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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Friday, March 14, 2014

Everything That’s Old Is True Again

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 13, 2014—In my fourth decade as a public handicapper and as executive editor of this site for seven years come Kentucky Derby week, money-making offers have come across my work station from time to time.

Interesting offers worth my time usually work out to the benefit of both parties; those that I’m uncomfortable with, or literally not worth the effort, usually go by the wayside. This recent dilemma, however, I never anticipated.

As many readers and industry types know, the late Cary Fotias was an original thinker, unbelievable human being and the best friend anyone could hope to make. I’m a better person for having known him. Any of his good friends would tell you that he was special.

I’ve written the story several times about how we met, about our passion for the game, our engagement in the art-science of handicapping and, of course, the gambling with its inherent risks and rewards.

My love of the game began at Roosevelt and Yonkers Raceways and gained full stride and Aqueduct and Belmont Park. Saratoga, of course, was a revelation, sacred ground imbued with friendly ghosts of legendary proportions.

Serious handicappers will tell you harness racing is all about the trips. Trip handicapping was the still-developing skill set that I brought to the altar of the Thoroughbred.

Professional gambler Paul Mellos was my trip-note mentor, teaching me trip shorthand, symbols I still use to note information in my track program.

Horse racing lends itself beautifully to the marvels of technological advancement, and to some degree has kept the game on life support. But old school still works and always will. The handicapping process constantly evolves.

Old school works for the same reason mom and pop operations can compete at the highest levels with the game’s giants. See California Chrome. See horseplayer Jack Ninio who won nearly a half-million dollars with the lone winning ticket on Fair Grounds’ Black Gold Pick 5 Jackpot.

Fate’s finger is fickle but sometimes it rewards hard work and good fortune. “Any horseplayer who has such an ego to think they’re the greatest in the world for getting lucky on a day like that needs to check their ego,” Ninio said. “I got lucky, things worked out my way.”

Fate also intervened in my friendship with Cary because in his book “Blinkers Off,” not only were there new terms of great interest to explore--“new pace top,” “turf decline line,” etc., but they were built on sound principles; conditioning and energy distribution.

“Blinkers Off” helped quantify my trip notes, not lending science to the art as much as providing a methodology that married art to science via a learned visual discipline. Cary’s work offered a vision that was more exacting than my own lyin’ eyes.

No one worked harder, no one, at producing performance figures than Cary, who at once enjoyed control yet was never controlling. It was numbers in the morning, betting by day, and more numbers at night.

“You can’t automate this stuff,” he said over and over, giving his predilection for repetition. “There are days when the races just don’t make sense. “You need handicapping experience, the kind that’s sometimes counter-intuitive.”

The heart of the Fotias’ methodology was patterns that emerged from a sequence of pace/final figures. It was those patterns, especially with young horses, that allowed me to see a horse develop before my eyes.

It was knowledge that when married with good trip-note-taking skills cannot be gleaned from reading trainer quotes in track press releases.

A devoted Equiform regular, who I know as Anthony, e-mailed last week to ask if I could, for pay, help him “brush up on the patterns.” I explained to him I could not and was not affiliated with the new company for several reasons:

First and foremost, I was made an offer I could not accept. Of greater importance, I don’t believe that accurate variants needed to construct top quality performance figures can be computerized no matter how sophisticated the algorithm.

I explained to Anthony that since I’m not engaged in the numbers-making process on a daily basis, I’ve been constructing my own pace and speed figures again, only this time infused with Cary’s energy principles.

Nick Mordin, a successful professional horseplayer, noted author and an international expert on our Breeders’ Cup tele-clinics, had some interesting takes on automation in a Feb. 8 e-mail to friends and members of the original Equiform partnership. To wit:

“I'd like to get into the issue of why it would be a bad idea to totally automate the ratings as I've been working on this very problem for the last three months. I've found just why you need manual intervention to make accurate ratings.

“The answer is something called energy return in academic papers. I call it the trampoline effect.

