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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Sunday, January 08, 2017


Oaklawn Park, a Track That Gets It


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 8, 2017—In an attempt to make their on-track fans happier than they already are, Oaklawn Park, which opens this Friday, is offering a bonus on winning show bets.

Read lower takeout here: And the track is doing it the right way!

The new Show Bet Bonus will increase the winning payout by 7 percent, according to Oaklawn official Bobby Geiger. Why? Because show wagering is very popular there, accounting for over 12 percent of on-track handle in a typical year.

Oaklawn takeout on straight wagers is set at 17 percent across the board. With the bonus, the show rake will be 10 percent. a seven percent bonus for winning show bettors.

The different payoff levels, to be displayed on the track's infield tote boards, will show one price for simulcast customers and what is paid on track, so everyone can see the difference.

I’m officially jealous and disappointed that I cannot take advantage of the opportunity. My personal betting rules re: straight pools is generally win and place at 5-1 or lower; win and show at higher odds, using exactas as a “place bet.”

Many, myself included, thanks to my late friend Cary Fotias, and now California racing activist Andy Asaro, have supported lower takeout and breakage elimination for years as a means of creating new fans and bring old ones back to the track.

Every track executive, and every horseman, should support the "Oaklawn Plan" with marketing that emphasizes simpler, straight wagers with lower takeout to increase churn.

Reduced takeout worked in New York long term on an experimental basis decades ago, but current, short-sighted practitioners everywhere are unwilling to accept short term revenue declines. As the Bloviater-Elect might tweet, #stupid!

The purpose of the bonus is not only to draw newbies but to keep the average player liquid, encouraging all to keep it simple and not constantly chase lottery-type scores that requiring big bankrolls where wins are few and far between. Some perspective:

The chances against winning a trifecta in a 12-horse field are 1,320-to-1. Keying one horse for third costs $55 for a 50-Cent bet. Of course, if that horse wins or finishes second, you lose your $55.

Conversely, betting an 8-5 winning favorite to show in a 12-horse field with a 10% rake could pay, conservatively, about $3.20. Even with dime breakage, that’s gets bettors a 60% return on their money. The odds against winning a show bet are much more favorable, three chances from 36 opportunites.

Most bettors, even whales, have a low tolerance for bankroll depletion, even if they can afford the costly wagers. But today’s older, average fan, many of whom rely on a fixed income, simply can’t afford very high risk, whatever the reward.

Of course, Oaklawn is positioned uniquely. Not only do they have a form of alt-wagering dole available, they essentially are the only wheel in town. The Hot Springs, Arkansas track draws live fans in a five-state radius.

But this is a lesson all tracks could easily replicate. How about designating one damn race per day, hopefully with a large field of good formful horses, with a “WPS Show On-Track Bonus,” a chance for average bettors to return home with some money and sharpshooters with an opportunity to possibly even grind out a living.

Oaklawn’s innovation also presents an opportunity, with programming help, to make on-track show parlays, a less risky way to produce windfalls from relatively small investments.

I know that chasing rainbows are fun and often very rewarding. But it’s not the best economic interests of the average bettor.

Like typical corporations, success is measured only at the bottom line, which is why current marketing target’s the greed factor to courting betting's 1%.

Is that really the best way to go for an industry with image issues?

BETS N’ PIECES:

Can’t Make the Grade: For the second consecutive week, a graded stakes failed to fill at Gulfstream Park. Saturday’s issue is understandable as there were two one turn races for three-year-olds, the G3 Hutcheson at 6 furlongs and the listed Mucho Macho Man at one mile.

Each race is meant to serve disparate masters; one for trainers looking for a sprint, obviously, the other for those seeking a possible stating point toward the Classics, as such, a possible prep for the Holy Bull, Feb. 4.

“No one wanted to run against Navarro and Pletcher,” said Racing Vice-President P J Campo. Last week, Jorge Navarro held a very strong hand going into the G3 Mr. Prospector; similarly Todd Pletcher yesterday with Sonic Mule in the G3 Hutcheson.

