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, April 04, 2009

Derby Trail Goes Cross Country; Value Available

SOUTH OZONE PARK, NY, April 3, 2009--Four colts from HorseRaceInsider’s Kentucky Derby Power Ten will be in action on both coasts this weekend while in Cicero, Illinois, 11 more three-year-olds will try to give their connections a chance to go for racing’s brass ring.

I Want Revenge, blowout winner of the Gotham, drew the rail and was installed the 4-5 early line favorite in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct Race Track.

Imperial Council, the Gotham runnerup, looms the main rival as the 2-1 second choice from post six.

In Southern California, the Santa Anita Derby has drawn three colts that have accounted for the last nine major preps for Derby-aged runners. Speedster The Pamplemousse was installed a slight favorite (9-5) over budding rival Pioneerof The Nile (2-1).

Chocolate Candy, who made his bones in Northern California, drew the rail and is the early line third choice at 6-1.

In the Midwest, Tampa Derby winner Musket Man will try to improve his lifetime mark to five wins in six starts as second favorite Giant Oak attempts to regain some of the reputation he’s lost in what has been a disappointing campaign thus far.

All three races are at 9 furlongs. The Illinois Derby is a Grade 2; the Santa Anita Derby and Wood are both Grade 1.

For all, it will be the ultimate prep before answering the Churchill Downs’ starter’s call at 6 o’clock on the first Saturday in May.

Today the scores can really change. The only remaining significant preps are next weekend when Keeneland plays host to the storied Blue Grass Stakes and Oaklawn Park presents the Arkansas Derby.

With the possible exception of the Lexington the following weekend, all that remains is the waiting.

It has been a good prep season for a collection of the three year olds that has its share of top class runners. I Want Revenge loves dirt, has worked very well since the Gotham, and will debut in silks of Sheikh Iavarone’s IEAH consortium which recently acquired a half interest.

All he needs is to run the Gotham back to go into Louisville as one of Derby 135’s prime contenders and he had better, too, since he figures to get a serious challenge from Imperial Council.

The Shug McGaughey trainee figures to benefit from the added sixteenth of a mile, bigger main track circumference, and reunites with regular rider Edgar Prado.

The Santa Anita Derby, however, is providing a lot more drama which, considering the locale, makes sense. The camps associated with the two favorites are beginning to talk a little smack.

The tension heightened a bit when Zayat Stable shipped a “rabbit” cross country to keep the pace honest, fearing The Pamplemousse would get loose on an easy lead.

The Pamplemousse and “The Nile,” as he’s called around the barn, are each riding three-race win streaks with the former having an advantage of a win at the distance in the G3 Sham.

Chocolate Candy, meanwhile, has won both his starts at 3 and four of his last five, the latest being a 9-furlong score in the G3 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields.

In Illinois, Musket Man, the field’s only graded stakes winner, gets a new, name-brand rider in Eibar Coa--as if anything were wrong with Daniel Centeno--as does second choice Giant Oak.

Shaun Bridgmohan will try to change the karma for the Chris Block colt who suffered through a horrible trip in the G3 Risen Star then caught slop in the G2 Louisiana Derby.

The track likely will be fast in all locations, with precipitation anticipated in New York Friday but clearing today with winds, gusting to 40 m.p.h. at times, drying the track nicely.

It’s expected to be sunny in both Cicero and Arcadia this afternoon.

Making money on these races is challenging but worth the effort. The Wood appears a two-horse race; the Santa Anita Derby has three deserving headliners, and although there are two likely choices in Illinois, that Derby is a lot more open than the other bellwether preps.

In New York, the result is a foregone conclusion should I Want Revenge (4-5) run back to his Gotham performance figure. Normally, you would expect a regression with such a huge improvement, but that kind of development is common with spring three-year-olds.

Imperial Council (2-1) is developing quite nicely at 3. His winning debut at Gulfstream came replete with a New Pace Top on the Equiform scale and his Gotham was a reversal, distributing his energy much later in the race. He appears to be sitting on a big race.

West Side Bernie (6-1), awful at Turfway Park last out, returns to a dirt surface and ran very well at today’s distance two back at Gulfstream. At early line odds and reuniting with Stewart Elliott, aboard for his last win at 2, Bernie’s an interesting price shot.

In the Midwest, as stated, Musket Man (7-2) and Giant Oak (9-2) more than have a license. Musket Man is handier and has won over three different tracks in his five-race career. He also owns, on balance, the best performance figures.

Giant Oak (9-2) is ripe for a turnaround. The poor trip and wet track compromised him for sure, now he stretches out with a suitable pedigree, gets the rider switch and trainer Block is 23 percent efficient in third start following a layoff.

