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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Sunday, October 21, 2018


From Northeast State-breds, to Kentucky, to Great Britain, Champions Everywhere


Tomorrow Breeders’ Cup pre-entries happen and in two weeks, many world championships will be decided. Well, Maryland and New York couldn’t wait to get started and had a party of their own.

As a fan and bettor who supports the game on a daily basis, I implore the two states to talk to each other and schedule the Maryland Million and New York Showcase Day a week apart.

I watched both—and Keeneland, too—but couldn’t really get into either. Following two simulcasts is difficult enough, three nearly impossible even if I were years younger...

That ship has sailed so the hope is that common sense and common interest will prevail next year. It’s more than handicapping X’s and O’s and historical events are about nuance; there’s no time or space for that in Simo World.

As a native New Yorker, we’ll start there. Two New York-breds have been major national players this year but sadly Diversify was sidelined with an injury—more thoughts on Mind Your Biscuits later.

We bring all this up because last year Highway Star also was an open class player, competing in and winning major stakes but did not resurrect her good 2018 form…until Saturday.

Courageously—the filly and David Cohen both--came through narrowly inside Filibustin after straightening away, repulsed Pauseforacause, and held a late rally Satisfy safe.

It was a classy return to form while her main rival, Holiday Disguise, ran dreadfully. Credit trainer Ubillo Rodrigo and besides, what would Showcase Day be without a Chet and Mary Broman bred and owned winner?

Other highlights included: Offering Plan and Fifty Five showing their open class credentials under near-arrogant handling, winning the Mohawk and Ticonderoga, respectively, and Runaway Lute taking the Hudson—imagine that, a Handicap—notable for continuing Gary Contessa’s resurgence.

Did we mention that Runaway Lute, the middle leg of a natural triple, gave Hall of Famer Javier Castellano his 5,000th career victory? And he didn’t even need to race-ride to do it? Congratulations on a remarkable achievement.

Bonita Bianca was very good taking the Empire Distaff—Take Charge Aubrey was awful—and Pat On the Back continued Jeremiah Englehart’s uncommonly dominating 2018 season in the Empire Classic.

Along with Runaway Lute, it was Harold Lerner and partners second Showcase Day score.

We would be remiss if we didn’t note that off-turf maiden winning juvenile Koscuiszko appears to have stakes caliber efforts in his future.

At Laurel Park, many results were appropriate and/or made us smile: Crabcakes won the 3rd at 2-5, commencing a Pick 3 that paid all of $5.20 when a 3-5 and 1-5 shots took two subsequent legs.

Enjoy when stalwarts of a particular region do well on the biggest days of the local wagering scene so winners saddled by T. Bernard Houghton, Mary Eppler, Hamilton Smith and Katie Voss were entirely appropriate.

To watch the ageless Hall of Famer Edgar Prado nurse Saratoga Bob along as a pace presence throughout and keep the gelded 4-year-old alive to reach the line in front was thing of beauty in the Maryland Million Classic—and he beat me!

The victory was Prado’s record 18th Maryland Million victory, one more than another Hall of Famer, Ramon Dominguez, the legendary talented who dominated the Maryland—and New York--scene back in the day.

Once again, good racing meant good business. Laurel Park handle of $5.7 million was the highest in 11 years, a 30% increase year over year. Belinda Stronach was on hand to award the winning Classic trophy to the owner group Wayne Harrison, Maryland mainstay Robert Manfuso and Voss.

Since inception, it was rare when New York Showcase Day was the second largest handle day on the Belmont Park racing calendar. When no business release appeared in our inbox, well called Belmont Park for a handle report on the day and any other pertinent business information.

NYRA’s switchboard operator informed me that I couldn’t get put through to the Press Office whose department extension is unavailable to callers, doesn’t accept calls from the press and was offered an email address instead.

I have the email address but did not send an inquiry. If a communications office only accepts email inquiries, I find the response is less than it can be and in instances when no figures are released that no news generally is not good news. What genius thinks non-verbal communication is good policy?

