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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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Rachel Pointing for Breeders Cup--at Churchill Downs in 2010

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 24, 2009--If Jess Jackson has his way and Rachel Alexandra has hers, the filly will race against colts again this year, earn Horse of the Year recognition before autumn leaves fall, and will run as a four-year-old in 2010.

But even if there were a Horse of the Year title at stake, under no circumstances will she ever run on an artificial surface at any time in her racing career.

So said majority owner Jackson in a national teleconference sponsored by the New York Racing Association in advance of Rachel Alexandra’s participation vs. four rivals in Saturday’s Grade 1 Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont Park.

“We are absolutely certain that she won’t run on the plastic,’’ said Jackson, euphemistically referencing artificial surfaces. “We don’t see the Breeders’ Cup as an essential part of her year,” which would preclude an appearance at Santa Anita this fall.

“We are willing to meet Zenyatta. But Zenyatta will have to come to a neutral forum and race on natural dirt.” Depending on Saturday’s Mother Goose result and how Rachel Alexandra comes out of the race, there are many possibilities for her next start, including two vs. males.

“We’d love to run in the Coaching Club, Delaware Handicap, Haskell, Travers or Alabama. It will depend on what she tells us and what she shows Calvin [Borel],” Jackson added. “Calvin will have a lot of input in our decision.”

“If they make a decision they want to run we’ll put our heads together and figure something out,” said Borel on the call, regarding a possible Travers run against the Derby and Belmont winners whose connections already have targeted the Midsummer Derby.

Of the five races Jackson named, the one that’s curiously intriguing, in relation to its timing and purse, is the Delaware Handicap. Jackson mentioned that some of the races being considered had big purses. The $1-million Delaware Handicap certainly qualifies.

Scheduled for July 19, the Delaware Handicap comes three weeks after the Mother Goose, five weeks before the Alabama and six weeks in advance of the Travers. At 10 furlongs, it’s the same distance as both of Saratoga’s storied Grade 1s.

A Delaware Handicap win would give her a victory over older fillies and mares. That, and her Preakness, would give her a huge leg up for Horse of the Year honors and could prompt Zenyatta’s people to ship their big mare East.

Delaware’s centerpiece event would be the first start for either at a mile and a quarter and, given their accomplishments, the weight spread doesn’t figure to vary much from the weight-for-age scale. At 10 furlongs in July, three-year-olds get 10 pounds from older horses.

As everyone knows, Jackson is a sportsman so it’s not surprising he’d like his filly to tackle males again. “I think she could have taken the Belmont but it wouldn’t have been what’s best for her. The Belmont really tests a champion. Mine That Bird proved he’s a good horse but was beaten by fresh horses.”

For his part, Borel’s happy to be along for the ride. "She’s the best horse I’ve ever been on in my life. I watched her train at Churchill on Monday. She went unbelievable and is doing great. I’ll go wherever [Jackson] wants me to go.”

But won’t to a track with an artificial surface, either. Borel shares Jackson’s disdain for them. “Maybe if I had more experience on them I’d feel different,” he said. “You can go a half in :49 or :50 and they still come back. It messes with your head. It’s hard to ride, hard to pick a horse.”

“They struggle on that surface,” Jackson added. “John Nerud’s a good friend and he agrees with that. The plastic favors turf horses. They run in a pack, European style. As a handicapper, a gambler, you can’t predict what’s going to happen.”

Jackson has nothing against the Breeders’ Cup, just plastic, and the fact that the event will move to Churchill Downs in 2010 was a consideration in Jackson’s decision to race Rachel Alexandra as a four-year-old.

“Absolutely. I’d love to run in the Breeders’ Cup next year. I hope they keep Zenyatta in training. Maybe we could meet Zenyatta there.”

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Racetracks, Industry Data Collectors Must Adjust Priorities

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 23, 2009--One of the perks of living here, especially from April to November, is grabbing a container of coffee, driving over to the Oklahoma training track to swap lies and watch the morning workouts.

This year I haven’t been able to get there as often as I would like but, as it turns out, that’s just as well. I only would have gotten more irritated than I am already. That’s because the information coming out of Oklahoma these mornings cannot be trusted to be accurate.

This is not horseplayer’s paranoia. I don’t believe that everything that occurs in morning training hours resulting in inaccurate information is the product of sinister forces at work.

