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 25, 2009

For Handicappers, Keeneland a Humbling Experience

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 23, 2009--It likely will come as no surprise to most of you that I’m not as smart as I think I am.

People say “hey, you’re that handicapper, right?”

I say, “No, I just play one on TV.”

But that’s the way I feel as I look back on the 2009 Keeneland spring meeting that concluded Friday.

I’m a huge fan of the good-horse circuit.

I love the smell of bluegrass in the morning.

Even on good days, most horseplayers are humbled six times per racing card. Keeneland didn’t humble me this year. Bludgeoned would be more apt.

And there’s no comfort in knowing that I’m not alone in this. Misery loves company, true. But for me that excludes the racetrack. To be successful, horseplayers must maintain their equilibrium: Never too high; never too low.

For those who love the challenge of handicapping, or those who on occasion must try to make a few dollars, each new set of past performances brings with it a sense of renewal.

And never has so much information been made available. Every manner of speed figure or trip note, and trend analysis that has gone way beyond the realm of niche data.

Keeneland recognizes how difficult their Polytrack is for handicappers to conquer. Their officers know how to read a balance sheet. But they made a commitment to a synthetic surface and they’re sticking to it.

They’ve even compiled some data--most of that database inconsequential, unfortunately--in the hopes that this “Polycapping” information will help players understand what they’re dealing with.

Remember, this is a track that a couple of decades ago didn’t even have a track announcer. Not that you needed one back then. Any horse that showed speed on the rail won. It was an “easy game,” provided, of course, you knew which speed horse to back.

But today’s Keeneland is different; way different. Polytrack cuts down the speed. Races are dominated by last-run types but that’s not automatic either. Timing is everything, you see.

But even armed with this knowledge, it doesn’t help me to know how a particular race will be run, no matter what my speed figures and trip notes and trainer stats say.

When Keeneland finally moved into a new racing age, it embraced the challenge of simulcast competition. A character generator now tells you where every horse in the field is. It was the best gift an inveterate race-watcher could have. Give Woodbine its props on this, too.

In Lexington, where tweed jackets and leather-patched elbows are never out of style, but where betting was an afterthought, there are now 50-Cent Trifectas and Pick Fours, Rolling Doubles and Dime Supers.

In a relatively short period of time, Keeneland has done more for rank and file bettors and racing fans than older, more established tracks in urban areas.

Still, it’s considerably easier for me to cash a bet at Philly Park or Pimlico than at Keeneland--and not just because good horses produce more competitive racing.

It’s because I personally couldn’t find a seam in the Polytrack zone, and I hear the same thing from a majority of players I speak with. Having cut me teeth on harness racing, trip handicapping is all I knew. At Keeneland I have no idea what the hell I’m looking many times.

Jockeys won’t openly criticize the surface for the record but some absolutely loathe it, saying they can’t ride their horses the way they’re supposed to be ridden because if you want to ride a race more aggressively you’ll empty out before the real running starts.

The Keeneland surface suits the strength of a Gomez, the patience of a Leparoux, the guile of a Velazquez. Pat Day would have loved Keeneland’s Polytrack.

When the new surface first opened, it wasn’t long before I noticed the unusual nature of race shape developments. But even now that it plays faster, it’s not easier to conquer.

On days when water tightens the surface dramatically, and pace horses perform better than usual, it’s still a tough read. You simply can’t take what you’re seeing to the bank.

At least I couldn’t. I never got into a rhythm this spring--as important to a horseplayer as it is to a quarterback or a pitcher.

So, until fall, it’s on to Churchill Downs, where results are a little more fathomable. A say a little more because horse racing in Kentucky’s a little different.

Is it me, or are there just a lot more inscrutable wake-ups?

Either way, it will be good to get away from the Lexington track where, on balance, for 18 days each spring, the racing is the best in the world. The results, not so much.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, April 24, 2009

If He Knew, Obama Would Apologize for This, Too

SARATOGA SPRINGS, April 23, 2009--The first thing I do when starting my work day is to log onto to find news or stories that are worthy of a follow-up or commentary.

In this, I am not alone. Many racing journalists and engaged fans do the same thing; go to Equidaily and click on the headlines that interest them most.

This is what webmaster Seth Merrow probably had in mind when he created the racing link-farm a decade ago. A lot of people have the best of intentions. Merrow got the job done.

An example of Equidaily’s utility occurred a few days ago with a story about how stewards in Malaysia suspended a horseman for one year for opening an umbrella in the box area prior to the start of a race.

If you’re not as yet familiar with the story, take another moment to re-read the preceding paragraph.

Then, juxtapose, if you will, the case where New York State’s Racing and Wagering Board suspended trainer Jeff Mullins seven days and fined him $2500 for a detention barn violation.

The substance in question wasn’t banned, but that’s not the point. New York rules prohibit any race-day medication except for anti-bleeding medication, which must be administered a veterinarian.

