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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Friday, October 02, 2009


ELMONT, NY, October 1, 2009--I got to Belmont Park early today, visited with friends on the backstretch, eventually got to the press box about 10:45 AM and waited for the Super Saturday overnight to come out. And waited…and waited.

The rumor was that the racing office was trying its best to fill the five Grade 1 stakes, making them as competitive and bettable as possible. The old line from back in the day came to mind: “You can’t make a suit without the material.“

At approximately 3 PM, I was handed an overnight. There were 11 races on the Saturday program, giving me flashbacks to a Saratoga meeting recently passed. That didn’t make the day any better.

But it wasn’t the 11 races so much that distressed. Rather, it was the 31 betting interests in five Grade 1 races worth an aggregate $2,950,000. That comes to a bit more than $95,161 per entrant.

The three dirt races, including a competitive seven horse field for the Jockey Club Gold Cup, attracted 17 runners, 16 betting interests.

One didn’t need the New York Racing Assn. executive entry of Charlie Hayward and Hal Handel to tell the assembled press what the problem was. Anyone who read David Grening’s DRF online report already had an inkling.

When Grening asked Marty Wolfson why Icon Project, a 13-½ length winner of the G1 Personal Ensign last time out, was skipping the $600,000 Beldame in favor of Keeneland’s $500,000 Spinster a week from Sunday, Wolfson said: “It’s probably the synthetic issue.”

Which really is a Breeders’ Cup-at-Santa Anita issue.


Then Hayward offered this: “There probably are too many graded races for fillies and mares; we’ll have to look at the whole program,” referencing Saratoga’s Personal Ensign and Belmont’s Ruffian and Beldame.

No one can argue with Hayward on that. Three G1s for fillies and mares, starting at 10 furlongs, followed by two at nine furlongs, all within 34 days, doesn’t make sense on any level. Consequently, Music Note will be the prohibitive Beldame choice.

The Vosburgh took a hit, too, in all probability due to the presence of the uber fast Belmont Park lover, Fabulous Strike. He tops a field of five.

Somewhat surprising is the fact that Gio Ponti, his stablemate notwithstanding, will face as many as seven challengers despite his domination of the older-horse turf division. Perhaps it’s his lack of experience at a mile and a half.

The centerpiece JCGC attracted seven, the big three of Summer Bird, Quality Road and 4-year-old Macho Again, plus specialist Dry Martini, 2-for-3 over the track and 1-for-2 at 10 furlongs.

But the Gold Cup will go through Summer Bird, the 2-1 early line favorite from post 3, bidding to become the first three-year-old since Easy Goer and 10th in history to win Belmont, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Local coverage includes a live telecast on MSG Plus, beginning at 4:30 p.m. Post time for the JCGC is scheduled for 5:43 p.m., EDT.

PUNISHMENT FITS THE CRIME: When NYRA placing judges posted the number of the 10-horse, Dontquityourdayjob, as the fourth-place finisher in the ninth race on September 24 at Belmont Park, when indeed it was the number 13, Everybodywantsone, that finished fourth, the error cost the association an extra $82,500 for paying off on both superfecta combinations, the correct 8-14-5-13 and the incorrect 8-15-5-10.

The mistake cost the three placing judges a one-week without-pay suspension. I know the officials personally. Sentell Taylor, Stephen Foster and Ralph Theroux Jr. are life-long racetrackers and good men. They screwed up, causing the track to pay off on the wrong result for almost three minutes.

The wrong ticket was paid because it had to be by law tracks. It’s curious how three sets of eyes could have missed the fact that the fourth finisher was #13, not #10, in a race that didn’t require photo scrutiny.

But the real question is whether placing judges should be the last line of defense.

It is their responsibility to post the official result after first calling the tote room to with the order of finish. That done, they await a call from the stewards who review the running of all races. At that point, the stewards call the judges and tell them to either post an inquiry or put up the official sign.

Since stewards at all tracks serve as judge, jury and executioners, shouldn’t double checking the placing judges be part of their responsibilities? It’s not like asking anyone to work on a rock pile.

A fail-safe measure has been added, however, to prevent a mistake like this from happening again. The placing judges will now take an added step, reviewing charts of all orders of finish with photo-finish technician, Don Morehouse, before making a race official.

HANA GETTING SOME RESPECT: The efforts of the Horseplayers of North America are beginning to bear fruit. Current race-day scratches and program changes from racetracks throughout North America have been made available throughout the day in a dedicated section on the web-site

Last spring at Keeneland, HANA members met with Keeneland track officials and a line of communication was established with racing’s official data collection company. After a series of subsequent meetings, Equibase gave its chartcallers the responsibility of entering updates into a dedicated section of the Equibase site.

Horseplayers now will have access to the latest scratches, surface switches, distance and jockey changes, as well as amended wagering options. Players can also register to receive an RSS updates feed for each track, information deliverable to desktops and/or mobile devices.

