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, October 27, 2018


Breeders’ Cup XXXV, a Churchill Primer


In searching for some trends with Breeders’ Cup Friday only six days hence, I stumbled upon a counter-intuitive stat regarding payoffs, hitting me right between the eyes:

Eight Breeders’ Cup renewals have been staged at Churchill Downs totaling 104 races, so riddle me this: Favorites have won 31 percent of the races yet payoffs have averaged a tad over 12-1. How can this be?

Easy, once you consider that a half dozen winners paid over $75. And so, yes, anything is possible in horse racing and it probably will happen at America’s version of the World Championships.

Inarguably, the 14 races presented over a two-day period is the greatest challenge in handicapping and betting in North America. And as such, the scientific approach to betting is quite clear: Have a hunch? Bet a bunch!


We stumbled across some interesting factoids which, while no help divining potential winners, makes interesting trivia. To wit:

Much has been made of trainer John Sadler’s 0-for-41 Cup drought but I was interested to learn that Christophe Clement’s futility is within six entrants of Sadler’s level of futility, with Ken McPeek another half dozen behind Clement.

Note, however, that Clement has been on fire at Belmont Park and McPeek has been killing it at Keeneland. Will their current state of en fuego be on display in Louisville? Both have serious contenders in the Turf Sprint and Juvenile Fillies, respectively.

And how about this? Much has been made of the Arc winner’s futility as Breeders’ Cup Turf favorites but that’s only in respect to storied Arc winners: In all, the Arc has been the bridge to 10 Breeders’ Cup winners.

Those losses by Arc winners came at the end of long campaigns when those horses shipped over with tanks emptied out. Enable will be making her third start of the year, so what to make of that?

Thematically, I could go on forever but what would be the point? So let’s consider background that might actually pay off on the day(s), some quite handsomely.

Does where winners last prepped matter? Yes and no. Tracks in New York, Kentucky and Florida lead the way, of course, but winners of Breeders’ Cup have prepped at 36 different tracks. Who knew? I didn’t.

In terms of track bias; veteran horseman will tell you that the Churchill Downs surface of spring doesn’t act like Churchill in the fall. With its fall meet starting today, watch race replays to note the current trend.

Of course, everything can change race day, particularly if the track is wet which, according to long range forecasters, just might be. Should that occur, the inside could be very good, or very bad.

As a rule, however, wide-turn Churchill sweepers often get the money and that includes turf, although not necessarily the case with Cup two-year-olds. Personally, I want to see my runners save ground at some point.

Of course, everything is predicated on price, which makes straight betting highly desirable despite available life-changing options. In vertical pools, take the common sense approach; more price shots will finish third or fourth than first or second--especially deep-closer types.

On Future Friday, take now horses, especially those coming off a lifetime best performance. Rarely does a horse win off two lifetime starts; experience matters. And, as a rule, filly form is more reliable than the male’s.

When it comes to turf, juveniles withstanding, Europeans dominate. Prefer proven Euros that have not been over-raced; Americans that are coming up to a big one, not off a big one. At Churchill, European turfers are 6-for-8.

I’m old school enough to go the class-on-the-grass route. I always start counting the number of G1s and G2s and go from there, especially the Euros since there’s scant past-performance data to guide the way.

One of the more vexing races of this or any year is the Sprint. That’s because any style will do the job, the outcome is determined by how hot and how contested the early pace turns out to be.

Does the speed of the speed bottom out the field? Will the pace melt down? Monday’s draw is the key to how the race shape of Sprint 35 develops. X Y Jet is the X factor here. Can’t wait to see this year’s renewal.

On balance, the lynchpin Distaff and Classic will settle divisional championships, the latter often determining Horse of the Year, which is not likely the case this year.

This year, retired Triple Crown champion Justify is casting a shadow from Lexington all the way to Louisville under which the Classic winner is not likely to emerge no matter how impressive he might be.

Distaff 35 is a glorious renewal, pitting an older defending champion and a pair of uber talented imports vs. a small handful of powerful three-year-olds who benefit from receipt of four important pounds.

The Distaff favorite has been part of six exactas in eight editions of the local race, and knowing who the post time favorite will be this year is as difficult now as predicting the winner. Some very good fillies will be very good prices.

The same can be said of the males, too, although it appears that Accelerate—defeated by a neck at Oaklawn Park the only blemish in a six-race campaign--will be the public’s choice, especially given a 3-for-4 slate at 10 furlongs.

It’s proven virtually impossible for the Distaff or Classic winner to front-run their way to victory. Given that the Classic is a mile and a quarter, look for a Kentucky Derby-style turn move to play a prominent role in the outcome.

The Grass Is Greener at Gulfstream Park, Literally

Looking forward to celebrating Breeders’ Cup Saturday among the fans at Gulfstream Park and eager to catch my first glimpse of the recently completed, newly constructed turf course.

“The whole course has been completely re-sodded and is already in,” reports General Manager Bill Badgett. “We started on the inside and worked our way out. It’s Celebration Bermuda turf, it cost $900,000.” It is said that this model spreads quickly, forming a dense course.

The brand is popular with landscapers, golf course designers and is used on polo fields. It requires less mowing and develops deep roots, providing strength, wear-ability and drought tolerance. Seems tailor made to the Hallandale course with it extensive reliance on turf racing. Sounds promising.

However, there still is no word on timing poles. The hope is that new timing technology, in place at Laurel, Golden Gate and Portland Meadows, all TSG tracks, will prove a success and one day be implemented at Gulfstream and Santa Anita.

RIP Rick

I first met Rick Violette one morning at Hialeah, my first-ever racing venture into South Florida. Can’t recall the year, but I remember by nightfall I was crashing in his spare room. At the time, Rick was Angel Penna Jr.’s lead exercise rider.

Violette is known to horseplayers for his early support of New York’s modern breeding program, his expert handling of debuting two year-olds, and most notably his work developing the state-bred Diversify, winner of the 2017 Jockey Club Gold Cup and 2018 Woodward.

Born in Worcester, Mass and college educated, Rick was extremely bright with a great sense of humor, but not when it came to the plight of backstretchers of every stripe. On that, Rick was all business.

Much of his life and passing at 65 was well documented this week; as a NYRA Board member for 25 years; nine years as President of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and heralded for his development of a backstretch worker’s health insurance program, workers’ compensation for jockeys, and for negotiating an equitable split of Aqueduct VLT revenues.

Violette made significant advances in backstretch areas of health care, college scholarships, rider safety, and substance abuse counseling. He was a founding board member of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, the TAKE2 Second Thoroughbred Program, and Take The Lead Thoroughbred Retirement Program. This notes most, but not all his good works.

Obviously, Rick and I worked different sides of the track. We had several heated discussions over the years about the use of raceday Lasix, one lasting for several hours in his Saratoga barn office on a dark Tuesday and several more at the gap that leads to the Saratoga main track during morning training hours. Our respect and friendship endured the test of time.

As a horseman, Rick’s racetrack exploits might not put him in league with an Allen Jerkens or a Charlie Whittingham, but to countless numbers of backstretch workers and industry stakeholders, Rick Violette was a remarkable horseman in every way, a man among men.

Written by John Pricci

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