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, December 20, 2014

Racing’s Man of the Year 2014: The Horseplayer

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 20, 12012—The story of the year in racing did not happen on any racetrack no matter how much one admires exploits of a dual classics winner, the improbable winning return from colic by a defending Horse of the Year, or the retirements of his and her legends of the game.

Instead, this distinct honor goes to the most unlikely individual or group of them all: the American horseplayer. Their voice was heard early and often in 2014; from a stewards stand at Gulfstream Park, to a board room at Churchill Downs, to the keeper of racing’s data in Lexington.

Horseplayers were able to shine a light on officiating by examining the adjudication process leading to disqualifications, to putting the hurt on a public company for raising the tax on wagers, to yesterday, stating that they are concerned as hell and are not going to accept inaccurate running times anymore.

Consider this: When was the last time racing identified a common problem, fashioned a consensus for problem solving, and took action, all within a 24-hour period? Don’t overthink this: To my knowledge, it’s never happened.

Until Saturday.

Horseracing activist Andy Asaro contacted Stronach Group executive Tim Ritvo Friday citing several examples of how running times posted by Trakus, the official timer at Gulfstream Park, differed from times published by Equibase.

What is not readily conceivable is why there should have been any disparity at all. Before Trakus was allowed to operate, it had to enter into an agreement with Equibase to handle the dissemination of Trakus information. No agreement, no deal.

According to the agreement, Equibase is responsible for operating the Trakus system at tracks where the system is in place. Part of the problem is that, until yesterday, there was no failsafe in place. With Equibase handling the dissemination process, Trakus does not staff up the racetracks it services.

In the main, Trakus claims that its times are accurate, acknowledging there are some issues concerning the start of mile races out of the dirt chute, explaining there is not enough room to place the timing beam far enough away from the mile pole.

This problem exists because the property line ends hard by the starting gate out of the mile chute; the Hallandale track on one side and land belonging to the city of Aventura on the other.

Clearly, land agreements between the two cities need to be forged to better resolve this issue. The hope is that the Trakus engineer in transit to Gulfstream scheduled to arrive Sunday can find a more immediate, less complicated remedy.

On Saturday, newly installed General Manager P J Campo hand-timed the most egregious timing error--Friday’s fourth race out of the mile chute--and agreed there was an approximate two-second differential in the first quarter-mile posted at :25 4/5, compared to the more reasonable :23 4/5 on a stopwatch.

Thankfully, because of horseplayer intervention, help is one the way. According to a press release issued Saturday afternoon, “Gulfstream Park, with the help of its players and patrons, is aware there have been timing issues with races leaving the mile chute.

“Along with hand-timing our races, we have had conversations with Trakus, our track timer, to remedy the problem as quickly as possible.

“In the past, Equibase has red-flagged suspicious times and sent the report to Trakus to be corrected. In the future, those times will be reported to the management at Gulfstream Park. We will continue to hand time all our races so we are sure that times being reported are correct.”

If it weren’t the horseplayer vigilantism, the problem might never have come to light, at least not right now. Gulfstream was aware of the chatter re inaccurate times before Friday’s incident but it took three days before Trakus got back to Gulfstream with a response.

But just because Gulfstream pays Trakus for their service is no excuse for vigilantism of their own. The betting dollars go into their coffers and, as such, an official track timer already should have been in place.

NYRA, for instance, had Sentell Taylor listed as racing official, “Timer,” in its track program for years until his recent retirement. Stephen Foster is now in that role. Racing’s premier winter signal should have an Official Timer, too. Penny-wise doesn’t get the job done here.

Equibase chart callers should not be saddled with the responsibility of monitoring running times; running-line accuracy should be their focus. Further, why should a closed-circuit TV tech be responsible for flipping the running order on the Chiclets display when the field reaches head-stretch, where positions often alter dramatically?

They’ve had several years to get the bugs out of the system and it won’t get done on the cheap.

Nor would the process have begun Saturday without the help of a caring, vigilant, and underappreciated customer base, a group that has helped charted a better course for how racing conducts its business in 2014 and hopefully going forward.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, December 19, 2014

King for a Sunday

PLANTATION, FL., December 15, 2014—The first time I heard the expression “King of the World” in relation to betting on horses, it was uttered by Andy Beyer, my first Saratoga roommate back in the mid-1970s.

In the rented house on Lake Avenue I read the manuscript of his seminal work, “Picking Winners,” and later that meet Andy introduced me to his good friend, Steve Davidowitz, informing Steve “he has a good opinion.”

I think it was the proudest day of my young handicapping life.

It was a memorable Spa betting meet, too, but no thanks to the two of us. The author of that first Saratoga score was our roommate and another of Andy's friends, Maury Wolff, a.k.a. “the Kid.”

"The Kid" now happens to be the industry’s go-to guy on matters pertaining to the economics of betting, particularly as it relates to takeout rates, rebates, and the like.

One night that Saratoga summer, as the three of us read our Forms, sharing opinions and relevant pieces of information, Wolff suddenly leaped up from the couch, scrambling toward the pile of back Racing Forms that served as our handicapping library.

Handicapping four decades ago was not like it is today, when a wealth of information is readily available to handicappers through any number of sources.

