John Pricci

HorseRaceInsider.com 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 MSNBC.com, 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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Tuesday, September 29, 2015


In Contemporary Racing, There’s No School Like Old School


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., September 29, 2015—When it comes to words and deeds, the two can often can worlds apart. Actions do speak loudest, of course, but the best actions are just good words put in motion.

Trainer-speak never lands gently, however: “The horse couldn’t be doing better.” “The work was just what we wanted.” “We’ll let the horse tell us,” etc.

All are well-meaning homilies. But the latter is more. Letting horses speak is the method that allows latter-day horsemanship to works best. Simply stated: Take care of the horse and the horse will take care of you.

On today’s NTRA conference call advancing Super Saturday prep weekend at both Keeneland and Belmont Park, the conversation and mindset of the participants was comforting, reassuring and instructive, decidedly “old school.”

Anyone familiar with the Jerkens family always knows what to expect; loquaciousness and guile? Never. Humility and honesty? Always. It was that way with the late, great Allen Jerkens; it's the same way with his son, Jimmy.

Compared to Tonalist, expected to rule as favorite in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Jerkens trainees Wicked Strong and Effinex do not enjoy the same high profile.

Effinex never seems to garner the respect he’s earned while Wicked Strong, a solid Triple Crown and Travers competitor last year, has not achieved what was expected from a top class three-year-old of 2014.

As for Effinex, Jerkens made the point that he disagrees with the notion that Tonalist had a bit the worst of it in this year’s Suburban Handicap and that Effinex somehow was the beneficiary.

The Suburban video shows that Jerkens was correct when he said “Effinex had as big a disadvantage as Tonalist. He had to recover after getting stopped, get back into the bit and still he out-gamed Tonalist. A lot of horses won’t do that [after getting stopped].”

As for Wicked Strong’s four-year-old year, Jerkens is as confounded as many handicappers. Was it the colt's tough three-year-old campaign? Was it the lack of continued development from 3 to 4?

“He did have a tough [three-year-old season]. But we stopped on him after the Jockey Club Gold Cup, never even thought about the [2014] Breeders’ Cup. He just didn’t come back, he hasn’t come to the fore.”

But Wicked Strong might have finally turned the corner. “He was breaking slow from the gate, but I saw renewed interest from him in the Woodward. The race was better than it looks on paper.

“He will have to run better on Saturday. He’s picked up a little since Saratoga,” before volunteering this without being asked.

“Horses fool you. They come out of the races great, you run them back in 10 days or two weeks, and they run no good. You feel like an idiot.

“Lasix could have something to do with it. As much as it helps them, they seem to need more time [to recover] if they are not as hydrated as they were last time. These days horses seem to be tricking more people. Maybe Lasix has more to do with it than people think.”

Jerkens then was asked about the competition; Saturday’s and going forward. About Shug McGaughey’s decision to run Honor Code, regarded as the top active older dirt horse in America, in the Kelso instead of the Gold Cup:

“I see Shug’s point to run in the mile [race]. It helps the horse to stay fresher, I think it’s a good move on Shug’s part. [Racing is] a crapshoot at the end of the year. [The Breeders’ Cup] is very tough. You’ve got to be lucky to get a piece of it.”

American Pharoah? “In these days, what he’s done is just incredible.” And the traveling he’s done, his grueling campaign? “He’s too good a horse for him not to run his race [in the Classic].”

Saturday’s races? “Some people ought to be worried about Effinex. He’s not just a New York-bred; he’s an open horse.”

Midwest Thoroughbreds Shifting Focus

Despite ranking first by wins in the U.S. for the last six years, Midwest Thoroughbreds' Richard Papiese is still a relative newcomer, achieving lofty status the old-fashioned way; breeding his own runners even while acquiring most of his winners via sales and claims.

The accent has always been on winners, but with the emergence of 2014 Sprint Champion Work All Week and The Pizza Man as a major turf force this year, the focus is tilting to quality over quantity.

It’s been all good,” said Papiese on the NTRA call. “To win the Breeders’ Cup last year and the Arlington Million, we’re just tickled. I’m sorry but that’s the only way to describe it.”

Is the reason why the organization has changed focus because the man has been runner-up in the Eclipse top owner category? “[Awards] are great for the horses, they deserve it. [I’m not] goal oriented. It’s not about winning awards, just winning races.

