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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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Racetracks, Industry Data Collectors Must Adjust Priorities

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 23, 2009--One of the perks of living here, especially from April to November, is grabbing a container of coffee, driving over to the Oklahoma training track to swap lies and watch the morning workouts.

This year I haven’t been able to get there as often as I would like but, as it turns out, that’s just as well. I only would have gotten more irritated than I am already. That’s because the information coming out of Oklahoma these mornings cannot be trusted to be accurate.

This is not horseplayer’s paranoia. I don’t believe that everything that occurs in morning training hours resulting in inaccurate information is the product of sinister forces at work.

Do some clockers put fast workouts in their pockets for the benefit of private clients and friends? Only since racing began on the fields of Hempstead in the 17th century. Do trainers of betting outfits slow down works to inflate the odds? Bears in woods come to mind.

Do horsemen concerned with job security turn a :57 work into a minute breeze so the owner doesn’t get angry because his horse might leave his race on the training track, or he might have the fast worker claimed, or because it was too damn fast for the animal’s good?

Cue the bears.

The last arbiter of good workout information are the racetracks. In this regard, the New York Racing Association has dropped the ball. Unless, of course, you believe that one veteran clocker and a recently converted gap attendant can handle a horse population estimated at 850 head.

Obviously the entire population doesn’t work on the same day at the same time. But on three mornings in the last two weeks, each following several days of rain, there were 125-to-150 horses on the track making up for lost time.

All the horses may not work at the same time but a preponderance appear for training following one of two morning breaks at which time the surface is harrowed, a manicuring process done in the interests of safety for horses and riders.

This past Saturday, the Todd Pletcher barn worked 20 head; the Linda Rice stable over 25 horses; the Gary Contessa outfit more than 30, many appearing on the track at the same time. The total number of workers for the morning was estimated at about 150.

We asked an assistant trainer to guesstimate how many of Saturday worker’s times could be counted on to be accurate given the logjam of workers. The answer was “about half.”

Even-money isn’t the price horseplayers are willing to pay for the reasonable expectation that the workouts appearing in the past performances upon which they bet their money are accurate.

“NYRA isn’t the only circuit that’s [undermanned]. [At a Florida track] this winter, there was one clocker and two gap attendants to identify the horses and help the clocker by telling where on the track those horses would be breaking. One Saturday we must have had 200 workers.”

Clearly, maintaining a responsible presence during morning training is not an area of emphasis for many American racetracks and the Equibase company that compiles running lines and workout information, the lifeblood of the sport.

It’s not so much the notion of a closed club protecting information for use by racetrack insiders as it is managerial indifference, inadequate funding and ineffectual prioritizing.

An example of failed priorities in New York: In the last two weeks, the $350,000 Guaranteed Pick Four promotion failed to meet the benchmark. This past Saturday the shortfall was nearly $93,000, based on handle of $257,000. The previous Saturday late pick four handle was $13,000 short of the guarantee.

The modern horseplayer never has been more aware. He understands that a guarantee isn’t a carryover; there’s no “free money” in the pool. Guarantees are based on data from previous race meets. This time the bean counters overestimated, possibly failing to consider the 10 percent handle decline nationwide this year.

The point is $106,000 buys a lot of clockers, paid low wages on a per diem basis with no benefits, seven days a week and arriving on the job before sunrise.

The ebb and flow of morning training is often labor intensive, albeit sporadic, and pressure-packed when not enough stopwatches are in enough hands. Most trainers are helpful here, timing their horses and comparing watches with the clockers to help insure accuracy. Sometimes they are the lone source of information, not a workable situation in the long term.

Of course, none of this would be a problem if American racing embraced technology the way foreign jurisdictions do by equipping saddle pads with computer chips read by receivers at timing poles to insure accuracy. Here we invent technological advances then export them.

This morning at Oklahoma will be the first of the season for turf training. The grass course opens at 10 a.m. for a period of about 45 minutes and the number of workers is limited to about 40 horses. “I expect there will be about 60 workers this morning,” said the assistant trainer. “Come by, this should be interesting.”

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

All Eyes on…Colonial Downs?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 19, 2009--Like many horseplaying weekend warriors, I’m assuming that at sometime during the work week we cull from a list of stakes races available for the upcoming Saturday and decide which two or three tracks appear the most interesting.

