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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Friday, December 19, 2014

King for a Sunday

PLANTATION, FL., December 15, 2014—The first time I heard the expression “King of the World” in relation to betting on horses, it was uttered by Andy Beyer, my first Saratoga roommate back in the mid-1970s.

In the rented house on Lake Avenue I read the manuscript of his seminal work, “Picking Winners,” and later that meet Andy introduced me to his good friend, Steve Davidowitz, informing Steve “he has a good opinion.”

I think it was the proudest day of my young handicapping life.

It was a memorable Spa betting meet, too, but no thanks to the two of us. The author of that first Saratoga score was our roommate and another of Andy's friends, Maury Wolff, a.k.a. “the Kid.”

"The Kid" now happens to be the industry’s go-to guy on matters pertaining to the economics of betting, particularly as it relates to takeout rates, rebates, and the like.

One night that Saratoga summer, as the three of us read our Forms, sharing opinions and relevant pieces of information, Wolff suddenly leaped up from the couch, scrambling toward the pile of back Racing Forms that served as our handicapping library.

Handicapping four decades ago was not like it is today, when a wealth of information is readily available to handicappers through any number of sources.

In addition to furiously scribbling trip notes into track programs, horseplayers needed to keep records. It was a time when not even the win percentages of trainers and jockeys win were included in the past performances.

I must say, however, the somewhat arduous process made all those who did so better, more complete horseplayers.
But what the Form did publish then were stewards’ rulings from around the country and Woolf spotted one about a jockey who was suspended for “failing to put forth a reasonable effort.”

That jockey, as memory serves, was the son of a trainer, T.J. Miller, later memorialized by Beyer as “the Fat Man.”

Wolff’s memory and research paid off. Back in one of those old Forms was the name of a horse running in a race for New York-breds the next day at Saratoga, a horse called Red Sam.

To say that Red Sam’s form was darkened by a series of poor efforts would be accurate. And Wolff also confirmed that the race in question was what got the trainer’s son a 15-day suspension.

So here was this young racehorse with poor form everywhere he raced suddenly showing up in Saratoga for a race restricted to New York-breds, back in the day when the fledgling breeding program did not feature very many talented runners.

Blinkers may or may not have been part of the equation, can’t recall, but a rider switch to the late Mike Venezia was part of the package and that sealed the deal for all of us.

Red Sam was in the day’s first race. We arrived early, wheeled daily doubles, one of the few gimmicks offered, pressed a few horses in the second race, and bet the horse to win with gusto.

I called my dad back in New York and told him to bet as much as he wanted and could afford.

Prior to making the win bet after checking Red Sam out in the post parade—he had all the qualifications: four legs, a mane and a tail—I ran into the late Chuck Valpredo, Venezia’s agent.

We had a friendly relationship and Chuck asked who I was betting on: “You,” I said, and told him the story about the trainer’s son getting days.

“Well I’m betting, too. I know the trainer from Chicago and he’s a very sharp guy.”

Red Sam took the lead when ready and drew off under pressure, never in danger. He paid, I think, $27--not sure about that, either--the double paid well, and we all made a nice little score.

“I’m King of the World,” Andy exclaimed, I began to sing “We three kings of the Spa are…” and we all jumped for joy, thanks to the Kid’s research.

My father was happy I never went to medical school.

This past Sunday I was King of the World, for a day, anyway.

As most of the HRI Faithful are aware, the Feature Race Analysis on this site is a handicapping look at the day’s best race at a popular high profile venue, usually delineated by the size of the purse or the status of the event.

For the past two months, we’ve been making selections for the final six races on the Parx Racing Sunday programs, races that comprise 123bet’s unique Pick 6 contest wager. It’s part of a special promotional relationship with have with one of our advertisers,

Actually, the $16 suggested sequence that appeared both here and on the 123bet website under normal Pick 6 rules would have also resulted in a win, thanks to three winning singles and three races in which two horses were featured.

But that’s not the “King of the World” part. Since we already had handicapped the day’s best race somewhere, we chose Sunday’s Parx feature as our free FRA play of the day on HRI.

