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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Monday, October 26, 2015

For This Filly, It’s Better to Be Good AND Lucky

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., October 25, 2015—Before Breeders’ Cup madness takes every ounce of focus needed to solve a 13-race puzzle over a two-day period, overnight stakes notwithstanding, some thoughts on the weekend, on and off track:

The Linda Rice outfit rolled the dice in the Iroquois Stakes on Showcase Day Saturday in New York and the result came up Filly & Mare Sprint in Lexington.

Talk about taking an old school shot: Let’s take one of the best sprinters of either sex in the country--first in 16 of 22 lifetime trips to the post--out of her speed game to see if she’ll relax and come running whenever her rider pleases.

And that’s exactly what La Verdad did in the Iroquois, forgetting for the moment she is a lady by man-handling New York-bred fillies, simply outclassing them from behind.

If she could do that, convincingly and easily, it could mean a trip to Lexington the following week for a date with her breeding-shed destiny. At 5, her next race will be her last, and the only thing missing from her impressive resume is that elusive Grade 1 win.

The Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint provides that opportunity and, given Rice’s concerns about the seven furlong trip, La Verdad first had to show that she has the right stuff.

Seven furlongs is unlikely to be her best run, she’s never raced at Keeneland and this Saturday’s rivals, while not the strongest renewal of this event, is quite salty enough, thank you.

Stonetastic is faster than fast away from the barrier; Judy’s a defending beauty who has lived most of her life in Lexington, and Cavorting is a proven G1 winner at the trip and, as a 3-year-old will even get a couple of pounds from her elders.

But La Verdad is a win machine, one that’s very lucky to be alive.

Linda Rice’s filly tested posted for Banamine after winning the G2 Honorable Miss this summer at Saratoga. The trace levels found reportedly were so high that the stress of the race could have killed her.

The New York Gaming Commission has yet to issue a ruling against Rice and there’s good reason for that: No fair-minded peer on the backside of the New York tracks believes that Rice or anyone on her staff would be so reckless. No one does.

So, was this another false positive from New York’s testing labs? For that answer you’d have to ask Bill Mott’s Lawyer, Drew Mollica, who said at the time allegations of Mott’s Lasix overage first came to light, “this doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Or you could ask Rick Dutrow about his Butorphanol positive. Oh, that’s right, you can’t. Racing officials conspired to throw him out of the game and that’s exactly what they did, feeding the betting lions some raw meet for appearances sake. But I digress.

Rice has employed the same two trusted assistants for close to two decades and only one is permitted to administer medication. The problem with Banamine is that it can be dispensed orally, meaning anyone with barn access can do it; licensed or not.

As we spoke about this situation across from Rice’s barn on Nelson Ave. during Travers week after we first heard the whispers, she said “take a look at the gate, look at those people walking out, do they all have [NYRA issued] badges?”

Actually, many didn’t, which brings up the difficult issue of security, a subject for another day.

Presently, officials continue to be at a loss as to the best way to adjudicate this issue. Although we couldn’t find anyone who would speak for the record, no one I encountered believed that the barn was guilty of wrongdoing in this case.

Taking a chance like this to win a Saratoga Grade 2 stakes for La Verdad’s Lady Sheila Stable, owners who have entrusted Rice with millions of dollars to purchase six-figure yearlings and two-year-olds at auction, simply doesn’t make sense. Rice has a theory possibly concerning the actions of certain vendors.

Last weekend, Rice, a third generation horsewoman who also won the Hudson Handicap Saturday with the venerable sprinter Palace, trusted her instincts with La Verdad and experimented with a change of tactics. It worked and in a big way.

“I guess I don’t have to go to the lead every time,” said winning jockey Jose Ortiz after the Iroquois. “Linda will have to decide what she wants to do with her, but it was pretty easy today. I tried to take care of her the best I could.”

Ortiz did that, just as Rice has done, guiding La Verdad’s racing fortunes the past four years. The record speaks for itself. Should Rice ultimately decide to go all the way and lead her over there Saturday in Lexington, it would be a page right out of her old school handbook.


How can it be, as much money as it accepts from its share of takeout on the world’s most popular racing signal, that New York State would consider a plan to pull funding from conducting post-race tests on all claimed horses?

On October 26, the NYS Gaming Commission is set to adopt a rule that would make it the responsibility of the claimant to conduct post-race urine or blood tests. If the proposal passes, the measure could be adopted by year’s end following a public comment period.

