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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Tuesday, July 18, 2017


Time for Del Mar and Saratoga Boutique Shopping--and Betting


Are your bags packed? Are you ready to go?

It’s here; boutique meet time, no more waiting. If you live out West, you need to go out and buy a new hat: Tomorrow, Wednesday, is opening day at Del Mar.

For the turf and surf venue, it will be a season like no other. First, they get to feature the Horse of the World on its opening Saturday in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap. Of course, that horse is the planet traveling Arrogate.

The San Diego is, of course, the bridge race to the next month’s G1 Pacific Classic. But what makes Del Mar 2017 so special is that it will host its first ever Breeders’ Cup event on November’s first Saturday.

But if you live east of the Mississippi, the world’s best extended race meet, the one held in Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, begins its storied session on Friday.

Indeed, it’s the time of year in New York when a Scribner gets to reprise that wonderful line written by the late, great Red Smith. “Take the Northway to Exit 14, turn right, and go back a hundred years.”

Actually, it’s more like 154 years since John Morrissey founded the first meeting at the Race Course on Union Avenue, across the street from the present site, just over there in “Oklahoma” somewhere. The year was 1863.

Now, however, let the official ‘Midsummer Derby’ hype machine begin: If all present elite three-year-olds run well in their preps and remain healthy, Travers 148 will be the deepest and most contentious in the modern era.

While we don’t expect to see another blow-your-doors-off sub two-minute clocking, we do expect so see the man who engineered last year’s record breaker to return with a horse named, ironically enough, West Coast. And he might bring a stablemate or two with him.

As I conjure all this, I wonder, does Bob Baffert lose any important races he ships to anymore? This year, it feels like the answer should be a resounding no.

Maybe we’ll get a clue this weekend when Kentucky Oaks and Acorn winning Abel Tasman ships in for the Coaching Club American Oaks.

Apparently, she, like Arrogate, has met Bullet Bob’s personal workout “standards.” Go ahead, you argue with him. I tried to beat West Coast at Los Alamitos. Instead, he won going away despite having to overcome freakishly awful trip dynamics.

As stated here Sunday, and while we anxiously await the passing of the next 72 hours, West Coast will be joining the winners of all three Triple Crown races, along with the Jim Dandy and Haskell winners and prepsters and, highly likely, a Baffert to be named later.

Races for Friday opening program will be drawn today, Tuesday. The past performances for tomorrow’s Del Mar lid lifter have been available for days.

Consequently, I’ve given the traditional opening day feature, the Oceanside Stakes for three year turf milers, a cursory look and have left eight of the 14 entrants open for further review.

In the interests of full disclosure, we’ve come close but never have we divined the winner of the Oceanside: It was only fair for me to admit this. This renewal is a skullbuster. End of disclaimer.

With truly no disrespect to Del Mar intended, on balance the day-to-day fare there is routinely outclassed by its Saratoga brothers and sisters.

Of course, this does not mean that western horses won’t continue to clean eastern clocks when they ship in, simply because the play the game at a much faster pace. Advantage to speed, always; it’s racing’s universal bias, turf notwithstanding.

(We took a little break before we resumed this, returned to the Oceanside PPs and now have whittled the race down to a workable four or five contenders. Per usual, our findings will be posted in Feature Race Analysis).

The Saratoga race meet will get off fast with five graded stakes opening weekend. The traditional Schuylerville for juvenile fillies opens the lid, to be followed closely by the Lake George for three-year-old turf fillies. Both races are Grade 3.

A big field is expected for the latter but it’s most likely that Chad Brown’s Fifty Five and Dale Romans’ Sweeping Paddy will attract the most betting action.

Saturday warriors will also get treated to a graded double bill; the Sanford for juvenile colts, and the Diana, an always coveted Grade 1 prize for turf fillies and mares.

Abel Tasman will be a strong favorite to win Sunday’s Grade 1 Coaching Club Oaks and deservedly so, but perhaps Salty, who showed she might be something special in Florida this winter, will make a good race of it.

Thus far, Salty has been unable to live up to her promise for one reason or another, but if she can finally put it all together for Mark Casse…

We’re planning to visit the Spa from the Whitney through Travers. Can’t wait to get back to the old stomping grounds. Happy handicapping, y’all.

