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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Thursday, May 22, 2008


Triple Crown 2008 is like a Box of Chocolates


ELMONT, NY, May 21, 2008---Ever have one of those days? I had one yesterday. I was too late for an appearance by Big Brown on the track, who was likely to jog just to get those shipping kinks out.

Plus, the colt always wants to do something to prove that he’s a horse and probably had no one to play with at the barn. But his trainer wanted to make him happy.

So Rick Dutrow called a training audible, working about two and a half hours early. Big Brown’s minions would just have to stand there and like it.

Racetrack stable help has a name for this kind of behavior: Trainer‘s prerogative.

But the press conference, scheduled for 11 AM outside Barn 2, started on time, maybe even a few minutes early. On one side of the barrier was Dutrow, on the other about 30 notepads and maybe five hand-held cameras.


Nice day for a press conference, too. It was a beautiful morning with only the pleasant hint of a chill, sweater weather, and the man on the other side of the barrier was having the time of his life.

With apologies to Willie Nile, welcome to Dutrow’s head. He looks reporters in the eye and answers their questions straight out, without hesitation.

Writers have a name for this kind of behavior: Roguish charm.

Good, productive session. I’ve got enough material to maybe last a week. What should I write about? I know, something nobody will care about except me.

Wrong again, and the second time I was late today.

An Associated Press story appeared in my mail box and it was all about the second thing I asked Big Brown‘s trainer.

“Rick, on the Preakness telecast you said you didn’t appreciate the tactics of [Riley Tucker’s] jockey. That he didn’t have to move when he did. But I saw that rider fall back in the saddle a bit as Kent shoved him out a little bit, soon after entering the backstretch, and….”

“I just don’t think what he did gave his horse the best chance to win,” Dutrow said. “I had no idea what he was doing. He had to go out of his way, and we’re not real happy about that, either.

“He does a lot of riding for us, continued Dutrow. “The Zayat people [Riley Tucker’s owners] called me, and they didn’t care very much for his ride, either.”

Strong stuff. Especially since that jockey, Edgar Prado, widely regarded as America’s best money rider, will be enshrined into the Hall of Fame this August.

Prado, as might be expected, didn’t take the criticism well. “I got paid to win the race, not to pay favors.” Prado told the AP by telephone later in the day.

Wonder what instructions Dutrow might have given Prado when giving him a leg up on, irony o’ ironies, IEAH Stables, et al's Dark Cheetah, in the Red Wing Dream overnight stakes? Maybe they weren’t good ones.

Reads the chart footnote: “Dark Cheetah…checked along the rail awaiting room at the quarter pole, split rivals…ducked back to the inside…surged to the front, and yielded grudgingly late…”

Probably tried too hard on the 6-1 chance, ya’ think?

Well, it’s just what this Triple Crown chase needed anyway, a hint of controversy.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Thanks for the mammaries


Back in the day some people called the Kentucky Derby a breeder’s race because you needed to have enough pedigree to go 10 furlongs very early in the three-year-old year.

Timers older than me taught that second-year runners shouldn’t go 10 furlongs until about June, when most of them really ARE three.

But the rest of them said the Belmont is the real breeder’s race because it was a mile and a half, and if it’s the Test of a Champion then genes matter.

Remember dosage? We wrote about it a little, before the Derby. (Dosage indices for the Derby and Preakness are posted somewhere on the site).

Anyway, the dosage stuff just arrived from researcher Brad and so I’ll share. Don’t care, you say?

“Come on! Dosage is out of step at best, nonsense at worst. Besides, all the sires seem to qualify these days anyway…”

But there’s a methodology that’s fundamental to its meaning and utility based on sound, logical principles. One has to do with a high measure of quality in the classic wing of a dosage profile, combined with a balance of speed to stamina in the pedigree.

The other principle would be to see values in the solid and professional wings of a profile, indicating a likelier chance for success at longer distances.

Had anyone bothered to learn this before the Derby, they might have thought about keying Big Brown in the superfecta over Eight Belles, Denis Of Cork and Tale of Ekati, at a cost of $12, the only four horses out of 20 with at least two points in either the solid or professional category, the stamina branch of the family tree, and a $2-wager that paid $58,737.80.

Three of the four will be back in the Belmont. The only one missing, of course, is the filly, Eight Belles.

And still there are some people who prefer their pedigree more on the traditional side, say, class in the dam.

And the mother of Casino Drive--a.k.a. undefeated Japanese wonder horse Casino Drive, is a mare named Better Than Honour, who foaled the last two Belmont winners.

