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, October 11, 2014

Cigar Smoked in Moderation, Winning Races One at a Time

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., October 11, 2014—My first recollection of Cigar, the horse that would become a present day Thoroughbred legend, is best described as a holy excrement moment.

After all, this was a well-bred underachieving turf runner, eligible for non-winners of 2 in his 14th start--back when secondary allowances actually filled—making his return to dirt, a surface over which he had broken his maiden in his second career race.

Switching to an up-and-coming rider named Mike Smith, Cigar led the flat-mile throughout with a half-mile gambit of 44.76 en route to an 8 length romp in 1:35.78; very impressive, indeed. But who could have known there would be 15 more to follow?

Fifteen, in a row, 12 of them Grade 1. And he didn’t just win those races; he dominated them, trackmen around the country underscoring that assessment, describing eight of those wins this way:

“Drew off.” “Dueled; drew off.” “As rider pleased.” “Much best.” “Cruised in hand.” “Easily.” “Gamely.” “Handily.”

Then came the hot-paced pressure in the Pacific Classic, a little SoCal home cookin’, and here comes Dare and Go.

And there goes the streak.

Citation just never allowed Cigar to take an undisputed lead on his legendary run, no matter how unconquerable, invincible and unbeatable he was over a dirt-course career that spanned two days shy of two full years.

Returning home to his Belmont Park digs after the Pacific Classic, Cigar rebounded to win the 1996 Woodward but a fissure in his armor was beginning to open when he was narrowly beaten in the Jockey Club Gold Cup in his next start.

This time the trackman’s short comment read: “Drifted late, game,” as he lost by a head to the mighty, younger Skip Away.

When horses begin running east-west instead of north-south, something might be amiss, or the warrior might be wearing down, having fought one too many battles.

In his next start, Cigar failed to defend his Classic triumph of the previous year, finishing third by a head to Alphabet Soup and Louis Quatorze.

“Bid, hung,” the trackman showing no mercy despite the world class competition; no compassion: “Bid, hung,” a description one normally associates with selling platers, not great champions.

But it’s the first time you see a horse do something extraordinary that excites the imagination, when it shows the kind of ability that promises exciting things to come, memorable things: The uncompromising, unwavering, unbelievable Cigar.

Rest in peace, champ.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, October 09, 2014

East Side, West Side, All Around So-Fla…

MIAMI GARDENS, October 9, 2014—As you head south on University Drive and make a left onto the racetrack grounds, the first sign you see says Calder Casino. It’s only until you drive a little further on the property is the building called Calder Casino and Race Course.

The signs may be the same as they were before the initial Gulfstream Park West program, but things are different now.

It’s the dawn of a new era: Gulfstream Park West, formerly known as Calder Race Course, had its unveiling Wednesday.

You remember Calder: It’s the racetrack located hard by Sun Life Stadium, formerly known as Joe Robbie, as one opening-day cynic explained.

Although the paddock area is still pastoral, Calder never was known for its ambience: At best, the facility is best described as a seven-story monolith of glass and concrete servicing the horseplayers of Dade County, not Broward.

It’s a different clientele that goes live racing here, more blue-collar than Tommy Bahama. But there was energy in the building; the racetrack vibe was familiar and good.

The new brand is an issue that has the managements of Gulfstream and Calder, the Stronach Group and Churchill Downs Inc., respectively, jousting with each other. It’s as if both parties were heeding the counsel Frank Pentangeli offered Godfather Michael Corleone: To paraphrase:

“Your father did business with John Marshall, your father respected John Marshall…but your father never trusted Frank Stronach, or his New-England-born CEO, Tim Ritvo.”

Not much has changed at Calder, except for mostly everything. Horseplayers are relegated to the first floor by CDI decree, the company that still owns and maintains the building. There’s no box seating area, no dining room facility, no frills.

The news media still has access to the sixth floor, but that begs a question: Can it still be considered a racetrack press box without a betting window or self-service tote machine?

Signs of Gulfstream Park West are ubiquitous, as is the color motif of the Hallandale Beach facility right down to the closed-circuit graphics packages, although there were opening–day audio glitches reminiscent of Saratoga, circa 2012.

