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, November 26, 2017

Stakes with Plenty of Stuffing

It’s hard to believe it’s been 12 years since Churchill Downs inaugurated its “Stars of Tomorrow” program for juvenile runners only. Then you look at its history and, as the great Dick Enberg might say. “Oh, my.”

Its lynchpin, the Jockey Club Stakes, has taken a bit of an unfair hit in recent years for not being the harbinger of winning Kentucky Derby form it should be.

While it’s true that the 1-1/16 miles two-turner has produced only two winners--Super Saver who doubled up in 2009-10 and Real Quiet, runner-up in 1997 but a Derby hero the following year--the day has been a launching pad for numerous Grade 1 stars.

Shackleford, a future Preakness and Met Mile winner, raced on the day, as did 3-year-old champion Will Take Charge; Belmont Stakes winner Creator; a pair of Classic winners, Fort Larned and Gun Runner, and Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and this year’s protem Best in Show.

It’s difficult to know what lies ahead for Grade 2 Golden Rod winner Road to Victory, or Jockey Club Stakes winning Enticed, but their futures look extremely bright. Ladies first:

We’ve seen this movie before and Mark Casse, a force at the Churchill Fall meet for a decade, did it again. This time he shipped Road to Victory in off a single 7-furlong debut on Woodbine turf and parlayed that win into a two-turn dirt score, and did it the hard way.

Not only did she take on a seasoned, undefeated-in-three-starts speedster, Monomoy Girl, but did so on the hard chase most of the way. To credit the speedy surface in place at Churchill Saturday would be a disservice to the winner and runnerup.

A replay or review of the chart will show that Monomoy Girl was forced into setting fast fractions for the distance and race dynamics--23.81 and 46.87--but it was the winner who applied that pressure while spotting ground to the leader.

Julien Leparoux, in the process of winning his fourth Golden Rod, knew exactly what was required: “I didn’t want the leader to get too far away from us,” the rider said. And he kept his own counsel.

“They went a little quick up front and she really didn’t get a breather down the backstretch, being pressed the whole way… Julien is a smart rider and I thought the race around the turn and up the backside took its toll,” said Brad Cox, trainer of the runnerup.

What Road to Victory accomplished was very rare in light of her inexperience, unfamiliarity with dirt, a second turn, and challenging dynamics. As she is scheduled to join Casse’s Florida division soon, look for her at Gulfstream Park this winter.

The same can be said for Enticed. He will join Kiaran McLaughlin’s Florida string but, unlike Mohaymen, this guy is built for the Derby grind. Making his two-turn debut following a third in the Champagne, he got about two races worth of education Saturday.

Check the video or take it from the official chart: “Enticed came out at the start, was bumped and bothered into the first turn, fanned into the eight path in the far turn, made a bid three wide down the lane, was under a long drive in the final stages and prevailed...”

Personally, we’re dubious of the eight-path estimate, but then neither was there mention that Enticed raced between horses through most of the backstretch run and was repeatedly gathered up to extract himself from possible jackpots to come.

“It was about as an eventful of a race as you can get as these babies are doing a lot of growing up and maturing – and Enticed did a lot of that today,” said Jimmy Bell, Racing Manager for Godophin/Darley.

“Maybe it was a little more experience than we asked for…” was the other way Bell put it.


It might have taken a bit longer to arrive than fellow Lukas graduates Todd Pletcher and McLaughlin, but Stewart has been enjoying a much deserved breakthrough season and he’s beginning to get the attention he’s earned.

Somewhat of a “wise guy” favorite for his longshot money finishers in major races and shocking upset of the 2006 Kentucky Oaks with Lemons Forever, the dam of Unbridled Forever and certain female titlist Forever Unbridled, Stewart has earned his way to the highest level.

Spacing races precisely this year while giving his runners plenty of down time to develop, he turned a three-race campaign into a highly likely Eclipse championship for Forever Unbridled and an upset Friday’s Grade 1 Clark with Seeking the Soul.

The late developing 4-year-old could join female stablemate Forever Unbridled in the Pegasus World Cup starting gate. Both runners are owned by Charles Fipke.

