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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Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Buddy, Ax, The Goat and White Cloud


Saratoga Springs, NY, November 18,2008--Yesterday’s fascinating story about Buddy Jacobson as related by HRI’s Bill Christine opened a floodgate of memories. I, too, can remember when my friend, the late Pete Axthelm, who Christine also referenced, was adamant in his belief that Jacobson was innocent of murdering John Tupper, a love triangle story involving Tupper, Jacobson and a model named Melanie Cain.

I still miss Ax, who died too young, but whose spirit, for me, still resides in every South Florida racetrack I visit, even the new Gulfstream, which I’m doubtlessly sure Axthelm would have hated.

Axthelm, network television’s first intelligent NFL handicapping analyst, was, of course, the author of the basketball classic “The City Game,“ which profiled the life of Earl “The Goat” Manigault, a New York City playground legend whose career, and life, was cut short by heroine, then in abundant supply on virtually every Harlem street corner in the early 1960s.

The Goat played in Rucker Park, the famed Harlem playground. He was a guard, 6 feet tall but with a 52-inch vertical leap. Billy Lawrence, one of my groomsmen when I tied the knot back in ‘69, told me how he saw Manigault take a quarter off the top of the backboard.

Lawrence, a shooting guard who could also play point, played for legendary high school coach Jack Curran at Archbishop Molloy, won over 100 college scholarships and once scored over 100 points in a CYO game, enjoyed a cup of coffee with Dean Smith at North Carolina before returning home to play for Joe Lapchick, then “Looie” Carnesecca, at St. John’s.

I could relate the entire story of the night we celebrated Billy’s last-second jumper at Alumni Hall to beat Cazzie Russell’s team, at the time ranked #5 in the country. But then this is a family blog.

Suffice it to say we started the evening at Joe Lisa’s bar on 43rd Avenue in Corona, drank for free when Rene the bartender--he preferred “Renny”--showed his appreciation for taking the Redmen plus points that Saturday afternoon. The night went rapidly downhill from there.

Axthelm, who heard of Lawrence, probably didn’t know that Lawrence was known as “White Cloud” by the Rucker regulars. He, too, played there with NBA types summers while still in high school. The nickname was given him by African American b-ball fans who greeted him as he got off the “A” train at 125th Street, providing him safe passage through the Harlem Streets until he reached the playground.

Can’t recall whether Billy ever played against Lew Alcindor, although I seem to remember he did. Alcindor, a.k.a. Kareem Abdul Jabbar, once called The Goat the greatest basketball player of his size in the history of New York City. And that certainly covers a lot of ground.

What Lawrence taught me about basketball I reciprocated by introducing him to Aqueduct, which was brand spanking new back in the day. In fact, we scheduled morning classes exclusively so that we could get to the track in time for the double via the back streets--18 minutes from the Hilltop campus to the front gate on Rockaway Blvd.--and Billy could return to the campus in time for practice.

In those days, before Kenny Noe Jr. came along and decided that starter handicaps were not in the best interests of racing fans and eliminated them--absurd, of course--Frank Martin, Carlos’ legendary grandfather, and Jacobson dominated those races. Especially Jacobson.

These prolific horsemen battled for leading trainer every year and between them dominated the starter handicaps every Saturday. Yes, the same type of race was carded every Saturday, run as the last race of the day and segregated by different claiming qualifications, distances and sex. Frank Martin had Table Hopper. Jacobson had Palenque III.

OMG how I loved those two horses! You couldn’t put enough weight on Table Hopper to stop him. Weight might stop a freight train but it never stopped Table Hopper. For the most part, however, no horse could catch Palenque III, not even Table Hopper.

Palenque III was my favorite starter handicapper and Jacobson kept him in form virtually all season. Racing actually had seasons back then and Palenque, the weight mounting with every start, went to the front beneath Hall of Famer Bobby Ussery--Jacobson’s go-to jockey and the greatest speed rider in the history of the game (sorry, Earlie)--and improved his position.

Palenque III was the poster child of Jacobson’s genius, his brilliant training career cut short when he was drummed out of the business by the association because he had the temerity to lead a strike against the NYRA to benefit stable workers that shut down the track for over a week. It didn’t help when he won an important stakes with an Ogden Phipps castoff, either.

