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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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Old, New, Healing and Through

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., September 24, 2015—In the game that is played without the benefit of short pants, it was good to learn this week that a number of horses and human practitioners, exceptional talents all, are on the mend.

First came news that Shared Belief was back in light training. The gelding’s absence, due to a hip fracture that could have been a lot worse had Mike Smith not protected him as quickly as he did in the Charles Town Classic, has been the biggest equine loss this year.

Without Shared Belief for much of the season, as well as the sidelining of 2014 Horse of the Year California Chrome, due significantly to ownership mismanagement, has left a gaping hole in the 2015 handicap division.

In context, the good news is that there is no stud career in Shared Belief’s future. While that’s next the case for last year’s Derby and Preakness winner, it is hoped the decision by ownership to California Chrome as a 5-year-old is fruitful, especially for trainer Art Sherman and Chrome’s many fans.

Meanwhile, Lady Eli’s recovery from laminitis is going so well that a decision was made to send her to a Kentucky farm for two months of R & R, allow her to enjoy life as a horse away from a racetrack barn area, even one as bucolic as Belmont Park’s.

In Philadelphia, legendary Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas has had a permanent pacemaker implanted and was scheduled to return to Kentucky to convalesce, if he himself allows it. When one sees or speak with him, the term octogenarian just doesn’t compute.

In a tweet posted yesterday, Rajiv Maragh reported the good news that he will be allowed by his doctors to ride again, at some point in the future.

Maragh has had a rough go, having only returned from injury last winter at Gulfstream Park before his most recent accident in New York in which he sustained four fractured vertebrae, a broken rib and a punctured lung.

Maragh must remain in an upper-body cast until at least year’s end. One can only hope his recovery continues in a positive and timely fashion.

But news is forever mixed. It was disappointing, e.g., when several weeks ago, after training like a wild horse possessed for several months, two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan was unable to defend his prior success in the Woodbine Mile, his latest injury forcing him onto the sidelines for good.

Admittedly, I was one of the last to jump on the gelding’s bandwagon but will be the first to admit that I was wrong in holding his role as a one-mile turf specialist against him, never according him the measure of respect worthy of a great champion.

As for psychological recoveries, good to see American Pharoah back on the work tab follow the first defeat his Triple Crown season, even if a half-mile in 49 4/5 is more of a high gallop for the champion than the normal timed workout.

Another plus for his attempt to rebound in the Breeders’ Cup Classic was, in our view, his rider Victor Espinoza being voted off the popular “Dancing With the Stars” network program three nights ago.

I didn’t think he was riding particularly well of late which I attributed to a lack of focus due to the pressures of Pharoah fatigue. I became more comfortable with that observation after hearing Richard Migliore echo that message last week at Belmont Park.

I recognize that the affable Mexican has been brilliant aboard the champion-elect and that his winning personality made almost as many friends for the sport as did his celebrated mount.

But now it’s time for both to get back to business and prepare for the toughest test of year, his toughest competition, anyway. At stake is nothing less than his ultimate legacy.


When Gulfstream Park West, nee Calder Race Course, opens its two-month session October 7, it will do so with a few new wrinkles in its betting menu.

GPW will offer a 50-Cent Pick 5 on the first five races, a $5 quinella on the final race of the day and what can best be described as a rolling Super Hi-5 carryover.

The 50-Cent Pick 5 is now an industry staple in many quarters and presumably the rake will be the 15% already in place.

A $5 quinella is expensive but the wager arguably is the lowest high-risk multiple of them all. Further, the bet may offer a good return on investment—risk vs. reward--because of the initial high cost.

The $5 Q just might attract a good amount of play, especially considering the usual low-quality stock that fill the finales of racetracks everywhere. It make sense to at least test these new offerings.

I have mixed feelings about the Super Hi-5 due to its extreme degree of difficulty. Resultantly, I can count the amount of times I’ve bet the Super Hi 5 on one hand and probably do not need all five fingers to do so.

The bet is insanely difficult without making a very costly investment: There are 120 permutations comprising the Hi-5 as opposed to 24 for the Superfecta. And at $1 per ducat? Fuhgeddaboudit!

What’s interesting about the new format for the Hi Five is that it’s being offered in every race. If no one hits it in the first race, the entire pool is carried over to the second race, etc., etc.

Carryover provisions are already in place in existing Hi 5s but that’s day-to-day, not race-to-race. Given its extreme difficulty, I’m wondering if reducing the bet to 50-Cent would initially attract more money in race one and accomplish the same carryover goals.

