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, March 07, 2009


Spring Forward


Saratoga Springs, NY, March 7, 2009--Sometimes the game is real good, even when it doesn’t treat you real good.

The racing yesterday was pretty extraordinary, with Stardom Bound getting up to win the Santa Anita Oaks, even though at not time did anybody think she would--except Mike Smith.

At least that’s what Smith said afterwards.

But to make money, which is the idea, of course, it would have been better had Hooh Why held a little more determinedly at the wire. Even second would have been better than losing by a pair of noses.

But give Stardom Bound her due. Quick, who was the last filly to win five straight Grade 1s?

I’ll look it up and get back to you. It’s 9 pm Saturday night and it’s been a very long day.

Especially after Imperial Council nailed Mr. Fantasy for the place at the line, at the cost of an 8-5 exacta. But the price on I Want Revenge was square at 3-1 and his Gotham performance first rate.

Helen Pitts Blasi had one like this coming, right? I know; Curlin was a long time ago. But it takes a long time to get over something like that.

I suppose other trainers might have done as well with Einstein, a real good horse. But so what? What a terrific job she’s done with this guy.

And he runs on anything; grass, dirt, synthetics, anything. And the fact that Einstein looks and acts like a two-year-old at age 7 is also to her credit. And Julien Leparoux, who is wise beyond his years between the fences. What the Big Cap lacked going in is a lot different than the way it turned out.

The Kilroe Mile wasn't a classic Grade 1 going in either, only it, too, came out that way. The great Ramon Dominguez timed it perfectly with Gio Ponti and just nailed the lady, Ventura, who was good in defeat.

You might argue that she got a good trip. You could also argue that she prefers to race from farther back and come running late, rather than strike the front in midstretch and hold on. She did everything right but win.

Next Saturday, four graded stakes for three-year-olds. It’s beginning to look a lot like spring.


Written by John Pricci

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For Handicappers and Fans, Big Weekend Coast to Coast


Saratoga Springs, NY, March 6, 2009--If you can’t get excited about the stakes action on display from coast to coast this afternoon, there’s a hole in your racing soul.

I’m no huge fan of synthetic track racing. But today’s Santa Anita Handicap program, that also features three-year-old filly sensation Stardom Bound in the Santa Anita Oaks, is, in contemporary vernacular, just awesome dude and dudettes.

The word from Southern California all week was that three fillies were expected to challenge the juvenile filly champion. The Oaks was anticipated to be a routine tune-up for her anticipated battle with the boys in the Santa Anita Derby.

So how did the Oaks wind up with a field of 10?

If you hang around racetracks long enough, you learn things, often too late. But given there are no secrets on the racetrack, especially on the backside, did the trainers of nine other fillies suddenly think it was a good idea to run for second money?

Admittedly, I’m postulating from 3,000 miles away. But a field this size under the circumstances is curious. And when the champ’s closing odds figure to be prohibitive, the laying of two dollars to win one, you must look deeper.

But trainer Bobby Frankel said she’s ready to run her best race. That should be good enough. Frankel has a good opinion and is not inclined to make with the hyperbole.

From a handicapping perspective, there are some interesting fillies among Stardom Bound’s rivals.

Beltene is undefeated, clearly fast enough and never has taken a backward step on the Equiform scale. Still, she’s making her two turn debut in a tough spot.

Acronym made an auspices Pro-Ride debut in a good figure performance and the six week spacing augurs. Test post, but should could be a huge price.

Nan appears poised for a forward move after finishing 2-¼ lengths behind Stardom Bound in the Las Virgenes and is clearly on the improve.

But it’s Hooh Why that’s most intriguing. She earns good performance figures with some consistency, was sharpened sprinting when second to Beltene, and has shown distance ability when narrowly beaten in her only start going long at 2.

Did I mention that her game placing was to the good colt Patena on Woodbine’s polytrack, beating nine other males in the process? Clearly, there’s upset potential here.