But if Mullins couldn’t get it straight whether a Churchill Downs licensing office was open or not, how can he be expected to know New York’s rules of racing?

Of course, he should have known because 1) it’s his job and 2) because he won the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct three weeks earlier. But never mind that.

There could be many reasons for the wrist-slap given Mullins: There never was a clear explanation re: the culpability for the actions of NYRA security in charge of the detention area, nor was it satisfactorily determined whether or not an oral syringe was hidden from view.

And so it was agreed that, in the interest of fairness to the owners of a Kentucky Derby favorite, the incident be put behind one and all so that we can move on, the buzz phrase of athletes and politicians of the new millennium.

The Mullins suspension begins the day after the Kentucky Derby, in which Mullins will saddle I Want Revenge. You wanted transparency in racing? What could be more transparent than the timing of this suspension?

Interesting that the New York Racing Association is looking at the Mullins case through the auspices of its own Barn Area Violations Panel that could levy further sanctions, according to David Grening’s Racing Form story.

The penalties include denying stalls, barring entries and/or a fine. It is anticipated that Mullins’ defense attorney, the successful Karen Murphy, will meet with the BAVP.

Of those three choices, a fine is the odds-on favorite. But wouldn’t you like to see the NYRA refusing to take Mullins’ entry for the Belmont Stakes as I Want Revenge bids to become racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner?

Compare all this to a published report by stewards in Malaysia, where apparently transparency is practiced in a different fashion.

The ruling on the great umbrella caper and a review of the events in a single race might be of interest and instructive to regulators in this country:

“The Stewards concluded an Inquiry into the above matter on 17th March 2009 at the Selangor Turf Club and evidence was taken from Assistant Trainer Wee Mung Hua.

“Assistant Trainer Wee Mung Hua was found guilty of a charge under MRA Rule 133... as punishable under MRA Rule 133... in that at about 5:15pm on 6th December 2008 at the covered terrace outside the owner’s box at the Selangor Turf Club before the start of Race 9, through the agency of one Mr Azmi Bin Senawi, he gave barrier instructions to a Jockey or Jockeys to wit by the said Mr Azmi Bin Senawi, opening an umbrella in the direction of the starting stall gates, the effect of which may have prevented a horse or horses from winning or obtaining the best possible placing.

“Assistant Trainer Wee Mung Hua was also found guilty of a charge under MRA Rule 152... as punishable under MRA Rule 21... in that at about 5:15pm on 6th December 2008 at the covered terrace outside the owner’s box at the Selangor Turf Club before the start of Race 9, he acted in a manner to wit through the agency of one Azmi Bin Senawi, gave barrier instructions to a Jockey or Jockeys to wit by the said Azmi bin Senawi, opening an umbrella in the direction of the starting stall gates, the effect of which may have prevented a horse or horses from winning or obtaining the best possible placing, which in the opinion of the Stipendiary Stewards may be prejudicial to the integrity, proper conduct or good reputation of horse racing in Malaysia and Singapore. [italics mine]

“When deciding on the penalty, the Stewards took into consideration his non-guilty plea and clean record. Assistant Trainer Wee Mung Hua was disqualified for a period of one (1) year for each charge with immediate effect from 17th March 2009 and to expire on 16th March 2010, both days inclusive, to be served concurrently. He was advised of his Right of Appeal ...”

Shudder to think what the penalty might have been had Mung Hua not had a clean record. On its face, this appears excessive, but apparently no lip service is paid to integrity issues in that part of the racing world.

It was the rest of the day’s report that was more indicative of what the practices of stewards should be in this country, for it deals with not only integrity issues but comprehensive information that fans might use to make better informed decisions.

“RACE 1…

“MELANG ANGEL which was up 15kgs in body weight and TRIPLE HEE which was up 40kgs in body weight since their last runs, were checked by the Club Veterinary Surgeon prior to the race and were passed fit to start.

“While loaded in the barrier, TRIPLE HEE became fractious and reared repeatedly. TRIPLE HEE was then taken out of the barrier, checked by the Club Veterinary Surgeon, passed fit to race and was reboxed.

“ONLY ONE was slow into stride.

“[Apprentice] Thai Yang, the rider of INCREDIBLE WARRIOR, was shown the video of his ride in the concluding stages and was warned against the practice of not riding his horse out fully to the finish. INCREDIBLE WARRIOR which dipped on a number of occasions and raced poorly, will be required to pass a test (1000M/vet) before being entered to race again.

“All riders returned to scale an average of 1/2kg overweight due to the adverse weather conditions.

“Jockey A Fiezan, the rider of MELANG ANGEL, reported that his horse was making marked respiratory noises. A post-race veterinary examination of MELANG ANGEL revealed that the mare returned broken-winded. The mare will be required to undergo a corrective surgery and thereafter pass a test (1200M/vet) before being entered to race again. MELANG ANGEL was impounded.

