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, November 12, 2008

On the Racetrack, Never Jam Up a Hustler

I first entered a racetrack press box at Aqueduct in 1970. I had just started what I hoped would be a career as a racing writer and handicapper for a briefly resuscitated New York Daily Mirror when I met one of the heroes of a mostly misspent youth and immediately sought his counsel.

Mannie Kalish wrote a handicapping column for the New York Post. In it, he gave out two or three spot plays a day and, seemingly, one or two of them would win every time I went to the races or visited Tony, who owned a store-front on 43rd Ave. in Corona, Queens.

A tailor by trade, Tony crafted magnificent custom leather jackets and coats. He also had a hand-book on the side. He took a liking to me, partially because I also had a couple of vowels in my name and had a knack for talking and picking horses.

I never told him I was a big Kalish fan, figuring he’d chase me out of the store never to return. Tony never read the Post, only the Telly--slang for “Morning Telegraph,” the East Coast version of the Racing Form in those days that sold for 50 cents--and “Il Progresso,” the Italian newspaper, not the soup.

Each night Tony sent me a few blocks past Linden Park to the corner candy store on Roosevelt Ave. to pick up the Telly and the Daily News and Mirror--the real Mirror, not the ersatz one. The two tabloids sold for a total of eight cents.

Tony gave me a dollar and always told me to keep the change. I didn’t tell him that I saved up all that change so I could come back to the shop the following Saturday and try to beat his brains in. Even then I wanted to be a weekend warrior.

Given that all successful handicappers are egomaniacs, Kalish’s bearing indicated a quiet, arrogant confidence. After introducing myself, I asked a few questions. He answered them honestly and without hesitation.

“Develop your opinion, kid, writers are a dime a dozen,” he said, never removing the binoculars from his eyes as he watched the horses in pre-race warm-ups. I didn’t think that was the right time to tell him I spent some of my formative years locked in my room writing treatises on existential loneliness.

Wanting to show off my knowledge, I talked about a horse that had run the day before. The horse had terrible recent form but, after getting a rush of late money, went to the front and, as the racetrackers say, improved his position, winning by a short pole.

“Some betting coup, eh Mr. Kalish?” This time he put down the binoculars and looked me in the eye. “Listen kid, on the racetrack, you never jam up a hustler.”

I later learned that Kalish got his job by touting Ike Gellis, the Post’s sports editor, who, having put the early edition to bed, would drive out to the track for the last half of the card virtually every day.

Gellis got some of the better priced winners that didn’t make it into print. He’d bet a few dollars for Kalish, per rule, mostly parlays in those pre-exotics days, and everyone was happy. Kalish even mentored a young computer genius who was just trying to get into the game.

I didn’t even know what a computer chip was supposed to do. But here was Kalish who found a trainer he liked for the fledgling owner. And so the association of trainer “Lefty“ Nickerson and Marty Wygod began. Wygod, of course, is a prominent California breeder who raced, among others, the recent juvenile filly champion, Sweet Catomine.

I thought of this on the red-eye back from Los Angeles on the Sunday after Breeders’ Cup. I went to the closing-day program with an old friend who now lives with his family in LA, but went to Union College in Schenectady, only 30 minutes from my Saratoga Springs condo.

And on the last race on the final day of the meet, I saw a genuine put-over, a betting thing of beauty. The word coup wouldn’t apply here. The horse’s form was good going into the race, a highly competitive scramble for mid-range claiming fillies sprinting down the hill at Santa Anita.

After watching a Chris Paasch interview, who had teamed up with Mike Smith to win a Cal-bred sprint stakes--Smith‘s only mount this day and two days after the team had combined to win the Juvenile Fillies with Stardom Bound--I turned the pages of the program and upon seeing the trainer’s name I said to my buddy Dave: “What the hell is Gregg Matties doing here?”

I explained to Dave that Matties is part of a crafty racetrack family who live in the Saratoga area. Gregg’s father, Paul Sr., a.k.a. Chick, was partners with the official winner of the inaugural World Series of Handicapping at the Orleans in Las Vegas. Gregg’s brother Paul, a professional horseplayer, perennially makes the finals of the NTRA/DRF handicapping championship. Another brother, Kevin, a.k.a Duke, is also in the family business.

Gregg, who races horses in New York, was denied stalls earlier this year, the result of a Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau investigation into exacta pool irregularities involving one or more of his horses.

The TRPB investigation went nowhere, however. Apparently investigators found that when their horses were bet, they ran well, but when they weren’t, they didn’t. It seems the apple didn’t fall all that far from the money tree. Imagine that?

Anyway, here was Ms. Wonder Woman, claimed by the Matties Racing Stable for $40,000 at Del Mar, Aug. 28. And now here she is, 59 days later, in for $32,000, in the final race of the Oak Tree meet. In her most recent race, a 40K claimer, she was fourth, beaten 1-½ lengths. The start before she finished second by a length to a subsequent repeat winner.

