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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Saturday, January 03, 2009

Gulfstream Park Opens: Game On

Saratoga Springs, NY, Jan. 2, 2009--For me, nothing says Kentucky Derby quite like the opening of the Gulfstream Park winter meeting. And how we do love opening days!

Actually, today’s Gulfstream card is an excellent start to the South Florida racing season. Four races for three-year-olds, including the six-furlong Spectacular Bid Stakes--one of two added-money events, the other being the Grade 3 Hal’s Hope, on the program--and plenty of turf racing, too, are the highlights.


Eastern tracks, looking to heighten awareness of their own programs, are featuring early races for Derby-aged colts. Aqueduct carded the mile and a sixteenth Count Fleet Stakes this afternoon, a two-turner that helped launch Smarty Jones’ Derby run.

And while six furlongs proves little in a Derby context, the Gulfstream sprint is a good place to start, seeing if your horse can handle salty competition.

Gulfstream, of course, is well aware of its place on the Derby trail. In 2005, it moved it its seminal event, the Florida Derby, to five weeks out from the roses run, a paean to both modern training philosophy and equine fragility. The tack stroke gold with Barbaro.

Last September, Gulfstream again revised its Derby prep schedule. The 2009 G1 Florida Derby remains at 1 1/8 miles and will be run March 28. A sign of the times, however, its purse was cut from $1 million to $750,000.

Gulfstream wisely shortened the G1 Fountain of Youth distance from 1 1/8 miles to a mile. That race, run on February 28, remains four weeks in advance of the Florida Derby. The 1-1/8 miles Holy Bull was shifted to January 31 for those more advanced, or to accommodate trainers seeking two turns or unwilling to turn back to one turn.

This move makes sense. Last year, Gulfstream hoped that a mile and three-sixteenths in mid-April would be attractive to trainers of late developers seeking last-chance graded earnings. The thinking proved better in theory than in practice, but at least Gulfstream made a worthy pro-active attempt.

Today’s Spectacular Bid is the first of two one-turn stakes providing a distance progression. The G2 Hutcheson Stakes at seven furlongs January 30 is the other good place to get going and is, of course, a natural progression to the one-turn Fountain of Youth.

As a nine-furlong event, only one horse used the Fountain of Youth last year as a prep for the Florida Derby.

Gulfstream Park also is turning back its racing calendar. It has moved to a five-day race week with the hope of producing larger fields and attracting more live bodies on days that historically have proven more popular than Mondays.

In all, Gulfstream will card 31 graded stakes in 2009, including three on Friday, a move that should prove popular with visiting snowbirds. A newly reached ADW accord will make the Gulfstream product available from virtually every simulcast locale.

The track will again host the popular and high volume Sunshine Millions program January 24, which includes the $1-million Sunshine Millions Classic at 1 1/8 miles for olders. It is one of eight Sunshine Millions stakes rotating between Gulfstream and Santa Anita Park carded for Florida-breds and California-breds only.

Aqueduct’s Count Fleet, meanwhile, will showcase certain odds-on favorite Haynesfield for the Steve Asmussen/Ramon Dominguez team. Haynesfield won his two-turn and winter-track debut by a short pole, whipping up on New York-breds in the Damon Runyon. His pedigree might not get him the Derby distance but looks long enough for today’s trip.

The Spectacular Bid drew a field of eight headed by the Birdonthewire Stakes winner, the extremely fast You Luckie Mann, to date the fastest three-year-old sprinter in the land. Strong competition is expected to come from Silent Valor, winner of the G3 Sapling at 2 and working strongly at his Palm Meadows base for Todd Pletcher and Johnny Velazquez.

If this all sounds familiar, it should. Happy New Year, indeed, and let the games begin anew.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, January 02, 2009

No Horse Talk on the Long Ride Home

Saratoga Springs, NY, Dec. 31, 2008— As this is written in the old year, don’t expect anything too upbeat. I just returned from Lake Carmel in Putnam County, visiting with a friend whose father was an early supporter of the New York bred program and campaigned a champion.

