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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Friday, October 30, 2015

2015 Classic Goes to the Best Horse on the Day

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., Oct. 30, 2015—If Damon Runyon were here in the present tense, he would remind all horseplayers that “the race don’t always go to the swift nor the victory to the strong but that’s how you bet.”

And that’s exactly what I intend to do in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. At end end of the day, as Todd Pletcher is fond of saying, it’s only money. And my money will be keying the three-year-old.
In truth, I’m going to be keying two of the three-year-olds, neither of which is named American Pharoah.

No, we’re not looking to be a hero or the wisest of wise guy contrarians. All I’m doing is heeding the sage counsel of Mr. Runyon.

If I were straining to be the ultimate wise guy, I’d be betting on Tonalist (6-1) to win. Why? Because when he was put in a similar position last year--horses from California had a huge home coast advantage—he ran a great race.

Deep closers, as we glean from Handicapping 1.0 guides, are always at a disadvantage. Between running style, atmospherics and a natural bias favoring close-up runners, Tonalist dawdled for most of the 10-furlong trip last year.

It’s tough to beat a duel Classics winner and a Haskell-Pennsylvania Derby repeater when laying 13th of 14, then angling out six wide at headstretch. Tonalist’s strong late kick resulted in a mere five-length loss at the end. He never got enough credit for that effort.

There are two popular knocks on him; that he’s a Belmont Park specialist and that he never made the expected transition from 3 to 4: He hadn’t find the winners’ circle until his fifth start of 2015.

But his numbers on the Thoro-Graph scale belie the latter. His figures made a jump to a minus-3¾, a three-point move from the 2014 Classic and, remarkably, he’s held that speed form for five consecutive races.

I concede that he may not be the same horse away from Belmont but that’s far from a given. On consistency, he is the fastest performance horse in the race and at double-digit odds is a legitimate overlay. But at 6-1 or less relegate to exacta boxes only.

We cast no aspersions on the Triple Crown champion. American Pharoah (4-5), win or lose, is the 2015 Horse of Year whatever happens Saturday afternoon, especially since Beholder's unfortunate recurrence of an old issue.

Whatever happened to American Pharoah after June 6 would be icing on the rarest of rare confections, racing’s Triple Crown.

As all know, American Pharoah treats all tracks the same and has the frequent flyer miles to prove it. And the eight weeks between the Travers and Classic is just what Doctor Baffert ordered. He has a fresh runner that he could train up to the race, Baffert’s best game. For the first time this year, the Hall of Famer has been allowed to seek the bottom. Now, it’s up to the colt.

But here’s the thing: American Pharoah can run his best race and it might not be good enough to win.

Going into the Classic, I don’t see any remaining upside. Of course, he must be used as a bankroll saver in exactas and again as exotics filler. I wish him only good things in the Race of the Year 2015.

Now for the two three-year-olds I’ve had difficulty separating since the Travers and Pennsylvania Derby, and I I might not be able to do so until minutes before post time.

My first Classic wagers Saturday afternoon will be win and show bets on Keen Ice (8-1) and Frosted (12-1). I think the latter may be the shorter price at the end. Of course, each will be used in all multiple and super-exotic positions.

These two young horses are battled tested and physically rate to be peaking at the end of their three-year-old campaign. They’ve have had their mettle tested all year and neither has been as good as they are right now. The more they've raced, the better they've run.

Keen Ice moved forward in a big way to a minus-3 in the Travers, as much a product of the fast pace as anything else. But having seen his development through the season, we're satisfied we were wrong about needing a run between the Midsummer Derby and Classic.

The connections have played the Classic preparation perfectly and now it’s up to Keen Ice to prove that he’s still on the come and not just a beneficiary of pluperfect race dynamics in Saratoga.

Frosted, meanwhile, has shown the incremental improvement one likes to see in winning the Pennsylvania Derby and he has looked more visually impressive than he has all year. Final Penn Derby furlongs in 12 seconds will do that. Six weeks of spacing between starts is ideal.

On paper, the 2015 Classic figures to be one hell of a horse race. Here’s hoping the Classic horses, and all Thoroughbreds going to the post Friday and Saturday, will run well and, of greater import, come back well.


Given the post draw, the field’s overall balance, and many of the world’s best jockeys in the boot, this will be a rider’s race, as most big races are.

Now, will the jock who’s willing to go first over against American Pharoah please step forward?

