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, November 21, 2017


Racing Family Comes Full Circle at Payson Park


Some people run away as children to join the circus. But not the late Hall of Famer Thomas Joseph Kelly, who ran off to join the racetrack when he was 13. When he passed, eight full decades later, he left as the patriarch of one of racing’s foremost families.

Last week, T.J.’s son, Larry, also a racetrack lifer, became the new General Manager of world renowned Payson Park Training Center in Indiantown, Florida, a two-hour drive north and west of Gulfstream Park.

The appointment is proof positive that what goes around indeed comes around again.

It started with Turnpike Tom, who served as apprentice for trainer Louis Fuestel. When making the transition from hot walker to groom to trainer, it’s no guarantee that one will someday land in racing’s pantheon.

But Kelly did get a pretty good start, having learned from the man who trained the mighty Man o’ War.

Of course, Payson Park long has been the winter home of Roger Attfield, Christophe Clement, Shug McGaughey, Bill Mott, among other racing notables. And when the 59-year-old Kelly joined the Payson family last week, the Payson circle was complete.

Payson Park is widely regarded as one of the best training centers anywhere in the world. It features a turf course and safe, deep dirt track over which hoof beats are barely audible.

European-style hacking trails add to the atmosphere. It allows horses to be horses and a great way to prepare youngsters for the rigors of future racetrack life.

Tom Kelly was the first trainer to use Payson as a training center. Born in Maryland and once a regular on that circuit, Kelly was a mainstay in New York during temperate times and raced primarily at Hialeah in winter. Payson is where some of the horses went for R & R.

The Kelly men are racetrackers through and through. T.J.’s younger brother, Edward (E.I.) Kelly, trained the 1959 sprint champion, Intentionally.

Tom’s wife Frances foaled three trainers; Pat, the oldest, best remembered for his work with New York-based millionaire Evening Attire, and Tim who left the backstretch to become a New York Racing Association official.

Also in the family is a Miami policeman, Dan, and sisters Patricia and Jean.

Laz, as T.J. called him, got his trainer’s license and saddled his first winner in Florida at age 17, 11 years after growing up on the racetrack. His first memory was, at age 6, jumping the fence behind Allen Jerkens’ Elmont barn to watch the reconstruction of Belmont Park.

Larry’s first racetrack responsibility, as with most backstretch apprentices, was walking hots. He was 10. T.J. would pick him up after school and they’d head back to Belmont in time for equine dinner, around 4 p.m.

In his early teens, he worked his way up the training ladder, mostly weekends while in high school. Once a month he got a hotwalker’s check for $140. He’d start the year in a public school in New York and complete the semester in a Catholic school in Miami.

He saddled his first horse while still in high school. In Florida he’d work mornings as a swing groom and eventually became T. J.’s assistant trainer after former assistant Pat went out on his own. He worked at Hialeah before running over to start school by 9:15.

One of his more memorable training victories came early in his career. There was a football coach loved to go to Hialeah and gamble. Larry told him a story about a horse he was running that afternoon and had to leave school early. The coach went with him.

Larry doesn’t remember the name of the horse when we spoke on the phone Monday, but did recall that he was an obstreperous full brother to Stage Door Johnny, who won the Belmont Stakes for Greentree Stable in 1968.

The horse either lugged in or bore out, he did everything except act like a professional race horse. Eventually, though, Kelly figured him out and that afternoon from an outside post, the longshot won and paid $78.

It was quite a payday for the teacher who bet $500 across the board and covered the exotic pools, too. The following day, coach pulled up to the high school in a spanking new Cadillac.

Although Kelly graduated from high school in 1977, he never picked up his diploma. He had taken a few days off to attend a Led Zeppelin concert in Tampa and never made it back south for the ceremony.

It seems that the Immigration Service raided the barn looking for undocumented workers. Kelly was picked up on the way as the outfit headed back to New York.

