John Pricci

HorseRaceInsider.com 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 MSNBC.com, 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, September 16, 2018


My New Kentucky Home: Up and Downs


Pick an adjective: Phenomenal, Remarkable, Extraordinary, Prodigious, Astounding?

Well, if the topic is horse racing, more specifically Kentucky Downs, why parse words? Just box’em up.

And whether the measure is aesthetics, quality racing (even at the lowest levels), field size, entertainment value or horseplayer friendliness, making another box would be the proper tack.

Business was incredible at the five-day meet that ended Thursday. Since 2013 handle has tripled, from $12.8 million to $36.4 million this year; quintupled from $7.5 million since the 2012 inaugural meet.

And it’s easy to understand why. By traditional standards, this old Dueling Downs meet is unique. All turf all the time, and a European non-symmetrical layout with undulations.

But when a meeting distributes $10.2 million in purses over 50 races, money not only makes the mare run but colts and geldings as well. And lots of them; 552 runners with an average field size of 11.04 entrants.

Given all the above, coupled with the fact that the Horseplayers Association of North America ranks Kentucky Downs first among 63 North American racetracks. It’s blended takeout rates are the lowest on the continent, it’s burgeoning popularity inevitable.

The races were won by the usual turf suspects; the Mike Makers, the Mark Casses and Wesley Wards of the world, many ridden by the strongest and headiest riders in the game; Jose Ortiz, Johnny Velazquez, Julien Leparoux, to name a few.

Maker won his fourth consecutive trainer’s title by five victories over runnerup Mark Casse. Ken Ramsey won his seventh straight owner’s title; Jose Ortiz his first. His timing, needlessly said, was extraordinary.

The meet leaves you wanting for more and that's what makes the meet so special. The fact that any player can feel this way in the midst of an oversaturated fall season is as unique as the meet itself.

The races, in terms of dynamics, ship-ins, field size, all-important trips and demanding undulating ground are the toughest parameters a handicapper would encounter anywhere this side of the Atlantic.

Between field size, competitiveness and the low rake, payoffs are fair even on logical favorites. Dynamics make it so; speed doesn’t win often; deep closers hardly ever. Players need to land on the right E/P stylist, one with bottom.

Whether or not Kentucky Downs gets another day or two—but no more, please—is about Kentucky racing politics. If it didn’t; no harm, no foul. But sure would love to see a little more. Damn, that was fun.

KENTUCKY DERBY TRIVIA(L)?

OK, name the first horse to qualify for Kentucky Derby 145. Give up? Don’t care? Well, for those who do, it’s a son of Cairo Prince [remember him?] named Cairo Cat, winner of Saturday’s Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs.

A perfect trip/perfectly ridden winner, the colt switched off the fence in midstretch and nailed pacesetting favorite Tight Ten, who did all the dirty work on the lead. Switch trips and…

The reason I bring this up is because a press release from Churchill arrived in my inbox the other day announcing the Derby prep schedule for 2019. Guess it’s never too early--even if the Road to the Breeders’ Cup has only just begun.

The Top 20 qualifying list for entrance into America’s Race began in 2013 and there’s no denying the results of a chaotic event have proven formful. The best 20 three-year-olds who run for the roses invariably have made the grade since inception.

The present schedule is virtually unchanged from this past year with 35 prime events on the Derby docket.

Saturday’s race was the first of 19 in what is known as the “Prep Season” which feature shorter races from 8 to 8.5 furlongs. Like the Iroquois, the sliding point scale is 10-4-2-1. The exception is BC Juvenile, worth twice that.

We still prefer the idea that the two-year-old which wins the juvenile championship should be automatically seeded. Maybe one day...

With Breeders’ Cup at Churchill this year and with all juveniles getting Friday unto themselves, this would have been a good year for CDI to be magnanimous to BC Ltd. Then this is horse racing, so, never mind.

The “Championship Series,” 16 races worth 50 points to the winner--the shorter win-and-in affairs--begin at roughly the same time as last year with traditional graded races such as the Louisiana, UAE, Florida, Santa Anita and Arkansas Derbies, along with the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial. They merit 100 points.

European and Japanese Roads to Derby are qualifiers that bring international interest and dollars to bear. The last stop on the European path this year will be the Cardinal Conditions Stakes, a new one-mile Polytrack prep April 11, in lieu of Newcastle’s Burradon.

The Japan Road, having its third anniversary--this is Europe’s second—now has a fourth leg, the 9F Fukuyru on March 31 and the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun, the dirt equivalent of the BC Juvenile, is now a 20-point event.

This is the seventh year in which a point system has been used to qualify for the big dance. At least 20 horses have been entered in the Derby in 18 of its last 20 renewals.

The Kentucky Oaks schedule is the same as in 2017-18, starting yesterday with the 8.5F Grade 2 Pocahontas, won by Serengeti Princess, who romped home by an incredible 19-1/2 lengths. Who cares what was behind her.