Howard “Buddy” Jacobson, like Pete “Ax” Axthelm and Earl “The Goat” Manigault, died before they could accomplish even greater things, considering their talents. But never has it been said that life was fair, or that tomorrow is guaranteed to anyone.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, November 14, 2008


Today’s Stakes Programs: Wagering Trumps Aesthetics


Saratoga Springs, NY--In terms of excitement, pretty slim pickings this November 15, which is not to say there’s not plenty of meaningful racing left in 2008. HRI scoured the stakes schedule for the weekend warrior crowd and found four added money events worth your attention. Two--and we’ll keep the suspense going a little longer--may present good wagering opportunities.

As we mentioned in today’s daily race analysis from New York, the Grade 3 Stuyvesant has attracted an rather eclectic group, from long-time absentees to quick turn-arounds, from fast horses to slow ones and everything in between.

There are many things to like about Stud Muffin, not the least of which is his name. But the hard-hitting New York-bred likes Aqueduct (2-for-3) and nine furlongs (3-for-6), is racing in top form, including his recent victory in the Empire Classic, highlight of Belmont Park’s Showcase Day program.

But therein, as the bard once said, lies the rub. Is 27 days enough recovery time off such an enervating effort? A tough call. But backing any horse ridden by Alan Garcia this year, especially in races with names attached, is not.

Further, what to do with Helsinki, who hasn’t run since last November, but has names like Street Sense and Any Given Saturday and Grasshopper in his three-year-old past performances?

Helsinki is tough to dismiss out of hand. Trainer John Terranova is 17 percent profitable with new acquisitions and a worthy 21 percent profitable with horses returning from 90-plus-days layoffs. He’s worked 29 furlongs from October 8 forward, including a series of bullets.

The only other graded stakes run this afternoon is the G3 Cardinal from Churchill Downs for fillies and mares three-year-olds and up, going nine furlongs. Always entertaining, the Cardinal is a good betting race every year, 2008 being no exception. The match-ups are fascinating.

Callwood Dancer (3-1) ships in sharp from Woodbine for Roger Attfield, profitable on turf in his career. Second favorite Lady Digby (4-1) is in from the Delaware Valley for the formidable team of Graham Motion and Ramon Dominguez, and the local Ballymore Lady, from crafty local Eddie Kenneally, is a value-laden 10-1 on the early line. The winner should come from among these three talented fillies.

[I’ll be handicapping the entire Churchill Downs card on “Handicappers’ Report,” on the Capital-OTB television network, streaming live at http://www.capitalotb.com, Saturday morning from 9 to 10 a.m. EST].

At Fair Grounds--yes, Virginia, Fair Grounds opened early this year--Louisiana-bred turf horses will race a mile and a sixteenth over a demanding course that generally favors late runners, especially early in the session. Autobeacat, with his good company lines, is the early line (3-1) choice.

But Wildrally (6-1) is going in the right direction for trainer Tom Amoss. His performance figures are moving forward and last time out made a strong, wide mid-race move to the lead, only to pay for those exertions in deep stretch.

Tortuga Flats (8-1) is seeking his third straight win and fifth of the year beneath Keith Leblanc. Trainer Ralph Irwin is a profitable 39 percent with horses seeking a repeat win. Willst (10-1), a three-time winner at the distance and 4-for-6 on this course, is working well for the wily Sturges Ducoing in his Fair Grounds return, the site of his lifetime best performance figure.

Our friends north of the border will be putting on an excellent show when 10 juvenile fillies line up for the Glorious Song Stakes at seven furlongs. What makes this a potentially excellent betting race is the notion that six of these babies can win.

Selva (5-2) is 2-for-2 for trainer David Carroll, having broken her maiden in Saratoga slop before shipping to the Jersey Shore for the fast-track Sorority, showing grit in her victory. Interesting here is that Carroll is a profitable 22 percent efficient going dirt to synthetic for the first time.

Does Steve Klesaris have any two year-old fillies who can’t run? Holiday Girl broke her maiden by eight lengths in fast time at Delaware Park and has been working purposefully for this interesting spot. Bred for today’s longer distance, Klesaris is 28 percent profitable with last-out maiden breakers.

