John Pricci

HorseRaceInsider.com 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 MSNBC.com, 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, February 15, 2015


Of Betting Bonuses, Beauties, Mega Race Days and New Foals


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., February 14, 2015--Considering last weekend’s $68 Cross Country Pick 4 payoff coupling three short-priced favorites (2-1 or less) and a 5-2 second favorite for 50 cents, HRI promises that the next time Xpressbet guarantees a $500,000 pool minimum on a sequence involving graded stakes from Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita you can forget about having another $27,000 shortfall.

Four-hundred eighty-two thousand dollars is quite an impressive debut on relatively short notice, even if the bet was well promoted locally and online.

Now the hook, in addition to California Chrome vs. Shared Belief as the final leg of the P4 sequence supported by national cablecast on FoxSports1 was a bonus offered by Xpressbet that effectively eliminated takeout.

Lamentably, Xpressbet in all media, including live reads on the Stronach Group’s HRTV racing network, promoted the bet as “zero takeout” which, by definition, it wasn’t. What it was was a bonus on winnings, a capped bonus in fact, and it sure was impressive when the bonus was credited to my account.

As stated, the $68 payoff, in light of the individual win payoffs and the well promoted horses and races involved, was generous but when my account was credited, the $68 became $89. The purpose of promoting this fact is to stress the negative effects of takeout.

Of course, zero takeout would be an impossible non-starter for obvious reasons and, yes, takeout—discerning bettors who avoid the usurious takeout rates in certain states/tracks notwithstanding—only matters when you win.

Well, you can choose to believe this or not. When making straight wagers I’m a base bet + Square root of the profits type. When my return goes up, my personal betting handle goes up. Legislators of America--especially those appointed or elected by the good people of Pennsylvania--this is the concept known as churn.

Allow me to win more and my personal handle will grow accordingly, and so will those of the racetrack. When used properly, this means more money for education, for the states, for the people putting on the show and, most importantly, for the bettors, without whom a sport will continue to be marginalized out of existence.

Merry Meadow Good and Getting Better: The Hurricane Bertie Stakes, named for a sweetheart of a prolific sprinting mare, is merely a Grade 3 at 6-1/2 furlongs for horses of the female persuasion but somehow the race always seems to deliver either a very good filly or a very good performance.

It was a race in which the wonderful Groupie Doll exited the racing stage in high style last Valentine’s Day and this year was turned into at playhouse for this good-looking well-balanced daughter of Henny Hughes five year old who just loves the game.

A lifetime slate that now reads (26) 8-10-5 speaks to that as does prize money approaching the $700,000 mark, most of it seemingly earned a dollar at a time. And on Saturday, she had to be taken out of her comfort zone to do it.

If the mare and her connections had their way, Merry Meadow would always be a stretch-running sprinter. But when Wildcat Lily was scratched the morning of the race, this highly likely left the very quick More Than a Party loose on the lead.

Javier Castellano didn’t need to be instructed about the potential urgency of the situation. “We didn’t discuss [strategy] at all,” explained winning trainer Mark Hennig post-race. “I know Javier and he always does his homework.”

And the rider executed his game plan perfectly. He would have to bring the battle to the Eddie Broome trainee, in the talented and aggressive hands of Paco Lopez. Castellano put the pressure on right from the start and when he was read, took command leaving the turn before drawing off in what was, in our view, a career performance.

“She’s such an honest filly and right now she just wants to win. She’s really gotten professional as she’s gotten older. She’s better than she’s ever been,” said Hennig when asked about the early move to the lead. “I’m sorry, I needed to stay close,” Javier said upon pulling up. “I told him he did it exactly right,” the trainer said.

And so did Hennig, who will enjoy Saturday’s performance then decide what to do next.

BETS ‘N PIECES: In the sub-featured Copper City overnight handicap, 120-pound I’m Already Sexy spotted six rivals [after scratches] one to six pounds and was all out to win the one-mile turf event, giving Castellano a sweep of the Saturday stakes and fourth win of the afternoon…

“This is a real progressive colt,” said Golden Gate Fields track announcer Michael Wrona of the “towering performance” Metaboss crossed finish line drawing away to win the G3 El Camino Real Derby with nine furlongs in 149.92 after a dawdling pace, getting his final eighth in a very worthy 11.86 for trainer Jeff Bonde under perfect inside-out handling from Alex Solis.

