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, March 07, 2009

For Handicappers and Fans, Big Weekend Coast to Coast

Saratoga Springs, NY, March 6, 2009--If you can’t get excited about the stakes action on display from coast to coast this afternoon, there’s a hole in your racing soul.

I’m no huge fan of synthetic track racing. But today’s Santa Anita Handicap program, that also features three-year-old filly sensation Stardom Bound in the Santa Anita Oaks, is, in contemporary vernacular, just awesome dude and dudettes.

The word from Southern California all week was that three fillies were expected to challenge the juvenile filly champion. The Oaks was anticipated to be a routine tune-up for her anticipated battle with the boys in the Santa Anita Derby.

So how did the Oaks wind up with a field of 10?

If you hang around racetracks long enough, you learn things, often too late. But given there are no secrets on the racetrack, especially on the backside, did the trainers of nine other fillies suddenly think it was a good idea to run for second money?

Admittedly, I’m postulating from 3,000 miles away. But a field this size under the circumstances is curious. And when the champ’s closing odds figure to be prohibitive, the laying of two dollars to win one, you must look deeper.

But trainer Bobby Frankel said she’s ready to run her best race. That should be good enough. Frankel has a good opinion and is not inclined to make with the hyperbole.

From a handicapping perspective, there are some interesting fillies among Stardom Bound’s rivals.

Beltene is undefeated, clearly fast enough and never has taken a backward step on the Equiform scale. Still, she’s making her two turn debut in a tough spot.

Acronym made an auspices Pro-Ride debut in a good figure performance and the six week spacing augurs. Test post, but should could be a huge price.

Nan appears poised for a forward move after finishing 2-¼ lengths behind Stardom Bound in the Las Virgenes and is clearly on the improve.

But it’s Hooh Why that’s most intriguing. She earns good performance figures with some consistency, was sharpened sprinting when second to Beltene, and has shown distance ability when narrowly beaten in her only start going long at 2.

Did I mention that her game placing was to the good colt Patena on Woodbine’s polytrack, beating nine other males in the process? Clearly, there’s upset potential here.

The “Big Cap” is always a challenging handicapping puzzle. But this one’s so tough I can’t tell who might go favorite at post time. The track linemaker made Travers winner Colonel John with Garrett Gomez the 9-2 early favorite in the field of 14--as much a function of the rider as the horse.

Colonel John is very solid with good performance figures, a win at the 10-furlong distance--one of only three in the field--has tactical speed, kick and, of course, Gomez. He’s well posted, too.

The classy Einstein, a turf specialist that handles dirt, should make the transition to Pro-Ride. He’s poised to move forward off a good third-place finish in a strongly run Donn. Early line odds of 6-1 are more than fair.

The most interesting from a betting perspective are Matto Mondo (6-1) and Dansant (20-1). Matto Mondo is from the Richard Mandella barn of Richard Mandella, which has been synonymous with “Big Cap.” He’s untested at 10 furlongs but comes up to this perfectly with tactical speed, the pole, and a switch to Rafael Bejarano. A “now horse” if there ever was one.

Remember the Breeders’ Cup, and how the Euros came over and dominated? Well, Dansant, coming in for first rate European ship-in connections, Gerard Butler, might not class up, but is 5-for-8 on Polytrack and 2-for-3, with a second, at the distance. At anything near 20-1, he‘s worth a gamble.

The G1 Kilroe Mile on turf completes the Big Cap Day troika. Quite a program, indeed.

Three-thousand miles away, New York is staging a terrific renewal of the G3 Gotham. The mile and a sixteenth prep for the G1 Wood Memorial has drawn nine entrants and the top four betting choices look like they’ll be the right ones at the finish.

The early favorite at 5-2 is Imperial Council, which seems sophomoric since he has no two-turn form and spots today’s main rivals recent conditioning.

But he’s a huge talent and trainer Shug McGaughey is on a mission to discover whether he fits at the highest levels. McGaughey’s been dying to run him long, insisting the colt doesn’t want to sprint. And he’s been impressive going short.

I Want Revenge (3-1), shipping from California, is a more deserving favorite. He was narrowly beaten by leading Californian Pioneerof The Nile in the G1 Cash Call Futurity at 2, and third behind him in the Robert B. Lewis over a surface rider Joe Talamo insists he didn’t handle. To prove it, Talamo is coming in to ride him back.

The other two favorites are both New York-breds. Haynesfield (7-2) takes a three-race, two-turn winter track win streak into this and has shown he can come off the pace. But he’s never faced this kind.

The most intriguing, however, is undefeated, ultra-fast Mr. Fantasy (7-2). He’s light on seasoning but has won twice on today’s track including one around two turns. He’s a colt with extremely fluid action and acts like maybe, just maybe, he’s really special. His action, to me, is reminiscent of Curlin’s at 3.

Fascinating puzzles all

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, March 06, 2009

Three Hall of Fame Categories a Real Horse Race

Saratoga Springs, NY, March 5, 2009--I always look forward to receiving my Hall of Fame ballot in the mail. It provides a chance to recall good memories, and handicap the races after they’ve been run. I find it easier that way.