CHECK THIS OUT:
With appreciation for the confidence and support provided by Xpressbet, a loyal HRI advertiser since our launch in 2007, you will be able to hear our analysis of the Saratoga feature race with timely updates and more.

As racing analyst for Rodger Wyland’s Big Board Sports talk show on ESPN radio, 104.5-FM The Team, and WNYT-13, NBC-TV’s Albany affiliate at the 11 pm hour prior to every racing day, we’ll take an in-depth look at that day’s featured event.

The selection will be presented in HRI’s daily Feature Race Analysis, per usual, with an important wrinkle. But you’ll have to stream it to get the play.

Xpressbet has given us a $100 daily bankroll and we’ll be betting it all in that day’s feature; straight wagers and exotics, too.

You can listen live at http://1045theteam.com/author/rodgerwyland/ Our handicapping segment begins promptly at 11:15 a.m. each weekday, dark Tuesdays notwithstanding.

HALLANDALE, FL., July 18, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, July 09, 2017


Star-Studded Summer Saturday in New York


For publicists, the results from yesterday’s prime time Stars N Stripes holiday program at Belmont Park was a headline writer’s dream:

“Keen Ice stays cool under pressure.” Mind Your Biscuits gets the gravy.” “Practical Joke all business…, etc, etc.”

And if you’ll allow your humble Scribner one: “And the Belmont Derby Award goes to… Oscar Performance.”

Most performances were noteworthy Saturday and business was outstanding, with $19.2 million bet cross-country including $3M on-track. The results included a nice mix of favorites, mid-price winners, and an occasional bomber.

On the two-legged side, from held well with the brilliant Jose Ortiz riding a complete handful of winners, and Joel Rosario with a riding trifecta, a maiden allowances and two stakes.

On the trainer’s side, it was more of the usual suspects; Chad Brown with a pair, including a 1-2-3 sweep in the Belmont Oaks, and Todd Pletcher, who got Keen Ice to win for the first time since he upset American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers.

While the day belong to the two local riding starts, the week belonged to young Tyler Gaffalione who rode a record-equaling seven winners at Gulfstream on Tuesday--more on Tyler later.

I’m sure Chad Brown is right and I’m wrong but in our view Practical Joke is more than a one-turn miler, even if it’s been his game.

There’s nothing wrong with milers--they make the best modern studs, after all—but I’m not convinced nine furlongs is outside his range; possibly even 1-1/4 miles on under the right circumstances.

Practical Joke was a top miler yesterday for sure, with Rosario bringing him out carefully over the heels of rivals for a clear run. The Joker responded with a final quarter-mile burst in 23.61 seconds.

“The pace wasn’t that strong and he had to give six to eight pounds to everyone in the race,” Brown correctly noted.

There was no talk of what’s next but with the same folks owning Cloud Computing, my surmise is that Practical Joke will be Haskell bound while the Preakness winner ships upstate for the Jim Dandy. It’s a plan that makes sense for both horses.

Before the Belmont Sprint Championship, trainer Chad Summers said that he didn’t want the race to be “a heart attack finish” for Mind Your Biscuits. “I want to send a message.”

Message received, loud and clear.

The Biscuit might not be the most brilliant sprinter in America but he just might be the best sprinter in America. His Golden Shaheen in Dubai last March was a defiant much-the-best victory; his Sprint Championship was defiantly dominating.

Rosario didn’t feel he needed to be cute this time, cruising up outside rivals on the turn, taking the lead at headstretch and, at just the moment when it appeared Awesome Slew would pose a serious threat, Rosario got busy and Mind Your Biscuits did the rest.

The four-year-old Posse chestnut stopped the 7-furlong clock at 1:21.84 with a final furlong in 11.94. As Summers said earlier, his colt just might be better at seven-eighths than he is a three-quarters.

And what did the trainer think of his sprinter’s finish? “It makes me think a mile won’t be a problem.” Off yesterday’s run, it would be impossible to disagree.

Mind Your Biscuits will run next on the Travers undercard August 26. “The Forego is our next goal, and hopefully an Eclipse Award as well.” Given Saturday’s effort, those goals are within reach.

The guess is that Chad Brown was thinking why run four fillies in the Belmont Oaks when three will do. So he scratched Fifty Five and watched New Money Honey, Sistercharlie and Uni finish 1-2-3 in the 1-1/4 miles Grade 1 on the Inner turf.

