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 14, 2008


Today’s Stakes Programs: Wagering Trumps Aesthetics


Saratoga Springs, NY--In terms of excitement, pretty slim pickings this November 15, which is not to say there’s not plenty of meaningful racing left in 2008. HRI scoured the stakes schedule for the weekend warrior crowd and found four added money events worth your attention. Two--and we’ll keep the suspense going a little longer--may present good wagering opportunities.

As we mentioned in today’s daily race analysis from New York, the Grade 3 Stuyvesant has attracted an rather eclectic group, from long-time absentees to quick turn-arounds, from fast horses to slow ones and everything in between.

There are many things to like about Stud Muffin, not the least of which is his name. But the hard-hitting New York-bred likes Aqueduct (2-for-3) and nine furlongs (3-for-6), is racing in top form, including his recent victory in the Empire Classic, highlight of Belmont Park’s Showcase Day program.

But therein, as the bard once said, lies the rub. Is 27 days enough recovery time off such an enervating effort? A tough call. But backing any horse ridden by Alan Garcia this year, especially in races with names attached, is not.

Further, what to do with Helsinki, who hasn’t run since last November, but has names like Street Sense and Any Given Saturday and Grasshopper in his three-year-old past performances?

Helsinki is tough to dismiss out of hand. Trainer John Terranova is 17 percent profitable with new acquisitions and a worthy 21 percent profitable with horses returning from 90-plus-days layoffs. He’s worked 29 furlongs from October 8 forward, including a series of bullets.

The only other graded stakes run this afternoon is the G3 Cardinal from Churchill Downs for fillies and mares three-year-olds and up, going nine furlongs. Always entertaining, the Cardinal is a good betting race every year, 2008 being no exception. The match-ups are fascinating.

Callwood Dancer (3-1) ships in sharp from Woodbine for Roger Attfield, profitable on turf in his career. Second favorite Lady Digby (4-1) is in from the Delaware Valley for the formidable team of Graham Motion and Ramon Dominguez, and the local Ballymore Lady, from crafty local Eddie Kenneally, is a value-laden 10-1 on the early line. The winner should come from among these three talented fillies.

[I’ll be handicapping the entire Churchill Downs card on “Handicappers’ Report,” on the Capital-OTB television network, streaming live at http://www.capitalotb.com, Saturday morning from 9 to 10 a.m. EST].

At Fair Grounds--yes, Virginia, Fair Grounds opened early this year--Louisiana-bred turf horses will race a mile and a sixteenth over a demanding course that generally favors late runners, especially early in the session. Autobeacat, with his good company lines, is the early line (3-1) choice.

But Wildrally (6-1) is going in the right direction for trainer Tom Amoss. His performance figures are moving forward and last time out made a strong, wide mid-race move to the lead, only to pay for those exertions in deep stretch.

Tortuga Flats (8-1) is seeking his third straight win and fifth of the year beneath Keith Leblanc. Trainer Ralph Irwin is a profitable 39 percent with horses seeking a repeat win. Willst (10-1), a three-time winner at the distance and 4-for-6 on this course, is working well for the wily Sturges Ducoing in his Fair Grounds return, the site of his lifetime best performance figure.

Our friends north of the border will be putting on an excellent show when 10 juvenile fillies line up for the Glorious Song Stakes at seven furlongs. What makes this a potentially excellent betting race is the notion that six of these babies can win.

Selva (5-2) is 2-for-2 for trainer David Carroll, having broken her maiden in Saratoga slop before shipping to the Jersey Shore for the fast-track Sorority, showing grit in her victory. Interesting here is that Carroll is a profitable 22 percent efficient going dirt to synthetic for the first time.

Does Steve Klesaris have any two year-old fillies who can’t run? Holiday Girl broke her maiden by eight lengths in fast time at Delaware Park and has been working purposefully for this interesting spot. Bred for today’s longer distance, Klesaris is 28 percent profitable with last-out maiden breakers.

But then there’s Beauty for Ashes, Juliet’s Spirit, Hooh Why and Real Fancy Runner, all in with a bit more than a puncher’s chance.. And what about the filly from the perennial Canadian powerhouse team of Mark Casse and Patrick Husbands, How Far Is Heaven? It’s like the old joke: If you have to ask, you can’t afford it. Dime Supers anyone?

Written by John Pricci

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A Big Sport and a Giant Killer


Saratoga Springs, NY, November 13, 2008--A pair of trainers were in the news this week. One is planning to retire for good at the end of 2009; the other is just getting back to work and probably will never retire.

The Turf Publicists of America announced Wednesday that Larry Jones, trainer of a pair of terrific three-year-old fillies, Proud Spell and Eight Belles, has been chosen as the organization's winner of the Big Sport of Turfdom award. The award is presented annually to a mensch, someone who gives back to racing and its fans through the media.

