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John Pricci

HorseRaceInsider.com 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 MSNBC.com, 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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Thursday, July 05, 2012


New Policy Does Right by Babies and Bettors


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 5, 2012—If common sense and forward thinking have anything to do with it, then the New York Racing Association got one right.

Earlier this week, NYRA announced that field size for juvenile maiden races would be limited. That’s right: Restricting the size of the fields offered for wagering is a good idea.

Beginning July 20, juvenile maiden sprints will be carded for no more than eight starters while two-turn maiden events [think turf here] will be limited to 10.

So how does this make sense and actually improve the lot of racing fans and horseplayers alike? Let us count the ways.

First, some qualifiers: The elusive wagering concept known as value is not a given in fields of 12, nor is it non-existent in, say, fields of five. That’s because quality is in the mind’s eye of the handicapper.

What makes a horse race a great model for wagering is that the event represents a true market. There are prices at which horses should be bought; when the payoff is greater than the risk, better than its chances to win. The converse is also true:

Even money is value when the handicapper/bettor believes the horse in question has a 70 percent chance of winning; 5-1 is not value if the handicapper thinks that if a race were run 100 times, the horse in question would win only 10 percent of the time.

“The catalyst behind limiting the field sizes in the maiden races for juveniles was two-fold,” said NYRA Vice President and Director of Racing P. J. Campo in a NYRA release.

“The smaller fields are expected to produce more cleanly run events while also creating the opportunity to showcase more high-quality races during the meet and beyond.

“We expect this change will strengthen NYRA's juvenile stakes and allowance programs by helping horses gain the experience they need to compete successfully at higher levels.”

“Protecting our horses is an important mandate,” said New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association President and NYRA Board Member Rick Violette Jr. “Larger fields of inexperienced young horses often result in roughly run races…

“Owners will have a better opportunity to fairly evaluate the performances of their horses in manageable fields. This also will increase the chance that young horses will improve mentally and physically from their first races rather than having to recover from them.”

All of these points are salient, too, plus they have the benefit of doing what’s best for a young horse while making a politically correct point. Of course, what we’re supposed to make of first-time starters beginning their careers on Lasix is another matter.

And NYTHA has done a lot of lobbying [read spending], to insure that raceday Lasix continues to be allowed in New York. This is an aside, obviously, and an issue for another day.

This racing office mandate has another benefit; giving those critics who have lamented the downward spiral of quality Saratoga racing in recent years, pointing to the preponderance of turf sprints to fill cards and gin up the handle as an example.

Perhaps there will be fewer lower-level claiming races as well. At this time of year, that’s what shipping out of town is for.

When it comes to this new procedure, fewer horses will result in higher quality. And maybe we could see more of those split maiden races of yesteryear, providing that there will be at least eight horses in each division.

We’re assuming that these eight-horse maiden-juvenile fields will come replete with also-eligibles, and perhaps a turning away from New York’s liberal scratch policy.

And, yes, we realize that no one wants to wager on a horse that a trainer would rather keep in the barn and that “they don’t scratch winners.” But sometimes trainers develop an allergic reaction to a rival listed at 3-5 on the early line.

Of course, there’s another way to ensure the return of quality fare to the Spa but that answer is sure to meet resistance from the horsemen and the Saratoga Chamber of Commerce: Less racing.

By that we mean fewer races per day, or a five-day race week. It should be recalled that in those legendary days of yore, the meet was 24 days long and there were NEVER more than nine races carded in one day.

Last year, a NYRA press release stated that 10 races would be the maximum on weekends or mid-week cards featuring steeplechase events with, if memory serves, the exception of Travers day and the Labor Day finale where 11 races would be carded. No worries there.

But 11-race cards became standard fare almost every weekend and even if every barn area in the region were bulging, there simply are not enough good horses to go around, in Saratoga or anywhere else.

I’m sure Mr. Campo would love to card fewer races--but I’m also sure it’s not entirely his call to make. Even when rudderless, there is no shortage of Indian Chiefs when it comes to racing on this circuit.

But limiting the size of juvenile maiden fields to 8 and 10 horses, respectively, is a good proactive decision.

Written by John Pricci

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