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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Friday, November 28, 2008

Some Races Make the Grade; Some Didn’t Deserve It

Saratoga Springs, NY, November 27,2008--In advance of the final grand weekend of racing this year that features Saturday’s Stars of Tomorrow and HolidayFest programs at Churchill Downs and Aqueduct, respectively, and the weekend’s Turf Festival at Hollywood Park, the American Graded Stakes Committee issued its list of graded stakes to be run in 2009.

Next year there will be 746 unrestricted stakes races with a minimum $75,000 purse of which 488 will be graded, seven more than 2008 and 65.4 percent of all added-money events.

If you believe that figure to be disproportionately high, you’re not in the minority. And you’re probably not a member of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, either.

What appears in line is the segregation of the graded events with 43.9 percent (214 races) being Grade 3, 32.6 percent (159) Grade 2, and 23.6 percent (115) Grade 1. This is an increase of five G1s and four G2s but two fewer G3s. The proportion seems fair.

Parenthetically, the number of graded stakes races continues to grow, making it a lot easier for owners to earn black type. You can bet that somewhere, a sales company, a breeder and a bloodstock agent is smiling.

Empirically it's just as tough to go from a G3 to a G2 as it is from a G2 to G1, and the percentages reflect that notion. Of course, there were some decisions that fans can have some fun chewing on. Like the Breeders’ Cup races, for instance.

I can’t argue with elevating the Sentient Flight Group Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint to Grade 1. I thought the race should have debuted at that level, given that it was certain to attract world class talent despite a lack of plentiful G1 opportunities for fast fillies.

Actually, I prefer champion females to race against males, weight allowance and all, but I understand the concerns for safety.

Elevating the TVG Dirt Mile is premature. If, as committee members Peter Willmott and Andrew Schweigardt explained in a Tuesday press conference, assigning grades is an evolutionary process based on recent five-year history, this rise reflects wishful thinking, not reality.

The two runnings of the Dirt Mile were entertaining, bettable events but were far from compelling or of true G1 class. It will be all that one day, an event that breeders will covet and fans will embrace as much as the original Breecers' Cup events. But when that happens the Dirt Mile probably will negatively impact the Sprint and Classic, as has been speculated in the past. We shall see.

Assigning the Grey Goose Juvenile Turf Grade 2 status is at once aspirational and a disservice. But it’s a start. With Saratoga’s With Anticipation now a G3 event, a meaningful juvenile turf program is sure to develop in the future, in its way dovetailing nicely with the advent of synthetic surfaces, and vice versa. But it's not close to there yet.

International participation will lend the Juvenile Turf true status, but grading it could have waited a bit longer. Had an Eclipse category existed first, both Juvenile Turfs could have debuted as G1 races. What’s particularly egregious is that a Grade 2 race by definition is not a championship event.

The Breeders’ Cup people appear happy: "We are pleased that the Graded Stakes Committee recognized the world-class quality of the competition in our new races and we believe its decision, along with the enthusiastic reaction of the top owners and trainers in the world, is another validation of our expansion from eight to 14 championship races,” said Breeders’ Cup Racing Senior Vice-President, Pamela Blatz-Murff.

Regarding other elevations, the rise of Keeneland’s Vinery Madison, Del Mar’s Pat O’Brien and Clement L. Hirsch all appear logical. These races already have the veneer of G1s, although I'm not sure why Del Mar needs two G1 sprints for older males at the same meet.

But making the Jamaica Handicap for three-year-olds turf runners is a curiousity. As an event the race lacks gravitas, unless the committee’s aim was simply to create a G1 in this category as what, a synthetic track prep? The sport would have been better served had one of the lower profile Derbies switched from dirt races to turf.

It was appropriate that the West Virginia Derby, Fayette and Colonial Turf Cup, especially the latter, were elevated from Grade 3 to Grade 2. And several ungraded races received graded standing, some overdue, such as Tampa’s Sam F. Davis. Heartening, too, was that such fixtures as the Massachusetts Handicap, the unique Fall Highweight Handicap and Derby Trail were reinstated.

It was disappointing, but understandably appropriate, that New York’s storied Suburban and Gravesend handicaps lost their graded status. Those races, as well as the always entertaining Deputy Minister, discontinued by Gulfstream Park management, are a specter of what they once were.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Protect the Betting Public: Scratch Stormin Normandy

I’m left of center when it comes to the amount of slack I’m willing to cut horsemen when I see things that offend my gambler’s sensibilities. I like taking an edge as much as the next horseplayer.

