John Pricci 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, 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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Sunday, October 01, 2017

One Super Saturday Down, One to Go

Within 36 hours, serious Breeders’ Cup prep races came fast and furiously. Let’s flip a Horses/Trainers To Watch championship notebook, by division:

DISTAFFERS: In the last eight years, Bill Mott and Richard Mandella own five of those titles. Hall of Famer Mandella did it with the same horse, the great Beholder, four years apart. The big mare won the Distaff at 3 and last year at 6.

Hall of Famer Mott has won five Distaffs with four different mares, two of the five with three-year-olds. After Saturday’s Beldame, can’t blame anyone for thinking he has a chance to make it six with a third three-year-old.

There’s something else these gentlemen have in common: The longer the season runs, the better their horses run. They are the Horsemen of Fall, and both are in the conversation when someone asks: “Who’s the best trainer at pointing toward specific spots?”

Man-Oh-Mandella wasn’t too kind to horseplayers when he ran Paradise Woods and Avenge woefully short of their best condition at Del Mar but both came alive in a big Grade 1 way in Arcadia.

Santa Anita Oaks 11-length winner Paradise Woods is back but she beat only three rivals after two late scratches, and close second-choice and runnerup Faithfully has never made anyone shake in their boots at entry time. Her speed will play nicely at Del Mar; the competition and likely race shape won’t.

Alabama heroine Elate may have beaten a deeper field of her peers in Saratoga and was not meeting any older stars in the Beldame—but oh how she did it. Never before has she shown that kind of turn of foot. She’s getting better at the perfect time.

The great unknown is the ability to handle the Del Mar surface with the same aplomb. But that’s a question that all horses unfamiliar with the Del Mar surface must answer. Despite the new Santa Anita-like surface, not all horses handle it. Arrogate, anyone?

Anytime the Breeders’ Cup is staged on the west coast; advantage west-coast based runners. And throw in what will be for many the two-turn factor, that’s another checkmark that California-based main-track youngsters can check; Churchill’s two-year-olds notwithstanding.

But even if this year’s Juvenile were held on the moon, Bolt d’Oro would be the favorite. His Frontrunner made a track that yielded moderate to slow times all afternoon look fast, lengthening stride with each step in the final furlong.

By Medaglia d’Oro from the A.P. Indy mare Globe Trot that would make sense but the manner of his victory makes him the clear favorite for the Juvenile, a championship to be named later, and early favorite for the 2018 Kentucky Derby. He’s 2-for-2 at Del Mar.

As is juvenile filly Moonshine Memories, the second of three Grade 1 victories for Flavien Prat. While not nearly as impressive as ‘Bolt’, she checked the appropriate boxes under somewhat trying dynamics. She showed class taking the Chandelier and also 2-for-2 at the seaside track.

At Gulfstream Park, Soutache did what was expected of him to win the In Reality Stakes for Florida-bred juveniles.

It was a comprehensive win that did not comes too easily despite the winning margin and, as a son of Backtalk, doesn’t inspire confidence that he can handle good horses over a distance of ground, certainly Bolt d’Oro anyway.

In the My Dear Girl Florida-bred division for fillies, the top two fillies ran well, duplicating their 1-2 finish in the sprint prep for this. Only this time the runnerup was best as the race was run; too bad she didn’t get the lion’s share.

Dessert Honeys kicked her sprint-meant pedigree in the hind-quarters. After getting bumped hard at the break and checked again shortly thereafter, she rallied five-wide into contention on the final turn and roared home late and just missed catching Starship Bonita.

Whether she’s good enough must be seen, but Dessert Honeys earned her way into open company the next time she appears. She should not be taken lightly when the big girls start arriving slowly the next two months.

Intermittent heavy rains didn’t do G1 Vosburgh favorite any favors, having to scoot out of their in a speed-laden field to open a clear advantage. While game right to the end, El Deal didn’t get the separation he enjoyed during his recent winning streak.

But he stayed on very well and might not have been able to hold off Takaful under any circumstances. He has the better pedigree and great connections, Team McLaughlin doing the right thing by shortening up to sprint distances. He’s been a revelation since.

The victory might not have been possible without the services of Jose Ortiz—who returned to take the Beldame aboard Elate—who stalked El Deal from close range, punching his ticket to Del Mar. The problem is next time he’ll be stalking a Bob Baffert-trained sprint champion.