Well Kismet and serendipity for all my friends.

So, who knows?

If, at this early stage, you’re thinking Belmont Stakes superfecta, you might find the following useful. In the classic wing of the profile there are two horses with more than 20 points, a high benchmark: Big Brown has 23, Spark Candle has 20.

Let’s have a happy Belmont.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, May 08, 2008


For Big Brown, There May Be More Improvement in Store


If it weren’t for the two weeks between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, the continued development of Big Brown likely wouldn’t come to an end anytime soon. His unusual Equiform performance-figure pattern supposes this, even while he competes at a very high level.

Big Brown isn’t the greatest Derby winner ever to pass beneath the Twin Spires but there weren’t many that were projected to be still developing. But that possibility exists with Big Brown. His best still might be ahead of him.

This makes perfect sense as the colt gains maturity and experience. In the Derby, only his fourth start, he showed a dimension many didn’t think he had. And those that did weren’t sure.

As horsemen channeling Yogi Berra might say, you don’t know they can do it until they do it.
And that’s exactly what Rick Dutrow told HRI by phone in the run-up to Derby. “He has to go out and prove it. Then he’s got to go out and prove it all over again.”

As his race showed, it wasn’t hubris when Dutrow and IEAH managing partner Michael Iavarone chose the extreme outside with five slips remaining during the final stage of the Kentucky Derby draw.

And neither was it hubris when Kent Desormeaux took Big Brown back off the early pace. Then, at the juncture you’d expect Desormeaux to ask Big Brown for his run--approaching the five furlong pole--he took him back a little more.

OK, maybe there was some hubris on the part of the three-time Derby winning jockey. Desormeaux, who occasionally suffers from brain-lock, was superb in America’s biggest horse race. His performance on Golden Doc A the day before in the Oaks, however, won’t be remembered as an artistic achievement.

The confidence exhibited by trainer and jockey was at once honest and refreshing, even if Dutrow made a remark about the Derby’s importance that was, let’s say, indelicate. But he manned up and apologized, something you’d never hear from, let’s say, Roger Clemens.

Although not germane to his performance-figure sequence, Big Brown’s career began on turf where, from that point forward, he never has taken a developmentally backward step. His debut figure was a very good, but unremarkable, 72.25.

His three succeeding dirt races were a season’s debut 76.75, a 79.50 for his Florida Derby, and a 80.25 in the Derby. Of greater significance, his developmental pattern has been nothing short of flawless.

In his three-year-old debut, Big Brown earned a pace figure of 79 to go with his 76.75 final figure. In Equiform language, this is a “compression line;” when the pace and final figure are within four performance points of each other.

Ideally, this kind of energy distribution indicates two things; that a “bounce,” or negative reaction from a big effort, is less likely, and that success in distance races is likely to continue.

In addition to being visually jaw dropping, he moved forward in the Florida Derby by nearly three points, a significant move forward but not definitively harmful.

When that figure is coupled with a pace figure of 84, a.k.a. a “new pace top,” another forward move is a real possibility. But since these figures were earned at such a high level, it’s not necessarily the given it is when horses earn a lower number. Speed is finite.

So, what did Big Brown do for an encore? It’s called a “reversal,” another favorable pattern. He moved forward 3/4s of a point to a new lifetime top of 80.25, only this time he distributed his energy more efficiently. He ran a faster final figure than pace figure. While extremely common on grass, it’s unusual in dirt routes.

Trip handicappers call this phenomenon a change of pace. Casual fans call it “wow, did you see him make that move on the far turn?”

Historically, the figure he earned last Saturday was par for the Derby course. Derby winners generally earn numbers in the 80-81 range.

In this decade, from 2000 forward, here are the winners with Equiform final figures: Fusaichi Pegasus, 80.50; Monarchos, 81.75; War Emblem, 80; Funny Cide, 80.50; Smarty Jones, 80.50; Giacomo, 76.75; Barbaro, 82, and Street Sense an 81.

Given that the Preakness will be his fifth lifetime start, and the reversal indicating Big Brown is just now learning how to distribute his energy, another top figure is possible. But Dutrow said he likes to give his horses approximately six weeks between starts.

Not that the modern thoroughbred can stand any more stress, heaven knows.

Considering the other storyline that developed about three furlongs after the Churchill Downs finish line, racing fans and an entire industry will hold its collective breath when the Preakness Stakes is run for the 133rd time next weekend. But that's a story for another day; tomorrow.

Written by John Pricci

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