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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Sunday, October 18, 2015

Can’t Win for Tryin’

HALLANDALE BEACH, October 18, 2015—My guess is that first impressions last forever. Otherwise, I would have a hard time understanding why the Stronach Group never seems to get its due even while trying to do the right thing in recent years.

Now I fully understand the ire of Santa Anita fans and bettors in California, where racing is conducted as if on an island where the California Horse Racing Board acts in a manner that is out of touch with its fan base.

They always seem to champion the plight of the upper-dog, while horsemen's groups with too much clout make decisions resulting in policies that most often appear to be anti-player.

Indeed, thanks in large part to Thoroughbred Owners of California leadership, it's permissible to think inflated exacta takeout rates here, the dissatisfaction with seemingly began to register with bettors this summer where the turf meets the surf at old Del Mar.

While one swallow doesn’t make a flock, the only comment that surfaced beneath today's announcement that Saturday's 30th edition of the Jim McKay Maryland Million resulted in year over year increases in handle and attendance of 37 percent and 17 percent, respectively, was a cheeky: “it only took them 20 years to figure it out.”

Based on yearly business comparisons for the highly successful second Gulfstream Park summer, however, this early morning comment is only the most recent example of how the Stronach organization doesn't get it, even though Gulfstream Park and now Laurel Park is trending in the opposite direction of most of the rest of the industry.

SoCal critics like to include what’s happening in NoCal which, of course, is another issue symptomatic of the state of racing affairs in California, where the byword among practitioners always seems to each the same philosophical conclusion: Me-Give-My-Mine.

The Stronach Group, like anyone in this game, including the media, traditional and in the blogosphere, is far from perfect. But it’s useful to recall the current owners of Laurel haven’t been in charge for two full decades. In fact, TSG acquired 58 percent of the Maryland Jockey Club facility in 2002 and an additional 20 percent in 2007.

The late, great sportscaster’s brainchild saw 11 races run yesterday with a million dollars in purses spread over 11 races. Seven of the races had six-figure purses, the highest being $150,000 for the centerpiece Maryland Million Classic.

One-hundred and one horses were entered overnight, a figure that would have been larger except for a quarantine at Parx Racing which, according to a press release, could have affected the number of entrants by as much as 20 Maryland-bred sired runners.

Laurel attracted a guesstimated crowd 19,119 who bet $545,129 on track (dubious per cap figure to be sure) but there was $3.78 million from all sources while competing in a simulcast market that included Keeneland, Belmont Park and Santa Anita. [See for complete Maryland Million racing coverage].

Meanwhile, HRI insiders were impressed with the $21 million in renovations, readily apparent as you enter the first-floor clubhouse. A new restaurant, new interior designs accentuating sightlines to the racetrack, HD TVs, et al, all made favorable impressions.

The grandstand, however, is still very much a work in progress. Plans are in the works but the work will not come cheaply. But it's a step in the right direction for an organization that never got the casino dole it was hoping for. So, what the hell are they doing that's so wrong?


The news that Flintshire will forsake a chance to make amends for his disappointing loss in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Turf to run in the November 29 Japan Cup was personally disappointing. I’ve been looking forward to his U.S. return since his Sword Dancer course record blitz at Saratoga.

The official reason cited in a Blood-Horse story was in regard to the West Nile Virus vaccine, making it impossible to run in both races because Japanese quarantine rules require a two-week post-vaccination European stay for any horse that previously competed in the U.S. within 60 days of shipping to the Orient.

Further, imported Japan Cup runners must on the grounds by November 19, according to Japan Racing Association rule.

We can’t help think that the spacing to late November is better for a horse that made a strenuous effort when second to the remarkable Golden Horn in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp just one week ago Sunday.

We’re sure a herd of American horsemen with runners pointed to the Turf are breathing a bit easier given this development, but still will likely have the Arc, multi-Group 1 winner to deal with.

With Golden Horn scheduled to enter stud in 2016, and with owner Anthony Oppenheim anxious to run in the Turf, [Golden Horn’s PPs in pre-pre entries are now available], American runners, despite the poor record of Arc winners in the Turf, will have their hooves full with this guy.

Also factoring into the decision by Flintshire’s people to favor a trip to the Far East just might be the Breeders’ Cup intentions of the world’s leading grass runner.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, October 04, 2015

There’s Gold in Them There Florida-Breds

HALLANDALE DEACH, FL., October 4, 2015—It began in earnest when a couple of oil wildcatters from the Midwest came to Ocala in the northern part of the state wanting to get involved with thoroughbreds in search of fame and fortune.

