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, March 19, 2009


South Florida Diary: The Intrepid Traveler


Hallandale, Fla., March 18,2009--Don’t know how much traveling you’ve done lately. The last time I was away from home was Breeders’ Cup, and although the market crash of 2008 occurred a month prior, it was hard to tell how much effect the recession had on the people surrounding me.

It felt like status quo. Then fall turned into winter and with it came the second crash. The Dow plunged 700 points in a week. First time around, everybody’s 401K was almost halved. By last week all portfolios officially had become 201Ks.

The 8:40 a.m. Southwest flight from Albany to Fort Lauderdale did not have a single empty seat. It was a little after 7 a.m. and there was a normal amount of pedestrian traffic inside Albany International. Normally a Jet Blue guy out of JFK, I decided to forsake the three-hour drive for a little less leg room on another carrier.

I will say that every working person I encountered was trying harder. It seems many people have a newly found appreciation for work, any work. In this economy, there’s no such thing as a McJob. Work has value again.

Too bad the price to rediscover what my father’s generation referred to as a Horatio Alger story--young people from humble beginnings becoming successful if they worked hard enough--had to come at such a high cost.

Maybe now when young people refer to someone as “old school,” they’ll have a little more appreciation for the term. Sometimes old school is the best education.

Most airlines these days are ticket-less. Southwest is kind of seat-less, too. No, you don’t stand throughout the flight but seats are not assigned. First come, first served. Passengers are herded into three groups, A or B or C, and you’re given a number approximating when that subset or A or B or C is allowed to board.

This is known as progress.

But it all went rather smoothly, I admit, and it was peanuts and soft drinks for all my friends. Interesting what a little competition and hard times can do. Suddenly, everyone’s Avis--you know, trying harder.

The flight was good, albeit a little bumpy on the descent owing to a typical South Florida squall. “First day it rained all winter,” informed Ron Nicoletti upon my arrival laternat Gulfstream Park.

Nicoletti, along with Rollie Hoyt, comprise Gulfstream’s simulcasting team “The Odds Couple.” They have good chemistry, don’t overload a player’s senses, and pick their share of winners.

It was good to see them, as it was veteran publicist Jack Will, who bleeds newspaper ink and probably has forgotten more than I could ever remember about the game.

Actually, I was lucky to get there at all. Why? Well, let me put it this way: If the service customers got at the Hertz counter inside the Ft. Lauderdale terminal always was like it was yesterday, Avis needn’t have tried so hard.

Horseplayers know about these things because pain comes with the territory. The queue snaked around three times--I was riding the third snake--there were seven agents behind the counter, which seemed like a good number, they kept their heads down and worked hard. Still, every transaction seemed to take 10 to 15 minutes. It was insufferable.

Finally, I arrived at the counter. Desha did her job, and she did it well. But computers don’t recognize debit cards, which I had forgotten until I arrived at the counter. After her computer performed a credit check on my debit card, the one with the cash in it, I was deemed worthy unless, unknown to me, my bank had failed sometime between 8:40 and 11:45 a.m.

“Thank you for your patience sir,” she said. “No worries, you were only doing your job,” I rationalized.

“Now if you’ll take a seat, we’ll call you when your car is ready.”

WHAT??!!

“We don’t have any cars right now and we’re sorry for the inconvenience.” Born in Corona, NY, I had no choice but to ask for a supervisor.

But the supervisor had no choice other than to repeat what Desha had already told me, only in hushed tones accompanied by what she hoped were approving nods.”

I took my seat. Fortunately, the estimate was accurate and I was inside my Toyota Matrix within 20 minutes. I heard of Toyota, not Matrix, but it was all good.

Found a parking spot relatively easily, walked into the Tiki Bar section on the north side of the building when I heard track announcer Larry Collmus say “all the races are on the main track today…”

Which meant I would not be betting on Saar Treaty in the eighth race, coming off a turf decline line with competitive figures, a switch to Alan Garcia, at early line odds of 8-1.

Instead, I bet the Aqueduct feature, as advertised on HRI, Jessica Is Back to win at 4-1, keying her in the exacta with the logical Say Toba Sandy and Sunday Geisha.