Let me be the first to comment to the state: You’re kidding, right?

You’ve already pulled funding from Cornell’s testing labs which has led to positive-finding fiascos in recent years. You are saying that small owners, who don’t have Todd Pletcher or Bob Baffert on speed dial, really don’t count, that filling races year-round isn’t that critical?

What about the millions of sales-tax dollars that flow from those claims, or the administrative costs owners already pay the state? Many smaller owners make their way by cashing the occasional winning bet, bets that pay Gaming Commission salaries.

And isn’t the real takeaway here that you can’t get drug testing right and will take an incremental first step back from the process altogether?

“The purpose of this proposal is to eliminate burdensome state expense of testing every claimed horse," stated a board meeting staff document. Not surprisingly, an agency spokesperson failed to comment on specifics.

Most states hold that a claim can be voided if a horse tests positive for a banned substance. “Many claimants do not elect to void a claim even if the sample tests positive,” according to the staff document.

If the latter is a routine occurrence, the surmise is that many of the positives are overages for permitted medication, not illegal drugs.

Then how would the state know that a particular trainer is taking an edge because many small-stable owners can’t always afford to step up to the plate?

Actions such as the latest proposal to de-fund the testing of claimed horses in New York, or anywhere for that matter, makes independent oversight more of a priority than ever.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, October 18, 2015

Can’t Win for Tryin’

HALLANDALE BEACH, October 18, 2015—My guess is that first impressions last forever. Otherwise, I would have a hard time understanding why the Stronach Group never seems to get its due even while trying to do the right thing in recent years.

Now I fully understand the ire of Santa Anita fans and bettors in California, where racing is conducted as if on an island where the California Horse Racing Board acts in a manner that is out of touch with its fan base.

They always seem to champion the plight of the upper-dog, while horsemen's groups with too much clout make decisions resulting in policies that most often appear to be anti-player.

Indeed, thanks in large part to Thoroughbred Owners of California leadership, it's permissible to think inflated exacta takeout rates here, the dissatisfaction with seemingly began to register with bettors this summer where the turf meets the surf at old Del Mar.

While one swallow doesn’t make a flock, the only comment that surfaced beneath today's announcement that Saturday's 30th edition of the Jim McKay Maryland Million resulted in year over year increases in handle and attendance of 37 percent and 17 percent, respectively, was a cheeky: “it only took them 20 years to figure it out.”

Based on yearly business comparisons for the highly successful second Gulfstream Park summer, however, this early morning comment is only the most recent example of how the Stronach organization doesn't get it, even though Gulfstream Park and now Laurel Park is trending in the opposite direction of most of the rest of the industry.

SoCal critics like to include what’s happening in NoCal which, of course, is another issue symptomatic of the state of racing affairs in California, where the byword among practitioners always seems to each the same philosophical conclusion: Me-Give-My-Mine.

The Stronach Group, like anyone in this game, including the media, traditional and in the blogosphere, is far from perfect. But it’s useful to recall the current owners of Laurel haven’t been in charge for two full decades. In fact, TSG acquired 58 percent of the Maryland Jockey Club facility in 2002 and an additional 20 percent in 2007.

The late, great sportscaster’s brainchild saw 11 races run yesterday with a million dollars in purses spread over 11 races. Seven of the races had six-figure purses, the highest being $150,000 for the centerpiece Maryland Million Classic.

One-hundred and one horses were entered overnight, a figure that would have been larger except for a quarantine at Parx Racing which, according to a press release, could have affected the number of entrants by as much as 20 Maryland-bred sired runners.

Laurel attracted a guesstimated crowd 19,119 who bet $545,129 on track (dubious per cap figure to be sure) but there was $3.78 million from all sources while competing in a simulcast market that included Keeneland, Belmont Park and Santa Anita. [See for complete Maryland Million racing coverage].

Meanwhile, HRI insiders were impressed with the $21 million in renovations, readily apparent as you enter the first-floor clubhouse. A new restaurant, new interior designs accentuating sightlines to the racetrack, HD TVs, et al, all made favorable impressions.

The grandstand, however, is still very much a work in progress. Plans are in the works but the work will not come cheaply. But it's a step in the right direction for an organization that never got the casino dole it was hoping for. So, what the hell are they doing that's so wrong?


