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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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Deep Throat Vet: Colleagues, Cortisone Hurting the Game

Saratoga Springs, NY, Dec. 2, 2008--One day this fall I came across a veterinarian contact I had made, a person who has worked for decades at nearly every major racing venue in the country.

The vet spoke only on the condition of anonymity and his, or her, identity will be protected here. This doctor of veterinary medicine has a family and a thriving practice. But he, or she, no longer can remain silent.

This vet looks at the state of the game and wonders when regulators will finally get serious about what happens on the backstretch and shedrows of America’s racetracks.

“I want to run a theory by you about the dirt/synthetic/injury issue to see what you observer/handicapper types think about it. Here are my thoughts on how racing got to the point we’re at now:

The commercialization of the breeding industry.

Liberal medication policies of state regulators, allowing unsoundness into the gene pool.

The dominance of charismatic trainers, forcing other trainers to try to compete with [their] methods.

The widespread use of anti-inflammatory medications [Bute, Flunixin].

[Overuse of injecting] cortisone into joints [hocks, stifles, knees, ankles].

The sacrifice of thoroughbred horseflesh for the sake of speed.

Because of increased demand for veterinary treatment, large “group vet practices” now dominate the backstretch… kids straight out of school with no racing or even farm animal backgrounds, enticed by big paychecks and ‘glamour.’

Increased competition among veterinarians…creating a situation where veterinarians are treating whatever trainers want them the treat without the least hesitation, in order to maintain and build clientele, leaving lots of room for error.”

Again, speaking on condition of anonymity, the vet expounded further : “My point is this. The levels of cortisone that get pumped into horses legally in my opinion has a seriously detrimental effect on the body physiology that effects bone density…”

The DVM should know that we have written extensively in this space about how commercial breeding is the tail that wags the racing beast: Breeding for speed, not stoutness. The hot-housing, not healthy rough-housing, of young foals. The use of steroids. Corrective surgery. (And some might argue that the increase in number of graded stakes races has artificially raised bloodstock value).

Some racing organizations have countered these theories with statistics indicating there is no relationship between unsoundness and modern breeding trends. But this flies in the face of empirical data.

The modern racehorse runs far less often and requires more recovery time between starts. Now consider that while preparing to win a leg of New York’s old handicap triple crown series, the great Tom Fool worked a mile three times in a week, barbaric by today’s standards.

And so when the vet asked whether it was common for trainers to work horses in :46 and 58 and change, and if trainers always felt pressure to breeze every six days, rain or shine, and breeze fast, I recalled how it was back in my day.

I remembered the exercise rider who told me about Tom Fool but also how the old nurseries always worked their young horses fast. If the horses withstood the hard drills, they raced. If not, you never heard their names.

“After I [arrived at a major circuit],” the vet continued, “I was shocked at how many horses were being euthanized in the mornings. I was always of the belief that proper horsemanship combined with judicious medical advice could prevent most breakdowns. The number of horses I put down made me sick.

“The game might have passed him by but Jack Van Berg had it right when he went before Congress… There’s just no need to inject hocks, stifles, knees and ankles with [high doses] of Prednisone. Doctors treating humans for arthritis know to keep [cortisone] doses low.

“A big problem is that horsemen don’t want to lose the use of cortisone. [With proper diagnosis of leg issues] there’s no good reason for cortisone to be injected within 25 days. [Use the] European rules. That horsemen want to inject cortisone within seven days of a race is extremely common. Cortisone is the silent killer.

And this veterinarian, who has had experience with dirt and artificial surfaces, is skeptical regarding the efficacy of synthetic tracks as it relates to catastrophic breakdowns.

“When a horse is moving forward, his foot will slide when it hit’s the dirt. But when it hits synthetic, it plants, it holds them. If the [breakdown figures are better on synthetics] it‘s the management [increased scrutiny] of the horse, not the surface.”

In summary, the vet concluded: “As the years went on I felt uncomfortable working in a way that most trainers expected me to work. I feel the racing veterinarian/trainer relationship got distorted somewhere along the way and I mostly blame greed, a lack of spine, and a lack of knowledge of horsemanship on the part of my colleagues.

“[But something good] is going on concerning horsemanship and awareness on the backside to cause [recent positive] reversals. I still believe, however, that without a change in regulatory medication policy, the gains we are now seeing in equine welfare could be erased as time goes by.”

To date, there’s never been an academic study investigating the possible link of bone- density deficiency to the overuse of cortisone in the race horse. That might be a good place to start.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, November 30, 2008

All Too Familiar Tale of Triumph and Tragedy

South Ozone Park, NY, November 29, 2008--It matters not whether you’re a horse lover or a horseplayer; if you love this game there are days when it will break your heart. It was one of those days yesterday at Aqueduct Racetrack.