What a dirty, rotten beat! Jessica broke like a shot beneath Rosie Napravnik, taking an early lead until the speedy Sunday Geisha with Rajiv Maragh raced by and tightened it up a bit on them--just race riding--forcing Rosie to take a stalking position once they straightened away into the backstretch.

Forced to move a tad earlier than she probably wanted, Rosie opened a clear lead with Jessica and was holding the logical favorite Say Toba Sandy safe, until she weakened in the final 70 yards, beaten a jump before the wire.

Thankful that a small profit was had in the exacta and trifecta pools.

Before returning tomorrow, I’ll drive the Matrix up to Palm Meadows, hopefully speak with Jimmy Jerkens and get a peak at Quality Road. If there’s time, I’ll head over to Palm Beach Downs, about 15 minutes away, and see if Todd Pletcher can tout me on Dunkirk.

Let you know tomorrow how that all turned out. Now it’s time for some Cuban pork, plantains, black beans and rice, topped off with a little flan and Café Cubano, before heading back up 95 to check into my hotel. I’m having a slight sense of dread.

BTW: Saar Treaty stayed in the race after it was rescheduled to the main track. He won by a pole, over sealed slop, at 5-1. I won’t make a big deal of it. That’s why this game is tough. You live by, and with, the decisions you make. It’s 11 days to Florida Derby. Need to stay positive.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, March 15, 2009


New York Horseplayers Catch a Break, Sort Of


Saratoga Springs, NY, March 14, 2009--Horseplayers in New York finally caught a break yesterday when Gov. David Patterson---the man who meddled in the VLT deal, after Elliott Spitzer meddled with George Pataki’s VLT deal first---repealed a proposed takeout increase on wagers placed in New York on out-of-state races.

Pataki, you may recall, served two terms as Governor and, after VLT legislation was approved way back in 2001, he was the one who made it possible to stall resolution of the VLT issue in the first place.

Pataki's office put the lottery people in charge and they just sat on their hands for a few years. Albany fiddled while New York was about to burn.

Someone explained to our indolent legislators that an increase in the parimuteul hold on bets made at simulcast outlets throughout the state would completely screw up all he winning payoffs.

And if you made a winning bet an OTB parlor that applies a surcharge on winning wagers, what you would have is a payoff from column A, from column B, and one from column C.

That has an effect on the track’s percentage of the handle, the horsemen’s cut, the county‘s, etc, etc.

That politicians understand it's good to avoid chaos comes somewhat as a surprise. After all, what would a piece of legislation be without some layers of obfuscation followed by circumvention, anyway?

“The New York Racing Association joins other industry stakeholders in applauding both the Governor’s and the legislature’s leadership on this issue,” stated New York Racing Association president and CEO Charlie Hayward in a press release.

“With this repeal,” the release continued, “our elected officials have helped level the playing field for both the vital New York racing industry and the many thousand racing enthusiasts in the state.”

It must kill industry types to be nice to the people who control their destiny. But the cost of a franchise is steep. If it were only about dollars and cents, Aqueduct VLTs would have been up and running years ago. But no one is innocent in this.

I’m sure New York horseplayers are happy to know that the playing field finally has been leveled. Now they can continue paying the high takeout rate in place most everywhere, plus breakage, those odd pennies taken so that payouts can be made in nice round numbers. It used to be that the tracks didn't want to tie up the betting lines by having their clerks deal in pennies. Of course, with 90 percent of the action away from the tracks, and with so many betting accounts in place, tracks don't deal with long lines anymore.

Too bad the computers that keep all the betting straight can’t be made to figure a way to pay players breakage. If a horse is supposed to pay $10.09, why must the bettor take $10?

So let’s put those computers to better use, and get that playing field just a little more level.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, March 14, 2009


Dramatic Preps at Tampa Bay, Fair Grounds; Favorites Rule Oaklawn, Santa Anita


Saratoga Springs, NY, March 13, 2009--Even though this advice was authored on Friday the 13th, have no fear. Legend has it that this date on the calendar is good luck for Italians. Somehow, that seems logical.

I’m a little excited. Why? Because I always get excited on Derby day. (No, not THE DERBY Day. If it were, DAY would be capitalized).

Folks don’t care about these Derbies like they do THE DERBY in May. Their loss.

So with the possible exception of people living in Tampa or New Orleans, I doubt most Americans would know that a Derby can exist without the Kentucky prefix.