However, Pletcher opted for the longer Mucho Macho Man and very gamely won the one-turn mile, holding an impressive looker State of Honor, making his dirt debut off a game placing in a restricted stakes over Woodbine’s Tapeta surface.

Post-race, Pletcher indicated he thinks the colt is more the sprint type and that the 7-furlong Swale is a likely future target.

Yesterday’s two one-turners worked at cross purposes. Recruiting Ready also preferred the Hutcheson and was compelled to run in the MMM. He tired badly after setting the pace to headstretch.

But graded stakes must go, even with smaller fields. They are too important to the potential reputation and value of a horse. It can’t always be about handle.

SoCal Classics 3YOs Are No Sham: That was quite a show put on by BC Juvenile disappointment Gormley and the inexperienced but extremely promising American Anthem.

With the latter making his stakes and two-turn debut in his second lifetime start, he set the pace as the favorite, was stalked by Gormley throughout and the battle was joined approaching headstretch.

Head to head and fetlock to fetlock they raced, a team with Gormley prevailing from the outside by a head in 1:35.89 over a sealed, sloppy track. It was 13 lengths back to show finisher Big Hit. Clearly, American Anthem will benefit from the experience. See replay.

Take That? No, I’ll Take the Money Instead: Not a trapped on the rail trip, knifing through and making contact with Beach Patrol in search of stretch running, 3-year-old filly Bellavais would not be denied in the Ginger Brew, not even after Leonel Reyes’ whip inadvertently struck the filly as she was set to roll by.

Eventually, she did, impressing her partner, Javier Castellano, in the manner she drew away in the final strides. “And I was really impressed with the way she finished,” said Castellano.

While technically a winner, this was the first time she finished ahead of all her rivals as she was awarded victory via disqualification last out. A tough, Tapit filly with a strong turn of foot, she appears to have an excellent future. See this replay, too.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, December 20, 2016


As the Season Winds Down, Mixed Messages


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 19, 2016---Twas the week before Christmas but my mind was stirring in different directions. To wit:

A public celebration for a great race horse at the smallest venue in California; the tragic death of a 44-year-old jockey whose talents shown brightest in the Golden State, and the continued dominance of a horsemen seeking a 14th consecutive training title at what has become America’s premier winter race meet.

It’s not often that you see a paid public workout for a champion prepping for a colossal event in company with nine other horses, but that’s exactly what the Winter Challenge Stakes was and this time stakes money was not the attraction.

Of the $180,000 available in purses, the great California Chrome earned a mere $50,000 for an effort in which he raced 5-to-6 wide virtually every stride before drawing off in hand to win by 12 lengths in track record time, geared down in the final strides.

The side bar to all this is that the runners which finished sixth through 10th received $10,000 each for getting hot and dirty at odds of 257-1, 112-1, 275-1, 122-1 and 263-1, respectively.

That’s quite rare, too, but that’s what made it possible to see a track lose $58,000 in the win pool on a race featuring 10 starters.

And it was apt and very time when on the following day California Chrome was chosen “The People’s Horse” and the only runner ever to be so honored for a second time as winner of the Secretariat Vox Populi Award.

Of course, the people's voice award is named for another great chestnut champion, the 1973 Triple Crown winner that many regard as the greatest champion of them all. The award will be presented publicly at Santa Anita, January 14.

The Winter Challenge served its purpose well. It didn’t force Art Sherman to keep training on California Chrome to get him at tops for the Pegasus World Cup Invitational on January 28.

And didn’t trainer Art Sherman looked very determined when he said he was looking forward to a rematch with Classic upsetter Arrogate? California Chrome is scheduled to begin acclimating to SoFla on January 6.

Go-Go Gone Too Soon:


Sadly, we’ve all seen this movie before. Stars of stage, screen, playing fields and the turf, gone before their time because they were no match for the demons that lived within them.