“I’m not an action junkie. [The move away from quantity] is about finding other jobs for all these horses after racing. It’s overwhelming, it’s like having a full time job. There are only so many hours in a day.”

Along with trainer Roger Brueggemann, much of his time is spent listening: “Horses are always telling us. Horses will tell you what they are and what they will be,” he said.

As for the barn’s two big horses, Arlington Million winner The Pizza Man and champion sprinter Work All Week, they spoke loudly about what they were and turned out to be, only in different languages.

“You had to be patient with The Pizza Man,” said Papiese. “The light bulb was always on but he was a big horse, a lean horse. He just needed time to grow into himself. We gave them both a lot of time [at the end of 2014].

“[The Pizza Man] benefitted more from the layoff. He was just chillin’ and he really came back great, filled out...”

And Work All Week? “All he wants to do is run. He’s like Shaq working with eighth graders.”

The 2015 Arlington Million winner is turning back in distance and will run in the Shadwell Turf Mile as a prep for the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Could he run back in the Mile, a distance at which he already owns a course record?

“I wouldn’t totally rule it, out but a mile and a half is a little better fit. It will be a stellar group when they draw it (Wednesday). He’ll have some targets to run at and he should get something out if it. If the stars align, [either spot] would be just great.”

As for the champion in the Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix, it will be more than a prep for the normally over-subscribed Sprint. “We may need this race to qualify.”

Everyone will be watching, and listening, for that answer Saturday at Keeneland.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, September 24, 2015


Old, New, Healing and Through


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., September 24, 2015—In the game that is played without the benefit of short pants, it was good to learn this week that a number of horses and human practitioners, exceptional talents all, are on the mend.

First came news that Shared Belief was back in light training. The gelding’s absence, due to a hip fracture that could have been a lot worse had Mike Smith not protected him as quickly as he did in the Charles Town Classic, has been the biggest equine loss this year.

Without Shared Belief for much of the season, as well as the sidelining of 2014 Horse of the Year California Chrome, due significantly to ownership mismanagement, has left a gaping hole in the 2015 handicap division.

In context, the good news is that there is no stud career in Shared Belief’s future. While that’s next the case for last year’s Derby and Preakness winner, it is hoped the decision by ownership to California Chrome as a 5-year-old is fruitful, especially for trainer Art Sherman and Chrome’s many fans.

Meanwhile, Lady Eli’s recovery from laminitis is going so well that a decision was made to send her to a Kentucky farm for two months of R & R, allow her to enjoy life as a horse away from a racetrack barn area, even one as bucolic as Belmont Park’s.

In Philadelphia, legendary Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas has had a permanent pacemaker implanted and was scheduled to return to Kentucky to convalesce, if he himself allows it. When one sees or speak with him, the term octogenarian just doesn’t compute.

In a tweet posted yesterday, Rajiv Maragh reported the good news that he will be allowed by his doctors to ride again, at some point in the future.

Maragh has had a rough go, having only returned from injury last winter at Gulfstream Park before his most recent accident in New York in which he sustained four fractured vertebrae, a broken rib and a punctured lung.

Maragh must remain in an upper-body cast until at least year’s end. One can only hope his recovery continues in a positive and timely fashion.

But news is forever mixed. It was disappointing, e.g., when several weeks ago, after training like a wild horse possessed for several months, two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan was unable to defend his prior success in the Woodbine Mile, his latest injury forcing him onto the sidelines for good.

Admittedly, I was one of the last to jump on the gelding’s bandwagon but will be the first to admit that I was wrong in holding his role as a one-mile turf specialist against him, never according him the measure of respect worthy of a great champion.

As for psychological recoveries, good to see American Pharoah back on the work tab follow the first defeat his Triple Crown season, even if a half-mile in 49 4/5 is more of a high gallop for the champion than the normal timed workout.

Another plus for his attempt to rebound in the Breeders’ Cup Classic was, in our view, his rider Victor Espinoza being voted off the popular “Dancing With the Stars” network program three nights ago.

I didn’t think he was riding particularly well of late which I attributed to a lack of focus due to the pressures of Pharoah fatigue. I became more comfortable with that observation after hearing Richard Migliore echo that message last week at Belmont Park.

I recognize that the affable Mexican has been brilliant aboard the champion-elect and that his winning personality made almost as many friends for the sport as did his celebrated mount.

But now it’s time for both to get back to business and prepare for the toughest test of year, his toughest competition, anyway. At stake is nothing less than his ultimate legacy.

