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, January 11, 2015

Taking the Lea(d) At the Wire

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 11, 2015—For Lea, winning his season’s debut following an 11-month layup wasn’t supposed to be easy, and it wasn’t.

Or as winning trainer Bill Mott said after the race, “give credit to the horse.”

That’s easy. Lea is a damn good race horse. If he weren’t, he never would have won his return, making a phenomenal late run to get up in the final strides.

Give some credit to the trainer, too. Not only did he get him ready to win off the bench but it’s a tribute to Mott’s horsemanship that he’s even racing at all this year.

“We missed so much time with him and you can’t blame the owners if they wanted to retire him to stud; he’s already a Grade 1 winner.”

That’s thanks to Mott as well. Yesterday was Lea’s third run for the Hall of Famer and the five year old First Samurai horse remained undefeated in Hallandale and at the one mile trip.

The layoff, of course, was the biggest obstacle, but there also is the matter of drawing the pole position out of the mile chute and the race dynamics which also worked against him.

“There wasn’t really anybody in the race that I thought would probably go ahead and break loose,” said Mott. “

“Usually if one horse does that, it kind of spreads the field out a little bit. They were bunched up like a turf race.

“On this track I think it was an exceptional race. Usually the speed horses turn for home and they get loose from you, but he obviously is a good horse.”

Lea gets up in the final strides.

His rider agreed: “It wasn’t an easy race to win. I’ve got to give him all the credit,” said Joel Rosario.

‘Every time I asked him a little bit he was there for me. He made my job easy. I was waiting for someone to go in or someone to go out so I could go in between. They just stayed there so at the three-sixteenths pole I had to go around.”

Job well done all around

Was Mott concerned at that point? “I thought he could get beat. I could see that [Rosario] had plenty of horse, but he was waiting, waiting, waiting. Finally, he was able to tip out.”

More like angled out sharply. It appeared he wanted to follow second choice Valid through a hole at headstretch, but Valid stayed one-paced at the time, forcing Rosario’s hand.

“When you tip out here,” explained Mott, “you only have three-sixteenths of a mile to go. It’s not like you’ve got a quarter-mile stretch. It was interesting.”

Not only were the dynamics working against him but speed horses were challenged all day from a northwest wind gusting to about 25 m.p.h. into their faces, likely the reason for the slow splits and why Rosario probably had Lea covered up in the first place.

But that wind, and Lea’s remarkable late kick on the day, enable him to make up a two length deficit in a final quarter mile that went in a brisk 23.84 seconds.

“Not running for a year and to run like this? He’s very special,” Rosario said. That might be an understatement.

If all goes well, Lea will also try for a repeat score in the Grade 1 Donn, Feb. 6. If he makes the race, the competition will have him to beat.

Lea hams it up for the camera.

BETS N PIECES:Track announcer Trevor Denman said it best: Sham Stakes winner Calculator “could not have been more impressive.” Having little choice but to race wide rounding the first turn, Elvis Trujillo kept him in the 3-path throughout, asked for his rally mid-far turn, got it, and drew out to a 6-length score, the two turn mile in 1:34.56. It was one hell of a maiden breaker for the colt which begs the question: How good is American Pharaoh, really…?

Lea was not the only Gulfstream Park lover in action yesterday as Parranda, eschewing Singapore, at least for now, to win for the seventh time in 13 local starts with authority in the G3 Marshua’s River for new trainer Christophe Clement: “She can always go to Singpore and come back. Why not?” he asked. Why not, indeed…

Saturday was the first time that trainer Todd Pletcher was not a happy camper in the winner’s circle following a stakes race victory. Following the victory of Mshawish in the G2 Fort Lauderdale Pletcher admitted that things “didn’t exactly go the way we drew it up. This is a very good race horse that needs to be covered up but he was outside all the way. He needs to be switched off or he’ll keep on running. He had to run a remarkable race to win this.” Leading rider Javier Castellano was aboard…

General a Rod will make his first start since last year’s Triple Crown series in an allowance sprint on Wednesday. “He hasn’t missed a beat since he’s been back,” said trainer Mike Maker, who indicated that if all goes well he might look for bigger game next month. “It should be a good steppingstone for him…I’d love to make the Donn if he’s good enough.” The General drew post 5 in a field of seven going seven furlongs…

This week the New York State Gaming Commission proposed a rule that would require specific minimum penalties for horsemen who commit multiple medication violations. The proposal would result in suspensions of 30, 60, 180, or up to 365 days, once a trainer reaches a certain points threshold, points accrued based on the classification of drug as outlined by the Association of Racing Commissioners International. Until cheating drugs such as Propoxyphene, a painkiller, are categorized as a Class 1 drugs, the proposal is just more window dressing…

Wildcat Red, under new rider Joel Rosario blew out five furlongs in 1:00.60 for Saturday’s Sunshine Millions Classic at nine furlongs, looking to turn the tables are local rival East Hall, who also blew out for the race with a sharp five-eighths in 59.87. “He went very, very easy, very comfortable,” said trainer Jose Garoffalo.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, January 04, 2015

Baby Steps on the Road to Louisville; Gulf Bettors Abandoned by Stewards

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 3, 2014—Obviously trainer Marcus Vitali knew what he had.

