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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Friday, January 02, 2009

No Horse Talk on the Long Ride Home

Saratoga Springs, NY, Dec. 31, 2008— As this is written in the old year, don’t expect anything too upbeat. I just returned from Lake Carmel in Putnam County, visiting with a friend whose father was an early supporter of the New York bred program and campaigned a champion.

Normally, this picturesque town in southern Putnam Country is about a two-hour drive from the Spa City. But thanks to a little more than just nuisance snow, it was slow going, more like three. And I’m not as patient as I used to be, indeed, if I ever were.

Or maybe it’s because people in the Northeast, even though they live in the Northeast, are not very good when driving in snowy conditions. They seem to over-compensate for the caution thing so that you want to stick a needle in your own eye. Damn it, move already!

But the converse is true, too. The yahoo on your rear bumper driving the big SUV with 4-wheel drive thinks he can go as fast as he wants without regard for the conditions. All the ads promise as much. So there was time to kill, and I pondered the new year.

First I made use of a neat Christmas present, the new live album from James Taylor, featuring the usual chestnuts, inventive covers, and songs from the book with which I was unfamiliar. If you like James Taylor—and that seems redundant--you’ll love this live album. And I took some good advice from it to help me cope in 2009.

The secret to life, he sang, is to enjoy the process of aging, or words to that effect. The melody and refrain was pleasant, uplifting, and I was beginning to feel better already. But I thought let me get my head back in the game, so I tuned the AM dial to 660, WFAN.

Mike Francesa had the day off, so there would be no new dogma to learn this day. (Never thought I would miss Chris Russo: Not for his opinion, mind you, but for keeping dogma in perspective).

But Ed Coleman is always good company. He’s been with the most successful station in the history of sports-talk radio almost since its inception. Not only are his tones dulcet, his responses well measured and respectful of its audience, even if some of the callers sounded like they should be driving the SUV on my tail, now about three lengths away.

Coleman used to co-host his own show with Dave Sims—the same Sims you might have heard calling NFL games on radio or seeing on CBS-TV during the NCAA Tournament when March goes mad.

They hosted a program from 10 AM to 1 PM and would invite Newsday’s public handicapper/columnist to appear during the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup seasons.

Sims admittedly didn’t know much about thoroughbred racing but asked good questions and was engaged. Back in the day, you’d call him a real gentleman, which meant he probably wasn’t course enough for sports-talk radio. The age of the opinionated screamer had just begun.

But Ed liked action and he enjoyed the game, and he could speak to it. It wasn’t quite racing’s golden age on radio but at least New York City would know there were some big events out there and an interest in how horses were coming up to the race off their preps, the closest thing racing has to a playoff system.

The weather outside the Subaru was frightful but the football action, college and pro, and the baseball hot stove were red hot. Coleman, when he’s not filling in for someone, does Mets play-by-play, pre- and post-game, and updates on Sundays during the NFL season.

And he thinks bringing Pedro Martinez back, given his Hall of Fame talent, competitive nature and sense of obligation for not making good on his promise when he was signed for all that in 2005, is a good idea. But they should sign Derrick Lowe, too, $36-million for three years.

I thought Coleman and many of the callers were right when they guessed that Bill Cowher wanted no part of filling the vacancy left by Eric Mangini’s inglorious departure if it came with a string attached named Brett Favre.

Cowher was in a network studio all year probably noticed the Jets were 8-3 with five games remaining and failed to make the playoffs. Everyone also agreed that owner Woody Johnson’s love affair with Favre would never be consummated on a super Sunday.

Favre should have taken a page out of Jim Brown’s book, and not Jim Thorpe’s. Last year should have been Favre’s last year..

One caller wondered out loud why the new Yankee Stadium was costing almost as much as the Mets’ new digs, Citi-Field. I figured that this fan probably didn’t own any Citibank securities.

(While we’re at, how did NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg, or whomever, decide it was OK to spend $5-million on the Times Square New Year’s ball in this economic environment? If it were all that important, he should have paid out of his own petty cash. When did it become unfashionable to set a tone in this country?

But on this day, as on most days on sports-talk stations in America, there was no talk of racing, of horses coming of Derby age, of which thoroughbred was worthy of Horse of the Year recognition or, for that matter, whether racing will be vibrant 10 years from now.