Larry’s first stakes horse, Roving Minstrel, was purchased from Roy Sedlacek, at that time trainer for George Steinbrenner. Kelly addled his share of stakes winners to the list as a private trainer but, stabled in the same barn, he always remained his father’s assistant.

The T.J. Kelly outfit was noted for stakes winners Plugged Nickel, Colonel Moran, Droll Roll, Misty Galore and Noble Dancer.

The Kellys also developed King’s Bishop, a $72,000 Keeneland purchase for Houston Astros founder Craig F Cullinan Jr. who later sold him to Allaire du Pont’s Bohemia Stable for the unheard of price of $800,000.

The Kellys trained for many high profile owners in the day; David P. Reynolds, Charlotte Weber and Marylou Whitney among them. While living on the Whitney Farm estate in Lexington, he met neighbor Virginia Kraft Payson, the Payson Park training center founder.

In 2007, after serving as a jock’s agent for about a year and then two years as assistant trainer to Wayne Lukas after Mike Maker went out on his own, Larry started his own horse transport business in South Florida.

The business succeeded because there was a horseman behind the wheel. He moved seven national champions, including Dreaming of Anna and Big Drama, among others, and with the exception of this year’s Breeders’ Cup, he transported Gunnevera everywhere he raced since he was a baby.

When it became known that Payson’s General Manager was retiring, trainer Jason Servis heard about the opening and recommended Larry Kelly for the position.

David Cole, longtime adviser to Mrs. Payson, spoke with Kelly on the phone. They exchanged faxed proposals and shortly thereafter Cole asked Mrs. Payson if she wanted to meet Larry. Mrs. Whitney’s Lexington neighbor said: “I don’t have to meet Larry, he’s a friend of mine.”

On November 13, Larry was given the keys and the responsibility to keep some of the biggest names in the game and their multi-million dollar horseflesh healthy and happy.

There is some minor hurricane damage to attend to, roof panels that need attention and a tractor that needs some TLC. “But the immediate goal is to keep these horses happy, making sure we continue to maintain the best dirt and turf training courses available.

“We have 497 stalls on the property and we’re at about half count now. They’re coming in every day,” he said.

“Pop trained for John S. Phipps, a direct descendent of the Phipps family, but Michael Phipps started all this. He, Townsend B. Martin, C.T. Chenery and Bull Hancock came up with the money to build a training center.

“I’m here to represent Mrs. Payson in a way she would want to be represented.”

Everything Larry Kelly has learned from age six has brought him to this moment. As racetrackers say; he’s as ready as hands can make him.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, November 07, 2017


A WINNING HORSEPLAYER’S THREE KEYS: Education, Effort, Effective Money Management


The following was culled from a thread recently posted by a member of the HRI Faithful, Dennis McDonald:

“I was actually getting tired of watching [Breeders' Cup]. So many races. I didn’t cash a ticket for two days until the finish of the Classic was posted official. I ended up catching both days’ doubles and making a hundred-plus when all was said and done.

“I had the exacta picked cold in race 11 (even written down), as well as the 10-cent super box but never placed either bet. My losses were piling up at that point and I opted for a few late doubles keying on Talismanic instead.

“I’m thinking the 10-cent super box in race 11 paid like $250 for a dime. Crazy game. I got my butt kicked for two days but found a door out at the very end of the card. Lucky and glad it is over. Exhausted.”

From one professional handicapper’s frame of reference, this generally is what the game is all about, especially when applied to the Breeders’ Cup betting concept en toto. Many times, in fact, this is exactly what happens.

In order to do well, of course, you must be right when it really counts. And the results of the Turf certainly qualifies as being right when it mattered most to McDonald.

The straight payout of $30.20 on Talismanic was generous for a live price shot, especially considering the team of legendary horseman Andre Fabre and Mickael Barzalona, ranked outside the U.S. as the world’s best rider.

Add freshness and the #1 post position and the risk was totally mitigated by the possible reward. In context—and TJ will back me on this as he read a hard copy of my Tote Busters Pick 4 analysis—the $259.20 Dime Super was a gift.