When Mini Cosmos ($6) stretched out successfully for Graham Motion, it was the 500th winner picked here from 1660 chances beginning with Street Sense’s 2007 Kentucky Derby victory. We thought it to be a worthy milestone-type number worth celebrating.

But wait, there’s more.

Our win batting average over seven-plus years is .301 and the number of exacta finishes [wins + places] of 823 yields a percentage of .495--the rate at which our selections finished either first or second.

A $2 win wager on 1660 races cost $3,320 and returned $3,461.20, a profit of $141.20 through Sunday’s races, an ROI just over $2.04.

Doesn’t sound like very much until parimutuel withholding, a.k.a. takeout, is factored in. And I’ll say this, too: Any deep-pocketed professional getting an 8 percent return from a rebate shop would sign for a seven-year $2.04 ROI in a heartbeat.

I promise not to scream “King of the World” again until we reach 1,000. In the interim, I will stay humble and thankful because, in this part of the world, you’re only as good as your last selection.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, December 07, 2014

Gulfstream Park Brand Has Never Been Stronger

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 6, 2014—It pays to advertise, at least it did yesterday on the official opening day of the 2014-15 Gulfstream Park season.

The crowd on the first day of the “Championship Meet” was plentiful and enthusiastic, some of the regulars sitting at favorite tables surrounding the walking ring by the time we arrived shortly after 10 a.m.


A Fine Day for Racing in Hallandale Beach
Photo by Toni Pricci

Live racing still very much matters in this simulcast era, it creates buzz and that’s really saying something these days.

The featured Claiming Crown event is good business, too, with the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association coming up with the lion’s share of the purse money for the eight stakes offered on the day.

Parenthetically, the house comes up with purse money for the non-features, of which there were two on the 10-race program.

In all, 144 horses were entered on the program--a great betting card, especially if your name is Nostradamus. It was difficult enough finding true legitimate favorites, must less divining winners.

But like other major racing events, this Poor Man’s Breeders’ Cup brings out the players.
Even with a simulcasting dispute over rights’ fees in which 23 racetracks in the Mid-Atlantic region did not participate in the wagering, handle was trending up for the day right from opener.

And the races played out as competitively between the fences as they appeared on paper, but with many of the usual suspects finding their way to the winners’ circle.

Let's Have A Parade!
Photo by Toni Pricci

Todd Pletcher won the first race of the championship season, an allowance race for fillies and mares on turf, with the favorite: We fearlessly predict it won’t be his last.

Ken Ramsey and Mike Maker wasted no time on a day they traditionally point for, completing the early double with an attractive, appropriately named first-timer, Smokem Kitten, winning from end to end beneath Edgar Prado, moving like a winner every step of the way.

Ken Ramsey has much to smile about.
Photo by Toni Pricci

There were two more to come, both in Claiming Crown events, giving the formidable Gulfstream team a triple on opening day.

Unstoppable super-trainer Jorge Navarro won two; the talented Edgard Zayas had a riding double, as did Irad Ortiz, who stayed long enough to get some shipping money for Japan and the upcoming international jockey tournament.

The locals would not be denied as both Marty Wolfson and Stanley Gold each won a race event, with Nick Zito making it two Crown Jewels in succession, following up last year’s success with newly minted first-time gelding Catholic Cowboy with Luis Saez in the boot making no mistakes.

Catholic Cowboy Gives Zito Back-to-Back Jewels
Photo by Toni Pricci

Indeed, a good time was had by all, especially the bean counters who noted the 36% increase over last year’s handle; $10 million compared to 2013’s $8.8 million.

Gulfstream is celebrating its 76th birthday this year and never has it been on a better roll.

Right now, with the old Calder dates, they are South Florida racing.

And the “Gulfstream Park West” brand could not have been more successful. Even with a product more appropriate to Calder than Gulfstream, the Miami Lakes track did better business combined than both tracks did last year when they raced head-to-head.

If Claiming Crown day was a portent of things to come, their roll is likely to continue to Florida Derby day, March 28.

HORSEPLAYERS MATTER: Alas, with the exception of the first fall season at Del Mar, business is not good everywhere. National handle in November was down 5.62% year over year, doubtlessly reflecting the fact there were two Breeders’ Cup days last November--only the Saturday program this year-- and because horseplayers are voting with their dollars.