Then, too, there’s the “Kalish Rule” we blogged about last week. Sage advice to guide our way through the slings and arrows of the track’s parimutuel gauntlet: “On the racetrack, never jam up a hustler.”

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t think of, but not this time. This time I’m putting the interests of the wagering public before my own selfish wagering plans on Thursday‘s feature race at Aqueduct Racetrack.

In order that the public’s interests be protected, the New York stewards must order that Stormin Normandy be scratched from the Fall Highweight Handicap.

Hasn’t Main Street taken enough of a beating recently?

We’ve often written about our respect for Stormin Normandy’s trainer, Rick Dutrow, as a horseman. Yes, there are all the whispers and all the infractions and Dutrow’s run-off personality to consider.

But of the whispers, I say prove it. This is America. Again.

And of the infractions I say he served his time, even if some of those penalties were of the slap-on-the-wrist variety. And of his run-off personality, I say, deal with it.

What would you prefer? More of the “I couldn‘t be more pleased with my horse’s progress” trainer-speak?

In the glare of the Triple Crown lights, Dutrow made public the fact he made a six-figure bet on the horse he saddled to win the 2005 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Saint Liam won, paying $6.80. Mr. and Mrs. William Warren Jr. got their Horse of the Year title.

And Dutrow got the money. Good for him.

This is not to suggest there was anything sinister about Stormin Normandy’s performance in Sunday’s restricted Itaka Stakes, in which he took the lead in moderate fractions, bore out at the half-mile pole, and backed up through the field to finish last, 52-¼ lengths behind the winning Love Abroad.

Yes, pulled up on the far turn. Just like Big Brown in the Belmont.

But even when Dutrow’s horses are beaten, they normally run competitively. According to research by Nick Kling for his Troy Record column, 5.9 percent of all Dutrow’s dirt starters since 2003 were beaten 20 lengths or more.

That compares with 7.8 percent for Todd Pletcher, 10.6 percent for Kiaran McLaughlin, and 13 percent for Hall of Famer Bill Mott. Further, Dutrow’s beaten-off favorites numbered 2 percent of all his starters, while odds-on choices beaten 20-plus lengths occurred at a 1.4 percent rate.

Stormin Normandy’s awful finish at 7-10 was atypically stunning. This doesn’t happen every day. So what’s the public supposed to make of it? Assessing condition is a fundamental part of the handicapping process. One could surmise the horse went off form, then one might be wrong.

With quick turn-arounds, Dutrow is something of a savant. With horses returning at six furlongs on four days rest or less, Dutrow has a five-year slate of (31) 13-3-6, a win percentage of 42 and an in-the-money percentage of 71. Coming back on three days rest, Dutrow’s 7-for-14.

But how many of those runners were eased?

There’s another issue at work here. Entries for Thursday were taken on Sunday. What if Stormin Normandy was stretched to the limit to beat state-breds going a mile. Would Dutrow have entered him back in four days against three graded stakes winners, two of those G1, carrying 131 pounds?

The public should have confidence that the horse they’re betting is fit to race. And jockey Edgar Prado didn’t gain admission to the Hall of Fame this August because he’s adept at getting his mounts to back up through the field.

Dutrow may have no intention to run Stormin Normandy in the Fall Highweight. He entered two horses, including uncoupled mate Nakayama Arashi. (That recent Dutrow claim is coupled with Ferocious Fires, trained by his brother Tony, due to common ownership interests).

But none of this looks very good, and any game that depends on wagering should be very aware of appearances. Perception is reality. Just listen to callers into sports talk radio on any given Monday after some NFL official badly blows a call the previous day.

Racing has mechanisms to protect the public. Placing Stormin Normandy on the vets’ list, forcing him to the sidelines for a short duration, is one way.

This is a lose-lose situation. Should Stormin Normandy win, what does that say about Sunday’s effort, where over $668,000 was bet in the straight, exacta and trifecta pools alone? How much of that included the odds-on favorite?

But what if Stormin Normandy runs terribly again? Or worse.

In my experience no circuit has been more responsive to the needs of the wagering public than the New York Racing Association.