Don’t believe any of them wants this responsibility and neither would I. But if the pace were too slow someone will take him on. If I were American Pharoah’s rivals, I’d be hoping that 10 furlongs, mild pace pressure, and all those air-miles take their toll in deep stretch.

If I’m Joel Rosario, I’d like to establish Frosted’s forward position, take a little sting out of American Pharoah into the first turn, then before ease back and save ground. But Victor Espinoza might not fall for that with the favorite, content to stalk a horse he’s beaten thrice this year.

Meanwhile, it is likely that Johnny Velazquez on Tonalist and Irad Ortiz on Keen Ice will use Rosario as their stalking horse, essentially making their play when Rosario makes his, both edging closer approaching the far turn.

Javier Castellano, meanwhile, who opted off Keen Ice, will keep deep closer Honor Code in his usual spot at the back of the pack. Whether he will have his customary big kick going 10 furlongs for the first time is the concern.

Keen Ice and Frosted must run their own races and allow the front end take care of itself. Recent revelation Smooth Roller is likely to be somewhere in mid-pack, perhaps even stalk, but is more likely to find the competition and inexperience major obstacles.

We have no idea what will happen in the home straight but that’s why they run races in what Leroy Jolley and others have called “the greatest game played outdoors.”

In that context, there’s no need to be a contrarian. I have another glass of Kool Aid, please.

This column was underwritten via special promotional agreement with

Written by John Pricci

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Distaff Favorite? Not This Time

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., October, 30, 2015--The record of favorites in the Breeders' Cup Distaff is solid. For as flighty as female equines are reputed to be, dominant fillies often turn out to be more reliable than males when it comes to holding that superior form, in our view, anyway.

Having said that--juvenile turf races notwithstanding--the Distaff, especially because of the post draw and large field in which accomplished runners drew poorly, is among the most challenging handicapping puzzles of Breeders' Cup 2015.
This surmise obviously depends on what one expects from tepid early line favorite Wedding Toast (4-1), who's been dominant in New York, Belmont Park in particular, all season long.

Given the surface switch and second-turn dynamics we won't trust her at a short price, however good her record or Thoro-Graph performance figures might be, so we're looking elsewhere.

And we didn't have to look very far: We like the #1.

As well as favorites have performed in this race, three-year-olds have done very well vs. their elders, too. Of those, I'm A Chatterbox (8-1) fits this bill, even if she was a bit too aggressive early in her most recent workout.

She is a filly that has marched forward, earned her way into this race vs. Grade 1 competition, her performance pattern is forward looking and her Pricci Energy Ratings solid.

'Chatterbox' drew the pole position, is tactical and can kick on. And right now there aren't many jockeys who are performing as well as Florent Geroux, a young rider who in 2015 demonstrated he belongs on the elite level.

Timing, hands and strength, Geroux is reminiscent of a young Johnny Velazquez when that Hall of Famer first came into his own, eventually becoming Saratoga's all-time leading rider.

We believe Geroux will work out a winning trip over the 9-furlong distance his filly has handled.

[See today's Feature Race Analysis for Distaff betting strategy].

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, October 26, 2015

For This Filly, It’s Better to Be Good AND Lucky

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., October 25, 2015—Before Breeders’ Cup madness takes every ounce of focus needed to solve a 13-race puzzle over a two-day period, overnight stakes notwithstanding, some thoughts on the weekend, on and off track:

The Linda Rice outfit rolled the dice in the Iroquois Stakes on Showcase Day Saturday in New York and the result came up Filly & Mare Sprint in Lexington.

Talk about taking an old school shot: Let’s take one of the best sprinters of either sex in the country--first in 16 of 22 lifetime trips to the post--out of her speed game to see if she’ll relax and come running whenever her rider pleases.

And that’s exactly what La Verdad did in the Iroquois, forgetting for the moment she is a lady by man-handling New York-bred fillies, simply outclassing them from behind.

If she could do that, convincingly and easily, it could mean a trip to Lexington the following week for a date with her breeding-shed destiny. At 5, her next race will be her last, and the only thing missing from her impressive resume is that elusive Grade 1 win.

The Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint provides that opportunity and, given Rice’s concerns about the seven furlong trip, La Verdad first had to show that she has the right stuff.

Seven furlongs is unlikely to be her best run, she’s never raced at Keeneland and this Saturday’s rivals, while not the strongest renewal of this event, is quite salty enough, thank you.

