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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Sunday, July 06, 2014

Stars n’ Stripes Grades: Box Office A, Execution B+

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 6, 2014—At the bottom line, the first Stars and Stripes Festival program held over the July 4th weekend, essentially Saturday’s five graded stakes program including two Grade 1s for three-year-olds on grass, was very successful.

More than 11,000 fans showed up on a glorious afternoon, or about twice the new normal, and the $16 million simulcast handle on the 10-race card beat last year’s totals—a tough comparison since the 2013 holiday program was conducted over a very long “weekend”—by $6 million.

And 11 races were carded last year so, yes, Virginia, quality does count.

The quality of yesterday’s graded stakes was very good but not very "top class.” In the Belmont Oaks, there were only two Grade 1 winning fillies, both American, one coming over Polytrack, and there was no international talent owning a Group 1 title.

The Belmont Derby boasted only one Grade 1 winner, Blue Grass Stakes winning Dance With Fate, but he was a program scratch, leaving the field without a horse that could truly be considered Grade 1. Potentially, yes, but not in reality, including the four Europeans.

It was going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible to attract a true international Group winner at this time of year with all the classic racing being conducted “over there” at this time of the year.

But that can change next year as new events take time to gain status traction; throwing seven figure purses at it alone did not yield max results.

The hunch is that next year, after the “world” had a chance to study the results, a few of Europe’s best runners might be reserved for Belmont Park.

European horse owners who normally might be motivated by prestige instead might ask themselves the following: Why be 20-1 at Ascot when I can be 5-2 in America for a million and a quarter?

The racing was very entertaining with a number of close, exciting finishes and a breakthrough performance by Clearly Now, a colt the racing gods owed a good-fortune run following one tough trip after another dating back to his 3-year-old year.

And he won the Belmont Sprint Championship Stakes by nearly 10 lengths and in track record time for the seven furlongs, despite remaining on his left lead right to the line.

The enigmatic Mr Speaker finally put it all together to win the Belmont Derby beneath a hedge skimming Jose Lezcano to defeat the only European that bothered to do any real running on the day—Adelaide, a very game, come-again second after being outrun by the winner in the final furlong.

Zivo, the New York-bred win machine seems to be getting even better. His previous win in the Commentator was a last-to-first, swoop-the-group victory.

On Saturday, he came from arrears again, only this time saving ground and winning by a clear margin over some very nice but not-ready-for-primetime horses.

Maybe’s Zivo's the player that’s ready for primetime, his victory started a natural double for Chad Brown and concluded a natural triple for Jose Lezcano.

That win would come in the Belmont Oaks with Minorette, who Brown predicted was ready for a new top. Nice training and handicapping, Mr. Brown.

NYRA could have carded an All-Graded-Stakes Pick 4 but stayed with the previous administration’s handle playbook, carding a full field of state-breds going long on turf.

The Belmont Sprint Stakes was just as spreadable as the finale, a promotional opportunity lost.

Clearly, the centerpieces were the Belmont Derby and Oaks which were good branding ideas, names with a little more panache than the former Grade 1s Jamaica and Garden City.

Renaming those stakes is how Vice President of Racing Operations Martin Panza was able to debut his new creations with Grade 1 status.

As stated, the event likely is to attract more foreign participation next year although that’s no out-bet given the present international racing calendar.

The experiment was worth trying and it did succeed. If not, then simply consider the day as a prep for Saratoga which promises to be a victory of quality over quantity. Alas, we shall see.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, July 04, 2014

For July 4th Horseplayers, It’s Morning in America

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 3, 2014—The second half of the racing season began this past Tuesday and we’re preferring to see what remains of 2014 as a glass that is half full despite racing’s myriad problems.

All know what those negatives are: Permissive medication, coupled with the reality wrought be negative perception; a continued lack of transparency on several important fronts, and of alphabet horsemen’s groups that still expect the customer to pay for everything from a higher tax on wagers to improved testing protocols.

Despite all that, there are a number of positive takeaways that will be our focus, the hope that positive storylines continue moving the game forward while it continues to work out its problems in a meaningful way.

On balance, the racing between the fences has been stellar, but only at the higher echelons of the sport. The emergence of Palace Malice and Untapable as legitimate superstars in their divisions has been a welcome breath of freshness.

But the day-to-day sport has been underwhelming and with the exception of the sport’s highest profile venues, there simply remains too much racing. What is needed, particularly when it comes to smaller foal crops and field size, is addition by subtraction.

Providing their good health, the next starts for Palace Malice and Untapable will be most welcome wherever their connections decide to ship them. Of particular note is the ambitious campaign mapped out by Cot Campbell, one that includes Palace Malice appearances in the Whitney, Woodward, Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders’ Cup Classic.