If you wagered on Tale of Ekati to win the Cigar Mile, you were rewarded as justice was served. But if you love the animals, too, it was difficult to watch.

Imagine for a minute that you were Larry Jones, who announced earlier this year that 2009 would be his last as a trainer. And after the Remsen it would appear that “Cowboy Larry” might take one good, final shot at the Kentucky Derby before hanging up his hat in the stable office.

But first he needed to experience déjà vu all over again.

Before saddling Old Fashioned, the undefeated odds-on favorite to win the 95th Remsen Stakes, he got one more haunting reminder of what had happened to the horse he had trained for this year’s classic.

In no small way was it ironic what happened to the impressive winner of the Grade 2 nine-furlong Demoiselle for juvenile fillies. Beneath Garrett Gomez, Springside had come from last to annihilate five other females including G1 Frizette winner Sky Diva--the 35 cents to a dollar favorite--by 9-½ widening lengths.

But then, at about the same spot Eight Belles began to go wrong at Churchill Downs, Springside took a bad step.

“As she was galloping out she swapped leads and I heard a pop,” explained Gomez. “All the way around she was very willing. When I moved to the outside she was really impressive. She never indicated that anything was wrong. Hopefully, I got her stopped in time.”

Gomez jumped off the filly before reaching the mile pole on the lower first turn and his quick reaction might have saved her. Trainer Josie Carroll barely had an eighth of a mile to celebrate the runaway victress of the 87th renewal of the G2 fixture.

According to Dr. Greg Bennett, Springside suffered a fracture to her right-front pastern. It was not comminuted, the skin was in tact, but neither was a simple break. The filly will be shipped to the New Bolton Center at Pennsylvania University Sunday morning for observation. New Bolton was home to Barbaro in his final days after the Preakness.

In the Grade 1 Cigar, Wanderin Boy wasn’t as fortunate. He shattered his left-front sesamoid bones and, unable to be saved, was euthanized shortly after 5 p.m.

Wanderin Boy had chased the pace of speedy California invader Monterey Jazz throughout a strongly run race and he went wrong soon after he and John Velazquez reached the top of the straight. In two previous starts he was third, then second, to reigning Horse of the Year Curlin in the G1 Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup, respectively.

Meanwhile, Tale of Ekati followed the leader from fourth while saving ground under Edgar Prado in the Cigar. Soon after entering the straight, the team shot through an opening on the fence to take command but quickly was replaced by Harlem Rocker who lugged in at that exact juncture, forcing Prado to take up and alter course outside.

Tale of Ekati re-rallied gamely but failed to catch the leader by a nose in 1:35.01. Clearly, he had more than a nose worth of trouble and was awarded the win. Todd Pletcher, trainer of Harlem Rocker, didn't see it that way. "Tale of Ekati didn't appear to really check and he had every opportunity to go by our horse. In my opinion he was never going by. I'll talk to [owner Frank Stronach] and see if he wants to appeal the ruling."

Bribon and Arson Squad finished strongly as a team for third and fourth, Bribon doing a head better in the late going.

In the end, however, it was this year’s maligned three-year-old class that had finished one-two vs. their elders in the final Grade 1 of the New York season.

And now it looks as if Jones will have a highly promising three-year-old for his final season as a trainer.

Old Fashioned broke like a shot, taking early command before jockey Ramon Dominguez backed down the pace. Under control in moderate fractions, Old Fashioned improved his lead with Dominguez motionless until midstretch, where he resorted to light, left-handed encouragement to keep his colt running a straight course. Appropriately, his time of 1:50.33 was 1.38 seconds faster than filly Springside.

Old Fashioned raced his final three furlongs in a very worthy :36.15, a final eighth in :12.22. “They let us run out there pretty easy,” said Jones, assessing his horse’s performance. “I was very grateful to see the fractions, especially as they came around the far turn.”

“It was pretty impressive,” said Dominguez, stating the obvious.

If Old Fashioned is the goods, then perhaps runnerup Atomic Rain has a future, too, despite finishing 7-¼ lengths behind. The Smart Strike colt was making his first start since breaking his maiden going five furlongs at Monmouth Park on June 5, making the Remsen a very tall order given the severe rise in class and distance.

“He ran well,” said Prado, taking the ride for trainer Kelly Breen. “Unfortunately, the winner had everything his own way. But I was proud of him.”

Breen’s assistant, Miguel Santiago, was just as happy. “I think he’s got a bright future ahead of him. We’ll take him to Florida for the winter, regroup, and look ahead to next year.”