Matties had started six horses at the Oak Tree meet, winning three. In this spot he freshened a newly acquired filly, entered her below the level of the claim, and switched riders to Garrett Gomez. Think she was live?

The finale was competitive, as most 6-½ furlong turf sprints are down the hill at Santa Anita. Quoted at 6-1 on the early line, she was the 5-2 favorite on the opening flash, virtually held those odds throughout, until drifting to 4-1 at post time.

Ms. Wonder Man made the start look bad, opening a three-length lead right out of the slip. And after posting fractions of :21 4/5, :43 4/5 and 1:06 2/5 for six furlongs, she coasted her final sixteenth in :06 4/5, running a tick faster, 1:12 3/5, than colts had earlier on the card.

The Matties-trained filly, with Gomez motionless in the final yards, won by the same short pole as the horse I had tried to impress Kalish with that afternoon 38 years ago.

Chick Matties would be proud of how his son properly measured his rivals before betting his money. And the late Mannie Kalish would have smiled, recalling the right dope he provided a handicapping upstart many years ago.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, November 08, 2008

Open Letter to Jess Jackson: Send Curlin Home a Winner

Saratoga Springs, NY, November 7, 2008--With the emergence of undefeated Zenyatta onto the national stage, the battle for Horse of the Year Eclipse honors has become a true horse race.

Zenyatta’s impressively comprehensive Ladies Classic victory has earned the tomboy four-year-old the respect of voters that extends beyond the borders of her Southern California home. Given that reality, don’t be terribly surprised to see Curlin back on the racetrack this year.

This summer at Saratoga, and again in the fall, the chatter surrounding another start for Curlin beyond the Breeders’ Cup Classic focused on the Japan Dirt Cup in December, Jess Jackson remaining serious in his quest to add to his colt’s racing legacy. HRI thinks there's a better way. Thus, we're going right to the man:

"Dear Mr. Jackson...

Please don’t do it. Don't send the colt to Japan, or anywhere else for that matter. You don’t owe the sport anything at this point. Despite your concerns and those of your trainer, you tried a turf experiment, to no avail. Then, after the season ending injury to Big Brown, you saved the Breeders’ Cup Classic. You said you'd run providing he trained well. That he did, but it didn't work out. Still, more people watched him on television this year than last.

Now it’s time to think of yourself, your trainer, and your horse. There's nothing left for the colt to prove. The Clark, over a Churchill track he likes, and where he’s already stabled, gives Curlin his best chance to go out a winner and simultaneously secure Horse of the Year honors.

No one’s going to remember that Zenyatta’s people had a chance to challenge Curlin and the rest of the boys in the Classic, opting instead to keep their filly undefeated and eschew a trip at 10 furlongs for the first time. Given Jerome Moss’s devotion to the sport, he was entitled to share in Breeders’ Cup glory. But in a Horse of the Year context, that’s another conversation.

Make it easy on yourself this time. If Curlin is to run again this year, race him at home if your trainer gives the green light. At the moment, Curlin and Zenyatta are in a Grade 1 tie with four victories each. But this is a deadlock that can be broken in the Clark.

In addition to giving it a go on turf and synthetic, you left big money on the table to bring Curlin back at four, not to mention seven-figure insurance premiums. If you think you owe anyone from this point forward, take a look in the mirror. You’re in debt to the man staring you in the face.

But I have selfish reasons, too. While Breeders’ Cup is the titular end of the racing season, 2008 is far from over.

When I returned to the media hotel after the Breeders’ Cup and checked my e mail, I opened a missive from a good friend who reminded me to stay strong; there were only 183 more days to the Kentucky Derby.

I thought, OK, but at that point I didn’t know for certain who was the more deserving juvenile champion. Vineyard Haven won Grade 1s impressively at Saratoga and Belmont Park, including the storied Champagne; Midshipmen won two Grade 1s at Santa Anita, including the title defining Juvenile. But how am I supposed to reconcile dirt Grade 1s vs. synthetic Grade 1s? I still don’t know. No one does with certitude.

Then I remembered the Cash Call Futurity. With a championship on the line, Bobby Frankel might have opted to race Vineyard Haven against Midshipmen in a winner-take-all. Neither he nor Bob Baffert could afford to duck a season-ending Grade 1 providing, of course, Mr. Baffert remained Midshipmen’s trainer.

Clearly it seems that Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai will win the Kentucky Derby, even if he has to buy every good horse available to do so. Now that he owns Vineyard Haven, these two colts are unlikely to meet each other until May's first Saturday. Either way, he will own the two-year-old champion.

There are plenty of racing fans that feel as I do. Watching top horses compete is the only thing that turns a wagering game into a sport. And my love for cashing tickets ranks way up at the top of life’s lists.

