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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Saturday, September 20, 2008

MassCap Weekend Jump-starts Breeders’ Cup Season

Saratoga Springs, NY, September 19,2008--With only five weeks remaining until the silver anniversary of the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita Park, next Saturday looms very large throughout the country.

With the Jockey Club Gold Cup as the centerpiece of a program that includes no fewer than five Grade 1 events, Belmont Park will provide championship credentials for horses competing in nearly every division.

Meanwhile, not to be outdone, Breeders’ Cup host track Santa Anita, topped by the Goodwood Breeders’ Cup Stakes, will offer six opportunities for horses to earn a Grade 1 title, not to mention an all important race over the synthetic track which never before has been used for racing, only training.

Santa Anita opens its Oak Tree meet Wednesday.

Finally, the Midwest will be in Breeders’ Cup mode, too, as Turfway Park presents its annual Kentucky Cup program, offering five prep opportunities for Cup aspirants. In addition to the G2 Kentucky Cup Classic at nine furlongs, there are three other graded races, all Grade 3.

But of greater significance could be the chance that Turfway provides Cup runners to prep on synthetic footing. That point could be moot as not all synthetics are created equal. There are four different brands of synthetics, each having its own unique properties, and there even can be a variance, say, from one Polytrack surface to another, given the different atmospherics involved.

But this Saturday is no lost weekend. In Boston, Suffolk Downs is offering the Massachusetts Handicap, a.k.a. the Mass Cap, and it features this year’s Whitney winner, the speedy seven year old gelding Commentator, who appears not to have lost any of his zeal or ability to race at an extremely high level.

Commentator will try to add his name to the roster of Mass Cap winners that includes the legendary Seabiscuit and Cigar, soon to be the second leading earner in thoroughbred history if indeed Curlin has anything to same about it next week in New York.

He’s 3-5 in the early line to get it done and those odds are justified if Equiform performance figures are any measure. There is plenty of speed to spare if he regresses from his Whitney exertions, which came over a track he clearly loves, the site of both career G1s. But given the way he is training and the eight weeks between starts, it won’t be condition that gets him beat.

For those looking to take a shot against the odds on choice, the best chances appear to be Cuba, who earned a new pace top in his latest at Monmouth Park; the oft-interrupted Dr. Pleasure, on the comeback trail and shipping in sharp for John Ward who has pointed his charge carefully toward this, and Riversrunrylee, the best of the locals who earned an excellent figure with his win over the track in June.

Dr. Pleasure, third in last year’s renewal, is the 7-2 second choice. The Mass Cap winner will earn an automatic berth into the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The three-year-old division will be in action as well, and that includes males and females. At Louisiana Downs, Jim Dandy winner Macho Again is the 5-2 early line favorite over nine rivals in the half-million dollar G2 at nine furlongs. Ward again will saddle an early line second choice in a major race when he tightens the girth on Forest Command, an impressive Saratoga winner last time out.

The Super Derby is one of six added money in Bossier City today, a 13-race program that includes an all-stakes Pick 4 with a $100,000 guaranteed pool. But the focus will be on Dallas Stewart’s colt, lucky not to fall when he clipped heels in the midst of a between-horses rally in Colonel John’s Travers Stakes. The recently resuscitated Kent Desormeaux replaces Julien Leparoux.

At Philadelphia Park, Alabama winner Proud Spell will be an overwhelming favorite to win the G2 slots-infused $750,000 Fitz Dixon Cotillion Stakes over six rivals. Recently placed in consideration to meet her elders for the first time in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic.