In his only previous stakes start, the Vitali-trained Bluegrass Singer was a narrowly beaten third in the ungraded Buffalo Man at 6 furlongs--not a bad introduction to that level of competition.

Subsequently, Vitali entered him in a preliminary allowances going a mile in his return to Gulfstream where he broke his maiden earlier this fall, resulting in an open-lengths score.

On Saturday Vitali kept his options open, cross-entering him in the 6 furlong Spectacular Bid and the Mucho Macho Man at a flat mile.

And so Vitali took the long way to the winners’ circle, Javier Castellano took the short cut, and after dispatching chaser Juan and Bina and then the favorite, Mawthooq, Bluegrass Singer blew the race wide open leaving the quarter pole.

Confidently handled, Castellano did not get busy until midstretch and he had more than enough to withstand the energetic late run of Canadian-bred Ami’s Flatter, despite finishing on an incorrect inside lead.
Time for Vitali and the colt to look for bigger game. The Mucho Macho Man, formerly known as the Gulfstream Park Derby, is an ungraded event.

Home Jerome: At Aqueduct, meanwhile, El Kabeir indicated that he has some class to go with his considerable speedy talent.

Being able to sit off other horses comfortably in moderate fractions but losing ground throughout, El Kabeir won as much the best, passing his class test with style.

His comprehensive 4-3/4 length victory was accomplished after he also overcame a stutter-step start.

El Kabeir was well handled by veteran rider C. C Lopez, known for his prowess with speed types, and he showed the acumen here.

“It was nice seeing him sit off horses for the first time. I didn’t know if that scenario played out how he’d react, but certainly it worked out fine,” said winning trainer John Terranova.

The victory in the Grade 3 Jerome brought El Kabeir’s Kentucky Derby eligibility points total to 21; runners-up Carpe Diem and Texas Red earned 14 and 12, respectively, in their races last year.

As for his next start, Terranova has no set plans. “Obviously, we’ll discuss it. It may be the Withers back here, or maybe we’ll skip it and go to the Gotham, or maybe we’ll go out of town…

“Hopefully he'll keep progressing. He's gotten bigger and more filled out since the Kentucky race [last time out]. He's eating like there's no tomorrow. He's thriving off running."

Filly Division Gets Started As New Face Takes Old Hat: The first graded race of the day, this one for South Florida-based three-year-olds, was the G3 Old Hat at six furlongs, featuring the return of Saratoga’s Schuylerville winner, Fashion Alert.

But here was the thing about that speedy miss which seemed to go unnoticed by some handicappers. We had noted on our Energy Ratings scale that, for whatever reason, she regressed with each start after impressively winning her debut by open lengths.

And here’s another; in winning the Schuylerville under severe pressure, she left the impression that she just might be one-dimensional speed. That seemed to be the case Saturday after she did not leave the starting gate quickly from her pole position.

Lacking room inside on the backstretch a furlong after the start, Johnny Velazquez sent her up between fillies on the turn, riding her vigorously to do so. But at headstretch she was shuffled out of the race for good.

In the interim, Ekati’s Phaeton proved to be a very nice filly prospect under clever handling from Luis Saez, repulsing R Sassy Lass in the late stages.

Prevailing after setting a disputed pace throughout in fast fractions, trainer Bill Kaplan had this reaction: “You haven’t seen her speed yet. She’s got all the tools and she’s a real stout, big filly. She’s got the mind and the talent. What more can you use?”

Bettors Take Beating from Gulfstream Stewards: How could the stewards allow Crown the Kitten to race without blinkers in Saturday’s G3 Dania Beach.

Going into the race, Crown the Kitten had four lifetime starts. In the gelding’s 5 furlong debut at Belmont, he finished second by two lengths at 5-2.

But trainer Wesley Ward was impressed enough to send him to Ascot, where he has enjoyed success before. Stretching out to 7 furlongs on a straight course, he was entered in the Chesham with blinkers off, not surprising given the dynamics and overall scenario.

He finished ahead of four of his 13 rivals, showing early speed before tiring, beaten 12 lengths.

When he returned to the U.S., Ward re-added the blinkers and Crown the Kitten broke his by two lengths at even money at Kentucky Downs. Next out, he won Retama’s El Joven by 5-3/4 lengths at 2-5.

On Saturday, off two consecutive winning efforts, Ward removed the blinkers, Crown the Kitten broke sluggishly, trailed from so far back that the #10 Trakus chicklet didn’t appear on screen until the field went nearly half-way down the backstretch. He beat two rivals.

