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, December 04, 2015

New York to South Florida: A Prime Time Shift

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 4, 2015—One door closes and another opens. So goes the sport of Thoroughbred racing. Call it the rites of winter passage in the game that never sleeps.

With the regular season winding down as New York readies for its winter session on Wednesday, Gulfstream Park opens its Championship Meet Saturday—with help from much of the quality stock that keeps New York racing at the top of the pyramid.

Last week, the Cigar Mile brought down the prime New York season emphatically with an ultra-dramatic renewal of that one-turn Grade 1 event when Tonalist went from no-chance to up-in-the-final-strides hero.

So, who do you like in the Garland of Roses?

It is, however, the South Florida oval, home of the best sustained race meet America has to offer, that will command much of the nation’s attention from this weekend through the meet’s penultimate racing day, the stakes-stuffed Florida Derby program on April 2.

The only bad news regarding Saturday’s lid-lifter is a forecast calling for 70% chance of rain as a low pressure system has stalled over the bottom half of the peninsula. While most of precipitation will intensify in Dade, it does appear there will be plenty to go around.

We dislike wagering on wet tracks unless there’s a friendly bias at play, in which case all are aware, anyway. So will the track be sealed, opened, and when will that be? What’s worse than betting on wet tracks is handicapping for unknown conditions?

Resultantly, we’ll look only at the centerpiece event, the Claiming Crown Jewel, a nine furlong route for three-year-olds and up that has attracted a gateful of 12 runners.

And it’s truly too bad about the weather in another regard. Since shifting to the South Florida venue four years ago, Claiming Crown day has been one of the best betting events of the session; extraordinarily competitive races with large fields.

Picking winners will be challenging to say the least; the good news is that when you win, you likely will be rewarded in kind. It will be interesting to see how atmospherics affect Saturday's racing.

Weather forecasters are predicting clear skies in the Northeast and so we will look at New York’s final Pick 3 and the feature from Parx Racing, the Nursery Stakes for two-year-old males which attracted a dozen Pa-breds going seven furlongs.


Forty-eight hours in advance, we have left seven of the runners open. Of those, three leave us with imponderables to deal with:

Will Market Blaster (12-1) handle a wet track, over which he owns a (7) 1-0-1 slate and has never raced here? Will surface loving Rich Daddy (6-1), beneath 124 pounds, get the trip? His pedigree does not inspire confidence that he will. What about Mal Guapo’s (6-1) 9F ability? And will it matter considering trainer Brad Cox is tightening the girth?

We’re comfortable that these following will run well, surface notwithstanding. African Fighter (10-1) is not as fast as most of these but comes up to this perfectly for Todd Pletcher. Indycott (8-1) has been ultra-consistent, gets the trip and has the right connections.

Royal Posse (4-1) and his uncoupled mate, Mr Palmer (10-1), like all others mentioned here, are Gulfstream virgins but are coming into this in top form for Rudy Rodriguez, taking no chances by naming Javier Castellano and Joel Rosario, respectively, on the duo.

And if Lieutenant Seany O runs back to his last from the pole with Jose Ortiz, all might be in trouble. Great race; tote watching is the imperative here.


At first blush, this 12-juvenile males scramble looks like a match between early favorite Morning Fire (5-2) and his recently vanquished rival Bird of Trey (7-2). In fact, the finish probably will end that way, only with the order of a Sept. 26 open allowances reversed.

There is the matter of a five-pound shift in the latter’s favor, the fact he comes into this a bit fresher than his main rival, is getting a favorable switch to Joshua Navarro (riding at 23% this meet) and a 5 furlong breeze that was 2nd fastest of 27 peers to work last weekend in Bensalem.

We wouldn’t Balk (6-1) to vociferously if you considered upsetting the probable faves, as the Ron Potts-trainee is advantageously drawn outside his principal rivals. But today rates to be Bird of Trey’s day.


Six of the dozen in the body here have some kind of chance but we’ll concentrate on four, from the inside out, New York Chrome (8-1), Dettifoss (5-1), Indiana Stones (6-1) and Black Tide (3-1).

New York Chrome makes his first start since May for profitable long-layup connections and attracts Eric Cancel. His Thoro-Graph figure while breaking maiden in his second start is competitive and any maturity improvement can take this at a square price.

Dettifoss earned excellent figures back-to-back then regressed in his Belmont finale. Bruce Brown wisely gave him six weeks to recover subsequently and is eligible to rebound in this spot.

Indiana Stones is not as fast as these on the performance figure scale but is fresh and is sitting on a big effort. Low profile outfit has been live in recent months.

