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, 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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Thursday, March 12, 2009

HRI Derby Ten with Interpretation of Equiform Performance Figures

Saratoga Springs, NY, March 12, 2009--The idea for this chart is a direct rip-off from our friends at Equibase. Just wanted to clear that up.

Good ideas should be emulated. To those who disagree, I say: “I Hear You Knockin’ But You Can’t Come In.”

We’re speaking of a chart that lists the Top 50 Equibase speed figures achieved by this year’s three-year-olds. That makes it good for assessing current form and as a useful bridge to past and future sophomore crops so that history may judge.

The Equibase list is larger and more inclusive of factoids. The HorseRaceInsider figures will reflect how fast its Derby Ten have run--the figures they‘ve earned. Our thanks to Cary Fotias; part time HRI contributor, full time handicapper, figure-maker and friend.

The measure is Equiform performance figures, numbers that breathe, figures that lend themselves easily to empirical interpretation.

This works because the relationship between pace and final-figure data creates patterns that allow for the kind of handicapping creativity not available in other methodologies.

Whatever the handicapping process, it’s all good. Useful to recall the words of legendary Racing Form clocker Eugene ‘Frenchy’ Schwartz who advised: “The game ain’t hard and nobody’s barred.”

Words to live by, indeed.

So, “borrowing” the best elements of the Equibase model, our focus is the HRI Derby Ten. The following chart includes, from left to right:

Column 1: Final and Pace figures from the most recent race.

Col. 2: Lifetime Best Final Figures.

Col. 3: Level of competition at which figure was earned.

Col. 4: Racetrack where figure was earned.

Col. 5: Date of race.

Col. 6: Name of race.

Col. 7: Distance.

Col. 8: Running surface.

(Figures listed focus on races at one mile or longer)

1 - Old Fashioned
Final Pace Life Top Class     Track    Date Race Name Dist. Surface
74¾/80 NPT76   NW1   DEL   11/03/08   ALW  8F       Dirt
OLD FASHIONED earned his lifetime best figure in a preliminary allowances, following that up with a 75 for his Remsen win at 9 furlongs. Normally it is preferred to see a higher figure at 3 due to added maturity and physical development. In this guy’s case, he did the next best thing, earning a New Pace Top while winning the Southwest with energy in reserve. That projects for a forward move in tomorrow’s Rebel Stakes.

2 - Pioneerof the Nile
Final PaceLife TopClass    Track   DateRace NameDistanceSurface
*75¼/64(73½)G2SA 02/07/09Robert Lewis8.5FAW**
PIONEEROF THE NILE has not run faced enough according to some. Hopefully, they’ve watched his races and noted how slower figures earned on synthetic surfaces translate to the kind of figures it takes to be identified as a major Kentucky Derby contender. See I Want Revenge. Monitor Bob Baffert’s handling. This horse is developing very nicely.

3 - The Pamplemousse
Final PaceLife TopClass    Track   DateRace NameDistanceSurface
THE PAMPLEMOUSSE (tie) appeared to leap forward big time winning the Sham but showed a 2-point forward move off his previous lifetime top. This is well within the constraints of the coveted incremental development that handicappers and trainers alike hope to see. You’ve read the horseman’s cliché: “We’re right on schedule.” Well, this guy really is.

3 - Friesan Fire
Final PaceLife TopClass    Track   DateRace NameDistanceSurface
*74¾/75-74G3FG 02/07/09Risen Star9FDirt
FRIESAN FIRE (tie) is the poster child for incremental development with a ¾-point forward move off its previous lifetime best. In fact, he’s developed less than three points from his lifetime best figure as a two-year-old in November. That is healthy. The good news is that he appears set to explode in Saturday’s Louisiana Derby. In terms of future development, that could be problematical, however.

5 - I Want Revenge
Final Pace Life Top Class     Track    Date Race Name Distance Surface
*78¼/70 -73 G3 AQU 03/07/09 Gotham 8.5F Inner**
I WANT REVENGE Exploded in the Gotham, as everyone knows. The amount of development was huge; more than five points, and more than double that in lengths. I takes a figure in the range of 80-82 to win the Kentucky Derby, and he’s closer to that than anyone. Three-year-olds in the spring of the year are capable and often pair up big lifetime tops. Where an individual goes from there is the issue.