“On a trampoline you can bounce to much greater heights than you can from the ground because the trampoline returns stored energy to you with each bounce - as long as you bounce up and down in sync with the natural rhythm of the trampoline. It's the same way with racing surfaces.

“A racing surface can return as much as 6% of the energy horses expend. But the energy returned varies in line with the way the surface is maintained and also with its water contact [with its rubber content in the case of synthetic surfaces].

“It also varies with the speed of the horse. They have to run at the right speed to get the maximum energy returned. There are also a stack of other variables.

“What all the variables mean is that while you can produce a set of standard times that work well 75% of the time, the truth is every track is a new track every day - one to which past standards cannot be applied without some adjustment - an adjustment that really has to be based on human insight and expertise.

“Did the energy return/track profile vary because the track was wet? Was it because they just tossed in some more chopped up bits of rubber into the surface… Was it because they deep harrowed the track to keep it from freezing, or rolled it to repel water?

“You need to be able to make at least an informed guess at the cause to pinpoint the impact of early pace on final time and change your adjustment for beaten lengths correctly.

“Beaten lengths can vary by a factor of three or more at the same track according to the average speed which horses finish that day. The more tired they finish and the less the energy return, the greater the beaten lengths become.

“The optimal early pace can vary by something like three seconds a mile, too. I'd like to believe that at some point I will be able to come up with a formula that takes account of all the variables…I'm pretty sure there are so many variables they make the computation so complex it enters the realm of chaos theory.

“So if you want to accurately adjust speed ratings to take account surface changes you simply must have someone who has a deep and expert understanding of both the ratings and the way surfaces work.

“And that's before we even get into the way class pars change in line with the way the better horses migrate from one region to another due to changing prize money levels-- again something only an expert would be able to adjust for, not a program.

“Cary and I used to debate this issue and I wish he were here so that I could tell him I think I've finally figured out why he was right and I was wrong. Most likely it was his death that sent me down the path of researching this topic in the first place.”

And why my good friend, and his original Equiform figures, will continue to be missed every time I download a fresh set of past performances.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Speed Kills at Gulfstream Park; Castellano Sets Meet Record

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 12. 2014--It's the first lesson taught in Handicapping 101: Speed is always dangerous.

It certainly was today when recent maiden winner Social Inclusion improved his lifetime record to 2-for-2, stretching out successfully to ruin the three year old debut of Honor Code, setting a track record in the process.

Unofficially, it was the fourth track record set at this meeting, all of them at distances of one mile or more.

The upset, engineered by trainer Manuel Aspurua and under excellent rating from Luis Contreras, also ruined Javier Castellano's bid to break his own Gulfstream record of 112 victories set last year. Castellano already had ridden four winners on the card.

Castellano got his 113th meet victory and fifth of the day aboard Bartiromo in the 9th race for trainer Chad Brown

The karma for the returning Remsen winner and highly regarded Kentucky Derby contender was not great from the start. He was a little quiet in the paddock and was washy in the final minutes of the parade postward.

Further, he was obstreperous at the gate, and it took a few extra members of the starting gate crew to coax him into stall number 4.

A little wide rounding the first turn, the winning leader, with an opening gambit of 24:32, was in complete control. Castellano, sensing what was happening, pushed Honor Code through between horses, getting within about four lengths of Social Inclusion as he commenced his turn run. Honor Code never looked the part of a winner.

When it was over, the dominant winner stopped the timer in 1:40.97. The victory wasn't totally unexpected as the second choice got late money that dropped his odds from 3-1 to 2-1 at a minute before post.

With Honor Code holding second by a daylight margin over third choice We're All Set, bettors who wagered over $390,000 to show on Honor Code never had a anxious moment.

The most disappointing aspect of the defeat was that Honor Code needed to be encouraged by Castellano to gallop out past the wire.

It appeared that Honor Code needed the race badly and will move forward in his second start.

