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, January 12, 2008

Lottery Privatization: Wagering Solution or Pandora’s Box?

While Gov. Eliot Spitzer was busy ignoring racing in his big, sweeping State of the State plans, and its multi-billion dollar impact on the states economy--not to mention 17,000 jobs in this land of 5% unemployment--he might have hinted at what direction the negotiations are tilting once they resume.

The 2008 Legislative session begins the day after tomorrow, and the three legislative branches must find a solution within 14 days, the stroke of midnight Jan. 24.

But gambling, if you consider the Lottery gambling (I like to think of gambling as an enterprise with some reasonable expectation of winning), was part of Spitzers address.

What inquiring minds want to know is this: Why privatize the Lottery if youre going to guarantee existing government jobs related to that agency? Could this be the bedrock of a racing-franchise compromise to come?

Could it be that the new regulatory public authority called for by Spitzers political rival, Sen. Joe Bruno, is already part of some done deal, and that the Lottery, the horse racing industry and other gaming entities would fall under its auspices?

Of course, we want this agency because its about transparency going forward, right? Never mind that the franchise negotiations have been conducted behind closed doors. Besides, whats more transparent than partisan politics at work?

However, there is a hopeful byproduct of Lottery privatization. Spitzer, reportedly looking for $30 billion upfront for the Lottery, could resolve with the other legislative branches to use a portion of that money to include a plan for streamlining the entire gambling industry, putting the franchise and the states six OTB regions under a single wagering umbrella.

Via new technology, operating costs could be lowered for all concerned and could put the state in a better position to compete with private wagering platforms worldwide. Unfortunately, layering, especially in New York, usually results only in more duplication and waste.

Meanwhile, no turf is growing beneath the feet of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemens Association. In a Thursday press release, the group stated some demands, more in the language of a hopeful wish list.

It underscored how the sliding-scale expectations from VLT revenues as prescribed in the original non-binding Memorandum of Understanding have already been lowered to 6.5 percent, with rumors that the horsemens cut could be lowered yet again.

As compared to what, you ask?

As compared to, according to the NYTHA release, an 18% slice in Pennsylvania, 11.1% in Delaware, 10%--West Virginia, 30%--Oklahoma, 20%--New Mexico and 8.25% in Florida. True: Even that notorious bunch in Tallahassee apparently is more magnanimous than the Albany crowd.

And horsemen rightfully want some future input into the simulcast-negotiations process. New York is the only racing state in which thoroughbred horsemen have no seat at the simulcast table. The NYRA currently has complete control over the New York signal.

The NYTHA is, according to its release, the only horsemens group in the country that has no protection under the Interstate Horseracing Act that governs simulcasting on a federal level.

Does that seem fair? And does that sound like they would have any shot under a state-regulated agency?

Its hard to have faith than any of this would, or even could, work. Lets hope that their first order of business would not be to mandate synthetic-track racing at the New York tracks. Sorry to be so cynical, but Ive had a lot of practice in this arena.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Santa Anita’s Problems Lie Beneath the Surface

When I received my performance-figure packet from Equiform yesterday, I was pleased to see it included data for Thursdays scheduled racing program at Santa Anita.

You remember Santa Anita. Its called the Great Race Place. And if you think that an exercise in hyperbole then youve probably never been there.

On a recent visit for the Cal Cup weekend program, I spoke with Allen Gutterman, the Grade 1 racing publicist. When asked, he was pleased to report that the Oak Tree meeting had been a financial success.

This is some place, I said, nodding toward the infield on a Chamber of Commerce SoCal afternoon. It is, Gutterman said, but you know we have the hardest time rolling up that backdrop every night.

The native New Yorker, who probably deserves his own wing in the Turf Publicist Hall of Fame having worked for Yonkers Raceway, the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, Magna, NYRA, Churchill Downs and now Oak Tree, was referring, of course, to the majestic San Gabriel Mountains.

Gutterman, probably more deserving of a wing in heaven given that resume minefield, knows a good opportunity when he sees one.

Given recent events, I wonder how Gutterman would have put a positive spin on the prestigious Los Angeles Turf Club winter meet that suffered its first three-day cancellation in the tracks 71-year history.