Undeniably, sir, you are a true old-school sportsman in an era bereft of such individuals, to say nothing of your willingness to shake the trees for the good of a game that came under great scrutiny this spring.

So, if Steve says Curlin’s doing good, run him in the Clark on Thanksgiving weekend, racing‘s last hurrah of the year. Curlin and his connections deserve to go out on a winning note.”


John Pricci, executive editor

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

What Happens If Horseplayers Also Want Change?

Don’t mean to alarm anyone in the halls of industry but until and unless something is done about the Advance Deposit Wagering situation--past, present and future--the sport has little chance going forward.

Gloom and doom hyperbole? Think again. Here are the thoughts of one loyal horseplaying constituent, regular HRI contributor Doug Amos:

“Could you please add some knowledge to this ongoing ADW nonsense? How can Internet players present a problem? We add no expenses of any kind to their plants or operations.

“Besides not needing seats, parking, washrooms, service reps or housekeeping, we do not even smoke near or swear within earshot of any of their patrons.

“Isn’t anything from us obtained with the least possible amount of overhead? If anything, should we not be allowed to wager with a reduced takeout? Isn’t anything from us, in effect, found money?”

A dispute between Thoroughbred horsemen and ADW companies essentially began anew with the recent opening of the Hollywood Park meet. Bettors are used to being shut out from online wagering at many of the sport’s best venues, including Hollywood and Churchill Downs most recently.

The reason? Horsemen, more appropriately an alliance of horsemen known as the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Group, want a bigger share of racing’s shrinking pie. What they don’t fully grasp is that if they remain on this hardball course they will only hasten racing’s demise.

In these difficult times, it’s not like they’re being reasonable. The THG is looking to increase its share of their split with the tracks and ADW’s from 20 percent to 33 1/3. And they believed they’re entitled. After all, they put on the show.

Never mind that this money wouldn’t exist without the creation of privately financed ADWs that exist beyond the wagering arms of the tracks themselves. Never mind that beyond the seed money, ADWs must finance, staff, program and develop software, promote, market and provide customer services.

Never mind that tracks must maintain huge facilities, provide housing for equines and their handlers, perform track maintenance, maintain the property, insure, light, climate control, park, staff, maintain barns and dorms, market, promote etc., etc.

Horsemen put on the show. True. But the tracks and ADWs give horseman the opportunity to earn. They facilitate the entire process by handling the wagering dollars that make purses possible.

The ADW issue has been ongoing for years and something must give before it‘s too late. None of the sides seem able to hammer out an agreement. So the tracks will continue to lose along with the horsemen. Per usual, no one has considered the horseplayer in all this. Without them, the rest is conversation.

Throughout the country most simulcast players have had to maintain several accounts to bet the tracks they follow. And that was pre-impasse. Not only is it poor customer service and public relations, it’s a horrendous model.

Once people learn they can live without their present avocation, they’ll find another pursuit. The fan base is dying off as it is, on track and off. Given the prohibitive cost of creating a new customer, racing can ill afford to lose any of its shrinking base. There’s no wiggle room.

And we’re not even considering over-saturation of the product and the high cost of wagering via excessive takeout rates. ADWs are the only growing segment of the horse racing economy and situations like this threaten that growth.

A look at the recently released Equibase wagering handle chart is instructive. Note that despite fairly precipitous declines in wagering, both from month-to-month and year-to-date, October ’08 purses declined by less than half compared to ’07, while purses YTD are relatively flat despite almost 6 percent handle decline.

Thoroughbred Racing Economic Indicators for Oct. 2008
October 2008 vs. October 2007
Indicator October 2008 October 2007% Change
Wagering on U.S. Races* 1,125,935,224 1,209,867,991-0.0694
U.S. Purses 124,591,684 128,821,050-0.0328
U.S. Race Days513535-0.0411
Year-To-Date October 2008 vs. October 2007
IndicatorYTD October 2008YTD October 2007% Change
Wagering on U.S. Races* 11,880,842,435 12,621,510,379-0.0587
U.S. Purses 1,016,530,042 1,021,157,160-0.0045
U.S. Race Days 5,299 5,363-0.0119

* Includes worldwide commingled wagering on U.S. races and separate pool wagering in Canada on U.S. races.

None of this is good, of course. But to not accept some revenue declines while the industry suffers significant losses seems unreasonable and selfish. Things are bad all over. Failing to negotiate in good faith is like today’s unpopular ballplayer who signs a contract then decides he made a bad deal.

Horsemen need to live with the deal they made then get over it. Of course, they’re entitled to a little more. But everyone’s rowing the same boat and a 65 percent increase is outrageous in this environment.

Keep on losing players one by one with such an arrogant posturing and you’ll learn to reap what you sow. Like the electorate, players are mad as hell and will decide one day not to take it anymore. They’ll just find other games to wager on. Willing to roll the dice on change?

Written by John Pricci

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