The news that Flintshire will forsake a chance to make amends for his disappointing loss in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Turf to run in the November 29 Japan Cup was personally disappointing. I’ve been looking forward to his U.S. return since his Sword Dancer course record blitz at Saratoga.

The official reason cited in a Blood-Horse story was in regard to the West Nile Virus vaccine, making it impossible to run in both races because Japanese quarantine rules require a two-week post-vaccination European stay for any horse that previously competed in the U.S. within 60 days of shipping to the Orient.

Further, imported Japan Cup runners must on the grounds by November 19, according to Japan Racing Association rule.

We can’t help think that the spacing to late November is better for a horse that made a strenuous effort when second to the remarkable Golden Horn in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp just one week ago Sunday.

We’re sure a herd of American horsemen with runners pointed to the Turf are breathing a bit easier given this development, but still will likely have the Arc, multi-Group 1 winner to deal with.

With Golden Horn scheduled to enter stud in 2016, and with owner Anthony Oppenheim anxious to run in the Turf, [Golden Horn’s PPs in pre-pre entries are now available], American runners, despite the poor record of Arc winners in the Turf, will have their hooves full with this guy.

Also factoring into the decision by Flintshire’s people to favor a trip to the Far East just might be the Breeders’ Cup intentions of the world’s leading grass runner.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, October 04, 2015

There’s Gold in Them There Florida-Breds

HALLANDALE DEACH, FL., October 4, 2015—It began in earnest when a couple of oil wildcatters from the Midwest came to Ocala in the northern part of the state wanting to get involved with thoroughbreds in search of fame and fortune.

Not many fledgling horse people get into the racing business so successfully, so quickly. But, after being convinced by trainer Hugh Fontaine to take a chance on a sickly colt-- infirm enough to be named Needles--Bonnie Heath and Jack Dudley were on their way.

The colt grew out of his problems by the time he was 3 and by that summer of 1956 was healthy and talented enough to become the state’s first dual classics winner, taking that year’s Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.

The fledgling program took off from there and 20 years later Louis Wolfson’s Harbor View Fam dropped a handsome chestnut foal they named Affirmed. In a span of two decades, Florida’s breeding program was producing runners that were competing on the national stage.

In between, William L. McKnight, who made the transition from mail room to board room at the 3M company, experienced great success with his own breeding operation at a nursery he named Tartan Farm.

During his tenure there two great champions were bred; the inimitable Dr. Fager and a filly sprint champion, a legendary weight carrier named Ta Wee. The scotch-tape king's Tartan operation also produced the highly influential sire, Intentionally.

South Florida racing grew right along with its program. Calder Race Course was born in 1971, constructed by developer Stephen A Calder, with the first synthetic track of its kind, the Tartan Track, developed by McKnight’s 3M Company.

Back in the day, the best of the Tartan string was sent up to New York with legendary Hall of Famer trainer John Nerud. The Florida division was placed in the care of the talented horseman Frank Gomez.

Such was the quality of the stock and Gomez’s handling of the Florida division that the tandem became the leading owner and trainer of the Florida-bred stakes program.

That is until Fred Brei, also from the Midwest, later established his Jacks or Better Farm .

What started as a local nursery, just as Tartan did, eventually became a national player. In 2010, their homebred Awesome of Course won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and was eventually sold as a broodmare prospect for $2.3 million to multiple Eclipse Award-winning breeder Adena Springs.

In addition to her, Jacks or Better bred, among many others, Jackson Bend, third in the 2010 Preakness before winning the Grade 1 Forego at 4 and the G1 Carter at 5. Both horses were developed early by the outfit’s South Florida-based trainer, Stanley Gold.

The victory by the long striding Fellowship in Saturday’s In Reality division of the Florida Stallion series showed the colt's devastating turn of foot. Beneath Jose Caraballo, he ran 1-1/16 miles nearly a full second faster than Flora Dora, winner of the My Dear Girl filly division earlier in the day.

The victory by Fellowship--as yet with no plans to run in the Breeders’ Cup--reaffirmed Gold's status as the leading trainer on the Florida stallion circuit. The win his 18th with a Florida-bred juveniles; 20 including two victories by 3-year-olds.

Stanley Gold, Florida Stallion series all-time
leading trainer, is up to 20 wins and counting.