Metaboss was a recent maiden graduate at nine furlongs on turf but was outrun in his lone start in an off-the-turf event sprinting 6-1/2 furlongs at Santa Anita. Was it the distance or the dirt that was inappropriate that afternoon? Whether the connections have Kentucky Derby aspirations, sooner or later they’re going to have to answer the question…

For those who lament the high takeout rate associated with Gulfstream’s Rainbow Pick 6, consider this is not a life-changing bet that’s the exclusive province of the deep-pocketed rebate crowd. Thursday’s $133,000 jackpot was bought with a $4 ticket.

That was the third time an astute horseplayer had his life changed for the better: According to the Gulfstream media department, a $12.80 ticket was worth $242,000 on Dec. 19 and $317,000 was returned for a $33.60 risk two weeks later...

Too Much of a Good Thing: We are a believer in the Oaks-Derby business model in which the modern approach is to put many special events in one big stakes-day basket. The thinking is that three or four big-handle days per meet, while treading water the rest of the way, is better for business.

Nothing gets a bettor’s juices flowing more than a card full of top-quality large fields. But next Saturday’s stakes laden program at Gulfstream, one that likely will attract close to $20 million in handle, is too much of a good thing in our view.

Eight stakes, seven graded, including the headline-grabbing Fountain of Youth Stakes, is a veritable feast for racing fans. But how many top performances and top horses will get lost in the promotional shuffle? Saturday also marks the return of Horse of the Year finalist Main Sequence in the Mac Diarmida Stakes, prepping for the G1 Dubai Sheema Classic.

And Now for Something Completely Different: My daughter Jennifer sent me an email photo of Horse of the Year Havre De Grace with her new foal by War Front. She wanted to brainstorm on a name for the foal. We came up with the name Grace Under Fire.

Got a better idea? Submit it, the decision of the judges, Jen and me, will be final whatever name the eventual owners go with. First prize will be a choice of a morning on the Saratoga backstretch, breakfast afterward; or a day at the races with me in the Gulfstream press box, weekdays only, lunch included. Second prize is, of course, two mornings or afternoons. (BTW: That’s an LOL).

However, I am serious about our little HRI contest; let’s have some fun. Toni will be brought in to break any ties.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, February 08, 2015


Going Cross Country and Back to the Future


“The three favorites dominate at the top of the lane in the San Antonio…

“California Chrome and Shared Belief…here’s the race we’ve been waiting for…

“California Chrome digs deep, he finds more…

“Shared Belief is stretching him every yard of the way…

“What a thriller this runner, Shared Belief has him, and is just exuding class…”



HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., February 8, 2015—Even on the following morning, basking in the afterglow of what had to be the greatest Grade 2 stakes in the history of the sport, two tremendous Thoroughbreds made everyone who ever loved this game remember what it was like when they happened upon their first great racing moment.

It was everything that Trevor Denman was seeing and more, a moment that carried him back in time to all the great race calls of his career, a cadence that rekindled the excitement and hair-raising exhilaration that made Thoroughbred racing fans recall why they fell in love with the game in the first place. For several shining moments, everything that was old became new again.

In the manner of the Affirmed-Alydar battles, or the second that Personal Ensign’s number was posted, keeping her undefeated career and legend assured in a most thrilling manner, or the way Victory Gallop won a photo worth--in the words of the other legendary race caller of the modern era--five-million dollars, so did a diminutive black four-year-old gelding etch his image into our horse-racing memory banks forever.

If he has the good fortune to remain healthy, it will be move over Kelso, take one step to the right Forego, and make room for one that just might be great enough to sit on the top shelf beside you. Racing fans could only hope for a bright, unseen future, and for other radiant moments that made all of racing’s problems disappear, if just for an instant.

As the race caller said, it was the race that everyone waited to see, until after 7 p.m. back East in an era when post times are not set in stone but mere suggestions.

With three furlongs remaining, Victor Espinoza could wait no longer, dispatching the interloper on the lead in the hopes of separating himself from the challenger to come. No racetracker we spoke over dinner at Facinos in Hollywood Saturday night thought Shared Belief would catch California Chrome at the three-sixteenths pole.