CLASSIC CONTENDERS: Whatever happens in Oceanside early next month, Mubtaahij earned his spot in the Classic starting gate with his game victory in the G1 Awesome Again that might have been more facile that it looked at first blush.

While he might not prove to the equal of other Baffert-trained older G1 performers, the trainer threw his hat squarely in the trainer’s category. To my unofficial count, the Irish-bred five year old was Baffert’s sixth Grade 1 win with six different horses this year.

If a trainer is fortunate enough to win close to that number, it’s usually with one dominant performer, but a half dozen horses? Remarkable. In short, going first time for this barn, Mubtaahij ran to a series of impressive drills, adding blinkers for his first start in 189 days.

TURF: Beach Patrol enjoyed perfect circumstances and took advantage of dynamics when he thoroughly romped taking the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic and proved a mile and a half is within his scope.

Three year old Oscar Performance raced well over wet ground that he might not have cared for and finished third. He will appreciate Del Mar turf if his connections decide to take the trip west.

And while there may be more “talent” in the Mile than the Turf, turning back over firmer ground could be the way to go after proving that he can sit off early leaders.

Meanwhile, all eventual Turf entrants caught a break when trainer John Gosden announced immediately after his amazing filly Enable won Sunday’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe that he would recommend putting her away now until 2018.

In terms of dominant performances, her’s was the equal of Bolt d’Oro’s or Elate's. Despite racing close to the pace to maintain position over the yielding “speed-favoring” Chantilly ground, she showed a remarkable, sustained turn of foot to the finish. Wow!

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, September 24, 2017

A Star Is Born at Parx Racing

Let's face it. When it comes to determining the three-year-old divisional championship, the Kentucky Derby is a Grade 1 with a bullet.

Isn’t it really perceived as if it were the equal of two other Grade 1s combined? No disrespect meant, but that includes the final two legs of the Triple Crown. Simply stated, America’s Race is in a class of its own.

But the glitter of this year’s Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby champion, Always Dreaming, unquestionably has lost its luster since.

A regression in Baltimore two weeks two weeks post Derby, followed by a freshened and needed-the-race Jim Dandy prep, followed by a subsequent Travers flop brought the colt back to the pack in abrupt style.

Meanwhile, a bay colt by Flatter was gaining momentum, taking some of the glitter away from Cloud Computer’s Preakness and Tapwrit’s Belmont score, with the promise of better things to come in the Easy Goer Stakes. And it came in a big way.

The Los Al Derby against six outclassed rivals subsequently didn’t prove much but the beat went on. And when it arrived in Saratoga and a new dimension was added; early speed, the result was a dismantling of 11 rivals in the Derby of Midsummer.

But when he blew the roof off Parx Racing on Saturday by 7-1/4 widening, authoritative lengths, this west coast beast clinched the division that has lacked definition since it left Louisville.

The newly minted Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby attracted four multiple graded stakes performers in addition to Saturday’s winner, justifying its new status.

That group included the winners of should-have-been-Grade 1s Blue Grass and Wood Memorial and the matchup was rewarded with a brilliant G1 performance, courtesy of a pair of Hall of Famers.

And West Coast just keeps getting better and better and better.

The Penn Derby was his fifth straight victory dating back to May 20, over a different surface each time, and it was his third straight graded stakes, including a pair of Grade 1s back-to-back.

A Classic defeat against older will not diminish his dominance over this peers. But did we not see the future of Breeders’ Cup Classic in Bensalem on Saturday? I’m disinclined to bet against that proposition, given what all were treated to yesterday.

Warned his Hall of Fame trainer: “He’s just learning how to run. To have a three-year-old this time of year, the way he won the Travers, and now winning this race, he is going to be a horse to reckon.”


For two years now, Mike Smith has been stealing races with stealth-like precision by moving outside one time, moving inside the next; running early one week and running late the next, often against the grain of his mounts’ past performances.

And damn if he almost didn’t do it again on Saturday.

That blur moving up the fence in the Cotillion, a move sustained for perhaps a half mile on a portion of the track that wasn’t the fastest path to victory, was the sophomore filly divisional-leading Abel Tasman. She didn’t win but all she lost was a horse race.

Just as the Travers would turn out to be a precursor to the Penn Derby, Saratoga’s Alabama was going to have an impact on the Grade 1 Cotillion.

Two fillies that moved into the teeth of the Alabama’s 10-furlong pace returned to give the divisional leader a tough fight, one of them emerging the winner.

