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, June 06, 2009

Mine That Bird To Pass Champion’s Test

ELMONT, NY, June 5, 2009--There’s no question that the strength of Belmont 141 is drawn toward the outside in today’s 10-horse lineup. And who’s left to analyze after yesterday? Only the two favorites, and three other entrants saddled by two men that have won six Belmonts between them.

Here, then, the final installment of the 2009 Belmont Stakes analysis, including an exotics betting strategy for optimizing projected results. Listed in post position order, with early line odds:

6-CHARITABLE MAN (3-1): In the mold of other fresh Belmont winners, a la Costal, A.P. Indy and the like, late bloomers awaiting the Triple Crown circus to roll under the big top. I have seen Coastal, and I have seen A.P. Indy, and this colt resembles neither. Everyone knows what his virtues are: 2-for-2 at Belmont, freshness, and a running style that will place him on or near the lead ostensibly free of pressure. The problem with that scenario is everyone knows it. Invariably, someone always seems to come along and pressure the pace. It could be one of Nick Zito’s two runners. It could be the position conscious Johnny Velazquez. Dunkirk may come from off the pace but also has a high cruising speed that puts him right there, especially at a marathon distance. If Mine That Bird, who’s coming off paired career tops, runs anything close to that form, this colt would need to improve many, many lengths to fit in the same photo finish. That much of a leap, at what I expect to be closer to 5-2 post-time odds, I find impossible to make.

7-MINE THAT BIRD (2-1): Had a chat Thursday with HRI handicapper-in-residence, Cary Fotias, and when the subject of this gelding’s Derby and Preakness figures came up, Fotias said: “I make him 50-50 to either bounce or pair up again.” Like most handicappers, we don’t always agree. But I see this one the same way. This is, after all, a new horse. No more high altitude racing, no more pace pressing style, and the mystical Calvin Borel sent signals through the reins that made this gelding much better than even those closest to him would admit were surprising. Borel rides him with as much confidence as he rides the filly. The gelding is retaining his energy and he’s getting over the racetrack. Of course, the pace scenario is against him, as is the distance profile. But could this guy be analogous to Zenyatta? And, no, we’re not comparing the two. But she comes to get you whether you’re three-quarters in nine or in thirteen. Could Mine That Bird do the same vs. this group of three-year-olds? Who’s to say that he can’t? Fastest on performance figures and tested successfully at the highest levels. What’s not to like?

8-FLYING PRIVATE (12-1): HRI’s Preakness wise guy horse delivered with a strong-finish fourth behind Rachel Alexandra and the Derby winner despite meeting trouble at two distinct intervals--especially at a critical juncture approaching headstretch. He signaled his talent with good figure efforts in Kentucky and Arkansas, before his wide, non-effort in Louisville. But he was ready to rebound and he did, raising his figure to a new level, and now takes his stout pedigree a mile and a half. Had a strong and useful work at his Churchill base before shipping in and attracts that circuit’s leading rider and burgeoning star, Julien Leparoux, in the midst of breaking through with a second consecutive career year. We expect him to repeat his last effort and be a money player once again.

9-MINER’S ESCAPE (15-): Since adding blinkers, he’s won two of three and has done it with style. And after winning the Federico Tesio, Nick Zito put him on the fence with some strong morning drills, building the stamina after the blinkers did its job by putting in some speed. The Mineshaft colt, from a Broad Brush mare, boasts stamina in the pedigree and reunites with a talented young rider, Jose Lezcano, aboard for the victory two starts back. Figure-wise, however, he needs to step up in a big way. His tactical speed could make things very interesting if the connections decide to roll that way.

10-BRAVE VICTORY (15-1): He, too, is too slow, but is a bit interesting. If trainer Zito was interested in having a strong Florida campaign with this guy, then the profile is disappointing. However, if he was building up to something, consider his last two races. He raced wide and too close to the pace in a G2 on Polytrack, very anti-profile, then came from far behind when third to Charitable Man in the Peter Pan despite the jockey’s loss of his whip. He’s had two sharp works since the recent G2, and Rajiv Maragh, another talented young rider, is taking the re-ride. Zito’s been spooky in this race, but that good karma needs to be firing on all cylinders here.

