John Pricci

HorseRaceInsider.com 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 MSNBC.com, 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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Friday, November 28, 2008


Today’s Stakes Programs: Past, Present and Future


South Ozone Park, NY, November 29, 2008--I’m a little jazzed about the middle of this big holiday weekend. Not only is it the best racing weekend remaining in 2008 but it should provide a glimpse as to what to expect next season.

The focal point is the youngsters, spearheaded by Churchill Downs’ Stars of Tomorrow program--all two-year-olds all the time on the closing-day program--Aqueduct’s Remsen and Demoiselle and Hollywood Park’s Miesque Stakes.

Also of consequence locally is the Grade 1 Cigar Mile. In addition to whatever light Friday’s Clark might have shed on the 2009 handicap division, the class not only is crying out for a leader but looking for any definition at all.

What that means is some members of this year’s much maligned three-year-old class--colts not good enough to be purchased by a sheikh and shuttled off to the breeding shed--must step up. It’s not unreasonable to think that some might do just that.

Besides, a three-year-old won the inaugural 20 years ago when Forty Niner took the NYRA Mile, the forerunner of the Cigar. So, could that be Visionaire or Kodiak Kowboy? The undefeated Storm Play or Harlem Rocker? Tale of Ekati?

It’s not likely to be either of the first two. Both are sprint/miler meant; the former a late-runner, the latter being faster but distance challenged. Storm Play could be any kind, as racetrackers say. He’s already won at nine furlongs and all three wins were in fast time.

Harlem Rocker, meanwhile, is a winner at both eight and nine and a half furlongs, but his form and scheduling has been a bit spotty, indicating some nagging issue perhaps. But he appears to be an individual that could improve with age. Which leaves Tale of Ekati.

Barclay Tagg’s colt is nothing if not enigmatic. Some days he leads you to think he’s a world beater. Other days he lifts your wallet. And he needs to show he’s the same class away from Aqueduct and while his Wood score did come at a mile and an eighth, his perceived ability to go farther doesn’t inspire confidence.

Maybe four-year-old Monterey Jazz, an absolute monster winning the G3 Texas Mile by eight lengths but hasn’t run since, is that horse. But he was much better when he got off the synthetic surface and, of course, the Breeders’ Cup returns to Pro-Ride next season. But first things first, like today’s Grade 1.

For myself and many others, though, it’s about the babies of either sex and next year’s classics. There are five juvenile races in New York, an even dozen at Churchill, and three more at Hollywood, which is enough future for anyone.

Aqueduct’s Remsen and Demoiselle are interesting, requiring horses advanced enough in fitness to handle nine furlongs.

At first blush, fans of Sky Diva might have been disappointed with her Juvenile Fillies effort but they shouldn’t be. She moved forward on the synthetic track while finishing third by three lengths to the remarkable certain champion, Stardom Bound, despite spotting her experience in a less than perfect-trip try. Sky Diva acts like she wants to run all day, resembling more her grand-sire (Unbridled) than sire (Sky Mesa). She’s supposed to win this.

The Remsen is more challenging. On Equiform performance figures, not so much. Old Fashioned, shipping in for Larry Jones, is a layover. And Jones, considering his entrant goes second-time Lasix, second-time long, and moving into graded stakes company, is profitable in all relevant categories.

But there are interesting alternatives. Idol Maker earned an excellent figure with winning his debut at Belmont going a mile, showing good energy distribution for Todd Pletcher. Rip Rap Rip is not as fast as either, but has an experience edge and never has gone backwards. American Dance is slower still, but is learning quickly.

At Churchill, the Golden Rod and Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, like their Big A counterparts, is Grade 2 but each is a sixteenth of a mile shorter. The Golden Rod should yield plenty of clues about heavy favorites Sara Louise (8-5) and Dream Express (9-5).

Sara Louise comes up to the added distance perfectly with the benefit of a win over the track for Dale Romans and Robby Albarado. Like Sky Diva, Dream Express moved forward in the Juv’ Fillies and, like Stardom Bound, came from the clouds for second. She has an Equiform edge, 75 to 73, but never has run on dirt. Kent Desormeaux rides back for Ken McPeek.

