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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Sunday, September 24, 2017


A Star Is Born at Parx Racing


Let's face it. When it comes to determining the three-year-old divisional championship, the Kentucky Derby is a Grade 1 with a bullet.

Isn’t it really perceived as if it were the equal of two other Grade 1s combined? No disrespect meant, but that includes the final two legs of the Triple Crown. Simply stated, America’s Race is in a class of its own.

But the glitter of this year’s Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby champion, Always Dreaming, unquestionably has lost its luster since.

A regression in Baltimore two weeks two weeks post Derby, followed by a freshened and needed-the-race Jim Dandy prep, followed by a subsequent Travers flop brought the colt back to the pack in abrupt style.

Meanwhile, a bay colt by Flatter was gaining momentum, taking some of the glitter away from Cloud Computer’s Preakness and Tapwrit’s Belmont score, with the promise of better things to come in the Easy Goer Stakes. And it came in a big way.

The Los Al Derby against six outclassed rivals subsequently didn’t prove much but the beat went on. And when it arrived in Saratoga and a new dimension was added; early speed, the result was a dismantling of 11 rivals in the Derby of Midsummer.

But when he blew the roof off Parx Racing on Saturday by 7-1/4 widening, authoritative lengths, this west coast beast clinched the division that has lacked definition since it left Louisville.

The newly minted Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby attracted four multiple graded stakes performers in addition to Saturday’s winner, justifying its new status.

That group included the winners of should-have-been-Grade 1s Blue Grass and Wood Memorial and the matchup was rewarded with a brilliant G1 performance, courtesy of a pair of Hall of Famers.

And West Coast just keeps getting better and better and better.

The Penn Derby was his fifth straight victory dating back to May 20, over a different surface each time, and it was his third straight graded stakes, including a pair of Grade 1s back-to-back.

A Classic defeat against older will not diminish his dominance over this peers. But did we not see the future of Breeders’ Cup Classic in Bensalem on Saturday? I’m disinclined to bet against that proposition, given what all were treated to yesterday.

Warned his Hall of Fame trainer: “He’s just learning how to run. To have a three-year-old this time of year, the way he won the Travers, and now winning this race, he is going to be a horse to reckon.”

NOT THIS TIME, MONEY MIKE

For two years now, Mike Smith has been stealing races with stealth-like precision by moving outside one time, moving inside the next; running early one week and running late the next, often against the grain of his mounts’ past performances.

And damn if he almost didn’t do it again on Saturday.

That blur moving up the fence in the Cotillion, a move sustained for perhaps a half mile on a portion of the track that wasn’t the fastest path to victory, was the sophomore filly divisional-leading Abel Tasman. She didn’t win but all she lost was a horse race.

Just as the Travers would turn out to be a precursor to the Penn Derby, Saratoga’s Alabama was going to have an impact on the Grade 1 Cotillion.

Two fillies that moved into the teeth of the Alabama’s 10-furlong pace returned to give the divisional leader a tough fight, one of them emerging the winner.

This time, It Tiz Well didn’t set the pace, as she had in the Alabama; she attended it, allowing a sharp too-fresh-for-her-own-good Lockdown, who broke like a shot beneath Luis Saez and went on with it.

Lockdown took the lead and just as Saez seemingly tried slowing her down gently, Smith sensed it and moved bullet-like up the rail to engage. When he and ‘Abel’ reached the leader, they wisely backed off, trying to conserve for the stretch battle to come.

Meanwhile, Drayden Van Dyke, a rider with patience beyond his years, was content to sit and watch Abel Tasman and Lockdown battle each other in earnest at headstretch. Momentarily, it appeared that Lockdown would win that clash from the outside.

But Abel Tasman battled back on the portion of the track that didn’t yield a single winner all day, and she won that battle but lost the war. It Tiz Well surged on by the embattled fillies in midstretch, giving Songbird’s Jerry Hollendorfer his second straight Cotillion.

Smith described it this way: “The inside [was] wide open and she was pulling me so hard and just took me there. I thought maybe she could pull it off…but it was too much to do.” And then this:

“She’ll be fine for the Breeders’ Cup. It wasn’t one of her best, but she ran well.”

Like her heralded stablemate, the next test will come against older and this time, the whole world will be watching.

SIGNPOSTS ALONG THE BREEDERS CUP ROAD


As we are sure to see several Parx performers in November—including sprinters Coal Front and Running Mate, 1-2 in the G3 Gallant Bob, and another from Belmont, Sharp Azteca, ridden with disdainful confidence by Paco Lopez to win the G3 Kelso—the next two Saturdays will be a prep feast.

On Saturday alone there will be 15 races with aspiring Breeders’ Cup performers from all over the globe competing in races at Santa Anita, Belmont Park, Keeneland, Newmarket, Chantilly and Nakayama.

