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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Saturday, July 04, 2009

Who Do You Like, America?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 3, 2009--Ever since I was a kid I always loved big holidays at the racetrack.

I can remember a Memorial Day when 60,000 people jammed Aqueduct to see Kelso run in the Metropolitan Handicap. Yes, 60,000. At Aqueduct. Kelso won, like always.

Then there was another holiday card in Queens when nearly 70,000 fans went shoulder to shoulder to see Dr. Fager vs. Damascus vs. Buckpasser in the 1967 Woodward Stakes. Yes, the Woodward also was run in South Ozone Park back then.

The Woodward was particularly memorable because it was the famed “rabbit race,” the late great trainer Frank Whiteley Jr. believing Damascus needed a little help from the speedy Hedevar if he was to catch Dr. Fager.

My future bride and I were sitting in clubhouse seats on the second floor. When Hedevar took to the good doctor by the throatlatch racing into the first turn, the roar that also brought the crowd to its feet was so loud it shook the grandstand. Literally.

I had never experienced anything like it, including afternoons at the old Yankee Stadium when Mickey Mantle was hitting tape-measure jobs off the façade. Parenthetically, one came off Washington Senators pitcher Pedro Ramos. It was Memorial Day, 1956.

Frankly it’s a little scary when the second floor of any building begins to shake. As I was writing these words, I asked my now wife of 40 years if she remembered that shaking. “I’ll never forget it,” Toni said.

It’s doubtful there are many future iconic thoroughbreds competing around the country this Independence Day that will shake the grandstand. (Although there might have been had the Belmont Stakes been run this afternoon, he digresses).

But there’s interesting fare worthy of mention that might just produce a decent winning mutuel or two.

Given its problems, it’s surprising that New Jersey’s Monmouth Park could come up with $750,000 for one race, even if it the storied United Nations.

It’s unlikely you’ll find the likes of a Mongo or Round Table or Noble Dancer or Manila this afternoon but there are some good horses in the group, and some good ones in the $250,000 Salvator Mile, too, a cool million up or grabs at the Shore. To wit:

The four Salvator favorites; Smooth Air (5-2), Solar Flare (4-1), Coal Play (4-1) and Two Step Salsa (7-2), can all win. Interesting that two; ‘Play’ and ‘Salsa’, are speed horses and the other two are close-range stalkers, making it a rider’s race.

With Monmouth loving Coal Play drawn inside of Two Step Salsa with perennial leading rider Joe Bravo, we look for ’Play’ to dictate to ‘Salsa’, Garrett Gomez up. The Nick Zito four-year-old comes off a sharp work on Saratoga’s Oklahoma track, Zito a profitable 23 percent with third-off-the-layup runners.

Smooth Air, making his first start for Chad Brown, is sure to benefit from his tough trip placing in the Met Mile. Given his tactical speed, inside draw and regular rider Lopez, he figures to get the jump on Solar Flare. Race shape and strong company lines make Smooth Air a most probable winner.

The United Nations is more vexing. What will the course be like, exactly? That, and the trip, are the key here. Major horses are Banrock (6-1), Court Vision (3-1), Spice Route (4-1) and Presious Passion (9-2), half the field after the anticipated program scratch of Better Talk Now.

Splitting hairs, New York-bred Banrock is extremely sharp, unlucky to lose to Presious Passion in the Monmouth Handicap prep, and attracts turf ace Bravo from the pole. He’s unknown at the distance but early line odds are fair enough to find out.

Spice Route is a proven G1 marathoner and attracts Eddie Castro, a profitable turf ace who’s riding at 25 percent clip this meet. ‘Spice’ might be better going a tad farther. Presious Passion is a remarkable turf speedster who carries his brilliance virtually any distance and is a four-time course winner.

While figures somewhat belie the fact, Court Vision’s action appears better suited to firmer than softer ground. His numbers at four indicate continued forward development. The promise of a realistic pace should only help Gomez time the late move better. He has the edge in a very competitive renewal.