Progress, even when made at a glacial pace, is always welcome.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, October 01, 2009

Playoff Time

ELMONT, N.Y., September 30, 2009--In the world of sports, Fall is the greatest time of year. Gridiron play, from high school to the play-for-pay league, occupies the landscape from Friday to Sunday. Training camps and exhibition seasons for the winter sports are in full swing, and major league baseball playoffs are less than a week away.

All of this means one thing to us: Start saving your pennies for Breeders’ Cup weekend, when scores not only can change but can be made in bunches. And for thoroughbred racing, it all starts this weekend.

Saturday at Belmont Park is still called “Super Saturday” even if the events lack finality. But that’s not necessarily the bad news, and neither does it have to be. This weekend, from Long Island, New York to Arcadia, California some of the best horses in training will stake the claims to the championships of their divisions.

It is in no small way ironic, however, that the top two horses in the NTRA national poll, a filly and a mare, and a European colt who has been called worthy of comparison to the great Nijinsky II by the legendary Lester Piggott and will effort to win his sixth Group 1 of the year, the ultra prestigious Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe on Sunday.

Unfortunately, however, the great Rachel Alexandra, having thrice beaten colts and with nothing left to prove is on R & R and Zenyatta will not be in action until next weekend’s Lady’s Secret at Santa Anita. What fans should be rooting for Sea The Stars not to overexert himself at Longchamp, leaving enough fuel in the tank to cross a big pond that ends on the far side of the New World. But that’s for another day.

Immediately on the horizon at Belmont Park are five “super” Grade 1s, topped by the storied Jockey Club Gold Cup. On Sunday, after the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational, Vosburgh, Beldame and Flower Bowl have also made recent history, potential Milers will line up in the Kelso while baby turfers take Breeders’ Cup aim via the Pilgrim and Miss Grillo.

Saturday is Cal Cup day at Santa Anita, a program similar to New York’s Showcase Day on which state-breds take center stage, but is unlikely to produce any major Breeders’ Cup horses. Not true on Sunday, though, when the Norfolk and Oak Leaf are expected to supply major contenders for the Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies, respectively.

While it is also not likely that major Classic contenders will emerge from Saturday’s Ohio and Indiana Derbies, that will not be the case in the JCGC when Quality Road will try to exact Travers revenge at the expense of Belmont Stakes and Midsummer Derby hero Summer Bird. Standing in their way will be the G1 Stephen Foster winner, Macho Again, who came thisclose from denying Rachel her place in Woodward history.

The race within the Jockey Club race, a battle for the three-year-old male championship that’s still very much up for grabs is fascinating. All things being equal, the Shadwell Travers show finisher Quality Road will be a much stouter challenge to Summer Bird this time around.

Going into Saratoga’s showcase event, the record setting Florida Derby winner had two races in five months, the most recent a 6-½ furlong sprint, albeit another record setting effort in the G2 Amsterdam. Like Summer Bird, it will be his first start versus older horses.

This scenario seems ripe for a table-turning result but for the fact that Summer Bird keeps developing, keeps getting better, keeps gaining valuable conditioning and seasoning, the Travers being his seventh lifetime start. Since growing up, and since the addition of blinkers, only Rachel Alexandra has stood between the Birdstone colt and three consecutive G1 wins.

Further, Daily Racing Form correspondent David Grening told HRI that he’s never seen the colt work any better than he did last Saturday. His preparations continued today as he schooled in the gate, followed by a lung opener down the Belmont Park stretch, followed by another schooling session between races later in the day. At the moment, Summer Bird is the tenuous divisional leader.

Not to be denied, Super Saturday turf fans will get to see this country's leading grass horse, four-year-old Gio Ponti, which Christophe Clement has called the best horse he’s ever trained. And given Clement’s prolific record with grass runners, that’s saying a lot.

The Arlington Million winner will attempt to win his fifth consecutive Grade 1 turf event but first at 12 furlongs. If you’re curious to see how he fared in some of those races, Internet users can check him out on his own Facebook page.

In any case, Gio Ponti’s an exciting racehorse. The course condition, expected to be less than firm, won’t be an issue. Negotiating the marathon route is another matter. That’s why they run races.

A personal favorite, Fabulous Strike, will try to win his second Vosburgh from three attempts. A very game winner of the G2 Amsterdam in August, he won the Vosburgh with authority in 2007 then lost in a photo last year after throwing a shoe in the running. His only off-the-board finish came on Santa Anita Pro Ride in last year’s Cup. You’ve heard the expression “neat horse?” They don’t come much neater than this very fast hard hitter.