The “Big Cap” is always a challenging handicapping puzzle. But this one’s so tough I can’t tell who might go favorite at post time. The track linemaker made Travers winner Colonel John with Garrett Gomez the 9-2 early favorite in the field of 14--as much a function of the rider as the horse.

Colonel John is very solid with good performance figures, a win at the 10-furlong distance--one of only three in the field--has tactical speed, kick and, of course, Gomez. He’s well posted, too.

The classy Einstein, a turf specialist that handles dirt, should make the transition to Pro-Ride. He’s poised to move forward off a good third-place finish in a strongly run Donn. Early line odds of 6-1 are more than fair.

The most interesting from a betting perspective are Matto Mondo (6-1) and Dansant (20-1). Matto Mondo is from the Richard Mandella barn of Richard Mandella, which has been synonymous with “Big Cap.” He’s untested at 10 furlongs but comes up to this perfectly with tactical speed, the pole, and a switch to Rafael Bejarano. A “now horse” if there ever was one.

Remember the Breeders’ Cup, and how the Euros came over and dominated? Well, Dansant, coming in for first rate European ship-in connections, Gerard Butler, might not class up, but is 5-for-8 on Polytrack and 2-for-3, with a second, at the distance. At anything near 20-1, he‘s worth a gamble.

The G1 Kilroe Mile on turf completes the Big Cap Day troika. Quite a program, indeed.

Three-thousand miles away, New York is staging a terrific renewal of the G3 Gotham. The mile and a sixteenth prep for the G1 Wood Memorial has drawn nine entrants and the top four betting choices look like they’ll be the right ones at the finish.

The early favorite at 5-2 is Imperial Council, which seems sophomoric since he has no two-turn form and spots today’s main rivals recent conditioning.

But he’s a huge talent and trainer Shug McGaughey is on a mission to discover whether he fits at the highest levels. McGaughey’s been dying to run him long, insisting the colt doesn’t want to sprint. And he’s been impressive going short.

I Want Revenge (3-1), shipping from California, is a more deserving favorite. He was narrowly beaten by leading Californian Pioneerof The Nile in the G1 Cash Call Futurity at 2, and third behind him in the Robert B. Lewis over a surface rider Joe Talamo insists he didn’t handle. To prove it, Talamo is coming in to ride him back.

The other two favorites are both New York-breds. Haynesfield (7-2) takes a three-race, two-turn winter track win streak into this and has shown he can come off the pace. But he’s never faced this kind.

The most intriguing, however, is undefeated, ultra-fast Mr. Fantasy (7-2). He’s light on seasoning but has won twice on today’s track including one around two turns. He’s a colt with extremely fluid action and acts like maybe, just maybe, he’s really special. His action, to me, is reminiscent of Curlin’s at 3.

Fascinating puzzles all

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, March 06, 2009


Three Hall of Fame Categories a Real Horse Race


Saratoga Springs, NY, March 5, 2009--I always look forward to receiving my Hall of Fame ballot in the mail. It provides a chance to recall good memories, and handicap the races after they’ve been run. I find it easier that way.

Much has been written and said regarding the process of selecting nominees. I don’t particularly care for the present method either, but it is what it is. Besides, the game has a lot weightier issues with which to deal. I’ll take a pass this year.

With one exception: There has to be the same number of nominees in each category with a minimum of three or higher. When there are only two candidates, it gives a not-so-subtle impression that the nominating committee favors one particularly popular candidate.

And we’re not going to name names here.

(Bob Baffert).

The following is ballot is sure to raise some discussion, such is the degree of difficulty in categories where a clear choice was not easily made. Resultantly, the list of new Hall of Fame members, to be announced April 20, should be interesting, indeed:

A final note: I believe all Halls of Fame should be occupied by candidates who were dominant performers and not compilers of statistics. But, like baseball, horse racing is stats oriented.

Unlike automatic benchmarks such as 3,000 hits (Pete Rose?) and 300 wins for a pitcher, racing doesn’t have universally accepted standards.