The Tampa Bay Derby is a relatively new one. It grows in importance each year and was, lest anyone forget, the launching pad used by Carl Nafzger two years ago to get his three-year-old to the races.

If you’re wondering who Nafzger is, and the name of his Tampa Derby/Kentucky Derby winner, you’re probably not reading this blog anyway. If you still don’t remember, ask Calvin Borel next time you see him.

Last year’s Tampa Derby winner, New York-bred Big Truck, punched his ticket to Louisville in this race. As it turned out, Louisville punched back.

So trainer Barclay Tagg is back for more, only this time with a more talented colt. He’s called Hello Broadway and at this stage he’s a lot further along developmentally.

Tagg can only hope for three things today: Hello Broadway (3-1) will like the tricky Tampa surface as much as Big Truck; that two turns are better than one and, if not, that he’s going in the right direction at the finish.

Toward Louisville, via New York.

To get there, he must go the through local hero and fuzzy-warm story of this campaign, General Quarters (4-1), winner of the newly graded Sam F. Davis last time out. But the Tampa Derby is no two-horse affair.

Nowhere To Hide (5-1),cross-entered in Louisiana by Nick Zito but will run here due to a better post draw and the availability of Alan Garcia, is poised to move forward after needing his season‘s debut.

Musket Man (8-1), a good Sam Davis third, is working bullets and attracts Tampa’s talented leading rider Daniel Centeno. There are others: Sumo (6-1), second in the Davis, reunites with Jeremy Rose, who rode him to both career wins.

Bear’s Rocket (8-1) was second in the Holy Bull and Warrior’s Reward (12-1) was a good second to Dunkirk in a Gulfstream allowances after getting Lasix. In short, there’s a lot to like about this Tampa Bay Derby.

The Davis win for General Quarters was first rate but costly, as he now must spot the entire field six pounds, 122 to 116 and not insignificant.

From a betting perspective, Musket Man and Bear’s Rocket are the most intriguing, especially the former, but only if early-line odds of 8-1 hold. But the two favorites are good race horses and if 4-1 or more is available on General Quarters I’d take it.

The Fair Grounds offers great box office with four consecutive Grade 2s including burgeoning filly powerhouse Rachel Alexander in the Fair Grounds Oaks, and culminates with a deep Louisiana Derby featuring Larry Jones’ Friesan Fire (5-2) looking to sweep the Louisiana road to Kentucky.

While there is reason to expect a peak performance from the early favorite he’s not the only colt who can win. Patena (4-1), equally as fast on performance figures, makes his debut for Rick Dutrow. Improvement is expected.

Flying Pegasus (8-1), second in the Risen Star with a tougher trip than the winner, now gets a better post and a switch to Johnny Velazquez.

Giant Oak (4-1), the impossible tripper behind ‘Pegasus’ when also too close to the pace, benefits from that effort and the switch to underrated James Graham, his morning partner. ‘Oak’ ran as fast at 2 as most of these have run at 3.

Finally, will Papa Clem (8-1), going from synthetics to dirt, pull an I Want Revenge? Will talented Terrain (10-1) be ready? He’ll certainly improve beneath Julien Leparoux with blinkers removed. Like the Tampa Derby, this is a good betting race.

In the Rebel and San Felipe, Old Fashioned and Pioneerof The Nile are expected to rule as heavy odds-on choices, respectively. A loss by either would be an upset of significant proportions.

Pioneerof The Nile is, depending on your source, the best active three-year-old in Southern California. Today’s San Felipe has drawn a field of seven but the favorite could race as few as two rivals. Two of his six rivals are expected to run tomorrow in a turf stakes.

Old Fashioned (7-5) won’t have it as easy, but a loss for the consensus pro-tem Derby favorite still would be a shocker.

The undefeated gray must again defeat rapid Silver City (4-1), back for more at a distance that figures to be beyond his best. Seven others aren’t intimidated either, including some recent maiden winners.

If you intend to visit the mutuel window, the most interesting entrant is Poltergeist (15-1), a late runner rushed off his feet from an outside post following a troubled start in the Southwest that seriously compromised his kick.

Today he moves inside and I wouldn’t expect Quincy Hamilton to make the same mistake twice. His win odds are tempting if the early quote remains available. Exactas anyone?

Written by John Pricci

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