After impressing with a Gulfstream win at this distance, Free Country (6-1) never seemed comfortable at Tampa Bay, then caught slop in New Orleans. Ken McPeek, profitable with shippers, removes the blinkers after sharpening his speed and switches to talented local Eddie Razo Jr. A wake-up effort at fair odds is a distinct possibility.

Out West, Chocolate Candy would need a career best effort to beat either of the favorites, but an interesting price play is Take The Points (10-1). He made a good run in his Pro Ride debut, chasing lone speed The Pamplemousse in the Sham and holding fairly well.

Owning tactical speed and kick, Pletcher trainee seems to prefer running at a target. Coming off a New Pace Top, he figures to move forward.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, April 03, 2009

Psst, Want a Value Play in the Belmont?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 2, 2009--So, who do you like in the Belmont Stakes?

I’m not kidding, even if the season indicates this might be some kind of belated April Fools' joke.

Even as fans and players try to decide who will win the 135th Kentucky Derby, and with Super Saturday looming, it’s never too early to start thinking Belmont.

Perhaps we might not have given the press release received this morning a second thought had it not come from the same people that brought My Memoirs over from Europe to compete in the 1992 Belmont.

In case your memory needs jogging, Pine Bluff was holding on desperately along the inside in midstretch as A.P. Indy forged forward to join him in a head-to-head battle from which Neil Drysdale’s colt would emerge victorious.

But there was an instant, leaving the sixteenth pole, when the issue was very much in doubt as My Memoirs, beneath Jerry Bailey, was beginning a strong late run.

Near the finish, A.P. Indy was getting the best of Pine Bluff, but My Memoirs kept charging, a rally that would fall short by three-quarters of a length. And that Belmont was clocked in 2:26: race horse time.

The new shooter this year, from the same Team Valor outfit that shipped My Memoirs to Elmont, is named Gitano Hernando, who won his three-year-old debut over the weekend at 10 furlongs on the turf at Doncaster.

Gitano Hernando came from far back to win going away by 2-½ lengths, drawing away inside the final sixteenth according to reports. It was his first start since breaking his maiden on a synthetic surface at Wolverhampton last fall.

The colt is being trained at facility in Newmarket by Marco Botti, who will saddle him in the Belmont. The colt’s next start will be the Dee Stakes, at around the same time the connections of American-based three-year-olds are feasting on crab cakes in Baltimore.

My Memoirs also used the Dee Stakes as his final prep. Botti is considering giving him another run between the Dee and Sunday’s season’s debut, a handicap in which he earned a 99 Timeform rating.

‘Gitano’ was supposed to run in the newly created Kentucky Derby Trial Stakes at Kempton but failed to crack the entries. The winning Mufaaz earned an automatic berth in the Churchill Downs starting gate on Derby day.

Barry Irwin, manager partner of Team Valor, stated in the release that they chose the Dee at Chester Race Course because it’s circular nature more closely resembles racing at an American racetrack.

Irwin said the Chester races develop in much the same way American races do and that the timing, coming after the Kentucky Derby, is good for a horse pointing to the Belmont.

A son of the long-winded Hernando, pointing a European runner to the Belmont as opposed to the Derby makes eminently more sense.

First, there’s no circus atmosphere and 19 rivals with which to contend. The wide expanse of Belmont’s mile and-a-half course with its sweeping turns is more in the European style. Belmont was, after all, modeled after Longchamp.

Of course, there is the 12-furlong distance. American horses are bred for speed, not stamina, and consequently are not true stayers. It’s inherent class that enables them to win at the true classic distance at this stage of the three-year-old season.

Finally, a fresh European invader is likely to catch American colts that have either run the Derby prep gauntlet or have competed in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, rigors for which most are ill suited by lineage.

Trainer Marco Botti, 32, certainly has the pedigree for classics success. His father, Alduino, and uncle, Giuseppe, based in Milan, are highly successful horsemen that run a thriving breeding operation and have won 30 training titles between them.

This is the fourth year Botti has been on his own after having worked for, among others, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum’s Godolphin operation.

Considered a rising star in Europe, Botti saddled 10 winners in 2006, including a Group 3; 17 the following year with a Group 3 and two Listed stakes winners; had 45 last year and already has 10 in 2009, the last being Gitano Hernando.

The colt’s win last Sunday came in a modest Class 3 handicap, but he moved strongly off a lively pace with three furlongs remaining and stayed on very well while leading through the final quarter-mile.