My personal standards are 15 percent lifetime wins for jockeys and 4,000 career victories; 20 percent win ratio for trainers and for horses one truly dominant stakes season, especially in the short-career era. Good production records as sires or broodmares breaks ties, etc..

One man’s ballot:

TRAINER: Bob Baffert over Robert Wheeler. Deserving of first-round status based on consistent accomplishment at the highest levels of the sport. It’s one thing to have the stock to work with. It’s another to get the job done against rivals that also have the stock to win the big one.

His career highlights include four Double Crowns--meaning eight three-year-old classics, coming within a scant nose from making history--and seven Breeders’ Cup wins, twice winning two on one program. He developed 10 champions and, at 56, is the fifth leading money-winning of all time.

Baffert’s won three Eclipse Awards, was leading trainer at no less than 20 Southern California race meets and storied races too numerous to mention. He’s saddled graded stakes winners at a 23 percent rate over a most prolific career. Most deserving, indeed.

Now the categories become difficult and are sure to become rife with controversy, the kind of good controversy that any sport would happily live with.

JOCKEY: Randy Romero, over Alex Solis and Eddie Maple. Romero was much sought after in his day, winning with 18 percent of his stakes mounts, 17 percent graded, with an overall win percentage of 16.46 and riding 4,294 winners.

The jockeys like to use earnings as their barometer for success, me, not so much. But in deference, Romero ranks 52nd on the list of the 100 leading money-earners of all-time. In winning percentage, Romero ranks 32nd on the all-time list. Of the 31 ahead of him, 13 are in the Hall of Fame.

As a rule, most jockeys do well at a particular meeting or circuit. Level of competition, familiarity and past success breeds more live mounts. Noteworthy, then, that Romero was a leading rider at 10 different tracks.

In terms of individual highlights, he rode five champions, including the undefeated Personal Ensign, five straight winners at Keeneland, six winners on one card, and four stakes one afternoon at Gulfstream Park.

The intangible, of course, is his extraordinary courage, coming back to ride in four months after suffering first and second degree burns over 60 percent of his body in a sweatbox accident to enjoy his most success. Even now, it’s dialysis four times per week. Still, separating him from the two other nominees was difficult.

CONTEMPORARY HORSE-MALE: Best Pal, over Tiznow and Point Given. Voters could be talking about this year’s category a long time. Tiznow and Point Given were undeniably brilliant.

Tiznow remains the only dual (repeat) winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic and was Horse of the Year at 3. Point Given went 9-for-13 including the Preakness, Belmont and Mid-Summer Derby, also a Horse of the Year at 3. They were dominant but raced only two seasons with 28 career starts between them.

Best Pal raced for seven years, started 47 times, won 18 with another 15 in-the-money finishes. Of those 18 wins, 17 were stakes. True, while much of his success was limited to California, he was one of only four horses to ever win the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup and Charles H. Strub Stakes triad.

Only seven horses among the top 100 money earners all-time have more wins, five are in the Hall of Fame.

Enjoying “people’s horse” status for his honesty and longevity, he was facile enough to win five stakes at 2, including two Grade 1s. In the history of the game, he’s a storied geldings, not quite Kelso or Forego but close enough to earn this vote.

CONTEMPORARY HORSE-FEMALE: Sky Beauty, over Silverbulletday and Open Mind. Almost impossible to choose between three nominees who enjoyed dominating careers, but each with flaws. Open Mind was 12-for-19 in her career, and Silverbulletday was 15-for-23. But neither ever beat an older horses when they were 3 or 4.

I’ve resisted voting for Sky Beauty in other years. In compiling a 15-for-21 lifetime slate, a better percentage than her Hall of Fame rivals, she never won a race outside of New York. But at 4 she went 5-for-6, four of them G1. At 5 she won again, and was retired one race after finishing second to last year’s inductee, Inside Information, in the G1 Shuvee.

Written by John Pricci

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