In addition to furiously scribbling trip notes into track programs, horseplayers needed to keep records. It was a time when not even the win percentages of trainers and jockeys win were included in the past performances.

I must say, however, the somewhat arduous process made all those who did so better, more complete horseplayers.
But what the Form did publish then were stewards’ rulings from around the country and Woolf spotted one about a jockey who was suspended for “failing to put forth a reasonable effort.”

That jockey, as memory serves, was the son of a trainer, T.J. Miller, later memorialized by Beyer as “the Fat Man.”

Wolff’s memory and research paid off. Back in one of those old Forms was the name of a horse running in a race for New York-breds the next day at Saratoga, a horse called Red Sam.

To say that Red Sam’s form was darkened by a series of poor efforts would be accurate. And Wolff also confirmed that the race in question was what got the trainer’s son a 15-day suspension.

So here was this young racehorse with poor form everywhere he raced suddenly showing up in Saratoga for a race restricted to New York-breds, back in the day when the fledgling breeding program did not feature very many talented runners.

Blinkers may or may not have been part of the equation, can’t recall, but a rider switch to the late Mike Venezia was part of the package and that sealed the deal for all of us.

Red Sam was in the day’s first race. We arrived early, wheeled daily doubles, one of the few gimmicks offered, pressed a few horses in the second race, and bet the horse to win with gusto.

I called my dad back in New York and told him to bet as much as he wanted and could afford.

Prior to making the win bet after checking Red Sam out in the post parade—he had all the qualifications: four legs, a mane and a tail—I ran into the late Chuck Valpredo, Venezia’s agent.

We had a friendly relationship and Chuck asked who I was betting on: “You,” I said, and told him the story about the trainer’s son getting days.

“Well I’m betting, too. I know the trainer from Chicago and he’s a very sharp guy.”

Red Sam took the lead when ready and drew off under pressure, never in danger. He paid, I think, $27--not sure about that, either--the double paid well, and we all made a nice little score.

“I’m King of the World,” Andy exclaimed, I began to sing “We three kings of the Spa are…” and we all jumped for joy, thanks to the Kid’s research.

My father was happy I never went to medical school.

This past Sunday I was King of the World, for a day, anyway.

As most of the HRI Faithful are aware, the Feature Race Analysis on this site is a handicapping look at the day’s best race at a popular high profile venue, usually delineated by the size of the purse or the status of the event.

For the past two months, we’ve been making selections for the final six races on the Parx Racing Sunday programs, races that comprise 123bet’s unique Pick 6 contest wager. It’s part of a special promotional relationship with have with one of our advertisers,

Actually, the $16 suggested sequence that appeared both here and on the 123bet website under normal Pick 6 rules would have also resulted in a win, thanks to three winning singles and three races in which two horses were featured.

But that’s not the “King of the World” part. Since we already had handicapped the day’s best race somewhere, we chose Sunday’s Parx feature as our free FRA play of the day on HRI.

When Mini Cosmos ($6) stretched out successfully for Graham Motion, it was the 500th winner picked here from 1660 chances beginning with Street Sense’s 2007 Kentucky Derby victory. We thought it to be a worthy milestone-type number worth celebrating.

But wait, there’s more.

Our win batting average over seven-plus years is .301 and the number of exacta finishes [wins + places] of 823 yields a percentage of .495--the rate at which our selections finished either first or second.

A $2 win wager on 1660 races cost $3,320 and returned $3,461.20, a profit of $141.20 through Sunday’s races, an ROI just over $2.04.

Doesn’t sound like very much until parimutuel withholding, a.k.a. takeout, is factored in. And I’ll say this, too: Any deep-pocketed professional getting an 8 percent return from a rebate shop would sign for a seven-year $2.04 ROI in a heartbeat.

I promise not to scream “King of the World” again until we reach 1,000. In the interim, I will stay humble and thankful because, in this part of the world, you’re only as good as your last selection.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, December 07, 2014

Gulfstream Park Brand Has Never Been Stronger

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 6, 2014—It pays to advertise, at least it did yesterday on the official opening day of the 2014-15 Gulfstream Park season.

The crowd on the first day of the “Championship Meet” was plentiful and enthusiastic, some of the regulars sitting at favorite tables surrounding the walking ring by the time we arrived shortly after 10 a.m.


A Fine Day for Racing in Hallandale Beach
Photo by Toni Pricci

Live racing still very much matters in this simulcast era, it creates buzz and that’s really saying something these days.

The featured Claiming Crown event is good business, too, with the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association coming up with the lion’s share of the purse money for the eight stakes offered on the day.

Parenthetically, the house comes up with purse money for the non-features, of which there were two on the 10-race program.

In all, 144 horses were entered on the program--a great betting card, especially if your name is Nostradamus. It was difficult enough finding true legitimate favorites, must less divining winners.

But like other major racing events, this Poor Man’s Breeders’ Cup brings out the players.
Even with a simulcasting dispute over rights’ fees in which 23 racetracks in the Mid-Atlantic region did not participate in the wagering, handle was trending up for the day right from opener.