Do some clockers put fast workouts in their pockets for the benefit of private clients and friends? Only since racing began on the fields of Hempstead in the 17th century. Do trainers of betting outfits slow down works to inflate the odds? Bears in woods come to mind.

Do horsemen concerned with job security turn a :57 work into a minute breeze so the owner doesn’t get angry because his horse might leave his race on the training track, or he might have the fast worker claimed, or because it was too damn fast for the animal’s good?

Cue the bears.

The last arbiter of good workout information are the racetracks. In this regard, the New York Racing Association has dropped the ball. Unless, of course, you believe that one veteran clocker and a recently converted gap attendant can handle a horse population estimated at 850 head.

Obviously the entire population doesn’t work on the same day at the same time. But on three mornings in the last two weeks, each following several days of rain, there were 125-to-150 horses on the track making up for lost time.

All the horses may not work at the same time but a preponderance appear for training following one of two morning breaks at which time the surface is harrowed, a manicuring process done in the interests of safety for horses and riders.

This past Saturday, the Todd Pletcher barn worked 20 head; the Linda Rice stable over 25 horses; the Gary Contessa outfit more than 30, many appearing on the track at the same time. The total number of workers for the morning was estimated at about 150.

We asked an assistant trainer to guesstimate how many of Saturday worker’s times could be counted on to be accurate given the logjam of workers. The answer was “about half.”

Even-money isn’t the price horseplayers are willing to pay for the reasonable expectation that the workouts appearing in the past performances upon which they bet their money are accurate.

“NYRA isn’t the only circuit that’s [undermanned]. [At a Florida track] this winter, there was one clocker and two gap attendants to identify the horses and help the clocker by telling where on the track those horses would be breaking. One Saturday we must have had 200 workers.”

Clearly, maintaining a responsible presence during morning training is not an area of emphasis for many American racetracks and the Equibase company that compiles running lines and workout information, the lifeblood of the sport.

It’s not so much the notion of a closed club protecting information for use by racetrack insiders as it is managerial indifference, inadequate funding and ineffectual prioritizing.

An example of failed priorities in New York: In the last two weeks, the $350,000 Guaranteed Pick Four promotion failed to meet the benchmark. This past Saturday the shortfall was nearly $93,000, based on handle of $257,000. The previous Saturday late pick four handle was $13,000 short of the guarantee.

The modern horseplayer never has been more aware. He understands that a guarantee isn’t a carryover; there’s no “free money” in the pool. Guarantees are based on data from previous race meets. This time the bean counters overestimated, possibly failing to consider the 10 percent handle decline nationwide this year.

The point is $106,000 buys a lot of clockers, paid low wages on a per diem basis with no benefits, seven days a week and arriving on the job before sunrise.

The ebb and flow of morning training is often labor intensive, albeit sporadic, and pressure-packed when not enough stopwatches are in enough hands. Most trainers are helpful here, timing their horses and comparing watches with the clockers to help insure accuracy. Sometimes they are the lone source of information, not a workable situation in the long term.

Of course, none of this would be a problem if American racing embraced technology the way foreign jurisdictions do by equipping saddle pads with computer chips read by receivers at timing poles to insure accuracy. Here we invent technological advances then export them.

This morning at Oklahoma will be the first of the season for turf training. The grass course opens at 10 a.m. for a period of about 45 minutes and the number of workers is limited to about 40 horses. “I expect there will be about 60 workers this morning,” said the assistant trainer. “Come by, this should be interesting.”

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

All Eyes on…Colonial Downs?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 19, 2009--Like many horseplaying weekend warriors, I’m assuming that at sometime during the work week we cull from a list of stakes races available for the upcoming Saturday and decide which two or three tracks appear the most interesting.

Interesting, of course, means many things: “These are interesting times we live in,” meaning, mostly bad times. “That’s an interesting color combination you’re wearing,” meaning, you probably got dressed in the closet that morning.

“This is an interesting race,” however, means really difficult, an excellent chance for value or I’m clueless as to which horse might win. For me, this is like looking into the eyes of the sun because, mama, that’s where the fun is.

But it’s always wise to approach these days with an open mind. Do the homework, essentially to eliminate the no-hopers, but try not to get locked in until you can see real time odds, never a bad idea no matter what the scenario.

