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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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Saturday, February 01, 2014

Traffic Building on Derby Trail

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, February 1, 2014—The Grade 3 Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream Park took on an international flavor when Wildcat Red drew off with authority to win the 7-furlong sprint by 4-3/4 widening lengths in 1:22.21, taking his first steps on the Derby trail.

Owner Salvatore Delfino color coordinated with his silks as Jose Garoffalo leads Wildcat Red to the winners circle
Photo by Toni Pricci
Owner Salvatore Delfino color coordinated with his silks as Jose Garoffalo leads Wildcat Red to the winners circle
“Hopefully, the Fountain of Youth is the next step,” Garoffalo said, “especially since [impressive Holy Bull winner] Cairo Prince will not run in the race. Today I think [Wildcat Red] proved he can run long. Horses are more relaxed running longer.”

“He can rate and you can put him anywhere you want,” said winning rider Javier Castellano, who was Garoffalo’s first choice for the Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year’s Day but Castellano had a prior commitment. He was open for the Hutcheson and after working him last week—“I was very impressed”--accepted the call.

Wildcat Red, narrowly beaten in the GP Derby, was to go long for the first time in the Holy Bull, but a throat infection and some respiratory distress kept him in the barn. “It wasn’t a big deal but we just didn’t want to take a chance.”

The Fountain of Youth was supposed to attract Cairo Prince, who now will train up to the Florida Derby. Honor Code will miss the race with ankle issues behind, and the brilliant Havana has taken longer than expected to come to hand and will opt for the Swale instead. Without the Holy Bull winner, the Grade 2 route isn’t as daunting as it first appeared.

However, the likely participation of impressive allowance winner Top Billing, and Commissioner, who had beaten Top Billing previously, will insure the Fountain of Youth will be far from a walkover.

Both Garoffalo and Delfino are from Venezuela and Wildcat Red is only the second horse Delfino has owned. Now both men are living the American dream. “I think all owners and trainers think about winning the Kentucky Derby,” the trainer said.

Samraat Stays Undefeated in G3 Withers: It’s not very often when a pair of New York-breds make their open company debuts in the same stakes, then go out and put on a dramatic show down the Aqueduct home straight.

There they were, Uncle Sigh, a 14-length maiden winner sprinting with his own kind last out, on the inside, and Samraat, a 16-length victor in the state-bred Damon Runyon Stakes, on the outside, throwing it down stride for stride until the very end. Both horses ran exceptionally well.

Nearing the finish, however, Samraat edged away and extended his undefeated career to four straight victories that began at Belmont Park, moved to the Aqueduct main track before taking his winter-track and two-turn debut by storm, widening his margin without being asked by regular rider Jose Ortiz.

Trainer Jose Garoffalo is pointing Wildcat Red to the Fountain of Youth
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Trainer Jose Garoffalo is pointing Wildcat Red to the Fountain of Youth
The interesting note about the Noble Causeway colt from the Indian Charlie mare, Little Indian Girl, is that he shipped down from New York to Palm Meadows with trainer Rick Violette’s Florida string then shipped back to Gotham for the Withers.

And speaking of Gotham, it would make sense for the colt to run in the race of the same name, the Gotham Stakes being a very good spot for Wood Memorial hopefuls, although he could train up to the Wood.

Either way, the waters will get a lot deeper next time, especially if he runs back in the Gotham, where Honor Code likely to make his season’s debut. That mile and a sixteenth will be the next stop for gallant runner-up Uncle Sigh.

Now it starts to get a little more interesting.

Pletcher 1-2 in the Sam F. Davis: Veteran handicappers are never surprised when trainer Todd Pletcher accomplishes the unusual, such as finishing one-two in a stakes that figures to be prologue for something a little more important next month.

But what bettors might consider shocking is that the nose winner, Vinceramos, who was cross-entered in the Hutcheson but opted to leave Hallandale Beach in favor of a longer prep in Oldsmar, would return 13-1.

But that was the case when the Winstar colt shot up the fence beneath Edgar Prado, who gave up five mounts on the Gulfstream card to ride in Vinceramos at Tampa Bay Downs, holding safe his fast-closing, higher regarded stablemate, Harpoon with Luis Saez.

When Javier Castellano asked Wildcat Red for his best, ''he took off.''
Photo by: Toni Pricci
When Javier Castellano asked Wildcat Red for his best, ''he took off.''
Contextually, it’s hard to know what to make of the two Pletcher runners as they are only two of 40 other Pletcher Triple Crown nominees—that’s right; a record 42 nominations or roughly 10 percent of all Triple Crown eligibles—and because it’s hard to evaluate the quality behind them at this juncture.