New York State OTBs Card Preps for Handicappers This Weekend: Who will be handicapping champion of New York State? It could be nyone willing to pony up a modest entry fee and do a good job handicapping the Super Saturday card. For the first time ever, the state’s six Off-Track Betting regions are partnering to present the inaugural $75,000 New York State OTB Handicapping Championship.

Qualifying contests open to the public will be held Saturday at various OTB sites across the state. Players are allowed to purchase a maximum of two entries, at $20 per, in the qualifying round. Thirty handicappers, five from each region, will earn an invitation to compete in the championship round Saturday, October 24 at Capital District’s Albany Teletheater.

Each qualifier will earn a $500 prize ($1,000 at NYC-OTB), plus $250 expense money. The top three finishers in the finals will share in the purse, based on number of entrants, at a rate of 70%, 20% and 10%, respectively. Further, each will earn an expenses paid trip and entry into the Horse Player World Series in Las Vegas next February.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Looks Like NTRA Got This One Right

ELMONT, NY, September 30, 2009--When it comes to making improvements in the racing industry, the appropriate short race-description comment in virtually all cases would be: “off slowly.”

Some might even say: “dwelt at the start.”

I surprise myself when I think about this practice and then think that the industry isn’t all bad responding to all problems, at least, not lately; at least, not when compared to subjects that really matter.

For all its problems, the industry is a lot more responsive to issues than, say, our elected officials.

My beef is that when this industry finally gets around to doing something, it usually involves two types of animals: dogs and ponies.

And when it comes to giving the industry its due; let’s be fair. They’re damn good at putting on these types of shows.

In the main, that’s how I felt when I first heard about the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance and its team of inspectors. To me it was curious how, little by little, every track that had some big event in the near future received certification.

To this date I’ve not seen nor heard the words: “ ‘Bet-Your-Money Downs’ Surface Fails to Make the Grade, Ordered Closed.”

Then I remembered that no organization had the right to order such an action.

I learned something the other day from, of all things, an NTRA press release, and what I learned surprised me:

The parameters that comprise the S&IA initiative were broadly based and were not so narrowly constructed as to impede the achievement of positive goals. Some would call this progress. And I do.

The accreditation process is based on many criteria. Recently, Calder Race Course became the ninth track to pass inspection and gain accreditation.

Tracks seeking accreditation must first complete a written application and go through a series of interviews before an on-site reviewer grades all facets of the facility seeking certification.

That done, more interviews are conducted with all relevant parties; track executives and employees, owners, trainers, jockeys, stewards, and fans. The latter came as a complete surprise since I’ve never heard feedback from any fan anywhere about this.

(Let us know if you have).

An inspection team consists of a veterinarian, a racing official, and an officer from the S&IA. It was indicated in the release that of all the prescribed benchmarks, Calder earned the highest marks of the nine approved tracks in the area of injury reporting. It also received high marks for working closely with post-racing adoption organizations that endeavor to save retired racehorses from meeting the horse killers.

John Hettinger would have liked that.

For this, props go to the Florida Division of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Assn. and Mary Scollay, DVM, who nurtured those improved reporting procedures while Calder’s track veterinarian. Scollay left Florida in June, 2008 to become Equine Medical Director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority.

Nice to know that sometimes people in this industry get ahead on merit.

Alliance certification standards cover five categories, those of injury reporting and prevention; creation of a safer racing environment; aftercare and transition of retired racehorses; uniform medication, testing and penalties, and continued safety research.

Within that framework, execution involves: systematic injury reporting; racehorse aftercare; pre- and post-race vet exams; post-mortem study; jockey safety and health; whip use; hoof care and shoeing; safety research for horses, jockeys and handlers; exogenous anabolic steroids and alkalinizing agents detection; on-track medical care; sample freezing and retrospective testing and, finally, security assessment and training.

Former U.S. Secretary of Health and Welfare Tommy G. Thompson serves as an independent monitor and is mandated to provide public reports on Alliance progress. Fortunately, one supposes, we’ve not heard of an violations from Thompson, or jobs-well-done, for that matter. This can be good thing. Or perhaps not.

Created last fall, the stated goal of the S&IA is to help establish national uniform standards in the area of horse safety for the 55 North American racetracks and all the major horsemen’s groups.

But the true reason for its highly visible implementation likely was to stem the tide of criticism from elements outside the industry who call for racing’s abolition every time a high profile injury occurs. From Barbaro in 2006, to Eight Belles last year, to all other less celebrated animals that meet a tragic fate on a quasi-regular basis.

There’s a reason the sport holds its collective breath every time Rachel Alexandra stepped on a racetrack after her phenomenal victory in this year’s Kentucky Oaks. This is a sport that may be one high-profile tragedy from becoming the North American Soccer League.

It’s comforting to know, however, that despite its well documented shortcomings, the NTRA seems to have gotten one spot on. Hopefully, the industry won’t need to learn whether this measure truly works by finding out the hard way.

Written by John Pricci

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