Conservatively, half of the 10-colt Jockey Club can win the wide open two-turner. Capt. Candyman Can (8-5) will try to sweep the Iroquois/Jockey Club double for Ian Wilkes and Julien Leparoux, who’s having of a career season

Written by John Pricci

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Some Races Make the Grade; Some Didn’t Deserve It


Saratoga Springs, NY, November 27,2008--In advance of the final grand weekend of racing this year that features Saturday’s Stars of Tomorrow and HolidayFest programs at Churchill Downs and Aqueduct, respectively, and the weekend’s Turf Festival at Hollywood Park, the American Graded Stakes Committee issued its list of graded stakes to be run in 2009.

Next year there will be 746 unrestricted stakes races with a minimum $75,000 purse of which 488 will be graded, seven more than 2008 and 65.4 percent of all added-money events.

If you believe that figure to be disproportionately high, you’re not in the minority. And you’re probably not a member of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, either.

What appears in line is the segregation of the graded events with 43.9 percent (214 races) being Grade 3, 32.6 percent (159) Grade 2, and 23.6 percent (115) Grade 1. This is an increase of five G1s and four G2s but two fewer G3s. The proportion seems fair.

Parenthetically, the number of graded stakes races continues to grow, making it a lot easier for owners to earn black type. You can bet that somewhere, a sales company, a breeder and a bloodstock agent is smiling.

Empirically it's just as tough to go from a G3 to a G2 as it is from a G2 to G1, and the percentages reflect that notion. Of course, there were some decisions that fans can have some fun chewing on. Like the Breeders’ Cup races, for instance.

I can’t argue with elevating the Sentient Flight Group Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint to Grade 1. I thought the race should have debuted at that level, given that it was certain to attract world class talent despite a lack of plentiful G1 opportunities for fast fillies.

Actually, I prefer champion females to race against males, weight allowance and all, but I understand the concerns for safety.

Elevating the TVG Dirt Mile is premature. If, as committee members Peter Willmott and Andrew Schweigardt explained in a Tuesday press conference, assigning grades is an evolutionary process based on recent five-year history, this rise reflects wishful thinking, not reality.

The two runnings of the Dirt Mile were entertaining, bettable events but were far from compelling or of true G1 class. It will be all that one day, an event that breeders will covet and fans will embrace as much as the original Breecers' Cup events. But when that happens the Dirt Mile probably will negatively impact the Sprint and Classic, as has been speculated in the past. We shall see.

Assigning the Grey Goose Juvenile Turf Grade 2 status is at once aspirational and a disservice. But it’s a start. With Saratoga’s With Anticipation now a G3 event, a meaningful juvenile turf program is sure to develop in the future, in its way dovetailing nicely with the advent of synthetic surfaces, and vice versa. But it's not close to there yet.

International participation will lend the Juvenile Turf true status, but grading it could have waited a bit longer. Had an Eclipse category existed first, both Juvenile Turfs could have debuted as G1 races. What’s particularly egregious is that a Grade 2 race by definition is not a championship event.

The Breeders’ Cup people appear happy: "We are pleased that the Graded Stakes Committee recognized the world-class quality of the competition in our new races and we believe its decision, along with the enthusiastic reaction of the top owners and trainers in the world, is another validation of our expansion from eight to 14 championship races,” said Breeders’ Cup Racing Senior Vice-President, Pamela Blatz-Murff.

Regarding other elevations, the rise of Keeneland’s Vinery Madison, Del Mar’s Pat O’Brien and Clement L. Hirsch all appear logical. These races already have the veneer of G1s, although I'm not sure why Del Mar needs two G1 sprints for older males at the same meet.

But making the Jamaica Handicap for three-year-olds turf runners is a curiousity. As an event the race lacks gravitas, unless the committee’s aim was simply to create a G1 in this category as what, a synthetic track prep? The sport would have been better served had one of the lower profile Derbies switched from dirt races to turf.

It was appropriate that the West Virginia Derby, Fayette and Colonial Turf Cup, especially the latter, were elevated from Grade 3 to Grade 2. And several ungraded races received graded standing, some overdue, such as Tampa’s Sam F. Davis. Heartening, too, was that such fixtures as the Massachusetts Handicap, the unique Fall Highweight Handicap and Derby Trail were reinstated.

It was disappointing, but understandably appropriate, that New York’s storied Suburban and Gravesend handicaps lost their graded status. Those races, as well as the always entertaining Deputy Minister, discontinued by Gulfstream Park management, are a specter of what they once were.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Protect the Betting Public: Scratch Stormin Normandy


I’m left of center when it comes to the amount of slack I’m willing to cut horsemen when I see things that offend my gambler’s sensibilities. I like taking an edge as much as the next horseplayer.

