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, November 20, 2008


Marketers Should Put Cart Before the Horse


Saratoga Springs, NY, November 19, 2008--While Eclipse balloting for 2008 Horse of the Year between reigning champion Curlin and the undefeated Ladies Classic winner, dominant filly Zenyatta, figures to be a contentious vote, the elevation of the great three-year-old filly Zarkava to European Horse of the Year status earlier this week came as a surprise to no one.

Her honor, of course, was well deserved such was her dominance. She was one of seven horses to earn Cartier Racing Awards distinction, including older male Duke of Marmalade, three-year-old colt New Approach, stayer Yeats, sprinter Marchand d’Or, juvenile colt Mastercraftsman, and juvenile filly Rainbow View. Obviously, Zarkava also earned a Cartier for champion three-year-old filly.

Defeating older males in the legendary Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe was quite an accomplishment, indeed, but it was far from her only achievement. Her five victories this year enabled her to retire the undefeated winner of seven lifetime starts, including a victory over Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Goldikova.

A winner at a mile, mile and a quarter and mile and a half, it is a record worthy of Horse of the Universe acclaim. But just as so many of the best of our champions are whisked away to the breeding shed prematurely before their stature has a chance to increase public awareness, so, too, has her retirement by H.H. Aga Khan sparked displeasure among European race fans. They can’t understand why a filly, who can produce only one foal at a time, can’t race in her four-year-old season.

More than any other horse on the planet, it’s true that Zarkava has the least to prove. The vanquished listed above includes a peer, three-year-old filly Goldikova, who was so impressive beating older males in the Mile at Santa Anita in conditions that were not her favorite, displaying an electric turn of foot. But according to many European observers, Goldikova never demonstrated she was Zarkava’s class when they met in competition.

Of course, we’ll have to take those people at their word. European horse people are no less cash oriented than their American compatriots. Zarkava is gone, as is Derby champion New Approach, and her fellow three-year-old, Classic-winning Raven’s Pass.

Clearly, it was a very strong year for racing in the Old World. Then, with their season virtually complete, many shipped 6,000 miles into the heat of Southern California and dominated all the big match-ups.

But there will be no Classic repeat attempt for Raven’s Pass; no Arc challenge for New Approach, the rabbit-aided Newmarket course-record winner of the Champion Stakes. Sorry, but racing fans everywhere will not get another chance to see only the third horse in history to complete a Dewhurst, Derby and Champion triple.

You would think that we’d all be used to this kind of disappointment by now. With Curlin gone, there are no stars looming on the horizon, unless the Zenyatta people decide to take the cellophane off the behemoth filly, go on a nation-wide tour, and take on the boys at least once. Certainly, her physicality seems up to the challenge but I assume the chances of that happening are slim and none if their goal to is keep her undefeated. Unfortunately, with the Breeders’ Cup returning to Santa Anita in 2009, there’s no compelling reason beyond sportsmanship for her ever to leave the confines of the Golden State.

One area in which Europeans are more civilized than the Yanks is the voting process itself. A recent blog by HRI’s Vic Zast on whether race fans should be part of the Eclipse Award process created quite a stir, Zast making a reasonable suggestion that if fans were permitting to vote, ballots could be screened via membership in one of the newly formed grass roots racing organizations, avoiding possible ballot stuffing.

That doesn’t appear to be a problem in Europe. The eight Cartier Awards were decided by a combination of points achieved in established classic races, which seems a most sensible standard for gauging excellence, the opinions of racing journalists chaired by media veteran Brough Scott, and votes from Thoroughbred fans tallied by the Racing Post and Daily Telegraph.

If only we could be that sophisticated. Then perhaps the industry would pay to create a prime time awards special on network television featuring A-list musical entertainment and hosts and exciting clips of racing's equine and human stars that put a face on an industry peopled by many powerful and fascinating household names. Then try to attract international participation for broadcasting the program in racing capitals around the world. Act important and the public just might get the message you're sending. That, or limit your thinking to the confines of the same box.

If prime time reality television has proven anything it’s that the public will watch programming featuring some entertainment component. Think of it as marketing concept that puts the cart before the horse. Racing's high-profile sponsors just might find that notion appealing.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Buddy, Ax, The Goat and White Cloud


Saratoga Springs, NY, November 18,2008--Yesterday’s fascinating story about Buddy Jacobson as related by HRI’s Bill Christine opened a floodgate of memories. I, too, can remember when my friend, the late Pete Axthelm, who Christine also referenced, was adamant in his belief that Jacobson was innocent of murdering John Tupper, a love triangle story involving Tupper, Jacobson and a model named Melanie Cain.

