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, December 07, 2014

Gulfstream Park Brand Has Never Been Stronger

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 6, 2014—It pays to advertise, at least it did yesterday on the official opening day of the 2014-15 Gulfstream Park season.

The crowd on the first day of the “Championship Meet” was plentiful and enthusiastic, some of the regulars sitting at favorite tables surrounding the walking ring by the time we arrived shortly after 10 a.m.


A Fine Day for Racing in Hallandale Beach
Photo by Toni Pricci

Live racing still very much matters in this simulcast era, it creates buzz and that’s really saying something these days.

The featured Claiming Crown event is good business, too, with the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association coming up with the lion’s share of the purse money for the eight stakes offered on the day.

Parenthetically, the house comes up with purse money for the non-features, of which there were two on the 10-race program.

In all, 144 horses were entered on the program--a great betting card, especially if your name is Nostradamus. It was difficult enough finding true legitimate favorites, must less divining winners.

But like other major racing events, this Poor Man’s Breeders’ Cup brings out the players.
Even with a simulcasting dispute over rights’ fees in which 23 racetracks in the Mid-Atlantic region did not participate in the wagering, handle was trending up for the day right from opener.

And the races played out as competitively between the fences as they appeared on paper, but with many of the usual suspects finding their way to the winners’ circle.

Let's Have A Parade!
Photo by Toni Pricci

Todd Pletcher won the first race of the championship season, an allowance race for fillies and mares on turf, with the favorite: We fearlessly predict it won’t be his last.

Ken Ramsey and Mike Maker wasted no time on a day they traditionally point for, completing the early double with an attractive, appropriately named first-timer, Smokem Kitten, winning from end to end beneath Edgar Prado, moving like a winner every step of the way.

Ken Ramsey has much to smile about.
Photo by Toni Pricci

There were two more to come, both in Claiming Crown events, giving the formidable Gulfstream team a triple on opening day.

Unstoppable super-trainer Jorge Navarro won two; the talented Edgard Zayas had a riding double, as did Irad Ortiz, who stayed long enough to get some shipping money for Japan and the upcoming international jockey tournament.

The locals would not be denied as both Marty Wolfson and Stanley Gold each won a race event, with Nick Zito making it two Crown Jewels in succession, following up last year’s success with newly minted first-time gelding Catholic Cowboy with Luis Saez in the boot making no mistakes.

Catholic Cowboy Gives Zito Back-to-Back Jewels
Photo by Toni Pricci

Indeed, a good time was had by all, especially the bean counters who noted the 36% increase over last year’s handle; $10 million compared to 2013’s $8.8 million.

Gulfstream is celebrating its 76th birthday this year and never has it been on a better roll.

Right now, with the old Calder dates, they are South Florida racing.

And the “Gulfstream Park West” brand could not have been more successful. Even with a product more appropriate to Calder than Gulfstream, the Miami Lakes track did better business combined than both tracks did last year when they raced head-to-head.

If Claiming Crown day was a portent of things to come, their roll is likely to continue to Florida Derby day, March 28.

HORSEPLAYERS MATTER: Alas, with the exception of the first fall season at Del Mar, business is not good everywhere. National handle in November was down 5.62% year over year, doubtlessly reflecting the fact there were two Breeders’ Cup days last November--only the Saturday program this year-- and because horseplayers are voting with their dollars.

Still miffed by the rise in takeout instituted at the Churchill Downs Spring meet, Fall business was down a whopping 19% compared to 2013. Oh, yes, we know—it’s the increased competition, lower purses, the horse shortage, field size, and bad weather; spin it any way you will.

Indeed, all of the above are, undeniably, mitigating factors. But it’s 2014 and the entire industry had better learn that their customers—we are not your guests--have a voice and they’re using it.

Believe what you wish, but abuse us at your peril. Social media has started revolutions, organizing people in ways never before seen, in all corners of the globe. Pretend it’s the old days, that you can still act like a monopoly and not pay the piper.

Horseplayers can wager in their pajamas or their I-Phones now. The competition for the horse betting dollar is but one click away.

And the Fall main-track meet at Aqueduct? I know; more bad weather; lost turf races. But how about uninspiring day-to-day product that’s only going to get worse as the temps drop.

Oh, yes, I forgot; the popularity of college football's new Final Four and the closure of Atlantic City casinos. Could this reasoning be more sophomoric? If I were making a short, handicapping comment on the upper echelon of the NYRA management team, it would be this: Overmatched.