Interesting, of course, means many things: “These are interesting times we live in,” meaning, mostly bad times. “That’s an interesting color combination you’re wearing,” meaning, you probably got dressed in the closet that morning.

“This is an interesting race,” however, means really difficult, an excellent chance for value or I’m clueless as to which horse might win. For me, this is like looking into the eyes of the sun because, mama, that’s where the fun is.

But it’s always wise to approach these days with an open mind. Do the homework, essentially to eliminate the no-hopers, but try not to get locked in until you can see real time odds, never a bad idea no matter what the scenario.

The three tracks I chose for this Saturday are Belmont Park, Arlington Park and Colonial Downs. Belmont is always entertaining and there are two stakes scheduled today. But the weather handicappers insist it will rain the entire weekend.

I’m a little old school when it comes to wet tracks: “Dark Day Don’t Play” goes the credo. And today’s sealed wet tracks are gimmicky fast and, considering New York’s liberal scratch policy, the fields figure to be small.

We’ll be concentrating on the action from Arlington Heights and Kent, Virginia as the weather people insist there’s only a slight chance of precipitation at either venue. Arlington’s Prairie Stakes Festival Day offers a stakes-laden program for Illinois-breds and Colonial, where it’s all-turf-all-the-time, is a popular simulcast venue.

Colonial Downs has a big Saturday in store with an all-stakes Pick 3 culminating with the important and always entertaining Grade 2 Colonial Turf Cup for three-year-olds at 8.5 furlongs. Here, then, a handicapping sketch of the all-stakes Pick 3.

Smart and Fancy (7-5), trained by Tony Dutrow with Edgar Prado down from New York to ride, will be a tough out, especially since this is the same team that won last year’s Buckland Stakes for fillies and mares at 5.5 furlongs. Fastest on performance figures, she makes her second start this year, working four times since winning Pimlico’s The Very One on May 15.

The best way to find value would be trying to get Ahvee’s Destiny (3-1) out of the money. Trained by prolific turf-sprint specialist Linda Rice, ‘Ahvee’ seems to prefer faster, shorter-cropped courses than the lush, more demanding Colonial course. But she shouldn’t be allowed to knock Pick 3 players out of their sequence.

Interesting money possibilities include the fresh, fast working Citi Charisse (20-1) from live connections; quick Charlie Papa (10-1), who handles the deepish Tampa course and could be at home here. But it's a fast-working, course and distance loving Kosmo’s Buddy (15-1), from live ship-in connections, that's the most interesting. His best performance figures have been earned either at the trip or over this course, making him very interesting at early line odds.

The second leg is the G3 All Along at 9 furlongs for fillies and mares, 3 & up. Get ready to spread ’em. Not that the race is all that wide open but the early-line favorites look like the best horses. We left open the following:

Tejida (12-1) was no match for two of today’s rivals in her last three starts, but has good back figures, handles the distance and has been tempered in a series of G3s. With her best effort coming on yielding ground, she might like the footing in her course debut. Corey Nakatani rides for Michael Matz.

I Lost My Choo (5-2), the defending champion in this race and 2-for-2 under Jose Lezcano, comes off a breakthrough performance prepping for this, and Indescribable (7-2), fast and G1 tough, is a three-time G3 winner for the Mott/Desormeaux team. They’re both worthy favorites.

Icon Project (6-1), Dyna’s Lassie (12-1) and Astrologie (4-1) merit consideration. Icon Project, hindered by a slow start, dawdling pace and a tougher G2 rival (Criticism) last out, is working strongly at her Florida base and picks up Leparoux.

Dyna’s Lassie is coming off a pace low and her best Equiform figure came at 9 furlongs. She owns a win and a second in two course appearances. Astrologie was beaten by Criticism (today’s New York Handicap favorite at Belmont Park) in two U.S. starts at 12 furlongs and might be well suited to the distance, switching to Garrett Gomez for Christophe Clement.

The centerpiece Colonial Turf Cup has attracted some impressive individuals in the past. This collection seems a group on the come. No less than seven horses can win the big pot. No one should be surprised if Rescue Squad (6-1), Straight Story (10-1), Take The Points (3-1), Final Count (12-1), Mark S The Cooler (10-1), Battle Of Hastings (2-1) or Lime Rickey (3-1) finish first.

