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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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Parx Getting the California Chrome Treatment

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September 16, 2014----The publicists have been touting this Saturday as the most important day in Pennsylvania racing history, and the truth is that the notion is more fact than fiction.

After all, the Kentucky Derby winner is coming to town to run for a lot of money in the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby that on paper is more than a bridge to the Breeders' Cup Classic.

And a Derby winner has never will have run in this event until four days hence. Further, it will be a good spot to find out whether the California Chrome of fall is the same vintage as the California Chrome of spring.

What do you think?

Let's not forget, too, that the divisional leading filly, nothing less than a Kentucky Oaks winner and good enough to go favored against the boys last month in the Grade 1 Haskell, is also on the program in the G1 Cotillion.

And the listed Alysheba Handicap and the Grade 3 Gallant Bob sprint is nice icing to put on top of this confection.

What’s interesting about this challenge is that the horses of Ron Winchell--who owns the filly Untapable and West Virginia Derby-winning Tapiture and 50 percent of the shares in America’s leading sire Tapit--will be major players on the day.

In fact, he spoke like a man who believes he’s starting the horse to beat in the Pennsylvania Derby and not the popular Kentucky Derby winner. He thinks California Chrome will be vulnerable coming off a five month layup.

“Yes, I think so,” said Winchell on the NTRA conference call when asked if he thought California Chrome was vulnerable.

“We’re meeting him at the ideal time, sitting in a prime position. It’s our third start since the Derby. He has to come back going mile and an eighth against horses that have been racing in top form.”

“Oh yeah, he said that?” asked Art Sherman when he joined the call 45 minutes later. “Well I think the Awesome Again will be a much tougher spot. I don’t want to meet older horses until the Breeders’ Cup. My horse has already met the best horses.

But first there’s the matter of Saturday’s nine furlongs that attracted six others in the addition to the likely two favorites, two of which will be particularly formidable, making this a very good race on paper given the variables. Sherman knows it will be a tough.

The brilliant Bayern, seeking redemption from the Travers debacle, and Candy Boy, a Grade 1 veteran that finished second to Shared Belief at Los Alamitos then came within a nose of beating Tapiture in the West Virginia Derby.

“I had a gut feeling,” said Sherman of the group. I haven’t studied the form but I know Tapiture is a good horse and I expected the California horses to come.”

Sherman believes his horse is 100 percent fit. “Victor [Espinoza] got off him the other morning [following his final workout] and said that’s the best he’s ever felt since he first got on him.

“He knows him like the back of his hand and he couldn’t say enough good things about him. That gives me a lot of confidence.”

Sherman’s only trepidation was the rail post. “I’ve never been on the rail with him before and I just hope he gets a good trip. I think he’s better with a target so I’d like to see him third or fourth.

“He didn’t go far back on me [during the five month layoff to heal his injured foot], put on about 75 pounds. His last two or three works were just awesome. He’s gung ho after last weekend.

“He’s reaching his peak. [The spacing of six weeks] gives me enough time to prepare for the Breeders’ Cup. He won’t have a hard time going another eighth [of a mile], believe me.

“I think my horse and Jerry's [Hollandorfer] horse are the best three-year-olds in the country. I want to be at my best when I meet Shared Belief.”

Written by John Pricci

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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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