It simply does not get any more high profile than that.

Whether the colt holds on to his divisional lead or returns to take measure of older horses at Santa Anita this fall, the homespun California Chrome saga, despite the disappointing Triple Crown finale and post-race histrionics, elevated racing to a place above-the-fold.

It will be interesting to see whether there’s more there there, such as a Horse of the Year title. Is he legitimately top class or was his success largely attributable to a blend of early development and experience. It will be fascinating theater provided by the dual classics winner and his connections.

The failure of California Chrome to seal the deal resulted in the emergence of a talented new challenger for the second half of the three-year-old year, Belmont Stakes-winning Tonalist, a late developer that figures to bring the Travers into sharp focus.

The Triple Crown chase nonetheless concluded on another positive note thanks to a policy change in the NYRA’s racing office that created the best event day this side of Breeders’ Cup, carding 10 stakes races including five Grade 1s.

That’s what makes tomorrow’s card so interesting. The Stars and Stripes Festival program attracted seven European grass runners, among others that started over there and wound up here with some of the best trainers in the game. There will be five graded stakes, including events for top sprinters and aspiring second-season sophomores.

The most encouraging and dramatic sign of progress in the first half of 2014 is a relatively new development; the emergence of the horseplayer as a political force that can affect change, almost at warp speed compared to the glacial pace at which progress is usually made in this sport.

Can’t speak for other betting-boycott supporters but I take no comfort from the fact that Churchill Downs Inc. took it on the fiscal chin to the tune of nearly $48-million in handle. That comes to $1.3 million every racing day not named Oaks or Derby. Without those days, business was down approximately 25 percent.

For all the slings and arrows shot its way, none of this would have been possible if it were not for dissenting voices on the Internet and social media. From websites speaking truth to power, to grass roots participation from fans in racing chat rooms, industry organizations took note.

The perfect storm for change turned out to be a disqualification in the final race of the day this winter at Gulfstream Park, allowing a carryover jackpot to continue. The DQ, in and of itself a controversial call, was met with great consternation and suspicion.

The response on the Internet was immediate and forceful, resulting in subsequent dialogue between fans and racetrack executives. The result was policy changes meant to improve the race adjudication process.

The back-and-forth bore fruit in that the response was in the main positive for bettors although, to date, not all promises have been kept. Horseplayers have long memories.

While no pleasure was taken from CDI’s travails, what was gratifying to see is what can happen when a disparate group of gamblers get together in a common cause. Bettors got mad as hell and decided not to take it anymore. Each passing day, the influence of a grass roots organization such as the Horseplayers Association of North America continues to gain influence and beginning to get invited to sit down at the table.

And, so, as the nation celebrates its freedoms this weekend, there is reason for a very small segment of the American people to feel optimistic about the future. We know it won’t happen overnight but it finally looks like we won’t get fooled again.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Rough Riding Saturday at Belmont Park

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 29, 2014—I couldn’t help but wonder if Johnny Velazquez was going to go all Vasquez-McCarthy/Romans-Musselman on the Ortiz brothers, Irad and Jose, for two occurrences that happened within two hours of each other on the racetrack at Belmont Park.

In the Manila Stakes, Irad was aboard the heavy favorite Green Mask for Christophe Clement; Johnny was riding the very sharp price shot, the appropriately named Long On Value.

Virtually in a jackpot from the start, Irad was doing his best to settle his rank mount while between horses as Velazquez saved ground rating on the fence. Apparently looking for daylight, Irad raced thisclose to Johnny, so much so that be bounced him off the fence several times before leaving the backstretch.

But the worst of it took place on the turn. Their positions on the course virtually unchanged, Irad tried to cut the corner approaching headstretch, angling his mount inside. In doing so, he cut off Long On Value in the process, forcing Velazquez to check out of harm’s way.

Losing his position, Johnny had to await the straight before he could angle his mount to the outside for running room. Long On Value closed strongly through the lane but the late running Cabo Cat got the first run to victory.

It’s anyone’s guess that the incident cost Velazquez the win but it can be said with some certitude that Long On Value would have finished closer.

Still trapped inside, Irad continued his bull-headed ways. He angled Green Mask outside in midstretch, herding Bashart for a sixteenth of a mile, likely costing his uncoupled stablemate fourth money. Velazquez was irate and made his feelings known in the jocks’ room afterwards.

Two hours earlier, Jose Ortiz, talented enough to have a five-winner Thursday, had the mount on the speedy Princess Violet. From our multiple head-on-replays vantage point, Jose rode carelessly and put Velazquez in a dangerous spot.