Black Tide is making his second start since returning to dirt for Michelle Nevin. He mid-moved as the pace was heating and tired late, beaten a 3/4s of a length for all of it last out. Irad Ortiz replaces his brother, Jose. Can’t take lower than the early line quote, however.

But let’s keep in mind, too, that Saint Joseph makes his second start off a lengthy layoff for Jeremiah Englehart. Pole sitter owns good back figures and the barn is a profitable 32% effective with second-time acquisitions.


Three of the seven entrants, favorites all, are the key players. Room for Me (6-5) gets huge class relief dropping out of a series of G1 and G2 events. She turns back for David Jacobson to a trip at which she’s 4-for-6 lifetime and owns the fastest figures.

Princess Violet (7-2) returns in Mike Hushion’s care following her poorest career effort in the G1 Phipps in June. Previously, she was second in the G2 Ruffian; both starts going long. She turns back to three-quarters here where she’s (3) 1-1-0 and returns to Aqueduct, where she’s (2) 1-1-0. Her last win came beneath Junior Alvarado, who re-rides here.

Classic Point (5-2) returns to the Big A (1-for-1) for white hot Jimmy Jerkens who’s profitable in all relevant categories. With ‘Violet’, she’s co-highweight at 123 pounds, but her best runs have come at Gulfstream.

The big question here is whether Gary Contessa recently claimed lightning in a bottle with the huge-figure surface winner Nuffsaid Nuffsaid. At 20-1 on the early line, it may be worth finding out.

RACE 9: Maiden Claiming 1-1/16 Miles TURF

While I concede she can easily win, not terribly interested in early line choice Touch of Paradise (5-2) who’s had five recent chances at this level, finishing third four times and will use her defensively at best. We’re interested in Junger (3-1) and Street Fightin Man (4-1).

John Hertler is very effective dropping in with maiden claimers. His Junger is nicely drawn, well suited by dynamics, has versatile style, and attracts Kendrick Carmouche. He has developed nicely as a late-season four year old.

Street Fightin Man was a good third over the course last out and has improved Pricci Energy Ratings since Nick Esler added blinkers three starts back. Further, his TG figures are surging forward and he should continue marching here. We require at least 3-1 given the dynamics.

The preceding Morning Line blog was written exclusively for and reprinted here via special promotional consideration

Click on Feature Race Analysis for Saturday's Featured Race Plays after Midnight

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy Horseplaying Holidays!

[Ed. Note]: We have sent an e-mail inquiry to Churchill Downs asking if they knew the source of the story that Hopportunity would be kept out of the the Clark Handicap due to a quarter crack. Will report back when we get a response. Meanwhile, please accept our apologies

SOUTH OZONE PARK, NY, November, 25, 2015—From coast to coast and beyond, this holiday weekend will feature a glut of stakes races, 48 over four days, in fact, 25 of them graded, five of those Grade 1.

Those championship defining events, from Kentucky’s Clark Handicap Friday to New York’s Cigar Mile and Del Mar’s Hollywood Derby Saturday, to Sunday’s Matriarch and even farther West--so far west it’s actually in the Far East--the storied Japan Cup.

What with holiday and race draw schedules, we will take a handicapping look-in on Friday’s Clark and Saturday’s Cigar Mile, along with Kentucky Derby defining G2s for soon-to-be-three-year-olds; Aqueduct’s Remsen and Churchill’s Jockey Club Stakes.


Like its springtime brother, the G1 Stephen Foster which also is 9 furlongs, this event has become one of the nation’s top handicap attraction.

Perhaps it’s the novelty of having a handicap race at all anymore; though it seems that 126 pounds is the high-weight benchmark these days, with the competition scaled lower.

Racing secretaries and student of racing history will tell you the process is meant to bring horses of disparate ability together at the finish, when in reality weights are more a product of how much money you’ve won recently than strictly class matchups.

Lamentably, the Clark lost last year’s winner and probable favorite Hopportunity when he developed a quarter crack and was declared Wednesday morning, leaving Travers winner Keen Ice as the early line choice.

Keen Ice would be a worthy favorite as the only horse to defeat protem Horse of the Year American Pharoah in the Travers but was unable to match strides in the pokey-paced Classic in which all but the winner were compromised by race dynamics.

He will further benefit from his first start in nine weeks, the promise of an honestly contested pace, and even the cutback from 10 furlongs. Leading rider Corey Lanerie, seeking his first Clark score, replaces Irad Ortiz Jr. in the boot.

After winning the G3 Ben Ali and G2 Alysheba in short order this spring, Protonico threw in two clunkers, something we’d be shocked to see today.