Across the Hudson, Belmont Park is offering an all stakes Pick 3 including the G2 Dwyer, G1 Prioress and the G2 Suburban.

A mile and a sixteenth bridge to Saratoga’s Jim Dandy, the Dwyer features Warrior’s Reward, the colt that started the dustup resulting in Tim Woolley’s firing of Calvin Borel. The 9-5 Dwyer favorite is the most probable winner.

‘Warrior’ just missed in the G3 Northern Dancer after finding himself on the lead, probably not his best game. This is his “prep” for the Jim Dandy, but given two very sharp morning trials at his Churchill base, we’re expecting close to his ‘A’ race here.

Kensei (6-1) is interesting. He is the early pace--if Edgar Prado elects that tack--and was an excellent third despite much trouble when beaten by Munnings in the G2 Woody Stephens.

Kensei’s never been beyond 7-½ furlongs but has excellent performance figures and enough bottom-side pedigree to get him at least this far. From a betting perspective, keeping bias-aided romper Just Ben (2-1) out of the first two slots could pay dividends.

Despite imposing recent performances, we’ll try to beat the Evans-owned entry, Cat Moves and Light Green, favored at 3-1. There’s just so much gas in this rare G1 for three-year-old fillies at six furlongs. Heart Ashley (4-1), Gabby’s Golden Gal (7-2) and On The Menu (6-1) are formidable.

Heart Ashley, coming off an Equiform “soft win” pattern, earned an exceptional figure two back at Aqueduct. She can lead or stalk. Gabby’s Golden Gal has conditioning turning back from her Acorn Stakes score.

‘Gabby’s’ internal six-furlong figure in the one mile G1 was excellent, but the effort was a significant lifetime best and was bias-aided. On The Menu, likely the value here, is coming off a New Pace Top with an excellent go-back figure. She’s seven weeks fresh and could upset at a price.

Asiatic Boy (5-2) has had a wonderful career oversees, as his $3-million in earnings attests, and his excellent, troubled second in the G1 Stephen Foster was first rate. But he will have to be at least that good or better to handle favored It’s A Bird (2-1), the most probable winner.

The Marty Wolfson ship-in has the best recent figures and is likely to sit a perfect stalking trip with plenty of speed signed on to this. The key, of course, is which runner will be best suited to Big Sandy’s mile and a quarter with its dog-leg start.

Good wagering, and Happy 233rd America.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, July 03, 2009

Regulators Fiddle While Horseplayers Burn

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 2, 2009--At Monday’s press conference trumpeting the upcoming 2009 Saratoga race meet, NYRA President Charlie Hayward announced new directives sanctioned by the State Racing and Wagering Board Chairman that would allow superfecta wagering with fewer betting interests.

For thoroughbred tracks in the state, the Board has given permission to conduct superfecta wagering with seven program betting interests. The wager would remain viable if there is a late scratch after the horses leave the paddock that reduces the field to six interests.

As racetrackers say, “close, but no cigar.”

This SRWB rules change doesn’t go far enough and hence is less significant than it should be. Indeed, it’s an improvement. It makes it unnecessary for the racing office to hustle some no-chance entrant just to make a potential superfecta race go, and saves the tracks and the state money by making refunds in the above scenario a non-starter.

Hayward also indicated that the Board is working on changes that will affect Pick 3, Pick 4 and Pick 6 wagering and, most significantly, a rule allowing uncoupled entries in all races. In addition to being a “purse-money-only” handle saver, it also increases field size and wagering in a significant way.

We queried the State Racing and Wagering Board Wednesday regarding multiple-race wagers and the status of allowing uncoupled entries. “It’s not soup yet,” we were told.

I’m aware that good food takes time but this stock has been cooking for some time. A change in the coupled entry rule has been at issue for as many as four years, when then NYRA executive Bill Nader, now with the Hong Kong Jockey Club, was the point man.