Normally, this picturesque town in southern Putnam Country is about a two-hour drive from the Spa City. But thanks to a little more than just nuisance snow, it was slow going, more like three. And I’m not as patient as I used to be, indeed, if I ever were.

Or maybe it’s because people in the Northeast, even though they live in the Northeast, are not very good when driving in snowy conditions. They seem to over-compensate for the caution thing so that you want to stick a needle in your own eye. Damn it, move already!

But the converse is true, too. The yahoo on your rear bumper driving the big SUV with 4-wheel drive thinks he can go as fast as he wants without regard for the conditions. All the ads promise as much. So there was time to kill, and I pondered the new year.

First I made use of a neat Christmas present, the new live album from James Taylor, featuring the usual chestnuts, inventive covers, and songs from the book with which I was unfamiliar. If you like James Taylor—and that seems redundant--you’ll love this live album. And I took some good advice from it to help me cope in 2009.

The secret to life, he sang, is to enjoy the process of aging, or words to that effect. The melody and refrain was pleasant, uplifting, and I was beginning to feel better already. But I thought let me get my head back in the game, so I tuned the AM dial to 660, WFAN.

Mike Francesa had the day off, so there would be no new dogma to learn this day. (Never thought I would miss Chris Russo: Not for his opinion, mind you, but for keeping dogma in perspective).

But Ed Coleman is always good company. He’s been with the most successful station in the history of sports-talk radio almost since its inception. Not only are his tones dulcet, his responses well measured and respectful of its audience, even if some of the callers sounded like they should be driving the SUV on my tail, now about three lengths away.

Coleman used to co-host his own show with Dave Sims—the same Sims you might have heard calling NFL games on radio or seeing on CBS-TV during the NCAA Tournament when March goes mad.

They hosted a program from 10 AM to 1 PM and would invite Newsday’s public handicapper/columnist to appear during the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup seasons.

Sims admittedly didn’t know much about thoroughbred racing but asked good questions and was engaged. Back in the day, you’d call him a real gentleman, which meant he probably wasn’t course enough for sports-talk radio. The age of the opinionated screamer had just begun.

But Ed liked action and he enjoyed the game, and he could speak to it. It wasn’t quite racing’s golden age on radio but at least New York City would know there were some big events out there and an interest in how horses were coming up to the race off their preps, the closest thing racing has to a playoff system.

The weather outside the Subaru was frightful but the football action, college and pro, and the baseball hot stove were red hot. Coleman, when he’s not filling in for someone, does Mets play-by-play, pre- and post-game, and updates on Sundays during the NFL season.

And he thinks bringing Pedro Martinez back, given his Hall of Fame talent, competitive nature and sense of obligation for not making good on his promise when he was signed for all that in 2005, is a good idea. But they should sign Derrick Lowe, too, $36-million for three years.

I thought Coleman and many of the callers were right when they guessed that Bill Cowher wanted no part of filling the vacancy left by Eric Mangini’s inglorious departure if it came with a string attached named Brett Favre.

Cowher was in a network studio all year probably noticed the Jets were 8-3 with five games remaining and failed to make the playoffs. Everyone also agreed that owner Woody Johnson’s love affair with Favre would never be consummated on a super Sunday.

Favre should have taken a page out of Jim Brown’s book, and not Jim Thorpe’s. Last year should have been Favre’s last year..

One caller wondered out loud why the new Yankee Stadium was costing almost as much as the Mets’ new digs, Citi-Field. I figured that this fan probably didn’t own any Citibank securities.

(While we’re at, how did NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg, or whomever, decide it was OK to spend $5-million on the Times Square New Year’s ball in this economic environment? If it were all that important, he should have paid out of his own petty cash. When did it become unfashionable to set a tone in this country?

But on this day, as on most days on sports-talk stations in America, there was no talk of racing, of horses coming of Derby age, of which thoroughbred was worthy of Horse of the Year recognition or, for that matter, whether racing will be vibrant 10 years from now.