No talk of take-out, or marketing, or betting security, or Santa Anita and Gulfstream, or synthetic tracks, or even Eight Belles. But hey, Marc Lawrence is 3-0 with his college bowl upsets so far. Now, who’s playing tonight, maybe I’ll get home in time? If only this guy in front of me can step on it, just a little. So meet the new year, same as the old year. I'm not optimistic, but I'm hopeful. Maybe it will stop snowing soon.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Mentoring Young Handicappers

Saratoga Springs, NY, Dec. 26--I’m getting a head start on a New Year’s resolution to be part of the solution and not part of racing’s problem. I’m introducing a newbie to the wonders of handicapping thoroughbreds. Let’s call him Brian.

This 30-something is not a complete newbie. Actually, he’s a harness fan and closely follows racing from The Meadowlands. He’s a self-described $2 bettor, who says he’d like to learn more about thoroughbred racing and handicapping.

I’m here to help.

And even if I must say so myself, he couldn’t be in better hands.

Brian’s a big-time sports fan who enjoys thinking. He likes to play poker, avoiding the online variety, playing only in inexpensive tournaments. He’s played in Atlantic City, at Foxwoods in Connecticut, and enjoys the action north of the border at Casino de Montreal.

He bets on college sports and all manner of football, mostly college where apparently--and we agree on this--he can more easily find “separation,” a greater talent disparity from one side to the other.

Brian has a good eye for athletic talent and appreciates thoroughbred racing as a sport. It was only fitting that we met at Saratoga Race Course last summer. “I enjoy following the big races,” he says.

He’s the demographic that racing covets; young, intelligent, engaged.

For the handicapping nuts and bolts, I suggested the handicapping classic “Betting Thoroughbreds” by Steve Davidowitz. I’ll send him home with a copy of “Blinkers Off” by HRI contributor Cary Fotias.

And so when I pick up Brian this morning before heading over to Saratoga Gaming and Raceway, a.k.a. “the harness track,” I’ll print out the Fotias data so that Brian can follow along. Hopefully, there will be questions.

This is no Saturday afternoon project. The task will require study and that’s only fitting. We’re talking learning to fish for a lifetime here. But, as I’ve explained to Fotias and to every seminar audience I’ve encountered recently, the learning curve is steep.

And worth the effort.

Despite nearly a decade’s worth of experience with Thoro Graph performance figures, which I still consult periodically, it took a few months before I became comfortable with my command of the Equiform data.

Indeed I was almost set to abandon the study when one day it all clicked. From there, as with anything, the harder I worked, the luckier I got. Handicapping is a constantly evolving process.

At the harness track this afternoon Brian and I will study races from Tampa Bay and Calder, eschewing the Fair Grounds and Aqueduct, where weather handicappers are promising the likelihood of wet tracks.

I realize that wet tracks often can lead to exploitable track biases, which are mechanical and boring. And if the bias is indeed pronounced, all the wise guys wind up on the same few horses. Bye bye value; bye bye me.

So I’ll tell Brian what the old timers always used to tell me when I was his age. “Dark day; don’t play.”

Meanwhile, Brian seems to already be ahead of the game. “Value is the most important factor, right?” he asked.

True, I said. But just because a horse is about to pay, say, $15, doesn’t mean it’s good value. Not if you calculate it’s real chances of winning re about one in 10, making its fair odds 9-1. A $15 payout in that instance is an underlay, not value.

Aqueduct wasn’t built in a day. Today’s exercise, then, will be to provide some insight into performance figures work, the relationship of pace figure to final figure. That is how energy distribution is defined, which eventually leads to be a better understanding of condition and development in the thoroughbred.

“I’m curious about what you’re doing now,” my good friend and published handicapper, Dave Rosenthal, said as we played the Santa Anita races on closing day of Breeders’ Cup weekend. “I just want to see what made you abandon everything you once knew.”

I didn’t abandon anything, actually, I just see things differently now.

As the late Pat Lynch, my first racetrack boss and successful public handicapper for the Journal American during New York City’s golden newspaper age, once counseled after I asked why he wasn’t taking a widely accepted handicapping tenet into consideration to complement to his speed-figure methodology: “Because I don’t want to know what the public knows.”

