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, July 09, 2017

Star-Studded Summer Saturday in New York

For publicists, the results from yesterday’s prime time Stars N Stripes holiday program at Belmont Park was a headline writer’s dream:

“Keen Ice stays cool under pressure.” Mind Your Biscuits gets the gravy.” “Practical Joke all business…, etc, etc.”

And if you’ll allow your humble Scribner one: “And the Belmont Derby Award goes to… Oscar Performance.”

Most performances were noteworthy Saturday and business was outstanding, with $19.2 million bet cross-country including $3M on-track. The results included a nice mix of favorites, mid-price winners, and an occasional bomber.

On the two-legged side, from held well with the brilliant Jose Ortiz riding a complete handful of winners, and Joel Rosario with a riding trifecta, a maiden allowances and two stakes.

On the trainer’s side, it was more of the usual suspects; Chad Brown with a pair, including a 1-2-3 sweep in the Belmont Oaks, and Todd Pletcher, who got Keen Ice to win for the first time since he upset American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers.

While the day belong to the two local riding starts, the week belonged to young Tyler Gaffalione who rode a record-equaling seven winners at Gulfstream on Tuesday--more on Tyler later.

I’m sure Chad Brown is right and I’m wrong but in our view Practical Joke is more than a one-turn miler, even if it’s been his game.

There’s nothing wrong with milers--they make the best modern studs, after all—but I’m not convinced nine furlongs is outside his range; possibly even 1-1/4 miles on under the right circumstances.

Practical Joke was a top miler yesterday for sure, with Rosario bringing him out carefully over the heels of rivals for a clear run. The Joker responded with a final quarter-mile burst in 23.61 seconds.

“The pace wasn’t that strong and he had to give six to eight pounds to everyone in the race,” Brown correctly noted.

There was no talk of what’s next but with the same folks owning Cloud Computing, my surmise is that Practical Joke will be Haskell bound while the Preakness winner ships upstate for the Jim Dandy. It’s a plan that makes sense for both horses.

Before the Belmont Sprint Championship, trainer Chad Summers said that he didn’t want the race to be “a heart attack finish” for Mind Your Biscuits. “I want to send a message.”

Message received, loud and clear.

The Biscuit might not be the most brilliant sprinter in America but he just might be the best sprinter in America. His Golden Shaheen in Dubai last March was a defiant much-the-best victory; his Sprint Championship was defiantly dominating.

Rosario didn’t feel he needed to be cute this time, cruising up outside rivals on the turn, taking the lead at headstretch and, at just the moment when it appeared Awesome Slew would pose a serious threat, Rosario got busy and Mind Your Biscuits did the rest.

The four-year-old Posse chestnut stopped the 7-furlong clock at 1:21.84 with a final furlong in 11.94. As Summers said earlier, his colt just might be better at seven-eighths than he is a three-quarters.

And what did the trainer think of his sprinter’s finish? “It makes me think a mile won’t be a problem.” Off yesterday’s run, it would be impossible to disagree.

Mind Your Biscuits will run next on the Travers undercard August 26. “The Forego is our next goal, and hopefully an Eclipse Award as well.” Given Saturday’s effort, those goals are within reach.

The guess is that Chad Brown was thinking why run four fillies in the Belmont Oaks when three will do. So he scratched Fifty Five and watched New Money Honey, Sistercharlie and Uni finish 1-2-3 in the 1-1/4 miles Grade 1 on the Inner turf.

And if it weren’t for Catch a Glimpse last year, the win would have been Brown’s fifth consecutive victory in the former Garden City Breeders’ Cup, nee the Rare Perfume.

"They all ran terrific,” said Brown. “[New Money Honey] got position early and they were moving along pretty good. Javier just backed off a little bit and had first run… My other two horses were two first-time Euros, they broke a little slow and were pretty far back.

Especially the Oaks favorite, Sistercharlie, a private purchase following her second place finish in the G1 Prix Diane just 20 days ago.

Running last of 12 much of the way, she rallied outside into the lane and finished well through the straight, albeit lacking the turn of foot she showed in France. The feeling is that given more time and similar conditions, she will beat her mate when next they meet.

