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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Sunday, May 13, 2018

Good Ideas Make Fans Happy; Poorly Timed Job Actions Do Not

It’s probably just the nature of the game but I can’t understand how a few small pockets of resistance still remain vis a vis the Kentucky Derby points-system qualifier. By anyone’s objective measure, the current method has been an unqualified success. Consider:

Six straight Derby-winning favorites is a clear indication that the cream is rising despite the oft quirky nature of modern-day form cycles. And favorites are good for the game--even if winning public choices does not ensure that Derby fans will suddenly get interested in racing more than three days each spring.

That is not on the Kentucky Derby or Churchill Downs Inc. Getting “event fans” to become full-time racing converts extends beyond the parameters of Louisville KY; that would and should be an industry-wide concern.

It’s a good thing when neophytes can learn that current past performances count for something, that betting on horses while extremely difficult is still a lot more predictable than a roll of the dice or poker players winding up with three of a kind following the flop.

Along with winning prep favorites comes the prospect of name recognition, effectively giving the winner a brand. This prep season many posited that Justify was a freak, good enough to beat a hickory game defending champion, et al, and curses be demand. But he had to prove it and he did, with emphasis.

If only the sport could somehow market the preps for what they are--Kentucky Derby regional playoffs-- perhaps the game might have a chance to grow via exposure to a product replete with fan participation. Couldn’t some network beyond TVG become interested in a cohesive pre-Derby marketing plan?

The points system has accomplished much in its brief history. It took horsemen only a couple of years to figure out the best way to become one of 20 Thoroughbreds with a chance to make sports history.

The current run of winning favorites, followed by logical runners-up, mixed with a sprinkling of the improbable and unknowable that only the chaos of a 20-horse cavalry charge can shake out, can make sense with a little down-and-dirty fan education.

The points system has eliminated no-hope sprinters and in many years has eliminated Derby riff-raff. There are always going to be a half dozen horses that don’t belong in the classic, just like there is likely to be five or six top contenders. In 2018 there were seven; three made the trifecta and 85-1 completed the superfecta. Perfect.

Indeed, the European and Japanese Roads to the bluegrass and the UAE Derby leave “only” 17 slots for American prepsters. But given the drive for handle from worldwide markets, the 20-horse Derby isn’t going anywhere, even if 63% percent of fans think the field should be reduced in the interests of safety.

As if accidents couldn’t happen in a single barrier of 14 amped, hot-blooded steeds ready to charge.

Yes, the Derby likely would be more truly run if it were cut down to a bite-sized Oaks morsel, mitigating the luck factor fairly significantly. But horseplayers have seen bad trips in three-horse fields, too. So that point is moot. As long as all horses come home safe, that’s all that matters.

Love the New Camera Angles at Pimlico

I expect that trip-handicapping traditionalists might argue otherwise but we love the new camera positions that have been in use during the first few days of Pimlico’s 12-day Preakness race meet.

In an effort to provide better coverage—presumably to mitigate obstructed views created by massive infield party tents--new backstretch views pick up the horses rounding the first turn and into the backstretch, the backstretch straightaway run, and the view into and out of the far turn into the home straight.

Critics are likely to argue that the new camera angles are disorienting, similar to the criticism network coverage received when it first tried to capture more of the excitement via quick camera switches to more angles. Those critics were right; they were disorienting. But not these.

The current race coverage is enhanced because viewers are closer to the action. Trip handicappers can see in real time what path their horses are racing in; whether jockeys were trying to avoid racing close to the rail, how much ground loss was there on the turns, and whether horses between rivals were comfortable or hampered by close quarters.

The disparate views are done in such a way so as not to confuse race watchers. It took only a few races to become accustomed to this new perspective created by raising the elevation of the traditional pan camera.

Additionally, TSG laid fiber and mounted a camera on the backside, manned on one of the porches atop one of the barns. Further, Pimlico is making greater use of tower cameras normally used by officials which provides clearer views of the entire field.

Even at first blush, the new system has the benefit of monitoring race flow more closely, providing change to a process that has become stale over time with repetitiveness. Either way, it should help make the race watching experience more enjoyable and beneficial.

Necessity mothered this new invention. It would be wise for all tracks to go to school on what Pimlico has done and perhaps even take it to a higher level.

Jockeys Have a Beef But Should Not Take It Out on Fans

We have long stated our admiration for jockeys, the most underappreciated of professional athletes. In all of sports, is there another group that is asked to make split-second decisions aboard hot-blooded animals, often knifing through spaces thiswide at 40 mph while an ambulance tracks their every move?

According to Jockeys Guild chairman and Hall of Fame rider Johnny Velazquez, who would ride four winners on a terrific Man o’ War race card, the riders, working without a contract at NYRA tracks since January 1, asked for a meeting with upper NYRA management 30 minutes prior to first post on Saturday.

Among other issues, the jockeys wish to raise the scale of weights which has been a bone of contention throughout the industry for many years but one that would be more properly laid at the feet of trainers, many of whom have objected to raising the weight scale in the recent past.

Either way, scheduling a meeting among the entire New York riding colony and upper management 30 minutes before first post on a widely promoted 11-race card featuring increased house-produced network coverage is disingenuous on its face. After six months, a pressurized half-hour meeting wasn’t going to settle anything.

The Belmont lid-lifter got off 37 minutes late at 2:07 p.m. The featured Man o’ War, the last race on the card, went post-ward at 7:21 p.m.

If independent contractors wanted to send a message, make an announcement that you’re having a job action tomorrow or whenever so that fans/bettors could plan accordingly. A day of lost revenue, even on a Thursday, would have tremendous impact and with it a chance to engender sympathetic coverage.

Horseplayers, decreasing by the day for various, asundry reasons, are some of the most abused fans in the world of sports, and they directly pay the freight. The jockeys should have shown more respect for in-house fans and simulcast bettors alike, who suffer enough abuse from the industry on a regular basis.

Written by John Pricci

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