Of course, increased interest in the GPW product and increased handle is the goal, not necessarily in that order. And when will all tracks learn that busting players out at a faster rate is bad for business long term?

The good news is that management is willing to tweak the program as the testing results dictate. However, if tracks keep insisting on tailoring their betting menus to only whales, there will be no minnows left to feast on, only cannibalization of their VIP players.

It would do well if tracks concurrently offered an attractive takeout rate of 10% in the straight pools on the best race of the day, on track and at attendant ADWs.

And there would be no need to rewrite statutes. Just offer a winners bonus, the difference between 10% and the going rate. The cost of promotion and good will? Priceless.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, September 20, 2015

Confessions of a Big Race Junkie

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., September 20, 2015—Hello, my name is John and I bet on the horses at Parx Racing yesterday. This is because I suffer from a common affliction, Stakes Race Syndrome, so it wasn’t entirely my fault.

Due to a promotional agreement with 123GAMING, part of my professional task for Saturday was to handicap the final six races from Parx, which was posted on the website.

And I was anxious to do the work. There were two million-dollar races on the program. One featured Frosted, the Grade 1 Wood Memorial winner and Travers third, who was the early line favorite for the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby.

The other million-dollar pot, the Grade 1 Cotillion, featuring Embellish the Lace, winner of the storied, Grade 1 Alabama and its runner-up, I’m a Chatterbox.

And the Grade 3 Gallant Bob sprint at 6 furlongs is always a great betting race. So I went all in.

Having already handicapped the last six races, including an All-Stakes Pick 4, I looked at the first five races on the card Friday evening. The second race featured a horse on my Saratoga Watch list, the Graham Motion-trained My Senses. I was pumped, ready for the big day.

Parx is a track I don’t usually play, except's unique Pick 6 wager when I'm obligated to handicap the last six races, routinely every Sunday. But we chose Saturday this week for an obvious reason:

National interest would be high for the Pennylvania Derby program, which is not usually the case when Parx has to go up against the big boys of the simulcast world. Indeed, they don't normally attract simulcast handle of $5.5 million as they did yesterday.

I’m not a Pick Six player, except for this unique pool. For one thing, there’s always a winner. In fact, there are prizes for the top three finishers and if you wind up on the leader-board you even get your $2 back.

You don’t have to pick six winners either, and only have to beat the competition you're up against that day. The player accruing the biggest dollar return, converted into points, wins. The score consists of adding up the dollars win in each race:

If your race winner pays $5.00, 4.00 and 3.00 across the board, you earn 12 points. If your pick finishes second, and pays $10.00 to place and 5.00 show, that’s worth 15 points, etc., etc.

I didn’t win the 123 Pick 6 yesterday but the day started well enough when My Senses, perfectly ridden by Johnny, won at a very square $8.60. I could now afford to rough it up a little throughout the day and the Pick 4 appeared very winnable.

I decided I would go against the usurious 26% takeout on this occasion; I simply can’t help myself when it comes to betting on the best horses, trainers and jockeys available.

I used five horses in the wide open, newly created Bayern Stakes, an overnight event run under allowance conditions. (We think it’s cool that next year’s event will be named for the 2015 Pennsylvania Derby winner; at last, a new tradition with symmetry.

And did Kelly Breen ever have Encryption ready for his first start since June 13, shipping in from his Monmouth Park base with a series of bullet works and Paco along for the ride.

That’s just the way it looked, too, when, reaching the far turn in an attending position, Lopez looked around disdainfully, peering over both shoulders for competition that never came.

Encryption was expected to win, bet down early and often from his 10-1 early line and he won in full stride, making 3-1 look like a bargain. But he would better value than that in the Pick 4 pool; a very good start, indeed.

I was alive to four horses in the second leg, the Grade 3 Gallant Bob. Big mistake; it was a seven-horse field and I should have bought the entire race or at least one more, vastly improved runner.

I watched in dread as Trouble Kid came up with a SUPER performance for his SUPER trainer, Ramon Preciado, ridden by one of his go-to guys, the talented Joshua Navarro.

Trouble Kid was claimed out of a $15,000 claimer by Preciado on July 5, a race in which he showed improved early speed to finish second.

