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, September 14, 2014

Kentucky Downs: Horseplayer Nirvana

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September 14, 2014—According to research by the Horseplayers Association of North America, the handle for the entire Kentucky Downs five-day race meet four years ago failed to reach the $4 million mark.

Two years later, track management instituted major decreases in takeout. Aided by an Instant Racing game that enables the track to offer huge purses, horsemen and horseplayers found their way to the old Dueling Grounds course.

Yesterday, Kentucky Downs set a handle record by booking over $4.2 million in bets on a 10-race card that included four stakes, including the Grade 3 Kentucky Downs Turf Cup. In all, 133 horses were entered overnight.

The old record of $3.5 million-plus was set last year on a 13-race program.

The five-day schedule includes two Saturdays and three Wednesdays, the weekday programs offering better fare than is generally offered at larger venues at midweek.

The short meet makes the product special, as does the fact that all races are run on turf. Last Wednesday, 106 horses ran in 10 races, an average of 10.6 horses per event, a huge modern-day figure at midweek--and that included a rare six-horse field.

A look at the quality on any race day gives it the feel of a poor man’s Keeneland.

Well supported by Midwest-based horsemen, Saturday’s card featured entrants from Bill Mott, Wayne Catalano, Wesley Ward and Graham Motion.

Neil Drysdale brought two horses from SoCal; Power Ped getting his first career win in an $80,000 maiden allowances, and then got a piece of the $200,000 More Than Ready Stakes with Power Foot, Rafael Bejarano in the boot.

But the star of the show is the course itself. Santa Anita notwithstanding, it’s the only course that features a right hand turn. The difference is instead of crossing the main track for a few strides finish-up in the straight by running uphill.

Experience is extremely helpful for horse, rider and handicapper. Speed was holding very well on Saturday over a firm course but races are not stolen here. Horses need to be well conditioned to handle the dynamics they face.

There are two more programs left for this season; the next two Wednesdays, Sept. 17th and 24th. Check it out for yourself.

Next Weekend’s Spotlight on Parx Racing

Parx management has dipped in to its usurious takeout fund to come up with a pair of million dollar events; the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby for the boys and Grade 1 Cotillion for the ladies this Saturday.

We avoid this circuit because of the takeout rates but we will be in action next weekend with the possibility of an all-stakes Pick 4 wager.

In addition to the Pennsylvania Derby and Cotillion, the Grade 3 Gallant Bob for sprinters is always a competitive event and the listed Alphabet Soup Handicap is expected to be a part of the sequence.

And, so, to single or not to California Chrome, that is the question.

If you’re thinking of beating him in this spot, find his most two recent workouts online before answering. Last weekend he showed that he’s lost none of his brilliance. Yesterday, he indicated his fitness for the task.

I do hope he comes back in top form. If he does, the meeting with Shared Belief at Santa Anita on the last weekend of October and a strong supporting cast of handicap stars should be nothing less than magical.

There's a story circulating that Untapable may pass the Cotillion to take a run at the Kentucky Derby winner, et al. Now that would be interesting.

The Euros Came; the Euro’s Conquered

On Saturday at Belmont Park, Annecdote went from Ascot in June to the Belmont Park winners circle in September while Ball Dancing went from Chantilly to Long Island in the same time frame.

And so went victories in the G3 Noble Damsel and G2 Sands Point, respectively.

Today at Woodbine, meanwhile, trainer David Simcock shipped to North America with Sheikhzayedroad and Trade Storm, and walked away with a pair of Canadian Grade 1s, the Northern Dancer and Woodbine Mile, respectively.

The common denominator in these four victories was turf. Expect more of the same on Breeders’ Cup weekend.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, August 17, 2014

GUEST EDITORIAL: Stop Doping at the Sales

By Carlo Vaccarezza

Carlo Vaccarrezza came to national prominence as the owner of Grade 1-winning turf specialist Little Mike. Since then, Vaccarezza has taken out his trainer's as has enjoyed some success on the Florida circuit with a limited amount of starters. Vaccarezza felt it was important to share this message with the HorseRaceInsider audience. It's a side of the sport that also needs a light shined on it in these trying days for the sport.

At the recent 62nd Annual Jockey Club Roundtable was featured an NFL executive's marketing tips amid myriad prepared statements, slide shows and a statistic-laden agenda that was predicated by a frenzy of national posturing by various horse racing industry interests--all with lengthy statements on the race-day medication debate, presumably to influence an ultimate outcome one way or another.

All the rhetoric leaves many Thoroughbred owners, trainers and would-be horse racing participants pondering the elephant juice in the room: The fact that race-day medication has even become an issue is merely a manifestation of its root cause: sales ring doping.

Trackside bleeders and breakdowns are just a symptom of this "evil at the bottom."

Before young Thoroughbreds even start competition, most who make it to the sales pavilions are chronically bulked up on steroids, which, with long-term deleterious effects, mask both injuries and physical inferiority--mostly from unsuspecting buyers--but often even from experienced eyes.

By the time a high-priced colt or filly goes to its new home, it may have already literally and shockingly deflated as a result of its withdrawal from an assortment of potent chemicals designed to make it appear more like a linebacker than a still-developing baby horse.

Now, with the equine equivalent of a crack baby in the barn and an unscrupulous pinhooker already having absconded with his or her profit, the trainer is left with a disenfranchised owner who may have just gotten his first taste of Thoroughbred racing's dirtiest and most unspoken secrets.

Given the pressure of the owner's investment and risk of being the odd one out on this perverse playing field, what choice does a trainer often have but to administer the drugs on which a horse has performed all along?

