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, 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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Saturday, November 14, 2015

Maryland My Maryland, New York and Kentucky, Too

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., November 13, 2015—Laurel Race Course continues its simulcast resurgence this weekend with the $350,000 DeFrancis Dash memorial sprint program featuring five other listed stakes at $100,000 per event.

And the heavy heads will all have their opportunities elsewhere: Aqueduct is offering the Grade 3 Red Smith Handicap for older turf males going 11 furlongs while Churchill Downs has a beauty scheduled, the Grade 2 Mrs. Revere for three-year-old fillies on grass.

The latter at 1-1/16 miles is the last graded event restricted to sophomore female grass runners this year. It drew an overflow field of 18 but only 14 will start, four also-eligibles notwithstanding.

Weather handicappers are predicting clear skies for all three venues but given recent wet conditions in New York, there rates to be some cut in the ground on a turf course sure to be less than firm. And that’s where our handicapping look-in will begin:

AQUEDUCT RACETRACK: The Red Smith drew a field of 10 including one Main Track Only. While the gate will not be as crowded as Laurel’s, this feature is no less contentious, not with equines saddled by emissaries of Brown, Casse, Clement, McGaughey, Motion, Mott and Pletcher.

Six of the nine Red Smith starters have peaked our interest. Our top contenders from the inside-out:

Bill Mott is sending out War Dancer (5-1) who looks like a horse that’s been directly pointed this way. Narrowly beaten in the G1 Man o’ War and second again in the G2 Bowling Green, both a today’s trip, he was speed-sharpened in the shorter Knickerbocker Oct. 10, stalking the leader throughout before tiring in his first start since August. He’s worked thrice since for a barn that avenges beaten favorites at a 24% clip.

Kaigun (3-1) has enough bottom-side pedigree for the distance and he’s been toughened and sharpened recently in two Canadian Grade 1s, most notably the WO Mile two back while finishing two lengths behind Mondialiste, the eventual fast-finish BC Mile runner-up.

Parenthetically, while certainly fast and talented enough, we’re not completely sold on the notion that Mr Speaker will get that 11th furlongs and, at 5-2, we’re not that anxious to find out.

Holiday Star (8-1) offers value at early line odds. Distance is not at issue owing to two wins at 12 furlongs, both G3s. He handles any ground and Graham Motion fave Edgar Prado rides him likes he owns him with two wins and placings in four rides dating back to October, 2014.

Recent Chad Brown acquisition Mr Maybe (5-1) has been a revelation since returning as a gelded four-year-old. Following his 2015 horror-trip debut came a flying-finish third and two straight wins, including his distance debut last out, although 5-1 seems more a function of trainer than horse.

Charming Kitten (10-1) has earned the fastest figures on the Thoro-Graph scale with laudable consistency but is going to need clever handling from his outside slip with the short run to the first of three turns. The rub is Johnny Velazquez can’t be in two places at the same time; he’s listed to ride Stallwalkin’ Dude at Laurel 50 minutes later

BETTABLES: The most probable winner appears to be Kaigun. But at early odds, anything near early odds, we’re taking a hard look at Holiday Star and Charming Kitten to key our exotics plays.

CHURCHILL DOWNS: Per usual, the Mrs. Revere is a great betting race, which is code for hair-on-fire mind-bender.

Return to Grace (10-1) is a price shot, one of two entrants with a course; their 12 rivals do not even have Churchill lawn experience. Nicely drawn, she’s twice graded-stakes placed beaten on 4-1/4 lengths in Keeneland’s G1 QE II. Joe Rocco Jr., 1-for-2 with her, is on a re-ride.

Devine Aida (10-1) is making her second start since the Black-Eyed Susan and second for Clement, who’s switching to one of his best team players, turf maven Joe Bravo. She was second to Mrs. Revere favorite Partisan Politics (4-1) in the one-turn Pebbles while both prior 7-1/2 furlong grass scores came around two turns. She appears live in this spot.

Onus (6-1) has come to hand rapidly for Shug McGaughey with forging Pricci Energy Figures since returning from an April layoff, winning three straight at Laurel which begs the question: Why not New York?

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that since New York does not permit use of a hyperbaric chamber, readily available at the Fair Hill training complex. For this she sports a recent Belmont bullet half-mile and Forest Boyce will seek his fourth straight on the Blame filly.

Isabella Sings (8-1), used hard setting a rapid Pebbles pace, ships in for the ubiquitous Todd Pletcher. She reunites with Paco Lopez, aboard for her narrow defeat in the G3 Boiling Springs. She also will appreciate a second turn and will be always prominent.

Partisan Politics is in from New York for Chad Brown who not so quietly has become the second-leading-trainer in money won in 2015.

Beaten by a tough trip, 3/4s of a length in Saratoga’s G2 Lake George at Saratoga, Partisan Politics subsequently was beaten a nose in the Riskaverse before taking the Pebbles.

Her late run needs to be timed carefully but when she comes with it, look out. Javier Castellano is her regular partner.

BETTABLES: Would like to get Devine Aida and Onus into the exotics mix and both are potential win bets, price dependent, of course. But either of them has Partisan Politics to beat; tis the season after all.

LAUREL PARK RACE COURSE: The main attractions in Laurel, Maryland are the Safely Kept for three-year-old fillies sprinting seven furlongs replete with its interesting déjà vu implications, and the DeFrancis Dash.

With the Lady Sheila connections not having the brilliant New York-bred and BC F & M Sprint runner-up La Verdad’s campaign to anticipate in 2016, another three-year-old Empire state-bred might be in a position to become heir apparent.

A four-time winner and twice second in 10 career starts, Hot City Girl (5-2) has a win and placing at the 7-furlong trip and is the controlling speed--if not lone speed--in this 12-filly matchup.

Since beating half the field in the G1 Acorn, she’s won two straight coming off a three-month break, taking the G3 Charles Town Oaks and a secondary Belmont allowances going 6-1/2 furlongs, earning the field’s top PER by a significant margin.

The centerpiece, of course, is the DeFrancis which hopefully will be accorded graded status again in the future: The appearance of Palace (9-5), a lifetime winner of 12 of 27 career starts, including two Grade 1s and $1.48 million in earnings, is yet another Linda Rice-trained New York-bred star.

Ridden by regular partner Cornelio Velasquez, a consistent player for this barn and a regular rider companion, this is likely to be the six-year-old’s racing swansong. He passed on a BC Sprint run and will go out wearing blinkers, a 24% win scenario for Rice.

The DeFrancis will be no walkover despite Palace’s impressive resume. Enter Stallwalkin’ Dude (5-2), also down from New York, for David Jacobson, who will be making a rider switch to Trevor McCarthy.

Prior to getting shuffled back from along the inside in the BC Sprint, the five-year-old 6F specialist fought it out gamely when beaten by only a neck when third in the Vosburgh. Following that Grade 1, Jacobson freshened him five weeks to prepare for the BC Sprint.

BETTABLES: Despite his tough BC Sprint trip, Stallwalkin’ Dude defeated half the field and was beaten less than five lengths. An exacta box with Palace and a win bet Stallwalkin’ Dude makes the most sense.

[See Feature Race Analysis for today's wagers]

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Written by John Pricci

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