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 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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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Champions of 2008: One Man’s Opinion

Saratoga Springs, NY, Dec. 19, 2008--My Eclipse Award information packet arrived in the mail this week. And never before had the thought occurred to me to apologize for sharing my thoughts on racing’s best in show for 2008 with the sport's fans.

But I’ll resist that temptation, even if the sport-v-gambling option has been much in the news recently. It’s been a very bad year, as we know, and, like the economy, things will get worse before they get better.

The most debilitating occurence, of course, was the filly Eight Belles’ breaking down in the Kentucky Derby. If there are takers, I’d like to bet that last year’s calamity will become part of the feature segment on the 2009 Kentucky telecast.

Television is incapable of avoiding gruesome footage. It will be followed by an update of the strides the industry has taken to prevent a similar calamity in the future.

On this, however, providence might prove preferable to science.

You’re free to disagree, of course, but I’ve made what I consider cogent arguments on the state of racing. It's a sport because of the interaction of the athletes involved, equines with humans. It's a game because people bet on the outcome. Both enjoy a history and tradition.

And this is why I consider it a privilege to cast an Eclipse ballot once again:

I have to hold on to the notion of thoroughbred racing for as long as I can. I enjoy the intellectual stimulation handicapping affords me and I needto win money from time to time, although not necessarily in that order.

But I’m holding on to the sport because if it dies, a big part of me dies along with it.

I’m holding on because, as with any sacred avocation, my soul demands it.

In my opinion, here are the equine and human individuals who set themselves apart this past year. Aside from the occasional score, the accomplishments of individuals like these are always worth my time and effort. Every year, racing’s best makes the mundane special.

Eclipse Award Categories 2008:

STEEPLECHASE: 1. Good Night Shirt, by virtue of a most impressive, undefeated season. 2. Dark Equation. 3. Sovereign Duty.

2-YEAR-OLD COLT: 1. Midshipman won two Grade 1s, one while the world looked on. 2. Vineyard Haven. 3. Street Hero.

2-YEAR-OLD FILLY: 1. Stardom Bound is the stuff of juvenile filly legend. 2. Mani Bhavan. 3. Dream Express.

3-YEAR-OLD COLT: 1. Big Brown might have been one of the great ones but we can never know. 2. Raven’s Pass. 3. Henrythenavigator.

3-YEAR-OLD FILLY: 1. Music Note, by a nose. 2. Proud Spell. 3. Goldikova.

4-YEAR-OLD & UP MALE: 1. Curlin, by a mile. 2. Einstein. 3. Commentator.

4-YEAR-OLD & UP FEMALE: 1. Zenyatta, by a mile and a half. 2. Ginger Punch. 3. Cocoa Beach.

SPRINTER, MALE: 1. Benny The Bull was 4-for-4 on four disparate surfaces and two continents, spotting weight twice. 2. Midnight Lute. 3. Street Boss.

SPRINTER, FEMALE: 1. Indian Blessing fast, faster, fastest. 2. Ventura. 3. Intangaroo.

TURF, MALE: 1. Conduit is a true and consistent stayer; a throwback. 2. Einstein. 3. Grand Couturier.

TURF, FEMALE: 1. Forever Together won three G1s at different distances; from nowhere, a remarkable season. 2. Goldikova. 3. Cocoa Beach.

TRAINER: 1. Jack Fisher engineered an undefeated 5-for-5, eight-month long, G1 campaign over five different courses with 'chaser Good Night Shirt. 2. John Sherriffs. 3. Steve Asmussen.

JOCKEY: 1. Garrett Gomez is money. 2. Alan Garcia. 3. Julien Leparoux.

OWNER: 1. Stonestreet Stables LLC, Jess Jackson, because sportsmanship and class still matters. 2. IEAH Stables. 3. Godolphin Racing.

BREEDER: 1. Adena Springs because excellence, productivity and consistency also still matters. 2. WinStar Farm. 3. Maverick Production, Ltd.

APPRENTICE: 1. Pascacio Lopez, as we’ve not seen such domination since Steve Cauthen. 2. Inez Karlsson. 3. Sebastian Morales.

HORSE OF THE YEAR: 1. Curlin, as the reigning champion did enough. 2. Zenyatta. 3. Big Brown.

Written by John Pricci

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