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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Wednesday, May 01, 2019

BULLETIN: Derby Favorite Scratched

By John Pricci

Omaha Beach has been scratched from the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby due to an entrapped epiglottis, a condition that seriously impairs breathing while exercising.

The condition is not considered serious and is treated with a routine medical procedure. As a rule, minor surgery results in the epiglottis being tied back to allow air flow into the lungs.

Horses generally return to the races in a matter of several months following the operation.

As a consequence, Bode Express, who chased Maximum Security and finished second in the Florida Derby, draws into the field from the also-eligible list.

Details are sketchy as this was posted shortly after the news broke on the Internet. More tomorrow, along with staff selections and comments on the Derby and Friday's Kentucky Oaks.


Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Perfect Post for Derby Favorite

By John Pricci

HALLANDALE BEACH—Derby 145 might be Richard Mandella’s time. Seeking his Kentucky Derby maiden-breaker, the Hall of Famer has gotten Omaha Beach to achieve the status of America’s leading three-year-old in the run-up to the sport’s most coveted two minutes.

As if that weren’t enough, 2019’s leading sophomore drew slip #12 in a field of 20 with no fewer than five possible early-pace types drawn to his inside, assuring excellent position into the first turn, assuming a clean break.

As regards his rider, it’s always Mike Smith’s time.

Per usual, the luck of the draw helped some and hurt some major players, others falling into the neither good/nor bad category.

[Ed note: Weather forecast changed dramatically after this was posted: Chances 60% + with thunderstorms late Friday and 90% chance of rain Saturday. It's 6:36 p.m. Tuesday, so who knows?]

If the draw moved up the chances of Omaha Beach (4-1), the #1 post assures that War of Will (20-1), the early-season divisional leader will have a tough time at the Downs on Saturday.

Best stalking horses from the outside, Tyler Gaffalione must break War of Will #1 sharply away from the barrier to avoid being shut off and virtually eliminated before the real running starts.

With Tax #2, Improbable #5, Vekoma #6 and Maximum Security #7 also seeking good early position from near-by, his task will be that much harder.

Defending divisional champion second-favorite Game Winner (5-1) should have clear sailing from the outside #16, while leaving from the auxiliary gate. Stablemate Roadster 6-1), drawn in the slip next door, #16, will likely drop back, like he did winning the Santa Anita Derby, and make one run.

Traffic issues apply to everyone equally as all bets are off once the field breaks away from the barrier. Conceivably, Improbable (6-1) and Vekoma (20-1) are well drawn, providing they can save ground while covered-up into the lower turn.

Hall of Famer Bill Mott, another Derby virgin, had his pair draw well and neutrally. Tactical Tacitus, co-fifth choice at 10-1, drew post #8, also outside the five potential speedsters. Slow-starting, fast-finishing Country House drew #20. From there, Prat can take back and drop over to the fence.

Also drawn well, given their top form and running styles, are Code of Honor (#13, 15-1) and Win Win Win (#14, 15-1). The speedy Spinoff, one of two Todd Pletcher trainees (Cutting Humor), will have to scoot from post #19.

It all adds up to a fascinating handicapping exercise unless--as even veteran horseplayers do--overthink the Derby puzzle: Simply take the best sophomore thus far, with Hall of Fame of Fame connections and a good post, and pray to get an improbable 4-1. (Did I just out-hunch myself there)? You decide:

Derby-145: Post order, with jockey and early line odds: War of Will, 20-1, Gaffalione; Tax, 20-1, Alvarado; By My Standards, 20-1, G. Saez; Gray Magician (50-1), Van Dyke; Improbable, 6-1, I. Ortiz; Vekoma, 20-1, Castellano; Maximum Security, 10-1, L. Saez; Tacitus, 10-1, J. Ortiz; Cutting Humor, 30-1, Lanerie; Haikal, 30-1, Maragh; Omaha Beach, 4-1, Smith; Code of Honor, 15-1, Velazquez; Win Win Win, 15-1, Pimentel; Master Fencer, 50-1, Leparoux; Game Winner, 5-1, Rosario; Roadster, 6-1, Geroux; Long Range Toddy, 30-1, Court; Spinoff, 30-1, Franco; Country House, Prat, 30-1.

And No Excuses for Oaks Favorite, Either

Bellafina was installed when the 2-1 morning line favorite versus 13 rivals after drawing post position 4 on Monday morning. Flavian Prat, the only rider the filly has known, is in the boot for trainer Simon Callahan.

Three-for-three this year, the daughter of Quality Road, from the Malibu Moon mare, Akran Moon, returns to the surface over which she suffered her lone career out-of-the-money finish.