I still miss Ax, who died too young, but whose spirit, for me, still resides in every South Florida racetrack I visit, even the new Gulfstream, which I’m doubtlessly sure Axthelm would have hated.

Axthelm, network television’s first intelligent NFL handicapping analyst, was, of course, the author of the basketball classic “The City Game,“ which profiled the life of Earl “The Goat” Manigault, a New York City playground legend whose career, and life, was cut short by heroine, then in abundant supply on virtually every Harlem street corner in the early 1960s.

The Goat played in Rucker Park, the famed Harlem playground. He was a guard, 6 feet tall but with a 52-inch vertical leap. Billy Lawrence, one of my groomsmen when I tied the knot back in ‘69, told me how he saw Manigault take a quarter off the top of the backboard.

Lawrence, a shooting guard who could also play point, played for legendary high school coach Jack Curran at Archbishop Molloy, won over 100 college scholarships and once scored over 100 points in a CYO game, enjoyed a cup of coffee with Dean Smith at North Carolina before returning home to play for Joe Lapchick, then “Looie” Carnesecca, at St. John’s.

I could relate the entire story of the night we celebrated Billy’s last-second jumper at Alumni Hall to beat Cazzie Russell’s team, at the time ranked #5 in the country. But then this is a family blog.

Suffice it to say we started the evening at Joe Lisa’s bar on 43rd Avenue in Corona, drank for free when Rene the bartender--he preferred “Renny”--showed his appreciation for taking the Redmen plus points that Saturday afternoon. The night went rapidly downhill from there.

Axthelm, who heard of Lawrence, probably didn’t know that Lawrence was known as “White Cloud” by the Rucker regulars. He, too, played there with NBA types summers while still in high school. The nickname was given him by African American b-ball fans who greeted him as he got off the “A” train at 125th Street, providing him safe passage through the Harlem Streets until he reached the playground.

Can’t recall whether Billy ever played against Lew Alcindor, although I seem to remember he did. Alcindor, a.k.a. Kareem Abdul Jabbar, once called The Goat the greatest basketball player of his size in the history of New York City. And that certainly covers a lot of ground.

What Lawrence taught me about basketball I reciprocated by introducing him to Aqueduct, which was brand spanking new back in the day. In fact, we scheduled morning classes exclusively so that we could get to the track in time for the double via the back streets--18 minutes from the Hilltop campus to the front gate on Rockaway Blvd.--and Billy could return to the campus in time for practice.

In those days, before Kenny Noe Jr. came along and decided that starter handicaps were not in the best interests of racing fans and eliminated them--absurd, of course--Frank Martin, Carlos’ legendary grandfather, and Jacobson dominated those races. Especially Jacobson.

These prolific horsemen battled for leading trainer every year and between them dominated the starter handicaps every Saturday. Yes, the same type of race was carded every Saturday, run as the last race of the day and segregated by different claiming qualifications, distances and sex. Frank Martin had Table Hopper. Jacobson had Palenque III.

OMG how I loved those two horses! You couldn’t put enough weight on Table Hopper to stop him. Weight might stop a freight train but it never stopped Table Hopper. For the most part, however, no horse could catch Palenque III, not even Table Hopper.

Palenque III was my favorite starter handicapper and Jacobson kept him in form virtually all season. Racing actually had seasons back then and Palenque, the weight mounting with every start, went to the front beneath Hall of Famer Bobby Ussery--Jacobson’s go-to jockey and the greatest speed rider in the history of the game (sorry, Earlie)--and improved his position.

Palenque III was the poster child of Jacobson’s genius, his brilliant training career cut short when he was drummed out of the business by the association because he had the temerity to lead a strike against the NYRA to benefit stable workers that shut down the track for over a week. It didn’t help when he won an important stakes with an Ogden Phipps castoff, either.

Howard “Buddy” Jacobson, like Pete “Ax” Axthelm and Earl “The Goat” Manigault, died before they could accomplish even greater things, considering their talents. But never has it been said that life was fair, or that tomorrow is guaranteed to anyone.

Written by John Pricci

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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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