Repeating the same Keeneland prep pattern he used last fall when second in this race last year, the return to his favorite Churchill and a switch to Julien Leparoux should see him benefit from today’s dynamics.

Race Day, who defeated Hoppertunity in the recent Fayette, will have clear sailing from the outside with Johnny Velazquez and his first loss at Churchill or today’s 9-furlong trip would be his first.

This four-year-old has favorable dynamics and his mate Protonico almost assuredly will run his race today. If the pace is hot enough, Keen Ice can pick them all up in the lane, but anything lower than 5-2 on any of these would qualify as an underlay.

BETTABLES: The play for us will be to keep Classic runner-up Effinex out of the exacta. Well placed in the pace-less Classic, his conditioning enabled him to save the place. Now with two recent efforts at 10 furlongs, his optimal distance, we’re gambling he’ll be speed-dulled.

The other 3-year-old in the field, Shotgun Kowboy brings a three-race win streak in this dance and a low profile, too. The G3 Ohio Derby winner gets seven pounds from Keen Ice and nine from his prominent elders. He’s a possible exotics key at a price, coupled with the usual suspects.


The most fascinating aspect of what many questionably conceive to be a Derby predictor is significant for three things: state of development, class definition, two-turn ability and an affinity for the surface. Those factors along makes this 1-1/16 miles interesting.

It’s the first two variables that are the most intriguing with respect to four entrants in today’s event.

For Airoforce (3-1) has three variables to answer here. The BC Juvenile Turf runner-up, his only defeat in three starts, will be making his first start on dirt; question #1. The second query is will the blinkers help? Julien Leparoux thinks so; tomorrow Mark Casse will ask the colt.

Annual Report (5-1) is 2-for-2 lifetime but never has been around two turns. He’ll ship in from Belmont to find out. He has enough more the enough pedigree and Kiaran McLaughlin, having a career year, is profitable first-time going long.

Harlan’s Holiday colt has been training aggressively since winning the G2 Belmont Futurity, an effort that must be seen to be appreciated; he finished with a devastating turn of foot for a youngster coming off the pace, albeit sprinting.

Mo Tom (8-1) is good, indicating as much by winning the listed Street Sense going a mile over the track despite a slow beginning that made his task neigh impossible. But when he was asked on the turn by Corey Lanerie, he got it in gear in a big way. Where he fits with the likes of these is the reason they run these races.

Gun Runner (8-1): Different horse, same story. Two-for-two in life, he won his two-turn debut at Keeneland impressively in hand, in another race that should send handicappers to the video replays.

Candy Ride did not run especially fast but didn’t have to; thus the question. Since his last race, he’s worked every seven days five times for Steve Asmussen. Pointed here? Oh, yeah. He has enough pedigree for this test and for the one that comes next May.

Haven’t the faintest idea with so many of the players on the come here, so the wager will be price dependent:

Don’t know how to read Mor Spirit (7-2) 2-for-2 for Bullet Bob and exiting the Bing Crosby, an extremely fast race. With pistol to temple, we're inclined to narrow the potential value play down to Gun Runner (8-1).


The early storylines have been dominated by Mohaymen and why not? When $2.2 million is spent on a yearling and that horse can actually run, fast, it makes news.

The gray son of Tapit, from a mare that has produced three winners from as many starters including two stakes winners, is 2-for-2 with the second score coming in G2 Nashua, the traditional flat-mile prep over the Remsen track.

For his two-turn nine furlong debut, Kiaran McLaughlin is adding first Lasix to the arsenal for Shadwell Stable, a barn that prefers to run its juveniles without the diuretic. Make of that what you will. The colt did drift through the straight in the Nashua.

The only entrant with a win over Saturday’s surface, two of the Nashua vanquished, Sail Ahoy (Shug McGaughey) and Flexibility (Chad Brown) are coming back for more. Sail Ahoy has an experience edge over his two key rivals, has a true distance pedigree and adds blinkers.

Like Flexibility, Sail Ahoy (5-1) will carry 116 pounds to the favorite’s 122 and his TG figure is competitive with Mohaymen. Seems like there’s more than a remote chance that Mohaymen may not be the top story after the race. Under the circumstances, Taking Flexibility to win at early line odds. Marango Road (12-1) looks live as a price shot.

BETTABLES: We need to see the replay a few more times to pick any subtle clues that may exist, but between experience, pedigree and the six pounds, we are inclined to take a potential upsetter.