Cooperation between the GPW or CRC managements is obviously lacking; everything still a negotiation. Gulfstream did make significant improvements in the backstretch areas, which were sorely needed, but precious few on the front side.

Business-wise GPW gets the same revenue as bets that are placed on live Gulfstream product, two pockets of the same pair of pants.

But it seems apparent, since there are precious few concession stands on the first floor or other amenities that GPW management prefers to have their old gamblers go east. Unlike Gulfstream Park, I witnessed no young people as I walked the entire apron.

Not having been to the venue in several years, the tote board was newer than I remembered but the races were much the same, playing out in a fashion that veteran Calder handicappers know all too well. It’s a solid product.

The betting menu is the same as Gulfstream’s and not the old Calder sequences. The main difference is that GPW is offering a 20-Cent Pick Six but without the Rainbow 6 carryover provision. Without that, or pool seeding, P6 handle was $4,445.

Thankfully and correctly, the new managers brought the same takeout rates crosstown, levels that rank Gulfstream 10th on the current Horseplayers Association of North America track ratings, as opposed to 46th for Calder.

It would have been much appreciated, however--and it still may not be too late--to adopt old Calder’s 12% takeout rate for the Pick 5, the co-lowest in the country. That would give the new tenant something to shout about; an avenue to increase handle.

There is one lament that started with a thread from Internet horseplayer activist Andy Asaro re: California racing; a practice that has been a staple in South Florida since Gulfstream began running the Calder dates on the East Side: The Tijuana Shuffle Lives!

There is no question that Gulfstream Park is the big time. Any track that can offer essentially Grade 2 Saturday product when measured against behemoths such as Belmont Park, Keeneland and Santa Anita and still attract $6-million in handle is by any measure prime time.

But what’s going on pre-race at Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park now is decidedly bush league.

It has been posited online that post times are being delayed to allow more time for bettors to reach levels supporting “guaranteed” multi-race betting pools. But for all races at GPW opening day, it was a case of “suggested post times.”

The opener, scheduled for 1:05 p.m., was off at 1:13. The third race, with a scheduled 2:07 post, albeit following an inquiry and a delayed posting of payoffs, the first leg of early Pick 4 didn’t begin until 2:25, 18 minutes behind schedule.

The 10-horse field did two twirls on the main track before it even entered the turf course. The fifth race went off with only a two-minute delay, but the scheduled post of 3:09 was 20 minutes late, off at 3:29.

The hope is that the next step will not be to emulate South Florida’s old dog track tricks. Back in the day, track executives would sit in front of a bank of closed-circuit cameras monitoring the betting lines. Windows didn’t close until no people remained in the queue.

For all practical purposes, this is counter-productive. Knowing that post times are meaningless, bettors dally and invariably there are shut-outs, anyway--especially when inconsiderate bettors handicap directly in front of the machine, that’s if they’re even comfortable with the self-bet process.

Along with the audio glitches, there were self-service machines in my area that worked slowly, some not at all, while some were not programmed to take bet minimums or sequential wagers of any kind. It wasn’t until I identified the track as Gulfstream Park West 2, and not GPW 1, that I was allowed to box an exacta.

Further, there weren’t enough self-service machines available, hopefully something that will be rectified by Saturday. Maybe there were more people in attendance than was expected or perhaps the lack of cooperation between landlord and tenant was to some degree responsible. But at least Gulfstream Park has its priorities right: "Gulfstream Park Racing and Casino."

Reaching an agreement that by all accounts was in the best interests of present-day racing in South Florida, took long enough. But now that it’s done, each manager must make a concerted effort to act like an adult. If not, the horseplayer will get caught in the middle. Again.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, October 05, 2014

Keeneland Dirt Surface, Wise Dan, Pletcher Colts Star on Another Big Prep Weekend

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., October 5, 2014—Win or lose, or should I say lose, then win, a little, watching the races on Friday’s Keeneland opener was fun again.

Less than a decade ago, nearly half of all main track sprints were won by speed horses, most likely those racing closest to the fence.

Nearly half; think about that, this ain’t no bullring we’re talkin’ here. And, going long? How about MORE than half were won by early pace types?