But Mike Smith, exuding confident class of his own, went to a steady hand drive, got on even terms with the defending Horse of the Year then quickened away, separating himself with even every stride as the wire neared and California Chrome began to shorten stride. He left no doubt as to which the best horse on Saturday.

And perhaps on Saturdays to come. On the NTRA conference call, Art Sherman was lamenting Chrome’s final breeze in which he wanted him to go a second faster so as to put more speed into his runner.

If indeed the San Marcos was an unintended prep for Dubai, the race highly likely served that purpose: “This race will make him stronger for Dubai,” Sherman said on Tuesday’s call, even if he did or still does prefer to remain at home. It was his first start in two months.

But Saturday clearly belonged to Shared Belief and his connections, Jungle Racing et al, and Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, who was the picture of happiness on video screens everywhere. He should be. Having done a masterful job, the Breeders’ Cup Classic is fading in the rear view and getting smaller by the moment.

Hollendorfer promised after the race that he sees more improvement in his horse. “He’s a young more and is going to mature some more,” the trainer said. “We’re thinking about that Santa Anita Handicap next, for sure.”

After facing Shared Belief on even terms yesterday and getting the drop on him, Sherman and company have to find the answer to this question: What’s in our best interest and might be a little less daunting next month, a rematch with Shared Belief or an 8,315.76 mile trip to the Middle East?

Close call, just like yesterday’s stretch run, right up to the point when Smith asked Shared Belief to kick it into high gear.

image
Constitution gamely holds Lea safe at the wire.
Photo credit: Kenny Martin

Pletcher Takes Donn, South Florida and Queens, Too: As often before, on a majority of prime event days at this time of year, Saturdays belong to Todd Pletcher.

Prior to yesterday’s storied Grade 1 at Gulfstream, and as we’ve seen similarly in recent years, a maiden allowance debut and victories in three graded stakes, including the first of consecutive Grade 1s, the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap, were mere prelude to an early race that has catapulted many of its winners to championship status.

The Donn Handicap victory of 2014 Florida Derby winner Constitution, stretched his undefeated Gulfstream Park slate to 4-for-4 at the direct expense of race favorite Lea, also seeking his fourth victory in Hallandale without defeat and a repeat score in the Donn.

Like the San Marcos, the runner-up ran an excellent race but was defeated on the square without excuse, having the length of the stretch to run down a winner who not only fought him off determinedly but also dealt with pressure from uncoupled stablemate Commissioner virtually throughout.

Constitution had not run since finishing third in the Clark Handicap, his second start last fall after returning from injury, a hairline fracture of the right cannon bone. It was his first start in 71 days and a masterful training feat by Pletcher, who this year has his Florida division training over the deeper surface at Palm Beach Downs.

It was Pletcher’s second Grade 1 victory in 30 minutes, as it was Javier Castellano’s. The defending Gulfstream riding champion won four races on the afternoon including the good turf horse Mshawish in the GP Turf ‘Cap and the G3 Suwannee River with the filly Sandiva, and reaching the 4,000 career victory plateau on Sunday.

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For Pletcher, winning Saturday races takes determination.
Photo by Toni Pricci

BETS ‘N PIECES: So how popular was Saturday’s San Marcos with the betting public? Including the final leg of the special Cross-Country Pick 4 wager, the San Marcos alone attracted mutual handle of nearly, $3,763,596...

The special X-C wager attracted $472,922. While failing to meet the $500K guarantee, the bet still proved popular with the players we spoke with. However, the Stronach Group could have saved themselves some embarrassment by advertising the wager properly. The Pick 4 was promoted as a “0 Takeout” wager when in reality it was a wager that was scheduled to pay a capped 31% bonus to winning bettors, which was effectively a no takeout bet. The issue caused quite a stir on the Internet…

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Javier Castellano explains how it's done to Caton Bredar.
Photo by Toni Pricci