And if it weren’t for Catch a Glimpse last year, the win would have been Brown’s fifth consecutive victory in the former Garden City Breeders’ Cup, nee the Rare Perfume.

"They all ran terrific,” said Brown. “[New Money Honey] got position early and they were moving along pretty good. Javier just backed off a little bit and had first run… My other two horses were two first-time Euros, they broke a little slow and were pretty far back.

Especially the Oaks favorite, Sistercharlie, a private purchase following her second place finish in the G1 Prix Diane just 20 days ago.

Running last of 12 much of the way, she rallied outside into the lane and finished well through the straight, albeit lacking the turn of foot she showed in France. The feeling is that given more time and similar conditions, she will beat her mate when next they meet.

Two things we know for sure about Keen Ice’s upset in the Suburban: Todd Pletcher is correct to target the Jockey Club Gold Cup this fall, 1-1/4 miles being the key, as he stated after the race Saturday, but indicated Sunday morning he will get ready for that with a Whitney run at Saratoga, August 5.

The other is that a slow pace and Jose Ortiz’s hands and quick thinking can wake up any horse.

On paper, Matt King Coal was lone Suburban speed, but does it ever pay to take a horse out of its best game? Isn’t it worth a gamble to find out if speed will come back to you? But Javier Castellano didn’t wait to find out.

Consequently, heavily favored chased the pace throughout, taking the lead prematurely while driving and trying to spot his two major rivals six pounds. It wasn’t the way to go.

And we don’t play the red board here; I mentioned this to a friend not a sixteenth of a mile away from the barrier.

It might not have mattered in the end because Keen Ice ran great, finishing with a flourish, putting some sprint in his step as he crossed the finish line. It’s taken a year or so but it appears that Pletcher’s finally got him figured out.

Given his pedigree, I have no good explanation as to why I questioned Oscar Performance’s ability to get 10 furlongs. Not only did he get his job done while under pressure throughout, he drew off inside the final eighth with exclamation.

Under the circumstances, it was a visually stunning career-best effort. All credit to the horse, Ortiz, and masterful management from Brian Lynch, in the midst of a career year. BTW: the vanquished Irish-bred runnerup, Called To The Bar, is a very nice horse.

A New Riding Star Emerges: While the day belonged to Jose Ortiz, the week belonged to Tyler Gaffalione. In fact, 2017 thus far has belonged to this classy, hard-working young man from Davie, Florida.

As of Sunday morning, Gaffalione is the country’s leading rider with 166 winners, 14 more than runnerup Irad Ortiz Jr.

And for those who may believe he’s beating up on lesser reins-men in SoFla, recall that he rode the Gulfstream winter meet while Ortiz remained at Aqueduct for the winter, which makes comparisons pretty well balanced.

Gaffalione was in New York yesterday riding 83-1 chance Makarios to a sixth place finish in the Belmont Derby, and also finished fourth with his only other mount, a 15-1 chance on the early line.

The third-generation horseman will remain in Florida for now but does plan to ride at Saratoga on Gulfstream’s dark Mondays and Wednesdays and also venture north for the occasional stakes mount.

Aggressive when he needs to be on Gulfstream’s routinely speed kind oval, he rides the turf course with great patience and confidence, showing the kind of coolness and savvy of a rider far beyond his 22 years.

With a little more seasoning, Gaffalione will rank among the nation’s elite. In fact, the young man is practically there right now.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, July 02, 2017


Fast Cash Saturday at Gulfstream


For Imperial Hint, it was at once the good news and the bad news. The good news was that his comprehensive 4-3/4 length victory in the Grade 3 Smile Sprint earned him a free berth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

The bad news is that when he arrives he will need to say hello to his little friends, Sprint colleagues Drefong, Mind Your Biscuits and Whitmore, among many others, poor form notwithstanding.

Of course, defending champion Drefong has yet to make his four year old debut, which is more than a bit curious even if a repeat at Del Mar on the first Saturday of November is the #1 target. Then again, it’s Baffert with a fresh, lightly raced animal. Sound familiar?

Meanwhile, Luis Carvajal Jr., once long-time assistant to old school Florida favorite Bob Durso, will enjoy his 15 minutes which figures to grow longer with every win the four-year-old son of Imperialism compiles.

