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, April 27, 2012

Another Opening…But How Many More Shows?

ELMONT, NY, April 26, 2012—It’s opening day at Belmont Park.

Horseplayers love opening days for a new set of parameters; fresh live horses from different barns; disparate race shapes and strategies; horses for different courses; changing configurations and, in Belmont’s case, two turf courses to play with.

A fresh slate; it’s opening day and everybody’s even.

Psychologically, too, opening days provide a lift; Triple Crown time has finally arrived; winter’s over and spring is getting smaller in the rear view. Can Saratoga summer be far behind?

Horseplayers love opening day, of course, but it’s abigger deal than that for the New York Racing Association and in a strange way for the industry as a whole.

The bigger purses offered at Belmont Park have been life-changing. The balance of power that once resided in New York as a birthright, but ebbed away, is just now returning.

At the moment, it’s Kentucky turn to feel the pain; as if competition from outside its own borders from slots-infused neighbors weren’t enough.

Now it’s the slots-infused New York purses, and the Commonwealth’s own uncertain future, that has compelled Midwest horsemen to confront the reality of the post-training and racing traffic, courtesy of the L.I.E.

But at least Kentucky horsemen, and New Yorkers, too, are comfortable that it will take Gov. Andrew Cuomo a long time to finally decide whether the continued existence of major league Thoroughbred racing is “in the best interests of New York State.”

In case the outlanders missed the memo, a.k.a. the State of the State message, racing was a major part of the state’s expanded gaming plans which doubtlessly was the reason why many Kentuckians decided to come here. In subsequent interviews, hpwever, Mario’s son was still expressing doubts about Thoroughbred racing's ultimate future in the Empire State.

All this outside-the-fences drama is not helping players to keep their eyes on the ball. Just recently Royal Delta resumed galloping; Winter Memories is close to her 4-year-old debut; Alpha continues his schooling at the starting gate, but the headlines won't stop.

What will happen at the Congressional hearings that begin Monday, where the major question posed is likely to be “it’s been almost four years now, what has your industry done to change its drug culture?”

They will also want to know, among other things, whether new rules being proposed by Racing Commissioners International will have actual teeth.

The only sign that the racing community is confronting its drug demons is ginning-up its rhetoric in support of a race-day Lasix ban.

“Strong-armed tactics,” said the status-quo leader of a horsemen’s group on the use of race-day Lasix.

"Horse racing is the cleanest, most drug-free sport in the world....the argument of [fan] perception does not stand," is one of the conclusions drawn by a trainer of one of this year’s top Kentucky Derby contenders.

Racing media has joined in. Wrote a multiple Eclipse Award-winning turf writer, married to a Kentucky-based trainer, while correctly pointing out that a unilateral race-day ban would raze my old Kentucky home by asking: “Want so see a bloody corpse?”

The Kentucky Racing Commission hearing at which a race-day Lasix ban failed to pass was not fairly conducted, the issue placed on the agenda at the 11th hour in an attempt was to ramrod the measure through. However well meaning, that tack was wrong.

Unfortunately, due to contamination or honest human error, a near-zero-tolerance drug policy has failed when it comes to therapeutic medication. Complete abolition is impractical and irresponsible.

But the fact that Lasix use as a diuretic is a major red flag given its potential masking-agent properties and does not prevent bleeding is equally an inadequate defense for its use.

Racing--no organized sport, for that matter--ever has been conducted strictly hay, oats and water or its equivalents.

If, however, tests were standardized and rules made uniform, race-day medication proponents would have a better argument even if it means raising current infinitesimally small legal thresholds. But those concerns haven’t been addressed recently either.

Consider that if it were not for a slip of the tongue and public perception, steroids likely would still be a part of the game. To its credit, the industry seized the day and within about a year it was gone.

Why can’t race-day med proponents demand instead that racing commissions agree on uniform national rules for all?

Four years have passed since the “Eight Belles” commission and steroids abolishment is the only tangible progress the industry can point to that the public wants to understand.

The public--the same ones the industry would like to see at a racetrack occasionally--regards other internal measures taken by the industry as so much window dressing.

Incendiary rhetoric and charges of class warfare are counterproductive. What is needed is for an industry-leading group to shake the entire tree.

The Jockey Club is the breed’s Registrar whose mission is “dedicated to the improvement of Thoroughbred breeding and racing by providing support to a wide range of industry initiatives.”

It must take the leadership role, more than simply calling for a voluntary end to race-day Lasix. Its focus must go beyond creating measures to deal with the problem but act to eliminate it by decentivizing the status quo.

External pressure is being brought to bear on the industry. First it must be careful not to implode. Opening days no longer can afford to be taken for granted.

Written by John Pricci

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