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, 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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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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