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, May 16, 2017


Big A Turf II, a Win-Win for NYRA


Two weeks ago, the New York Racing Association revealed that Aqueduct’s inner dirt track is in the process of being converted to a second turf course, and that the main dirt track will be renovated and converted to accommodate year-round racing.

Finally, sanity is prevailing.

In our view, this comes a decade or two behind schedule. In that context, the current NYRA administration deserves props for finally putting the Aqueduct main track on course to become a meaningful winter meet, more reflective of what New York racing should be.

It wasn’t very long after its inception in 1976 that the winter-track race meet became the tail that has wagged the NYRA dog and, sadly, if one can picture those optics, it certainly did not do NYRA’s national brand and image any favors.

The argument we made historically was that if the winter surface is so great, why wasn’t it installed on the main track in the first place? You can’t run a world class American race meeting if the only dirt options are six furlongs or two turns.

The one negative in all this is that, with respect to racing and training, many New York horseman consider the existing main track surface at Aqueduct to be the best of NYRA’s three dirt-racing surfaces.

In any case, it wasn’t long before the “turf course” announcement initiated speculation that the addition of a second grass course is prelude to an altered big picture, a plan that eventually could lead to the consolidation of racing downstate at one venue.

There are several scenarios being proffered, the most logical being the possibility that Aqueduct will serve as a temporary year-round venue while Belmont is shuttered for a complete makeover to be determined at some point in the near future.

Following this reconstruction period, Belmont would reopen as a permanent, state-of-the-art home for year-round racing in the metropolitan area.

This would dovetail nicely with the proposed building of an arena across Hempstead Turnpike that would be, among other things, the new home of the New York Islanders.

The perception is that this new “sports complex” would be Long Island’s answer to Madison Square Garden and Barclays Arena. There are millions of people who live east of the Nassau County line. Belmont Park already rests hard by the conveniently accessible Cross Island Parkway.

All this certainly is an intriguing notion.

The idea that Big A Turf II is a blueprint for a bigger plan was given further speculative life when Martin Panza, NYRA’s Senior Vice President of Racing Operations, declined to speak on this issue for the record but indicated that a big-picture announcement could be forthcoming later this year.

Panza also indicated in a Daily Racing Form story that NYRA is in talks with Gov. Cuomo and the horsemen concerning the future of racing in the New York metropolitan area.

A win-win would be that Belmont Park once again becomes a racing mecca while Cuomo grabs the land he so covets in Queens for further development.

“There is a much larger plan,” conceded Panza.

The short-term benefits of a second turf course and reconditioning the Aqueduct main track are obvious. Given the burgeoning popularity of turf racing with bettors and racing departments throughout the country, the move makes a lot of good business sense.

Modern turf courses are larger with better drainage. They provide additional racing lanes for extended race meets in the same manner that separate turf courses such as those in place at Belmont and Saratoga provide.

In addition to being able to card 7-furlong and flat-mile races out of a chute on a dirt surface that will play in the northern temperate zone, the benefit a new turf course will allow for the carding of shorter turf sprints, racing that almost always overfill at every class level.

An indication of the growing trend toward turf racing and greater American participation in international racing is another burgeoning trend, so much so that sales companies are now scheduling select sales that feature successful turf sires.

Yes, there is life beyond the Kentucky Derby.

It is rare that racing makes any progressive change at all, but one such as this is in New York is at once good for the business and the sport of Thoroughbred racing, a win-win.

When one considers New York racing specifically, a third win is at play; the ability to compete with the escalating threat to New York winter racing that has come from Maryland, specifically Laurel Park.

Over the past two seasons, The Stronach Group has made sizable eight-figure investments to their Laurel property. The quality of the racing there has improved markedly over all class levels and the handle numbers reflect as much.

Turf sprints and the ability to run 7-furlong and mile-chute races during late fall and early spring in the Northeast has given TSG an upward trajectory, as compared to New York’s, this past year in particular.

No one along executive row would admit this but if I were in one of those chairs, I’d sure being thinking about it. Then if any of my colleagues still had doubts about the validity of this concern, I'd suggest that they only need check out Linda Rice’s 2017 stats for confirmation.

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, May 16, 2017

Mark Berner is a bit under the weather. His Inside New York column will resume next Tuesday

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, May 04, 2017


HRI Staff Oaks and Derby Selections


HRI Staff selections for the 2017 Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby. These races celebrate not only racing in this country but Thoroughbreds as a way of life and a living for scores of many, many more. It may bet wet and wild in Kentucky, but may the sun shine bright on your favorites late Saturday afternoon.

A safe and speedy journey to all the players and may the best horse and team win.


TOM JICHA

KENTUCKY OAKS

1-Farrell--Couldn't be any sharper
2-Paradise Woods--Brilliant SA Oaks; these are much tougher
3-Salty--Gulfstream Oaks an eye-opener
4-Abel Tasman--No shot vs. free running winner at SA

KENTUCKY DERBY


1-Thunder Snow--UAE Derby was an extraordinary performance. Post could be better.
2-Always Dreaming--Best of the U.S. and fits Derby undefeated as 3YO pattern.
3-Gunnevera--Always puts in a big late run. If race comes apart late, he's there.
4-Classic Empire--Which horse do we get in the crazy Churchill atmosphere?

MARK BERNER

OAKS


1-Paradise Woods earned top figure at Santa Anita.
2-Miss Sky Warrior won nicely at the distance.
3-Abel Tasman had excuse when second to top pick.
4- Farrell won four straight against weaker.

DERBY

1-McCraken should benefit from return and trained smartly since; 3-for-3 at Churchill.
2-Gunnevera had an insurmountable task in last and will provide value here.
3-Always Dreaming has been too eager training this week; tough if not overly keen Saturday.
4- Classic Empire has not been able to duplicate top freshman effort as a sophomore.