Some methods to safeguard customers haven’t always proven popular, e.g., the “purse money only” rule when half of an entry is a last-minute scratch.

But any rule that errs on the side of caution is, in the main, a good one. That’s what the scratch of Stormin Normandy would be, erring on the side of the public.

That would be a decision for which horseplayers should be happy to give thanks.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Saturday’s Graded Stakes Favorites Demand Closer Inspection

Today’s feature races from most major venues around the country will make most weekend warriors anticipate next weekend’s holiday programs even more. A trio of Grade 3s, two from coast to coast; Aqueduct’s Discovery Handicap at a mile and an eighth and the Vernon O Underwood for sprinters 3 & up going three-quarters at Hollywood Park.

In the Midwest, Churchill Downs will offer the Falls City at nine furlongs on grass, a race supported by the ungraded Bet On Sunshine Handicap featuring the 6-for-6 Euroears, the scourge of the Fair Grounds last season.

Further to the south and east, Calder Race Course is presenting the Radar Love, another ungraded sprint but at the hybrid distance of 6-½ furlongs. Completing the CDI triad, Fair Grounds features two-year-olds sprinting 5-½ furlongs in the Old Hickory for boys and the Pontalba for the fillies.

As stated in today’s feature race analysis, the Discovery can be an interesting betting race depending on how you view the chances of Lieutenant Ron, the 6-5 early line choice.

The question is how Lieutenant Ron handles the nine furlong distance. He meets a handful of proven distance performers today, so either you take the short price on a horse with superior performance figures or you throw deep.

Lieutenant Ron is coming off a new top pace figure and has run much, much faster than the competition on more than one occasion. His pedigree is on the short side with both sire and grandsire throwing offspring who most effective distances have been less than seven furlongs.

The good news is that his trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin, is profitable with runners returning on this type of rest, going long for the first time and with graded runners. Alan Garcia, who won four races on Friday’s program, won’t hurt his chances.

The Falls City at Churchill features 6/5 early line favorite Thorn Song. When last seen in Kentucky, Thorn Song was winning the G1 Shadwell Turf Mile in fast time. When last seen anywhere else he set a pressured pace before tiring badly in the Breeders’ Cup Mile.

Today Thorn’s Song returns to his favorite venue, having won four of five starts on this ground. He’s been consistently fastest, gets along very well with Robbie Albarado. He owns a win and a second at nine furlongs but clearly prefers going shorter. Possible price shots include Mr. Sidney (15-1), Canela (8-1) and Yate’s Black Cat (5-1).

Mr. Sidney is a lightly raced four-year-old making his turf stakes debut for Bill Mott and Johnny Velazquez. Never having taken a backward step on Equiform performance figures, he’s 2-for-2 on grass and demonstrated on Keeneland’s Polytrack last out that he can handle faster fractions and still finish well after making a premature move to the lead.

Canela hails from the hottest human connections in Kentucky. Trainer Michael Maker has been a record setting performer at this meet and not many riders in the country are riding with more confidence than Julien Leparoux, a turf ace. Yate’s Black Cat, meanwhile, earns good figures with consistency, draws the fence, and is the longer uncoupled mate of the favorite.

The G3 Underwood is interesting for the return of Bob Black Jack (2-1), last seen in Big Brown’s Kentucky Derby, earning his way in with a runnerup finish to Colonel John in the Santa Anita Derby.

This looks like the proper return spot for Bob Black Jack with two wins and a second from three starts at six furlongs, and he’ll try to become the sixth horse from the Derby to win his next start. His recent five furlong work in :58-flat was fastest of 84 works by a three-year-old on Cushion Track last week.

The logical alternatives are unlikely to make you rich. Johnny Eves (3-1) with Garrett Gomez is the most accomplished sprinter in the field and can be depended on to run well consistently. Noble Court (5-2) is a promising sprint performer who keeps improving for John Sadler and easily could continue developing.

Of the price shots, only Wiredfortwotwenty (8-1) seems viable, the Brian Koriner barn winning with three of its last nine starters through Thursday with only one off-the-board finisher of that group. He will try to become the third subsequent winner from the seventh race on Oct. 9.

[CORRECTION: In the Nov. 20 blog, "Marketers Should Put Cart Before the Horse," Zarkava's significant 2008 victories were incorrectly reported. HRI regrets the error.]

Written by John Pricci

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