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, January 04, 2015

Baby Steps on the Road to Louisville; Gulf Bettors Abandoned by Stewards

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 3, 2014—Obviously trainer Marcus Vitali knew what he had.

In his only previous stakes start, the Vitali-trained Bluegrass Singer was a narrowly beaten third in the ungraded Buffalo Man at 6 furlongs--not a bad introduction to that level of competition.

Subsequently, Vitali entered him in a preliminary allowances going a mile in his return to Gulfstream where he broke his maiden earlier this fall, resulting in an open-lengths score.

On Saturday Vitali kept his options open, cross-entering him in the 6 furlong Spectacular Bid and the Mucho Macho Man at a flat mile.

And so Vitali took the long way to the winners’ circle, Javier Castellano took the short cut, and after dispatching chaser Juan and Bina and then the favorite, Mawthooq, Bluegrass Singer blew the race wide open leaving the quarter pole.

Confidently handled, Castellano did not get busy until midstretch and he had more than enough to withstand the energetic late run of Canadian-bred Ami’s Flatter, despite finishing on an incorrect inside lead.
Time for Vitali and the colt to look for bigger game. The Mucho Macho Man, formerly known as the Gulfstream Park Derby, is an ungraded event.

Home Jerome: At Aqueduct, meanwhile, El Kabeir indicated that he has some class to go with his considerable speedy talent.

Being able to sit off other horses comfortably in moderate fractions but losing ground throughout, El Kabeir won as much the best, passing his class test with style.

His comprehensive 4-3/4 length victory was accomplished after he also overcame a stutter-step start.

El Kabeir was well handled by veteran rider C. C Lopez, known for his prowess with speed types, and he showed the acumen here.

“It was nice seeing him sit off horses for the first time. I didn’t know if that scenario played out how he’d react, but certainly it worked out fine,” said winning trainer John Terranova.

The victory in the Grade 3 Jerome brought El Kabeir’s Kentucky Derby eligibility points total to 21; runners-up Carpe Diem and Texas Red earned 14 and 12, respectively, in their races last year.

As for his next start, Terranova has no set plans. “Obviously, we’ll discuss it. It may be the Withers back here, or maybe we’ll skip it and go to the Gotham, or maybe we’ll go out of town…

“Hopefully he'll keep progressing. He's gotten bigger and more filled out since the Kentucky race [last time out]. He's eating like there's no tomorrow. He's thriving off running."

Filly Division Gets Started As New Face Takes Old Hat: The first graded race of the day, this one for South Florida-based three-year-olds, was the G3 Old Hat at six furlongs, featuring the return of Saratoga’s Schuylerville winner, Fashion Alert.

But here was the thing about that speedy miss which seemed to go unnoticed by some handicappers. We had noted on our Energy Ratings scale that, for whatever reason, she regressed with each start after impressively winning her debut by open lengths.

And here’s another; in winning the Schuylerville under severe pressure, she left the impression that she just might be one-dimensional speed. That seemed to be the case Saturday after she did not leave the starting gate quickly from her pole position.

Lacking room inside on the backstretch a furlong after the start, Johnny Velazquez sent her up between fillies on the turn, riding her vigorously to do so. But at headstretch she was shuffled out of the race for good.

In the interim, Ekati’s Phaeton proved to be a very nice filly prospect under clever handling from Luis Saez, repulsing R Sassy Lass in the late stages.

Prevailing after setting a disputed pace throughout in fast fractions, trainer Bill Kaplan had this reaction: “You haven’t seen her speed yet. She’s got all the tools and she’s a real stout, big filly. She’s got the mind and the talent. What more can you use?”

Bettors Take Beating from Gulfstream Stewards: How could the stewards allow Crown the Kitten to race without blinkers in Saturday’s G3 Dania Beach.

Going into the race, Crown the Kitten had four lifetime starts. In the gelding’s 5 furlong debut at Belmont, he finished second by two lengths at 5-2.

But trainer Wesley Ward was impressed enough to send him to Ascot, where he has enjoyed success before. Stretching out to 7 furlongs on a straight course, he was entered in the Chesham with blinkers off, not surprising given the dynamics and overall scenario.

He finished ahead of four of his 13 rivals, showing early speed before tiring, beaten 12 lengths.

When he returned to the U.S., Ward re-added the blinkers and Crown the Kitten broke his by two lengths at even money at Kentucky Downs. Next out, he won Retama’s El Joven by 5-3/4 lengths at 2-5.

On Saturday, off two consecutive winning efforts, Ward removed the blinkers, Crown the Kitten broke sluggishly, trailed from so far back that the #10 Trakus chicklet didn’t appear on screen until the field went nearly half-way down the backstretch. He beat two rivals.

How is this permitted, a blinker change coming off consecutive victories? Where’s the protection for the betting public?