It is one thing to have a target on your back, as did a rare 1-20 favorite, Untapable, in the Grade 1 Mother Goose Stakes, and you'd expect your rivals to ride your horse, too. Riders get paid to box their rivals in, tighten things up--race-ride, but not to the extent someone could get hurt.

We’re not saying that Jose set out to hurt Velazquez who, incidentally, is not that far removed from surgery that removed his spleen following a Breeders’ Cup spill last fall and, coincidentally, hit the ground on Wednesday when his turf mount tired and collided with another rival. But I saw no concerted effort from Ortiz to straighten his mount at point of contact.

In Wednesday's race, parenthetically, Jose rode runnerup Ballerina Belle, the filly placing gamely after Ortiz allowed her to drift in through upper stretch. Shortly thereafter, Roses for Romney, having been placed in close quarters, clipped the heels of Ballerina Belle and fell fatally to the ground.

In all, three riders were unseated in Wednesday’s eighth race. Subsequently, Jose Ortiz was given three days by the stewards who never posted an inquiry, allowing the result to stand in a race where three riders hit the deck and one horse lost its life.

The Mother Goose, the field broke cleanly and straight away from the barrier out of the mile and a sixteenth chute. But as the leaders reached the gap where the clubhouse turn meets the straightaway, Ortiz on Princess Violet, racing from a chute for the first time, veered in sharply toward the open space, bumping hard with Untapable.

Simultaneously, Joel Rosario aboard House Rules, was trying to get off the rail as if he sensed what was coming. He attempted to move away from the rail so as not to put himself or his mount in harm’s way but at that point it was bang and bang.

Velazquez was forced to check sharply or clip heels. Soon thereafter, Johnny dropped back and began to place his mount outside in about the 4-path. Ground loss is the least of it when you’re on tons the best filly.

Here how the Equibase chart read for the Mother Goose:

“UNTAPABLE broke well, was forced inward after the runnerup came in suddenly and sharply approaching the end of chute, got checked, then appeared to rub shoulders with HOUSE RULES while carrying that rival over to the rail afterwards, recovered, and was steered towards the middle of the strip…

“PRINCESS VIOLET broke on top and maintained the advantage, arrived at the beginning of the main track with UNTAPABLE in close attendance to her inside, veered in sharply, herding that opponent towards the inside and into making light contact with HOUSE RULES…

“HOUSE RULES left the starting gate in good order, was moving willingly when getting forced over towards the rail coming to the end of the chute from pressure originating from the runner up, dropped back considerably with the loss of momentum…”

The incident did not result in a disqualification since Princess Violet finished behind the winner, but that doesn’t mean the very talented Ortiz shouldn’t ponder his tactics while on his enforced vacation.

Velazquez has been a mentor to both Ortiz brothers but it might be true what is said about unpunished good deeds.

In any case, things are getting a little sloppy out there between the fences. With Saratoga fast approaching, it may be the perfect time for the stewards to have a sit down with everyone in the room.

Untapable, Unbeatable

If the racing season ended tomorrow, Untapable would win the divisional title by unanimous acclamation. There simply is no more for her to prove against her peers.

The filly is on her way to Steve Asmussen’s barn at Saratoga’s Oklahoma training track and yesterday she got a 9-1/4 length head start, racing a mile and a sixteenth and taking only 1:41.48 to get there.

Saratoga has a couple of worthy prizes for Untapable to win, namely the Coaching Club American Oaks and storied Alabama. Trainer Steve Asmussen brought up the CCOA Sunday morning and said he likely will have an "interesting conversation" with the owner about the possibility of a run against males in the Haskell Invitational.

The million dollar nine furlong Grade over a positional surface like Monmouth’s makes the most sense if the idea is to meet and defeat the boys. Interesting to see how the rest of her season shakes out.

Wild Horse Wildcat

Wildcat Red is back and he returned with a vengeance.

Making his first start since being outrun in the Kentucky Derby, the competition ran relays at the 1-5 favorite in yesterday’s Quality Road overnight stakes but Luis Saez, who flew south for the mount, didn’t rattle.

Saez allowed ‘Red’ to maintain his position on the rail off the leader’s flanks until he gave the speedster his cue.

Wildcat Red took the lead approaching the far turn, widened on his own on the turn, was ridden out to open daylight and was geared down in the final hundred yards, winning by 10-1/4 and timed in 1:42.70 for the mile and a sixteenth.

Trainer Jose Garaffalo said that the colt came out of the race in good form and will be pointed to the Haskell. His style also fits the Shore track ideally.

Written by John Pricci

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