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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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Horses to Watch

Saratoga Springs, NY, Dec. 10,2008--A shout-out to Steve Haskin of for the heads up. It’s about today’s sixth race at the Fair Grounds, a two-turn mile featuring very soon-to-be 3-year-olds.

Haskin called it “one of the strongest and deepest 2-year-old allowance fields ever assembled at Fair Grounds…several of whom have already excited fans with their dazzling performances.”

Well, OK then.

So for those of you who never contract Derby Fever, think of this as a bonus free race analysis. But for those looking for possible Derby Futures plays, or enjoy seeing good young horses run, or just want to learn more about how the game is played, read on.

The main players in the nine-horse field are 5-2 early line favorite Indygo Mountain; Friesan Fire, second favorite at 3-1, and the 8-1 price shot, Escalon, shipping in from So Cal for trainer Doug O’Neill.

Of lesser interest but certainly worthy of mention are Uno Mas (6-1), Map Of the World (9-2) and Doc‘s Friend (6-1). Deep, indeed.

Bret Calhoun trains Indygo Mountain, a son of A. P. Indy who broke his maiden with complete authority by 6-¼ lengths going a one-turn mile at Churchill Downs on Nov. 19. He’s a worthy favorite, one that bears watching given his connections and pedigree. Owner Clarence Scharbauer of Alysheba fame doled out $600,000 for the September 2007 yearling.

Developmentally, Indigo Mountain’s done nothing wrong in a two-race career. He impressed with his maturity at first asking, earning an excellent Equiform performance figure, distributing his energy in a fairly efficient manner. A good sign.

Then, in start two, he not only moved forward winning over the Derby track but showed an improved combination of speed and power. Today we’ll see how he settles in his two-turn debut. His trainer has won with six of his last 16 starters in the past two weeks.

But figure that stakes-placed Friesan Fire will be the post time favorite. Trained by Larry Jones--who was so high on the colt before he started that he failed to personally accept an award from the New York Turf Writers this summer opting instead to drive from Saratoga to Delaware Park to saddle his A.P. Indy colt to a maiden debut win.

Following that was a creditable third in the Grade 3 Belmont Futurity and a fourth-place finish in the G2 Nashua. Adding blinkers for today’s race, he’s had three strong works over the Fair Grounds course including a bullet half-mile in :47-flat, breezing. It was faster than 219 other two-year-olds to work four furlongs in New Orleans this week.

On performance figures Friesan Fire never has taken a backward step, showing the kind of incremental development desired in a youngster. And his figures improved as the distances have lengthened, which makes sense given his pedigree. He’s not quite as fast as Indygo Mountain but is coming up to this race the right way.

California shipper Escalon finished third in the Cal Cup Juvenile and was beaten less than five lengths in the G1 Del Mar Futurity, won by subsequent Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Midshipman.

What Escalon lacks in performance figures he makes up for in experience and a two-sided distance pedigree. There are two significant firsts at work: first-time Patrick Valenzuela and, significantly, first-time dirt. First-time P Val is a positive; first-time dirt an unknown.

Before betting your money know that Jones has a fast, uncoupled stablemate of Friesan Fire in Doc’s Friend, the second fastest horse on the Equiform performance scale. And Steve Asmussen has a well bred colt, Uno Mas, a son of Macho Uno who owns a big performance-figure win over the track. No small edge that.

Finally there’s Map Of The World, a half-million dollar yearling purchased by B Wayne Hughes and trained by Al Stall. He moved forward in his second start while stretching out to seven furlongs, distributing his energy more efficiently second time out. He’s had three Fair Grounds works and will be ridden a third consecutive time by Robby Albarado.

Betting this race doesn’t figure to make you rich. But you don’t have to wager to enjoy it and learn from it. If you must, key Friesan Fire first and second in trifecta and superfecta pools, betting Friesan Fire to win at 2-1 or greater.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

“Place It on Lucky Dan”

Saratoga Springs, NY, Dec. 5, 2008--Inquiring handicapping minds want to know: A loyal reader and regular bettor recently asked if there were a proper proportion of place-to-win wagering.

“What would be the proper ratio? Some old-timers say it’s 2-to-1, 3-to-1, or even 4-to-1. Just wanted your opinion on which of those [made the most sense].”

I was looking for a fourth alternative: None of the above.

“How you play ultimately depends on your level of tolerance,” said Cary Fotias, professional horseplayer and founder of Equiform, the successful New York-based performance figures company.