Much has been written and said regarding the process of selecting nominees. I don’t particularly care for the present method either, but it is what it is. Besides, the game has a lot weightier issues with which to deal. I’ll take a pass this year.

With one exception: There has to be the same number of nominees in each category with a minimum of three or higher. When there are only two candidates, it gives a not-so-subtle impression that the nominating committee favors one particularly popular candidate.

And we’re not going to name names here.

(Bob Baffert).

The following is ballot is sure to raise some discussion, such is the degree of difficulty in categories where a clear choice was not easily made. Resultantly, the list of new Hall of Fame members, to be announced April 20, should be interesting, indeed:

A final note: I believe all Halls of Fame should be occupied by candidates who were dominant performers and not compilers of statistics. But, like baseball, horse racing is stats oriented.

Unlike automatic benchmarks such as 3,000 hits (Pete Rose?) and 300 wins for a pitcher, racing doesn’t have universally accepted standards.

My personal standards are 15 percent lifetime wins for jockeys and 4,000 career victories; 20 percent win ratio for trainers and for horses one truly dominant stakes season, especially in the short-career era. Good production records as sires or broodmares breaks ties, etc..

One man’s ballot:

TRAINER: Bob Baffert over Robert Wheeler. Deserving of first-round status based on consistent accomplishment at the highest levels of the sport. It’s one thing to have the stock to work with. It’s another to get the job done against rivals that also have the stock to win the big one.

His career highlights include four Double Crowns--meaning eight three-year-old classics, coming within a scant nose from making history--and seven Breeders’ Cup wins, twice winning two on one program. He developed 10 champions and, at 56, is the fifth leading money-winning of all time.

Baffert’s won three Eclipse Awards, was leading trainer at no less than 20 Southern California race meets and storied races too numerous to mention. He’s saddled graded stakes winners at a 23 percent rate over a most prolific career. Most deserving, indeed.

Now the categories become difficult and are sure to become rife with controversy, the kind of good controversy that any sport would happily live with.

JOCKEY: Randy Romero, over Alex Solis and Eddie Maple. Romero was much sought after in his day, winning with 18 percent of his stakes mounts, 17 percent graded, with an overall win percentage of 16.46 and riding 4,294 winners.

The jockeys like to use earnings as their barometer for success, me, not so much. But in deference, Romero ranks 52nd on the list of the 100 leading money-earners of all-time. In winning percentage, Romero ranks 32nd on the all-time list. Of the 31 ahead of him, 13 are in the Hall of Fame.

As a rule, most jockeys do well at a particular meeting or circuit. Level of competition, familiarity and past success breeds more live mounts. Noteworthy, then, that Romero was a leading rider at 10 different tracks.

In terms of individual highlights, he rode five champions, including the undefeated Personal Ensign, five straight winners at Keeneland, six winners on one card, and four stakes one afternoon at Gulfstream Park.

The intangible, of course, is his extraordinary courage, coming back to ride in four months after suffering first and second degree burns over 60 percent of his body in a sweatbox accident to enjoy his most success. Even now, it’s dialysis four times per week. Still, separating him from the two other nominees was difficult.

CONTEMPORARY HORSE-MALE: Best Pal, over Tiznow and Point Given. Voters could be talking about this year’s category a long time. Tiznow and Point Given were undeniably brilliant.

Tiznow remains the only dual (repeat) winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic and was Horse of the Year at 3. Point Given went 9-for-13 including the Preakness, Belmont and Mid-Summer Derby, also a Horse of the Year at 3. They were dominant but raced only two seasons with 28 career starts between them.

Best Pal raced for seven years, started 47 times, won 18 with another 15 in-the-money finishes. Of those 18 wins, 17 were stakes. True, while much of his success was limited to California, he was one of only four horses to ever win the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup and Charles H. Strub Stakes triad.

Only seven horses among the top 100 money earners all-time have more wins, five are in the Hall of Fame.

Enjoying “people’s horse” status for his honesty and longevity, he was facile enough to win five stakes at 2, including two Grade 1s. In the history of the game, he’s a storied geldings, not quite Kelso or Forego but close enough to earn this vote.

CONTEMPORARY HORSE-FEMALE: Sky Beauty, over Silverbulletday and Open Mind. Almost impossible to choose between three nominees who enjoyed dominating careers, but each with flaws. Open Mind was 12-for-19 in her career, and Silverbulletday was 15-for-23. But neither ever beat an older horses when they were 3 or 4.

I’ve resisted voting for Sky Beauty in other years. In compiling a 15-for-21 lifetime slate, a better percentage than her Hall of Fame rivals, she never won a race outside of New York. But at 4 she went 5-for-6, four of them G1. At 5 she won again, and was retired one race after finishing second to last year’s inductee, Inside Information, in the G1 Shuvee.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Fountain of Youth Wide Open; Sham Not So Much

Saratoga Springs, NY, February 27, 2009--Two significant Kentucky Derby preps today, one with major implications, as the road to Louisville begins to heat up with the calendar rapidly approaching March.

The Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, while a one turn mile, remains meaningful, such is the talent level among the dozen entrants that will spring from the Gulfstream Park gate down the chute for that long backstretch run.

Santa Anita offers the G3 Sham Stakes at nine furlongs. What the two turner provides in race dynamics it lacks in major faces. So if neither race excites, not to worry. Next week the scores can really change.

Next Saturday’s Gotham will provide serious clues regarding how a pair of brilliant speedsters, Haynesfield and Mr. Fantasy, can stand a significant class rise and quality pace pressure.

The Gotham will also show if the talented, lightly seasoned Imperial Council is as good as the hype. And we’ll see just how the solid Left Coaster, I Want Revenge, handles real dirt in his debut over Aqueduct’s winter-track surface.

There’s significantly more brilliance (read ability) in the Fountain of Youth than will be on display in the Sham. A lot more.

Such are the lofty Equiform performance figures earned by two of the Fountain’s dozen, Notonthesamepage and This Ones For Phil, final numbers of 80.25 and 81, respectively. That kind of gas would win most Breeders’ Cup Sprints, and it’s only February.

How those sprint figures translate to eight furlongs is the question. But brilliance, especially that kind of zip, must be highly respected. At 4-1 and 3-1, respectively, they are the early line choices for what has been a traditional stepping stone to the Florida Derby.

If only strict adherence to performance figures made things easy. If my life depended on it, I’d look to handicap a walkover. And this is far from a walkover as you can get. For my life it would be This Ones For Phil, and not just because he’s “fastest.”

The facts are that he’s handled pace pressure before, unlike many of today’s rivals, and is proven at the distance. [And trainer Rick Dutrow does well from outside posts in three year old stakes at Gulfstream, if you recall].

In this case, an outside position is an advantage. With all the speed inside, Edgar Prado can read and react; sit off a suicidal pace or put pressure on a soft one. Is the colt set up for a regression? If he doesn’t bounce, he’s Secretariat. Still, he’s the most likely winner. And a bad bet.

The problem is knowing where to go. While ‘Phil’ must be included in the wagering mix, at least defensively, bettors must lose the second choice to secure value. If you’re right about ‘Phil,’ you must beat Notonthesamepage, hoping the other speeds run him into the ground.

Capt. Candyman Can is right behind the two favorites on performance figures, has the right running style, a great post, and the strong finishing Julien Leparoux. He’s a very logical alternative, But Ian Wilkes is a Carl Nafzger protégé.

As such, Wilkes doesn’t want another peak performance in a one turn race. If the goal is Louisville, he runs evenly here, moves forward in the Florida Derby, and peaks in Kentucky. Or the other way around.

It’s unfortunate that guessing is a prescription for parimutuel disaster.

There are three interesting price horses in the Fountain of Youth: Theregoesjojo (15-1), Break Water Edison (15-1) and Quality Road (8-1).

‘Jojo’ looked like Cujo coming down the stretch winning his Gulfstream debut, his first race since July’s Bashford Manor. Trainer Ken McPeek, 32 percent at the meet, is good with stretch-outs, his colt’s distance pedigree is there and Kent Desormeaux is three for his last five rides for the outfit. The inside post can be a blessing or curse, depending on the break. Jojo’s developing very nicely.

Taking Break Water Edison would an act of faith. He hates racing inside and drew the rail in his Hutcheson debut. He was so bad that you wonder how much he got out of it. Trainer John Kimmel adds blinkers, the colt moves outside, stretches to his best distance, and ran fast enough at two to compete here. But that last race..?

Quality Road is a huge talent. A poor start compromised him when beaten by ‘Jojo’ in his first start this year. Following his good placing, he’s worked five times--25 furlongs in 28 days--and his recent five furlongs of :58.4 was the fastest of 109 three year olds to work that week on Palm Meadows deepish surface. Trainer Jimmy Jerkens is 26 percent with first-time Lasix runners. I’d take 6-1 or more.

The best Sham horses on performance figures are The Pamplemousse (9-5), Mr. Hot Stuff (7-2) and Take the Points (3-1), also entered in the Fountain of Youth but expected to run here.

Take the Points never has taken a backward step in four starts, earning a competitive figure last out, but is unproven at nine furlongs. He has stamina and grass on the bottom of his family, which augurs well for Pro-Ride, and attracts Garrett Gomez who must negotiate the 12 post.

Mr. Hot Stuff, like Take the Points, is unproven at the trip but jumped up big time in his last, like many three year olds this time of year, and he’s as “fast” as the favorite. The recent graduate is bred to run up the side of a mountain, as racetrackers say.

The Pamplemousse is a worthy and deserving favorite. Developing beautifully, he showed speed and class to win the G3 San Rafael and added distance poses little problem. He’s worked five times since the San Rafael, some of the bullet variety. Trainer Julio Canani, 38 percent at the meet, is an ace with distance types. Alex Solis will try to ride him to a third consecutive win.

Written by John Pricci

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