Whatever one’s politics, it is right that alcoholism and drug addiction are regarded as diseases.

I never got to know Garrett Gomez beyond the interview process and after reading all the accounts online, in print, and on cable television, the loss clearly was mine.

I was often around the extremely gifted Chris Antley. Anyone who knew Chris would agree on the one word that would describe him best: affable. Antley won you over with his charm and sense of humor, to the point where you didn’t want to believe the rumors.

I know Jerry Bailey, too, but unlike Antley and now Gomez, his autobiography made his addiction public and he worked hard to beat it. He still does one day at a time. And, unlike Antley and Gomez, Bailey’s family life saved him, thanks to the love and support of wife Suzee.

Regretfully, I never having a chance to visit with Gomez. The closest I can get to him now is reviewing his on-track accomplishments; the top back-to-back Eclipse Awards, the iconic victory aboard Blame in the 2010 Classic that denied the great Zenyatta an undefeated career.

I cashed lots of tickets on Gomez-ridden horses because of his smarts, his courage, athletic ability, timing and strength, a super Hi-Five for great horsemen on horseback. RIP jock.

6 + 7 = 14??

There may be nothing wrong with that math. The significance of the numbers is Javier Castellano currently is seeking a sixth consecutive Gulfstream Park riding titles. Seven is the amount of Eclipse Awards won by one of his main clients, Todd Pletcher. Which brings us to 14, the amount of training titles Pletcher hopes to gain by season’s end.

It is widely acknowledged that Pletcher’s success is, and remains, about numbers. He was one of the first to conduct a huge operation overstocked with expensive, very well bred animals. But when owners place that kind of monetary trust in one barn, it must produce.

Gulfstream’s premier race meet began on December 3rd and as this is written he’s already saddled the winners of seven stakes. And the best of his current stock is very likely to fill three of the 12 starting stalls come Pegasus afternoon.

“Unfortunately, it looks like those two horses are coming from California,” Pletcher quipped after Stanford returned from a lengthy layup to make a shambles of Saturday’s Harlan’s Holiday Stakes.

Happily for the sport, it looks like both will be making their way East--although the Arrogate camp sure is being coy about the whole thing.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, November 27, 2016


As Door Closes on 2016 Season, Another Opens Immediately


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, November 27, 2016—If the cornucopia of major races from around the country over this holiday weekend proves anything, it’s twofold:

There is life after the Breeders’ Cup and a new season will be here before you know it.

That would be the opening of the championship meet on Saturday in South Florida and likewise in Southern California the day of Christmas. For now, we’ll begin putting on bow on 2016 with all appropriate pomp and circumstance.

Very soon, an official Eclipse ballots will be mailed to voters electronically and by courier, and when those opinions are assessed 2016’s champions will be crowned after primaries have decided the top three vote-getters in each category.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves, a bad thing in the racing business. First, the skinny on the weekend’s races of note and possible future implications. To wit:

Grade 3 Comely: Barclay Tagg, trainer of 20-1 upsetter Verve’s Tale, had it right: “I wasn’t quite sure she was where she should be for these type of horses.” The bettors agreed, hence the price.

The crowd bet Lewis Bay down to 3-5 off a dominating score in the G3 Turnback the Alarm and it appeared that result was going to play itself out once again. But the filly, returning on short rest, tired inside the final sixteenth despite the moderate pace.

“I didn't have much pace to run at,” observed Paco Lopez, who rode the hair off his filly. “In the stretch she gave me a lot.” That she did.

Grade 2 Demoiselle: Paco, Part Dos, only this time he set a reasonably moderate pace instead of chasing one. But much of the credit goes to his willing juvenile partner, Miss Sky Warrior, who also took the G3 Tempted prep for this.

Trainer Kelly Breen thought his filly would appreciate two turns and she did, able to relax early and having enough stamina to kick home, holding off the very determined favorite, Jamyson ‘n Ginger, returning on short rest and a cross-country trip to the Breeders’ Cup.