Stewart had Seeking the Soul primed for a peak performance in a Keeneland allowances last month, and he parlayed that into a Clark victory this weekend after a rider switch to birthday boy Johnny Velazquez. Sound familiar?

In addition, Stewart trains Tom’s Ready, another recent peak performance winner of the G3 Bold Ruler following his third in Saratoga’s G1 Forego. He is pointed to Saturday’s Cigar Mile and Mike Smith is shipping East for the ride.

Patience also played a role in Tom’s Ready’s development. Following an also-ran performance in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, Stewart gave the More Than Ready colt six months R & R before starting what turned out to be his best campaign to date.


In our view, the New York Racing Association did the right thing, rescheduling its popular Cigar Mile Day program to December 2, a week later than in previous years. In doing so it got away from keen competition from Churchill Downs and Del Mar this weekend. They wrapped up their fall seasons this weekend.

The move also is a shot across the bow of Gulfstream Park, which begins its prime winter meet on Saturday with the Claiming Crown, a true handle magnet. Clearly, New York and Florida will own the upcoming weekend.

Right now there are 10 probable Cigar starters. The one-turn mile is the last Grade 1 of the year in New York. Dirt Mile runnerup Sharp Azteca is the probable favorite, followed by Practical Joke, never beaten around one turn, and strong-finish Sprint third Mind Your Biscuits.

Also expected are West Coast shipper Americanize, Beasley, Neolithic, Seymourdini, Summer Revolution, Tale of S'avall and the aforementioned Tom’s Ready. Vulcan's Forge, workmate of Neolithic, is another possibility.

The Cigar is one of four graded stakes Saturday, a program that includes the G2 Remsen and Demoiselle and the G3 Go for Wand.

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, November 26, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Racing Family Comes Full Circle at Payson Park

Some people run away as children to join the circus. But not the late Hall of Famer Thomas Joseph Kelly, who ran off to join the racetrack when he was 13. When he passed, eight full decades later, he left as the patriarch of one of racing’s foremost families.

Last week, T.J.’s son, Larry, also a racetrack lifer, became the new General Manager of world renowned Payson Park Training Center in Indiantown, Florida, a two-hour drive north and west of Gulfstream Park.

The appointment is proof positive that what goes around indeed comes around again.

It started with Turnpike Tom, who served as apprentice for trainer Louis Fuestel. When making the transition from hot walker to groom to trainer, it’s no guarantee that one will someday land in racing’s pantheon.

But Kelly did get a pretty good start, having learned from the man who trained the mighty Man o’ War.

Of course, Payson Park long has been the winter home of Roger Attfield, Christophe Clement, Shug McGaughey, Bill Mott, among other racing notables. And when the 59-year-old Kelly joined the Payson family last week, the Payson circle was complete.

Payson Park is widely regarded as one of the best training centers anywhere in the world. It features a turf course and safe, deep dirt track over which hoof beats are barely audible.

European-style hacking trails add to the atmosphere. It allows horses to be horses and a great way to prepare youngsters for the rigors of future racetrack life.

Tom Kelly was the first trainer to use Payson as a training center. Born in Maryland and once a regular on that circuit, Kelly was a mainstay in New York during temperate times and raced primarily at Hialeah in winter. Payson is where some of the horses went for R & R.

The Kelly men are racetrackers through and through. T.J.’s younger brother, Edward (E.I.) Kelly, trained the 1959 sprint champion, Intentionally.

Tom’s wife Frances foaled three trainers; Pat, the oldest, best remembered for his work with New York-based millionaire Evening Attire, and Tim who left the backstretch to become a New York Racing Association official.

Also in the family is a Miami policeman, Dan, and sisters Patricia and Jean.

Laz, as T.J. called him, got his trainer’s license and saddled his first winner in Florida at age 17, 11 years after growing up on the racetrack. His first memory was, at age 6, jumping the fence behind Allen Jerkens’ Elmont barn to watch the reconstruction of Belmont Park.

Larry’s first racetrack responsibility, as with most backstretch apprentices, was walking hots. He was 10. T.J. would pick him up after school and they’d head back to Belmont in time for equine dinner, around 4 p.m.