This time, It Tiz Well didn’t set the pace, as she had in the Alabama; she attended it, allowing a sharp too-fresh-for-her-own-good Lockdown, who broke like a shot beneath Luis Saez and went on with it.

Lockdown took the lead and just as Saez seemingly tried slowing her down gently, Smith sensed it and moved bullet-like up the rail to engage. When he and ‘Abel’ reached the leader, they wisely backed off, trying to conserve for the stretch battle to come.

Meanwhile, Drayden Van Dyke, a rider with patience beyond his years, was content to sit and watch Abel Tasman and Lockdown battle each other in earnest at headstretch. Momentarily, it appeared that Lockdown would win that clash from the outside.

But Abel Tasman battled back on the portion of the track that didn’t yield a single winner all day, and she won that battle but lost the war. It Tiz Well surged on by the embattled fillies in midstretch, giving Songbird’s Jerry Hollendorfer his second straight Cotillion.

Smith described it this way: “The inside [was] wide open and she was pulling me so hard and just took me there. I thought maybe she could pull it off…but it was too much to do.” And then this:

“She’ll be fine for the Breeders’ Cup. It wasn’t one of her best, but she ran well.”

Like her heralded stablemate, the next test will come against older and this time, the whole world will be watching.


As we are sure to see several Parx performers in November—including sprinters Coal Front and Running Mate, 1-2 in the G3 Gallant Bob, and another from Belmont, Sharp Azteca, ridden with disdainful confidence by Paco Lopez to win the G3 Kelso—the next two Saturdays will be a prep feast.

On Saturday alone there will be 15 races with aspiring Breeders’ Cup performers from all over the globe competing in races at Santa Anita, Belmont Park, Keeneland, Newmarket, Chantilly and Nakayama.

From now to November 3rd, 81 races will be contested in 13 different countries according to the Bloodhorse online. Breeders’ Cup has become a true international championship event.

At Gulfstream Park Saturday morning, Gunnevera, an excellent late-rally second to West Coast in the Travers, breezed for the first time since the August 26 summer classic, a soft half-mile in 49 seconds at “Calder.” Why no PA Derby?

“I want a fresh horse for the Breeders’ Cup, my horse runs well fresh,” said trainer Antonio Sano. He surely does. He came from 11th of 12 in the Travers, making a sustained turn move to the wire. While no threat to West Coast, he was 2-1/4 lengths clear of Irap.

Irap, meanwhile, still acts a little goofy--and credit Parx stewards for making the right call by not disqualifying Irap from second position.

A head-on view of the stretch run clearly shows that an inside rival came out and bumped Irish War Cry off stride before Irap veered in sharply. Irap was marginally clear and made no contact though it sure was a hairy incident, especially from a pan view perspective.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, September 17, 2017

Churchill and Keeneland, Rivals No More

Money, money, money, money…money.

As it turns out, when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of the people in the Commonwealth and the perception of leadership both real and imagined, long-time rivals Churchill Downs and Keeneland are willing to put bragging rights aside when it comes to scooping up every betting dollar within its borders by opening two satellite tracks in the Kentucky hinterlands.

Not only would the proposed joint venture add to their respective bottom lines, but it has the added benefit of sticking a dagger into the hearts of both Ellis Park and Kentucky Downs, especially the latter, whose popularity with bettors went through the roof with its recently concluded record-setting boutique meet.

In America, everyone has a right to make a living and Churchill Downs Inc. has a mandated responsibility to grow its revenue as a publicly traded company. Keeneland, meanwhile, for which no one has ever suggested an interest in creating a fund-me page, is pulling out all stops mainly because it can.

And if sticking a knife into the heart of Kentucky Downs, which has basked in the national spotlight this month with its highly popular five-day session of unique turf racing and fan-friendly tax rates, that’s an added bonus.

Now we know the real reason for the outrageous takeout increase slated to begin at the Keeneland Fall meet: A homogeneous, maxed-out, tax-on-horseplayer-winnings that not only puts it in line with what CDI charges but sets the same high-rate table it would charge at the new facilities.

To paraphrase Bukowski, “dividends for all my friends!”

According to a story in the Louisville Courier-Journal, dollars and cents notwithstanding, the joint announcement by two industry giants may have other political ambitions that will apply to the bottom lines of both.

The threat of building new tracks in Corbin and Oak Grove may be meant to “apply pressure to a state commission that has unambiguously discouraged applications for new licenses,” according to the newspaper report.

Either way, the announcement was not well received in Franklin, Ky.