Parenthetically, there’s been only one other filly who won by a larger margin at Churchill Downs. It came in the 2009 Kentucky Oaks, the day the winner cruised in by 20-1/4 lengths. Her name was Rachel Alexandra.

Speaking of Oaks and Derby, those will be the only days I will be wagering on Churchill Downs’ product next spring. It also was announced late last week that CDI will raise takeout to the maximum allowed by Kentucky law.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, September 11, 2018


Horse Racing and Sports, a Shotgun Marriage


For me, the following link, was better late than never. Enjoy and be proud:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JbeKz6KMnf4


Most horseplayers, myself included, clamored for legalized sports betting,
thinking it would be a gateway for sports bettors to become horseplayers. With respect to that conception, it’s WAY too early to tell.

However, now that it’s here, its reception and promise for the future is being questioned in every precinct, from state houses to sports fans to sports bettors and, ultimately, horseplayers and the racing industry itself

A recent online poll indicates that the sentiment for sports betting being beneficial to racing hovered at around 60-40 in favor of historical racing over betting on sports. As of yesterday, that opinion has flopped the other way.

More states are looking into the feasibility of installing legalized sports betting, the Commonwealth of Kentucky for one. The bluegrass state is doing so carefully in the best interests of the racing and breeding, as it should.

Representative Damon Thayer, who I met back in the day when he was a racing industry intern, measured his words carefully at the recently concluded Sports Betting Symposium at Keeneland. He remains as loyal to racing as ever, perhaps to a fault.

Some of his ideas to insure that outcome appear politically savvy but in the end short-sighted. Thayer said that sports betting legislation would need to include a “competitive tax rate” to compete with nearby states also seeking sports betting legalization.

Then he wants those sports betting dollars to include guaranteed funds for breeders of Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds with a possible imposition of a surtax on winnings. Thayer probably left New York before the surcharge ravaged New York’s Off-Track Betting system.

At last week’s conference, Thayer told Daily Racing Form that sports betting on mobile phones was problematic on religious grounds and that protections for horsemen must be in place, otherwise “it won’t get past me.”

Thayer envisions bricks and mortar initially before looking forward. What he may not realize is that sports betting needs to break sharply from the starting gate. Mobile technology already drives wagering, more so with each passing day.

While representatives from racetracks, racinos, marketers, bet-takers and media discussed process, it was Ed Hannah of The Stronach Group who zeroed in on the real issue facing both groups; the cost of wagering.

Hannah explained that, on balance, sports bettors understand that takeout hovers at around 5.5%. “Racing will need to examine its much higher takeout as it tries to attract new customers and retain current players.”

The consensus was that horse racing and sports betting can co-exist and that racing has more to gain from a crossover of sports customers; the other way around not so much. Said Hannah:

"People putting money in their [online accounts] will notice that difference… The average sports bettor can make a $100 deposit last much longer than the average horseplayer. We have to do a lot of thinking about takeout."

MIXED REVIEWS FOR TVG’s SPORTS BETTING PROGRAMMING


To say that sports betting programming got off to a rocky start THIS PAST Sunday would be to undersell it. The TVG Network and FanDuel Group’s two-hour “More Ways To Win” has potential, once producers realize that two straight hours of stats and opinions can’t be all things to all NFL bettors.

However, the two-part one-hour “Barstool Sports Advisors” show that starts the orgy of stats and opinions is an embarrassment, a flat-out tout show replete with “mortal locks,” the kind of tawdry presentation that gives the handicapping process—and interested bettors, for that matter—a bad name.

This three-headed monster features a loud host and louder analysts who make outrageous claims about what they know, inside information that no one else has, etc., etc. It’s nothing that even a recreational gambler hasn’t heard before.

In an informal HRI poll of legitimately recognized sports handicappers, host Daniel “Big Cat” Katz and founder/analyst Dave Portnoy did not get all negative reviews. But no love was shown for Stu Feiner, called by some “the biggest fraud” in his profession.

Feiner’s on-air persona was the template for the Brandon Lang character in the 2005 sports film “Two for the Money.” Lang, a former college football star who sustained a career-ending injury, takes a job handicapping football games.

As the slick John Anthony, played with stylish cool by Matthew McConaughey, Anthony becomes a handicapping star on a slickly produced, highly rated tip show, “The Sports Advisors.”

But that’s where this model ends. Feiner is by no means slick, and production values to this point are nonexistent. However, someone did say one thing worth hearing and remembering: “Good teams win; great teams cover.”

The show will not attract the coveted upper scale demographic bet-takers and the sport itself seeks. Indeed, it’s a waste of time. If you have respect for the process or are a Millennial with discretionary income, a TV set, an NFL jones and is seeking a sports betting educational primer, you won’t find it here.