SELECTIONS: 1. Mine That Bird 2. Summer Bird 3. Flying Private 4. Chocolate Candy


TOP: 7-Mine That Bird

SECOND TIER: 4-Summer Bird, 8-Flying Private

THIRD TIER: 1-Chocolate Candy, 6-Charitable Man, 2-Dunkirk


Exacta Key Box: 7 with 4.8

Trifecta Key: 7 with

Trifecta Part Wheel:, with 7, with

Superfecta Key: 7 with

Straight Bets:

Most Probable Winner: Mine That Bird, at 8-5 or greater.

Value Play: Summer Bird and Flying Private at 10-1 or greater.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, June 05, 2009

Who Will Pass the Champion’s Test?

ELMONT, NY, June 4, 2009--The Kentucky Derby winner arrived Wednesday afternoon and got his first feel of the track early Thursday before Team Mine That Bird set sail for the New York Stock Exchange.

Ding, ding, ding on both counts, the first being more important. Paraphrasing trainer Chip Woolley, Mine That Bird hasn’t stepped on a track that he’s disliked, he just “skipped right over it,” etc., etc.

But perhaps I might even have been able to tell you that much before the move. Shortly after 7 a.m., old big sandy was sloppy and sealed--and everybody knows how much this gelding loves a sloppy track.

The weather forecast has changed since earlier this week. Weather handicappers now calling for showers on Friday, clearing and partly cloudy on race day, then more showers Sunday and Monday.

So, we’re expected to believe that the strong Belmont Stakes day program will be run in the seam of the weather zone. At this point, I’d probably be willing to lay 7-5 on a fast track at 6:27 p.m. Saturday, but not one point higher.

Today and Saturday, we’ll sketch out the 10 Belmont Stakes entrants from a handicapping perspective and will include ticket-constructing instructions in Saturday’s post.

To their credit, Belmont Park is offering Dime Superfecta wagering on all self-service machines both today and on Belmont day. Congratulations to the NYRA management on this decision, wanting to include all players instead of trying to extract every last buck from the crowd.

Customer, fan friendly service. What a concept.

Here, then, is a handicapping perspective of the Belmont Stakes field--in post order with early line odds--to be assembled for the 141st time tomorrow evening.

May they all run good, and come back good:

1-CHOCOLATE CANDY (10-1): In this, his 11th lifetime start, he is projected to run on dry dirt for the first time. As we have all learned, working on disparate surfaces and racing over them are distinctly different things. But so far, it’s been all good. Jerry Hollendorfer trainee has worked four time on the local surface and his workline is extremely solid and well designed for both the distance and five-week layoff. He’s a Grade 3 winner and is multiple G1-placed. This is one nice colt who appears on the brink of a career best effort. Of course, whether it’s good enough is to be determined. His people say he wants the distance and reunites with Garrett Gomez, who won the restricted Real Quiet Stakes on Hollywood Cushion Track, purported to be closer to dirt than any other synthetic surface. Has the potential to be a major player.

2-DUNKIRK (4-1): One of two wise guys horses in the field. So, will he or won’t he rebound from the Kentucky Derby? How can he not? He stumbled, got jammed, never settled and had awful action, indicating extreme dislike for the sticky wet surface. He’s 50-50 to run well or badly again but we think it’s more like 60-40 in the affirmative. I believe he will run his race. He’s trained well since the Louisville debacle, likes the local surface, and benefits from a switch to Johnny Velazquez, who’s pushing all the right positional buttons of late. Would not be surprised if Johnny doesn’t have him more forwardly placed than ever, putting pressure on Charitable Man somewhere along the way, possibly to the detriment of both. His maiden and allowance win at Gulfstream this winter were super impressive visually. But he’s live on that reputation long enough. The pedigree is there, being from Derby-winning and Belmont-winning families. No more excuses. It’s time to step up. If he does, can make things really interesting. An underlay at 4-1.

