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, 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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Friday, April 12, 2019

Looking for Victory on Debut

HOT SPRINGS—Like a #16 seed in the NCAA’s or an 8-8 NFL Wildcard playing in the Super Bowl, we’re just happy to be here.

Like those teams that have gotten lucky at least once in the past, perhaps the racing gods will smile upon us Saturday. Alas, we shall see.

My frame of reference, Arkansas Derby replays notwithstanding, is that I lived in Saratoga Springs for 16 years, Hot Springs as famed for its history as is the town in New York’s Capital District.

We made our first visit to Oaklawn Park, “Home of the Racing Festival of the South,” on Wednesday for the post draw. First visits to racetracks never gets old.

The next day a guided tour was conducted by my new BFF, Chris Robbins, who has day jobs as the CEO of Diversified Holdings of Hot Springs LLC, CEO of ThoroCap and, most significantly, an Administrator of Arkansas State University's College of the Ouachitas: Think High Priest of Geeks.

On the National Register of Historic Places, we drove through Central Avenue's Historic District to the top of the mountain in Hot Springs National Park, in the center of town hard by the Arlington Hotel where Capone stayed back in the day.

Alphonse wasn’t the sole Mafia chieftain to embrace this artistic, slightly naughty, all-seasons retreat although mostly during the racing season, of course, when he could expect run into Babe Ruth at the end of the Bambino's spring training session in Whittington Park, America’s first spring-training camp. Who knew?

Like Capone, Ruth would often frequent the town’s casinos, speakeasies and the racetrack, where tomorrow’s crowd--predicted stormy conditions notwithstanding-- could nearly double the town’s population of 35,000.

On St. Patrick’s Day in 1918, Ruth launched a mammoth home run that cleared the fence at Whittington Park and landed across the way, inside the Arkansas Alligator Farm. It was measured at 573 feet, baseball’s first 500-foot-plus homer.

Returning to a period when Native Americans enjoyed their indigenous land, to the time crime lords came to visit, Hot Springs was regarded neutral territory because of its healing waters which literally and figuratively gave life to this sector of Garland County.

Ran into Andy Serling and Steve Byk at DeLuca’s Pizzeria, voted best restaurant in Arkansas, never mind Hot Springs, in 2017. That might be a bit of a stretch, but an excellent pizza; thin crust featuring great, fresh toppings, including Arkansas grown arugula.

Some great food here; such as the prosciutto and arugula crepe topped with a light Hollandaise Sauce at Alexa’s Creperie in Rockwell, just outside city proper, and a Jalapeno Kolache Donut, thanks to Chris’ wife Donna: Picture a glossy croissant filled with a tender jalapeno hot dog. Yummy.

Wish we had a better weather outlook for fans and first-time visitors alike. Today is sunny but very cool. Arkansas Derby day will be cooler yet with an inch of rain predicted. Inconvenient? Probably. A Derby form cloud? Most definitely.

But we’re very happen to be here to find out. With any luck, a personal reprise of last year’s first round UMBC NCAA upset would be nice.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, March 14, 2019

Raceday Medication Banned in California Following 22nd Fatality

An Open Letter to the Racing Industry

By Belinda Stronach

What has happened at Santa Anita over the last few weeks is beyond heartbreaking. It is unacceptable to the public and, as people who deeply love horses, to everyone at The Stronach Group and Santa Anita.

The sport of horse racing is the last great sporting legacy platform to be modernized. If we expect our sport to grow for future generations, we must raise our standards.

Today, I'm announcing The Stronach Group will take the unprecedented step of declaring a zero tolerance for race day medication at Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields. These Thoroughbred racetracks will be the first in North America to follow the strict International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA) standards.

We have arrived at a watershed moment. The Stronach Group has long been a strong advocate for the abolishment of race-day medication, but we will wait no longer for the industry to come together as one to institute these changes. Nor will we wait for the legislation required to undertake this paradigm shift. We are taking a stand and fully recognize just how disruptive this might be.

This mandate encompasses a complete revision of the current medication policy to improve the safety of our equine and human athletes and to raise the integrity of our sport.