Stonetastic is faster than fast away from the barrier; Judy’s a defending beauty who has lived most of her life in Lexington, and Cavorting is a proven G1 winner at the trip and, as a 3-year-old will even get a couple of pounds from her elders.

But La Verdad is a win machine, one that’s very lucky to be alive.

Linda Rice’s filly tested posted for Banamine after winning the G2 Honorable Miss this summer at Saratoga. The trace levels found reportedly were so high that the stress of the race could have killed her.

The New York Gaming Commission has yet to issue a ruling against Rice and there’s good reason for that: No fair-minded peer on the backside of the New York tracks believes that Rice or anyone on her staff would be so reckless. No one does.

So, was this another false positive from New York’s testing labs? For that answer you’d have to ask Bill Mott’s Lawyer, Drew Mollica, who said at the time allegations of Mott’s Lasix overage first came to light, “this doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Or you could ask Rick Dutrow about his Butorphanol positive. Oh, that’s right, you can’t. Racing officials conspired to throw him out of the game and that’s exactly what they did, feeding the betting lions some raw meet for appearances sake. But I digress.

Rice has employed the same two trusted assistants for close to two decades and only one is permitted to administer medication. The problem with Banamine is that it can be dispensed orally, meaning anyone with barn access can do it; licensed or not.

As we spoke about this situation across from Rice’s barn on Nelson Ave. during Travers week after we first heard the whispers, she said “take a look at the gate, look at those people walking out, do they all have [NYRA issued] badges?”

Actually, many didn’t, which brings up the difficult issue of security, a subject for another day.

Presently, officials continue to be at a loss as to the best way to adjudicate this issue. Although we couldn’t find anyone who would speak for the record, no one I encountered believed that the barn was guilty of wrongdoing in this case.

Taking a chance like this to win a Saratoga Grade 2 stakes for La Verdad’s Lady Sheila Stable, owners who have entrusted Rice with millions of dollars to purchase six-figure yearlings and two-year-olds at auction, simply doesn’t make sense. Rice has a theory possibly concerning the actions of certain vendors.

Last weekend, Rice, a third generation horsewoman who also won the Hudson Handicap Saturday with the venerable sprinter Palace, trusted her instincts with La Verdad and experimented with a change of tactics. It worked and in a big way.

“I guess I don’t have to go to the lead every time,” said winning jockey Jose Ortiz after the Iroquois. “Linda will have to decide what she wants to do with her, but it was pretty easy today. I tried to take care of her the best I could.”

Ortiz did that, just as Rice has done, guiding La Verdad’s racing fortunes the past four years. The record speaks for itself. Should Rice ultimately decide to go all the way and lead her over there Saturday in Lexington, it would be a page right out of her old school handbook.


How can it be, as much money as it accepts from its share of takeout on the world’s most popular racing signal, that New York State would consider a plan to pull funding from conducting post-race tests on all claimed horses?

On October 26, the NYS Gaming Commission is set to adopt a rule that would make it the responsibility of the claimant to conduct post-race urine or blood tests. If the proposal passes, the measure could be adopted by year’s end following a public comment period.

Let me be the first to comment to the state: You’re kidding, right?

You’ve already pulled funding from Cornell’s testing labs which has led to positive-finding fiascos in recent years. You are saying that small owners, who don’t have Todd Pletcher or Bob Baffert on speed dial, really don’t count, that filling races year-round isn’t that critical?

What about the millions of sales-tax dollars that flow from those claims, or the administrative costs owners already pay the state? Many smaller owners make their way by cashing the occasional winning bet, bets that pay Gaming Commission salaries.

And isn’t the real takeaway here that you can’t get drug testing right and will take an incremental first step back from the process altogether?

“The purpose of this proposal is to eliminate burdensome state expense of testing every claimed horse," stated a board meeting staff document. Not surprisingly, an agency spokesperson failed to comment on specifics.

Most states hold that a claim can be voided if a horse tests positive for a banned substance. “Many claimants do not elect to void a claim even if the sample tests positive,” according to the staff document.

If the latter is a routine occurrence, the surmise is that many of the positives are overages for permitted medication, not illegal drugs.

Then how would the state know that a particular trainer is taking an edge because many small-stable owners can’t always afford to step up to the plate?

Actions such as the latest proposal to de-fund the testing of claimed horses in New York, or anywhere for that matter, makes independent oversight more of a priority than ever.

Written by John Pricci

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