From now to November 3rd, 81 races will be contested in 13 different countries according to the Bloodhorse online. Breeders’ Cup has become a true international championship event.

At Gulfstream Park Saturday morning, Gunnevera, an excellent late-rally second to West Coast in the Travers, breezed for the first time since the August 26 summer classic, a soft half-mile in 49 seconds at “Calder.” Why no PA Derby?

“I want a fresh horse for the Breeders’ Cup, my horse runs well fresh,” said trainer Antonio Sano. He surely does. He came from 11th of 12 in the Travers, making a sustained turn move to the wire. While no threat to West Coast, he was 2-1/4 lengths clear of Irap.

Irap, meanwhile, still acts a little goofy--and credit Parx stewards for making the right call by not disqualifying Irap from second position.

A head-on view of the stretch run clearly shows that an inside rival came out and bumped Irish War Cry off stride before Irap veered in sharply. Irap was marginally clear and made no contact though it sure was a hairy incident, especially from a pan view perspective.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, September 17, 2017


Churchill and Keeneland, Rivals No More


Money, money, money, money…money.

As it turns out, when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of the people in the Commonwealth and the perception of leadership both real and imagined, long-time rivals Churchill Downs and Keeneland are willing to put bragging rights aside when it comes to scooping up every betting dollar within its borders by opening two satellite tracks in the Kentucky hinterlands.

Not only would the proposed joint venture add to their respective bottom lines, but it has the added benefit of sticking a dagger into the hearts of both Ellis Park and Kentucky Downs, especially the latter, whose popularity with bettors went through the roof with its recently concluded record-setting boutique meet.

In America, everyone has a right to make a living and Churchill Downs Inc. has a mandated responsibility to grow its revenue as a publicly traded company. Keeneland, meanwhile, for which no one has ever suggested an interest in creating a fund-me page, is pulling out all stops mainly because it can.

And if sticking a knife into the heart of Kentucky Downs, which has basked in the national spotlight this month with its highly popular five-day session of unique turf racing and fan-friendly tax rates, that’s an added bonus.

Now we know the real reason for the outrageous takeout increase slated to begin at the Keeneland Fall meet: A homogeneous, maxed-out, tax-on-horseplayer-winnings that not only puts it in line with what CDI charges but sets the same high-rate table it would charge at the new facilities.

To paraphrase Bukowski, “dividends for all my friends!”

According to a story in the Louisville Courier-Journal, dollars and cents notwithstanding, the joint announcement by two industry giants may have other political ambitions that will apply to the bottom lines of both.

The threat of building new tracks in Corbin and Oak Grove may be meant to “apply pressure to a state commission that has unambiguously discouraged applications for new licenses,” according to the newspaper report.

Either way, the announcement was not well received in Franklin, Ky.

“It makes no sense to put a new track in an existing track’s market,” said Kentucky Downs President Corey Johnsen in a statement released Friday. “We are disappointed in the plans to pursue a racetrack license in Oak Grove… a short drive from Nashville, Kentucky Downs’ primary market.”

Kentucky Horse Racing Commission chairman Frank Kling and vice chairman John Roach stated publicly “we have informed Kentucky’s race tracks that we would not consider any applications for new race track facilities in Kentucky…Despite that communication, Churchill and Keeneland have chosen to submit an application for new facilities.”

The tracks are hoping that officials in the Commonwealth’s government have not yet figured a politically expedient way to wet their beaks and add to the state’s coffers.

No statements from Ellis Park were forthcoming. President Ron Geary was unavailable for comment this weekend despite repeated attempts.

Churchill Opens Road of Kentucky Derby and Oaks

Like election campaigns, it’s never too early to consider the following year’s Classics. And if you don’t think the result of Saturday’s Iroquois Stakes has significance on the first Saturday in May of 2018, consider this:

Lookin at Lee, the longshot runnerup to Derby-winning Always Dreaming this year, made the qualifying-points cut into the race by utilizing every one of the four points he earned with his second-place finish to ill-fated Not This Time in last year’s Iroquois.

The winner of last year’s renewal never made it to the starting gate for trainer Dale Romans, but perhaps Saturday’s Iroquois runnerup, Hollywood Star, also trained by Romans, might make it into the Churchill starting gate in 2018. Surely racing’s fickle gods owe him that much.

Time will measure the quality of Saturday’s money finishers but, on its face, the top three finishers all appear to be nice, promising horses. None of them takes your breath away but thus far each has been honest and has hit hard.

Winning The Tabulator is now 3-for-3 lifetime, including wins on three different surfaces and disparate distances, including an all-weather debut and two-turn score in yesterday’s G3 mile and a sixteenth.