“It makes no sense to put a new track in an existing track’s market,” said Kentucky Downs President Corey Johnsen in a statement released Friday. “We are disappointed in the plans to pursue a racetrack license in Oak Grove… a short drive from Nashville, Kentucky Downs’ primary market.”

Kentucky Horse Racing Commission chairman Frank Kling and vice chairman John Roach stated publicly “we have informed Kentucky’s race tracks that we would not consider any applications for new race track facilities in Kentucky…Despite that communication, Churchill and Keeneland have chosen to submit an application for new facilities.”

The tracks are hoping that officials in the Commonwealth’s government have not yet figured a politically expedient way to wet their beaks and add to the state’s coffers.

No statements from Ellis Park were forthcoming. President Ron Geary was unavailable for comment this weekend despite repeated attempts.

Churchill Opens Road of Kentucky Derby and Oaks

Like election campaigns, it’s never too early to consider the following year’s Classics. And if you don’t think the result of Saturday’s Iroquois Stakes has significance on the first Saturday in May of 2018, consider this:

Lookin at Lee, the longshot runnerup to Derby-winning Always Dreaming this year, made the qualifying-points cut into the race by utilizing every one of the four points he earned with his second-place finish to ill-fated Not This Time in last year’s Iroquois.

The winner of last year’s renewal never made it to the starting gate for trainer Dale Romans, but perhaps Saturday’s Iroquois runnerup, Hollywood Star, also trained by Romans, might make it into the Churchill starting gate in 2018. Surely racing’s fickle gods owe him that much.

Time will measure the quality of Saturday’s money finishers but, on its face, the top three finishers all appear to be nice, promising horses. None of them takes your breath away but thus far each has been honest and has hit hard.

Winning The Tabulator is now 3-for-3 lifetime, including wins on three different surfaces and disparate distances, including an all-weather debut and two-turn score in yesterday’s G3 mile and a sixteenth.

With speed to secure a comfortable attending position after breaking from the outside, he separated himself from his main rivals leaving headstretch and never was seriously threatened for the win. Trainer Larry Rivelli continues his excellent work with ship-ins, this one from Prairie Meadows.

Favored Hollywood Star ran well in defeat, finishing second, as he had in the G2 Saratoga Special, and he cut into the winner’s margin late while going very well through the finish post. It looked like a good progression for him.

Third finisher Ten City made a strong wide rally for third, making a 4-wide turn-move that carried him 6 wide into the lane. He closed resolutely through the stretch to the finish after losing contact with the field in the early running.

Frankly, don’t know what to make of G2 Pocahontas winner Patrona Margarita, but the surmise is that there were several disappointing performances behind her, her three-race experience helped her cause but she clearly has a strong affinity for the Kentucky Oaks surface.

NYRA Goes Cross-Country

We love the new NYRA trend of partnering with tracks across the country, and now across the border to wall-less Canada, when it offered an all-turf Pick five including four graded stakes, one from New York and three from our neighbor to the north, including G1s Native Dancer and Ricoh Mile.

What was particularly attractive yesterday was the 15% takeout and a 20-Cent entrance wager, the exotics minimum at Woodbine. The New York tracks use these bets and their own 15% late Pick Five to promote the NYRABets ADW.

By any measure it was very successful. The handle despite the low buy-in was $307,000, and the 20-Cent payoff was worth $289. Individual prices? How about $2.80, 20.20, 6.70, 3.60 and 4.70. The association is onto something with this wager.

But before anyone gets the idea this was a NYRA original, remember the “Stronach Pick 5” from various tracks a decade or so ago? Maybe that didn’t continue beyond a few years because there was no fractional wagering at that time. Happy that NYRA revived it and looking forward to more.

…And Speaking of The Stronach Group

Enjoyed returning to Gulfstream yesterday. There was some tree damage, the canopied seating area at the top of the stretch was bare and lacking both seats and shade, and the South parking lot was closed; Gulfstream was a Florida Power and Light staging area during Hurricane Irma.

Thankfully, the rest of the grounds and, more importantly, all backstretch personnel and the animals went unscathed. Seven hundred horses shipped north to Palm Meadows from Gulfstream but even those in the Gulfstream and “Calder” barn areas survived without incident.

At Laurel, meanwhile, their Fall Festival program, featuring the G3 DeFrancis Dash won by Chublicious, with 1-2 Whitmore third, had a good day despite stiff competition, booking over $3.7 million in bets.

Written by John Pricci

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