Had they been asked, the stewards’ reasoning should have been something like “if you want to train your horse, or teach him something, that’s what the mornings are for.” Will all this ever end?

Somewhere Over the Rainbow…is one prescient handicapper. A simulcast player from Portland, Oregon invested $33.60 and was alive to six of seven horses in the finale that would have produced a Rainbow score worth $317,161.44.

He accomplished this by singling sixth race winner Noble Prince at $98.20. The winning ticket was 8 with 9 with 9.11 with 1.5.9 with with Well done!

Photos by Toni Pricci

Top: Bluegrass Singer heading into The Circle

Below: Trainer Marcus Vitali

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Racing’s Man of the Year 2014: The Horseplayer

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 20, 12012—The story of the year in racing did not happen on any racetrack no matter how much one admires exploits of a dual classics winner, the improbable winning return from colic by a defending Horse of the Year, or the retirements of his and her legends of the game.

Instead, this distinct honor goes to the most unlikely individual or group of them all: the American horseplayer. Their voice was heard early and often in 2014; from a stewards stand at Gulfstream Park, to a board room at Churchill Downs, to the keeper of racing’s data in Lexington.

Horseplayers were able to shine a light on officiating by examining the adjudication process leading to disqualifications, to putting the hurt on a public company for raising the tax on wagers, to yesterday, stating that they are concerned as hell and are not going to accept inaccurate running times anymore.

Consider this: When was the last time racing identified a common problem, fashioned a consensus for problem solving, and took action, all within a 24-hour period? Don’t overthink this: To my knowledge, it’s never happened.

Until Saturday.

Horseracing activist Andy Asaro contacted Stronach Group executive Tim Ritvo Friday citing several examples of how running times posted by Trakus, the official timer at Gulfstream Park, differed from times published by Equibase.

What is not readily conceivable is why there should have been any disparity at all. Before Trakus was allowed to operate, it had to enter into an agreement with Equibase to handle the dissemination of Trakus information. No agreement, no deal.

According to the agreement, Equibase is responsible for operating the Trakus system at tracks where the system is in place. Part of the problem is that, until yesterday, there was no failsafe in place. With Equibase handling the dissemination process, Trakus does not staff up the racetracks it services.

In the main, Trakus claims that its times are accurate, acknowledging there are some issues concerning the start of mile races out of the dirt chute, explaining there is not enough room to place the timing beam far enough away from the mile pole.

This problem exists because the property line ends hard by the starting gate out of the mile chute; the Hallandale track on one side and land belonging to the city of Aventura on the other.

Clearly, land agreements between the two cities need to be forged to better resolve this issue. The hope is that the Trakus engineer in transit to Gulfstream scheduled to arrive Sunday can find a more immediate, less complicated remedy.

On Saturday, newly installed General Manager P J Campo hand-timed the most egregious timing error--Friday’s fourth race out of the mile chute--and agreed there was an approximate two-second differential in the first quarter-mile posted at :25 4/5, compared to the more reasonable :23 4/5 on a stopwatch.

Thankfully, because of horseplayer intervention, help is one the way. According to a press release issued Saturday afternoon, “Gulfstream Park, with the help of its players and patrons, is aware there have been timing issues with races leaving the mile chute.

“Along with hand-timing our races, we have had conversations with Trakus, our track timer, to remedy the problem as quickly as possible.

“In the past, Equibase has red-flagged suspicious times and sent the report to Trakus to be corrected. In the future, those times will be reported to the management at Gulfstream Park. We will continue to hand time all our races so we are sure that times being reported are correct.”

If it weren’t the horseplayer vigilantism, the problem might never have come to light, at least not right now. Gulfstream was aware of the chatter re inaccurate times before Friday’s incident but it took three days before Trakus got back to Gulfstream with a response.

But just because Gulfstream pays Trakus for their service is no excuse for vigilantism of their own. The betting dollars go into their coffers and, as such, an official track timer already should have been in place.

NYRA, for instance, had Sentell Taylor listed as racing official, “Timer,” in its track program for years until his recent retirement. Stephen Foster is now in that role. Racing’s premier winter signal should have an Official Timer, too. Penny-wise doesn’t get the job done here.

Equibase chart callers should not be saddled with the responsibility of monitoring running times; running-line accuracy should be their focus. Further, why should a closed-circuit TV tech be responsible for flipping the running order on the Chiclets display when the field reaches head-stretch, where positions often alter dramatically?

They’ve had several years to get the bugs out of the system and it won’t get done on the cheap.

Nor would the process have begun Saturday without the help of a caring, vigilant, and underappreciated customer base, a group that has helped charted a better course for how racing conducts its business in 2014 and hopefully going forward.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, December 19, 2014

King for a Sunday

PLANTATION, FL., December 15, 2014—The first time I heard the expression “King of the World” in relation to betting on horses, it was uttered by Andy Beyer, my first Saratoga roommate back in the mid-1970s.