The two favorites in this handicap are the horses that should dominate. The blinkered-again Belmont/Jockey Gold Cup winner Tonalist will be at his toughest turning back to a mile, a distance at which he won the Westchester and placed in the Met Mile. We’re envisioning a slingshot move off the turn for home.

But then he’ll have to catch Private Zone who just might prove uncatchable. Making his first start for trainer Brian Lynch, he did the hard work in the BC Sprint but was unable to hold the onrushing sprint freak, Runhappy, second in a first rate effort.

Nicely posted outside, Private Zone and regular partner Martin Pedroza could turn this into a sprint with an alert beginning and reasonable fractions. Both are distinct possibilities here.

Matrooh is an interesting upset candidate. Chad Brown is not in the habit of spotting his horses over-aggressively. The fresh, five-year-old gelding won the G3 Bold Ruler with 7 furlongs in 1:21 1/5, and looked good going a flat mile at Gulfstream in March.

He’s getting eight and seven pounds, respectively, from the two favorites. Stranger things have happened.

BETTABLES: Inclined to take the sharp, speedy Private Zone to lead this throughout but may take a flyer with Brown’s runner at a price reuniting with Irad Ortiz; maybe both, price dependent, of course. Marking Time (15-1) is 2-for-2 including Big A win at the trip and is in very light (111).

Today's Pricci Morning Line Weekend Advance Provided Courtesy of Special Promotional Arrangement with

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, November 21, 2015

Thinking Upset in First Kentucky Prep and Other Featured Thoughts

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., November 21, 2015--Don’t blame me for this extremely early Kentucky Derby preview. Simply point those fingers at Churchill Downs if you must. After all, they have kept the Delta Downs Jackpot in place as a Derby qualifier. In fact, ditto that for the Delta Princess and Kentucky Oaks.

And so Vinton, Louisiana is the place to be Saturday where sunny skies are projected and where an All-Stakes Pick Four with a $200,000 guarantee is in place, the sequence ending with Delta’s million-dollar mile-and-a-sixteenth for juvenile males.

Both are Grade 3 and worth 10 points on the Derby/Oaks qualifying scale. Again, the track is expected to be fast, as is forecast for Louisville and New York.

In South Florida, where there’s always a chance of afternoon thunderstorms this time a year but not specifically expected Saturday, two graded stakes, one for each sex and also at the G3 level, are being offered at Gulfstream Park West, nee Calder.

At Churchill Downs, the G3 Cardinal for fillies and mares 3 & up at eight and a half furlongs is one of its best Fall features each year based on competitiveness and field size—again is an extremely tough puzzle.

But, paraphrasing Manfred Mann, “mama, that’s where the value is.” We’ve left five fillies in our exacta mix: Faufiler (6-1), Sistas Stroll (8-1), Emotional Kitten (12-1), Button Down (7-2) and Kiss Moon (5-1). We believe Button Down is most likely to prove best in show.

Here’s a detailed handicapping look-in at the four other Saturday offerings:


This race features the strongest favorite of the day and I have no good idea on how to stop La Appassionata (3-5) from winning her third straight without defeat for Steve Asmussen and Stonestreet—owners having their best year since Curlin and Rachel were roaming the Grade 1 stage.

She’s won two starts by a combined 11-1/2 lengths, handling a class and distance rise while winning the prep for this over today’s track. By Bernardini, the extra furlong should pose little problem and she distributed her energy in improved fashion last out.

While grandsire Carson City is not known for distance aptitude, dam Moonlight Sonata has produced seven winners from eight starters, six of them winning at 2, three of them stakes winners.

Possible upsetters worth considering are the maiden Learning Curve (12-1), with enough pedigree for the trip and much improved on the Thoro-Graph scale second oat; Above Fashion (9-2), z willing second to the favorite locally, albeit 7 lengths behind. However, second-time Ron Faucheux runners are 30% profitable.

BETTABLES: Would key La Appassionata first in exactas with her two rivals above.


For a million dollars you’re supposed to get a competitive event and that’s the case here despite the presence of Exaggerator (2-1), the Saratoga Special winner and subsequently G1 Breeders’ Futurity-placed before being beaten 3 lengths by protem champion Nyquist in the BC Juvenile.

Despite excellent Pricci Energy Ratings (PER) and past performance credentials, his Breeders’ Futurity effort two back is the fastest on the TG scale but that came in the mud and the overall pattern does not inspire confidence. Kent had better ride this one for his life for trainer-brother Keith.

We see three viable alternatives to the favorite: Sunny Ridge (7-2), Found Money (6-1) and Memories of Winter (10-1).