Cant blame Frank Stronach for this one, or even Mother Nature, even if she did deposit more than seven inches of rain in two days, adding to the problems Santa Anitas Cushion Track was experiencing before the deluge, as Jackson Browne might say.

That San Gabriel fault obviously lies with the California Horse Racing Boards rush to judgment, mandating that major racing venues in the Golden State must conduct horseracing over synthetic surfaces by the end of 2007.

In its first full year of synthetic racing, Polytrack was no cure for Del Mars summertime blues when it forced perennial leading trainer Bob Baffert to ship the horses of major owner Ahmed Zayat, along with the rest of his ready-to-run string, to Saratoga.

While Santa Anita canceled racing last weekend, Tapeta Track was holding up extremely well at Golden Gate Fields in NoCal. But that was before Daily Racing Form reported that 17 horses at the meeting had to be helped off the track; sore, lame, or worse.

I hope after all this that racing leaders and state appointed know-nothings realize that as long as racing is conducted outdoors, no surface will be completely impervious to the elements. And if recent California developments indicate anything it might be that safety ultimately is a maintenance issue, not a surface issue.

As long as thousand-pound animals race at 40 miles per hour on legs not dramatically larger than the human arm, untoward things will happen occasionally. You just cant legislate against accidents.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Jockey Franchise Plan: Too Little, Too Late

I have written many stories about how jockeys are the worlds greatest underappreciated athletes. They are not passengers; they are pilots.

Often to their physical detriment, jockeys have to make outdated weights, control thousand-pound beasts while threading their way through narrow openings, and make the kind of split-second decisions that separate victory from defeat, all without benefit of a pensive timeout.

Yesterday, the New York jockeys officially entered the local franchise morass. Johnny Velazquez, sounding more like Barack Obamas campaign chairman than Board Chairman of the Jockeys Guild, called for legislators to initiate change by better incorporating OTB systems into the income sharing process and maximizing all revenue streams eventually lead to a long-term industry solution.

Velazquez, representing both local and national groups, is, of course, correct regarding whats needed for the industry as a whole and for New York in particular. But my question is this:

Where have you been, diminutive DiMaggios?

As a group, the local New York riders are a little late in recognizing the problem to the point of their own participation, yesterdays press release stating what is uppermost in the minds of local riders, 13 of whom adding their names to a roster in support of Velazquez.

Beyond calling for change, it would have been better had the riders proposed a plan, or at least some idea of how the situation might be resolved. The solution neednt even be correct. God knows no one has supplied the right answer yet, and theyve had nearly six years to find one.

Now it seems like jockeys want to make the quantum leap from rock stars to socialists. It doesnt work that way, and it leaves something of a bad taste.

The most cynical among us might question their motivation, arguing that their positions address mostly whats in their own best interest.

For the good of the industry, the release said, purses and awards need to be increased. Horsemen need to have a voice in the process, becoming partners in racing as enterprise.

But most horsemen are hands-on caretakers, and trainers have been part of the franchise process from day one. The only jockey we remember taking an active interest is the retired Jerry Bailey. Bailey is a spokesman for Excelsior Racing, the outfit approved as the next franchisee by Gov. Patakis Ad Hoc Committee until sitting Gov. Eliot Spitzer decided nuts to that.

Perhaps more to the jockeys point is the statement that New York racing should adopt the California initiative; that the jockeys pension fund be underwritten by a portion of the proceeds from Advanced Deposit Wagering platforms and that legislation be enacted to increase mount fees.

Personally I dont have a problem with any of the wish-list demands. But lets not forget that jockeys are willing risk-takers, private contractors who are entitled to a fee for basic services and a healthy percentage of the winning purse. And lets remember, too, that the least successful day-to-day journeyman in the New York jocks room earns six figures a year while taking none of the monetary risk.

With all the problems facing New York racing, mounts fees and jockey pensions are back-burner issues that should not be insinuated into what has been an impossibly stagnant and shameful scenario. Jockeys should be smart enough to know that timing is everything.

Written by John Pricci

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