That answer will have to wait until the Tampa Bay Derby is contested Mar. 8. Barring the unforeseen, it appears to be a safe bet that both Vinceramos and Harpoon will be shipping north from Boynton Beach again.

Hey, it’s not easy keeping 42 potential Kentucky Derby starters separated.

Will Take Charge Donn Highweight: Champion three year old Will Take Charge is on his way Southeast from Oaklawn Park and will start as the 123-pound highweight in Sunday’s Grade 1 Donn Handicap, kicking off the Jockey Club Tour on Fox, a series of races the austere body hopes will play a part in reversing a trend.

The Donn will be the four-year-old’s first start since defeating Game On Due in the Clark, clinching the Eclipse title.* The first meaningful handicap of the year is quite a salty affair.

Multiple stakes winner Revolutionary, who made an excellent return from a layoff in an allowance race earlier at the meet, is rated second in the weights at 119. Alpha and Private Zone are next at 118, but Alpha is expected to run on the turf instead.

Next in line is Lea (117), who was very sharp winning the Hal’s Hope in his first start for trainer Bill Mott. In at 116 is Long River, who’s been beating up on New York’s weak handicap division; Neck N’ Neck, who prepped well with a strong-finish third over the surface, and River Seven, who showed an electric turn of foot while recording a track record score in the Harlan’s Holiday in December.

*correction made 11:16 a.m. on 020214

Written by John Pricci

Comments (2)

Thursday, January 30, 2014

I’m A Bettor

I know this bettor, in fact, I know a lot of them; past, present, but not so sure about the future, only because nobody listens.

Oh, they hear, but they never listen. Listening takes understanding, caring, dare I say even compassion.

But, no, this view will probably be ignored "because it's too negative," the industry tells me, when they're not ostracizing, or shooting messengers completely.

They think they care because they have skin in the game; as owners, breeders, trainers, riders. They are the game. In fact, there would be no one to put on the show without them.

As if people with a gambling jones wouldn't just walk down the street in towns that have casinos in their neighborhoods.

Isn't that the goal and role of state government--not the feds--the states, that would love casinos and lottery tickets available on every street corner?

And some of us foolishly think that the Pick Six is too hard.

You know what horseplayers really want? They just really want a little respect beyond lip service, appreciation not defined as a T-Shirt giveaway.

They want a good product at a fair price, clean facilities, good affordable food. That's all they really need when betting at the track, or in their pajamas.

And what does the industry want from those of us who are not owners, breeders, trainers and jockeys?

They want the bettors to suffer in silence because once they were the only game in town, and all they needed were the doors to a racetrack; open them and they will come. And they want independent media, what's left of it, to be extensions of their marketing departments:

Speak softly and throw away those sticks.

What they don't get is that we care more than they know, and that by shining a light on fixable issues we're trying to be part of a solution, not schadenfreude types sitting on the sidelines, but lovers of the game trying to affect positive change from the front lines.

All any of us want is to continue to be willing participants in the horse racing industry. Here then, the voice of the North American horseplayer that speaks for us all.

The Horseplayers Association of North America, despite what some perceive as their shortcomings, is the best thing that's happened for the future good of racing in the modern era. But HANA is not just a disgruntled grassroots group of horseplayers, it is all of us; horseplayers, owners, breeders, trainers, jockeys and backstretch workers.

By The HANA Blog

Hi, you know me. I’m a bettor..

"I rush up to the windows with zero minutes to post to get my bet down, fumble with my selections, get sneered at for messing up by Mr. Teller, and learn that I still had another six minutes to get my bet in. “They do that at Tampa Bay” someone tells me.
I’m a bettor.

I was at the track and noticed a trainer who was suspended in a state, but was racing in another state. “What should I do” I asked. One of my friends said I should not bet because he is not “using the juice” there. Another told me that they are watching him for milkshakes so I should not bet. I don’t even know what a milkshake is, so I bet. He ran up the track. Maybe they were right.

I’m a bettor.

I watch the races on a Saturday and get confused so easily. “Why do all the races that I want to bet go off at the same time” I ask. “That’s what they do here”, someone tells me.

I’m a bettor.

A while back I was at the track. My horse looked to be bumped by another horse and I came second. Everyone said they would take a look at it, so I waited. Someone said “it’s the last race of the day so the judges want to go home.” Someone else said that the judges were watching a football game like they were at the Breeders’ Cup a couple of years ago. Someone else said that one of the judges probably bet the winner. I don’t know.

All I know is no one told us anything, they put up the prices and I lost.

I’m a bettor.

