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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Saturday, July 11, 2009


From Miami to LA: Speed then Stamina


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 10, 2009--Our regular Saturday trek around the country in search of good horses and wagers took us to two really hot weather spots: Miami and Los Angeles.

Every year I look forward to Calder’s Summit of Speed program despite the track’s high takeout rates. They put on seven stakes events, four of them graded, that have provided both memorable scores and beats in the past. A look at the All-Graded Pick 4:

This being the year of the filly and all, we’ll also take a look at what sadly promises to be the last Hollywood Gold Cup ever run, to examine whether Life Is Sweet, who’d rather meet males than stablemate Zenyatta, can become the first female in 41 years to do so. Chronologically, first things first.

Calder’s Graded Pick 4 gets started with the G3 Azalea for three year old fillies, the day’s seventh race. It drew nine fillies, three trained by super-trainer Marty Wolfson, two shippers, and one from super-trainer Kirk Ziadie.

Despite the fact that two fillies stand out on figures, it wouldn’t be shocking if any of six runners took this six furlong dash. But Underground (5-2), one of the shippers via Bob Baffert, and Royal Card (4-1), one of the Wolfsons, are fastest on performance figures.

Underground might be special. She won her only start on the front end on Cushion Track--not easy--coming the last quarter-mile in :23 3/5, also not easy. She earned a compressed :75¼ on the Equiform scale. Tyler Baze rides.

Royal Card has improved big time for Wolfson, recently earning figures competitive with Baffert’s filly. Paco Lopez rides. Royal Card’s 2-for-2 over the quirky Calder strip.

The G2 Carry Back is for three year old males at six furlongs. Half the six-horse field can win; Wolfson-trained favorite You Luckie Mann (9-5), Truest Legend (3-1), in from SoCal for Ron Ellis, and Not For Silver, from Pimlico for Michael Trombetta.

Truest Legend, 2-for-2 at three, and for Ellis, might lead this throughout. Ellis is having a profitable 2009 and is 2-for-4 going All Weather to dirt.

The G1 Princess Rooney lost its headliner, Indian Blessing, when the connections decided the medication she received to treat a problem might not clear her system in time for the race. Good judgment.

Half the eight fillies are particularly interesting in this wide-open sprint: Jessica Is Back (12-1), a four time Calder winner but coming off a lifetime top; Game Face (3-1), fast and classy, but inexperienced over the track.

Keep The Peace (6-1), also making her Calder debut, is fast, 3-for-4 at the distance, and draws leading rider Manoel Cruz. Marina Ballerina (6-1), who improved big time for Ziadie with blinkers, is 3-for-3 on the surface and lures Jose Lezcano from Belmont Park. They look like the value keys in here.

The G2 Smile Sprint Handicap completes the sequence and attracts defending Smile winner, Eclipse champion Benny The Bull (6-5). Regular rider Edgar Prado will attempt to repeat with the consistently fastest horse coming off a very good second to Fabulous Strike in the G2 Tom Fool, his season’s debut.

The play is to try beating Ikigai (2-1) in the exacta with How’s Your Halo (4-1). He won his prep for this impressively, earns good figures consistently, and his style suits the race shape. Cruz rides for owner/trainer Brian Prichard.

The G1 Hollywood Gold Cup has drawn a field of 13, 12 males and Life Is Sweet. We left six open, including, from the inside post out: Turf-to-All Weather Big Booster (12-1); defending Gold Cup winner Mast Track (20-1); Bullsbay (8-1), shipping in for Graham Motion and Jeremy Rose.

Then come the favorites, synthetic loving Parading (4-1) for Shug McGaughey and Kent Desormeaux; Life Is Sweet (9-2), second off the layup for John Shirreffs and Garrett Gomez, and Magnum (12-1), off a good prep and with excellent back figures at the distance over the surface.

Parading is the highweight at 119 pounds, followed by Life Is Sweet at 113, reflecting a five-pound sex allowance. A G1 winner of the Santa Margarita Handicap earlier this year, the filly is trying 10 furlongs for the first time but has the pedigree and style to do it.

Most recently second to Zenyatta is the G2 Milady, she was forced to alter course inside while her famed mate had clear sailing outside. Subsequently, she’s posted four consecutive bullet works on her home track and should get sufficient early pace.

If all that doesn‘t work, perhaps 2009 filly karma will.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, July 09, 2009


Triple Crown’s Winners Get Back to Work


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 8, 2009--In the past week, all the Triple Crown winners were back on the work tab and in the headlines. For racing fans what happens next is promising to be the big fun.

Interesting how the works seem to reflect the divergent paths Mine That Bird, Rachel Alexandra and Summer Bird are taking to their next assignments, including the unscheduled, unknown path of the Preakness winning filly, America’s most popular horse.

Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird worked a slow five-eighths in his recent introduction to the Monmouth Park surface. Pointing for the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational August 2, the 1:04 2/5 move was the first of four works intended to advance his condition.

Recall that his first work at Belmont Park wasn’t all that fast either but the end result turned out pretty well. It is clear that he needed to do something and trainer Tim Ice said he’d probably benefit from the exercise.

If he were mine, I frankly wouldn’t mind if her were no fully cranked for his Shore debut even with its million-dollar purse. I’d leave something in the tank for the Travers over a distance that better suits his talents and over a rival that would further lift his profile.

Summer Bird wouldn’t be the first horse to use the Haskell as a bridge to the Travers. Considering only horses that have completed a Haskell-Travers sweep, there have been five in the last 25 years, the latest Point Given in 2001.

The Travers is Mine That Bird’s major summer goal. The filly could possibly wind up in the race as well. Whichever colt wins the Derby/Belmont rubber takes the divisional lead and possibly Horse of the Year, too, in the unlikely event both Rachel and Zenyatta fall flat in the fall.

The Derby winner had his second work since the Belmont on Tuesday. On the surface it was a pedestrian half mile in 49.40 over a fast Churchill Downs surface. Looking deeper, however, the move was indicative of the good horse he is.

After going off slowly in 25.60, he finished up with an energetic :23.80 quarter mile and galloped out another furlong in :12.40, a sharp 1:01.80 while finishing up around a turn. Perfect. He’ll have two more works in advance of the West Virginia Derby, August 1.

Mine That Bird’s people have gotten a two-race commitment from Mike Smith, who got along with the gelding in his Preakness debut ride. This was a good choice given the pivotal significance of the Travers. It also means Zenyatta’s people are keeping their Breeders’ Cup options open.

Now if Zenyatta runs in the Ladies Classic, Smith, depending on the next two results, could wind up back on the Derby winner in the Classic. Or, the most fascinating occurrence, Calvin Borel could get the mount back for the Classic. Wouldn’t that be something?

MTB’s connections are making possible this major Breeders’ Cup storyline: Highly improbable Derby winner takes Classic; Borel earns redemption for Belmont miscue. But first things first, getting past Mountaineer and Saratoga successfully.

Monday’s lung opener for Rachel Alexandra on the Oklahoma training track was just that, a chance to get a blow after hanging out for a week in the same stall occupied the last two years by Horse of the Year Curlin.

What makes this filly so special, enormous talent notwithstanding, is her attitude. When she was paddocked at Belmont Park on the Thursday before the Mother Goose, she was so unflappable it looked as if she were sleeping.

Then, on the afternoon of the Mother Goose, as a fairly large crowd surrounded the ring straining to get a better look. And there she was, surrounded by security and busy handlers, standing quietly until it was time to go to work.

When finally led out of the stall and given a circumference of the ring, there were no histrionics. Neither strapping nor small, Rachel was up on her toes but not too high, just right. The only element separating her from the herd is her head; unmistakably female.

All this makes her special, to go from near slumber to winning the Mother Goose by nearly 20 lengths in record time, the Kentucky Oaks by more than 20. Calvin Borel has it right: “She’s not normal.”

It’s her temperament that allows such a brilliant animal to go a half mile in :50.67, with a gallop out of five furlongs in a dawdling 1:05. She does what she has to do when she has to do it and does it in a manner her handlers think is best.

The work gives no indication of what those handlers may be thinking. Given her ability, any scenario that’s chosen makes sense. A second victory over males in the Haskell could provide an insurmountable Horse of the Year lead. A Travers victory would make that a cinch even if Zenyatta became the leading undefeated horse of all time.

The longer her connections and those of Zenyatta dawdle on a future specified meeting place, Rachel can go her own way, sealing the Horse of the Year deal before leaves begin to fall. Then she could work on her place in history with an ambitious 4-year-old campaign.

The second season has begun. Where all these slow breezes lead is anyone’s guess. But it’s lifting the dialogue in a game badly in need of good news.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009


Out the Inbox


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 7, 2009--

Item: NATIONAL HANDLE FIGURES PLUMMET IN JUNE

In the first five months of 2009, racing’s slide kept pace with unfortunate developments of the economy. Thank you, Wall Street.

But then June came and went with total worldwide commingled wagering down nearly 17 percent from June, 2008. For the year the decline has averaged 10 percent a month. And that's after being down more than 7 percent last year.

Losing 37 days of racing didn’t help in the short term and indications are there will be more contraction with the numbers getting worse before they get better. Thank you, investment bankers.

Excluding weekend action, daily handle continues falling because the product’s quality has continued its slide while product cost, in the form of high takeout rates, is busting out customers at an accelerated rate.