In the rented house on Lake Avenue I read the manuscript of his seminal work, “Picking Winners,” and later that meet Andy introduced me to his good friend, Steve Davidowitz, informing Steve “he has a good opinion.”

I think it was the proudest day of my young handicapping life.

It was a memorable Spa betting meet, too, but no thanks to the two of us. The author of that first Saratoga score was our roommate and another of Andy's friends, Maury Wolff, a.k.a. “the Kid.”

"The Kid" now happens to be the industry’s go-to guy on matters pertaining to the economics of betting, particularly as it relates to takeout rates, rebates, and the like.

One night that Saratoga summer, as the three of us read our Forms, sharing opinions and relevant pieces of information, Wolff suddenly leaped up from the couch, scrambling toward the pile of back Racing Forms that served as our handicapping library.

Handicapping four decades ago was not like it is today, when a wealth of information is readily available to handicappers through any number of sources.

In addition to furiously scribbling trip notes into track programs, horseplayers needed to keep records. It was a time when not even the win percentages of trainers and jockeys win were included in the past performances.

I must say, however, the somewhat arduous process made all those who did so better, more complete horseplayers.
But what the Form did publish then were stewards’ rulings from around the country and Woolf spotted one about a jockey who was suspended for “failing to put forth a reasonable effort.”

That jockey, as memory serves, was the son of a trainer, T.J. Miller, later memorialized by Beyer as “the Fat Man.”

Wolff’s memory and research paid off. Back in one of those old Forms was the name of a horse running in a race for New York-breds the next day at Saratoga, a horse called Red Sam.

To say that Red Sam’s form was darkened by a series of poor efforts would be accurate. And Wolff also confirmed that the race in question was what got the trainer’s son a 15-day suspension.

So here was this young racehorse with poor form everywhere he raced suddenly showing up in Saratoga for a race restricted to New York-breds, back in the day when the fledgling breeding program did not feature very many talented runners.

Blinkers may or may not have been part of the equation, can’t recall, but a rider switch to the late Mike Venezia was part of the package and that sealed the deal for all of us.

Red Sam was in the day’s first race. We arrived early, wheeled daily doubles, one of the few gimmicks offered, pressed a few horses in the second race, and bet the horse to win with gusto.

I called my dad back in New York and told him to bet as much as he wanted and could afford.

Prior to making the win bet after checking Red Sam out in the post parade—he had all the qualifications: four legs, a mane and a tail—I ran into the late Chuck Valpredo, Venezia’s agent.

We had a friendly relationship and Chuck asked who I was betting on: “You,” I said, and told him the story about the trainer’s son getting days.

“Well I’m betting, too. I know the trainer from Chicago and he’s a very sharp guy.”

Red Sam took the lead when ready and drew off under pressure, never in danger. He paid, I think, $27--not sure about that, either--the double paid well, and we all made a nice little score.

“I’m King of the World,” Andy exclaimed, I began to sing “We three kings of the Spa are…” and we all jumped for joy, thanks to the Kid’s research.

My father was happy I never went to medical school.

This past Sunday I was King of the World, for a day, anyway.

As most of the HRI Faithful are aware, the Feature Race Analysis on this site is a handicapping look at the day’s best race at a popular high profile venue, usually delineated by the size of the purse or the status of the event.

For the past two months, we’ve been making selections for the final six races on the Parx Racing Sunday programs, races that comprise 123bet’s unique Pick 6 contest wager. It’s part of a special promotional relationship with have with one of our advertisers,

Actually, the $16 suggested sequence that appeared both here and on the 123bet website under normal Pick 6 rules would have also resulted in a win, thanks to three winning singles and three races in which two horses were featured.

But that’s not the “King of the World” part. Since we already had handicapped the day’s best race somewhere, we chose Sunday’s Parx feature as our free FRA play of the day on HRI.

When Mini Cosmos ($6) stretched out successfully for Graham Motion, it was the 500th winner picked here from 1660 chances beginning with Street Sense’s 2007 Kentucky Derby victory. We thought it to be a worthy milestone-type number worth celebrating.

But wait, there’s more.

Our win batting average over seven-plus years is .301 and the number of exacta finishes [wins + places] of 823 yields a percentage of .495--the rate at which our selections finished either first or second.

A $2 win wager on 1660 races cost $3,320 and returned $3,461.20, a profit of $141.20 through Sunday’s races, an ROI just over $2.04.

Doesn’t sound like very much until parimutuel withholding, a.k.a. takeout, is factored in. And I’ll say this, too: Any deep-pocketed professional getting an 8 percent return from a rebate shop would sign for a seven-year $2.04 ROI in a heartbeat.

I promise not to scream “King of the World” again until we reach 1,000. In the interim, I will stay humble and thankful because, in this part of the world, you’re only as good as your last selection.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (27)

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