I was reading a story on one of the industry websites a couple of years ago and they told me that I should sign up for an Internet betting account because it was pretty cool. I looked into it and found one. They were right!
This account gave me great service, free video and they even gave me a nice break on my takeout. Instead of losing a lot of money, I was only losing a little bit of money now. I was having fun.

Then one day I got a letter saying that because I lived in New York I could not be a customer anymore. “That happened to me in Texas” said a friend. “Me too in Pennsylvania,” said another. Ditto in Virginia someone told me. Why did they tell me to sign up when they were going to not allow me to be a customer of them?

Someone told me it’s because tracks and horsemen all need more money so they raised some sort of fee. But I found that strange; I did not just fall off the turnip truck. Billions of dollars have come from slots in some of these states. They have money. Why do they have to hurt us?

“Maybe I will just go to the track again” I said, but a friend told me they were raising the price of parking and admission too. I don’t know what to do.

I’m a bettor.

I was playing the races one day and the field was scratched from five horses to four horses. A professional gambler said I was stupid to bet a five horse field with high takeout, but I didn’t know what he was talking about. Then he told me that in the four horse field the track was still offering trifecta wagering. He said that was “criminal”. I don’t know much about math, but it does sound a little silly to have a trifecta in a four horse field.

I have to watch these guys at this track, I said to myself.

I’m a bettor.

I like to wake up Saturday and get my email from horse racing. Every Saturday someone is trying to get me to bet a pick 6. I try and try and try but I never hit them. I get mails for a “Rainbow Six” and people like Andy Beyer tell me that’s even worse.

Why do they always want me to bet something that I will never win? It seems mean.

I’m a bettor.

In Illinois they need more money, so they added a “surcharge”. I don’t know what that is, but I figure it’s going to screw me somehow. Why can’t horse racing pay for things themselves when they mess up? It’s complicated, someone tells me.

I’m a bettor.

I’ve lived through it my whole life. Others “put on the show” and I don’t mean much.

I should bet, even when the price goes too high, or they close down my online account, or they don’t show how an inquiry is handled, or when a trainer who is suspended in one place is not suspended in another or when they raise my parking prices. I’ve been through pick 6 scandals, and frog juice and signal fee hikes. I’ve been through supertrainers, and takeout hikes.

Through all that, I and people like me, have bet and paid for purses so everyone can earn a living. Those who breed and ride and train and groom and shoe horses, among others. I have not complained. I was doing my job.

I’m a bettor.

Last week I walked through my local track. I had not been there in quite some time. A racing executive said “I have not seen you in awhile”.

"No, I haven't been betting much" I replied.

He asked, “Why, is it because our purses are too low, or is it alternative gaming taking you away? Is it because of the bad weather?”

“You probably wouldn’t understand”, I said.

I have not supported the industry for awhile, but I’m still a bettor.

However, for all of you reading who are ex-bettors - the silent thousands who have left the sport forever the past ten years - let me say that I understand why you left. I understand completely.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (43)

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Cairo Prince, Top Billing and Velazquez Rock Gulfstream Park

HALLANDALE, FL, January 25, 2014—Kiaran McLaughlin isn’t the kind of trainer who criticizes jockeys, but he was very upset when overconfident handling from Luis Saez cost him a victory in last year’s Remsen Stakes.

Cairo Prince galloping out after dominating his Holy Bull rivals
Photo by Toni Pricci
Cairo Prince galloping out after dominating his Holy Bull rivals
“And maybe the two year old championship,” McLaughlin speculated after Cairo Prince’s completely comprehensive victory in the Holy Bull Stakes, the first serious stop on the South Florida Derby trail. "But we can’t think about that now. We just have to hope he keep going forward. He made my job look easy.”

So did Saez. After breaking cleanly with Cairo Prince in the 11-horse Grade 2 mile and a sixteenth, he positioned the 2.10-to-1 favorite comfortably wide off a 23.63, 46.75 half-mile pace as Coup de Grace and Almost Famous duked it out on the lead, tracked intently by a surprisingly pumped-up Mr. Speaker.

Approaching the final turn, Almost Famous put Coup de Grace away, took the lead under pressure as Mr. Speaker went up to engage the leader. But just as quickly, Cairo Prince was on them in an instant, Saez virtually motionless as he reached even terms approaching headstretch.

He confidently guided the grandson of Holy Bull only this time he asked his colt for more and Cairo Prince responded with the excellent turn of foot he first displayed winning the Nashua Stakes in his second lifetime start.

“Today he rode him perfectly,” McLaughlin said.