Not many fledgling horse people get into the racing business so successfully, so quickly. But, after being convinced by trainer Hugh Fontaine to take a chance on a sickly colt-- infirm enough to be named Needles--Bonnie Heath and Jack Dudley were on their way.

The colt grew out of his problems by the time he was 3 and by that summer of 1956 was healthy and talented enough to become the state’s first dual classics winner, taking that year’s Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.

The fledgling program took off from there and 20 years later Louis Wolfson’s Harbor View Fam dropped a handsome chestnut foal they named Affirmed. In a span of two decades, Florida’s breeding program was producing runners that were competing on the national stage.

In between, William L. McKnight, who made the transition from mail room to board room at the 3M company, experienced great success with his own breeding operation at a nursery he named Tartan Farm.

During his tenure there two great champions were bred; the inimitable Dr. Fager and a filly sprint champion, a legendary weight carrier named Ta Wee. The scotch-tape king's Tartan operation also produced the highly influential sire, Intentionally.

South Florida racing grew right along with its program. Calder Race Course was born in 1971, constructed by developer Stephen A Calder, with the first synthetic track of its kind, the Tartan Track, developed by McKnight’s 3M Company.

Back in the day, the best of the Tartan string was sent up to New York with legendary Hall of Famer trainer John Nerud. The Florida division was placed in the care of the talented horseman Frank Gomez.

Such was the quality of the stock and Gomez’s handling of the Florida division that the tandem became the leading owner and trainer of the Florida-bred stakes program.

That is until Fred Brei, also from the Midwest, later established his Jacks or Better Farm .

What started as a local nursery, just as Tartan did, eventually became a national player. In 2010, their homebred Awesome of Course won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and was eventually sold as a broodmare prospect for $2.3 million to multiple Eclipse Award-winning breeder Adena Springs.

In addition to her, Jacks or Better bred, among many others, Jackson Bend, third in the 2010 Preakness before winning the Grade 1 Forego at 4 and the G1 Carter at 5. Both horses were developed early by the outfit’s South Florida-based trainer, Stanley Gold.

The victory by the long striding Fellowship in Saturday’s In Reality division of the Florida Stallion series showed the colt's devastating turn of foot. Beneath Jose Caraballo, he ran 1-1/16 miles nearly a full second faster than Flora Dora, winner of the My Dear Girl filly division earlier in the day.

The victory by Fellowship--as yet with no plans to run in the Breeders’ Cup--reaffirmed Gold's status as the leading trainer on the Florida stallion circuit. The win his 18th with a Florida-bred juveniles; 20 including two victories by 3-year-olds.

Stanley Gold, Florida Stallion series all-time
leading trainer, is up to 20 wins and counting.

“I was hopeful for [entrants Abercorn and Brighton Lane] but this one jumped up and did it,” said Gold of his three In Reality runners. “You never know with the babies. He had a really outstanding work last week that surprised me. I thought if he ran back to that work there’s no telling…”

The colt ran back to that work and then some: “He ran huge,” said Caraballo. “I let him relax. When I was ready I took him to the outside and he just exploded.”

Said Brei: “He'll stay here and come back and run in the winter races for 3-year-olds. We race in Florida unless there's a compelling reason to race elsewhere."

After talking it over in a few days, the outfit may decide that just might be the case.

SUPER SATURDAY BETS 'N PIECES: Before looking at Keeneland, a final thought on Gulfstream’s Sire Stakes program. Marialice Coffey’s Florida Dora made the ship-in south from Saratoga Springs worthwhile, overcoming close quarters on the turn to win with a professional late rally. But given as much ground as runner-up Enterprising Lady lost throughout, the argument she may have been best is not without merit…

Marialice Coffee: From Saratoga Springs
to Hallandale Beach Winners' Circle

In Lexington, meanwhile, Judy the Beauty, third in the Grade 2 TCA Stakes, is a tough Breeders' Cup read. Her effort should advance her to the F & M Sprint and she will benefit from the 7th furlong. Still, as fresh as she was, one would have expected a little more pop…

It is unlikely that the Europeans won't show up without a heavy-head or two for the BC Mile, but even if they do, Mark Casse and Co. should roll the dice and enter Tepin in the turf event. She loves Keeneland and was the most impressive winner on the day, taking the G1 First Lady with devastating ease…

If trainer Dale Romans keeps this up he just might find himself one day across the street from Saratoga Race Course in that other famous edifice on Union Avenue. His development of Brody’s Cause has been masterful. A maiden once removed, he made a very strong late rally to win the Breeders’ Futurity going away.