How is this permitted, a blinker change coming off consecutive victories? Where’s the protection for the betting public?

Had they been asked, the stewards’ reasoning should have been something like “if you want to train your horse, or teach him something, that’s what the mornings are for.” Will all this ever end?

Somewhere Over the Rainbow…is one prescient handicapper. A simulcast player from Portland, Oregon invested $33.60 and was alive to six of seven horses in the finale that would have produced a Rainbow score worth $317,161.44.

He accomplished this by singling sixth race winner Noble Prince at $98.20. The winning ticket was 8 with 9 with 9.11 with 1.5.9 with with Well done!

Photos by Toni Pricci

Top: Bluegrass Singer heading into The Circle

Below: Trainer Marcus Vitali

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Racing’s Man of the Year 2014: The Horseplayer

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 20, 12012—The story of the year in racing did not happen on any racetrack no matter how much one admires exploits of a dual classics winner, the improbable winning return from colic by a defending Horse of the Year, or the retirements of his and her legends of the game.

Instead, this distinct honor goes to the most unlikely individual or group of them all: the American horseplayer. Their voice was heard early and often in 2014; from a stewards stand at Gulfstream Park, to a board room at Churchill Downs, to the keeper of racing’s data in Lexington.

Horseplayers were able to shine a light on officiating by examining the adjudication process leading to disqualifications, to putting the hurt on a public company for raising the tax on wagers, to yesterday, stating that they are concerned as hell and are not going to accept inaccurate running times anymore.

Consider this: When was the last time racing identified a common problem, fashioned a consensus for problem solving, and took action, all within a 24-hour period? Don’t overthink this: To my knowledge, it’s never happened.

Until Saturday.

Horseracing activist Andy Asaro contacted Stronach Group executive Tim Ritvo Friday citing several examples of how running times posted by Trakus, the official timer at Gulfstream Park, differed from times published by Equibase.

What is not readily conceivable is why there should have been any disparity at all. Before Trakus was allowed to operate, it had to enter into an agreement with Equibase to handle the dissemination of Trakus information. No agreement, no deal.

According to the agreement, Equibase is responsible for operating the Trakus system at tracks where the system is in place. Part of the problem is that, until yesterday, there was no failsafe in place. With Equibase handling the dissemination process, Trakus does not staff up the racetracks it services.

In the main, Trakus claims that its times are accurate, acknowledging there are some issues concerning the start of mile races out of the dirt chute, explaining there is not enough room to place the timing beam far enough away from the mile pole.

This problem exists because the property line ends hard by the starting gate out of the mile chute; the Hallandale track on one side and land belonging to the city of Aventura on the other.

Clearly, land agreements between the two cities need to be forged to better resolve this issue. The hope is that the Trakus engineer in transit to Gulfstream scheduled to arrive Sunday can find a more immediate, less complicated remedy.

On Saturday, newly installed General Manager P J Campo hand-timed the most egregious timing error--Friday’s fourth race out of the mile chute--and agreed there was an approximate two-second differential in the first quarter-mile posted at :25 4/5, compared to the more reasonable :23 4/5 on a stopwatch.

Thankfully, because of horseplayer intervention, help is one the way. According to a press release issued Saturday afternoon, “Gulfstream Park, with the help of its players and patrons, is aware there have been timing issues with races leaving the mile chute.

“Along with hand-timing our races, we have had conversations with Trakus, our track timer, to remedy the problem as quickly as possible.

“In the past, Equibase has red-flagged suspicious times and sent the report to Trakus to be corrected. In the future, those times will be reported to the management at Gulfstream Park. We will continue to hand time all our races so we are sure that times being reported are correct.”

If it weren’t the horseplayer vigilantism, the problem might never have come to light, at least not right now. Gulfstream was aware of the chatter re inaccurate times before Friday’s incident but it took three days before Trakus got back to Gulfstream with a response.

But just because Gulfstream pays Trakus for their service is no excuse for vigilantism of their own. The betting dollars go into their coffers and, as such, an official track timer already should have been in place.

NYRA, for instance, had Sentell Taylor listed as racing official, “Timer,” in its track program for years until his recent retirement. Stephen Foster is now in that role. Racing’s premier winter signal should have an Official Timer, too. Penny-wise doesn’t get the job done here.

Equibase chart callers should not be saddled with the responsibility of monitoring running times; running-line accuracy should be their focus. Further, why should a closed-circuit TV tech be responsible for flipping the running order on the Chiclets display when the field reaches head-stretch, where positions often alter dramatically?

They’ve had several years to get the bugs out of the system and it won’t get done on the cheap.

Nor would the process have begun Saturday without the help of a caring, vigilant, and underappreciated customer base, a group that has helped charted a better course for how racing conducts its business in 2014 and hopefully going forward.

Written by John Pricci

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