Eric Wing said it best when he explained in a TPA release that "Larry has always been generous and gracious… but never [more] than in the aftermath of the tragic accident involving Eight Belles at the Kentucky Derby."

Not only did Jones meet with the media after the race and in the ensuing days but he made himself available for a round table discussion on a Preakness network broadcast even while coming under attack from the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals. He stood up at a time when the industry needed him most. No one would have blamed him if he took a pass.

“This award is wonderful, my highest achievement in the sport. I've always felt horsemen have an obligation to keep fans well informed. Hopefully we've done that," said Jones, who’s saddled five graded stakes winners this year in addition to his brilliant 3-year-olds ladies.

As any person would, Jones reacted emotionally after the accident and has been reticent to talk about his feelings beyond stating the obvious. Considered a young man in his profession, Jones hit his stride last year, gaining a national following for his work with the gifted Hard Spin in last year’s Triple Crown series.

Jones' announced intention to retire lifted more than one set of eyebrows. But maybe he just decided it was time to enjoy the fruits of his success. Recall that Hard Spun was purchased by Sheikh Mohammed last year for an estimated $30 million. Given that a trainer’s percentage of a purchase is normally in the 10 percent range, his decision likely wasn’t a difficult one financially.

Allen Jerkens, meanwhile, whose next birthday will be his 80th, can’t wait to get back to work. Jerkens was released from a rehabilitation center Wednesday after having two heart valves repaired and a pacemaker installed last month.

After getting home, Jerkens said to his wife Elizabeth that he’d “like to see the horses." That statement lifted no eyebrows. “We drove to the barn and he sat on the bench outside,” Elizabeth told a NYRA press representative, “and they brought out every single one of the horses for him.”

Jerkens plans on visiting his barn regularly but it will be some time before he’s spotted aboard his pony, Circus. “They don’t really recommend it because of the pacemaker,” said Jerkens. “We’ll have to figure out something.”

Jerkens didn’t get to see the races during his rehab stint but was upset that he couldn't get the Turner Classic Movie channel to help pass the time. This was no surprise becuse he might be the biggest “Honeymooners” fan ever, a real media old-schooler. There my be lots of Ralph, Alice, Norton and Trixie fans out there, but if they wanted to take him on line-for-line sound off, my money would be on “the Chief.”

Last Saturday, Whirling Agatha was Jerkens’ first winner of the Aqueduct meet and his first since October 24. His other winner at the recently concluded Belmont meet came on September 7.

“We haven’t been setting the world on fire,” Jerkens said. “Even at Saratoga, we won only a few races,” which isn't really an understatement but classic Allen Jerkens. He might be a genius but I’m not sure he could even spell hyperbole.

The thing about this maestro, the entire backstretch will tell you, is that he’s not satisfied even when he’s winning two a day. There was always something that went wrong, or something that might have worked out better. This is a Hall of Famer who raises self deprecation to an art form.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, Jerkens and Elizabeth will fly south with the rest of the snowbirds to Florida for the winter. That’s a good thing, the sun--like it does for Tesio’s horses--will help him heel. Truth is he doesn't usually set Florida on fire either, but comes back to New York in the spring and wins everything in sight.

“The purses may be a little bigger at Gulfstream but you get 12-horse fields,” said Jerkens. “At Calder, you’re running against six or seven.”

Doom and gloom. He must be feeling better already.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008


On the Racetrack, Never Jam Up a Hustler


I first entered a racetrack press box at Aqueduct in 1970. I had just started what I hoped would be a career as a racing writer and handicapper for a briefly resuscitated New York Daily Mirror when I met one of the heroes of a mostly misspent youth and immediately sought his counsel.

Mannie Kalish wrote a handicapping column for the New York Post. In it, he gave out two or three spot plays a day and, seemingly, one or two of them would win every time I went to the races or visited Tony, who owned a store-front on 43rd Ave. in Corona, Queens.

A tailor by trade, Tony crafted magnificent custom leather jackets and coats. He also had a hand-book on the side. He took a liking to me, partially because I also had a couple of vowels in my name and had a knack for talking and picking horses.

I never told him I was a big Kalish fan, figuring he’d chase me out of the store never to return. Tony never read the Post, only the Telly--slang for “Morning Telegraph,” the East Coast version of the Racing Form in those days that sold for 50 cents--and “Il Progresso,” the Italian newspaper, not the soup.

Each night Tony sent me a few blocks past Linden Park to the corner candy store on Roosevelt Ave. to pick up the Telly and the Daily News and Mirror--the real Mirror, not the ersatz one. The two tabloids sold for a total of eight cents.