How hard is this, really? Senseless delay costs the state’s taxpayers money, although it’s good for job security for political appointees when they can say improvements are in the pipeline. Permitting uncoupled entries, now way past overdue, helps horseplayers and the state alike. Stop “protecting” thinking horseplayers from themselves.

We have often stated here and in other venues that NYRA, with the possible exception of Keeneland’s racing association, has been more responsive to bettors than any other major jurisdiction. Acknowledging that there are more pressing matters at hand, NYRA’s responsiveness to bettors recently has begun to wane.

On this site May 30, we wrote a piece on the handicapping researcher known to his colleagues as “Vinman.” He e-mailed us to say that he had sent a nine page letter to Hayward and COO Hal Handel including 25 pages of attachments with spreadsheets charting betting handle.

Vinman studied the $1 Pick Four and Pick Five at last year’s Oak Tree-at-Santa Anita meet, the 50-Cent Pick 5 at Monmouth Park on Breeders Cup weekend two years ago, and a $2 Pick Six with mandatory payout offered by Hollywood Park. Here were the findings:

The Pick 6 with mandatory payout attracted handle of $3.3 million, a record for a non-Breeders’ Cup pool. After a 50-Cent Pick 5 went un-hit for three consecutive nights at Balmoral, a harness meet, the carryover reached $76,000. Handle on the fourth night was $218,384. The 50-Cent Pick 5 was hit, paying $18,192.70.

Vinman then projected how much wagering would be generated on a 50-Cent Pick 5 at Saratoga extrapolated from 2008 Pick 4 handle. Using the Pick 5 Oak Tree handle as a base and weighing it against the Pick 4 pool as a percentage of handle, an assessment was made of the Pick 5’s popularity.

Based on analysis of the data model above, handle on a Travers day 50-Cent Pick 5 would have reached $389,318. Further, 50-Cent Pick 5 handle for the 2008 meet would have exceeded $100,000 on eight days.

Using supporting data, Vinman, who convinced Nader to move the conclusion of the Pick 6 to the final race on the card because the inevitable dovetailing with bettors hedging wagers in the Pick 4 pool theoretically would--in addition to reducing the handicapping workload--result in increased handle. So he suggested an addition to the 2009 Saratoga betting menu on an experimental basis.

The proposal included a 50-Cent Pick 5 with carryover; a 50-Cent Trifecta, popular in many jurisdictions; a $1 Pick 6 with mandatory payout and a 50-Cent “Daily Showdown” with carryover, modeled on the West’s “Place All.” He reasoned that the many casual fans attracted to Saratoga are intimidated by handicapping and betting. Fractional wagering would keep costs to a minimum during the learning process.

As stated, changes in the wagering menu requires SRWB approval. No one can blame the association for not wanting to confuse the uncoupled entry issue with how wagering works. Uncoupling entries have been a priority for years but hasn’t been achieved due to unconscionable SRWB foot-dragging.

Our original blog received many comments: Patrick Lamoreux, a parimutuel data analyst at Prairie Meadows racetrack, wanted a copy of Vinman’s spreadsheet data, as did Bruce, “Indulto” and “rwwuple,” who has “supported a $1-Pick 6 with mandatory payout for some time…”

Said Paul Stone: “Fractional betting is the best idea racing has had in decades. The propositions advanced are intellectually inspiring. Reducing cost through fractional betting may ignite some interest…Saratoga attracts many novices…”

Bruce thinks Vinman “may have only scratched the surface of 21st Century betting options…” Anthony Kelzenberg, who knows Vinman since the early 1990s, described him as “a guy who loves racing and is a real ‘analyst’ [having] a lot of integrity…”

Hopefully, he’s a man of patience, too. As of Wednesday Vinman’s yet to receive a reply from the NYRA, one way or another. Thank goodness he didn’t try to contact the SRWB, as I did Wednesday.
No one’s gotten back to me, either. Sometimes, a non-response says it all.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

Mine That Bird’s People Made the Right Call

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 1, 2009--Calvin Borel’s loss of his Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird as a future mount was inevitable and probably the best scenario for both parties.