And rode him out to a 5-3/4 length score in 1.42.16, with a final sixteenth in 06.75, 50 one-hundredths faster than it took sophomore Top Billing to win the day’s fourth race. The track record of 1:42.73 was set by the older River Seven in last month’s Harlan’s Holiday Stakes.

“Obviously, we’re holding a strong hand with this colt,” said McLaughlin. “You just hope we keep going forward because things happen to horses all the time. We just want to keep him the same happy and healthy horse.”

Where he goes next is at issue. McLaughlin indicated he could run in two more Derby preps, or train up to a race like the Florida Derby, March 29. The Fountain of Youth, the race Remsen winner Honor Code is pointing for might, comes up a little too quickly for Cairo Prince. So what about that matchup?

“We gave him six pounds in the Remsen and got beat a nose. We felt we were the best horse.” McLaughlin then was asked his impressions of the race run by Top Billing earlier in the day.

Kiaran McLaughlin's high opinion of his horse was validated in the Holy Bull.
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Kiaran McLaughlin's high opinion of his horse was validated in the Holy Bull.
“I’m glad he opted for the fourth race today.”

For two of the day’s other major players, excitement started long before the Holy Bull horses entered the Gulfstream Park walking ring.

For Johnny Velazquez--it was when he entered the ring to ride Monopolize for main client Todd Pletcher to the cheers and well wishes of appreciative fans lining the ring, Johnny's smile wider than the backend of a Clydesdale. It was his first ride since the Breeders’ Cup when he suffered a spill that resulted in the removal of his spleen.

Velazquez was excited, as was his wife Leona, who was there to greet him when he walked into the paddock. “I’m feeling a little bit of everything,” she said, speaking without hesitation but with some reservation. It’s been a lengthy, arduous rode back “and he’s been working like a dog to get fit. He’s very strong right now.”

The doctors gave permission to resume riding on January 10 and he was exercising horses the next day. But Saturday was the the first time he raced for money since November 1. How did it feel?

Johnny & Leona Velazquez are happy to be back.
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Johnny & Leona Velazquez are happy to be back.
“Tiring,” he said, showing the same smile he wore in the paddock before escorting Monopolize to the racetrack. The team finished fifth of seven “but it felt good, felt really good. I’m just looking for a horse now fast enough to carry me around."

But race riding is about timing and confidence as much as it is about strength and that likely will take a little time.

Velazquez had mounts on the day’s two stakes and finished second on Aurelia’s Belle behind the dominating Onlyforyou. Velazquez added the $40,000 in place purse money to his total as racing’s all-time money-winning rider.

For Shug McGaughey-- the excitement came when he entered the winners’ circle after Top Billing’s very impressive victory in an ‘a-other-than’ allowances at a mile and a sixteenth in 1:42.86 coming from last, as impressively as any late runner can be over Gulfstream’s speed-friendly circumference.

“That was a powerful race,” said McGaughey, “he’s learning. I was a little nervous running him back in three weeks, but he has an unbelievably good mind.”

And a balanced, very athletic frame, with not a lot of size but one that makes him as nifty as horses need to be.

As to his next start, that has to be determined. “Well, you know there’s not going to be an allowance race. We’ll put our heads together and run him somewhere... but we’re not going to overcook him.”

Top Billing is owned by his breeders, Will Farish and E. J. Hudson Jr.

Shug McGaughey's Derby prospect lives up to his Top Billing
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Shug McGaughey's Derby prospect lives up to his Top Billing
Ridden by Joel Rosario, who partnered with Orb to win last year’s Kentucky Derby for McGaughey, the colt was content to race last of seven down the backside but was in a good rhythm, picking up the pace leaving the half-mile pole, still last, without being asked.

Then Top Billing showed a big turn of foot while four wide on the turn, engaged the well regarded Surfing USA momentarily approaching headstretch, before momentum carried him away to victory, ridden out.

He certainly looked like the top prospect McGaughey believed he was before Saturday's tour de force.

Onlyforyou-- lived up to her billing in the Grade 2 Forward Gal, but not her name, winning for virtually everyone in simulcast land by 2-3/4 lengths as the prohibitive 3-10 favorite. remaining undefeated.

“It kind of speaks for itself,” said winning trainer Todd Pletcher. “Anytime you have one win three in a row, it’s not very many of them that do that.”

The question is whether there will be life beyond yesterday’s 7 furlongs, clocked in 1:22.50.

“She’s a big scopy good-looking filly that has tactical speed. She’s trained like she’ll run further. If we’re going to run back at Gulfstream we’re going to have to stretch out. We’ll have to see how we feel about that.”

Written by John Pricci

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