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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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Sunday, March 16, 2014


With a Rebel Yell, a Shift in the Derby Power 10


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 15, 2014—The running of the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes Saturday at Oaklawn Park wasn’t exactly what you would call a wild west rodeo, but it was pretty damn close.

The Oaklawn stewards got it right when they did not alter the first two placings in which Hoppertunity outfought Tapiture for a narrow, hard earned win.

The Rebel performances by both horses were highly creditable, each proving that he rates among the elite three year olds of 2014. Tapiture, highly rated in most polls going in, lost the photo but little of his stature.

In the race, Strong Mandate, the eventual fourth place finisher who figured to show more speed than he did in the Southwest, did so. Ride On Curlin, who had the worst of the Southwest wide trips, was committed to the pace after breaking sharply from an inside post.

While those two tested each other up front in cat-and-mouse style, Hoppertunity was sitting in perfect stalking position outside. His trip turned out to be the difference in the final result.

Meanwhile, sitting inside and near the fence, Ricardo Santana Jr., was loaded, waiting for time and opportunity to strike with Tapiture. That chance never came, so Santana made his own opportunity, coming out from behind horses trying to find running room.

What he did was understandable, but bumping a rival out of the way is not allowed. If you're in a jackpot, you're supposed to await a seam to open. But Tapiture got through and began his surge,

Hoppertunity proved a half-length the better horse. Strong Mandate was still hanging in between rivals, trying to re-rally as Hoppertunity continued to grind his way down the center of the wet-fast strip. It was a very dramatic finish, but one that left a bit of a sour taste.

First, one can only suppose what would have happened under dry conditions. That's the trouble with wet tracks; the results come with excuses built in.There was all that bumping going on but the first two finishers did prove they could handle a head to head fight.

What was hard to believe was that not only did Ride On Curlin not hold his ground, coming out to bump Strong Mandate, but under continued left-hand whipping by Kent Desormeaux, started a chain reaction that put Tapiture in very tight quarters, who by this time had secured room to run, but Hoppertunity was bothered, too, albeit to a lesser degree since he was outside.

Not taking punitive action against the first two finishers was the right thing to do. It was rough, but both horses had their chance to win and Hoppertunity was better on the day.

But I don’t understand how Ride On Curlin was not placed behind Strong Mandate.

Trying zealously to win is understandable. But horses are supposed to maintain a straight course. If they don’t, it’s on the rider to help the horse to do so.

Desormeaux never stopped whipping and driving while his mount continued to bear out; it was textbook careless riding.

The victory by Hoppertunity earned him 50 Derby qualifying points, punching his card to the big dance and giving trainer Bob Baffert a record fourth Rebel victory.

The win also strengthened Intense Holiday’s status, since he beat Hoppertunity at the Fair Grounds, and Cairo Prince’s, for defeating Intense Holiday at Gulfstream Park.

Resultantly, there were many shakeups in the Power 10. Honor Code dropped several slots with his second place finish in his season’s debut Wednesday, and Hoppertunity jumped from relative obscurity squarely into the middle of the Derby picture.

Suddenly Southern California-based sophomores occupy three of the top five slots—this week, anyway--and there were two dead heats among HRI’s top 11 Derby candidates..

Sitting on the sidelines had its usual effect, rewarding some while seldom diminishing the status of others. It’s how sports polls usually work: Nothing ventured, something gained.

HRI KENTUCKY DERBY POWER 10, Week 4:

1. Cairo Prince (36)
2. California Chrome (26)
3. Candy Boy (24)
4-tie Hoppertunity (19)
4-tie Intense Holiday (19)
6. Tapiture (18)
7. Samraat (12)
8. Honor Code (10)
9. Wildcat Red (9)
10-tie General A Rod (8)
10-tie Strong Mandate (8)




Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, March 15, 2014


Healthy Centre Court Repeats in Grade 2 Honey Fox; Jenny Wiley Next


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 15, 2014—Trainers being interviewed in the winners’ circle generally smile a lot. Rusty Arnold was not only happy but had to be relieved.

Centre Court was back to defend her Honey Fox title and no one knew exactly what to expect from the filly that hadn’t run since Saratoga. The freshening not only was needed, it was mandatory.

Arnold expected her to run well but “this was a tough spot to bring her back,” he said of the winner of the Grade 2 mile and a sixteenth over a very firm turf course.

The problems began when she ran poorly in the G1 Just A Game on the Belmont Stakes undercard. The course was a bog and the filly never made an impact.

“I thought it was the soft turf, so I ran her back in the Diana and she raced wide. I entered her back again [G2 Ballston Spa] and didn’t run at all. She ended up last year on such a bad run.”

Something had to be wrong, so he sent her to Dr. [Larry] Bramlage and he found the problem, a pulled muscle. “I only wish that I had found the problem sooner,” he said. “Trainer error. We knew she be all right, we just had to give her time.”

And bring her back to one of her favorite grass courses; a win and a strong-finish placing before Saturday’s strong, late running finish, opening enough separation to hold off a flying Kitten’s Point, the finish line coming up just in time.

“Maybe I made her move a touch too early, but she hung on to it,” said winning rider Julien Leparoux. “I had to come a little wide on the second turn but I didn’t want to get her stopped.”

Arnold agreed. “She had to come wide, that was a big run. I know she got tired but when you don’t run in five or six months, that’s expected. She had a reason to get tired.”

It didn’t help her cause when she broke through the gate before the start. “I never had a horse run good who breaks through the gate, and she’s a good gate horse. Julien said she was standing funny and [the assistant starters] tried to move her behind. She just lunged forward, but it worked out all right.”

Last year, Centre Court used her Honey Fox victory as a springboard to the Grade 1 Jenny Wiley at Keeneland. Is she headed that way again?

“That’s the plan. That’s where we want to go.”

“She's a nice filly,” added Leparoux, “a great kick, and the main thing is that she came back good. Hopefully we'll have a good year with her.”

Written by John Pricci

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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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