Twenty days later, Preciado ran him back in a $25K maiden sprint, removed the front bandages and Trouble Kid responded with a 16-length victory, improving his BRIS figure 14 points, his Thoro-Graph figure 11 points, and our own Energy Ratings by 16 points.

Thirty-two days after that, Preciado sharpened him by sending the gelding to Delaware, cutting him back to 5-1/2 furlongs. This time he only won by 9 lengths.

But it was another 5-point BRIS improvement, a 2-point Thoro-Graph improvement (running a 0) and he improved his Energy Rating by another 6 points.

Still, how could he beat Limousine Liberal, 2-for-2 at the distance and recently second in Saratoga's Grade 1 Kings Bishop? Trainer Ben Colebrook blew him out a bullet half-mile at Keeneland for the race, his fourth lifetime start.

Trouble Kid hung on by a neck over Limousine Liberal after posting fractions of 21.32 and 44.31. Of the other three horses I used, Grand Bili never picked up his feet and Bayerd, like the winner, 13-1, rallied up a dead inside to finish third by a half-length.

Preciado is not infallible, of course. He went only1-for-7 on the day, although he did win the 4th with Beach Nut and was disqualified. But his performance did hurt the stats, however.

As of Wednesday, Preciado was winning at a SUPER 32% rate with an across-the-board slate of (319) 102-67-36.

But make no mistake; the losing Pick 4 investment is on me and not on the greatest trainer in Pennsylvania (sorry Jonathan).

If I’m a Chatterbox is not the leader of the topsy-turvy three-year-old filly division then I don’t know who is. She took the G1 Cotillion by a drawing-away two lengths beneath the white hot Florent Geroux.

The Cotillion was the filly’s first Grade 1, although she did finish first but placed second in the Coaching Club Oaks, somewhat controversially, was second in the Alabama, also winning a Grade 3 and Grade 2 at the Fair Grounds last winter. Embellish the Lace was dull but did race on the slower inside throughout.

Frosted was sensational taking the Pennsylvania Derby. Joel Rosario knew what was happening, saving ground, but away from the rail. When he went on the attack of Iron Fist, a much better horse than I thought, he unleashed a final eighth in 11.97, stopping the timer in 1:50, winning in full stride powerfully.

Good for the horse; good for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. Next stop, Lexington.

Next week, we’ll be in action at Belmont Park, where the takeout rates are much friendlier, and where four Grade 1s, highlighted by the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic and Flower Bowl, and the Grade 3 Pilgrim for juvenile turf runners, will be featured.

If I can stay awake, I probably will take a shot at Santa Anita, where takeout rates are good in the straight pools, not so much in the multiples (Pick 5 notwithstanding), and where four more Grade 1s and a Grade 2 will be contested.

Two things, though: I just hope Preciado doesn’t run Trouble Kid back in the Vosburgh, and next time I won’t be as obtuse in my approach to the Pick 4.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Twas’ the Week Before Saratoga

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., July 19, 2015—With the exception of the amazing program on display on Meadowlands Pace night Saturday, everything I observed in the afternoon drew me the realization that Saratoga Race Course opens five days hence.

If that wasn’t a precursor yesterday, surely it would have been this morning when a NYRA press release in my inbox included possible runners expected for next weekend’s stakes: comprised of Friday’s Lake George for 3-year-old turf fillies and the traditional Schuylerville for the baby girls.

On Saturday, the colts get their chance in the Sanford, turf fillies and mares meet in the Grade 1 Diana while the following day 3-year-old fillies clash in the G1 Coaching Club American Oaks, opening week concluding with the Lucky Coin for turf sprinters.

Talk about front-end loading at the Spa: It’s almost enough to make fans forget about Chris Kay and the six missing trees.

A look through a pre-Spa notebook including Belmont final Saturday highlights:

Two Year Old Star on the Horizon

His name is Manipulated and he was bred in New York about a 40-minute drive north of Saratoga at the nursery of Chester and Mary Broman in Chestertown on Friends Lake Road.

If that name has a familiar ring, it should. Back in the pre-Funny Cide days, Friends Lake won the Florida Derby beneath Richard Migliore, giving the Bromans their first Grade 1 winner, the latest being the fleet filly Artemis Argotera.

The program is now world class, winning open stakes with some regularity. They bred the winner of 11 races at Saratoga last year, 62 in all, a sensational meet for any breeder. We thought it good enough to earn them our Eclipse Award vote--for all the good it did them.