They will meet each again, very likely at Gulfstream Park this winter, with each outfit planning to get to the Kentucky Oaks the right way. But much can in the interim (E.G. the emergence of Elate; check out yesterday’s fourth race at the Big A).

Grade 2 Remsen: We are well aware that this two-turn nine furlongs has been a negative harbinger of Kentucky Derby form. Counterintuitive but true nonetheless. However, this year might be different because, well, Mo Town rocks!

Deterred by neither a two-month break nor elongated trip, particularly this early in the “prep season,” he used his stamina and bounding stride to great advantage, kicking clear by 2-1/2 lengths beneath an excited Johnny Velazquez who uncharacteristically showed a little emotion at the finish, albeit more of a fist pump than the arm variety.

“He was very good,” the Hall of Famer said. "He got carried wide into the first turn and after that I had to do the dirty job with the horse in front. After that he did everything well. Hopefully, he can come back better as a three-year-old."

No doubt the ability is there, and so is the scope. He will winter at Payson Park, said trainer Tony Dutrow, who’d like to bring him back to New York to get started in the Gotham.

Grade 1 Cigar Mile: Well, it might not have been the Distaff or the Classic, but that was a damn good show put on by the exacta finishers—and a tough beat if you took the price on Divining Rod!

But credit Connect who, like G1 Clark Handicap winner Gun Runner Friday, are two soon-to-be four-year-olds that might have just run their way into the Pegasus and a titanic battle with California Chrome and Arrogate, among others.

Connect was coming off at September 27 layoff, was meeting older horses for the first time and turning back into a hot-paced, one-turn mile. The race didn’t appear to feature a stellar class on paper but may have produced a future superstar.

Runnerup Divining Rod was tremendous. With Daniel Centeno taking advantage of a favorable outside post and the addition of blinkers, they took command at headstretch, opened ground with three-sixteenths remaining, but Connect simply denied him the win.

“He hadn't run since the Pennsylvania Derby. We freshened him a little and there is always a bit of a risk doing that,” Chad Brown explained. “He could be a little short but he had just enough today and got it done at a mile… He really showed a lot of heart.”

Indeed he did, also showing class as he extended his head right at the line to win it; great race.

Grade 2 Golden Rod: When juvenile fillies get together going two turns, it’s fairly commonplace to see the early leader to show the way throughout. [See the Demoiselle].

But to watch Farrell take command of the mile and a sixteenth from an outside slip and widen through the stretch to win by six dominating lengths, that’s another matter entirely.

Favorite Daddys Lil Darling--coming off an excellent fourth in the Juvenile Fillies following her G2 Pocahontas score and second in the G1 Alcibiades--could have been luckier.

“We had a little bit of trouble,” admitted Corey Lanerie, “but with a clean trip, I don’t know if I could catch the winner.”

“Nobody was going to beat Wayne’s [Catalano] filly the way she ran, said trainer Ken McPeek of the runnerup. “She ran huge.”

“The biggest thing was she settled into the turn and on the backside and from there it was going to be tough to catch her” said Channing Hill, who rode the winner for his father-in-law. “She’s going to be tough wherever she goes this winter.”

That will be New Orleans, which also happens to be Daddys Lil Darling’s winter destination.

G2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes: One thing became abundantly clear as the juvenile colts reached the finish line: McCraken is for real!

The Ghostzapper colt won it the hard way from 11th of 12 with a strong 5-path sweep to reach contention by headstretch, continuing that acceleration winning with stick down by 1-1/4 lengths with energy in reserve under a confident hand-drive from B J Hernandez.

“He is as good as I thought he was and he handled [the race] well,” trainer Ian Wilkes said, after winning his third graded stakes of the holiday weekend. “They didn’t hand it to him. It wasn’t easy, but he came through for us.”

Runnerup Wild Shot acquitted himself very well, spotting him recent conditioning after not having run since finishing third in Keeneland’s G1 Breeders’ Futurity, October 8.

Written by John Pricci

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