The 2018 Juvenile Fillies favorite broke awkwardly from the 10-slip on the extreme outside last fall, was bumped at the juncture, recovered, but forced to chase the pace throughout before eventually weakening to finish fourth.

A speedy pace presser, her position should enable to take an attending position just off/covered up behind the speed in a race loaded with early gas. To wit:

Jaywalk (8-1), the defending Juvenile Fillies champion, drew well in post 7 in her third start this year. Next door in post 8 is Motion Emotion (15-1), with one-dimensional speedster Serengeti Empress (8-1) forced to send hard from post 13.

Meanwhile, Grade 1 Alcibiades winner Restless Rider (6-1), narrowly defeated in her season’s debut, Keeneland’s G1 Ashland, is a mid-race presser who figures to be compromised by her extreme outside draw.

The 14-post was somewhat mitigated with the announcement that Jose Ortiz had picked up the mount. However, should Dunbar Road draw in from also-eligibles, there could be an issue since Ortiz gave first call to the Chad Brown trainee. Rules are rules, but politics is as politics does.

Oaks-145 has also attracted several fillies with a solid late kicks, which will make this renewal one of the more competitive in recent years given the disparate dynamics, even with the presence of the accomplished Bellafina.

But the Oaks is still the favorite’s to lose. She is the fastest of the group by any metric, is well drawn with a versatile running style, and has handled wet footing in the past, should the need arise.

Weather handicappers are predicting a 40% chance of rain in Louisville Friday; 20% on Saturday. Rain would move up several of Bellafina’s rivals. Another possible concern for her fans is her tendency to react off big efforts, such as the G1 Santa Anita Oaks last out.

Oaks Day- Friday, May 3rd, 2019
Race Post Time Wagering

1 10:30AM WPS EX DD P3 P5
2 10:58AM WPS EX DD P3 P4
3 11:26AM WPS EX DD P3 P5
4 11:59AM WPS EX DD P3 P4
5 12:35PM WPS EX DD P3
6 1:17PM WPS EX DD P3 S6
7 2:00PM WPS EX DD P3 P5
8 2:53PM WPS EX DD P3 P4
9 3:53PM WPS EX DD P3 P5
11 6:12PM WPS EX SH5 P3 (O/D-DBL)(O/W/D-P3)(Longines-Kentucky Oaks
12 6:48PM WPS EX DD
13 7:23PM WPS EX

Derby Day- Saturday, May 4th, 2019
Race Post Time Wagering

1 10:30AM WPS EX DD P3 P5
2 11:01AM WPS EX DD P3 P4
3 11:31AM WPS EX DD P3
4 12:03PM WPS EX DD P3 P5
5 12:35PM WPS EX DD P3 P4
6 1:13PM WPS EX DD P3
7 1:55PM WPS EX DD P3 S6
8 2:45PM WPS EX DD P3 P5
9 3:37PM WPS EX DD P3 P4
10 4:28PM WPS EX DD P3 P5
11 5:25PM WPS EX DD P3 P4 (Old Forester Turf Classic)
12 6:50PM WPS EX DD P3 SH5 (Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve)
13 7:50PM WPS EX DD
14 8:20PM WPS EX

NOTE:Trifecta and Superfecta wagering on all races that qualify under Kentucky statutes.Daily Double and Super High-5 wagers are $1 minimum straight bets.On Oaks Day and Derby Day the Superfecta is a $1.00 minimum wager.Trifecta, Pick-3, Pick-4 and Pick-5 wagers are $.50 minimum straight bets.The Single-6 is a $.20 minimum wager.The Exacta is a $2.00 minimum straight bet with $1.00 boxes and wheels.The special Oaks Day/Derby Day Pick-6 is a $2.00 minimum wager and will be a separate event from the regular Oaks Day card.

©John Pricci, HorseRaceInsider, April 30, 2019

The HRI staff and contributors, including Craig Milkowski of TimeformUS, will make their selections for the Derby and Oaks on the site Thursday at noon.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, April 28, 2019

Six-Race Win Streak of Derby Favorites Ends on Saturday

By John Pricci

HALLANDALE BEACH--this is my favorite time of year, a period when people who can’t spell horse after you spot them the ‘h’ and ‘0,’ ask: “So, who’s going to win the Kentucky Derby?” I give them my standard default: “Damned if I know.”

But eventually I do offer a few names, tell a little tale to go with each mane and tail, project what horses might pay should they win, wish them well and ask them to circle back in a few days if they’d like.

We are six days from the biggest two-minute dance of them all. Many racing fans have complained about the glut of Derby talk but that dog won’t hunt here. Still, I must offer this: Ask me after post positions are drawn on Tuesday.