After the race, jockey John Egan said he was impressed and that the colt has the ability to stay the Belmont distance.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Florida Derby Coverage: Riddle Me This

Hallandale Beach, Fla., March 27, 2009--As everyone knows, the newspaper business has gone the way of the rest of the country--only there’s some evidence that the country actually might be in better shape.

Just recently, the Seattle Post Intelligencer went from a staff of approximately 80 beat reporters to a total of 20 on-line. Whether editors are included among the 20 I do not know. This, of course, is a.k.a. major surgery.

Those mainstream broadsheets and tabloids that continue to swim as fast as they can before the tide of red ink drags them completely to the bottom are drastically cutting coverage in virtually every area.

To no one’s surprise, horse racing is having difficulty making the cut.

Since some major tracks moved to a 72-hour entry box, providing greater access to the information customers need in order to prosper in a data-driven game, today’s Florida Derby was drawn Wednesday.

Back in the day, there were more free-loaders than reporters in the Gulfstream Park press box. Publicity Director Joe Tannenbaum always wore an orchid-colored suit on Florida Derby day, replete with ever-present fedora.

The outfit was enough to make even Gene Stevens blush.

Anyway, in those days Tannenbaum needed to secure a Gulfstream Park rate at the swanky Diplomat Hotel for out-of-town media, who came in about a week early bearing expense accounts.

A-list entertainers routinely played the Diplomat back then. It was all pretty cool.

Tannenbaum arranged for a press hospitality suite at the hotel where a handful of veteran reporters would play poker almost until dawn, the game breaking up in time to go to the barns for interviews.

We’re referring to the reporters who weren’t out drinking and carousing. I never did, of course. I only heard tell of it.

The post draw in those days was 48 hours in advance of race day and was accompanied by a press breakfast. Questions followed the bacon and eggs and usually was hosted by Tannenbaum who said nice things about his bosses and visiting media. Tannenbaum loved press guys.

Thursday was the only morning the poker players could have shuffled past dawn, get to the track in time for breakfast, ask questions their questions, write their stories, await cocktail hour following the last race, then begin the process all over again.

Guys like that also gave the phrase “greatest generation” credibility.

The Florida Derby wasn’t the Kentucky Derby, but that never stopped hordes of beautiful women from attending the races in all their finery and millinery. Tannenbaum wasn’t the only person wearing orchid. Many in a crowd of 30,000 did, too.

When entries were drawn this past Wednesday, the only people covering from out of state were Jennie Rees of the Louisville Courier-Journal and, swelling the count of out of town mainstream press to one.

Who knows, if Jennie worked for a newspaper in Chicago or St. Louis or Baltimore, she, too, might have been among the missing. Rees once described the Courier-Journal as a “three-year-old paper.” Everyone knew what she meant. It’s probably keeping her beat afloat.

My hotel is one that attaches a copy of USA Today to the door latch of the room, an old-school guilty pleasure.

And I truly was surprised when the sports section of Thursday’s USA Today included not even a hint that a lightly raced undefeated three-year-old and betting favorite in a number of Derby futures pools had drawn post 4 and was installed the early line 9-5 Florida Derby favorite.

Not even a short paragraph, which I’m sure annoyed Tom Pedulla, USA Today’s ace racing and college sports beat writer.

Of course, if the Eastern Regionals of the NCAA Tournament were held in Miami, site of opening-round play, instead of Boston, Pedulla would be covering the Florida Derby. Maybe he still will, but I’m taking the under.

Rees must have written her Florida Derby advance Thursday. She was not in attendance yesterday. Columnist Vic Ziegel of the New Daily News was.

Ziegel, a true wordsmith, loves racing for the colorful stories it provides, just like the late Red Smith. He covers the Triple Crown for his paper and gets to write the Florida Derby every year because he’s already in the neighborhood covering Yankees and Mets spring training.

“I can’t believe they still allow me to do this,” Ziegel said outside the Gulfstream Park paddock yesterday.

Parenthetically, racing writers for the Daily News and Post New York probably manage to have jobs because the other newspaper exists: That rivalry is hotter than Duke-North Carolina.

The Associated Press has a racing writer, Rich Rosenblatt, who’s based in New York. He was here last year. He covered the 2008 Tampa Bay Derby, too. But he won’t be here tomorrow.

Tim Reynolds, the locally based AP sportswriter, will be here to see if one of today’s entrants goes on to become the 22nd Kentucky Derby winner to prep in the Florida Derby.

Or if today’s winner becomes the third Florida Derby winner in the last four years to repeat in Louisville, thus joining Barbaro and Big Brown.

I never knew the answer to this ancient riddle: “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s there, does it make a sound?”

Talk about analogous situations. Apparently, the answer eventually reveals itself.

Written by John Pricci

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