Saratoga Special winner Exaggerator finished very well for place in his two turn debut, and it was a very good change-of-pace third by Rated R Superstar, committed to the early pace after breaking sharply from the rail. He did the dirty work and held very well following the race-long pace battle. He’ll be better with a target…

Beginning in Saratoga, Luis Saez has been enjoying the best three months of his professional life. Another good decision to save ground throughout the G1 Shadwell Turf Mile with specialist Grand Arch, waiting for the seam to open at headstretch, which it did, before tipping out, separating himself, and holding the late runners safe.

Another mile turf specialist, Tourist, appeared the main danger through the stretch and continued on well for third but was unable to stave off flying The Pizza Man, who came from last with giant strides to nearly catch the perfect trip winner. Great prep for either the BC Mile or Turf, the latter probably making the most sense…

At Beautiful Blustery Belmont, speedy Californian invader Appealing Tune proved clearly best in the G2 Kelso over a speed-friendly, sealed wet track. However, it’s hard to quantity the effort by the disappointing Honor Code.

Yes, the dynamics were compromising, but why take him out of his best game? He was tip-toed away from the barrier by Javier Castellano--and this is the horse that made his bones coming from 22 lengths out of it! The tactics made no sense unless this prep was intended to sharpen his speed for the bigger, longer dance to come. In that context, it probably makes sense to throw the race out…

Stephanie’s Kitten will have something to say about the F & M Turf, providing the ground has some cut in it. She's just a different mare in that type of going…

Nickname made a good late rally down the middle to take the G1 Frizette but had lots of help when Junior Alvarado set a very fast pace in the one-turn mile with state-bred She’s All Ready, understandably tired in deep stretch.

Her first-year sire Girolamo has been precocious but may be transmitting distance limitations, too. That will be worth noting as the distances of that sire increase. Consider the NY-bred a viable stable mail candidate…

G1 Champagne winner Greenpointcrusader is the real deal. He didn’t break well, gathered himself, put himself within striking range, angled out beyond the 6-path at headstretch then put in a sustained stretch run to win going away, geared down in the final 70 yards by Joe Bravo. Kudos to trainer Dominic Schettino on his maiden Grade 1 victory. He's calling all the right shots thus far…

Finally, Tonalist could not have been more impressive in his repeat Jockey Club Gold Cup victory. Sharper than he’s been all year, trainer Christophe Clement, a little defensive post-race, had to be pleased that Johnny Velazquez. left something in reserve for month’s end.

Conversely, Tonalist outclassed the competition on his absolute favorite surface, and the wet footing makes the effort a bit of a tough BC read, especially since he’s never run at Keeneland. The important aspect is that Tonalist appears to be all the way back.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

In Contemporary Racing, There’s No School Like Old School

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., September 29, 2015—When it comes to words and deeds, the two can often can worlds apart. Actions do speak loudest, of course, but the best actions are just good words put in motion.

Trainer-speak never lands gently, however: “The horse couldn’t be doing better.” “The work was just what we wanted.” “We’ll let the horse tell us,” etc.

All are well-meaning homilies. But the latter is more. Letting horses speak is the method that allows latter-day horsemanship to works best. Simply stated: Take care of the horse and the horse will take care of you.

On today’s NTRA conference call advancing Super Saturday prep weekend at both Keeneland and Belmont Park, the conversation and mindset of the participants was comforting, reassuring and instructive, decidedly “old school.”

Anyone familiar with the Jerkens family always knows what to expect; loquaciousness and guile? Never. Humility and honesty? Always. It was that way with the late, great Allen Jerkens; it's the same way with his son, Jimmy.

Compared to Tonalist, expected to rule as favorite in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Jerkens trainees Wicked Strong and Effinex do not enjoy the same high profile.

Effinex never seems to garner the respect he’s earned while Wicked Strong, a solid Triple Crown and Travers competitor last year, has not achieved what was expected from a top class three-year-old of 2014.