BETS ‘N PIECES: Note to the Graded Stakes Committee; Game Called due to lack of inspiration. And the Pennsylvania Derby is still a Grade 2? HRI’s (Tom Jicha will have much more on this in his Tuesday column)…Gulfstream Park did great work improving Calder’s barn area in advance of its inaugural GPW meet, but reports of improvements to the front side and a reconditioned turf course were greatly exaggerated…P J Campo is the new General Manager of Gulfstream Park and we wish him the best of luck. It will be interesting to see how a racing office mentality handles day-to-day front-side operations…All racetracks that do not put on a live racing program or a clearly inferior product when they do and benefit at the bottom line from imported superior content should pay for that privilege. What happens if and when their customers gravitate to competing ADWs…? Short of being barred for numerous medication violations, the California Horse Racing Board tied Quarter Horse trainer Jose De La Torre to the whipping post. Well now that De La Torre has been severely punished, as was Thoroughbred’s Rick Dutrow and Doug O'Neill, all of racing’s problems have been solved. The Feds’ United States Anti-Drug Agency is the only answer for meaningful reform…A Rutgers University study has found that allowing casino games and sports betting at New Jersey racetracks would be a win-win for the state. Casino betting has proven to be a Trojan horse virtually everywhere it’s been offered but sports betting would be a different matter because of intellectual crossover. And those phony sports leagues, the NBA notwithstanding, are still finding sympathetic judges to “shelter” all but the four states that enjoy their grandfather status. The billion-dollar Fantasy Sports industry isn’t gambling? Such hypocrisy...After an embarrassing delay, there finally is a clocker in place at Palm Beach Downs despite the protestations of two trainers. Actually, there has been a Gulfstream Park clocker in place all week but for some reason workouts failed to appear on the Equibase work tab, which was updated late Saturday. Meanwhile, horsemen should realize that their omnipotence, like industry leadership, is waning, too.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Joy to the Racing World

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., November 30, 2014--Remember all the way back to May, when California Chrome, glistening chestnut that he is, was the Prince of Thoroughbred Racing, the heir apparent to who knows what, maybe even a Triple Crown? Well, not so much, as it turned out.

But racing and sports fans in general loved him, this gallant also-ran in Tonalist's Belmont. And his owners were beloved, too--until the rant. And for a while, didn't it seem as if the fans were taking it out on the horse?

Horseplayers have a short memory; they must given the often cruel nature of the handicapping game; the bad trips, the bad rides, the bad rulings.

Bad picks? Not so much.

And, so, putting all this in perspective, I fight to remember the reason I try not to fall in love with horses. It clouds objectivity, it places your opinion in a lock-box, your judgment becomes blurred.

Trainers say it all the time, but Saturday was one of the few times this handicapper will say it: I was genuinely happy for the horse.

Now if only he and Shared Belief can remain healthy, what a 2015 racing it could be.

It's fun to dream about a barnstorming tour but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Wouldn't it be something if California Chrome and Shared Belief took their act on the road, together, putting on a show all over the country? Talk about a way to put horse racing back on the front page...

Of course, even if they remain healthy, it won't happen because the camps have a different agenda. Shared Belief is a gelding; for him there is racing life beyond 2015. For California Chrome, the breeding shed beckons and you can be sure that Team Chrome will be judicious in choosing their spots.

But now that everyone knows that California Chrome can handle the grass, indeed loving the turf if his stride, or should we say glide--is any measure, his connections will have plenty of options.

So it probably must be that Shared Belief needs to chase Chrome around the country to make this dream matchup come true. His connections appear sporting enough--right, Jim?--and Shared Belief is a champion with something left to prove--right, Jerry? After all, the Derby winner is back.

California Chrome is racing's best draw now. Even considering the Hollywood Derby field wasn't all that, let's recall that three-year-olds swept the money positions, and then some, beating older rivals in final two open Grade 1s of the season. What a great supporting cast these two stars could have.

I wonder if there's an enterprising racetrack that would, that could, throw enough money at any existing Grade 1 purse to insure that both horses show up in the same race?

It's good to have California Chrome back. Where's the NTRA Poll when you really need one?

Not Close, And No Cigar

There were some nice horse on display in Saturday's Cigar Mile at the Big A but no truly outstanding performers. Taking nothing away from Private Zone, a remarkable racehorse, issues notwithstanding, but if there were a true one-turn miler in the final Grade 1 of the New York season, the feeling is that he would have been run down, given a final quarter-mile of :26.05.

Speed horses had the advantage on the final Saturday of the main-track year in Queens and Private Zone beneath Martin Pedroza, who took full advantage by allowing the speedster to pull to the lead but not in run-off fashion.

After stumbling at the break, Bob Baffert's place finisher Secret Circle did his best Bayern imitation, drifting in and tightening up three rivals to his inside. The Sprint runner-up tried to make a race of it but drifted out at headstretch and was all out to hold the place, shortening stride perceptibly nearing the wire, looking like a horse that will be freshened up again, awaiting the 2015 Breeders' Cup.