But don’t feel badly, Dennis. I didn’t have it either. I did not make a conscious decision not to play it as you did but you made the right decision given your bankroll limitations: Always protect your stake.

Personally, I increase my loss tolerance on these big days because money-making opportunities abound. I designate a fixed amount per race so that I won’t "get caught in the switches,” as they say.

The reason why I didn’t have the Super was loss of focus, a factor that beats me more than any other in this game. I’m well aware that it exists but, alas, we’re only human. Of course, as a veteran horseplayer, I never run out of excuses:

When the amateurishly handled Bolt d’Oro was defeated, I lost three solid price-shot contenders from my Pick 4 ticket in the Turf: Talismanic, Decorated Knight and Sadler’s Joy. The first two horses were upgraded and added to the mix after Ulysses was scratched.

On my only backup ticket behind the Bolt d’Oro single were Good Magic and Solomini, the eventual 1-2 finishers in the Juvenile. But my prime Pick 4 was left with only Beach Patrol and Highland Reel for Turf coverage.

I did have the presence of mind to “save” the live Pick 4 by using the three horses I lost when Bolt d’Oro was defeated in rolling doubles with Arrogate, Gun Runner and West Coast, extra tickets with Gun Runner. (The Turf-Classic double returned a worthy $104 per 2 ticket).

However, I never gave the Turf superfecta a thought. Routinely, my Dime play would have been to key firm-loving Sadler’s Joy--3-for-5 at 12 furlongs and a “win-and-in” starter who used the Joe Hirsch as strictly a bridge race.

One doesn’t realize many $259 returns on an investment of $9.60. Focus!

With respect to bankrolls, especially on Breeders' Cup days when interest and payouts skew higher, players should write out basic plays for every race, add up the total and see what’s left for real-time mixing and matching.

As Denny suggested in one of his threads, straight win betting is the best way to go. There’s no getting caught in the switches. Just set your personal odds line for each race—no underlays, please—and bet to win only.

But the modern game generally is not played this way. Today’s horseplayers are in many pools simultaneously and if your “knowledge” is superior and bankroll is adequate, you can take advantage of the crowd, even the most sophisticated opinions.

Of course, at some point you’ll hear some know-it-all wiseguy say “straight win betting is boring.” While it’s true that win betting is not as sexy as taking heavily promoted Pick 4-5-6 moonshots, there is a fail-safe tonic for win-bet tedium: Make bigger bets.

Early Election Day Results


The following is what one NTRA Poll ballot looked like when e-mailed Monday morning:

1. GUN RUNNER
2. COLLECTED
3. FOREVER UNBRIDLED
4. WEST COAST
5. ABEL TASMAN
6. WORLD APPROVAL
7. ARROGATE
8. ROY H
9. LADY ELI
10. GOOD MAGIC

The following is the final tally from 40 National Turf Writers and Broadcasters who voted in the final poll of 2017:

1 GUN RUNNER (unanimous)
2 COLLECTED
3 FOREVER UNBRIDLED
4 WORLD APPROVAL
5 WEST COAST
6 ARROGATE
7 BEACH PATROL
8 ABEL TASMAN
9 ROY H
10 LADY ELI
Other horses receiving votes: BATTLE OF MIDWAY (43), STELLAR WIND (22), BOLT D’ORO (15), GOOD MAGIC (14), ELATE (9), DREFONG (7), RUSHING FALL (7), LADY AURELIA (6), GUNNEVERA (6), TALISMANIC (5), DIVERSIFY (5), WUHEIDA (4). ALWAYS DREAMING (4), UNIQUE BELLA (4), MOR SPIRIT (4), MIND YOUR BISCUITS (3), SHARP AZTECA (2), WAR STORY (1), MENDELSSOHN (1), DISCO PARTNER (1)



Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, October 31, 2017


I LOVE MY…I LOVE MY…I LOVE MY XBTV


If you watch workouts on the new TGS network, XBTV, some clichés just come to life. Good horses work good and most look good doing it. Some trainers start works from different poles, some preferring horses to gallop out on the their own after the first furlongs beyond the finish line.