In his early teens, he worked his way up the training ladder, mostly weekends while in high school. Once a month he got a hotwalker’s check for $140. He’d start the year in a public school in New York and complete the semester in a Catholic school in Miami.

He saddled his first horse while still in high school. In Florida he’d work mornings as a swing groom and eventually became T. J.’s assistant trainer after former assistant Pat went out on his own. He worked at Hialeah before running over to start school by 9:15.

One of his more memorable training victories came early in his career. There was a football coach loved to go to Hialeah and gamble. Larry told him a story about a horse he was running that afternoon and had to leave school early. The coach went with him.

Larry doesn’t remember the name of the horse when we spoke on the phone Monday, but did recall that he was an obstreperous full brother to Stage Door Johnny, who won the Belmont Stakes for Greentree Stable in 1968.

The horse either lugged in or bore out, he did everything except act like a professional race horse. Eventually, though, Kelly figured him out and that afternoon from an outside post, the longshot won and paid $78.

It was quite a payday for the teacher who bet $500 across the board and covered the exotic pools, too. The following day, coach pulled up to the high school in a spanking new Cadillac.

Although Kelly graduated from high school in 1977, he never picked up his diploma. He had taken a few days off to attend a Led Zeppelin concert in Tampa and never made it back south for the ceremony.

It seems that the Immigration Service raided the barn looking for undocumented workers. Kelly was picked up on the way as the outfit headed back to New York.

Larry’s first stakes horse, Roving Minstrel, was purchased from Roy Sedlacek, at that time trainer for George Steinbrenner. Kelly addled his share of stakes winners to the list as a private trainer but, stabled in the same barn, he always remained his father’s assistant.

The T.J. Kelly outfit was noted for stakes winners Plugged Nickel, Colonel Moran, Droll Roll, Misty Galore and Noble Dancer.

The Kellys also developed King’s Bishop, a $72,000 Keeneland purchase for Houston Astros founder Craig F Cullinan Jr. who later sold him to Allaire du Pont’s Bohemia Stable for the unheard of price of $800,000.

The Kellys trained for many high profile owners in the day; David P. Reynolds, Charlotte Weber and Marylou Whitney among them. While living on the Whitney Farm estate in Lexington, he met neighbor Virginia Kraft Payson, the Payson Park training center founder.

In 2007, after serving as a jock’s agent for about a year and then two years as assistant trainer to Wayne Lukas after Mike Maker went out on his own, Larry started his own horse transport business in South Florida.

The business succeeded because there was a horseman behind the wheel. He moved seven national champions, including Dreaming of Anna and Big Drama, among others, and with the exception of this year’s Breeders’ Cup, he transported Gunnevera everywhere he raced since he was a baby.

When it became known that Payson’s General Manager was retiring, trainer Jason Servis heard about the opening and recommended Larry Kelly for the position.

David Cole, longtime adviser to Mrs. Payson, spoke with Kelly on the phone. They exchanged faxed proposals and shortly thereafter Cole asked Mrs. Payson if she wanted to meet Larry. Mrs. Whitney’s Lexington neighbor said: “I don’t have to meet Larry, he’s a friend of mine.”

On November 13, Larry was given the keys and the responsibility to keep some of the biggest names in the game and their multi-million dollar horseflesh healthy and happy.

There is some minor hurricane damage to attend to, roof panels that need attention and a tractor that needs some TLC. “But the immediate goal is to keep these horses happy, making sure we continue to maintain the best dirt and turf training courses available.

“We have 497 stalls on the property and we’re at about half count now. They’re coming in every day,” he said.

“Pop trained for John S. Phipps, a direct descendent of the Phipps family, but Michael Phipps started all this. He, Townsend B. Martin, C.T. Chenery and Bull Hancock came up with the money to build a training center.

“I’m here to represent Mrs. Payson in a way she would want to be represented.”