6 - Desert Party ***Dubai
Final PaceLife TopClass    Track   DateRace NameDistanceSurface
72½ MDNAP06/22/08ALW4.5FAW**
DESERT PARTY Can’t speak to his development at three since Equiform does not generate figures in foreign countries. His figures as a juvenile were good but far from great. His stature in the HRI Ratings is an acknowledgement of a visually impressive win in the G3 UAE 2000 Guineas.

7 - Quality Road
Final Pace Life Top Class     Track    Date Race Name Distance Surface
77¾/78-76G2GP02/28/09F’tn of Youth8FDirt
QUALITY ROAD What makes this a quality colt is that he came out running, earning a figure of 76 at the demanding sprint distance of 6.5 furlongs. Therefore, while his Fountain of Youth was impressive both arithmetically and visually, it didn’t represent a huge leap forward, suggesting there likely is more where that came from. Of course, we’re making one-turn speak here. The jury will remain out until one turn becomes two.

8 - Dunkirk
Final PaceLife TopClass    Track   DateRace NameDistanceSurface
*75½/73 Rev(70¾)$ALWGP02/19/09ALW9FDirt
DUNKIRK earned a good-not-great figure winning a 7-furlong debut then jumped up big time winning a two-turn money allowances. As suggested above, the REV following his figure is Equiform short-hand for reversal, meaning his final figure was higher than the pace figure. For that to occur a horse must distribute his energy more efficiently- later in the race-indicating that he’s getting stronger and learning how to run. His potential is undeniable, and he’s expected to move forward in the Florida Derby.

9 - Theregoesjojo
Final PaceLife TopClass    Track   DateRace NameDistanceSurface
75¾/7076¼G2GP02/28/09F’tn of Youth9FDirt
THEREGOESJOJO is a perfect example of what added maturity, and added distance, can do for a horse’s figures (read ability here). He impressively ran down Quality Road, earning a lofty 76¼ and, instead of regressing off a 5-length improvement, virtually paired that lifetime best with a 75¾ despite moving up in class and distance--not easy. He owns a huge turn of foot but must show it around a second turn.

10 - Hello Broadway
Final PaceLife TopClass    Track   DateRace NameDistanceSurface
HELLO BROADWAY showed laudable incremental improvement with a half-point forward move in his first start at 3, earning a very respectable 75¼ under trying, between-rivals circumstances. This line indicates he’s set for an explosive effort and recent workouts indicate that a big move indeed might be forthcoming. Of course, a second turn and the quirky Tampa Bay surface could set back that development, making a projected figure a tough read.

Legend: * Lifetime best figure earned in most recent race
**AW-All Weather Surface, **Inner-Aqueduct winterized inner surface
***Dubai-Raced in United Arab Emirates, no figure available

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, March 07, 2009

Spring Forward

Saratoga Springs, NY, March 7, 2009--Sometimes the game is real good, even when it doesn’t treat you real good.

The racing yesterday was pretty extraordinary, with Stardom Bound getting up to win the Santa Anita Oaks, even though at not time did anybody think she would--except Mike Smith.

At least that’s what Smith said afterwards.

But to make money, which is the idea, of course, it would have been better had Hooh Why held a little more determinedly at the wire. Even second would have been better than losing by a pair of noses.

But give Stardom Bound her due. Quick, who was the last filly to win five straight Grade 1s?

I’ll look it up and get back to you. It’s 9 pm Saturday night and it’s been a very long day.

Especially after Imperial Council nailed Mr. Fantasy for the place at the line, at the cost of an 8-5 exacta. But the price on I Want Revenge was square at 3-1 and his Gotham performance first rate.

Helen Pitts Blasi had one like this coming, right? I know; Curlin was a long time ago. But it takes a long time to get over something like that.

I suppose other trainers might have done as well with Einstein, a real good horse. But so what? What a terrific job she’s done with this guy.

And he runs on anything; grass, dirt, synthetics, anything. And the fact that Einstein looks and acts like a two-year-old at age 7 is also to her credit. And Julien Leparoux, who is wise beyond his years between the fences. What the Big Cap lacked going in is a lot different than the way it turned out.

The Kilroe Mile wasn't a classic Grade 1 going in either, only it, too, came out that way. The great Ramon Dominguez timed it perfectly with Gio Ponti and just nailed the lady, Ventura, who was good in defeat.

You might argue that she got a good trip. You could also argue that she prefers to race from farther back and come running late, rather than strike the front in midstretch and hold on. She did everything right but win.

Next Saturday, four graded stakes for three-year-olds. It’s beginning to look a lot like spring.

Written by John Pricci

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