3-MR. HOT STUFF (15-1): It’s the same situation for this colt as it is for Chocolate Candy; possible first-time fast dirt track. Trainer Eoin Harty said at the post draw press conference he has absolutely no idea how the dark bay Tiznow runner would handle those conditions. Not sure if he was trying to take the pressure off the colt or himself with that line. But he’s another who must have a line drawn through his Derby performance. He was eliminated from serious contention soon after the start. Been working bullets at Keeneland for this but if his trainer doesn’t know, I certainly don’t. Edgar Prado rides for the first time. Winstar colt still eligible for preliminary allowances.

4-SUMMER BIRD (12-1): The Other Bird. The following, excerpted from Thursday‘s post, was the essence of a conversation we had with Summer Bird‘s trainer Tim Ice on Wednesday: “Didn’t you say before the Derby that you were pointing for the Belmont?” “Yes, Ice said.” “What made the Belmont more important in your mind than the Derby?” “The distance,” said Ice. “Why the blinkers?” “They’re for focus, it’s not meant to put speed into him,” Ice explained. “And the second workout, the one with Kent, went better. He worked with the blinkers? “Yes.” “Was it the tighter, wet track, the experience, or blinkers that made the second work so much better than the first?” “A little of everything.” This colt, as lightly raced at Dunkirk, also has talent. He didn’t start really running in the Arkansas Derby until the race was over, finished third by 1-¼ lengths to Papa Clem, catching them all within a sixteenth of a mile on the gallop-out. New rider Kent Desormeaux’s style figures to suit this guy and there’s no telling yet just how good he is. Despite only three lifetime starts, he finished ahead of 13 Derby runners, rallying very wide on an inside-favoring track. My wise guy horse.

5-LUV GOV (20-1): Bred by the owner Marylou Whitney, whose Birdstone upset Smarty Jones in this race, went from an impressive maiden win on the Derby undercard to the G1 Preakness and did not run terribly. After entering the stretch about eight wide, he closed ground and was beaten 8-¾ lengths for the whole thing while checking in eighth. The experience probably did him a world of good, however, this is an extremely tall order. He’s probably not as good now as he will be eventually. Reunites with rising star Miguel Mena, aboard for the maiden win on May 2, and was only beaten 2-¼ lengths by Summer Bird on March 19 at Oaklawn Park. But impossible to make a serious case for his chances, even if four-time Belmont winner Wayne Lukas is pulling the strings.

TOMORROW: Mine That Bird, Charitable Man, and all the rest.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Russ Harris, Coastal and the 1979 Belmont Stakes

ELMONT, NY, June 2, 2009--With so many handicappers and Triple Crown fans intent on riding the Charitable Man bandwagon into the Belmont Stakes winners‘ circle on Saturday, I offer this embellishment-free memory.

I do this because I can never look at another impressive Peter Pan Stakes winner and not think of Coastal, and I can’t think of Coastal without thinking about a recently retired colleague and competitor, Russ Harris.

For better or worse, much of what I have evolved into as a public handicapper I owe to Harris, who recently retired as lead handicapper, reporter and columnist for the New York Daily News. A dedicated journalist, Harris also served in the stewards stand in what has been a distinguished career in thoroughbred racing spanning a half century. And you'd have to go back that far, to Dave "King" Wilson in New England, one of the original speed handicappers, to find anyone who might have picked more winners than Russ Harris.

My understanding of the game over the years has matured, but one never knows what might have been had I not made the decision to change my approach to picking winners, going from the visual school of trip handicapping to the world of speed figures and trends analysis.

My first meaningful professional experience began here, in the long shadows of Belmont Park, at Newsday in 1976, whose offices were in nearby Garden City then. And before long, the dog-eat-dog world of New York tabloid journalism had spread to the press boxes of New York's racetracks.