The question is whether Shug McGaughey will run out of racetrack before getting the Remsen winner at absolute tops for the big dance on May's first Saturday, little more than seven weeks away. It will be interesting, to say the least.

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, March 10, 2014

Chrome Shines in California Sun; Cairo Still Tops HRI Power 10

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 9, 2014—It’s been good news and bad news for Shug McGaughey in the last 72 hours. The good news is that four seemingly sacrificial three year olds will serve to welcome Honor Code back to the races on Wednesday.

The bad is the loss of Top Billing from the Florida Derby due to a cracked cannon bone suffered in a Payson Park workout Saturday morning. The news could have been worse as Top Billing*, at the moment, is expected to resume his career following surgery.

To what extent the right front cannon non-displaced fracture takes a toll is unknown but for now the prognosis is good. He was scheduled for surgery Sunday in Kentucky with Dr. Larry Bramlage. "They'll put a couple screws in it, and probably a plate, and it should come together. They'll take the plate out so we're talking about three or four months. Dr. Bramlage feels like he should be able to come back fine."

In an allowance race Wednesday, it is of great interest to see how well Honor Code has recovered from bruised hind ankles, also suffered while training at Payson Park. Javier Castellano rides the 3-5 early line favorite.

McGaughey said that winning would be nice but having “something to push on with” is what’s important, and that he could return in the Florida Derby depending on how he races over the speed favoring course.

If not, it will be on to Aqueduct a week later, April 5. We believe the Remsen winner is 3-5 to have his final Derby prep in Queens.

Honor Code worked a half-mile in :48 and galloped out in a minute-and-change for Wednesday's allowance prep. "I'd like to see a good race from him. Hopefully he'll be good enough to win, but as long as we can get the kind of race into him where we can go forward, that'll be good enough."

"I think [Social Inclusion] has got speed and I would like for [Honor Code] to have a target. That's why I wanted to do something sharp with him, to put him in the game."

California Chrome established himself as a major Derby player in Saturday’s San Felipe and Graham Motion had himself a heck of a day at Tampa Saturday, winning the Hillsborough in the last jump and the Tampa Derby by daylight.

It’s hard to know what was behind Ring Weekend in Oldsmar--or even what he’s made of as a maiden winner now once removed. But say this; not many Tampa Derbies are won on the lead and Vinceremos seems to show up, well, wherever he shows up. It was a huge forward move by the winner.

Cairo Prince, early favorite for the Florida Derby March 29, took another step toward the event with a half-mile work Saturday, a half-mile in 49.60, galloping out five-eighths in 1:03.80 at his Palm Meadows base.

“He looked great doing it and we’re on course for the race. He’s doing great,” confirmed Kiaran McLaughlin.

Gulfstream Park Derby winner General a Rod was also on Saturday’s tab, going an easy half-mile breeze on Saturday for trainer Mike Maker in :51.26. “We just worked him easy and he was push-button, as always,” said Maker. “He was more aggressive after the race and full of himself so he probably wanted to work sooner than I decided.”

To his credit, Maker is playing the shipping game by shifting LeComte winner and Risen Star third Vicar's in Trouble into Hallandale Beach for the Florida Derby on Gulfstream’s speed friendly track rather than remain at the Fair Grounds with the stretch that never seems to end.

Obviously, Saturday’s results and last week’s defections changed the HRI Power 10 standards decidedly into Week 3. Cairo Prince remains the top vote getter among the HRI staffers and contributors.

Ranked in order, based on a blend of accomplishment and promise, with power points in parentheses Note that there’s a good deal of separation between Cairo Prince and Tapiture from Candy Boy and Honor Code, and again between those two and the remainder:

HRI Derby Power 10, Week 3

1. Cairo Prince (30)
2. Tapiture (28)
3. Candy Boy (23)
4. Honor Code (19)
5. Intense Holiday (14)
6. California Chrome (13)
7. Wildcat Red (12)
8. Strong Mandate (11)
9. Samraat (8)
10. Kobe’s Back (5)

* correction 031014

Written by John Pricci

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