It’s good horse sense to posit that there’s an excellent chance Omaha Beach is the best, most complete equine athlete to line up in the Churchill Downs starting gate late Saturday afternoon. That assessment notwithstanding, if the track is fast on May 4, I will be betting against him.

Omaha Beach is certain to go favored on Saturday and I don’t believe the current winning streak of Derby favorites will extend to seven in 2019. Circa 4-1, that’s just not enough price for me to find out just how good he is vs. 19 rivals who might not be as talented but are loaded with upside.

However, it’s not like bettors can’t win a bunch of money on the Derby favorite. Remember Justify? Last year’s Triple Crown champion keyed a $69.20 exacta with the logical Good Magic, a $1-Trifecta worth $141.40 with Pletcher-trained Audible and an all-button Superfecta payout $19,618.20 when 80-1 Instilled Regard finished fourth.

If you happened to luck into the Exact Five with second choice and fifth finisher My Boy Jack, a $2 ticket changed your life: $367,160.40 worth of lifestyle. If I were the one, you’d be staring at a blank page right now. But that wouldn’t happen because a dive into this pool drowns bankrolls.

Since 2013, Trifecta payoffs has produced stacks worth $4,600 per ducat. The Superfecta? Fuggedaboudit: $44,334 on average, a respectable salary back in the day when America had a middle class. Alas, I digress.

The preceding is the reason why serious horseplayers, not necessarily big bettors, should stretch their bankrolls and step outside their comfort zone on Derby day. Even if Omaha Beach wins Derby 145, you still rate to get paid handsomely in exotics, an amount commensurate with the risk.

There’s been much talk regarding the relative lack of early speed in this year’s lineup. True that. Since a points system has replaced graded earnings as an entry-qualifying metric, no speedball has held sway, in fact not since War Emblem in 2002. Whatever the pace, the leader will be pressured.

Running style does matter, of course, and that’s where this race gets tricky. The most common phrase used by trainers to describe their horse’s best attribute generally is “he has tactical speed.” Even a cursory look at the form shows that any one of nine horses is capable of pressing the pace.

I can make a reasonable case for exactly half the 20-horse field, having no way of knowing how to rate the European and Japanese entrants. And so I will take the tack that will be used by a majority of handicappers; until I see contrary evidence I will allow the invader to beat me.

Pressers have done very well in the points era but super-exotic fillers, the kind that blow up payoffs, routinely are late runners at long odds. In fact, chances are better than 50-50 that one or two closers will fill the bottom of these buckets, but they must have racing luck in these big fields.

With no obvious speed signed on, all contenders can have their chances compromised severely by either a poor draw--post-position dynamics that force horses out of their preferred style—or pilot error, the result of split-second judgments made in a 20-horse stampede around a one-mile oval.

We will be look for three or four runners that might offer higher odds than their chances to win; value defined. There are final workouts to see and Tuesday’s all important post draw. There’s no payoff bonus for being the first kid on your block to pick the Derby winner. Stay tuned.

Storylines We'd Love to See

Like everyone else, from seasoned horseplayers to Weekend Warriors to Annual-Kentucky-Derby-Only bettors, I will play aggressively looking to score, as stated above. Absent that, these are storylines we'd enjoy watching.

The first would be a dead-heat for Derby-maiden breakers Richard Mandella and Bill Mott. I will allow my East Coast bias to make a victory by Mott sweeter. It should be obvious why. These two Hall of Famers are among the best of any generation to tighten a girth on race day.

Mitigating provincialism somewhat is the fact Omaha Beach is trained by Mandella and owned by Rick Porter. I do not know Mr. Porter beyond a few mass media scenarios, but whenever I've seen video or read his remarks, class act is the phrase that easily comes to mind.

As a strong supporter of the game and having to deal with health issues in recent years, the sentimental value attached to seeing him in a post race interview is a worthy happenstance following "America's Race."

My first writing assignment as a Newsday columnist, I got to write the sidebar following Bill Shoemaker's victory aboard Ferdinand for Charlie Whittingham at the age of 56.

Seeing 58-year-old Jon Court interviewed by Donna Brothers on horseback would be for me personally as sentimental a moment as watching the reactions of Jose Santos and Calvin Borel following victories aboard Funny Cide and Street Sense, respectively. (The fact that we picked both winners didn't hurt, either).

I'm sure there are many other stories that would do a racing heart good, like seeing all the contestants come home safely...speaking of Porter and the future of Thoroughbred Racing.

©John Pricci, HorseRaceInsider, April 28, 2019

Written by John Pricci

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