Itsmyluckyday has been a nice horse throughout his career but failed to beat a single horse in the Cigar, not the most compelling swansong in racing history. He disappointed in the Kelso then showed no interest on Saturday, underscoring what can happen when you reach the bottom of the well; those Saratoga Grade 1s come at a cost. See Rachel Alexandra among many others.

There was little that was memorable about the Frizette, including Condo Commando's lengthy victory margin, made possible by the biased surface, the competition, and the program scratch of the speedy Jacaranda.

I imagine that some of the Remsen colts will improve as they continue to develop, but can't say any of them raised my blood pressure Saturday.

Stars of the Future, Indeed

From virtually the same connections that brought you Itsmyluckyday comes Mr. Jordan, a nearly white Thoroughbred that kept his record clean at 3-for-3, winning his two-turn debut geared down after being pressed on the pace throughout.

Mr. Jordan will be hell to pay in the early three-year-old stakes in late January at Gulfstream Park East. His pedigree is sprinty on top (Kantharos), but grand-sire Cloud Hopping has gotten runners that can go long.

Now we fully understand that Churchill's Grade 2 Jockey Club Stakes is highly anticipated as a potential barometer for what might happen in the feature race run on the first Saturday of every May. But not so yesterday.

And, now, from the folks that brought you Bayern, comes Dortmund.

A $140,000 2-year-old purchase in May, the son of Big Brown from the Tale of the Cat mare, Our Josephina, was uber impressive taking a preliminary allowances 30 minutes before the feature.

Despite breaking maiden by nearly 5 lengths over 10 rivals, he beat 11 competitors Saturday, Baffert removing the blinkers before stretching him out off his 6-1/2 furlong debut.

Stalking the leaders from out in the middle of the track beneath Martin Garcia after exiting the mile chute, Dortmund swooped the leaders at headstretch, drawing off under no pressure and galloping out strongly, slowing down only after reaching the backstretch.

He is a big, scopey chestnut whose next start is highly anticipated and belongs high at the top of anyone's list of Derby contenders.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (8)

Friday, November 28, 2014

Horse of the Holiday Weekend

PLANTATION, FL, November 28, 2014--When last we checked in on our Derby hero, he was neither roughed, sloughed or rebuffed at the start of the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

In fact, he was outside in the clear all the way which was, of course, the good news and the bad news. That’s what happens on those inside-out speed tracks of Southern California.

What he was, however, was a horse in need of just one more race to be at tops. Under the circumstances, the California Chrome of spring likely would have surged ahead in midstretch and won the damn thing.

Instead, he remained one-paced and settled for third behind Bayern and Toast of New York, and he might even have cost himself a championship in the process.

One moment before the Classic latch was sprung, the dual Classics and Santa Anita Derby winner was a lock for the three-year-old championship; the only one that could have dethroned him at that point was Jerry Hollendorfer’s horse.

That was the universally shared belief anyway.

My Eclipse ballot for Horse of the Year has Main Sequence on top at the moment and Bayern a controversially begrudging sophomore titlist:

Begrudging for obvious reasons; controversially for equally understandable reasons.

For me and my voting colleagues, California Chrome gets an opportunity to shout “stop the presses!" All that is needed would be victory in the grassy Hollywood Derby over the weekend. Why?

Because the would-be champion is taking on a new challenge, a chance to show another dimension. Good horses are said to run on anything. At this level for me, it’s all about the sport.

I have watched video of his 52-second breeze on the Del Mar turf course and frankly I don’t know what to do with it. His action was fine, the effort little more than an open gallop.

But I can’t be sure the colt was enthusiastic about what he was doing, and if I can’t be sure about that, I certainly don’t know what’s going to happen on Saturday night.

That doesn’t mean he’s an automatic bet-against; he’s simply an automatic sit-and-watch. No one needs to bet this race to enjoy the built-in suspenseful uncertainty of it all.

So there’s a lot riding on this year's Hollywood Derby: I’m perfectly willing to elevate the Chromester from second within his own division--did I mention begrudgingly--and award him the entire enchilada.

And I'm not completely comfortable dong that, either: How do I “punish” a horse that’s a perfect 4-for-4 in traditional Grade 1 events, winning each with either a dramatic finish, with a flair, or both.

But when it comes to Horse of the Year--and we’ve written this ad nauseum--I’ll simply follow the counsel of the late, legendary Joe Hirsch: “The Horse of the Year can be anything.”

And until Bayern made the left-hand turn seen round the world from the Classic starting gate, California Chrome was the first horse on every fan's mind; not for the promise of what might be, but for what was in 2014.

The question now is whether what-was is the same as what-is.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (6)

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