“Every study I’ve ever done [indicates] that betting to win is the [best strategy],” Fotias continued. “If you can take the losing, that’s the way to go.”

Fotias also suggested that players keep a record of their bets which, as most professionals know, is a highly under-appreciated portion of a horseplayer’s betting methodology.

“[As far as your reader is concerned], he should recognize what kind of win bets he makes. If he regularly plays shorter-priced horses, then betting to place would make more sense.

“You never get paid [correctly] betting longshots to place. The worst bet in racing is betting longshots to show. It might feel right but it’s not. It’s a long term loser.

“Psychologically, you want to get something back. My [personal approach] is more like 70-30. But each situation is different. If I like a 4-1 shot and hate the 3-5 favorite, I might go 50-50.

“The only [situation] in which you might consider betting more to place than to win would be on short-priced horses, favorites. The longer the price, the more you should bet to win. When you’re right, you have to score.”

Interesting to note here that the concept of value--that of taking a contrarian approach--applies as much to wagering as it does to the handicapping process itself.

Personally, it’s rare when I make a win-place wager. When I do, as Cary suggested, it’s when I feel I can keep an odds-on favorite from finishing in the top two slots.

In an open race featuring a 2-1 or 5-2 favorite in which I make a win-place wager, I will try to optimize profits with a cold exacta in addition to the straight play.

I would never use more than two horses to complete an exacta, except in rare instances involving extreme longshots and beatable favorites. The cleaner the punch, the better the value.

Real world people are more risk averse than wired for winning and psychology plays a huge role in all this. The one thing that press box wagering--where cheering is not tolerated--has taught is to never get too high or too low. This is more easily said than done.

Winning bolsters confidence, obviously, but it’s wise not to develop a messiah complex. Certainly take advantage of situations when you think you’re in a zone, that whatever you play will win. But a score can sometimes make you sloppy, too loose with your betting dollars, forgetting how difficult it was to make big money in the first place.

The converse also is true. Losing takes you out of your best game, making you overly cautious. Each wager is an independent event. What happened in the races before an after does not affect the race at hand. But human nature dictates that it can.

How many times has it happened, after a particularly tough beat or real stupid decision, does the thought occur that this is not going to be your day, that you should fold the tent and go home.

And how many times do you follow that inclination? Conversely, how many times do you ignore those subconscious clues and wind up throwing good money after bad? If you’re honest, probably more times than you’d care to admit.

For me, multiple pools offer more than an opportunity to optimize profits. I use the exotics as many times defensively as I do offensively. But I’m aware how easy it is to “save” myself to death.

Repeat the mantra: The cleaner the punch, the better the value.

As Fotias said, each situation is different. There are times when a three, or four, or five-horse exacta box makes sense, such as in a 12-horse field of maiden claiming two-year-olds when you think it’s 50-50 that the 3-5 public’s choice will finish up the track.

While it sounds counter-intuitive, I often play top choices to finish second in the exacta and trifecta pools. I try to put myself in a position to get lucky should I suffer bad racing luck. There’s no better feeling than when your best bet finishes second and you make more money than if your horse had won.

“If I think a horse has a better-than-odds chance to win at, say, 4-1 but I think the even-money favorite’s going to be real tough, I’ll bet the 4-1 shot to win and box the exacta [rather than making a place bet],” added Fotias.

If only every betting situation were that simple.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, December 05, 2008

Dueling Moments of the Year

Saratoga Springs, NY, Dec. 4, 2008--The folks over at the National Thoroughbred Racing Association reminded us yesterday that voting was underway for the tenth annual "NTRA Moment of the Year."

Has it been a decade already?

Fans who vote for the winning “moment” will be entered in a drawing for a flat-screen TV and the momentous event will be recognized at the Eclipse Awards ceremony next month in Miami. Here are the nominated events, listed chronologically, my comments in italics below:

Pyro charges past all 10 of his foes in the stretch to take the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds

Not a single observer I respect failed to be impressed with that living trip note; hopelessly last on the fence, followed by a threading search for racing room, then that big, BIG finish. But he won’t get my vote. I’m punishing him because he could never replicate anything like it in a big spot beyond 8.5 furlongs. Those types will break your heart more often than not.

Reigning Horse of the Year Curlin dominates the Dubai World Cup

A huge wow moment. The big chestnut was keen, but controlled, throughout and you could something special was going to happen. It did. Robby Albarado was so excited at the top of the stretch, he said afterwards, that the finish line was a blur, located somewhere up the stretch, floodlights guiding the way home. Must be amazing to feel that kind of power, knowing there’s 10 percent of $3.6 million awaiting at the end of the Nad Al Sheba straight.