Still miffed by the rise in takeout instituted at the Churchill Downs Spring meet, Fall business was down a whopping 19% compared to 2013. Oh, yes, we know—it’s the increased competition, lower purses, the horse shortage, field size, and bad weather; spin it any way you will.

Indeed, all of the above are, undeniably, mitigating factors. But it’s 2014 and the entire industry had better learn that their customers—we are not your guests--have a voice and they’re using it.

Believe what you wish, but abuse us at your peril. Social media has started revolutions, organizing people in ways never before seen, in all corners of the globe. Pretend it’s the old days, that you can still act like a monopoly and not pay the piper.

Horseplayers can wager in their pajamas or their I-Phones now. The competition for the horse betting dollar is but one click away.

And the Fall main-track meet at Aqueduct? I know; more bad weather; lost turf races. But how about uninspiring day-to-day product that’s only going to get worse as the temps drop.

Oh, yes, I forgot; the popularity of college football's new Final Four and the closure of Atlantic City casinos. Could this reasoning be more sophomoric? If I were making a short, handicapping comment on the upper echelon of the NYRA management team, it would be this: Overmatched.

BETS ‘N PIECES: Note to the Graded Stakes Committee; Game Called due to lack of inspiration. And the Pennsylvania Derby is still a Grade 2? HRI’s (Tom Jicha will have much more on this in his Tuesday column)…Gulfstream Park did great work improving Calder’s barn area in advance of its inaugural GPW meet, but reports of improvements to the front side and a reconditioned turf course were greatly exaggerated…P J Campo is the new General Manager of Gulfstream Park and we wish him the best of luck. It will be interesting to see how a racing office mentality handles day-to-day front-side operations…All racetracks that do not put on a live racing program or a clearly inferior product when they do and benefit at the bottom line from imported superior content should pay for that privilege. What happens if and when their customers gravitate to competing ADWs…? Short of being barred for numerous medication violations, the California Horse Racing Board tied Quarter Horse trainer Jose De La Torre to the whipping post. Well now that De La Torre has been severely punished, as was Thoroughbred’s Rick Dutrow and Doug O'Neill, all of racing’s problems have been solved. The Feds’ United States Anti-Drug Agency is the only answer for meaningful reform…A Rutgers University study has found that allowing casino games and sports betting at New Jersey racetracks would be a win-win for the state. Casino betting has proven to be a Trojan horse virtually everywhere it’s been offered but sports betting would be a different matter because of intellectual crossover. And those phony sports leagues, the NBA notwithstanding, are still finding sympathetic judges to “shelter” all but the four states that enjoy their grandfather status. The billion-dollar Fantasy Sports industry isn’t gambling? Such hypocrisy...After an embarrassing delay, there finally is a clocker in place at Palm Beach Downs despite the protestations of two trainers. Actually, there has been a Gulfstream Park clocker in place all week but for some reason workouts failed to appear on the Equibase work tab, which was updated late Saturday. Meanwhile, horsemen should realize that their omnipotence, like industry leadership, is waning, too.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Joy to the Racing World

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., November 30, 2014--Remember all the way back to May, when California Chrome, glistening chestnut that he is, was the Prince of Thoroughbred Racing, the heir apparent to who knows what, maybe even a Triple Crown? Well, not so much, as it turned out.

But racing and sports fans in general loved him, this gallant also-ran in Tonalist's Belmont. And his owners were beloved, too--until the rant. And for a while, didn't it seem as if the fans were taking it out on the horse?

Horseplayers have a short memory; they must given the often cruel nature of the handicapping game; the bad trips, the bad rides, the bad rulings.

Bad picks? Not so much.

And, so, putting all this in perspective, I fight to remember the reason I try not to fall in love with horses. It clouds objectivity, it places your opinion in a lock-box, your judgment becomes blurred.

Trainers say it all the time, but Saturday was one of the few times this handicapper will say it: I was genuinely happy for the horse.

Now if only he and Shared Belief can remain healthy, what a 2015 racing it could be.