It appeared the much maligned California stewards got one correct yesterday when they disqualified runner-up Diamond Bachelor and placed it behind original fourth finisher Power Foot, elevated to third as stablemate Power Ped was moved up a notch to second place. Actually, the winning Finnegans Wake, loving the SoCal waters, a brand new horse under Peter Miller’s care, angled out at headstretch and bumping with Power Ped knocking him slightly off stride. We needed that 10-1 to win but the stewards did the right thing here; the incident likely did not cost Power Ped the placing…

Every bit as impressive as Shared Belief was, he must share kudos along with Far From Over and Dortmund, each overcoming extremely difficult trips to win the G3 Withers and G2 Robert B. Lewis, respectively. Beaten favorite El Kabeir was not nearly as sharp, or as strong, as he was in winning the Jerome previously. He probably will get a bit of a break now and await the Wood Memorial, giving him two months of freshening before leaving Queens for Kentucky.







Written by John Pricci

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Friday, February 06, 2015


I Left My Heart in San Antonio


HALLANDALE BEACH, February 6—It is three-track stakes smorgasbord that only HRI’s beloved WMC would hate. In short, a racing day with the potential to be one that racing fans will celebrate for days to come.

There are a half-dozen added-money events at Gulfstream Park, including an all-Graded Stakes Pick 4. Three graded stakes will be run at Santa Anita and two more graded events run in New York, weather permitting.

Further, there’s even a unique Cross Country Pick 4 featuring the G1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap and G1 Donn from Hallandale Beach and the G2 San Marcos and G2 San Antonio Invitational in Arcadia with a limited 31% bonus available to winning X-C bettors.

If three year olds peak your wagering interest, there’s the G3 Withers from Aqueduct, on paper a battle between El Kabeir and Classy Class.

From SoCal, another two-horse confrontation looms with Dortmund vs. Firing Line in the Robert Lewis Memorial. Action also includes round two of Churchill Downs futures pool for those so inclined.

For the pure fan, however, today is all about the battle of two premier four year olds at Santa Anita; Horse of the Year California Chrome against the sensational Shared Belief.

The bonus for fans and bettors alike is that a Cross Country Pick 4 will be televised nationally on Fox Sports 1 Saturday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. EST.

The final race on the day, with a scheduled post time of 7 p.m. EST, is an epic match, for me a battle of heart vs. mind. Emotionally, I’m all in on California Chrome. Financially, I will use him to complete an exacta under Shared Belief.

I admit that I don’t know with any certitude which will make the better four year old by season’s end.

I only know that, thus far, Shared Belief has run consistently faster when measured against the speed of the surface and that he distributes his energy with greater efficiency.

Further, his third place finish after the horrendous trouble he encountered at the start of the Breeders’ Cup Classic proved he can bounce back from adversity. Lesser horses wouldn’t have bothered to show up after such a calamitous, jarring start.

California Chrome has yet to prove that he can handle the same kind of knockout punch but his tactical style and considerable class enables him to make his own good trip. Further, he loves the Arcadia strip while I’m not sure that dirt is even Shared Belief’s best game.

The luck of the draw favors Shared Belief. With his tractability from post five in the field of nine, jockey Mike Smith can play it off the break. The team projects to have a good trip from comfortable stalking position.

Post eight for California Chrome is not a pronounced disadvantage in that it allows Victor Espinoza to see what his main rival is at right from the jump.

The problem is that the very speedy Alfa Bird is drawn immediately to his outside, which could force Espinoza’s hand. Thus far, Alfa Bird’s best efforts have come while in front.

Both riders, I’m sure, will be aware that the very sharp Hoppertunity is breaking from the pole and that Martin Garcia easily could wind up in the catbird seat while the big horses cat-and-mouse with each other.

Personally, anticipation for a momentous event could not be higher.

The storied G1 Donn Handicap is the last of 13 races to be run at Gulfstream Park, where poor, little Lea will face not one, not two, but three* independent challengers from the Pletcher juggernaut.

Cases can be made for all four, although Commissioner appears to lead the quarter based on our Projected Performance figures.

John Velazquez rides while Joel Rosario takes a return call on Lea. The Bill Mott charge will be seeking his fourth Gulfstream main track score without defeat. We believe he will.

See Saturday’s Feature Race Analysis for a betting schematic on both big races.

*correction made 020615 at 3:37 p.m.

Written by John Pricci

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