If racing is to get healthy, there needs to be further contraction, a lot more. Ultimately this will improve the quality of the wagering product, create demand--even if by artificial means, less being more--and increase betting handle. Even for those who love it, racing sadly has become commonplace.

If dropping takeout rates won’t fly given current realities, what about the introduction of new head-to-head wagers, based on the existing betting exchange model, with lower takeout as an adjunct to parimutuel wagering. Perhaps parimutuel fixed odds betting.

Some change in the paradigm must be made to help keep players liquid and to generate some mainstream buzz.

But try something, anything.

Item: RACING NEVER FORGETS, FORGIVES

As the industry readies for the opening of its two most popular boutique race meets, this score just in: In the number of Breeders‘ Cup “Win and You’re In” Stakes, it’s Del Mar 8, Saratoga 0.

This shutout is not payback for remarks made last year by New York Racing Association President Charlie Hayward concerning Belmont Park’s getting passed over for the 2010 Breeders’ Cup.

During the 2008 Saratoga meet, Hayward said he and Breeders’ Cup President Greg Avioli had a handshake agreement. Avioli acknowledged the conversation but not the agreement. Hard feelings followed, not for the record, of course.

Given tax code changes in the city of Louisville, making Breeders’ Cup event day a more profitable venture for all, and the organization’s increased presence in Kentucky, probably had a lot to do with Churchill Downs getting the event.

But looking at some of the past performances of racing’s leaders, the odds that this was a form of retaliation is somewhere around even money. But executives aren’t the only ones.

Shane Sellers was virtually blackballed by horsemen and racetracks for trying to raise the scale of weights, increase insurance coverage and freedom to advertise. He might have gone about it with more tact but for his peers to turn their backs?

It’s five years later and weight minimums in most states have been raised to 116 pounds, minimum insurance benefits for injured riders is now $1-million and jockeys have permission to wear ad patches, issues that Sellers fought for, among others. His payback were years in exile.

He returned to the racetrack last week and won with his first mount back, resuming his career at 42, going back to his Louisiana roots to do so. A man of principle deserves the support of fans and colleagues alike.

Item: SUFFOLK DOWNS BACK ON LIFE SUPPORT

This spring Suffolk Downs owner Richard Fields was so confident that thoroughbred racing had a future in Massachusetts that he said the 2010 season would usher in a new era, the East Boston track becoming a destination as an entertainment complex “where people can come to have fun.”

That, of course, will depend on whether or not legislation will make some form of gaming a reality. Should it happen, there will be a hotel and a casino on track grounds with infrastructure improvements making entrance and egress possible, a win for racing and the community.

But right now things aren’t going well. The Massachusetts Handicap, Suffolk’s signature event, was canceled, and not just in the interests of saving purse money for everyday racing. It was either the Mass Cap or racetrack jobs. Management chose the latter.

Without enabling legislation this situation will become untenable. At stake is the future of thoroughbred racing in New England, not to mention jobs hanging in the balance.

Item: A THREE-HEADED CARRYOVER IN THE DARK?

I’m not a fan of the Super High 5. But that’s OK because I don’t have to play it. Considering the $1 minimum per combination and degree of difficulty, I can’t justify the expense. The intra-race wager is so difficult it comes with a carryover provision.

Churchill Downs’ will offer it during their fall meeting with a unique wrinkle; the carryover going to another track in another state. In the fall, that track would be Calder. Next spring, Arlington Park, both part of the CDI family of tracks.

The proposal is to take the carryover from Churchill and apply it to the next day’s Super High Five pool at Calder. The parimutuel take at Churchill is 19 percent; at Calder an almost usurious 27 percent. If it goes un-hit again, it reverts back to Churchill.

But one track’s innovation is another man’s bad bet. It’s hard to see this as anything but a method to attract play in a high-risk, high-takeout pool and create synergy between corporate relations.

Carryovers are good because when a carryover-infused pool is hit, the track pays bettors more money than it takes in, effectively lowering takeout. But it doesn’t help the average fan stay liquid and is unfair to loyal on-track bettors who wager only on their circuit’s live product.

If the goal is to create and service new fans, bets need to be simple, not difficult. People return to gambling sites when they have positive experience. But they should got something else right: night racing at the Downs.

No way did I believe opening-night attendance to be sustainable. But three Friday cards averaged nearly 30,000 a night, a huge number. On-track handle more than doubled, another surprise because an entertainment demographic was targeted. All-sources handle was up 10 percent, too.

It’s hard to remember the last time any racetrack got results like this. Talk about trend bucking. But isn’t it ironic how the corporation that stopped releasing business figures two years ago had no problem circulating these numbers?

It will be interesting to see what CDI does with this opportunity in the future. Fan education, anyone?

Written by John Pricci

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