Two things we know for sure about Keen Ice’s upset in the Suburban: Todd Pletcher is correct to target the Jockey Club Gold Cup this fall, 1-1/4 miles being the key, as he stated after the race Saturday, but indicated Sunday morning he will get ready for that with a Whitney run at Saratoga, August 5.

The other is that a slow pace and Jose Ortiz’s hands and quick thinking can wake up any horse.

On paper, Matt King Coal was lone Suburban speed, but does it ever pay to take a horse out of its best game? Isn’t it worth a gamble to find out if speed will come back to you? But Javier Castellano didn’t wait to find out.

Consequently, heavily favored chased the pace throughout, taking the lead prematurely while driving and trying to spot his two major rivals six pounds. It wasn’t the way to go.

And we don’t play the red board here; I mentioned this to a friend not a sixteenth of a mile away from the barrier.

It might not have mattered in the end because Keen Ice ran great, finishing with a flourish, putting some sprint in his step as he crossed the finish line. It’s taken a year or so but it appears that Pletcher’s finally got him figured out.

Given his pedigree, I have no good explanation as to why I questioned Oscar Performance’s ability to get 10 furlongs. Not only did he get his job done while under pressure throughout, he drew off inside the final eighth with exclamation.

Under the circumstances, it was a visually stunning career-best effort. All credit to the horse, Ortiz, and masterful management from Brian Lynch, in the midst of a career year. BTW: the vanquished Irish-bred runnerup, Called To The Bar, is a very nice horse.

A New Riding Star Emerges: While the day belonged to Jose Ortiz, the week belonged to Tyler Gaffalione. In fact, 2017 thus far has belonged to this classy, hard-working young man from Davie, Florida.

As of Sunday morning, Gaffalione is the country’s leading rider with 166 winners, 14 more than runnerup Irad Ortiz Jr.

And for those who may believe he’s beating up on lesser reins-men in SoFla, recall that he rode the Gulfstream winter meet while Ortiz remained at Aqueduct for the winter, which makes comparisons pretty well balanced.

Gaffalione was in New York yesterday riding 83-1 chance Makarios to a sixth place finish in the Belmont Derby, and also finished fourth with his only other mount, a 15-1 chance on the early line.

The third-generation horseman will remain in Florida for now but does plan to ride at Saratoga on Gulfstream’s dark Mondays and Wednesdays and also venture north for the occasional stakes mount.

Aggressive when he needs to be on Gulfstream’s routinely speed kind oval, he rides the turf course with great patience and confidence, showing the kind of coolness and savvy of a rider far beyond his 22 years.

With a little more seasoning, Gaffalione will rank among the nation’s elite. In fact, the young man is practically there right now.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, July 02, 2017

Fast Cash Saturday at Gulfstream

For Imperial Hint, it was at once the good news and the bad news. The good news was that his comprehensive 4-3/4 length victory in the Grade 3 Smile Sprint earned him a free berth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

The bad news is that when he arrives he will need to say hello to his little friends, Sprint colleagues Drefong, Mind Your Biscuits and Whitmore, among many others, poor form notwithstanding.

Of course, defending champion Drefong has yet to make his four year old debut, which is more than a bit curious even if a repeat at Del Mar on the first Saturday of November is the #1 target. Then again, it’s Baffert with a fresh, lightly raced animal. Sound familiar?

Meanwhile, Luis Carvajal Jr., once long-time assistant to old school Florida favorite Bob Durso, will enjoy his 15 minutes which figures to grow longer with every win the four-year-old son of Imperialism compiles.

Imperial Hint had earned vaunted negative Thoro-Graph figures while winning three straight into Saturday’s Grade 2 Smile on Gulfstream Park’s Summit of Speed card and likely will have earned another by making a sun-baked dry surface appear glib with six furlongs in 1:09.23.

“I wanted to see him win like this,” his trainer said. So what’s next? “It could be Saratoga.” The Grade 1 Vanderbilt at six furlongs on July 29 would be the likely candidate. And it probably should be.

Carvajal thought enough of the colt to bring him to Dubai for the Golden Shaheen in March but kept him in the barn after he spiked a fever. Showing a deft hand, he kept Imperial Hint there for a month and freshened him. “It might have helped him out, given him time to refresh.”

Javier Castellano, riding in New York on Friday, Florida on Saturday and will spend his Sunday in Toronto, enjoyed the ride thoroughly.