“[Apprentice] J Low, the rider of PANIC ATTACK, reported that his horse did not act in the going. A post-race veterinary examination of PANIC ATTACK revealed that it was lame off fore and returned with sub-epiglottic cyst. The gelding will be required to pass a test (1000M/vet) before being entered to race again.

“[Apprentice] Lou Ho, the rider of ONLY ONE, reported that his horse did not act in the going. A post-race veterinary examination of TABLE TALK revealed no obvious abnormality. The Club Veterinary Surgeon reported that TRIPLE HEE returned having cast its off hind plate.”

How’s that for transparency? How’s that for disseminating inside information to the bettors? The only question remaining is whether U.S. regulators truly have the will and work ethic to do the job in a comprehensive manner.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Square Eddie Returns to Keeneland;Quality Road Works at Belmont

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 17, 2009--Today’s Grade 2 Coolmore Lexington is the last serious chance that Kentucky Derby prepsters have to earn graded cash and make it into the dance.

And it’s a damn good betting race if, that is, you take a winning position against early line favorite Square Eddie (9-5) and get it right. Easier said than done, of course, especially when the object is to beat a deserving favorite.

There’s no argument that, on demonstrated class, accomplishment and ability, Square Eddie is the “best horse” in the mile and a sixteenth two-turner for three year olds. But that doesn’t does not come without extenuating circumstances.

When last seen, the G1 Breeders’ Futurity winner on Keeneland’s Polytrack as a juvenile was finished second to The Pamplemousse in the G3 San Rafael on the Santa Anita Pro Ride. In between came a game second to Midshipman in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Unfortunately, he came out of the San Rafael with an injury and it was announced that he was off the Derby trail. That was then.

But now he’s made such a remarkably quick and complete recovery that he was able to work four times in preparation for a race in which no one, including his connections, believed he’d have a chance to compete, much less be favored to win.

Trainer Doug O’Neill said that the colt has kept himself remarkably fit with aerobic exercise and now, if he runs well and comes back well, you might see him again in two weeks. He doesn’t need the graded earnings so a win is not crucial.

Of the four recent workouts, O’Neill indicated the last two, both at three-quarters of a mile, were remarkable. The penultimate work was such that he invited owner Paul Reddam to see the latest work so that all would be on the same page about today‘s race.

Accomplishments notwithstanding, Square Eddie ran faster at 2 than most of his rivals have run this year on the Equiform scale. Given the anticipated development from 2 to 3, his performance figures are likely to improve accordingly, allowing him to maintain that edge.

After Square Eddie, the interesting runners in today’s race are Pitched Perfectly (15-1), Brave Victory (8-1), and Parade Clown (15-1). Should the favorite disappoint, any of these would have more than a puncher’s chance to upset the group.

Pitched Perfectly makes his first start since a private purchase by Lael Stables and Barclay Tagg from the Gray Contessa barn following a very fast effort on New York‘s winter track.

Not only did Pitched Perfectly earn the best performance figure in the field going long this year--enough reason to back him at the price--but Tagg is 31 percent efficient with new acquisitions.

Brave Victory was training well and fit the race shape very nicely for the G2 Swale on the Florida Derby undercard but for some reason never picked up his feet. His late kick might have been compromised by a speed-kind surface but that was never an issue.

The son of Lion subsequently has worked sharply at Churchill Downs, gets a switch to hot-riding Johnny Velazquez and show up here trying two turns. Nick Zito is crafty in this kind of scenario and for a career is profitable with his sprint to route stretch-outs.

Finally, there’s the very interesting, albeit slow, Parade Crown who appears to be rounding into top form. After a terrible sprint debut on this track at 2, he immediately began a distance campaign which, despite moderate results, has proven to his best game.

It was his latest at Turfway in the G2 Lane’s End that sticks out. After relaxing off the early pace for the first time since he adding blinkers five starts ago, he made a strong mid-race move to take the lead between calls but tired as the winning Hold Me Back zoomed on by.

But it clearly was an improved effort. Today, the blinkers are removed, indicating a complete change of tactics to a possible one-run scenario that could prove most beneficial. A rider switch to the hot, patient last-run specialist Julien Leparoux augurs well.

Good News for Quality Road Fans

For the second time since winning the Florida Derby and suffering a quarter crack, major Kentucky Derby contender Quality Road worked six furlongs in 1:12.03 at Belmont Park Friday morning, galloping out an additional furlong in 1:25.55.

“His foot looked like it’s all right,” said trainer Jimmy Jerkens. “Usually when you get this far, it’s OK.”

Jerkens said the colt would have one more work in New York next weekend, weather permitting, before shipping to Churchill Downs.

Written by John Pricci

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