These revisions comprise best practices currently employed at racetracks around the world:

•Banning the use of Lasix.
•Increasing the ban on legal therapeutic NSAIDS, joint injections, shockwave therapy, and anabolic steroids.
•Complete transparency of all veterinary records.
•Significantly increasing out-of-competition testing.
•Increasing the time required for horses to be on-site prior to a race.
•A substantial investment by The Stronach Group in diagnostic equipment to aid in the early detection of pre-existing conditions.
•Horses in training are only allowed therapeutic medication with a qualified veterinary diagnosis.

Additionally, it is time to address the growing concern about use of the riding crop. A cushion crop should only be used as a corrective safety measure. While we firmly believe our jockeys have not purposely been mistreating their mounts, it is time to make this change.

These modernizations are in addition to the previously announced commitment to the continued engagement of outside experts to regularly review our dirt, turf and synthetic courses for consistency, composition and compaction to create the safest racing surfaces in the world.

We will be continuing our daily conversations with industry stakeholders to further define these transformative guidelines. But make no mistake: these changes will be implemented. The time to discuss “why” these advancements must take place is over. The only thing left to discuss is “how.”

There are some who will take a stand and tell us that it cannot be done. To them we say “the health and welfare of the horses will always come first.” We also say '”not only can it be done, it is what we are doing.” Racing at Santa Anita and Golden Gate is a privilege, it is not a right.

Ultimately, we recognize the owners and trainers of these horses have the final responsibility to assess their fitness for racing and training. Our goal is to make every resource available to aid them in that determination. We are all in this together to make the horse the first priority.

Our COO, Tim Ritvo, has been a horseman for almost four decades. As he said, “The time has come for this industry to evolve. It must do so for the sake of the horses and the people who depend on this sport for their livelihoods. Moving to international standards will help to set the right foundation for racing and fairness. We love the sport of horse racing and want it to succeed today, tomorrow and long into the future.”

We've spoken with the California Horse Racing Board and they will be holding a meeting on March 21 at which the situation at Santa Anita Park will be addressed. In the interim, Chairman Chuck Winner told us he personally appreciates the initiatives that The Stronach Group announced today. The Chairman said, “The safety of horses and riders has been, is, and will be the primary concern of the CHRB. The CHRB has been working with The Stronach Group and the various stakeholders to achieve a common objective, which is the best possible conditions for the health and safety of our equine competitors.”

Organizations who advocate for animal welfare have also affirmed their support for these measures. Kathy Guillermo, Senior Vice President for PETA said, “PETA thanks Santa Anita for standing up to all those who have used any means to force injured or unfit horses to run. This is a historic moment for racing and PETA urges every track to recognize that the future is now and to follow suit. This groundbreaking plan will not bring back the 22 horses who have died recently, but it will prevent the deaths of many more and will set a new standard for racing that means less suffering for Thoroughbreds.”

These initiatives are a seismic shift in how the sport has been conducted for centuries. We are pleased that Stuart S. Janney III, Chairman of The Jockey Club, which has long supported the Horseracing Integrity Act, said, “We applaud The Stronach Group for its announcement today to effect sweeping changes at Santa Anita, which would bring them on par with the strict standards seen in major international racing jurisdictions.”

Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, has also voiced their agreement with these new changes. Joe Harper, CEO said, “Del Mar has and will continue to support discussions and implementation of measures that enhance the safety and welfare of our athletes. We are committed to working with Santa Anita, The Stronach Group and other industry stakeholders to continue to improve.”

We recognize this will impact our field size as horses and horsemen adjust to this new standard. There will be horses that will not be able to race because they have required medication to do so. For those horses, we are prepared to dedicate the capital required to rehabilitate, retrain, rehome and provide aftercare for them. They deserve nothing less.

We are taking a step forward and saying, quite emphatically, that the current system is broken. While the cause of the injuries on the racetrack might be varied, they have one thing in common: the industry has yet to do everything that can be done to prevent them. That changes today.

First and foremost, we must do right by the horse. When we do right by the horse, everything – everything – will follow.

Written by John Pricci

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