INDULTO

KENTUCKY OAKS


1-Paradise Woods
– Mandella Charge exploded in G1
2-Farrell – Versatile multiple stakes winner on a roll
3-Salty – Overcomes obstacles
4-Miss Sky Warrior – Distance suits streaking filly

KENTUCKY DERBY


1-Hence - Toyed with strong field for Asmussen
2-Classic Empire – Juv champ edged same horse as #1
3-Irap – O’Neil magic prevailed over strong opposition
4-Irish War Cry – Motion engineered 2 powerful preps

JOHN PRICCI


KENTUCKY OAKS


1-Abel Tasman-Second-time Baffert/Smith; race shape dictates
2-Farrell-Stalking style, speedy, forward upside and loves the surface
3-Lockdown-Badly needed latest; Bill Mott pointing; huge work at CD
4-Salty-Post a killer but helps price; forward lines and could be special filly

KENTUCKY DERBY


See Feature Race Analysis on Friday



Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, April 23, 2017


Racing Around the Weekend


SoCal shippers had themselves a day Saturday, as did the resurgent Hall of Famer nominee, Javier Castellano.

Ironic, too, that the only mention of California horses on the national stage this year has been how disappointing Golden State three-year-olds have been this season, ill-fated Mastery notwithstanding.

But it’s sophomoric to count them out of Kentucky Derby mix quite yet; more on that later.

As for senior Californian equines, Itsintheday carried the day, virtually doing the same thing in Keeneland's Elkhorn field that he did to Left Coast marathoners in the San Luis Rey last month: He held off the deep closers from mid-stretch to wire for a hard-fought victory.

It was the second straight Grade 2 title for the team of Jeff Mullins and Tyler Baze.

Mullins said afterward that he wasn’t sure if there is more distance left in the five-year-old’s tank, which may explain why he didn’t stay home for a run in the 1-3/4 mile San Juan Capistrano, even if the latter-day version is somewhat diminished.

It’s impossible to conjure up the ‘San Juan’ without thinking of legendary Hall of Famer Charlie Whittingham, who won 14 of these marathons: Harvey Pack always said that they started the race, ran round and round, and stopped it when a Whittingham horse got to the front.

Several hours after the Elkhorn, Bob Hess Jr. struck casino gold by shipping cross-country to win West Virginia’s richest race, the $1.25 Charles Town Classic, beneath Javier Castellano, who ironically used ‘Belmont Balcony” tactics on a bullring by making a 5-path sweep to victory.

The win was Castellano’s third in the event, leading all riders in that category, as he continues on his recent roll, looking like the Castellano who in 2016 won his fourth consecutive Eclipse Award as America's champion rider.

The year didn’t start out well for Castellano, probably owing to a modicum of pushback after having changed agents. Castellano was riding at an uncharacteristically poor 18% rate the first half of the Gulfstream Park meet, a session he has dominated in recent record-breaking seasons.

Then came the news of his Hall of Fame nomination and immediately his confidence was restored and he’s now working his magic once again. Ironically, Castellano has zero Derby victories when compared to the CT Classic, a scenario he hopes to remedy.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN: It might be that Castellano’s Derby could end aboard Gunnevera a fortnight from now. Actually, at about the time the HRI faithful catches up with this post, the late running Fountain of Youth hero should have arrived at Churchill Downs.

He was vanned from Miami via Larry’s Kelly’s Elite Horse Transport, with Gunnevera in tow along with trusted groom Luis Cabello. Perhaps in search of some good Derby karma, he was bedded down Saturday night at Horatio Luro’s Old Mill Farm in Cartersville, Georgia.

Senor Luro, as he reverently was known, saddled two Derby winners, Decidedly in 1962 and the great Northern Dancer two years later. Kelly, himself a son of legendary Hall of Famer Thomas (T.J.) Kelly, is licensed in about a half-dozen stakes, so Gunnevera will get top hands-on care along the way.

Gunnevera worked a solid five furlongs at “Calder” Friday before leaving Miami Gardens for the Midwest and a shot at immortality.

DERBY WORKTAB:
Saturday morning was to be the first official day of Kentucky Derby workouts at Churchill Downs, but timed moves were scrapped owing to the sloppy conditions. The Downs has carved out a window from 8:30 to 8:45 a.m. each morning for Derby and Oaks horses only.

The workouts are available via live stream at that time by clicking on at http://www.kentuckyderby.com.

Typical work from Dale Romans as J Boys Echo worked a maintenance 5/8s this morning around the lower first turn in 1:02 and change, galloping out in 1:16 and a couple, on a fast track. He will be honed for speed+stamina next weekend…Gormley had a nice trial out west Saturday. He appears to be learning his speed-rationing lessons well…

RACING ON TV?: 60 Minutes will have a segment on Timber Racing tonight (check local listings) in advance of Saturday’s Maryland Hunt Cup. The race is approximately four miles over timber fences, not the brushy type that American chasers jump over and through on the steeplechase circuit.

In addition to the distance, horses must clear 22 fences. There will be a featured interview with the legendary Paddy Neilson, 75. Neilson has won the event three times.

HRI DERBY SIX-PACK: With the Illinois Derby, won by Multiplier, a non-qualifying Kentucky Derby event, there was no new poll taken this week for HRI's Derby Hi-5. These were the top vote-getters with our staffers last week, on a 6-4-2-1-1 consensus basis.

HRI KENTUCKY DERBY CONSENSUS

1 - (Tie) Always Dreaming [20]
1 - (Tie) Classic Empire [20]
3 - McCraken [4]
4 - (Tie) Girvin [3]
4 - (Tie) Gunnevera [3]
4 - (Tie) Irish War Cry [3]


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., April 23, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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