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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Sunday, May 03, 2009


Rail Road to Hall of Fame?


ALBANY, NY, May 2, 2009--It was worth the $200 I lost on the Derby to watch Calvin Borel ride his Street Sense race back, only better.

Useful to recall, too, that despite a generous near 5-1 price on Street Sense straight, he was the Derby 133 favorite. Mine That Bird was 10 times the price and this time Calvin was, oh, I don’t know, death defying?

The one thing you were sure of in the run-up to the most inscrutable Derby years was that for Borel, nothing could possibly top Friday’s Oaks in which he was more passenger than pilot aboard racing’s newest princess, Rachel Alexandra.

But “America’s Race” never stops surprising, never stops humbling, never stops enchanting, and never fails to fire.

Tom Hammond said it best on the NBC telecast: Watching Calvin Borel celebrate following a big win never gets old.

While you’d never know it to look at him, it turns out Borel’s Evil Knieval and Houdini on a hot blooded thoroughbred.

And now that he’s done the impossible twice, he’s earned elite status, leaving a crack open in the door that leads to the Hall of Fame.

It was a whoop-de-do performance straight out of the movies, not only winning with a gelding that was twice beaten in ungraded stakes at Sunland Park but demolishing 18 of the best three-year-olds in America still standing.

Hard to envision that this pinball wizard on horseback would become the seventh rider in history to sweep the Oaks-Derby double in the same year. And certainly he’d never get through on an entire Derby field again, right?.

Then maybe it wasn’t so impressive. He got through on 19 of them in 2007. Saturday, after the early morning scratch of I Want Revenge, he only had to get inside 18 of them this time. Check that: He did go around one.

Piece o’ cake.

At the Capital OTB Teletheater, there was the kind of shouting and excitement you might expect. But certainly not of the decibel level reserved last year for Big Brown.

Whoever would believe that the Sunland Derby would become a key race, but there it was: Mine That Bird scooting through on the fence and romping away from a deeply talented field.

Indeed, Mine That Bird was the second of three starters to emerge from the Sunland Derby victorious. The purse for that race already is $800,000. Not that it’s produced a Derby winner, it might become a Grade 3.

Better watch out, Dubai.

The memory I will take from this ultimately will not be Calvin’s humble exuberance or an equally emotional Chip Wooley crediting other people who helped break his Derby maiden in his first shot.

Rather, it will be the site of Mine That Board flying through the Churchill stretch while his soggy hooves barely hit the ground. When racetrackers say that a horse was flying through the stretch, that’s what it looks like.

Even after the tour de force, no one knows how good the gelding is. A son of Belmont Stakes winning Birdstone and the Canadian juvenile champion of 2008, Mine That Bird just might have "freaked" on the wet track. Or, with the exception of runnerup Pioneerof The Nile and show finisher Musket Man, no one else really fired.

Friesan Fire was not persevered with after he was apparently well beaten and faded badly to beat one horse. Heavily backed Dunkirk lost his race with a stumbling start and an inability to handle the the off-going. Edgar Prado, instrumental in getting odds-on Louisville Handicap favorite One Caroline beaten on Friday, never gave Dunkirk a chance. Uncomfortable throughout, the pricey youngster raced between horses and never saw daylight.

Or who put it together while the whole world was watching. If it rains in Baltimore two weeks hence, we might be looking ahead to the most probable Triple Crown attempt ever.

So I lost my money on this year’s Derby, like lots of other people. The payouts were of a sort that left three-quarters of a million dollars on the Pick Six table and another quarter million for a Super High Five carryover, of all things.

Racetrackers say the place you lose it is the place you get it back. Nothing cleanses the soul like a fresh set of past performances.

Besides, I’ll always be a sucker for a real good story, the stuff of Kentucky Derby dreams.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, May 02, 2009


Kentucky Derby 135: May the Best Horse Win


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 2, 2009--Unlike the last two years when we were locked in to our Derby horses early on, Street Sense and Big Brown, this year I have no firm opinions.

Even if the track were fast, a third surface turned a difficult test into a guessing game.

And when you guess in this business, you lose.

This year, even the best Derby horses have warts. I’m not convinced we’ll get the Wood effort back from I Want Revenge. Dunkirk is seasoned but lacking in experience.

Friesan Fire will probably get his track. But for me it’s not the seven weeks as it is the 8.5 furlongs. I love Pioneerof The Nile as a racehorse, but I have no idea what to expect tomorrow. They are the Big Four, and they all have handicapping warts.

So I asked myself which horse will make me bang my head against the wall if I didn’t pick it and it won.

That horse is Dunkirk, and that’s because I lost my Derby horse when Quality Road went to the sidelines.

For the record, Dunkirk will win, I Want Revenge will place and Pioneerof The Nile will show.

How absolutely boring of me.

So let’s have some fun with the gimmicks--and you’ll be the one who decides who to use and how to play it. I won’t know what I’ll do for sure until later this afternoon.

