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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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Newsday Beaten on Award-Winning Breaking-News Story

Prior to the timelines established below, HorseRaceInsider staffer Mark Berner was working for months on a story that came to fruition in early December 2017: The New York Islanders would be playing its home games in a new arena built on the grounds of Belmont Park.

Berner knew the Islanders could go to the bank, according to several sources, “when the dog and pony show is announced by Empire State Development.” ESD announced on Dec 3 that a listening session would be held on Dec 10, in Elmont.

Newsday was still chasing the story on December 4. “The potential to build at Belmont is incredible and the community’s input in this process is vital,” said state Senator Todd Kaminsky. “…We are hosting a listening session so that all bidders can engage with the community and clarify any points,” etc.

Berner, using sources who requested anonymity, had already written his story for HRI for posting on Dec 5: “Belmont Park and Islanders Break New Ground.”

“Empire State Development, New York State’s business development agency, has moved quickly and is ever closer to a decision that will award the bid of the New York Islanders hockey team and its consortium to build a new arena at Belmont Park.

“The Islanders hope to break ground next spring. ‘We have no comment as of now,’ said Kimber Auerbach, Executive Director of Communications of the Islanders.”

Newsday failed to corroborate the HRI story at that time but a sports website, “Fansided,” picked it up but categorized it as a rumor on December 6.

Wrote Michael Anderson of the Fansided sports blog: “…According to a report from Mark Berner of Horse Race Insider, The New York Islanders might not need to worry about a plan B. Because plan A is rumored to go through.”

Then this: “Empire State Development, New York State’s business development agency, has moved quickly and is ever closer to a decision that will award the bid of the New York Islanders hockey team and its consortium to build a new arena at Belmont Park.

“…I reached out to AKRF to comment on their collaboration with Belmont in relation to the track as well as the RFP winner and they were unable to provide a comment at the time on the matter.

“We were contacted by someone who works at the tracks who corroborated Berner’s claim and indicating that this rumor is in fact true.”

Finally, Newsday was ready to confirm that the “rumors” were true. On December 19, 2017 at 6:05 PM, it published an update to a December 18 story. It read:

“The Islanders are coming home.

“The hockey team was informed Tuesday that its proposal to build a new arena at Belmont Park in Elmont was selected as the winning bid, according to people familiar with the situation.

“A news conference is scheduled for Wednesday morning at the racetrack in which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is expected to be on hand.”

Between Berner’s December 5 story until Newsday dropped its award-winning scoop, other sources acknowledged that HRI broke the story.

A Dec. 7 podcast hosted by hockey experts discussed some of the finer details revealed by Berner.

This was after Cable-TV’s News-12 Long Island referenced the HRI story in the aftermath of the breaking Islanders news. also referenced the Berner story on Dec. 6,

This would not even be a “thing” if Newsday sports editor Hank Winnicki wasn’t so cheeky about winning an award for the story, one of several earned by the paper’s talented sports department in 2017:

“The competition is so tough and it’s a great honor to win these prestigious awards. I’m particularly proud that we won three top-10 awards in breaking news. That’s an amazing feat. The awards also show the great work we’re doing across platforms.”

Later, in a Newsday story announcing their awards, it was stated that “Jim Baumbach and Robert Brodsky won in the breaking news category for first reporting that the Islanders’ proposal to build a new arena at Belmont Park in Elmont was selected as the winning bid by Empire State Development.

Some acknowledgment would have been nice, especially for a couple of former Newsday staffers wrote an expose on workouts at New York tracks when competing racing publications were battling for market share. UPI sports editors recognized “Sorry, Wrong Numbers.”

Two questions: Would Newsday, Fansided, or any news gathering agency, be eager to burn any of their deep background sources? And why is it companies demand loyalty but when that debt is turned around, not so much?

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

A Win, However Small, Is Still a Win

Several players I know and respect online and on social media categorized the recently announced takeout reduction for the upcoming Keeneland spring meet as a Pyrrhic victory.

While the notion has some validity given the sliding scale reductions, the assessment above is unfair.

The rollback, however partial, was a positive response to a call for action or, more precisely, betting inaction at the Keeneland 2017 fall meet.

Keeneland noticed that they went down while every other major venue increased, in part no doubt from handle that would have been ordained for Keeneland but found itself elsewhere.

In the final analysis, horseplayers made progress on a policy and price disagreement with track management. How often does that happen? We’re nowhere close to being sick of winning yet but walking before running is a good start on the road to relationships.

Admittedly. Keeneland was chintzy with its discounts; the new rake on exactas set at 19.5 percent, a half point higher than pre-Fall levels. And why weren’t doubles included as part of two-tiered-exotic bets reduction?

Further, the only justification for leaving three-ply exotics at 22 percent levels is to leave wiggle room for rebate houses at the expense of the daily rank and file. Consequently, I will wager accordingly (read less) in the super-exotics; kind of a personal partial boycott.

To Bet or Not to Bet, That Is the Big Sports Question

In his most recent column, TJ spoke of the Trojan-horse nature that legalized sports betting at racetracks could have on racing handle. Of greater consequence is how booking sports bets could cost tracks to lose money if they get too much action on one side.

The only conceivable answer would be to make sports betting a parimutuel wager but as TJ posited, even with a relatively low takeout, it is more likely that both sides in a game would pay less than even-money, less than the norm.

It might work if the point spread were included in the proposition. Take the Super Bowl e.g., when the Patriots were 4.5 point favorites at most outlets. For optimum results, the most accurate line possible must be available with same-day betting.

If the pointspread is good, it should attract action on both sides; injuries, atmospherics, trends are factored in by then. Post the line: Eagles +4.5. Then allow bettors to wager on the proposition at a modest 5 % takeout rate.

It also could be done via a series of fixed-odds wagers.

