referendum where a community gets to vote on a specific site. Still, 57 to 43 is considered a landslide. Any elected official with 57 percent of the vote immediately says the voters have spoken and have given he/she a mandate.

Well, the mandate up here was a big, fat NO! And this was a legitimate vote since there were no organized groups for or against it.

The process to decide where the casino eventually goes has begun. A committee that is part of the New York Gaming Commission has been selected and they have a few things to consider.

First is economic activity and business development. This will count towards 65 percent of the scoring and will evaluate capital investment, revenue generated, jobs, facility quality, fastest to market, financial ability, and experience in development and operation of a quality gaming facility.

Yes, Saratoga Raceway could get up and running faster than anyone else in the Albany/Saratoga region since they are the only one currently operating. While that is important for the first few years, a new facility would provide far more economic impact in terms of construction and operation.

Second, 20 percent of the scoring will be based on impact on the host municipality, gaining public support and partnering with existing businesses to avoid another Atlantic City situation where the casinos damaged the local businesses.

Third, 15 percent of the scoring will be based on workforce development, addressing problem gambling, utilizing environmentally friendly construction or renovation practices, and creating a diverse workforce.

Ironically, the casino legislation was named the Upstate NY Gaming Economic Development Act. Outside of New York City, there is no county doing better economically than Saratoga and part of that is due to the hundreds of millions of dollars that New York State has provided to help build the computer chip fabrication plant in Malta, which now employs thousands.

The impact of the host municipality and community will be the key factor and here is where the impact on Saratoga Race Course will be paramount. There are two main groups on each side of the issue.
Against the casino, mostly because of quality of life issues and the impact on downtown businesses, is a group called S.A.V.E., which stands for Saratogians Against Vegas-style Expansion. You can read about them

In favor of the casino is a group sponsored by Saratoga Raceway called Destination Saratoga. You can read about them

Destination Saratoga uses the image of a Thoroughbred horse on its logo and I find that disingenuous since it makes it seem that supporting them will help the Thoroughbreds. I say it will not but there is an argument that a destination casino will attract more people to the area and help all businesses.

Where there has not been enough pushback is how a casino next door will affect Saratoga Race Course, which is the economic anchor for the area and the real destination. Because of the Thoroughbred track, we have year-round, world-class food and health care because of thoroughbred horse racing at Saratoga Race Course.

Can anyone say that a full-blown casino will not hurt business at Saratoga Race Course?

Can anyone say that it is worth taking the chance?

What is the plan if it turns out to be damaging to Saratoga Race Course?

Some will say that the history of Saratoga is all about casinos and they are right. The only reason we have any racing here is that the casino patrons needed an afternoon diversion since the casinos did not open until 7 p.m. So without casinos, there wouldn't even be the world-class horse racing we have.

But one historical fact that many seem to ignore is that the explosive growth of Saratoga Race Course happened after the casinos left town.

Today, hundreds of thousands of people visit Saratoga Springs each summer and the main draw is Saratoga Race Course. Mention Saratoga anywhere in the world and the image conjured is one of Thoroughbred horse racing.

Is anything worth the risk of damaging the real economic engine of the region? I just can't see it. Even if I am wrong and there is no real negative impact on Saratoga Race Course, can anyone say with any impartial authority that it was worth taking the risk?

And who is to say that what a casino looks like now won't develop into something more insidious? Can you say on-line gaming and sports wagering?

The sitting committee for the four casinos will have a hard enough job. But nowhere will it be harder than deciding whether or not to put one in Saratoga. They will have to go against public opinion in an area with little need for economic development and already the beneficiary of over a billion dollars in state aid over the years.

In my opinion, it is not worth it. There will be a casino in this region but I just can't support one in this backyard. Call me what you want; I can take it.

But, what I don't want to do is sit around years from now and question how this happened and the crown jewel of American racing was damaged irreparably.

Dick Powell's column first appeared at

Late Breaking:The City Council of Saratoga Springs voted 5 - 0 in favor of a resolution that was against having a destination casino in the Spa City Tuesday night. The vote reverses a December 2013 vote that approved a casino for the city and four of the five members then are members now. Mayor Joanne Yepsen visited with the New York Gaming Commission Tuesday morning and brought letters and emails to them that were overwhelmingly against. This follows a 57 to 43 per cent vote by Saratoga County voters in November 2013 against the constitutional amendment that would approve four casinos upstate and three more downstate years later.

Written by John Pricci

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