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, April 20, 2014

A Winning Night at the New Meadowlands

EAST RUTHERFORD, NY, April 20, 2014—On Saturday night at the New Meadowlands, Robert McMasters of Milford, Ohio won the Second Annual World Harness Handicapping Championship.

The new champion McMasters moved early and he moved late, but if you looked at the pivotal races that won him the context, the results could not have been more disparate.

What was interesting is that it appeared he had blown his 82 rivals away with the second race winner on the Meadowlands card.

How can you catch someone that cashed a $40 win, $50 place bet on a horse returning $75.40 to win and $21.40 in the middle?

And how crazy was it that McMasters needed a $30 bet on the winner of the finale, OK Fame, paying $4.20. Clearly, it takes all kinds. McMasters amassed a final bankroll of $2,968, good for $16,600 in prize money.

While Saturday’s event was the second annual as presently structured, it was the ninth edition of a national harness handicapping championship.

The night's 83 finalists had survived a gauntlet consisting of four live contests throughout the year at the host track, or needed to win one of five satellite qualifiers with partners Western Fair Harness, Pompano, The Meadows, Buffalo Raceway and Mohegan Sun. And, finally, the United States Harness Association that conducts 10 qualifying contests online.

Perhaps the worst contest player on the planet, I made four attempts to qualify online for Saturday night's event. I was buoyed by the first result in which I placed third, missing the top slot by about $3.

But after finishing, 178th, 254th, or thereabouts, over the next three contests, I decided to give my poor contest self-esteem a break and skipped the last few contests. It was better that way.

Maybe I should have contracted Bob” Hollywood” Heyden to ghost my selections. I saw Heyden between takes of the Meadowlands’ closed-circuit TV program which he’s been co-hosting for 31 years.

It might be 20 years since I saw him last and he was anxious to show me a pin commemorating his admission to the Harness Racing Hall of Fame. Heyden, celebrated many times within the industry, just happened to have the Hall of Fame pin in his pocket.

He could not have been more proud, or more deserving, harness racing’s best walking encyclopedia since the late Ed Binneweg of the late Long Island Press.

Harness racing, thanks to the recent success of the New Meadowlands under the stewardship of owner Jeff Gural, is trending upward. Given the new facility, and always accommodating staff, it’s not difficult to understand why.

It’s always fun to spot talent first hand and while I’m well aware of the genius of a Tim Tetrick and Yannick Gingras in the bike, I got my first look at Corey Callahan, who won two of the first three races on the Saturday program after having driven six winners the night before. Controlled aggression is always the key to good horsemanship whether on a horse’s back or behind one in a bike. Callahan seems to time his moves perfectly.

When I first met Hayden, the legendary John Campbell was in the bike winning a half-dozen races a night. But it’s good to know that if you’re looking for the next George Sholty or William “Buddy” Gilmour, you can go home again. Fun at the races; what a concept.

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, April 14, 2014

California Chrome Notwithstanding, Derby Chaos Reigns

SARATOGA SPRINGS, April 14, 2014—Barring last-minute qualifiers from Saturday’s Lexington Stakes and late injury defections, the field for the 140th Kentucky Derby is all but set. And if there weren’t a modicum of clarity at the top, the Derby field--at least from a handicapping perspective--is in disarray.

California Chrome is a clear cut Derby favorite and solid support can be garnered for Santa Anita Derby runnerup Hopportunity, Wood Memorial winner Wicked Strong, and undefeated, albeit lightly raced Florida Derby winner, Constitution. After that, it’s Katy bar the door.

With three weeks remaining, the Derby 140 picture is so muddled that fans might have an easier time making a case for California Chrome to become thoroughbred racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner than for any of his rivals to upset the Derby applecart.

How in the name of sanity are handicappers supposed to evaluate Saturday’s winner in Hot Springs in a Derby context in that not only did Danza’s win come in his second run this season, his fourth lifetime overall and his first start around two turns, but the Grade 1 was his “a other than" win?

In short, what does his victory say for the vanquished?

Ride On Curlin is hickory, honest, and his development has been managed adeptly by trainer William Gowan. With rating tactics, we thought he had an excellent chance to upset the Arkansas Derby and indeed finished up very nicely for the place. But should the top Derby contenders be very afraid?

Formerly undefeated Bayern showed in his third lifetime start that he’d prefer to run freely rather than be rated, at least at this point of his career. But what can anyone expect from such an inexperienced young horse in three weeks time?

Clearly, Strong Mandate has not yet made the transition from 2 to 3. Tapiture, high on everyone’s list going into the Arkansas Derby as the co-favorite, might have run himself out of serious Derby contention with a good, albeit wide, mid-race move that he failed to sustain.

Even back in the day, it was unreasonable to expect anything near a peak performance for any three-race Derby prepster, but the time you least want a letdown is in the final tune-up. And then you had better be going in the right direction at the finish, not retreating slightly as Tapiture did Saturday.

As for the Blue Grass, who knows? When Street Sense prepped on Polytrack prior to his 2007 Kentucky Derby victory, he was a champion at 2 and had a strong Northern Florida campaign that winter. Coming from arrears with a fast finish behind Dominican in slow time was just what he needed.