STRONACH GROUP GAMBLES ON NEW BETTING MENU

When Gulfstream Park West, nee Calder Race Course, opens its two-month session October 7, it will do so with a few new wrinkles in its betting menu.

GPW will offer a 50-Cent Pick 5 on the first five races, a $5 quinella on the final race of the day and what can best be described as a rolling Super Hi-5 carryover.

The 50-Cent Pick 5 is now an industry staple in many quarters and presumably the rake will be the 15% already in place.

A $5 quinella is expensive but the wager arguably is the lowest high-risk multiple of them all. Further, the bet may offer a good return on investment—risk vs. reward--because of the initial high cost.

The $5 Q just might attract a good amount of play, especially considering the usual low-quality stock that fill the finales of racetracks everywhere. It make sense to at least test these new offerings.

I have mixed feelings about the Super Hi-5 due to its extreme degree of difficulty. Resultantly, I can count the amount of times I’ve bet the Super Hi 5 on one hand and probably do not need all five fingers to do so.

The bet is insanely difficult without making a very costly investment: There are 120 permutations comprising the Hi-5 as opposed to 24 for the Superfecta. And at $1 per ducat? Fuhgeddaboudit!

What’s interesting about the new format for the Hi Five is that it’s being offered in every race. If no one hits it in the first race, the entire pool is carried over to the second race, etc., etc.

Carryover provisions are already in place in existing Hi 5s but that’s day-to-day, not race-to-race. Given its extreme difficulty, I’m wondering if reducing the bet to 50-Cent would initially attract more money in race one and accomplish the same carryover goals.

Of course, increased interest in the GPW product and increased handle is the goal, not necessarily in that order. And when will all tracks learn that busting players out at a faster rate is bad for business long term?

The good news is that management is willing to tweak the program as the testing results dictate. However, if tracks keep insisting on tailoring their betting menus to only whales, there will be no minnows left to feast on, only cannibalization of their VIP players.

It would do well if tracks concurrently offered an attractive takeout rate of 10% in the straight pools on the best race of the day, on track and at attendant ADWs.

And there would be no need to rewrite statutes. Just offer a winners bonus, the difference between 10% and the going rate. The cost of promotion and good will? Priceless.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, September 20, 2015


Confessions of a Big Race Junkie


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., September 20, 2015—Hello, my name is John and I bet on the horses at Parx Racing yesterday. This is because I suffer from a common affliction, Stakes Race Syndrome, so it wasn’t entirely my fault.

Due to a promotional agreement with 123GAMING, part of my professional task for Saturday was to handicap the final six races from Parx, which was posted on the 123BET.com website.

And I was anxious to do the work. There were two million-dollar races on the program. One featured Frosted, the Grade 1 Wood Memorial winner and Travers third, who was the early line favorite for the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby.

The other million-dollar pot, the Grade 1 Cotillion, featuring Embellish the Lace, winner of the storied, Grade 1 Alabama and its runner-up, I’m a Chatterbox.

And the Grade 3 Gallant Bob sprint at 6 furlongs is always a great betting race. So I went all in.

Having already handicapped the last six races, including an All-Stakes Pick 4, I looked at the first five races on the card Friday evening. The second race featured a horse on my Saratoga Watch list, the Graham Motion-trained My Senses. I was pumped, ready for the big day.

Parx is a track I don’t usually play, except 123BET.com's unique Pick 6 wager when I'm obligated to handicap the last six races, routinely every Sunday. But we chose Saturday this week for an obvious reason:

National interest would be high for the Pennylvania Derby program, which is not usually the case when Parx has to go up against the big boys of the simulcast world. Indeed, they don't normally attract simulcast handle of $5.5 million as they did yesterday.

I’m not a Pick Six player, except for this unique pool. For one thing, there’s always a winner. In fact, there are prizes for the top three finishers and if you wind up on the leader-board you even get your $2 back.

You don’t have to pick six winners either, and only have to beat the competition you're up against that day. The player accruing the biggest dollar return, converted into points, wins. The score consists of adding up the dollars win in each race:

If your race winner pays $5.00, 4.00 and 3.00 across the board, you earn 12 points. If your pick finishes second, and pays $10.00 to place and 5.00 show, that’s worth 15 points, etc., etc.