The three tracks I chose for this Saturday are Belmont Park, Arlington Park and Colonial Downs. Belmont is always entertaining and there are two stakes scheduled today. But the weather handicappers insist it will rain the entire weekend.

I’m a little old school when it comes to wet tracks: “Dark Day Don’t Play” goes the credo. And today’s sealed wet tracks are gimmicky fast and, considering New York’s liberal scratch policy, the fields figure to be small.

We’ll be concentrating on the action from Arlington Heights and Kent, Virginia as the weather people insist there’s only a slight chance of precipitation at either venue. Arlington’s Prairie Stakes Festival Day offers a stakes-laden program for Illinois-breds and Colonial, where it’s all-turf-all-the-time, is a popular simulcast venue.

Colonial Downs has a big Saturday in store with an all-stakes Pick 3 culminating with the important and always entertaining Grade 2 Colonial Turf Cup for three-year-olds at 8.5 furlongs. Here, then, a handicapping sketch of the all-stakes Pick 3.

Smart and Fancy (7-5), trained by Tony Dutrow with Edgar Prado down from New York to ride, will be a tough out, especially since this is the same team that won last year’s Buckland Stakes for fillies and mares at 5.5 furlongs. Fastest on performance figures, she makes her second start this year, working four times since winning Pimlico’s The Very One on May 15.

The best way to find value would be trying to get Ahvee’s Destiny (3-1) out of the money. Trained by prolific turf-sprint specialist Linda Rice, ‘Ahvee’ seems to prefer faster, shorter-cropped courses than the lush, more demanding Colonial course. But she shouldn’t be allowed to knock Pick 3 players out of their sequence.

Interesting money possibilities include the fresh, fast working Citi Charisse (20-1) from live connections; quick Charlie Papa (10-1), who handles the deepish Tampa course and could be at home here. But it's a fast-working, course and distance loving Kosmo’s Buddy (15-1), from live ship-in connections, that's the most interesting. His best performance figures have been earned either at the trip or over this course, making him very interesting at early line odds.

The second leg is the G3 All Along at 9 furlongs for fillies and mares, 3 & up. Get ready to spread ’em. Not that the race is all that wide open but the early-line favorites look like the best horses. We left open the following:

Tejida (12-1) was no match for two of today’s rivals in her last three starts, but has good back figures, handles the distance and has been tempered in a series of G3s. With her best effort coming on yielding ground, she might like the footing in her course debut. Corey Nakatani rides for Michael Matz.

I Lost My Choo (5-2), the defending champion in this race and 2-for-2 under Jose Lezcano, comes off a breakthrough performance prepping for this, and Indescribable (7-2), fast and G1 tough, is a three-time G3 winner for the Mott/Desormeaux team. They’re both worthy favorites.

Icon Project (6-1), Dyna’s Lassie (12-1) and Astrologie (4-1) merit consideration. Icon Project, hindered by a slow start, dawdling pace and a tougher G2 rival (Criticism) last out, is working strongly at her Florida base and picks up Leparoux.

Dyna’s Lassie is coming off a pace low and her best Equiform figure came at 9 furlongs. She owns a win and a second in two course appearances. Astrologie was beaten by Criticism (today’s New York Handicap favorite at Belmont Park) in two U.S. starts at 12 furlongs and might be well suited to the distance, switching to Garrett Gomez for Christophe Clement.

The centerpiece Colonial Turf Cup has attracted some impressive individuals in the past. This collection seems a group on the come. No less than seven horses can win the big pot. No one should be surprised if Rescue Squad (6-1), Straight Story (10-1), Take The Points (3-1), Final Count (12-1), Mark S The Cooler (10-1), Battle Of Hastings (2-1) or Lime Rickey (3-1) finish first.

Rescue Squad has moved forward in all five career starts; Straight Story impressed visually and showed development in his three-year-old debut. Take The Points is fastest at 9 furlongs on Pro Ride, which often translates well to turf. While unproven at the trip, Mark S The Cooler earned an excellent figure in his recent Hollywood Park mile.

Final Count has improved with distance and never has regressed. Battle Of Hastings, ditto, and is coming off a turf decline line. Lime Rickey, among the fastest here, earned his best figure at 9 furlongs. Among the big seven; Take The Points, Mark S The Cooler, Battle of Hastings and Lime Rickey loom most probable.

Written by John Pricci

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