And the races played out as competitively between the fences as they appeared on paper, but with many of the usual suspects finding their way to the winners’ circle.

Let's Have A Parade!
Photo by Toni Pricci

Todd Pletcher won the first race of the championship season, an allowance race for fillies and mares on turf, with the favorite: We fearlessly predict it won’t be his last.

Ken Ramsey and Mike Maker wasted no time on a day they traditionally point for, completing the early double with an attractive, appropriately named first-timer, Smokem Kitten, winning from end to end beneath Edgar Prado, moving like a winner every step of the way.

Ken Ramsey has much to smile about.
Photo by Toni Pricci

There were two more to come, both in Claiming Crown events, giving the formidable Gulfstream team a triple on opening day.

Unstoppable super-trainer Jorge Navarro won two; the talented Edgard Zayas had a riding double, as did Irad Ortiz, who stayed long enough to get some shipping money for Japan and the upcoming international jockey tournament.

The locals would not be denied as both Marty Wolfson and Stanley Gold each won a race event, with Nick Zito making it two Crown Jewels in succession, following up last year’s success with newly minted first-time gelding Catholic Cowboy with Luis Saez in the boot making no mistakes.

Catholic Cowboy Gives Zito Back-to-Back Jewels
Photo by Toni Pricci

Indeed, a good time was had by all, especially the bean counters who noted the 36% increase over last year’s handle; $10 million compared to 2013’s $8.8 million.

Gulfstream is celebrating its 76th birthday this year and never has it been on a better roll.

Right now, with the old Calder dates, they are South Florida racing.

And the “Gulfstream Park West” brand could not have been more successful. Even with a product more appropriate to Calder than Gulfstream, the Miami Lakes track did better business combined than both tracks did last year when they raced head-to-head.

If Claiming Crown day was a portent of things to come, their roll is likely to continue to Florida Derby day, March 28.

HORSEPLAYERS MATTER: Alas, with the exception of the first fall season at Del Mar, business is not good everywhere. National handle in November was down 5.62% year over year, doubtlessly reflecting the fact there were two Breeders’ Cup days last November--only the Saturday program this year-- and because horseplayers are voting with their dollars.

Still miffed by the rise in takeout instituted at the Churchill Downs Spring meet, Fall business was down a whopping 19% compared to 2013. Oh, yes, we know—it’s the increased competition, lower purses, the horse shortage, field size, and bad weather; spin it any way you will.

Indeed, all of the above are, undeniably, mitigating factors. But it’s 2014 and the entire industry had better learn that their customers—we are not your guests--have a voice and they’re using it.

Believe what you wish, but abuse us at your peril. Social media has started revolutions, organizing people in ways never before seen, in all corners of the globe. Pretend it’s the old days, that you can still act like a monopoly and not pay the piper.

Horseplayers can wager in their pajamas or their I-Phones now. The competition for the horse betting dollar is but one click away.

And the Fall main-track meet at Aqueduct? I know; more bad weather; lost turf races. But how about uninspiring day-to-day product that’s only going to get worse as the temps drop.

Oh, yes, I forgot; the popularity of college football's new Final Four and the closure of Atlantic City casinos. Could this reasoning be more sophomoric? If I were making a short, handicapping comment on the upper echelon of the NYRA management team, it would be this: Overmatched.

BETS ‘N PIECES: Note to the Graded Stakes Committee; Game Called due to lack of inspiration. And the Pennsylvania Derby is still a Grade 2? HRI’s (Tom Jicha will have much more on this in his Tuesday column)…Gulfstream Park did great work improving Calder’s barn area in advance of its inaugural GPW meet, but reports of improvements to the front side and a reconditioned turf course were greatly exaggerated…P J Campo is the new General Manager of Gulfstream Park and we wish him the best of luck. It will be interesting to see how a racing office mentality handles day-to-day front-side operations…All racetracks that do not put on a live racing program or a clearly inferior product when they do and benefit at the bottom line from imported superior content should pay for that privilege. What happens if and when their customers gravitate to competing ADWs…? Short of being barred for numerous medication violations, the California Horse Racing Board tied Quarter Horse trainer Jose De La Torre to the whipping post. Well now that De La Torre has been severely punished, as was Thoroughbred’s Rick Dutrow and Doug O'Neill, all of racing’s problems have been solved. The Feds’ United States Anti-Drug Agency is the only answer for meaningful reform…A Rutgers University study has found that allowing casino games and sports betting at New Jersey racetracks would be a win-win for the state. Casino betting has proven to be a Trojan horse virtually everywhere it’s been offered but sports betting would be a different matter because of intellectual crossover. And those phony sports leagues, the NBA notwithstanding, are still finding sympathetic judges to “shelter” all but the four states that enjoy their grandfather status. The billion-dollar Fantasy Sports industry isn’t gambling? Such hypocrisy...After an embarrassing delay, there finally is a clocker in place at Palm Beach Downs despite the protestations of two trainers. Actually, there has been a Gulfstream Park clocker in place all week but for some reason workouts failed to appear on the Equibase work tab, which was updated late Saturday. Meanwhile, horsemen should realize that their omnipotence, like industry leadership, is waning, too.

Written by John Pricci

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