By the Light, a six-time winner in seven career starts, appears her stiffest rival. Whether she runs on October 24 will depend on how she comes out of this race, said her trainer Larry Jones, who’s been working his filly over the synthetic surface at the Fair Hill training facility in preparation for a possible go in the Distaff, er, Ladies Classic.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, September 19, 2008

European “Derby Challenge” Good Idea but Earnings Rule Still Needs Reform

Saratoga Springs, NY, September 18, 2008--On September 17, Churchill Downs announced plans to stage a Kentucky Derby prep race at Kempton Park in Great Britain. The inaugural race, the Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes, is scheduled for March 18, 2009 with the idea of increasing European participation via a “win and you’re in” format that guarantees the victor a spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate on the first Saturday in May.

Big Brown’s Kentucky Derby was the sixth consecutive year that the Derby failed to draw a foreign participant. In 2002 there were three; two from the powerful Aidan O’Brien string, the other a Dubai-based entrant. The freaky Venezuelan Canonero II, in 1971, was the first and only horse to ship from a foreign country to win America’s most celebrated race.

Should the winner of the KDCS decide to accept the challenge, his automatic entrance means that the routinely over-subscribed 20-horse field would have room for only 19 American-based starters. While on the surface this might seem unfair, in terms of a single automatic berth, it’s not like every entrant in these 20-horse renewals truly belong.

Unless, of course, you take the view that America is still the land of opportunity and anyone who “earns” his way in deserves to run, even if he or she doesn‘t race here.

I don’t have a problem with the concept. With the burgeoning popularity of international racing and, hopefully, with our future medication rules becoming more stringent, foreign participation adds another level of interest from both a sporting and wagering perspective. The more money in the pool, the merrier for everyone, host track and horseplayer alike. Simulcasting the KDCS into the United States probably would prove a popular parimutuel event as well.

By staging a race in Europe guaranteeing the winner entrance into the Derby, it would be the one race that European horsemen can point toward to get some line on their horse’s non-turf form. The date insures enough time for the winner to come to America for his final prep, if his connections so choose. There’s a $100,000 bonus to the owner to insure participation and help defray costs.

While this is a step in the right direction to improve the quality of Derby competition, it doesn‘t go far enough. The American earnings rule remains flawed and needs to be changed.

Participation in the Derby that depends on earnings as a measure doesn’t insure that the best 19 American three-year-olds available will compete in the Churchill feature on May’s first Saturday. Do we need yet another year of watching the winner of the million-dollar ungraded Delta Jackpot get his head handed to him in Louisville? Indeed, has a Delta Jackpot winner ever won anything important after he turns three?

Last year, there were several well conceived suggestions in print and online on how the Derby qualification process could be dramatically improved via the use of a weighted point system based on finishing positions in traditional graded Derby prep races at distances of a mile or more. The Grade 1 Champagne yes; the Grade 1 Hopeful no, for example.

Earnings, especially in the era of created ersatz stakes with inflated purses, many fueled by slots dollars, is not a criterion for quality. Success in the sport’s tradition rich events, where prestige matters at least as much as the size of the purse, should be more valued. At the sport‘s highest levels, there should be some quality assurance measures in place based on performance, not the size of one’s bankroll.

In trying to insure that the Kentucky Derby attracts the best available three-year-olds, the KDCS is an interesting step forward. It should take a very good horse to win it, just like it takes a very good horse to win the Florida Derby and Santa Anita Derby, the Wood Memorial and Blue Grass, just to name a few important sophomore fixtures.

Hasn’t the time come for the races comprising what’s traditionally referred to as the Road to the Kentucky Derby, those races that produce a preponderance of Derby winners, become overtly recognized as such, possibly including their own “win and you’re in” designations? And shouldn’t the runners-up earn credit, too, in the form of point values weighted according to grade, for being competitive while racing at the sport’s highest levels?

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Three-Year-Olds: Racing’s Best Box Office

Saratoga Springs, NY, September 17, 2008--Before the recently concluded Saratoga meeting completely fades from view, I’ve had an idea that’s been nagging at me since the final week of racing leading up to the meet’s conclusion on Labor Day.

This year, the usual hum-drum of closing week was enlivened by the anticipation of seeing Horse of the Year Curlin run in the Woodward Stakes on the final Saturday of the session.