Imperial Hint had earned vaunted negative Thoro-Graph figures while winning three straight into Saturday’s Grade 2 Smile on Gulfstream Park’s Summit of Speed card and likely will have earned another by making a sun-baked dry surface appear glib with six furlongs in 1:09.23.

“I wanted to see him win like this,” his trainer said. So what’s next? “It could be Saratoga.” The Grade 1 Vanderbilt at six furlongs on July 29 would be the likely candidate. And it probably should be.

Carvajal thought enough of the colt to bring him to Dubai for the Golden Shaheen in March but kept him in the barn after he spiked a fever. Showing a deft hand, he kept Imperial Hint there for a month and freshened him. “It might have helped him out, given him time to refresh.”

Javier Castellano, riding in New York on Friday, Florida on Saturday and will spend his Sunday in Toronto, enjoyed the ride thoroughly.

After running up on heels entering the straight, “we switched off the bridle and went through on the rail nice and easy in the tiniest path,’ said Castellano. “I loved the way he finished. He’s a nice horse, I think he’s going to improve a lot.”

Castellano was not the only New York-based rider who had fun Saturday. Luis Saez doubled up, taking the Azalea with outsider Who’s the Lady for local favorite Kathleen O’Connell, and the win-and-in G2 Princess Rooney with Curlin’s Approval.

Had this been winter instead of opening day of the summer meet, Curlin’s Approval would have been more like 9-5 than the 9-2 she returned yesterday. Bettors had their doubts thinking she went off form, a result of over-aggressive placement. But not Saturday’s spot.

After racing her back too quickly on the turnback for some “easy” G2 Inside Information coin, Marty Wolfson freshened her 63 days, ran her long off that break in Churchill’s G3 Matron, where she never picked up her feet. She returned home, where she won twice at the 7F distance.

“We put the speed back in her,” said principal owner and former trainer Happy Alter, and the package was completed when after some blistering blowouts, the connections reached out for Saez, 2-for-2 on the filly. He’s now 3-for-3 following Saturday’s 4-1/2 length score in an eye-opening 1:21.68.

“Some people thought she might have been off form,” Alter added, “but I thought she needed freshening.” Improving five-year-old Distinta finished well for place, as did New York-based favorite Lightstream, a rallying third after being wrangled back by Castellano and altering course inside for the drive.

Grade at last, grade at last, thank the racing gods, Three Rules is a graded winner at last. Given his talent and toughness, the G3 Carry Back vs. three-year-olds was the right antidote. Although he won the In Reality going long last summer, the rest of his two-turn life hasn’t worked out.

His good third to Gunnevera in the highly rated Fountain of Youth was sandwiched between off-the-board runs in the BC Juvenile and Florida Derby, albeit some extenuating circumstances in the former but not the latter.

Returning from a 48-day break, Three Rules was a willing third from the pole in the 6F Chick Lang on a good Preakness day track after having to gently tap on the brakes at one point. Saturday’s run was easier even if there were some mid-race traffic concerns.

Uncharacteristically rated in seventh despite stretching beneath a reuniting with Cornelio Velasquez--undefeated in five lifetime rides--the team made a decisive thrust between rivals nearing headstretch, tipping into the 6-path before gamely wearing down a promising Mo Cash, a winner of three of four himself, including two at the trip and track.

Said Three Rules’ happy owner Bert Pilcher: “He loves the distance, he loves Cornelio and ran a big race… Mo Cash scared me. He hung tough, too. He’s a nice horse… Graded-stakes winner; I’ve raised some but I’ve never owned one.”

Three Rules dug down deep to win by a neck over the Ron Spatz trainee, who had eight lengths separation on the third finisher. The time of 1:22.63 was respectable off solid fractions, even if the final eighth took 13.41 seconds to complete.

The three graded events topped a stakes-laden 14-race program that produced record Summit of Speed handle of $12.6 million, a 30% increase year over year and 50% greater than the 2015 totals.

A relatively light simulcast Saturday offered two main attractions east of the Mississippi; Monmouth Park’s G1 United Nations and Belmont Park’s G2 Mother Goose. Monmouth’s 11-race card handled $4.4 million total. New York handled $11.6 on its 10-race program.

Written by John Pricci

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