But now that undefeated Old Fashioned has gotten nine furlongs without too much difficulty, the question becomes whether he will get 10. “Judging by today,” answered Dominguez, “there’s no telling how far he can go.”

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, November 28, 2008

Today’s Stakes Programs: Past, Present and Future

South Ozone Park, NY, November 29, 2008--I’m a little jazzed about the middle of this big holiday weekend. Not only is it the best racing weekend remaining in 2008 but it should provide a glimpse as to what to expect next season.

The focal point is the youngsters, spearheaded by Churchill Downs’ Stars of Tomorrow program--all two-year-olds all the time on the closing-day program--Aqueduct’s Remsen and Demoiselle and Hollywood Park’s Miesque Stakes.

Also of consequence locally is the Grade 1 Cigar Mile. In addition to whatever light Friday’s Clark might have shed on the 2009 handicap division, the class not only is crying out for a leader but looking for any definition at all.

What that means is some members of this year’s much maligned three-year-old class--colts not good enough to be purchased by a sheikh and shuttled off to the breeding shed--must step up. It’s not unreasonable to think that some might do just that.

Besides, a three-year-old won the inaugural 20 years ago when Forty Niner took the NYRA Mile, the forerunner of the Cigar. So, could that be Visionaire or Kodiak Kowboy? The undefeated Storm Play or Harlem Rocker? Tale of Ekati?

It’s not likely to be either of the first two. Both are sprint/miler meant; the former a late-runner, the latter being faster but distance challenged. Storm Play could be any kind, as racetrackers say. He’s already won at nine furlongs and all three wins were in fast time.

Harlem Rocker, meanwhile, is a winner at both eight and nine and a half furlongs, but his form and scheduling has been a bit spotty, indicating some nagging issue perhaps. But he appears to be an individual that could improve with age. Which leaves Tale of Ekati.

Barclay Tagg’s colt is nothing if not enigmatic. Some days he leads you to think he’s a world beater. Other days he lifts your wallet. And he needs to show he’s the same class away from Aqueduct and while his Wood score did come at a mile and an eighth, his perceived ability to go farther doesn’t inspire confidence.

Maybe four-year-old Monterey Jazz, an absolute monster winning the G3 Texas Mile by eight lengths but hasn’t run since, is that horse. But he was much better when he got off the synthetic surface and, of course, the Breeders’ Cup returns to Pro-Ride next season. But first things first, like today’s Grade 1.

For myself and many others, though, it’s about the babies of either sex and next year’s classics. There are five juvenile races in New York, an even dozen at Churchill, and three more at Hollywood, which is enough future for anyone.

Aqueduct’s Remsen and Demoiselle are interesting, requiring horses advanced enough in fitness to handle nine furlongs.

At first blush, fans of Sky Diva might have been disappointed with her Juvenile Fillies effort but they shouldn’t be. She moved forward on the synthetic track while finishing third by three lengths to the remarkable certain champion, Stardom Bound, despite spotting her experience in a less than perfect-trip try. Sky Diva acts like she wants to run all day, resembling more her grand-sire (Unbridled) than sire (Sky Mesa). She’s supposed to win this.

The Remsen is more challenging. On Equiform performance figures, not so much. Old Fashioned, shipping in for Larry Jones, is a layover. And Jones, considering his entrant goes second-time Lasix, second-time long, and moving into graded stakes company, is profitable in all relevant categories.

But there are interesting alternatives. Idol Maker earned an excellent figure with winning his debut at Belmont going a mile, showing good energy distribution for Todd Pletcher. Rip Rap Rip is not as fast as either, but has an experience edge and never has gone backwards. American Dance is slower still, but is learning quickly.

At Churchill, the Golden Rod and Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, like their Big A counterparts, is Grade 2 but each is a sixteenth of a mile shorter. The Golden Rod should yield plenty of clues about heavy favorites Sara Louise (8-5) and Dream Express (9-5).

Sara Louise comes up to the added distance perfectly with the benefit of a win over the track for Dale Romans and Robby Albarado. Like Sky Diva, Dream Express moved forward in the Juv’ Fillies and, like Stardom Bound, came from the clouds for second. She has an Equiform edge, 75 to 73, but never has run on dirt. Kent Desormeaux rides back for Ken McPeek.

Conservatively, half of the 10-colt Jockey Club can win the wide open two-turner. Capt. Candyman Can (8-5) will try to sweep the Iroquois/Jockey Club double for Ian Wilkes and Julien Leparoux, who’s having of a career season

Written by John Pricci

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