“More Ways To Win” does show promise, however. Professionally hosted by “SportsCenter” veteran Lisa Kerney, the team is a good one. TVG’s erstwhile host, reporter and handicapper Dave Weaver and Fox Sports TV and radio host Jason McIntyre bring professional savvy to the table.

Veteran football host and sideline reporter Dani Klupenger of NBC Sports Northwest and Fantasy expert Brandon Funston make significant contributions to the program in their respective roles.

All games are covered in 90 seconds or less with updated information, injuries, suspensions, weather and the like, but it’s too much to absorb all at once. The frenetic pace can take its toll on viewers down the homestretch.

And one gets the feeling that if the program can manage to throw enough data and opinion at people on both sides of a game or proposition in two hours, and some of it sticks, somebody can’t help but look good.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, September 02, 2018


Bets ‘N Pieces


Saturday was not a red letter day for form unless, of course, you’re Chad Brown, Saratoga’s new training record holder with 43 meet wins.

And he’s not done yet, having 13 horses entered today and tomorrow. On Saturday Brown saddled three winners just up the road from his native Mechanicville and another at the Jersey Shore with G3 Violet winner Elysea’s World.

Good to see Gary Contessa in the winners’ circle after the Grade 1 Spinaway with Sippican Harbor (16-1) for long-time patron Lee Pokoik, while in the headlining Woodward, Winstar Farm’s out-of-this-world’s 2018 continued with Yoshida (7-1).

Becoming the second horse in a week to become a Grade 1 winner on turf and dirt [Catholic Boy], the Winstar/Bill Mott team made successful dirt debuts in back to back years, having won 2017’s Jim Dandy Stakes with Good Samaritan.

Favorites fared no better on the Left Coast. Brill (7-10) was flat in the Del Mar Debutante and Simon Callaghan, who has a clever hand with young fillies, got it done with Ballafina (2-1).

Cambodia (4-5) failed to repeat her victory in last year’s G2 John C. Mabee Stakes but Jerry Hollendorfer made amends for Brill with Vasilinka (4-1). The brilliant Flavien Prat rode both stakes winners.

Found form at the unlikeliest venues; Kentucky Downs, where quality is high and the competition fierce, not to mention that on its 2018 opening program, the former Dueling Grounds had 139 horses enter 10 races.

But will happen when allowances races are carded for with purses as high as $145,000 four stakes for an aggregate $1.8 million concluded the program. The four stakes were won by Shug McGaughey, Wesley Ward, Mike Maker and Christophe Clement.

The 50-Cent all-stakes Pick 4 returned a paltry $49.80 with short-priced favorites winning three, the “outlier” at 3-1. Given a 14% takeout on both the Pick 4 and Pick 5, those pools attracted over $230,000 and $93,000, respectively.

Interestingly, two of the winners, Henley’s Joy and Miss Technicality were entered and declared from two Saratoga stakes this week, while the other winners, On Leave and Bound for Nowhere, last exited races from Saratoga and Royal Ascot. Heady stuff.

Kentucky Downs had its second-highest betting day in track history. Saturday's opening program of the five-day race meet handled more than $6.2 million from all sources.

AND JUSTICE FOR ALL? A fortnight ago a handful of analysts wondered aloud whether the 60-day maximum suspension given jockey Tony Maragh by the Gulfstream stewards for “failure to persevere” with his mount to win was too harsh.

The rest of the sports world probably thought it wasn’t stern enough considering that not trying your best to finish first is tampering with a sporting event—by definition a violation of 18 U.S. Code § 224, “scheming in commerce.”

Having no legal expertise, I have no idea what was right or just. But what has me wondering is context and privilege. Tony Maragh is by no means a household racetrack name. Kent Desormeaux, however, is a Hall of Famer.

The result of both their recent rides came out the same way for the betting public who were cheated by both jockeys’ flouting the rules of racing to give the public a fair shake by riding a race to its conclusion.

Given all appearances, it must have seemed the finish line couldn’t come fast enough for Maragh; for Desormeaux not soon enough because, with his runnerup perceptibly secure, it was OK to finish up with stylish nonchalance.

What was and is galling was the SoCal stewards kicking the administrative can down to the front door of the California Horse Racing Board for what, further review? To make a call they apparently were afraid to make?

Instead of assessing a penalty for Desormeaux’s oft-abused tack of not riding horses out completely for minor money positions, the stewards referred the rider’s latest transgression to the California Horse Racing Board.

Unlike Maragh, Desormeaux did not fail to persevere with suspicious intent, as video of Maragh’s ride on Musical Heart strongly suggests. But for horseplayers, the result was virtually the same.

Adding insult to injury, the stewards said their “informal hearing” did not concern Desormeaux’s continued indifference for his lackadaisical, overconfident handling in these situations but rather to review his use of the whip in upper stretch.

