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, January 24, 2008


Bred To Bet vs. Pick 4 King in Horseplayer World Series


LAS VEGAS, Jan. 24, 2008--George Grennan Jr. and Paul Sherman arrived at the 2008 Horseplayer World Series via routes that are at once different yet the same. Each can be found regularly at Suffolk County OTB on Long Island, and each qualified by winning satellite contests. But that's where the similarity ends.

In March, Grennan won the first of two annual Suffolk OTB contests to qualify for the HWS. Stewart arrived at the HWS via a most unusual qualifying contest at Louisiana Downs racetrack. In that contest qualifiers were graded on the number of Pick 4s they could bet in a month, spanning a period of six months from June through October.

Thirty days hath September; 11 Pick 4s hath Stewart. But there was a catch. According to tournament rule, only winning Pick 4s that paid minimum odds of 750-1 counted toward the contest.

You can do the math.

For Grennan, there was no choice other than to become a full time horseplayer. I went to John Adams High School which butted up against Aqueduct. My friends and I got 50 cents for lunch money every day. We'd spend lunch hour rounding up nickels and dimes until we had enough for the daily double, he remembered.

'One day we hit one for $200 and went home by limousine. It was one of those cars that used to take people right from Aqueduct to the trotters. We lived in Howard Beach. It only cost us five bucks.'

Four decades later, Grennan is one of 681 horseplayers competing in the 2008 HWS. A 'sheets' player since the mid-80s, Grennan combines a gift for finding value with an ability to 'read between the lines.'

"Some trainers can move horses up pretty good," he said.

Grennan's first three plays on opening day of the HWS finished first, second and third. It was a morning when horseplayers throughout the contest area were lamenting the wet tracks at Gulfstream and Fair Grounds and a lack of turf racing virtually everywhere, including Tampa Bay Downs, where the track was fast but the grass races were rescheduled.

There would no relief from Southern California, either. Santa Anita canceled their races owing to rain and continuing problems with Cushion Track. Reports began circulating that Santa Anita might cancel Friday too so that the surface might be whipped into shape for Saturday's nationally televised Sunshine Millions program. The Sunshine Millions is expected to be the focus for Saturday's final day of the National Handicapping Championships at the Red Rock Resort and Casino.

For his part, Stewart didn't see his first live race until the age of 21, when brother Bill took him to Belmont Park. "We hit the double, and that was it," said the man who's been spending recent years making up for lost time.

Stewart is a self-described 'handicapping tour veteran,' playing in about 20 contests a year in six different states and another three on-line. The Louisiana Downs contest that qualified him for the HWS was played with real dollars from Stewart's own simulcast outlet. By rule, all bets had to be placed at the same venue, a photo ID of the winning ticket had to be presented for verification, accompanied by a W2G IRS form.

"I've got plenty of those now," he said.

By finishing second in a handicapping contest at Aqueduct early this year, he also qualified for the NHC, which begins Friday. But don't count on brother Bill to act as his surrogate at the HWS while he plays in the NHC, which doesn't allow proxies. Bill, now living in California, also qualified for both contests.

Paul Stewart now has qualified for the NHC for six consecutive years. In fact, he and brother Bill have competed against each other on five occasions. They are now tied with the brothers Gallo, Randy and Ross, as families with the most winning trips into same-contest finals.

Paul and Bill Stewart are members of what might best be termed racing's only Grade 1 contest conglomerate. The father and son team of Steve Wolfson Sr. and Steve Jr. hail from the famed Wolfson family of Triple Crown winner Affirmed, the chestnut colt owned and bred by recently deceased racing family scion Louis Wolfson. They are part of a five-member group that also includes fellow contest handicapper Mitch Sherman.

All five barnstormers will be in action this weekend. When they are not in the thick of the competition, they are there is support of each other. Paul is a sheets player; brother Bill and Sherman are trip handicappers and, as you might surmise, the Wolfsons are pedigree experts, among other things.

"Actually, I did a little advance pedigree work myself for this weekend and it took me two to three days," said Stewart. "It's a lot of work, but I don't know of a better way to spend your retirement," explained the youthful 54-year-old. "I've made great friends over the years. I enjoy the camaraderie, and I know plenty of people in this room," he said, swiveling around to survey the cavernous Mardi Gras Ballroom at the Orleans.

So, like Butch and Sundance, you might be thinking: "Who are these guys?"