As for the colt, he was buffeted about at the start, settled professionally once gathered up by Luis Saez (riding triple), got closer at the five-eighths pole, made a smooth a strong 3-wide rally at mid-turn, gained command in midstretch and lengthened his stride fully, shading 25 seconds for the final quarter-mile.

Did we mention he won by open lengths at even money and that his racing debut came in the Rockville Centre Stakes for state-breds at six furlongs? Where will he run next? Whenever that is, it likely will be in Saratoga, possibly in open company. He certainly has the tools.

For Sciacca, a Great Second Act

It’s extremely doubtful that when Gary Sciacca wakes up in the morning and looks in the mirror, it’s not Bill Mott who’s staring back at him.

In fact, no one has ever confused the two trainers but as far as Saratoga Snacks is concerned, the man who has the gelded 6-year-old’s hole card has, well, his whole card.

Despite a first act that included excellent results in stakes company, the owners apparently weren’t satisfied and made a barn change to Mott. The Hall of Famer went 0-for-5 with the gelding and at the end of 2014 got him back, this time as the owner trainer.

After a 2-1/2 month break, Saratoga Snacks was back in the winners circle going two turns on Aqueduct’s inner track, followed by a showing at seven-eighths on the main track before finishing a good third in the Commentary Stakes at Belmont in May.

Craftily ridden by Johnny Velazquez, Saratoga Snacks gamely repelled the surging Empire Dreams, who had taken a short lead in midstretch, surging forward again to win the mile and one sixteenth Saginaw Stakes.

This result provides another angle for handicappers to consider: Horses for Trainers. For good measure, Sciacca saddled seventh race winner Police Camp, under a well-timed finish from Angel Arroyo.

Good job all around; hooray for the little guys!

Lasix Free Juveniles as Business Keeps Booming at Gulfstream

With a year-round racing schedule finally in place, Gulfstream Park continues to offer a product that remains popular with simulcast bettors.

From the start of its summer meet, July business is up a half-million dollars per day year over year.

The barn area is full, whatever stalls remain at Calder are maxed out and there are over 200 horses sheltered at the Palm Meadows training facility. With that, field size has increased from approximately 7.8 horses per race to just over 8.2.

The product might not quite be up to “world class” standards, but the operation continues to defy national trends that shows overall handle to be flat when it’s not down slightly.

While at first, Lasix-free juvenile racing seems almost a hollow gesture, the experiment is worth exploring, especially given the reticence horsemen display just at the suggestion that regulators would take their raceday Lasix away.

Trainers supported the over-subscribed maiden 4-1/2 furlongs for fillies drawing 23 entrants. The races were split and after one scratch yielded fields of 10 and 12, respectively, in the sixth and eighth races.

Only five of the 22 starters had ever raced, one of which was coming off Lasix, and despite the “first-timer factor,” the races attracted all-sources handle of $411,330 and $449,694.

By way of comparison, the featured 10-filly Bougainvillea Handicap for older turf sprinters handled a mere $328,337. Interestingly, the maiden fillies raced for a $65,000 purse while the overnight event carried a purse of $60,000.

We’d expect to see a lot more of these events carded by the racing office, with or without the same purse structure.

It what be interesting to see will happen when these fillies are entered back as either first-Lasix maidens or trainers wanting a little extra oomph in the tank for an upcoming stakes engagement.

Ralph Nicks was the training star of the juvenile afternoon. The well-backed Dancie (D’Wildcat) and Kandoo (Kantharos) both won off by daylight, one just as impressive as the other—although Kandoo was a couple of ticks faster. Hicks entered three, and in the eighth completed his own exacta.

Who does the former long-time Mott assistant think he is, Gary Sciacca?


While some of the hit is attributable to events beyond its control, like yesterday’s deluge and lightning storm that set a palm tree lining the backstretch on fire, ole Del Mar has gotten off to a rocky beginning.

The storm accounted for late scratches in the double digits and three turf races were rescheduled to the main track. With one less race than a comparable Saturday in 2014, handle was down $4.6 million at $9.4 million for the day. Yesterday’s handle was $3.7 down from 2013’s 10-race program, according to researcher Roger Newell.

Hurt by a lack of a big Pick 6 carryover present in 2014, accounting for a healthy percentage of this year’s decrease, business is down just under $4.9 million year over year.

Wonder what’s in store for the Spa? I expect there will be an increase the first weekend--if season pass-holders might be included in 2015 attendance figures starting opening day.

Written by John Pricci

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