With speed to secure a comfortable attending position after breaking from the outside, he separated himself from his main rivals leaving headstretch and never was seriously threatened for the win. Trainer Larry Rivelli continues his excellent work with ship-ins, this one from Prairie Meadows.

Favored Hollywood Star ran well in defeat, finishing second, as he had in the G2 Saratoga Special, and he cut into the winner’s margin late while going very well through the finish post. It looked like a good progression for him.

Third finisher Ten City made a strong wide rally for third, making a 4-wide turn-move that carried him 6 wide into the lane. He closed resolutely through the stretch to the finish after losing contact with the field in the early running.

Frankly, don’t know what to make of G2 Pocahontas winner Patrona Margarita, but the surmise is that there were several disappointing performances behind her, her three-race experience helped her cause but she clearly has a strong affinity for the Kentucky Oaks surface.

NYRA Goes Cross-Country


We love the new NYRA trend of partnering with tracks across the country, and now across the border to wall-less Canada, when it offered an all-turf Pick five including four graded stakes, one from New York and three from our neighbor to the north, including G1s Native Dancer and Ricoh Mile.

What was particularly attractive yesterday was the 15% takeout and a 20-Cent entrance wager, the exotics minimum at Woodbine. The New York tracks use these bets and their own 15% late Pick Five to promote the NYRABets ADW.

By any measure it was very successful. The handle despite the low buy-in was $307,000, and the 20-Cent payoff was worth $289. Individual prices? How about $2.80, 20.20, 6.70, 3.60 and 4.70. The association is onto something with this wager.

But before anyone gets the idea this was a NYRA original, remember the “Stronach Pick 5” from various tracks a decade or so ago? Maybe that didn’t continue beyond a few years because there was no fractional wagering at that time. Happy that NYRA revived it and looking forward to more.

…And Speaking of The Stronach Group

Enjoyed returning to Gulfstream yesterday. There was some tree damage, the canopied seating area at the top of the stretch was bare and lacking both seats and shade, and the South parking lot was closed; Gulfstream was a Florida Power and Light staging area during Hurricane Irma.

Thankfully, the rest of the grounds and, more importantly, all backstretch personnel and the animals went unscathed. Seven hundred horses shipped north to Palm Meadows from Gulfstream but even those in the Gulfstream and “Calder” barn areas survived without incident.

At Laurel, meanwhile, their Fall Festival program, featuring the G3 DeFrancis Dash won by Chublicious, with 1-2 Whitmore third, had a good day despite stiff competition, booking over $3.7 million in bets.


Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, July 23, 2017


Saratoga Diary Prep: Spa Off to Blazing Start


Dear Diary,

I know you’re anxious to celebrate your 40th anniversary—yes, since 1977—but it can’t be a real diary unless you’re there. I will be, but first some matters on the home front that need my attention.

So, let’s call this the inaugural Simulcast Edition of Saratoga Diary, and that’s a good thing, too. No distractions like dinner plans, cocktails, visiting with old friends, favorite places. What remains is what happened between the fences.

I might not have been there but over 64,000 people were the first two days of Saratoga-148. Those are wow numbers, or as TJ was saying in the Gulfstream press box about Friday’s opening; that’s almost Travers-like.

Unlike Del Mar’s disappointing start, Saratoga opened on a roll with all-sources handle up 14% to $20.3 million on opening day. Saturday’s numbers were just as strong: $24.9 million from all sources.

Off the top, the headlines are: What’s with the main-track surface? Consecutive-years fast start for Kiaran McLaughlin. The Ortiz Brothers Show. And wait, there’s more:

Chad Brown, Bobblehead of Renown with a Saturday trifecta. Slow starts for Hall of Famers, Javier and Johnny V. The Greatness of Lady Eli. And what’s up with the Todd Two-Year-Olds?

FRIDAY JUL 21: Opening Day. It was clear from the jump, the “And They’re Off at Saratoga” for mid-level claimers, that the amount of kickback on the first turn was extraordinary. Can you say cuppy track?

Well, if you waited for the third race under similar conditions, but for better horses, can you say dead track, too? Fifty-two to the half; one-seventeen to the quarters; a mile and an eighth in one-fifty-five plus, are you kidding?

Roller, harrows and water, please.

In the opener, the Ortiz Brothers put on a show as Irad the Older got the best of Jose the Younger following a truly stirring head-to-head duel from which favored Indycott got the best of River Date, with Rudy Rod going 1-2.

And score the first win for someone who has become a perennial leading owner, Michael Dubb. Boy, those NYRA Board members always have been tough to beat, right?