If one team becomes the steam, we believe a majority of players would rather take an odds-on payoff then give more points. Underdog bettors won’t get that extra point but would be rewarded with a payout offering points plus value.

Willing to consider better ideas to begin the conversation.

Can Parlay Wagering Lead to Lower Takeout?

Better still, could it be promoted as a horseplayer being in a handicapping contest with himself? Consider:

Santa Anita is going to be offer parlay wagering in the near future. If it or any other track is willing to pay for the programing to make parlay wagering possible, it could use this opportunity to lower the takeout. Spend money to make money. Why?

Because parlay wagers that players choose themselves, instead of the given horizontal betting menus currently mandated by racetracks, will produce more churn for the average to above-average handicapper. Why?

A daily double features one takeout that covers two mandatory races in succession. With parlay wagering, takeout is assessed twice, hence a lower takeout rate assessed twice will increase handle more than would a double or a Pick 3.

And in the case of the Pick 3, a round robin wager can be created; think the European two way bet. If two of your three round robin horses win, you cash one parlay. If all three win, you cash three parlays.

It was posited that Santa Anita would offer variations of the parlay theme; one could wager on a best bet to win in Leg A, parlaying that winning wager Win and Place on a horse in Leg B.

The difference is a straight Win parlay that costs $2 would now cost $4: Win payoff to Win in Leg B; Win payoff to Place in Leg B. Or any variation on that theme. The lower takeout rate would incentivize the parlay wager, maximizing straight pools and increasing churn.

With a little imagination, anything is possible. The question is will parlays prove simple enough to allow churn to work better with a lower takeout rate, which has the added benefit of flattening the learning curve for newcomers racing keeps trying to attract without success using the same stale models.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, February 06, 2018

The More Things Change…

An old colleague sent this to me yesterday, courtesy of Pro Quest. He thought of this column because, had he lived, February 5th would have been Oscar Barrera's 90th birthday.

I guess, sadly, he thought it might still have some relevance in the modern game. Anyway...

April 7, 1991--With apologies to Woody Stephens, Darrell Wayne Lukas and Shug McGaughey, the late Oscar Sosa Barrera was the most influential trainer in New York during the last decade.

The death certificate will read that Barrera died late Thursday night of congestive cardiac failure and pulmonary distress.

But the real cause of death might have been a broken spirit, such was Barrera's abject failure in the past few years, in which his free-fall descent from atop the trainer's standings was as inexplicable as his meteoric rise.

Barrera's forte was the claiming game, where recently acquired animals improved dramatically in what sometimes seemed like a matter of hours.

After toiling nobly but without impact for decades in shadows cast by his brother Lazaro, famed conditioner of Triple Crown hero and two-time Horse of the Year Affirmed, Oscar became a force. Newly claimed horses enabled him to lead New York's trainers in victories for four consecutive years beginning in 1983.

The form reversals that had become embarrassingly routine caught the attention of inquiring writers, who believed Barrera's horses ran on more than hay, oats and water. Testers never could find anything. And neither could the undercover work of New York Racing Association investigators.

The grapevine, far more cruel and unforgiving on the racetrack than in many other lines of work, spoke of designer drugs that were six months ahead of their time, and of endorphins. So cruel, in fact, that a colt sired by Barrera (named for Laz) was named Juice after being purchased by a rival outfit.

It was said then, as it is now, that Barrera's rise coincided very closely with the declining on-track attendance of the mid-'80s and with the atrophied bankrolls of rival horsemen. Ultimately, Barrera's rise was held accountable for the near-death of the mid-level claiming game in New York.

Barrera's colleagues often complained they had difficulty explaining to their owners how Barrera achieved such stunning winning streaks with horses recently claimed from them, after those animals enjoyed only moderat success beneath their own sheds.

Shifty Sheik, who rose from underachieving claimer to stakes horse for Barrera, and the prodigious streaks of Creme de la Fete and Teriyaki Stake are the most frequently mentioned examples of Barrera's magic.

Oscar - such was his notoriety that no last name was necessary - held some turf writers responsible for his recent slide. According to NYRA statisticians, he was winless from 26 starters this year after posting a desultory 27-for-434 record last year.

Writers and horseplayers, while lacking any evidence, often questioned how a horseman could rise from obscurity to star and back again, virtually overnight.

Away from the racetrack, Oscar Barrera was a genuinely likeable man; gruffly warm, loyal and generous to a fault. His rise and fall was emblematic of what racetrack life truly can be. After all, aren't all fun-seeking horse lovers looking for an edge?

The infectious disease common to all racetracks once was identified by one of Barrera's colleagues, Howie Tesher, as the "manure syndrome," a peculiar form of mental illness peculiar to horseplayers. I mention this because it helps explain how on one hand I was a Barrera antagonist and how, on the other, his death saddened me.

The fortunes of racing sometimes are cruelly ironic. An hour before Barrera was taken fatally ill, he tightened the girth on a nondescript claiming filly named Loco Bleu. She had a handicapper's chance to get Barrera off his 1991 schneid. A disappointing favorite on a sloppy track in her last start, she was a good third in a previous fast-track outing.

The thinking was that the switch to Aqueduct's main track, the addition of blinkers and a switch to a live apprentice were positive signs. "In the old days {meaning 1983-86}, this filly would have been 6-5," one experienced observer said.

In the final flash of the tote board, Loco Bleu was backed from 5-1 to 7-2. Trailing the pace while in hand and up into the bridle, Loco Bleu made two, perhaps three, small moves before checking in an even fifth. Gone was the old-days stretch kick, and gone, too, were the dollars that would have made a horse like Loco Bleu the favorite in the height of Oscar's reign.

About an hour later, Barrera was taken by ambulance to Jamaica Hospital.

Written by John Pricci

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