But then there’s Beauty for Ashes, Juliet’s Spirit, Hooh Why and Real Fancy Runner, all in with a bit more than a puncher’s chance.. And what about the filly from the perennial Canadian powerhouse team of Mark Casse and Patrick Husbands, How Far Is Heaven? It’s like the old joke: If you have to ask, you can’t afford it. Dime Supers anyone?

Written by John Pricci

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A Big Sport and a Giant Killer


Saratoga Springs, NY, November 13, 2008--A pair of trainers were in the news this week. One is planning to retire for good at the end of 2009; the other is just getting back to work and probably will never retire.

The Turf Publicists of America announced Wednesday that Larry Jones, trainer of a pair of terrific three-year-old fillies, Proud Spell and Eight Belles, has been chosen as the organization's winner of the Big Sport of Turfdom award. The award is presented annually to a mensch, someone who gives back to racing and its fans through the media.

Eric Wing said it best when he explained in a TPA release that "Larry has always been generous and gracious… but never [more] than in the aftermath of the tragic accident involving Eight Belles at the Kentucky Derby."

Not only did Jones meet with the media after the race and in the ensuing days but he made himself available for a round table discussion on a Preakness network broadcast even while coming under attack from the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals. He stood up at a time when the industry needed him most. No one would have blamed him if he took a pass.

“This award is wonderful, my highest achievement in the sport. I've always felt horsemen have an obligation to keep fans well informed. Hopefully we've done that," said Jones, who’s saddled five graded stakes winners this year in addition to his brilliant 3-year-olds ladies.

As any person would, Jones reacted emotionally after the accident and has been reticent to talk about his feelings beyond stating the obvious. Considered a young man in his profession, Jones hit his stride last year, gaining a national following for his work with the gifted Hard Spin in last year’s Triple Crown series.

Jones' announced intention to retire lifted more than one set of eyebrows. But maybe he just decided it was time to enjoy the fruits of his success. Recall that Hard Spun was purchased by Sheikh Mohammed last year for an estimated $30 million. Given that a trainer’s percentage of a purchase is normally in the 10 percent range, his decision likely wasn’t a difficult one financially.

Allen Jerkens, meanwhile, whose next birthday will be his 80th, can’t wait to get back to work. Jerkens was released from a rehabilitation center Wednesday after having two heart valves repaired and a pacemaker installed last month.

After getting home, Jerkens said to his wife Elizabeth that he’d “like to see the horses." That statement lifted no eyebrows. “We drove to the barn and he sat on the bench outside,” Elizabeth told a NYRA press representative, “and they brought out every single one of the horses for him.”

Jerkens plans on visiting his barn regularly but it will be some time before he’s spotted aboard his pony, Circus. “They don’t really recommend it because of the pacemaker,” said Jerkens. “We’ll have to figure out something.”

Jerkens didn’t get to see the races during his rehab stint but was upset that he couldn't get the Turner Classic Movie channel to help pass the time. This was no surprise becuse he might be the biggest “Honeymooners” fan ever, a real media old-schooler. There my be lots of Ralph, Alice, Norton and Trixie fans out there, but if they wanted to take him on line-for-line sound off, my money would be on “the Chief.”

Last Saturday, Whirling Agatha was Jerkens’ first winner of the Aqueduct meet and his first since October 24. His other winner at the recently concluded Belmont meet came on September 7.

“We haven’t been setting the world on fire,” Jerkens said. “Even at Saratoga, we won only a few races,” which isn't really an understatement but classic Allen Jerkens. He might be a genius but I’m not sure he could even spell hyperbole.

The thing about this maestro, the entire backstretch will tell you, is that he’s not satisfied even when he’s winning two a day. There was always something that went wrong, or something that might have worked out better. This is a Hall of Famer who raises self deprecation to an art form.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, Jerkens and Elizabeth will fly south with the rest of the snowbirds to Florida for the winter. That’s a good thing, the sun--like it does for Tesio’s horses--will help him heel. Truth is he doesn't usually set Florida on fire either, but comes back to New York in the spring and wins everything in sight.

“The purses may be a little bigger at Gulfstream but you get 12-horse fields,” said Jerkens. “At Calder, you’re running against six or seven.”

Doom and gloom. He must be feeling better already.

Written by John Pricci

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