As for Effinex, Jerkens made the point that he disagrees with the notion that Tonalist had a bit the worst of it in this year’s Suburban Handicap and that Effinex somehow was the beneficiary.

The Suburban video shows that Jerkens was correct when he said “Effinex had as big a disadvantage as Tonalist. He had to recover after getting stopped, get back into the bit and still he out-gamed Tonalist. A lot of horses won’t do that [after getting stopped].”

As for Wicked Strong’s four-year-old year, Jerkens is as confounded as many handicappers. Was it the colt's tough three-year-old campaign? Was it the lack of continued development from 3 to 4?

“He did have a tough [three-year-old season]. But we stopped on him after the Jockey Club Gold Cup, never even thought about the [2014] Breeders’ Cup. He just didn’t come back, he hasn’t come to the fore.”

But Wicked Strong might have finally turned the corner. “He was breaking slow from the gate, but I saw renewed interest from him in the Woodward. The race was better than it looks on paper.

“He will have to run better on Saturday. He’s picked up a little since Saratoga,” before volunteering this without being asked.

“Horses fool you. They come out of the races great, you run them back in 10 days or two weeks, and they run no good. You feel like an idiot.

“Lasix could have something to do with it. As much as it helps them, they seem to need more time [to recover] if they are not as hydrated as they were last time. These days horses seem to be tricking more people. Maybe Lasix has more to do with it than people think.”

Jerkens then was asked about the competition; Saturday’s and going forward. About Shug McGaughey’s decision to run Honor Code, regarded as the top active older dirt horse in America, in the Kelso instead of the Gold Cup:

“I see Shug’s point to run in the mile [race]. It helps the horse to stay fresher, I think it’s a good move on Shug’s part. [Racing is] a crapshoot at the end of the year. [The Breeders’ Cup] is very tough. You’ve got to be lucky to get a piece of it.”

American Pharoah? “In these days, what he’s done is just incredible.” And the traveling he’s done, his grueling campaign? “He’s too good a horse for him not to run his race [in the Classic].”

Saturday’s races? “Some people ought to be worried about Effinex. He’s not just a New York-bred; he’s an open horse.”

Midwest Thoroughbreds Shifting Focus

Despite ranking first by wins in the U.S. for the last six years, Midwest Thoroughbreds' Richard Papiese is still a relative newcomer, achieving lofty status the old-fashioned way; breeding his own runners even while acquiring most of his winners via sales and claims.

The accent has always been on winners, but with the emergence of 2014 Sprint Champion Work All Week and The Pizza Man as a major turf force this year, the focus is tilting to quality over quantity.

It’s been all good,” said Papiese on the NTRA call. “To win the Breeders’ Cup last year and the Arlington Million, we’re just tickled. I’m sorry but that’s the only way to describe it.”

Is the reason why the organization has changed focus because the man has been runner-up in the Eclipse top owner category? “[Awards] are great for the horses, they deserve it. [I’m not] goal oriented. It’s not about winning awards, just winning races.

“I’m not an action junkie. [The move away from quantity] is about finding other jobs for all these horses after racing. It’s overwhelming, it’s like having a full time job. There are only so many hours in a day.”

Along with trainer Roger Brueggemann, much of his time is spent listening: “Horses are always telling us. Horses will tell you what they are and what they will be,” he said.

As for the barn’s two big horses, Arlington Million winner The Pizza Man and champion sprinter Work All Week, they spoke loudly about what they were and turned out to be, only in different languages.

“You had to be patient with The Pizza Man,” said Papiese. “The light bulb was always on but he was a big horse, a lean horse. He just needed time to grow into himself. We gave them both a lot of time [at the end of 2014].

“[The Pizza Man] benefitted more from the layoff. He was just chillin’ and he really came back great, filled out...”

And Work All Week? “All he wants to do is run. He’s like Shaq working with eighth graders.”

The 2015 Arlington Million winner is turning back in distance and will run in the Shadwell Turf Mile as a prep for the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Could he run back in the Mile, a distance at which he already owns a course record?

“I wouldn’t totally rule it, out but a mile and a half is a little better fit. It will be a stellar group when they draw it (Wednesday). He’ll have some targets to run at and he should get something out if it. If the stars align, [either spot] would be just great.”

As for the champion in the Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix, it will be more than a prep for the normally over-subscribed Sprint. “We may need this race to qualify.”

Everyone will be watching, and listening, for that answer Saturday at Keeneland.

Written by John Pricci

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