Friday’s wet surface, one that officially went from muddy to good then back to muddy after a pre-Alcibiades deluge, played like a fast track; very encouraging early on.

The racing over it on the first two days appeared to match the favorable reviews of the surface of horsemen who spoke with Jennie Rees of the Louisville Courier-Journal.

The word used to describe God’s brown earth after an eight year hiatus in Lexington was “bounce” with just the right amount of cushion over a base that combines the best drainage elements of the old Polytrack with new high-tech elements.

It was fascinating to learn that GPS technology is used to set the level of the harrows used to grade the track to keep it uniform, especially important given its 6-inch cushion.

Horsemen also commented that they were pleased with its uniformity and the tighter cushion that gives the surface its bounce.

And, so, for the first time in nearly a decade, we can think beyond just the Keeneland turf course because, unless horses showed a clear preference for Keeneland’s Polytrack surface, handicapping here was an exercise in futility.


As the HRI faithful knows, I was late to the Wise Dan party. I believed, fairly or not, that the connections should have set the sights higher than being MERELY one of the best turf milers this country has ever produced.

Then came the Bernard Baruch, a race that reduced trainer Charlie LoPresti to tears as his gallant 7-year-old made the transition from near death-bed experience to his 14th victory in 15 career turf runs, racing 1-1/16 miles in 1.39+ a tick over the Saratoga course record--all without being fully cranked.

Going into Saturday’s Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile, I had my doubts. He had to work hard to win that comeback from colic issues, perhaps too hard so that he might not be at tops.

Then after he turned his head, missing the break to be last of eight away from the barrier, he found himself in a difficult position between horses through most of the backstretch and half the second turn.

At that juncture, Johnny Velazquez, riding with great confidence, angled his mount to the far outside and into the clear.

After straightening away, Wise Dan appeared to stay one-paced for a couple of strides and, I’m thinking, “not today.” Then he settled, lengthened his stride and refused to lose in that final sixteenth of a mile, the stuff of legends.

LoPresti, once again emotional, summed it all up, simply but eloquently: “He owes us nothing but he just keeps on givin’.”

Pre-race, the trainer was miffed that the two-time defending Horse of the Year was not prominently included in this year’s discussion, seemingly everyone will to concede that title to either 3-year-olds Shared Belief or California Chrome should they win the Classic.

LoPresti left the door open for a Classic run although breeder-owner Morton Fink said absolutely not. We’ll see what happens when the dust settles.

Interesting to conjure would be victories by Shared Belief in the Classic and Wise Dan in the Mile. A win on November 1 gives Shared Belief an undefeated career slate of 7-for-7 including three over older horses.

But a win in the Mile gives Wise Dan a three-peat in the event, matching the singular achievement of Goldikova and giving him the defending champion a 5-for-5 slate for 2014.

Thought-provoking, indeed, and, in that context, it will be an interesting indication should Wise Dan take back the #1 spot in the NTRA National Thoroughbred Poll he surrendered to Shared Belief last week.


It started at Belmont Park where Daredevil, appearing fortunate to get another wet track and especially blessed to draw the outside in a six-horse field, took advantage of those dynamics in the G1 Champagne.

But it wasn’t so much the victory but the manner of it; geared down inside the final sixteenth, winning as Javier Castellano pleased by 2-1/2 lengths: “He’s a special horse,” said Castellano.

“He trains very well for us on a fast track,” Pletcher said.

Well OK, then.

Meanwhile, runnerup Upstart ran very well after getting away tardily from an inside post, needing to make a strong run to reach contention then kick on behind a perfect-trip runner who was just getting started.

However, it was the effort of Carpe Diem at Keeneland that had handicappers buzzing after the G1 Breeders’ Futurity with a two-turn, 6-1/4 length victory in 1:43.38 for 1-1/16 miles, the final sixteenth in 6:43.

And so it appears it will be no walkover for the West’s best juvenile, American Pharoah, 27 days from today.

Less than 24 hours later, Blofeld took the G2 Belmont Futurity, overcoming a bit of trouble curling into the turn of the 6 furlong event.

Written by John Pricci

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