“I was hopeful for [entrants Abercorn and Brighton Lane] but this one jumped up and did it,” said Gold of his three In Reality runners. “You never know with the babies. He had a really outstanding work last week that surprised me. I thought if he ran back to that work there’s no telling…”

The colt ran back to that work and then some: “He ran huge,” said Caraballo. “I let him relax. When I was ready I took him to the outside and he just exploded.”

Said Brei: “He'll stay here and come back and run in the winter races for 3-year-olds. We race in Florida unless there's a compelling reason to race elsewhere."

After talking it over in a few days, the outfit may decide that just might be the case.

SUPER SATURDAY BETS 'N PIECES: Before looking at Keeneland, a final thought on Gulfstream’s Sire Stakes program. Marialice Coffey’s Florida Dora made the ship-in south from Saratoga Springs worthwhile, overcoming close quarters on the turn to win with a professional late rally. But given as much ground as runner-up Enterprising Lady lost throughout, the argument she may have been best is not without merit…

Marialice Coffee: From Saratoga Springs
to Hallandale Beach Winners' Circle

In Lexington, meanwhile, Judy the Beauty, third in the Grade 2 TCA Stakes, is a tough Breeders' Cup read. Her effort should advance her to the F & M Sprint and she will benefit from the 7th furlong. Still, as fresh as she was, one would have expected a little more pop…

It is unlikely that the Europeans won't show up without a heavy-head or two for the BC Mile, but even if they do, Mark Casse and Co. should roll the dice and enter Tepin in the turf event. She loves Keeneland and was the most impressive winner on the day, taking the G1 First Lady with devastating ease…

If trainer Dale Romans keeps this up he just might find himself one day across the street from Saratoga Race Course in that other famous edifice on Union Avenue. His development of Brody’s Cause has been masterful. A maiden once removed, he made a very strong late rally to win the Breeders’ Futurity going away.

Saratoga Special winner Exaggerator finished very well for place in his two turn debut, and it was a very good change-of-pace third by Rated R Superstar, committed to the early pace after breaking sharply from the rail. He did the dirty work and held very well following the race-long pace battle. He’ll be better with a target…

Beginning in Saratoga, Luis Saez has been enjoying the best three months of his professional life. Another good decision to save ground throughout the G1 Shadwell Turf Mile with specialist Grand Arch, waiting for the seam to open at headstretch, which it did, before tipping out, separating himself, and holding the late runners safe.

Another mile turf specialist, Tourist, appeared the main danger through the stretch and continued on well for third but was unable to stave off flying The Pizza Man, who came from last with giant strides to nearly catch the perfect trip winner. Great prep for either the BC Mile or Turf, the latter probably making the most sense…

At Beautiful Blustery Belmont, speedy Californian invader Appealing Tune proved clearly best in the G2 Kelso over a speed-friendly, sealed wet track. However, it’s hard to quantity the effort by the disappointing Honor Code.

Yes, the dynamics were compromising, but why take him out of his best game? He was tip-toed away from the barrier by Javier Castellano--and this is the horse that made his bones coming from 22 lengths out of it! The tactics made no sense unless this prep was intended to sharpen his speed for the bigger, longer dance to come. In that context, it probably makes sense to throw the race out…

Stephanie’s Kitten will have something to say about the F & M Turf, providing the ground has some cut in it. She's just a different mare in that type of going…

Nickname made a good late rally down the middle to take the G1 Frizette but had lots of help when Junior Alvarado set a very fast pace in the one-turn mile with state-bred She’s All Ready, understandably tired in deep stretch.

Her first-year sire Girolamo has been precocious but may be transmitting distance limitations, too. That will be worth noting as the distances of that sire increase. Consider the NY-bred a viable stable mail candidate…

G1 Champagne winner Greenpointcrusader is the real deal. He didn’t break well, gathered himself, put himself within striking range, angled out beyond the 6-path at headstretch then put in a sustained stretch run to win going away, geared down in the final 70 yards by Joe Bravo. Kudos to trainer Dominic Schettino on his maiden Grade 1 victory. He's calling all the right shots thus far…

Finally, Tonalist could not have been more impressive in his repeat Jockey Club Gold Cup victory. Sharper than he’s been all year, trainer Christophe Clement, a little defensive post-race, had to be pleased that Johnny Velazquez. left something in reserve for month’s end.

Conversely, Tonalist outclassed the competition on his absolute favorite surface, and the wet footing makes the effort a bit of a tough BC read, especially since he’s never run at Keeneland. The important aspect is that Tonalist appears to be all the way back.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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