Working in close proximity and reading the competition daily, it was impossible not to know who you had to beat for bragging rights at the end of any race meet. And it seemed as if John Piesen of the New York Post and myself were always chasing “the reverend,” as Harris was called, the nickname a paean to his button-down manner.

Matching myself against Harris every meeting, I went through a streak where Harris kicked butt over a sustained period. Using my trip notes, I had the edge when it came to ferreting out longshots but could never match him in number of winners picked. In those days newspapers didn’t keep bankroll stats as most do today.

So I reasoned that if I had a good set of figures I would know where Harris was coming from. Then, if I had no firm opinion about the most likely winner of a particular race, I probably could match his speed-figure selection and scoop him with the bias play or tough tripper.

I wanted it all which, in retrospect, is not the best approach. Most good handicappers specialize, and at the beginning I found myself all over the handicapping map not knowing what to trust; the figures or my own lyin’ eyes. I thought it was possible to have the best of both worlds.

Very often it worked, more often it didn’t. It was so frustrating. I watched replays intently--and they were not as readily available as they are today--transcribing trip notes into charts scissored from the Racing Form, adding the figures later. I wanted the whole package. I never missed a day of live racing--six days a week back then.

Meanwhile, Harris did the handicapping from his study on the Main Line in Philadelphia, graced the press box with his presence on Saturdays and walked and talked with such superior bearing that you couldn’t wait for him to return home until the following week.

But I’ve never met a handicapper worth his salt who wasn’t egocentric. You needed to guard against adopting a messiah complex, but more often the game is so humbling that you need a defense mechanism or the bad picks and constant bad beats will erode your confidence completely.

And lack of confidence leads to indecision. Indecision leads to mistakes. Mistakes lead to the poor house.

To my knowledge, Harris never suffered a crisis of confidence. If he did, it never showed. When Coastal upset the 1979 Belmont over Triple Crown aspirant Spectacular Bid off a big-figure, 13-length romp in the Peter Pan, Harris wouldn’t let anyone forget.

He beat the 1-5 Spectacular Bid with the 4-1 Coastal.

Having a flare for the dramatic, Harris rose from his seat in the Santa Anita press box in 1986, cheering the European longshot Mile winner Last Tycoon home with the seldom heard horseplayer’s exhortation: “VIVA LA FRANCE!… VIVA LA FRANCE!… VIVA LA FRANCE!

He might have been called the reverend but that never kept him from visiting the betting windows more than occasionally.

One day, Piesen related a story of how he was recounting some recent good fortune to Harris, picking two handfuls of winners on one particular Aqueduct afternoon: “If I worked for your outfit,” Harris told Piesen flat out, “they would build a statue for me on South Street.”

Harris was no less guarded but he did mellow some on the road. One night after the races with our wives, we went for a bite after the first night of the “World Series of Handicapping” at Penn National Race Course in tiny Grantville, Pa., the granddaddy of all handicapping tournaments.

That night Harris and I swapped family stories and I learned of his love for history and his intention to return to school for his doctorate. Eventually he got it, too, from Lehigh University, after submitting a 378-page thesis on Charles de Gaulle’s relationship with six American presidents. At 75, he became Doctor Harris.

Strange what the mind conjures up. When I think of him now, I remember a photograph of Harris and other reporters interviewing a trainer after the Flamingo Stakes, the black-and-white photo hanging on the fourth-floor wall just around the corner from the rickety elevator at Hialeah Park.

I remember, too, sharing a cab ride in Louisville with Newsday colleague Paul Moran on our way to cover the Kentucky Derby. I was lamenting about one thing or another, as press guys will, how the paper just didn’t appreciate their handicapper enough, ya-da, ya-da.

“What are you worried about,” said Moran, “one day Harris will retire and you’ll get his job at the Daily News.”

Harris finally walked away, in the same year I became eligible for Medicare. That figures. Numbers don’t lie.

Written by John Pricci

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