After running up on heels entering the straight, “we switched off the bridle and went through on the rail nice and easy in the tiniest path,’ said Castellano. “I loved the way he finished. He’s a nice horse, I think he’s going to improve a lot.”

Castellano was not the only New York-based rider who had fun Saturday. Luis Saez doubled up, taking the Azalea with outsider Who’s the Lady for local favorite Kathleen O’Connell, and the win-and-in G2 Princess Rooney with Curlin’s Approval.

Had this been winter instead of opening day of the summer meet, Curlin’s Approval would have been more like 9-5 than the 9-2 she returned yesterday. Bettors had their doubts thinking she went off form, a result of over-aggressive placement. But not Saturday’s spot.

After racing her back too quickly on the turnback for some “easy” G2 Inside Information coin, Marty Wolfson freshened her 63 days, ran her long off that break in Churchill’s G3 Matron, where she never picked up her feet. She returned home, where she won twice at the 7F distance.

“We put the speed back in her,” said principal owner and former trainer Happy Alter, and the package was completed when after some blistering blowouts, the connections reached out for Saez, 2-for-2 on the filly. He’s now 3-for-3 following Saturday’s 4-1/2 length score in an eye-opening 1:21.68.

“Some people thought she might have been off form,” Alter added, “but I thought she needed freshening.” Improving five-year-old Distinta finished well for place, as did New York-based favorite Lightstream, a rallying third after being wrangled back by Castellano and altering course inside for the drive.

Grade at last, grade at last, thank the racing gods, Three Rules is a graded winner at last. Given his talent and toughness, the G3 Carry Back vs. three-year-olds was the right antidote. Although he won the In Reality going long last summer, the rest of his two-turn life hasn’t worked out.

His good third to Gunnevera in the highly rated Fountain of Youth was sandwiched between off-the-board runs in the BC Juvenile and Florida Derby, albeit some extenuating circumstances in the former but not the latter.

Returning from a 48-day break, Three Rules was a willing third from the pole in the 6F Chick Lang on a good Preakness day track after having to gently tap on the brakes at one point. Saturday’s run was easier even if there were some mid-race traffic concerns.

Uncharacteristically rated in seventh despite stretching beneath a reuniting with Cornelio Velasquez--undefeated in five lifetime rides--the team made a decisive thrust between rivals nearing headstretch, tipping into the 6-path before gamely wearing down a promising Mo Cash, a winner of three of four himself, including two at the trip and track.

Said Three Rules’ happy owner Bert Pilcher: “He loves the distance, he loves Cornelio and ran a big race… Mo Cash scared me. He hung tough, too. He’s a nice horse… Graded-stakes winner; I’ve raised some but I’ve never owned one.”

Three Rules dug down deep to win by a neck over the Ron Spatz trainee, who had eight lengths separation on the third finisher. The time of 1:22.63 was respectable off solid fractions, even if the final eighth took 13.41 seconds to complete.

The three graded events topped a stakes-laden 14-race program that produced record Summit of Speed handle of $12.6 million, a 30% increase year over year and 50% greater than the 2015 totals.

A relatively light simulcast Saturday offered two main attractions east of the Mississippi; Monmouth Park’s G1 United Nations and Belmont Park’s G2 Mother Goose. Monmouth’s 11-race card handled $4.4 million total. New York handled $11.6 on its 10-race program.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, June 25, 2017

Cheery Bye to Royal Ascot’s Jolly Good Show

It was just past 8:30 a.m. Sunday when I clicked on the keyboard and turned on the NBC Sports Network only to find that Royal Ascot race meet from Berkshire, which I now know is in the English countryside 26 miles west of London, is no more until June, 2018.

For the previous five days, it was, as the saying goes, as much fun as you can have with your clothes on even without America-style past performances and lacking the time to study video--where and if you could find it—but I did come up with a decent attack plan.

Start with high-profile, pointing connections, say the lads of Ballydoyle vs. the Royal Blue of Godolphin--Aidan O’Brien vs. Charlie Appleby et al—scan blue-blooded pedigrees, and horses with an affinity for the course and distance. and proper spacing.