The fact that Take a Leap was clearly second best but lost the place to late running Room to Finish by the length of a fingernail because of Desormeaux’s overconfident judgment is completely unacceptable.

If I were a singular error in judgment, OK, stuff happens. But when it’s part of a regular pattern that is a matter of public record, this incident demands that a message similar to Maragh’s penalty be sent.

Just as no chief executive is above the rule of law, no jockey, no matter how talented, is above the rules of racing. Shame on the SoCal stewards who, like Congress, failed to do its duty. Let’s see how racing’s judiciary adjudicates the matter.

NEW YORK HORSEMEN RECOGNIZE CLASS WHEN THEY SEE IT

It’s hard to imagine a person more worthy of recognition than trainer Pat Kelly, winner of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association 2018 “EquiStar” award, so we won’t bother to try.


Pat Kelly is, of course, the oldest of three of Hall of Famer Thomas J. Kelly’s sons, followed by Larry, current general manager of renowned Payson Park Training Center and Gunnevera’s private chauffeur, and Tim, the NYRA Clerk of Scales.

Pat has spent four decades on the backstretch of NYRA tracks. Back in the day, when Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown were wee lads, Kelly was developing the careers of Solar Splendor and Sultry Song, Christiecat Token Dance and Riskaverse among other major winners.

But perhaps he saved his best “big horse” for last after taking over the training of legendary gelding Evening Attire from brother Tim, which he managed for “Pop” and T.J’s longtime friend and partners, Joe and Mary Grant.

A foal of 1998, the dappled gray won 15 of 69 races in a 10-year career, 11 stakes including the 2002 Jockey Club Gold Cup. The hardest of knockers earned nearly $3 million the hard way, with 25 more in-the-money placings.

However, it is Pat’s humanity that is honored now, recognition for his passion, dedication to the Thoroughbred race horse, and for is generous spirit toward all people who toil on the backstretch.

“There are few people on the New York backstretch who have earned the universal love and respect of the racetrack community,” NYTHA Executive Director Andy Belfiore said in that organization’s press release.

“Pat Kelly is a wonderful person who puts so many people before himself,” added NYTHA Vice President Tina Bond, owner and wife of trainer H. James Bond. “I can’t think of a better candidate for this award.”

“It’s a real community back here, our own little world, and we have to take care of our people,” Kelly said when informed of the honor. “It’s important for the workers to know that their efforts are recognized and rewarded.

“And, of course, it really is all about the horses, for all of us… This is a labor of love for everybody back here who spend so much time every day doing what we do,” Kelly said.

FORMER DEDICATED HORSEPLAYER'S FRIEND CONTINUES TO SPEAK OUT

I thought perhaps I was the only one to notice, that I’m too cynical, then I received a personal email. This was sent to others in the Thoroughbred industry but I’m not sure it will get an airing anywhere else.

When I read about the Sports Wagering Symposium to be held at Keeneland SEP 6, I noticed the names of many speakers from various organizations with bona fides. There was the NTRA lobbyist and representatives from the American Gaming Association and FanDuel/TVG.

And a Monmouth Park VEEP; an NBA VEEP; the Kentucky Senate Majority Floor Leader; a consultant from Sportech; and a VEEP from The Stronach Group

I’m thinking wasn’t there room one professional odds maker, a professional or even recreational gambler--if not for advice then just listen in case the betting conversation goes sideways? I was not alone.

The following is direct testimony from a one-time significant horseplayer by the name of Dennis Dotson. Here was his email, edited only for brevity and context:

“I quit this industry in 2002 after 40 years. I play poker now. I am not alone. I do not even watch the Big 3 on TV anymore.

“I do check out the industry news for progress (wrong word?) occasionally getting emails like the one below. I see everything wrong with the industry there. Again.

“Those not repped [cq] should have huge hope for "real positive" change. NOT! (Ed. note, comments and proposals and follow).

“10% across the board on "ALL" wagers. Stop cheating players out of their change immediately (no breakage). Drug free races that start on time with final odds already displayed. Cheaters banned for life nationally & inter-nationally.

“All tracks available via "ALL" venues. Autonomous decision makers for questionable actions during a race that are qualified to judge. Free or extremely low priced handicapping info…

“…Forty years + 60 years before that. All negative & backwards from the player's view. I have maybe 5 to 20 years left, Lord willing. I have zero faith that assemblies like this one will make even one of the changes below.

“…From love to hate. Not an untrue statement. My birthday today. Going to do a little mowing & play a bunch of poker at 5:00 pm. God help & keep us all. He knows this bunch will not do a thing for anyone but themselves.”

[Sent: Thursday, August 30, 2018 10:30 AM to .]

And now I’m wondering if anyone would care to provide Mr. Dotson and other former and present horseplayers an explanation.

Written by John Pricci

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