Other, like Bob Baffert, want more. He wants strong energy gallop outs, so that some of his five or six furlong works are more like seven-eighths or one mile. Chad Brown, like Tood Pletcher, try to do almost all works in company, making those matchups important.

All this is, of course, fascinating to handicappers. Watching well-shot video is in many ways clocking horses live from a press box but is, of course, easier. You’re focused on one horse where a team of clockers are catching what they can when there are 50 or 60 horses on the track.

They have to know the habits of trainers, what they want, or even the weight of the exercise riders. Most riders are probably in the 130-140 pound range; jockeys 115-120; former rider turned exercise legend Tammy Fox is probably 100 pounds soaking wet.

Workouts, good and bad, are in the eye of the beholder, and it helps to know the horse in question. Generally, is it a generous work horse, or one that has to be asked for its best? Is the workout intended to be for needed fitness or sharpness?

Watching works is part of my Breeders’ Cup preparation for the Tote Busters© Late Pick 4 prodct that we sell and for my own wagering come NOV 3 and 4.

It doesn’t become the be-all and end-all, but it breaks an awful lot of ties, often turning “leans” into strong plays. Mubtaahhij was a recent example of this as he prepared for the Awesome Again, which he won at 3-1. He was the “other Baffert” on the day.

Anyway, below are my impressions through Sunday and the list is far from complete; real life often gets in the way. The times stated are “official” published workouts, the observations are mine. Credit to colleague Mark Berner for Gun Runner’s mile gallop-out after working 6 furlongs in 1:11.80 on OCT 23.

Works are listed in chronological order. Miss dates are missing or may be incorrect, albeit by a day or two either way. Hope this helps:

ARROGATE 9/23: Had some energy but not same monster gallop out pre-Dubai, but head was down aardvark-like on the backside, which is him. 10/10: Improved energy but still lacking that great extension galloping out. 10/16: Pressed workmate in hand, much better extension but not quite all the way back. 10/23: 7F in 1:25.40, showed good energy, needed prompting late but with another improved gallop out…
MOR SPIRIT (reportedly poor worker) 10/22: Went OK but needed to be asked to finish and gallop out, only oout half-way up backstretch. 10/23: Much better this time, asked on outside going head to head from gate in 1:13…
MOONSHINE MEMORIES 10/10: 48.40 easy 4F, never asked, rider straight up, galloped out well still going easily. 10/29: 47.20, great lead change, finished strongly not asked, rider standing up throughout, excellent blowout…
DREFONG 10/9: Much best in company, never asked, good extension on gallop out. 10/16: Company with Mor Spirit, restrained speed head to head on inside throughout, handily held lead, 1:12 1/5 from gate [Mor Spirit, driving, couldn’t keop pace]. When Mor Spirit asked on gallop out Drefong re-engaged on own, wouldn’t let him by. 10/23: 4F in 46.80, a motorcycle…!
STELLAR WIND 10/14: Broke off five lengths behind mate, asked on turn, ridden out at finish, good extention but under urging. 10/29: Typical work for her, but was in drive to finish up…
CHAMPAGNE ROOM 10/13: Broke sharply from pole! Effortless stride turn, good energy showing speed throughout… 10/27 5F in 59.60 never asked, almost in a gallop!
ABEL TASMAN: 10/9: 48.60, in 3-4 path throughout work [by design?] had good energy striding out well at finish, no gallop out [also by design?] 10/27 finished up nicely at wire but with prompting…
UNIQUE BELLA 10/18: 47.20 blowout from gate (broke slowly in return) eased before finish, nipping bad habit in the bud? (Date?) Effortlessly in subsequent final work…
TAKAFUL 10/19: Ran off early but good finish, good gallop out, needed stout restraint to be pulled up…
BATTLE OF MIDWAY 10/18: Worked outside mate 1:14.60, very good move, cruised to lead outside late stretch, good energy galloping out…
HUNT 10/22: Excellent work way out on course, gliding over firm SA ground, good speed to finish under a pull, great energy [dogs out 20-30 feet?]…
MR ROARY 10/22: 5F in 1:00 around dogs, lug in stretch, very green…
CAMBODIA 10/22: 5F in 1:00, good energy! dogs out! 10/29 nice blowout, good action over course, energetic gallop out…
SEPARATIONOFPOWERS 10/22: inside of workmate, 48.44 showing hard-held speed head to head all, great work…!
WEST COAST 10/22: outside mate in 1:12.40, pushed to reach mate at 5/16s, asked late and on gallop out! [note subsequent work] 10/29 galloped to the lead 3-wide catching mate entering lane…
BOLT D’ORO 10/22: 1:01.40, restrained speed 2-path all, very efficient lead change, energetic gallop out; forget time impressive mover…
WAR FLAG 10/22: 48.89 working outside mate, skips along, good solid work, should like firm DMR, improving…
LADY AURELIA 10/22?: Stoutly restrained speed throughout going head to head inside mate, never let her by, head bowed…
CAPLA TEMPTRESS: 10/22? [reportedly not great work horse] quickened nicely late working inside mate, good move. 10/29: quick, energetic breeze over course!
TAP DADDY 10/22?: 1:01.80 not asked at all, appeared to gallop all the way. 10/29: stoutly restrained speed backside, restrained speed turn, great energy! pulled up after finish presumably left something in tank.
SNAPPER SINCLAIR 10/22?: Skipped along throughout with good energy. 10/29 left lead all the way!
MUBTAAHIJ & CUPID in company 10/23: 1:13 under some pressure late to maintain even terms on inside. CUPID (outside) always looked stronger of team after reaching even terms, good gallop-out…
GUN RUNNER 10/23: 6F in 1:11.80 machine like! (Mark Berner caught mile gallop-out in 1:38.10). 10/29 galloped 2 miles with great energy, great action…
HEART TO HEART 10/23?: 49.20 good, restrained speed throughout, dogs way out at KEE, finished on own, strong gallop out…
OSCAR PERFORMANCE: 10/22: 51.40 ran turn very well so tight DMR should suit, dogs way out, good strong gallop out…
ALLURING STAR: 10/23 1:26.60 Broke off 5 lengths behind mate, asked to finish up…
AVENGE: 10/21?: Restrained speed head to head outside mate turn, restrained head to head outside stretch, strong action…
PARADISE WOODS 10/20?: 1:14 Restrained speed going easily throughout, headstrong filly relaxed nicely…! Great gallop on 10/27 with draw reins
HEAVENLY LOVE 10/27: Stoutly restrained speed outside head to head stretch, strong move… (Mate FLAMEAWAY ket pace nicely head to head inside despite being turf horse)…
RUSHING FALL 10/27: 47.80 KEE Rider motionless, climbing action on dirt by turf runner no knock. Very energetic gallop-out…
IRON FIST 10/29: pretty work, restrained speed 3-path all…
MIDNIGHT STORM 10/29: had good energy all the way including gallop out! Very fluid…
CUPID 10/29: very sharp, finished fast while just skipping along.
SHARP AZTECA 10/27: Fast work 58 3/5 but ridden out all the way, good gallop out but excitable horse, tough read…
MOON DASH 10/27: big long striding filly 50.20 turf dogs at KEE, finishes well late, strong. (style hindered by DMR and large field)?
ELATE 10/28: great gallop, looked extremely good physically second straight day
PIEDI BIANCHI 10/27: good speed inside company work “won” the work, ears pinned competitive filly but on own, generous gallop out, good ½ mile breeze time (?)

Hallandale Beach, FL, OCT 31, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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