It's fun to dream about a barnstorming tour but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Wouldn't it be something if California Chrome and Shared Belief took their act on the road, together, putting on a show all over the country? Talk about a way to put horse racing back on the front page...

Of course, even if they remain healthy, it won't happen because the camps have a different agenda. Shared Belief is a gelding; for him there is racing life beyond 2015. For California Chrome, the breeding shed beckons and you can be sure that Team Chrome will be judicious in choosing their spots.

But now that everyone knows that California Chrome can handle the grass, indeed loving the turf if his stride, or should we say glide--is any measure, his connections will have plenty of options.

So it probably must be that Shared Belief needs to chase Chrome around the country to make this dream matchup come true. His connections appear sporting enough--right, Jim?--and Shared Belief is a champion with something left to prove--right, Jerry? After all, the Derby winner is back.

California Chrome is racing's best draw now. Even considering the Hollywood Derby field wasn't all that, let's recall that three-year-olds swept the money positions, and then some, beating older rivals in final two open Grade 1s of the season. What a great supporting cast these two stars could have.

I wonder if there's an enterprising racetrack that would, that could, throw enough money at any existing Grade 1 purse to insure that both horses show up in the same race?

It's good to have California Chrome back. Where's the NTRA Poll when you really need one?

Not Close, And No Cigar

There were some nice horse on display in Saturday's Cigar Mile at the Big A but no truly outstanding performers. Taking nothing away from Private Zone, a remarkable racehorse, issues notwithstanding, but if there were a true one-turn miler in the final Grade 1 of the New York season, the feeling is that he would have been run down, given a final quarter-mile of :26.05.

Speed horses had the advantage on the final Saturday of the main-track year in Queens and Private Zone beneath Martin Pedroza, who took full advantage by allowing the speedster to pull to the lead but not in run-off fashion.

After stumbling at the break, Bob Baffert's place finisher Secret Circle did his best Bayern imitation, drifting in and tightening up three rivals to his inside. The Sprint runner-up tried to make a race of it but drifted out at headstretch and was all out to hold the place, shortening stride perceptibly nearing the wire, looking like a horse that will be freshened up again, awaiting the 2015 Breeders' Cup.

Itsmyluckyday has been a nice horse throughout his career but failed to beat a single horse in the Cigar, not the most compelling swansong in racing history. He disappointed in the Kelso then showed no interest on Saturday, underscoring what can happen when you reach the bottom of the well; those Saratoga Grade 1s come at a cost. See Rachel Alexandra among many others.

There was little that was memorable about the Frizette, including Condo Commando's lengthy victory margin, made possible by the biased surface, the competition, and the program scratch of the speedy Jacaranda.

I imagine that some of the Remsen colts will improve as they continue to develop, but can't say any of them raised my blood pressure Saturday.

Stars of the Future, Indeed

From virtually the same connections that brought you Itsmyluckyday comes Mr. Jordan, a nearly white Thoroughbred that kept his record clean at 3-for-3, winning his two-turn debut geared down after being pressed on the pace throughout.

Mr. Jordan will be hell to pay in the early three-year-old stakes in late January at Gulfstream Park East. His pedigree is sprinty on top (Kantharos), but grand-sire Cloud Hopping has gotten runners that can go long.

Now we fully understand that Churchill's Grade 2 Jockey Club Stakes is highly anticipated as a potential barometer for what might happen in the feature race run on the first Saturday of every May. But not so yesterday.

And, now, from the folks that brought you Bayern, comes Dortmund.

A $140,000 2-year-old purchase in May, the son of Big Brown from the Tale of the Cat mare, Our Josephina, was uber impressive taking a preliminary allowances 30 minutes before the feature.

Despite breaking maiden by nearly 5 lengths over 10 rivals, he beat 11 competitors Saturday, Baffert removing the blinkers before stretching him out off his 6-1/2 furlong debut.

Stalking the leaders from out in the middle of the track beneath Martin Garcia after exiting the mile chute, Dortmund swooped the leaders at headstretch, drawing off under no pressure and galloping out strongly, slowing down only after reaching the backstretch.

He is a big, scopey chestnut whose next start is highly anticipated and belongs high at the top of anyone's list of Derby contenders.

Written by John Pricci

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