No talk of take-out, or marketing, or betting security, or Santa Anita and Gulfstream, or synthetic tracks, or even Eight Belles. But hey, Marc Lawrence is 3-0 with his college bowl upsets so far. Now, who’s playing tonight, maybe I’ll get home in time? If only this guy in front of me can step on it, just a little. So meet the new year, same as the old year. I'm not optimistic, but I'm hopeful. Maybe it will stop snowing soon.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Mentoring Young Handicappers

Saratoga Springs, NY, Dec. 26--I’m getting a head start on a New Year’s resolution to be part of the solution and not part of racing’s problem. I’m introducing a newbie to the wonders of handicapping thoroughbreds. Let’s call him Brian.

This 30-something is not a complete newbie. Actually, he’s a harness fan and closely follows racing from The Meadowlands. He’s a self-described $2 bettor, who says he’d like to learn more about thoroughbred racing and handicapping.

I’m here to help.

And even if I must say so myself, he couldn’t be in better hands.

Brian’s a big-time sports fan who enjoys thinking. He likes to play poker, avoiding the online variety, playing only in inexpensive tournaments. He’s played in Atlantic City, at Foxwoods in Connecticut, and enjoys the action north of the border at Casino de Montreal.

He bets on college sports and all manner of football, mostly college where apparently--and we agree on this--he can more easily find “separation,” a greater talent disparity from one side to the other.

Brian has a good eye for athletic talent and appreciates thoroughbred racing as a sport. It was only fitting that we met at Saratoga Race Course last summer. “I enjoy following the big races,” he says.

He’s the demographic that racing covets; young, intelligent, engaged.

For the handicapping nuts and bolts, I suggested the handicapping classic “Betting Thoroughbreds” by Steve Davidowitz. I’ll send him home with a copy of “Blinkers Off” by HRI contributor Cary Fotias.

And so when I pick up Brian this morning before heading over to Saratoga Gaming and Raceway, a.k.a. “the harness track,” I’ll print out the Fotias data so that Brian can follow along. Hopefully, there will be questions.

This is no Saturday afternoon project. The task will require study and that’s only fitting. We’re talking learning to fish for a lifetime here. But, as I’ve explained to Fotias and to every seminar audience I’ve encountered recently, the learning curve is steep.

And worth the effort.

Despite nearly a decade’s worth of experience with Thoro Graph performance figures, which I still consult periodically, it took a few months before I became comfortable with my command of the Equiform data.

Indeed I was almost set to abandon the study when one day it all clicked. From there, as with anything, the harder I worked, the luckier I got. Handicapping is a constantly evolving process.

At the harness track this afternoon Brian and I will study races from Tampa Bay and Calder, eschewing the Fair Grounds and Aqueduct, where weather handicappers are promising the likelihood of wet tracks.

I realize that wet tracks often can lead to exploitable track biases, which are mechanical and boring. And if the bias is indeed pronounced, all the wise guys wind up on the same few horses. Bye bye value; bye bye me.

So I’ll tell Brian what the old timers always used to tell me when I was his age. “Dark day; don’t play.”

Meanwhile, Brian seems to already be ahead of the game. “Value is the most important factor, right?” he asked.

True, I said. But just because a horse is about to pay, say, $15, doesn’t mean it’s good value. Not if you calculate it’s real chances of winning re about one in 10, making its fair odds 9-1. A $15 payout in that instance is an underlay, not value.

Aqueduct wasn’t built in a day. Today’s exercise, then, will be to provide some insight into performance figures work, the relationship of pace figure to final figure. That is how energy distribution is defined, which eventually leads to be a better understanding of condition and development in the thoroughbred.

“I’m curious about what you’re doing now,” my good friend and published handicapper, Dave Rosenthal, said as we played the Santa Anita races on closing day of Breeders’ Cup weekend. “I just want to see what made you abandon everything you once knew.”

I didn’t abandon anything, actually, I just see things differently now.

As the late Pat Lynch, my first racetrack boss and successful public handicapper for the Journal American during New York City’s golden newspaper age, once counseled after I asked why he wasn’t taking a widely accepted handicapping tenet into consideration to complement to his speed-figure methodology: “Because I don’t want to know what the public knows.”

It was my first valuable lesson in contrarian thinking. Hopefully, I’ll be able to impart some of that wisdom to Brian later this afternoon. It’s the least I can do.

Written by John Pricci

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