It was my first valuable lesson in contrarian thinking. Hopefully, I’ll be able to impart some of that wisdom to Brian later this afternoon. It’s the least I can do.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

So This Is Christmas

Saratoga Springs, NY, Dec. 23, 2008--

"A Very Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year, let's hope it's a good one, without any fear," wrote John Lennon.

And I love the feast of Christmas. It’s the holiday season I hate.

Don’t get me wrong. There needs to be a time for worship, whatever the belief, and there should be a time when the world stops, takes stock, and ponders its future.

But the "PC" commercial world started ruining Christmas for me a long time ago. The pressure to buy something special for that loved one, or feared boss, "when only the best will do.".

Don’t worry about the money. Buy it now. Don’t pay interest on it until June, of 2011. This is America. You’re entitled.

And that’s exactly what we were supposed to do right after 9/11: Go shopping. Yeah, that‘s the ticket.

Maybe my mood will improve if, when I go out to snag that last-minute Christmas bauble, a wave of patriot fervor will wash over me because, by all that‘s holy, I’m fighting terrorism.

I know. There have been wars since the beginning of time. And there always will be.

And the nature of any economy is to be cyclical. We’re just in a down cycle right now. The economy is fundamentally sound.

We’re Americans. We buy things. That’s what we do. We’ll figure it out now; pay for it later. And we’re so entitled that we don’t need cash to pay for it, not even a house.

A handful of economy handicappers notwithstanding, who knew that all the bills would come due in September, 2008? Certainly not the investment banks.

Quarter after quarter after quarter, everything was fine, great. By September, most were bankrupt.

SEC, hello? Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, hello?

Sorry, but we’re not entitled to anything. Wall Street is. Even Detroit. Corporate executives are--even when their companies fail. Everybody wants to be a power elitist, defilers of the American Dream.

Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king and a king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything… The Boss, a benevolent boss, said that.

Sidewalk Santas usually are on my pay-no-mind list. Not this year. People are hurting, need help. Thanks for stepping up, Santa.

My 401K is a 301K now but it’s still outperforming the S & P, hovering at around 201K since 2007.

But Bernard Madoff is probably going to be OK, thank God.

However, I must say I’m glad that the noose is tightening. He’s no longer free to circulate among us from 9 am to 7 pm, now confined to a Manhattan penthouse 24 hours a day.

And they say justice is blind.

If I were cynical I would believe that Madoff fixed it so that he’d get complete house arrest. In his mind, not only could this make him a more sympathetic figure but probably decreases the likelihood of someone busting a cap in his ass.

But not all the news is bad. Because whether you’re religious or an agnostic, on December 25th only 26 more shameful days will remain until the Inauguration, the day the war criminals leave office.

Sorry, I wanted to be inclusive--the spirit of the season and all--but I can’t yet. My daughters are of an age that I shouldn’t have to worry about them daily. But then my generation mortgaged their futures.

And I wouldn’t want to offend anyone. Just like I wasn’t offended when every child in a non-private school was left behind; when my taxes didn’t go down; when my Constitutional rights weren’t upheld; when my privacy was invaded, when I became guilty until proven innocent…

And when covert operatives working for my safety were betrayed; when my countrymen placed in harm’s way were not given equipment equal to the danger; when 4,200 of them died predicated on ideology and a lie; when people in New Orleans didn’t matter all that much…

And when my president opposed the 9/11 Commission and helped cover up health risks associated with cleaning up Ground Zero; when the responsibility for capturing the perpetrator of 9/11, the mortal enemy of my country, was outsourced to Afghanistan; when mercenaries were paid four times that of soldiers fighting only for country.

And when torture--the same kind of torture Great Britain punished by putting water-boarders to death, the same kind of torture that led to the punishment of Japanese war criminals at Nuremburg--became acceptable in America.

So, I’ve a case of the hum-bugs this year and sadly I’m not alone.

“Badlands, you gotta live it everyday, let the broken hearts stand as the price you've gotta pay, we'll keep pushin' till it's understood and these badlands start treating us good.”

The day after this is posted my family and friends will put a smile on my face, I’ll raise a glass to the baby Jesus, give thanks that my country allows me to say what I think, and marvel when I realize that the spirit of Christmas lives, whatever the vibe of sustained disbelief.

Written by John Pricci

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