They are five horseplayers good enough to qualify for this weekend's handicapping bonanza, and at least four of them have qualified for the NHC every year since 2003.

While two entries in the same contest are not permitted, Stewart qualified for the NHC by finishing second in the Connecticut OTB contest at Bradley and by winning the on-line Youbet.com contest on the same day.

"Guess I'm the only player in history to qualify twice in one day. Actually finished second in Bradley twice. The same guy beat me both times."

Tough beat, Paul. Perhaps the third-time-charm thing might work out better for you next year. Unless, of course, you win the whole thing this time, in which case you'll be back to defend your title in 2009.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008


New Best Friends Reunited at Horseplayer World Series


LAS VEGAS, Jan. 23, 2008--Although the two largest handicapping contests in America dont start until tomorrow; the 3-day Horseplayer World Series at the Orleans and the 2-day National Handicapping Championships Friday and Saturday at the Red Rock Resort and Casino, horseplayers from all over began converging on the Orleans this morning.

There are two ways to get into the HWS: become certified in a qualifying contest or walk in, plunk down your g-note and take a seat.

The Mardi Gras Ballroom at the Orleans is a cavernous place. When you walk inside it conjures up more World Series of Poker than Horseplayer World Series. Table after table are lined up like so many soldiers in row almost as far as the eye can see.

Randi Muniz and her contest staff barely had time to pick up their heads as players queued up to sign in, pick up their information packets, and were assigned seats from which they will view the agonies and ecstasies that will play themselves out in the next 72 hours at eight different racetracks across the country.

Edward Wright, a 51-year-old horseplayer from New York City, was one of the first seated and hes anxious for the contest to begin. Hes been waiting more than a year for it, in fact qualifying in what he termed a mini-contest at Delaware Park in early January, 2007. This made him the first contestant qualified for the fourth annual HWS and apparently he wanted to take the catbird seat in front of banks of large-screen TVs that surround the contest area.

This is Wrights second trip back to the HWS. Last year he walked in off the street, signed up and finished in a dead-heat for 27th among 715 players, taking home $1,787 in prize money.

Coming from someone such as myself, who went 0-for-14 years in the original but now defunct World Series of Handicapping at Penn National Race Course, thats a damn good maiden debut.

Wright fell in love with the game like many horseplayers do; by winning his first bet. In 1985, Wright, who prefers grass racing and uses a trip handicapping approach, walked into an NYC-OTB parlor, looked at the entries for the next race in New York and decided to play an exacta box, E-F. Back in the day, OTB used letters instead of numbers in a silly attempt at branding its product.

Wright knew what an exacta was but didnt know how to mark his slip to reflect the reverse, or boxed wager. As post time neared, and with anxious bettors behind him in line yelling horseplayer obscenities, he simply told the clerk just give me another ticket.

When Tara K.--Ill never forget her name-- finished first, and the F horse placed, the old E-F exacta, which he now had twice, paid over $500 per ducat.

For the next year, Edward Wright paid for the privilege of cashing that first bet. I started looking at the form and was betting on horses that won two or three races in a row. You know, how were they going to lose? I didnt realize it was one thing to beat $10,000 claimers three times but another to win an allowance race.

Although he lost that first full year, he really enjoyed the game. I read all the books and gradually I started to learn what to do. So how did he plan to bring home the lions share of $750,000 this weekend?

Wright was distracted before he could answer. Hey, how you doin? he asked Louis Licata of Cleveland, who went to Thistledown when he was 12 and has been playing the horses ever since. Annes with me, he informed Edward.

Anne Moore, also of Cleveland, qualified at a satellite contest for the HWS. Louis will be at the Orleans tomorrow cheering her on, but the next day hell be shooting for first prize of $500,000 in the NHC. Licata, who plays in about six contests a year, and Moore met Wright at last years HWS.

Apparently the couple that plays together stays together even when ones punting on the other side of town.

I used to play sprints, I loved speed, Licata said of his approach. But now I on concentrate on grass races. And Anne?

I love maiden races, Moore said, a horseplayer for about three years. The fewer the starts, the better. I watch the post parade and try to find the happy horse, said Moore, a student of equine body language. She can pick up kidney sweat from a half a mile away, Licata said, showing no small amount of pride.