Big Brown powers home from post 20 to take the Kentucky Derby

What, no stinking Florida Derby now? I know I’ll never forget last May‘s first Saturday. I was sitting atop a barstool at Capital OTB’s Albany Teletheater, my cash and handicapping cred on the line. Phew! Got past that pesky first turn smelling like a rose. He’s outside going down the back, comfortable but losing ground. OK, Desormeaux must be super confident, or not smart enough to know better. Desormeaux makes his move which at that point was allowing Big Brown to do his thing. They take command of the race at headstretch. “Be the big horse,” I yelled. “Be the big horse…” Much celebrating ensues, followed by the grousing. “Should have had the damn super!” But don’t be a sore winner; be thankful.

Exhilaration turns to heartbreak as Eight Belles suffers a fatal injury following the Kentucky Derby

In the car, heading back to Saratoga. “Let’s go celebrate with some fish fry and a beer,” I said to Toni. Thirty-five minutes later and look at that! “It’s our day, honey, a spot right in front of the door.” The cell phone rang and it was my oldest, Jennifer. “Congratulations, dad, but I’m sorry about what happened to that horse.” “What horse, Jen?” Finished only half the fish fry; had an extra beer. Sometimes this game really sucks.

Big Brown spurts away from his opponents in the Preakness Stakes

What was it the great Jack Buck once announced: “I can’t believe what I just saw!” So how was this possible; how could it be? More impressive than the Derby? What the hell kind of horse IS this? Big Brown finished so fast Desormeaux couldn’t keep him straight. Those strides; they must be a hundred feet long. And that aerial shot; big-time instant acceleration. So cool.

Triple Crown hopeful Big Brown is eased as Da' Tara wins the Belmont Stakes

Sometimes this game really sucks.

Red Rocks spoils Curlin's grass debut in Belmont's Man o' War Stakes

Curlin didn’t hate the turf but certainly didn’t like it, either. Albarado tried to motivate him halfway down the backstretch. The overall effort wasn’t as bad as it looked. I can still see his action down the straight, but it was far from memorable.

Curlin wins the Jockey Club Gold Cup to become North America's first $10 million earner

Man, he had to work hard for that win. But, hey, it was better than his Whitney, and he appeared somewhat within himself as he crossed the finish line. Memorable? Hardly.

Peppers Pride stays perfect and sets a modern North American record with her 17th straight victory

Read all about it. Never saw it. Shame on me, I know. I never made a concerted effort to see it, either. Yes, it’s truly remarkable when you win 17 straight of anything. So then how come my blood’s not boiling, not even now, and I have medication for that, I think.

Zenyatta caps her undefeated season with a resounding, last-to-first win in the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic

Now that was something! It was the Lady’s Secret Redux, only against really good fillies this time. I know she comes from behind, but from that far back? What’s Mike Smith, crazy? No, I am. Oh ye of little faith. Maybe next year she’ll try the Classic. She’s a one-run tomboy. Physically, she’ll handle it. Hoping Jerry Moss takes a page from Jess Jackson’s book. He must still have some of that Herb Alpert money, right?

Goldikova unleashes a powerful stretch burst to defeat defending champ Kip Deville in the Breeders' Cup Mile

She wasn’t Miesque but she was pretty damn close. And the ground and layout aren’t the conditions she prefer, so that kind of acceleration was even more amazing. Meanwhile, what kind of beast is Zarkava? Goldikova couldn’t even warm her up!

Raven's Pass culminates a big day for the Europeans, defeating Henrythenavigator and Curlin in the Breeders' Cup Classic

I’m sure I’m a little daft, as Vic Zast, seated to my right in Santa Anita’s auxiliary press box, can testify. At the odds, I bet both European overlays to win the race, Raven’s Pass and Henrythenavigator, and boxed both in exactas with the logical suspects, including Curlin. When the reigning Horse of the Year began that big wide rally, I yelled for him to keep going. I know; crazy, right? Rooting against my money even if a 1-2 Euro finish would make me king for a day. But my memory of the race is Curlin at the three-sixteenths pole. He kept trying, but those wheels were spinning around, not catapulting forward. He was done. “Go Euros, Go!”

I’ve got this a two moment race: Zenyatta or Big Brown’s Preakness. You decide. A complete set of rules is available at

Written by John Pricci

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