That week the New York Racing Association put on a full court press to get people to come out to see one of racing’s two American male stars. Perhaps, the full court press was in response the heat it took when Curlin raced in the Man o’ War at Belmont Park, a Grade 1 that was scarcely attend.

Somewhat a victim of circumstance, much of the criticism heaped on NYRA at the time was unjustified. So they tried to make up for it with an over-the-top promotion that included a presentation of the Keys to the City to Curlin’s human connections, trying to take advantage of the positive business gains being made in the final three weeks.

For the final Saturday of the meet, 22,000 was a good crowd, eclipsing the 2007 numbers, but disappointing considering the circumstances.

If next year the late Secretariat and Seattle were to return for a match race, Saratoga might draw another 5,000 fans, even though every wise guy in town would set an over/under at 30,000. Why?
It’s because every year, no matter how hard anybody tries, the air escapes the Saratoga balloon immediately following the final race on Travers Day. It’s like everyone begins to breathe normally again. There’s no logical explanation for it, it just happens despite everyone‘s best efforts.

You hear the publicists and television hosts sell the last week as a great time to visit Saratoga. “The crowds are gone,” they say. “No standing in long lines to make a bet or buy a hot dog.” But, unfortunately, the crowds remain gone.

Week six at Saratoga might be the longest week of any meet anywhere, with the possible exception of the final week of racing in New York and LA prior to Saratoga and Del Mar openings. People create buzz, excitement. No people; no buzz.

In the traditional end-of-meet press conference in the Saratoga press box, Director of Racing P.J. Campo talked about how every year shortly after the Breeders’ Cup, the NYRA executive team gathers around a table to discuss a game plan from which a racing schedule would be constructed.

I have a proposal, announced as a one year deal whose future depends on a complete evaluation of results indicating whether the experiment was a success or failure: For one year, couldn’t we just flip-flop the Woodward and Travers?

Let me explain, for the umpteenth time. In my soul, I’m a traditionalist. In my heart of racing heart’s, I’m a romantic pragmatist who wonders how good things might be in a perfect world.

Here are the pluses: By moving up the Woodward by a week, you allow another seven days for horses planning on racing back in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. In the modern era, horsemen would rather have, on average, five weeks instead of four. The Woodward’s no longer a part of the Belmont fall championship calendar. In fact, the fall championship calendar by definition no longer exists. No real harm done.

Moving the Travers back a week gives the Jim Dandy horses another week of recovery time. Of greater significance, it now makes the time between the Haskell and Travers four weeks instead of three. Horsemen would be much more inclined to ship north, no longer claiming spacing as an excuse.

And New York might have a better shot at stealing a horse or two away from the $1-million Pennsylvania Derby, which slowly grows in stature each year. If horsemen cross-enter, they possibly could be shipping out at the peril of future stall allotments, which is how that game is played.

The argument that people leave the meet during the final week because children need to get back for the beginning of school? Who, and just how many people exactly, are affected by this?

Of that relatively small group, isn’t it more likely that day-trippers would ship into Saratoga if the Travers were run on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, a card that follows the popular Friday sunset program?

A Labor Day weekend featuring four days of exceptionally strong racing, topped by the Midsummer Derby, should provide Saratoga’s final week with all the buzz it can handle.

Here are the minueses: Tradition.

The appearance of Triple Crown three-year-olds at Anytrack USA for the balance of the racing season is a Grade 1 draw. Even the star of a weak three-year-old class has more drawing power than a Horse of the Year. Three-year-olds sell better than anything else. Three-year-olds are box office.

Otherwise, how does one reconcile 22,000 fans showing up on the final Saturday of Saratoga to see a true champion, when 17,000 went to Monmouth to see a Kentucky Derby winner run in a “meaningless” prep in which he isn’t supposed to get down on his belly to win the race at all costs?

Written by John Pricci

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