The proper-spacing angle of the handicapping equation was more complex however as the Euros tend to run their horses back more quickly than trainers in the New World. In that case, we looked for a break between the last and penultimate races, etc., etc.

Loyal to Xpressbet who have been loyal to us since HRI’s inception in 2007, I decided my mode of play would be exactas since the ADW was offering a special promotion—winning Ascot exactas at 0% takeout. I wondered how that was possible so I read further.

I didn’t understand the 33% bonus on winning exacta plays minus the 25% takeout-- which we assumed was the track’s cut plus signal fees, et al. Common sense dictates this was the equivalent of an 8% ‘rebate’ but then math never was my best game.

However, I was willing to find out how it would shake out in four days, the first time any bonuses would be paid. Either way, a bunch of three- or four- or five-horse boxes at a $1 minimum was affordable and would keep me in the game starting Tuesday morning.

On opening day I had a provincial interest in Miss Temple City in the Group 1 Queen Anne, and the great Lady Aurelia—yes, even at this early stage—in the G1 King’s Stand. Further, I would bet to see highly touted Euro Churchill in the G1 St. James Palace Stakes.

As it turned out, Miss Temple City has yet to recapture her best form but she may be unsuited by the straight one-mile turf course, as both her G1 wins over U.S. males came rounding two turns. But Lady Aurelia didn’t disappoint. In fact, she raised her game.

With Johnny Velazquez replacing injured Frankie Dettori, Wesley Ward, the Washington Yankee in Queen Elizabeth’s Court who started this whole U.S.-Royal Ascot love affair in 2009, had her set for best, and was she ever!

Johnny just let her bound away from there, settled her into stride, moved her to the center of the course to see competition, started riding in earnest just inside the 2F marker and she rolled away powerfully, missing the course record by .01 of a second.

As for Churchill, we didn’t care for his schedule into the St. James Palace but it wouldn’t have mattered, not after seeing Barney Roy enter the course. He looked like an animated version of the Breeders’ Cup Torrie horse:

Regal in appearance, his creases had creases, he was glowing in HD and had a not-too-high strut to his stuff. ‘Barney’ dug down deep and powered away late to win the Palace with a tad in reserve as he crossed the finish line. Four starts and already two Gr1 wins.

There were so many highlights over the five days: The expected dominance of Godolphin for a bevy of trainers and Ballydoyle under O’Brien’s direction; a great swan song for recently deceased Scat Daddy, one of the most prolific turf sires we’ve seen, who had four winners in five days.

The rating-ride and clearly Race of the Meet had to be the Gr1 Gold Cup. James Doyle’s effort aboard the speedy Big Orange, who will run as fast and as far as they write races, was brilliant, holding off a flying and deserving odds-on favorite, Order Of St. George.

Ryan Moore was the meet’s leading rider, out-nodding William Buick, but Doyle impressed, too, and good to see a couple of Breeders’ Cup vets, Jamie Spencer and Olivier Peslier, use the late-run skills to best advantage. Young Kieran Shoemark shows great promise.

Other big-effort highlights included Le Brivido in the G3 Jersey, amazing Highland Reel in the G1 Prince of Wales; Atty Persse taking a Class 2 Handicap at 1-1/2 miles; the O’Brien pair of Caravaggio and Winter.

Finally, Permian, a grinder type that can sprint away late even at a mile and a half, who the G2 King Edward with authority. Will be looking forward to seeing any or all of these horses at Del Mar come November: It’s not too early to keep Breeders’ Cup stable notes.

As it turned out, I cashed enough winning $1 multi-horse exacta boxes that on Friday morning, a C-note appeared in my account that wasn’t there when I powered down on Thursday night. Cool.

On a personal note, my wife Toni accompanies me everywhere whenever she can, whether it be big race days, taking photos for this website, or on early backstretch mornings for bacon, eggs, coffee and workouts. But betting and watching races on TV, not so much.

But she was with me every morning for virtual Ascot—I beat her for a buck head-to-head when I took the Queen and the color blue for Thursday’s Royal procession—loving all the pomp and circumstance the pre-game had to offer; fashion, color spectacle and the like.

God willing, we will celebrate our 50th anniversary at Royal Ascot in 2019. I spoke with my daughters Friday night, suggesting that they start saving their money now.

Written by John Pricci

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