Trainer Chip Woolley might have known that taking Mine That Bird far back off the early pace was the gelding’s hole card, but it’s quite another thing to execute the tack so effectively.

Call it right place, right time, or anything you please. But it’s doubtful whether any jockey who ever lived could have gotten as much out of the son of Birdstone as Borel did on the first Saturday this past May.

We’re not just referring to his death defying instincts and superb timing. And if you believe that description to be hyperbolic, go back to the videotape. That final sloppy sixteenth of a mile still seems unbelievable coming at the end of such an enervating run.

Borel’s exhibition, identified by many veteran observers as the best ride they had ever seen, completed a Cinderella story that began in the back of an old pickup 2,100 miles away and ended up a never to be forgotten piece of Derby history.

Borel’s ride provided a band of heretofore racing unknowns with a Triple Crown identity, simultaneously giving the skilled veteran a huge push toward the doors of the racing pantheon on Union Avenue.

Should that dream become a reality, it’s doubtful Borel will ever stop crying when called on to accept his plaque at the Racing Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.

Kentucky Derby 135 will be a moment that Borel and Woolley never will forget, but their association ended this week when Mine That Bird’s trainer and owners decided that enough was enough; they wouldn’t play the game of second call again.

The problem, of course, was that on the afternoon before the Derby, the real Cinderella of 2009 became a household name by virtue of her jaw-slackening victory in the Kentucky Oaks.

Woolley might have been an unknown but he’s nobody’s fool. He understood that Borel was emotionally attached and had a huge financial future aboard Rachel Alexandra, so he gave his Derby rider time to commit.

And so everyone waited while the filly’s new owners wrestled with their decision to run in the Preakness, or not. They made their decision, Borel made his, and the connections of Mine That Bird lived with all of it, hiring Hall of Famer Mike Smith for the Preakness.

When they welcomed Borel back aboard Mine That Bird for the Belmont, they were roundly criticized for being soft on what was perceived as Borel’s disloyalty.

But Woolley was smart enough to know that it was business, not personal, and he believed Borel gave Mine That Bird his best chance for redemption in the crown’s final jewel, thanking Borel by giving him a chance to accomplish what no Triple Crown rider had ever done before.

When Borel blew out the gelding in advance of the Belmont and “guaranteed” victory, Woolley might have winced but also had to be pleased his rider had so much confidence--too much, as it turned out.

After the Preakness, and again following the Mother Goose, no one can argue that Borel made the right choice. But this week it was Woolley who made the right decision. “This deal here’s a little different,” Woolley said this week.

Actually, it was a lot different. This time Borel and agent Jerry Hissam overstepped. Either that, or they think Warrior’s Reward is going to be the better three-year-old colt in the second half of this season.

Either way, it was the right business decision since Borel rides more horses for Ian Wilkes and his mentor, Carl Nafzger, at Churchill Downs than he’d ever ride for Woolley in New Mexico.

Woolley probably gets that but Team Borel’s hedging on whether they would ride Warrior’s Reward in the Jim Dandy or Mine That Bird in the West Virginia Derby on the same day just wouldn’t stand.

Rightfully so.

Warrior’s Reward is a colt on the come. He finished second in the Grade 3 Northern Dancer following an impressive romp in a previous Churchill Downs allowances.

Warrior’s Reward starts in Saturday’s Dwyer Stakes at Belmont Park, Borel up.

Mine That Bird’s major remaining targets are the Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic, with the Mountaineer race a bridge to Saratoga with another unspecified race heading into Santa Anita this fall.

Team Borel is doing what’s best for their future business. For Mine That Bird’s people, the future is now. They want the same rider for the gelding’s four remaining starts this year.

And so Woolley et al have made the right decision. Time will well whether Borel and company did the same.

Written by John Pricci

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