But here’s the rule: There are four tiers: Top, Second, Third and Fourth, representing projected finishers of horses will believe will win or, at least, contend. Use them as you will. However, no tier, when layering the tickets, can jump more than one level.

Top Tier: Dunkirk and I Want Revenge

Second Tier: Friesan Fire, Regal Ransom and Pioneerof The Nile

Third Tier: West Side Bernie, Mr. Hot Stuff, Chocolate Candy

Fourth Tier: Musket Man and Papa Clem

In other words, the rule says I can’t use West Side Bernie to save in the Top Tier. Nor can I use Papa Clem to finish better than third. Got that? And, of course, a horse that can finish first obviously could finish second, third, fourth or worse.

The tiers, of course, represent the straight, exacta, trifecta and superfecta pools. I figure to be in all of them. Bet only what you can afford. Take one moon shot for a few dollars; the Derby pools are humongous.

Four numbers could change your life forever. If not, you’re out $5 or $10. As hard as it is, it‘s “America’s Race,” and it’s worth a sawbuck--if you’re truly a red-blooded American.

And, please, may they all come back safe.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, May 01, 2009


Oaks Filly Rachel Alexandra Conjures Up Ruffian


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 30, 2009--It’s very possible that the best three-year-old in America runs in today’s Oaks, not tomorrow’s Derby.

It’s also likely that when two undefeated fillies meet in the G2 Louisville Stakes, only one will emerge that way, a dead heat notwithstanding.

And we don’t think it’s going to be Zenyatta that emerges with record in tact. But first, the Oaks.

I will refrain from making any comparisons between Rachel Alexandra and the great Ruffian. At this juncture, that borders on reckless.

For one thing, Rachel Alexandra, the overwhelming favorite to win today’s Kentucky Oaks, is not undefeated. In fact, she’s lost thrice in nine career starts. Neither is she jet black, as ferocious or as fast away from barrier.

But this is a new millennium. She doesn’t have to be those things. In fact, for a three-year-old to make nine starts before Oaks-Derby weekend is nigh impossible these days.

What Rachel Alexandra is is reminiscent of Ruffian.

Lots of terrific fillies have come down the center of the racetrack the last three decades but never, ever, have I been moved to invoke, what my colleague and partner, Cary Fotias, refers to as “the ‘R’ word.”

In a fashion, Rachel is an anti-Ruffian. She owns the same dominating speed, but she doesn’t run you off the track with it. Instead, she lulls you to sleep.

Then, just you’re ready to make your move against her, like some storybook little piggy, Rachel Alexandra goes wee, wee, wee all the way home.

She wins so easily that her rider, the normally humble Calvin Borel, celebrates a little too demonstrably.

I’ve subsequently learned that the filly’s trainer, 66-year-old Hal Wiggins, didn’t much care for Borel’s celebrations on horseback either. He said as much to Borel, in a nice way, and both moved on.

So Calvin was a lot more reserved when he went along for the ride in the G2 Fantasy last out. His antics in the final sixteenth of the Fair Grounds Oaks showed up the filly. This time he was more reserved.

But I can’t say I’d blame him if he got carried away again. It must be great to be sitting on top of your world and in complete control of it, too.

There are some nice fillies in today’s Oaks, the best of which is Justwhistlindixie, whose trip in the G2 Bonnie Miss was enough to get her beat. Only it didn’t. She’s a good filly.

As good as she is, however, I wouldn’t be tempted to bet her against colts. Conversely, I would have seriously considered it had Rachel’s people decided to run Saturday instead of Friday.

They talked about it briefly after the Martha Washington but decided on discretion over valor.

After last year, maybe that was for the best.

Rachel Alexandra won’t make you rich if you bet her to win today’s Oaks, but chances are you’ll be slack-jawed watching her cruise down the Louisville straight.

Meanwhile, three hours earlier, the mighty Zenyatta will attempt to win her 10th career race without tasting defeat.

Since she won the G1 Apple Blossom at Oaklawn last year, we understand that she’s more than a “synthetic specialist.” She’s run six races at today’s mile and a sixteenth distance, so that’s not a problem, either.

The problem is the four-year-old One Caroline, the filly named for a popular Saratoga night spot.

The 5-for-5 filly never has taken a backward step on the Equiform performance scale. Further, she’s the controlling speed today, owns two wins at the distance and, unlike her behemoth rival, is 2-for-2 at Churchill.

We watched her win the G2 Rampart at Gulfstream Park the day after the Florida Derby and rarely is a race over several steps out of the starting gate in a two-turn race, but this race was. One Caroline was dominating.

She was a pretty picture coming down the Hallandale stretch, too, galloping beneath a motionless Edgar Prado.

If she continues to show that kind of development at 2:10 this afternoon at Churchill Downs, Personal Ensign’s winning streak will be safe for at least another year.

Written by John Pricci

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