Rescue Squad has moved forward in all five career starts; Straight Story impressed visually and showed development in his three-year-old debut. Take The Points is fastest at 9 furlongs on Pro Ride, which often translates well to turf. While unproven at the trip, Mark S The Cooler earned an excellent figure in his recent Hollywood Park mile.

Final Count has improved with distance and never has regressed. Battle Of Hastings, ditto, and is coming off a turf decline line. Lime Rickey, among the fastest here, earned his best figure at 9 furlongs. Among the big seven; Take The Points, Mark S The Cooler, Battle of Hastings and Lime Rickey loom most probable.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, June 19, 2009

After Mother Goose, What Next for Rachel Alexandra

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 18, 2009--Following four recent workouts--her last an absolute beauty--and after another scheduled for next week, Rachel Alexandra will leave her Churchill Downs base and ship to Belmont Park for the Grade 1 Mother Goose a week from Saturday.

Rachel and the game’s other “big mare,” Zenyatta, were the focus of a point-counterpoint match between a couple of turf writers who vote in the weekly NTRA poll that ranks the nation’s 10 top racehorses.

I, too, am an NTRA voter, although I didn’t this time since I was traveling last weekend and just forgot to vote.

But even if I had, I’ll be damned if I would have willingly accepted blame for how the poll turned out. One person, one vote, majority rule. As simple as that. It’s never any one person’s fault. Sometimes it’s actually the fault of the pollsters.

Like the Racing Hall of Fame and Eclipse Awards, the lack of defined criteria is the culprit. Is the top horse “the best horse,” a subjective measure of innate ability by the voter, the correct standard?

Or is it the horse that’s accomplished the most between the fences?

Here’s the dilemma: If Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra were to meet in a Grade 1 dirt race somewhere with an honest pace and a dry surface, and my life depended on picking the winner, I would, without hesitation, take Zenyatta, “the better horse.”

In a perfect world, each would have had comparable records, blending accomplishment with eye-pleasing athleticism and heart. But in the game of thoroughbred racing, perfect is an oxymoron.

Had I voted this week, I could not have ranked “the better filly” with a single Grade 1 victory in her only start of the year over the winner of five straight races and two Grade 1s, including America’s most coveted three-year-old filly event and an American classic over males.

For purposes of comparison, there is no comparison.

Of course, there’s still an entire half-season to sort everything out. Einstein could have secured the #1 spot and rendered the distaff argument moot had Julien Leparoux beat Alan Garcia to the hole at headstretch of the G1 Stephen Foster last weekend. But he didn’t.

There’s been little talk out of SoCal for the past month regarding Zenyatta’s future plans, an indication that her connections will stay on the same course that brought her up to the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic so successfully in 2008.

That would be the boring low road, but it‘s their mare.

Fans are beginning to hope that the Travers will become the race of the year by attracting the Preakness-winning filly into the fray with the two high-flying birds already committed to the race, Derby winner Mine That Bird and Belmont upstart Summer Bird.

At the moment, the bird horses are planning to get there via West Virginia and the Jersey Shore. For Rachel Alexandra, no plans have been announced beyond the June 27 Mother Goose.

But there’s another way for Rachel to top not only Zenyatta, but Einstein, Mine That Bird, and all the rest. Should she handle a handful of Mother Goose routinely and without reaching bottom, five weeks is perfect timing for the G1 Haskell on a surface whose natural bias suits her talents perfectly.

Belmont hero Summer Bird is committed to the Haskell. Certainly, no one can argue with his class or ability to get that job done at 9 furlongs; just conjure up visions of that wild-horse show finish at Oaklawn Park.

And now that the colt has more experience, confidence, the new blinkers that have sharpened his focus and Kent Desormeaux, he‘ll continue to be a factor in every remaining race this year. But it’s sometimes difficult for the Belmont winner to turn back successfully at Monmouth Park. Jess Jackson and Steve Asmussen know all about that.

Another talented colt recently committed to the Haskell is Big Drama, who finished first in six straight starts before his fifth-place Preakness run. Multiple stakes-winning Musket Man, highly competitive in the Derby and Preakness, is another probable starter in a deep group of Haskell hopefuls.

If, however, Rachel Alexandra makes her second start against Grade 1 males and wins, never mind the weekly NTRA poll. Just hand her connections the Horse of the Year Eclipse trophy right there in the Monmouth Park winner’s circle.

Written by John Pricci

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