I didn’t win the 123 Pick 6 yesterday but the day started well enough when My Senses, perfectly ridden by Johnny, won at a very square $8.60. I could now afford to rough it up a little throughout the day and the Pick 4 appeared very winnable.

I decided I would go against the usurious 26% takeout on this occasion; I simply can’t help myself when it comes to betting on the best horses, trainers and jockeys available.

I used five horses in the wide open, newly created Bayern Stakes, an overnight event run under allowance conditions. (We think it’s cool that next year’s event will be named for the 2015 Pennsylvania Derby winner; at last, a new tradition with symmetry.

And did Kelly Breen ever have Encryption ready for his first start since June 13, shipping in from his Monmouth Park base with a series of bullet works and Paco along for the ride.

That’s just the way it looked, too, when, reaching the far turn in an attending position, Lopez looked around disdainfully, peering over both shoulders for competition that never came.

Encryption was expected to win, bet down early and often from his 10-1 early line and he won in full stride, making 3-1 look like a bargain. But he would better value than that in the Pick 4 pool; a very good start, indeed.

I was alive to four horses in the second leg, the Grade 3 Gallant Bob. Big mistake; it was a seven-horse field and I should have bought the entire race or at least one more, vastly improved runner.

I watched in dread as Trouble Kid came up with a SUPER performance for his SUPER trainer, Ramon Preciado, ridden by one of his go-to guys, the talented Joshua Navarro.

Trouble Kid was claimed out of a $15,000 claimer by Preciado on July 5, a race in which he showed improved early speed to finish second.

Twenty days later, Preciado ran him back in a $25K maiden sprint, removed the front bandages and Trouble Kid responded with a 16-length victory, improving his BRIS figure 14 points, his Thoro-Graph figure 11 points, and our own Energy Ratings by 16 points.

Thirty-two days after that, Preciado sharpened him by sending the gelding to Delaware, cutting him back to 5-1/2 furlongs. This time he only won by 9 lengths.

But it was another 5-point BRIS improvement, a 2-point Thoro-Graph improvement (running a 0) and he improved his Energy Rating by another 6 points.

Still, how could he beat Limousine Liberal, 2-for-2 at the distance and recently second in Saratoga's Grade 1 Kings Bishop? Trainer Ben Colebrook blew him out a bullet half-mile at Keeneland for the race, his fourth lifetime start.

Trouble Kid hung on by a neck over Limousine Liberal after posting fractions of 21.32 and 44.31. Of the other three horses I used, Grand Bili never picked up his feet and Bayerd, like the winner, 13-1, rallied up a dead inside to finish third by a half-length.

Preciado is not infallible, of course. He went only1-for-7 on the day, although he did win the 4th with Beach Nut and was disqualified. But his performance did hurt the stats, however.

As of Wednesday, Preciado was winning at a SUPER 32% rate with an across-the-board slate of (319) 102-67-36.

But make no mistake; the losing Pick 4 investment is on me and not on the greatest trainer in Pennsylvania (sorry Jonathan).

If I’m a Chatterbox is not the leader of the topsy-turvy three-year-old filly division then I don’t know who is. She took the G1 Cotillion by a drawing-away two lengths beneath the white hot Florent Geroux.

The Cotillion was the filly’s first Grade 1, although she did finish first but placed second in the Coaching Club Oaks, somewhat controversially, was second in the Alabama, also winning a Grade 3 and Grade 2 at the Fair Grounds last winter. Embellish the Lace was dull but did race on the slower inside throughout.

Frosted was sensational taking the Pennsylvania Derby. Joel Rosario knew what was happening, saving ground, but away from the rail. When he went on the attack of Iron Fist, a much better horse than I thought, he unleashed a final eighth in 11.97, stopping the timer in 1:50, winning in full stride powerfully.

Good for the horse; good for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. Next stop, Lexington.

Next week, we’ll be in action at Belmont Park, where the takeout rates are much friendlier, and where four Grade 1s, highlighted by the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic and Flower Bowl, and the Grade 3 Pilgrim for juvenile turf runners, will be featured.

If I can stay awake, I probably will take a shot at Santa Anita, where takeout rates are good in the straight pools, not so much in the multiples (Pick 5 notwithstanding), and where four more Grade 1s and a Grade 2 will be contested.

Two things, though: I just hope Preciado doesn’t run Trouble Kid back in the Vosburgh, and next time I won’t be as obtuse in my approach to the Pick 4.

Written by John Pricci

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