Dance With Fate was an impressive Blue Grass winner, giving him two wins on synthetics, one on turf, and was second in the G1 FrontRunner on Santa Anita dirt at 2. The last Blue Grass winner to repeat in the Derby was Strike the Gold 23 years ago but Dance With Fate is peaking right on schedule.**

It should be noted that Blue Grass runnerup Medal Count, who broke maiden going a mile in his racing debut at Ellis Park last year, trained well at his Churchill Downs base but never has run for money there. His pedigree certainly is long enough and lack of conditioning won't be a concern.

Can’t imagine what Lexington Stakes last-gaspers have in store for the Derby faithful, but this certainly looks like a year when adaptability and good training over the Churchill Downs strip could pay off handsomely in the storied mile-and-a-quarter-without-any-water.

HRI Derby Power 10 Consensus, Week 8 (reflects two dead-heats):

1. California Chrome—32
2. Constitution—28
3. Wicked Strong—22
4. Hoppertunity—18
5. Wildcat Red—15
6. Vicar's In Trouble--11
7. Intense Holiday—10
8-tie General A Rod—7
8-tie Samraat--7
10. Danza—6
11-tie Candy Boy--5
11-tie Chitu--5

**Subsequent to posting, connections of Dance With Fate announced they will skip the Derby in favor of giving their horse more time between starts

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, April 12, 2014

Lots of Winners and Losers on Final Big Prep Weekend

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 12, 2014—If you’re a Kentucky Derby fan, let’s put aside the parimutuel events of Saturday’s two final major preps, the Grade 1 Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby.

Based on Saturday's results, the big winners were Dance With Fate, who zoomed from Derby obscurity to third on the qualifying list, and Danza, also coming from nowhere to finish in sixth position.

Ride on Curlin’s Arkansas Derby placing was good enough to raise his seed to #12; Tapiture, safely in at #14 despite his disappointing Arkansas Derby, and Blue Grass runnerup Medal Count also appears safely in at #18.

Those that ran themselves out of serious consideration include Vinceramos, Harry’s Holiday, Big Bazinga, Coastline, Strong Mandate and Commissioner. Of those, Big Bazinga made a good effort to finish fourth in the Blue Grass but the rest disappointed--Strong Mandate and Commissioner in a big way.

Ultimately, we’ll find out whether or not Dance With Fate is well named, but this much is certain: Until approximately 6:40 p.m. on May 3rd, it will be enough to know that he can handles any footing, albeit excelling on synthetic ones.

Saturday’s completely authoritative score in the Blue Grass, ending the All-Weather Derby prep era in Lexington, now has a Grade 1 win to go with his Grade 1 placings in the 2013 Del Mar Futurity and Front Runner at Santa Anita.

With a turf victory at the allowance level two starts back, he’s now has won twice on synthetics and once on grass to go with a Grade 1 placing on dirt.

Well prepared by trainer Peter Eurton, he was confidently handled while moving wide into contention at headstretch beneath Corey Nakatani, racing under the line is full stride appearing not to reach bottom. It was an impressive run that validates his entry into the Derby.

In finishing second, Medal Count, winner of the G3 Transylvania on the Keeneland Poly eight days ago returned with an excellent effort, earned 40 qualifying points in the process and punched his ticket to Louisville if his people are so inclined.

Pacesetting Pablo Del Monte added a G1 stakes placing to go with his two prior daylight wins over the Keeneland surface at 2.

Any chance that defending Eclipse Award-winning owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey would have a third horse in the Louisville starting gate evaporated when the talented turf runner Bobby’s Kitten was unable to transfer that form to synthetic.

Neither of Todd Pletcher’s dirt horses made an impression: G3 Palm Beach grass winner Gala Award, obstreperous while being loaded, and G3 Sam F Davis winner and G2 Tampa Bay Derby runnerup, Vinceramos, never threatened at any time.

Well, you didn’t expect the Toddster to get shut out on such an occasion, did you? Quick, prior to Danza’s shocker in the Arkansas Derby, name the last runner he saddled that paid off at 41-1. You probably shouldn’t tax the gray matter on that one.

Much of the credit must go to not only Pletcher, who had Danza ready to win a solidly run Arkansas Derby off a single third-place finish at 7 furlongs March 1st at Gulfstream Park. The race was his fourth lifetime start and his first around two turns.

But the major props belong to Joe Carpe Diem Bravo, who shut up the fence with the Street Boss colt with five-sixteenths of a mile left to run. After establishing some separation soon after entering the straight, the stretch run lacked any real drama.

Now, before anyone thinks that Gary Stevens opened the rail with the formerly undefeated Bayern, he did his best to slow his speedy mount down throughout, keeping him about three paths wide all the way.

Racing wide of the fence helps runners to relax.

Bayern, meanwhile, was a sort of Samraat of the Arkansas Derby. Approaching midstretch it appeared he would finish out of the money but Stevens kept him alive and just missed the place spot to the late surging, six-wide rallying Ride On Curlin.

Ride On Curlin, getting a switch to Jon Court, is a good, very honest colt. Rating experiments generally don’t turn out well but this one did. He likely would have been significantly closer if not for the ground loss.

Coming off two big efforts, Tapiture was flat, failing to give Steve Asmussen his fourth winner of the day—all were ridden by Ricardo Santana, who lost the mount on Tapiture in favor of Joel Rosario. Sometimes the obvious move doesn’t turn out so well.

The Derby qualifying list is very interesting at the bottom with Cairo Prince and Uncle Sigh tied for 20th.

Should no one emerge from the last ditch Lexington next Saturday, it will be interesting to see how that scenario will shake out. Of course, three weeks is an eternity in Kentucky Derby time.

Written by John Pricci

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