Racing to the Midterms


There are gambling and gambling related issues on the ballot in Florida. One is eliminating dog racing in the state, the other an initiative to have voters decide on future gambling expansion, not Tallahassee.

I initially had knee-jerk reactions on both issues: Dog racing bad; policy decisions by voters good. Then I started considering swords that cut both ways.

Racing has its issues with the ethical treatment of horses vis a vis aggressive placement or scheduling, aggressive placement, medication and aftercare, to name a few. [Florida Amendment 13, Ban on Wagering on Dog Races Amendment].

But they pale when compared to the horror stories associated with dog racing where, for instance, allegations of cocaine use makes raceday Lasix look like vitamins compared with other alleged performance enhancers in dog racing.

And who wants legislators lobbied or outright bribed when it comes to gambling expansion which has more to do with gaming and sports betting than it has on horse racing per se. [Florida Amendment 3, Voter Approval of Casino Gambling Initiative]

While the choices may seem obvious, they are the oft-referred to slippery slopes. If dog racing is eliminated, would animal rights activists, buoyed by the elimination of dog racing, go after horse racing next?

What’s that? Horse racing is too significant with respect to jobs and tourism so it would never happen. And Donald Trump could never be elected president either.

And who wants to possibly advance more governmental corruption in the name of economic progress?

If the ability to make gambling-related decisions became the purview of voters, would the extreme right spearhead the curtailment of expansion to the extent it results in more defunding of educational and social programs that traditionally red states are noted for?

My opinion is evolving on both.

In the Empire State, meanwhile, a little known candidate for Governor, Larry Sharpe, purports to help New York racing by enacting what he terms common-sense reforms to the New York Gaming Commission, whose conduct could use better definition regarding its authority, scope and process.

Sharpe believes that while licensing fees have remained relatively low, regulations surrounding fitness for licensure and reasons for license revocation may be too broad.

With respect to contractual disputes, he believes the Commission takes a punish-first, resolve the consequences of subsequent court resolutions later.

Further he calls for New York’s Scaffold Laws to be addressed to that owners and employers need not pay extremely high insurance costs to run their business.

For one thing, Sharpe proposes the elimination of off-hours injuries that are a factor in higher insurance costs in this industry. Lower insurance costs will help grow the game in New York.

Interested horsemen can find out more at a free event hosted by Sharpe and an associate at King Umberto restaurant in Elmont, from 11:30 A.m. to 1 p.m. this Tuesday, OCT 23.

Racing Round the World

In his last career run, champion Cracksman was absolutely awesome taking the Group 1 Champion Stakes on Champions Day card at Ascot for the seemingly invincible team of Gosden and Dettori, who paired up to win three on the day. His turn of foot was extraordinary as was his finishing power. He enters stud in 2019.

But it might have been Roaring Lion who was more awe worthy as the GR 1 QE II winner, winning the race beneath rising young star, 22-year-old Oisin Murphy who never panicked even while his horse was never handling the soft ground.

The result of Keeneland’s G2 Raven Run exacta was a two-speed number, sort of. Winner Shamrock Rose broke like a shot from an outside post but was eased back almost immediately thereafter. Meanwhile, runner up Blamed shook free, controlled a quick tempo, and was outrun at the very end.

It was another high profile Keeneland win for young Tyler Gaffalione, a strong finisher with an excellent sense of pace and positional riding reminiscent of latter day Jerry Bailey and today’s Jose Ortiz.

Interesting that one of his recent significant wins came aboard New York-bred Mind Your Biscuits who will be pre-entered in the Classic and Dirt Mile but, in our view, is odds on to go in the former, not the latter.

Roaring Lion also will enter stud next year but despite an ambitious season might ship stateside for a go in the Classic. He likely will be pre-entered but the decision won’t be known until Gosden and Sheikh Farad huddle first.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, October 07, 2018


Some Super and Not So Super Preps


Some great drama and some great and some not so great performances as Supe Prep Weekend II played out on Saturday.