Tony gave me a dollar and always told me to keep the change. I didn’t tell him that I saved up all that change so I could come back to the shop the following Saturday and try to beat his brains in. Even then I wanted to be a weekend warrior.

Given that all successful handicappers are egomaniacs, Kalish’s bearing indicated a quiet, arrogant confidence. After introducing myself, I asked a few questions. He answered them honestly and without hesitation.

“Develop your opinion, kid, writers are a dime a dozen,” he said, never removing the binoculars from his eyes as he watched the horses in pre-race warm-ups. I didn’t think that was the right time to tell him I spent some of my formative years locked in my room writing treatises on existential loneliness.

Wanting to show off my knowledge, I talked about a horse that had run the day before. The horse had terrible recent form but, after getting a rush of late money, went to the front and, as the racetrackers say, improved his position, winning by a short pole.

“Some betting coup, eh Mr. Kalish?” This time he put down the binoculars and looked me in the eye. “Listen kid, on the racetrack, you never jam up a hustler.”

I later learned that Kalish got his job by touting Ike Gellis, the Post’s sports editor, who, having put the early edition to bed, would drive out to the track for the last half of the card virtually every day.

Gellis got some of the better priced winners that didn’t make it into print. He’d bet a few dollars for Kalish, per rule, mostly parlays in those pre-exotics days, and everyone was happy. Kalish even mentored a young computer genius who was just trying to get into the game.

I didn’t even know what a computer chip was supposed to do. But here was Kalish who found a trainer he liked for the fledgling owner. And so the association of trainer “Lefty“ Nickerson and Marty Wygod began. Wygod, of course, is a prominent California breeder who raced, among others, the recent juvenile filly champion, Sweet Catomine.

I thought of this on the red-eye back from Los Angeles on the Sunday after Breeders’ Cup. I went to the closing-day program with an old friend who now lives with his family in LA, but went to Union College in Schenectady, only 30 minutes from my Saratoga Springs condo.

And on the last race on the final day of the meet, I saw a genuine put-over, a betting thing of beauty. The word coup wouldn’t apply here. The horse’s form was good going into the race, a highly competitive scramble for mid-range claiming fillies sprinting down the hill at Santa Anita.

After watching a Chris Paasch interview, who had teamed up with Mike Smith to win a Cal-bred sprint stakes--Smith‘s only mount this day and two days after the team had combined to win the Juvenile Fillies with Stardom Bound--I turned the pages of the program and upon seeing the trainer’s name I said to my buddy Dave: “What the hell is Gregg Matties doing here?”

I explained to Dave that Matties is part of a crafty racetrack family who live in the Saratoga area. Gregg’s father, Paul Sr., a.k.a. Chick, was partners with the official winner of the inaugural World Series of Handicapping at the Orleans in Las Vegas. Gregg’s brother Paul, a professional horseplayer, perennially makes the finals of the NTRA/DRF handicapping championship. Another brother, Kevin, a.k.a Duke, is also in the family business.

Gregg, who races horses in New York, was denied stalls earlier this year, the result of a Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau investigation into exacta pool irregularities involving one or more of his horses.

The TRPB investigation went nowhere, however. Apparently investigators found that when their horses were bet, they ran well, but when they weren’t, they didn’t. It seems the apple didn’t fall all that far from the money tree. Imagine that?

Anyway, here was Ms. Wonder Woman, claimed by the Matties Racing Stable for $40,000 at Del Mar, Aug. 28. And now here she is, 59 days later, in for $32,000, in the final race of the Oak Tree meet. In her most recent race, a 40K claimer, she was fourth, beaten 1-½ lengths. The start before she finished second by a length to a subsequent repeat winner.

Matties had started six horses at the Oak Tree meet, winning three. In this spot he freshened a newly acquired filly, entered her below the level of the claim, and switched riders to Garrett Gomez. Think she was live?

The finale was competitive, as most 6-½ furlong turf sprints are down the hill at Santa Anita. Quoted at 6-1 on the early line, she was the 5-2 favorite on the opening flash, virtually held those odds throughout, until drifting to 4-1 at post time.

Ms. Wonder Man made the start look bad, opening a three-length lead right out of the slip. And after posting fractions of :21 4/5, :43 4/5 and 1:06 2/5 for six furlongs, she coasted her final sixteenth in :06 4/5, running a tick faster, 1:12 3/5, than colts had earlier on the card.

The Matties-trained filly, with Gomez motionless in the final yards, won by the same short pole as the horse I had tried to impress Kalish with that afternoon 38 years ago.

Chick Matties would be proud of how his son properly measured his rivals before betting his money. And the late Mannie Kalish would have smiled, recalling the right dope he provided a handicapping upstart many years ago.

Written by John Pricci

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