When last seen, Sapling winner Sunny Ridge was finishing second to Greenpointcrusader by 4 1/2 lengths in the G1 Champagne over a sloppy Belmont surface, racing on or near the pace throughout. Irad Ortiz Jr. come down from Gotham for his first ride on the Jason Servis-trained gelding. His TG pattern is healthy.

Found Money is straight forward and ships East for Doug O’Neill and Reddam Racing who have Nyquist in the same shedrow. This Cal-bred won a listed stakes at Santa Anita this spring and was second vs. state-bred stakes rivals in both recent outings.

Whitmore (8-1) was very impressive winning his debut sprinting at Churchill but was extremely green, snaking around through deep stretch. The lack of experience, two turns or otherwise, cannot help…but he is fast.

The fascinating runner here, one we may or may not bet but certainly will root for, is Memories of Winter, a winner of both lifetime starts at disparate venues, his latest at one mile while earning an excellent PER. But it’s the connections who intrigue most.

New handicappers may not recognize Anthony Margotta Jr. but the trainer won the Whitney Stakes 22 years ago with Brunswick, beneath an up-and-coming riding star named Mike Smith. Margotta has done excellent work this year with a handful of young stock.

And today’s rider is Pat Valenzuela, who’s won the Derby and Preakness with Sunday Silence, about a half-dozen Breeders’ Cup races and nearly every major event in Southern California.

P Val’s cocaine addiction has been well documented and he’s made many unsuccessful comebacks in the past. Hopefully the 53-year-old jockey now has his demons under control and will have a fine stand at the upcoming Fair Grounds meet.

Memories of Winter has speed and inside position, dynamics the rider will surely try to exploit to boost his 4,000 + win total.

Parenthetically, we would have liked to be more precise but the rider is not in the Equibase data system. I can confirm that Barry Bonds hit 762 career home runs from a number of sources but racing’s lone statistical source can tell me; it’s like he never existed.

BETTABLES: Found Money could be very well named at anything near early line odds ante post; will not take less than 3-1, however, and will key-box exactas with rivals here, price dependent.


This 1-1/16 miles two-turner expected to be contested on firm ground attracted an eclectic group of runners at various stages of their careers. But it’s a pair of fillies, Lady Lara (5-2) and Sandiva (9-5), who figure to battle it out for the major share.

These two have two things in common. Each is getting class relief, having cut their teeth most recently at the Grade 1 and Grade 2 levels, and each would love to add a graded win to their respective resumes.

Lady Lara has faced such major grass talents such as Recepta, Hard Not To Like and Tepin (twice) of late but never embarrassed herself, with the possible exception of her sixth-placed finish behind ‘Not To Like’ after lagging early and racing wide thereafter.

But the Bill Mott trainee finished like a rocket ship after the fact when third after breaking from the #13 slip in the G3 Athenia last time. Given five weeks recovery, she returns with new rider Jose Lezcano and inside position.

Todd Pletcher has Sandiva (9-5) set of for a winning return as the four-year-old tries for her second G3 score and her first since Gulfstream’s Suwannee River in February. How serious is Pletcher here?

How about the fact he shipped the filly south early, showing workouts from Palm Beach Downs dating back to Sept. 29? Javier Castellano also comes with the package.

BETTABLES: Sandiva is the most probable winner and an exacta box with Lady Lara is very logical—if you like that sort of thing. If not, perhaps Pink Poppy (15-1), with competitive figures on the TG and PER scales and 1-for-1 at GPW, will be more to your liking.


Should Sandiva get her job done, Pletcher will try to complete the ship-in parlay an hour later with All Included (7-2), again with Castellano, who’s 3-for-3 aboard the four-year-old.

Unlike her mate, All Included has not met G1 rivals but has faced top turf runners Ironicus and King Kreesa in two of four most recent starts.

The competition will come from Lochte (9-5), replete with fast figures and a winner of five of 10 at today’s trip and at GPW; Take the Stand (8-1), improved when blinkers were added Sept. 5; venerable Kharafa (4-1), a winner of 11 of 31 career runs including five at today’s route earning top performance figures, and 6YO Key To Power (12-1) who continues marching forward for Brendan Walsh.

BETTABLES: All Included would be a solid win play at 3-1 or greater.

**This Analysis Brought to HRI Readers via Special Promotional Arrangement with**

For today's HRI Running Totals, going on record with Bagg O'Day (CD 9th) and Found Money (DeD 7th)

Number of Selections since 2007: 1877

Number of Win and Place Finishes: 561-360

Amount Wagered: $3,754 [$2 to win only]

Total Dollar Return on Investment: $3,858.60

Profit to Date: $104.60

Written by John Pricci

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