As this is written, it’s approximately one hour to first post at Longchamp then, after a couple of more Grade 1s stateside, we’ll have some idea who the major players will be four weekends from now.

A short take on the high and low lights that transpired in the following major fall events, broken down by region.

And none of this would have been possible had God not invented the DVR. No major in depth revelations, but here are some good places to start when compiling your own analysis.


BELMONT PARK

BELMONT TURF SPRINT: Since there’s no Eclipse category for turf sprinters—nor should there be—and this ungraded race is intended as a prep, NYRA should do the horsemen a favor and schedule this race at 5-1/2 furlongs, five if possible.

In our view, 6 furlongs into the shorter Breeders’ Cup sprint doesn’t go--and I’m a big turnback fan on a daily basis. Short turf sprints are for fast specialists, period.

Defending champion and Belmont course loving, the redoubtable Disco Partner did his thing as expected, improving his record to 9-for-14 over the course and 6-for-9 at the trip. If the Churchill Lawn takes a toll on the speed he could be fine, but we’ll take a position against.

If he goes, looks like Mike Michael would train late-scratch Churchill winner Maniacal up to the race.

An aside: Christophe Clement’s and Todd Pletcher’s uncoupled mates canceled each other out up front, while their late running mates completed the exacta.

G1 BELDAME: No Elate? No problem for Jose Ortiz. Taking this storied 9 furlong event back to back, Ortiz got had Wow Cat break with her field, allowed her to find her stride in good rhythm, launched mid-turn, winning by a non-threatened 3-1/4 lengths in full stride at the line with apparent energy in reserve. Chad Brown trained multiple Group 1 winning Chilean import is coming up to the Distaff the right way, in peaking form.

G2 HILL PRINCE:
Have At It benefitted from an ideal run, sitting off a ridiculously loose soft-pace setting, never leaving the fence under heady David Cohen handling, striking feat in the Breeders’ Cup hearts of absolutely no one.

Ridiculously overbet Brown trainee Raging Bull had—ahem—absolutely no punch. Back to the drawing board with an eye toward his 4-year-old season. For Peter Brant, the game giveth then it taketh away in less than an hour. A shout-out to Chris Clement, his second stakes win of the afternoon.

G1 CHAMPAGNE
:
Has Jose Ortiz stopped looking around yet? In a wow performance, after breaking with the field, Complexity scooted away and Ortiz began sneaking peeks, under his arms, over his shoulder, looking everywhere for competition that never materialized.

Nursing a length lead down the long backstretch run, tripping the timer in 45.31 at the half, he began separating himself at the turn—still looking for rivals—opened five and headstretch and was ridden out for a 3-length score in a lively 1:34.63, showing no signs of shortening stride at the wire despite his speed-oriented pedigree. His performance was, well, freakish, and it gave Brown his second Grade 1 of the day.

Two others caught the eye. Despite a troubled beginning, Shug McGaughey trainee Code of Honor, farther back than anyone anticipated, made a wide sweep into the lane and continued very well to the wire, lengthened stride very nicely late. The winner’s stablemate Maximus Aurelius works faster in his trials than he ran down the Belmont backstretch. Even farther back than Code of Honor, Aurelius Maximus rallied very well while wide through the lane, losing show by the bob of a head. He’s bred to go as far as they write races.


KEENELAND

G2 WOODFORD: Hard-hitting Bucchero (30) 11-6-3 got away quickly after overcoming bumped break, settled into stride and sat a perfect rail trip, getting first run, taking his second straight Woodford. Horse for course is now (3) 2-1-0 in Lexington. Runnerup Will Call was very good. Dawdling early, he tipped six wide into the lane and roared home, nearly getting up. He’ll be second off the layup when he gets to Churchill, where he’s 2-for-2 lifetime. Talented 4-year-old now (12) 6-2-1 lifetime and figures to be live in Louisville.