Everything Larry Kelly has learned from age six has brought him to this moment. As racetrackers say; he’s as ready as hands can make him.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, November 07, 2017

A WINNING HORSEPLAYER’S THREE KEYS: Education, Effort, Effective Money Management

The following was culled from a thread recently posted by a member of the HRI Faithful, Dennis McDonald:

“I was actually getting tired of watching [Breeders' Cup]. So many races. I didn’t cash a ticket for two days until the finish of the Classic was posted official. I ended up catching both days’ doubles and making a hundred-plus when all was said and done.

“I had the exacta picked cold in race 11 (even written down), as well as the 10-cent super box but never placed either bet. My losses were piling up at that point and I opted for a few late doubles keying on Talismanic instead.

“I’m thinking the 10-cent super box in race 11 paid like $250 for a dime. Crazy game. I got my butt kicked for two days but found a door out at the very end of the card. Lucky and glad it is over. Exhausted.”

From one professional handicapper’s frame of reference, this generally is what the game is all about, especially when applied to the Breeders’ Cup betting concept en toto. Many times, in fact, this is exactly what happens.

In order to do well, of course, you must be right when it really counts. And the results of the Turf certainly qualifies as being right when it mattered most to McDonald.

The straight payout of $30.20 on Talismanic was generous for a live price shot, especially considering the team of legendary horseman Andre Fabre and Mickael Barzalona, ranked outside the U.S. as the world’s best rider.

Add freshness and the #1 post position and the risk was totally mitigated by the possible reward. In context—and TJ will back me on this as he read a hard copy of my Tote Busters Pick 4 analysis—the $259.20 Dime Super was a gift.

But don’t feel badly, Dennis. I didn’t have it either. I did not make a conscious decision not to play it as you did but you made the right decision given your bankroll limitations: Always protect your stake.

Personally, I increase my loss tolerance on these big days because money-making opportunities abound. I designate a fixed amount per race so that I won’t "get caught in the switches,” as they say.

The reason why I didn’t have the Super was loss of focus, a factor that beats me more than any other in this game. I’m well aware that it exists but, alas, we’re only human. Of course, as a veteran horseplayer, I never run out of excuses:

When the amateurishly handled Bolt d’Oro was defeated, I lost three solid price-shot contenders from my Pick 4 ticket in the Turf: Talismanic, Decorated Knight and Sadler’s Joy. The first two horses were upgraded and added to the mix after Ulysses was scratched.

On my only backup ticket behind the Bolt d’Oro single were Good Magic and Solomini, the eventual 1-2 finishers in the Juvenile. But my prime Pick 4 was left with only Beach Patrol and Highland Reel for Turf coverage.

I did have the presence of mind to “save” the live Pick 4 by using the three horses I lost when Bolt d’Oro was defeated in rolling doubles with Arrogate, Gun Runner and West Coast, extra tickets with Gun Runner. (The Turf-Classic double returned a worthy $104 per 2 ticket).

However, I never gave the Turf superfecta a thought. Routinely, my Dime play would have been to key firm-loving Sadler’s Joy--3-for-5 at 12 furlongs and a “win-and-in” starter who used the Joe Hirsch as strictly a bridge race.

One doesn’t realize many $259 returns on an investment of $9.60. Focus!

With respect to bankrolls, especially on Breeders' Cup days when interest and payouts skew higher, players should write out basic plays for every race, add up the total and see what’s left for real-time mixing and matching.

As Denny suggested in one of his threads, straight win betting is the best way to go. There’s no getting caught in the switches. Just set your personal odds line for each race—no underlays, please—and bet to win only.

But the modern game generally is not played this way. Today’s horseplayers are in many pools simultaneously and if your “knowledge” is superior and bankroll is adequate, you can take advantage of the crowd, even the most sophisticated opinions.

Of course, at some point you’ll hear some know-it-all wiseguy say “straight win betting is boring.” While it’s true that win betting is not as sexy as taking heavily promoted Pick 4-5-6 moonshots, there is a fail-safe tonic for win-bet tedium: Make bigger bets.

Early Election Day Results

The following is what one NTRA Poll ballot looked like when e-mailed Monday morning:

8. ROY H

The following is the final tally from 40 National Turf Writers and Broadcasters who voted in the final poll of 2017:

1 GUN RUNNER (unanimous)

Written by John Pricci

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