Then, too, there’s the “Kalish Rule” we blogged about last week. Sage advice to guide our way through the slings and arrows of the track’s parimutuel gauntlet: “On the racetrack, never jam up a hustler.”

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t think of, but not this time. This time I’m putting the interests of the wagering public before my own selfish wagering plans on Thursday‘s feature race at Aqueduct Racetrack.

In order that the public’s interests be protected, the New York stewards must order that Stormin Normandy be scratched from the Fall Highweight Handicap.

Hasn’t Main Street taken enough of a beating recently?

We’ve often written about our respect for Stormin Normandy’s trainer, Rick Dutrow, as a horseman. Yes, there are all the whispers and all the infractions and Dutrow’s run-off personality to consider.

But of the whispers, I say prove it. This is America. Again.

And of the infractions I say he served his time, even if some of those penalties were of the slap-on-the-wrist variety. And of his run-off personality, I say, deal with it.

What would you prefer? More of the “I couldn‘t be more pleased with my horse’s progress” trainer-speak?

In the glare of the Triple Crown lights, Dutrow made public the fact he made a six-figure bet on the horse he saddled to win the 2005 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Saint Liam won, paying $6.80. Mr. and Mrs. William Warren Jr. got their Horse of the Year title.

And Dutrow got the money. Good for him.

This is not to suggest there was anything sinister about Stormin Normandy’s performance in Sunday’s restricted Itaka Stakes, in which he took the lead in moderate fractions, bore out at the half-mile pole, and backed up through the field to finish last, 52-¼ lengths behind the winning Love Abroad.

Yes, pulled up on the far turn. Just like Big Brown in the Belmont.

But even when Dutrow’s horses are beaten, they normally run competitively. According to research by Nick Kling for his Troy Record column, 5.9 percent of all Dutrow’s dirt starters since 2003 were beaten 20 lengths or more.

That compares with 7.8 percent for Todd Pletcher, 10.6 percent for Kiaran McLaughlin, and 13 percent for Hall of Famer Bill Mott. Further, Dutrow’s beaten-off favorites numbered 2 percent of all his starters, while odds-on choices beaten 20-plus lengths occurred at a 1.4 percent rate.

Stormin Normandy’s awful finish at 7-10 was atypically stunning. This doesn’t happen every day. So what’s the public supposed to make of it? Assessing condition is a fundamental part of the handicapping process. One could surmise the horse went off form, then one might be wrong.

With quick turn-arounds, Dutrow is something of a savant. With horses returning at six furlongs on four days rest or less, Dutrow has a five-year slate of (31) 13-3-6, a win percentage of 42 and an in-the-money percentage of 71. Coming back on three days rest, Dutrow’s 7-for-14.

But how many of those runners were eased?

There’s another issue at work here. Entries for Thursday were taken on Sunday. What if Stormin Normandy was stretched to the limit to beat state-breds going a mile. Would Dutrow have entered him back in four days against three graded stakes winners, two of those G1, carrying 131 pounds?

The public should have confidence that the horse they’re betting is fit to race. And jockey Edgar Prado didn’t gain admission to the Hall of Fame this August because he’s adept at getting his mounts to back up through the field.

Dutrow may have no intention to run Stormin Normandy in the Fall Highweight. He entered two horses, including uncoupled mate Nakayama Arashi. (That recent Dutrow claim is coupled with Ferocious Fires, trained by his brother Tony, due to common ownership interests).

But none of this looks very good, and any game that depends on wagering should be very aware of appearances. Perception is reality. Just listen to callers into sports talk radio on any given Monday after some NFL official badly blows a call the previous day.

Racing has mechanisms to protect the public. Placing Stormin Normandy on the vets’ list, forcing him to the sidelines for a short duration, is one way.

This is a lose-lose situation. Should Stormin Normandy win, what does that say about Sunday’s effort, where over $668,000 was bet in the straight, exacta and trifecta pools alone? How much of that included the odds-on favorite?

But what if Stormin Normandy runs terribly again? Or worse.

In my experience no circuit has been more responsive to the needs of the wagering public than the New York Racing Association.

Some methods to safeguard customers haven’t always proven popular, e.g., the “purse money only” rule when half of an entry is a last-minute scratch.

But any rule that errs on the side of caution is, in the main, a good one. That’s what the scratch of Stormin Normandy would be, erring on the side of the public.

That would be a decision for which horseplayers should be happy to give thanks.

Written by John Pricci

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