G2 THOROUGHBRED CLUB OF AMERICA: Vertical Oak was very good, proving the speed of the speed, but Golden Mischief was better, chasing the pace, steadied between horses on the turn, then re-rallied gamely for the score. Perfect tripping Chalon, sitting off dueling leaders clear, tipped into 5-path entering the straight under what appeared an overconfident Javier Castellano. Flicking at her with a downturned right stick, he did not ask in earnest until inside the furlong pole and the ground loss very likely cost her the win.

G1 FIRST LADY: About 10 minutes after getting his picture taken in New York, Chad Brown-trained A Raving Beauty, with Johnny at the controls of a soft pace on ground that had some cut to it, was nursed throughout, separated herself in midstretch, needed every bit of that advantage as Dona Bruja stormed down the center of the course and made it an exciting finish, ultimately running out of ground at the end. It was Brown's third Grade 1 of the day.

Well backed European Crown Walk had a perfect rail trip behind the leaders beneath Mike Smith but the filly appeared to be a grinder, not a turn-of-foot type. Either that or she may prefer top of the ground footing. But you’d have to wonder if any of these would match up should one of the Arc horses ship west.

R9 G1 BREEDERS FUTURITY: It was a mess from the start as favorite Dream Maker was caught in a gate sandwich and eliminated at that point. Albin Jiminez sent Knicks Go to the front, first-time long with first-time Lasix, rated the colt cleverly and had more than enough to pull off the 70-1 shocker by 5-1/2 dominant lengths.

Two horses caught the idea: Derby Date gave an amazing effort, 5 wide 1st turn, 4 wide the rest of the way, making a huge turn move as to loom a possible win threat but understandably tired late. Standard Deviation was even farther back than Derby Date. Also compromised by a wide draw, he lost ground throughout, angled 7-wide into the lane while making very good ground but missing the place by 3/4s of a length, hanging a bit at the end. But it was a very promising second run.

G1 SHADWELL TURF MILE: Next Shares saved ground throughout under a heady Tyler Gaffalione, got through easily on the fence into the lane before drawing off with authority. West Coaster clearly appreciated getting off those billiard tables in SoCal, following up on his Kentucky Downs score in his prior start.

Third finisher Qurbaan suffered through a wide trip and should continue moving forward while Analyze It continued his schizophrenic season with a strong and promising first half season and not so much this summer and fall. In an attempt to change his style, he rated off the pace, did lose ground throughout but never loomed a threat.


SANTA ANITA

G1 SANTA ANITA SPRINT CHAMPIONSHIP: The champ is back and ready to defend his title. Roy H. was supposed to be vulnerable to his strong working rival, Ransom the Moon. Leaving the three-eighths, ‘Ransom’ had all the wide momentum and appeared to be going stronger of the two into the lane, which is exactly where Paco Lopez pulled the string, getting first run on his speed pace setting stablemate, Distinctive B, continuing stoutly to the wire as ‘Ransom’ flattened out. The champ vs. bullet Imperial Hint is s highly anticipated match.

G2 CITY OF HOPE MILE: Fly to Mars and Sharp Samurai put on their usual good show and made the last race of the day worth waiting for, rating a 10 on the drama scale. But the fact that a sharp recent claimer was 2-1/4 lengths farther, even in a swiftly run 1:32.47, raises eventual class questions come the first weekend in November especially on ground that is likely to play much differently.

Bets n' Pieces: The remaining serious preps are taking place today and tomorrow topped by seven Group 1s from Longchamp Sunday morning EDT, including the fabled Arc.

Stateside over the next two days are today’s two Grade 1s from Belmont, the Frizette and Flower Bowl and the G1 Spinster and G3 Bourbon at Keeneland. The remaining graded stakes is Monday’s G3 La Woman for filly sprinters at Santa Anita.

Two-year-olds will prep in today’s Futurity and Matron Monday at Belmont, first time each will be raced on the turf at 6 furlongs; Keeneland will offer the Indian Summer for juvenile filly sprinters and the babies will go longer at Santa Anita, with the mile Zuma Beach and the Surfer Girl for fillies.

Written by John Pricci

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