Race 2: Beaux Arts was very good breaking maiden in juvenile turf sprint for Russell Cash and race produces first Horse to Watch: Misty Forest, a little too hyper pre-race but was going well at the finish after a bit of a circuitous journey. Lady of Miracle put in a good, sustained run down the lane; nice race to build on.

R4: The obstreperous Takaful finally ran back to his impressive sprint debut making the dull track look exceedingly fast. He raced 6 furlongs in 1:09.89 and I swear he galloped out like 20 in front at mid-first turn.

Takaful just never stopped running and was the first of Kiaran MLaughlin's double. Chad Brown’s Patternrecognition went well late and is sure to be odds-on, and a most likely winner—next out.

R5: Sagamore Farm and trainer Horacio De Paz putting it all together this season, getting it done with juvenile maiden breaker Southhampton Way under clever handling from Ricardo Santana Jr., the first of a natural double for the Midwest star.

Todd Pletcher firster Honey Glow, heavily bet from the bell, broke flat-footed, was pushed hard to keep pace on the turn, never changed leads and stopped badly. It’s one thing to get beat but…phew!

Purrfect Miss unseated Manny Franco at the gate but put in a solid rally through the stretch; note. Well backed Amazing Belle had no apparent excuse.

R6: Itsinthestars belongs in your stable mail. She cranked up with a 4-wide move at the turn, momentum carrying her 6-wde into lane. Think Javier Castellano was too aggressive, angling out early far turn, where if she stayed covered a bit longer, her game late effort might have paid dividends.


G3 SCHUYLERVILLE: Dream It is looked like a winner every step beneath Luis Contreras, who came down from Canada with trainer Barbara Minshall to get the money. Minshall had her set for dirt debut coming off the WO synth. The filly ran away through the lane despite staying on her left lead.


G3 LAKE GEORGE: As aggressive as he was earlier, Javier used perfect timing to get much-improved newly-blinkered Proctor’s Ledge home a decisive winner with a strong rally, looking like a potential repeater. Party Boat was going well late through the lane for Motion/Rosario team. Dream Dancing appeared dull and quiet in the post parade and run to her looks.

SATURDAY, JUL 22: Main track was a little quicker than opening day, but was still tiring.

R1: A two-horse race on paper turned into a romp for Mr. Crow beneath Luis Saez, getting Todd off the duck. Favorite Marshall Plan was too high pre-race, and too dull during the running; note pre-race behavior next out!

R2: Really annoyed as Voodoo Song, 9-2 pre-loading but 5-2 midway down the backside, ran off and hid from two-turn turf rivals first-time for Linda Rice on the recent retirement of trainer Mike Hushion. Note that the filly was still headstrong despite removing blinkers.

R3: Graham Motion may have a juvenile turf star in the scopey Untamed Domain. While ground saving, she was forced to check entering the turn, moved up again, then angled out gradually through the stretch and ran down Another, who got first run and was finishing well herself. Everything being equal, bet both back.

R5: Todd FTS Machismo, a $500K purchase, was bet from the bell, chased the pace from perfect outside stalking position, was pushed hard to keep up at headstretch and, like Friday’s well bet newcomer, stopped.

It’s one thing to get beat, but there’s no other word to describe these performances: embarrassing. Not Arrogate-embarrassing, but disconcerting nonetheless.


G3 SANFORD
: Scooped me but I was not alone, as Firenze Fire was a double-digit ship-in for Jason Servis, who insists the colt will get added distances in the future. We assume he was thinking Hopeful and Champagne. Free Drop Billy, 15-1 ML to 3-1 fave, was a very good late-run second; follow progress.


G1 DIANA: Turf specialist or not, Lady Eli is one of the best fillies I’ve ever seen, ranking among the all-time great mares in my view. She has been the best story in racing since staring down death, as laminitis claims too many equine lives.

Lady Eli’s with a last-strides victory, improving her lifetime slate to (12) 9-3-0, finally got her Spa Grade 1, but that, too, is not the story.

A feel-good filly, she was very high pre-race, breaking out with shoulder sweat in the parade, Irad doing his best to keep her quiet. But she didn’t look like a very happy camper.

Breaking through before the start, the kiss of death for 99 of 100 horses, she settled off a moderate pace, was patiently and confidently handled, tipped 5-across the track into the lane, Irad only hand-riding vigorously.

Quidura, a very nice filly from Motion’s barn and getting eight pounds from Lady Eli, she got first run and was holding her off. But watch the replay for the picture of a horse that just refuses to lose.

She had every excuse and got the job done. I don’t throw the word great around often. In fact, I use the term “G-word” instead, but I’m making an exception here:

Lady Eli has to be great race horse to do what she’s already done. Trainer Chad Brown, a man of few words, never mind hyperbole, said: “Today she proved she's one of the all-time greats.” That she surely did.

Written by John Pricci

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