At the end of the day, the former sales ring star more often than not has been worthless all along, leaving the new owner with not only a steep financial loss, but the repugnant task of having to dispose of an innocent live creature whose man-made rubber legs aren't good for much of anything at all anymore.

Not exactly a healthy prescription for attracting and keeping new investors, fans and interest into a sport struggling for market share, much less trying to grow field size--an urgent goal set forth by the recent Roundtable speakers.

Some years ago, the American Association of Equine Practitioners agreed to completely abolish rampant sales ring use of anabolic steroids--a class of drugs that has the potential to completely ruin the Thoroughbred breed. But Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton cried foul, among others. Today, sales companies allow the medication, with no threshold levels prescribed for the typical 45-day withdrawal.

Clenbuterol, also used chronically with corticosteroids to prepare a horse for the sales ring, has greatly contributed to the unsoundness of juvenile Thoroughbreds in training by bulking up a fragile young animal to levels far beyond the capacity of its own joints. While the horse appears outwardly magnificent, its doom has been sealed by its bruised bones teetering on barely-formed, but already deteriorating joints.

The circular firing squad argument over race-day medication has certainly whipped the horse racing industry into a frenzy, spilling its dirty laundry into the mainstream public's growing cognizance of animal welfare.

In reality, until efforts are focused on sales ring doping as the root problem, a consensus on race-day medication will never come.

But, by curing this single evil, the horse racing industry could accomplish this confluence of goals: Attract new owners, protect their investment, grow field size, and restore horses' health and integrity.

Given this logic, our industry stakeholders from top to bottom must re-evaluate and refocus the race-day medication debate without further delay.

Until proper regulation is established, we need the support of horsemen and the racing community--especially buyers, owners and trainers--to add your name to our effort by acting on the above message so that we can make a strong statement that sales ring doping by unscrupulous pinhookers cannot, and will not, destroy our wonderful sport of kings.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Untapable Question: Do Colts Hold Haskell Advantage?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 22, 2014—For myself and many others, the best part of betting on the horses is the handicapping process; trying to figure things out, predicting the future.

In that context the learning process never ends, which is another thing that pleases inquiring minds. This came to mind with respect to Sunday’s Grade 1 Haskell, deep in both quality and contentiousness.

When it comes down to the betting, it is likely at post time that a filly will lead them. And this always comes as big news whenever a filly meets colts in a big spot. Think Rachel Alexandra’s Preakness and Woodward; think Zenyatta’s Classics, both of them.

The storyline goes that racing females and males is commonplace in Europe, but not so much here when the fairer sex meets the perceived stronger animal. Racing even compensates for this by giving females a weight allowance.

I’ve always believed that if a filly was exceptional and held a perceptible class edge that she should win, since she’s “the best horse.” And a break in the weights certainly doesn’t hurt the cause.

But then I don’t train horses of either sex, and my riding experience is limited to carousels; no whip-switching necessary. So, I figure, that an exceptional filly will beat a good colt.

It was good to have this opinion validated on yesterday’s NTRA Haskell/Jim Dandy conference call by a man who has trained over 1,500 winners, and by another who’s ridden no fewer than 5,893 of them.

Both Christophe Clement, who will saddle Travers starter Tonalist in Saturday’s Jim Dandy, and stakes-placed Life in Shambles in Friday’s Curlin Stakes, and Jerry Dale Bailey, who practically retired the Eclipse trophy by winning it seven times, concurred:

Essentially, they agreed that in the lower classes, a filly generally will be at a strength disadvantage when meeting a colt, but that an exceptional filly can do it all because she’s the better equine athlete.

Clement, who hasn’t even seen Friday’s Curlin PP’s, did not offer specific opinions on Sunday’s Haskell, in which the sensational Kentucky Oaks-winning Untapable will take on a deep field of males and thought the filly would not be out of her element.

“There’s no need to run against colts in this country because fillies have their own program here and don’t need to face colts,” said Clement, “and a filly running in the Haskell is a very popular move.”

“[Generally] good fillies can compete anywhere, but in the lower classes they probably are a little weaker,” he added.

“Even if [the Haskell] didn’t set up for her I’d like [Untapable], but the race does set up for her,” said current NBC analyst Bailey. “She’s one of top three three-year-olds in the country, at least.”

Are fillies disadvantaged when racing against colts? “I don’t think they are,” Bailey said. “When you get a special filly I think they can do anything, even if in theory they are meeting stronger males.”

Dale Romans, also on the call and who will run Belmont show finisher Medal Count at the Jersey Shore Sunday afternoon, is not really concerned about the Haskell’s dynamics--or anything else it seems.

“He’s some of the best stock I’ve had in the last 10 years,” shared Romans. “If I thought I knew why I’d go out and buy every Dynaformer I could find. He never has a bad day.

“This horse is unique, does whatever we want; if you want him to go fast, he goes fast; want him to go slow he goes slow. If there’s no speed, like in the Belmont, he’ll lay closer, if there’s a lot of speed he can come from way back.

“I thought he was talented the first time I breezed him [at 2] but I left him at Ellis [Park] because I didn’t think he could win a race at Saratoga. He really didn’t put it all together until we got back to Keeneland this spring.

“He can do anything. Not many horses show his turn of foot at 7-1/2 furlongs on grass and stay a mile and a half on dirt. He should have been no worse than third in the Derby but got stopped cold at the eighth pole.”

There will be considerably less traffic for him to negotiate at Monmouth Park with a projected field of nine at this stage, which includes Medal Count.

“We’ve all seen many times when there’s lots of speed in the race and it never develops. He’s versatile. And when I have a horse that I know belongs, I take them over there and let the chips fall.”

Written by John Pricci

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