You know, its a shame, he added, that both contests had to take place the same weekend. I love this contest. Its wide open; you can play any track you want. But the NHC is really exciting. There have eight mandatory races and when you get down to the end, everybodys looking at the same race. I think its the loudest noise I ever heard.

Wright, meanwhile, was enjoying the camaraderie of it all but was ready to turn his attention to business. Last year, the winning total [from 11 mythical $20 win-place HWS wagers on each day] was $2,929. I figure that $3,000 can win it this year. Ill just try to build a bankroll the first day then [play it off the standings after that].

There will be over a thousand horse stories in Sin City this weekend and this has been three of them. So grab those trip notes and speed figures. Its going to be a bumpy ride.

* * *

The Steam at the Orleans: The hottest bet in town doesnt have four legs, a mane and a tail. In fact, it has is 44 legs, 22 on each side of the ball. High ankle sprains to Future Hall of Fame quarterbacks notwithstanding, the New York Football Giants have been the side in early Super Bowl wagering. The Perfect Pats opened a two-touchdown favorite but are now minus-12. But its the money line thats interesting. The game opened at a somewhat moderate -500 +375, meaning if you like the Patriots you bet $500 to make $100. A c-note on the Giants gets you $375. Today at 2 p.m. EST, the line moved to -425, +325.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, January 20, 2008


Saturday Roundup: Of Classy Youngsters and Old Pros


The Colts Got Class: After watching yesterdays seventh race at the Fair Grounds for newly turned three-year-olds going a mile and 40 yards, its hard to know whether Denis Of Cork is good enough to win the Kentucky Derby. But whatever happens from this point forward, know this: Denis Of Cork is a very good colt.

As opposed to his debut, where he lagged behind the field and looped them all going seven furlongs, he broke sharply from post six of seven, with a very short run to the first turn.

Calvin Borel never had a chance to save ground, so he didnt. He allowing the son of Harlans Holiday to settle off a dawdling pace in the middle of the sloppy Fair Grounds track.

So, four across the track he raced throughout his second lifetime start. Borel asked for winning speed approaching headstretch, the colts momentum carrying him out even wider. Horses usually chuck it at this point, especially young ones, but not Denis. The momentum carried him to even terms with the leaders, where the stretch battle began.

Second choice Unbridled Vicar emerged from between horses and it looked as if his softer trip would prove the difference. It didnt. Borel began scrubbing Denis right-handed and they edged away in the final strides.

All this off a hungry pace of :25.32, :49.89, 1:14.50 and 1:40.37. The final time was 1:42.83. Some observers might be discouraged that he wasnt more dominant. Not me. He answered a big question yesterday. The colts got class.


Evening Attire Just Never Stops Trying: Before thinking that Evening Attire has lost a step to age--now that hes no longer a nine-year-old--did you see him finish yesterday?

No, he didnt win the mile and a sixteenth Aqueduct Handicap, but his class and courage got him a runnerup finish behind a talented, back-in-form Angliana.

The old boy was running good early on, after his usual slow start. Down the backside he was in the bridle, but well behind a solid pace set by dueling Pink Viper and Judiths Wild Rush. The pace battle did them both in and Angliana was in the best spot to take advantage.

And it all happened so fast. Just when it appeared Judiths Wild Rush opened what looked like an insurmountable lead, having disposed of Pink Viper, here comes Angliana to grind the leader down for the scroe.

The co-pacesetter was the likely runnerup at that point but the big gray just kept chugging. Angled off the inside by Ramon Dominguez, the 10-year-old found his best stride and willed his way forward, nailing Judiths Wild Rush right on the line.

Even in defeat, he gives you a show.


Tagg May Have Second Derby Horse: Its been acknowledged that Barclay Tagg has a classy three-year-old named Tale Of Ekati on the Derby trail. Yesterday at Gulfstream Park he might have found another.

Elysium Fields shot through on the fence approaching headstretch, took command soon after straightening away, and widened his margin at the finish beneath Eibar Coa. The bad news is that it was his first win in for tries. The good news is that it came in his first start at nine furlongs.

Elysium Fields should have won his Florida debut at Calder but suffered a wide-throughout journey breaking from the extreme outside in a field of 10. He was much luckier yesterday, sitting behind a contested pace and saving ground. Once he opened a clear lead, he was gone.

By El Prado from the Silver Hawk mare, Dreams, hell run all the way to 10 furlongs and beyond. The question is whether he can get there fast enough.


Written by John Pricci

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