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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Sunday, October 19, 2014


Perfect 10 Success a Longshot


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., October 19, 2014—Betting’s been in the news in recent days; all kinds of news, all kinds of bets, in all kinds of places. Let’s start here, or should I say west of here in Miami Gardens.

Gulfstream management is calling it the Perfect 10: 10 races, 10 winners, 10 percent takeout—10 winners, not 4, not 5, not 6, but 10?

I understand why Gulfstream is doing this. The Rainbow 6 proved such a promotionally successful, financial windfall that there may be more gold in them there multi-race hills.

And it was successful even after the minimum was raised to 20 cents, even the increase chased many rank and file players until the carryover reached such proportions that they felt compelled to jump back in, lured by four-figure consolations after the dead-money pool had reached seven figures.

This latest variation on the life-changing-score theme appears to be a trial balloon to see whether there’s another mother lode of handle out there.

Further, it’s offered on dark Mondays when there’s precious little competition and the pool has been seeded with $25,000 starting tomorrow.

The carryover split on the wager is 60-40, with the same payout rules as the Rainbow 6—jackpot goes to a lone winner, but there’s no “force out” provision until the final of four Mondays, the length of the trial.

Knocks are easy to find. The entire 10-race card must be done before the first race--and that’s a lot of work. The final selections and wager must be placed approximately 90 minutes after scratch time, more deadline pressure on the player.

Mondays are the good news and the bad news. It’s a quiet day, yes, but there hasn’t been Monday racing at Calder…err GPW, in years, holidays notwithstanding.

While 10% takeout is attractive, picking 10 winners is on the impossible side of daunting; California’s Place Nine is plenty difficult enough.

And it won’t be cheap, even at a dime. Using two horses in each race, e.g., would cost $102.40.

Even if I were tempted, handicapping 10 races following busy wagering weekends is especially unattractive, and betting is a part of how I support myself. Picking A winner is difficult enough some days.

My thoughts on this probably fall in line with a majority of bettors, even those who are attracted to this type of wager; I’m inclined to wait for Week 4.

Either way, I’ll be surprised if this bet will be available same time next year.

UNLIKE CASINOS, SPORTS BETTING CAN PROVIDE HELP IN THE LONG TERM

Call him a flip-flopper if you wish, but it appears Gov. Chris Christie did his homework and now he’s betting that will win the legal challenges sure to come, first by the sports leagues then the courts, once sports betting comes to New Jersey next weekend.

Philosophically, we favor legalized sports betting because we believe there will be crossover between horseplayers and sports bettors, the common denominator being handicapping.

Besides, I don’t know a single horseplayer who doesn’t bet on sports, at least occasionally.

It might not turn out to be the savior of the remaining casinos in Atlantic City but anything that brings people to Monmouth Park or the New Meadowlands can’t be a bad thing; people already bet on horses and sports online. Why not try to get a legal piece of the sports action?

New Jersey citizens approved legalized sports betting at the state-s racetracks and casinos three years ago. What was needed was legal machinery that repeals the ban on sports wagering in the state; Christie’s signature on bill S2460 does that.

Once casino operators learned that putting on a racing product was far more expensive than running a casino, they have tried to walk back their commitment to the racing, the other side of the racino sword.

On its face, sports betting at the tracks won’t produce a similar result. They need to establish their own ADWs to attract online sports action to their own coffers.

In addition, sports betting can provide an opportunity for the tracks to create new fans for racing through cross-promotion activity. At least this gives racetracks a chance to grow revenues, or at least stem the tide of red ink.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, October 11, 2014


Cigar Smoked in Moderation, Winning Races One at a Time


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., October 11, 2014—My first recollection of Cigar, the horse that would become a present day Thoroughbred legend, is best described as a holy excrement moment.

After all, this was a well-bred underachieving turf runner, eligible for non-winners of 2 in his 14th start--back when secondary allowances actually filled—making his return to dirt, a surface over which he had broken his maiden in his second career race.

Switching to an up-and-coming rider named Mike Smith, Cigar led the flat-mile throughout with a half-mile gambit of 44.76 en route to an 8 length romp in 1:35.78; very impressive, indeed. But who could have known there would be 15 more to follow?

Fifteen, in a row, 12 of them Grade 1. And he didn’t just win those races; he dominated them, trackmen around the country underscoring that assessment, describing eight of those wins this way:

“Drew off.” “Dueled; drew off.” “As rider pleased.” “Much best.” “Cruised in hand.” “Easily.” “Gamely.” “Handily.”

Then came the hot-paced pressure in the Pacific Classic, a little SoCal home cookin’, and here comes Dare and Go.

And there goes the streak.

Citation just never allowed Cigar to take an undisputed lead on his legendary run, no matter how unconquerable, invincible and unbeatable he was over a dirt-course career that spanned two days shy of two full years.

Returning home to his Belmont Park digs after the Pacific Classic, Cigar rebounded to win the 1996 Woodward but a fissure in his armor was beginning to open when he was narrowly beaten in the Jockey Club Gold Cup in his next start.

This time the trackman’s short comment read: “Drifted late, game,” as he lost by a head to the mighty, younger Skip Away.

When horses begin running east-west instead of north-south, something might be amiss, or the warrior might be wearing down, having fought one too many battles.

In his next start, Cigar failed to defend his Classic triumph of the previous year, finishing third by a head to Alphabet Soup and Louis Quatorze.

“Bid, hung,” the trackman showing no mercy despite the world class competition; no compassion: “Bid, hung,” a description one normally associates with selling platers, not great champions.

But it’s the first time you see a horse do something extraordinary that excites the imagination, when it shows the kind of ability that promises exciting things to come, memorable things: The uncompromising, unwavering, unbelievable Cigar.

Rest in peace, champ.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, October 09, 2014


East Side, West Side, All Around So-Fla…


MIAMI GARDENS, October 9, 2014—As you head south on University Drive and make a left onto the racetrack grounds, the first sign you see says Calder Casino. It’s only until you drive a little further on the property is the building called Calder Casino and Race Course.

The signs may be the same as they were before the initial Gulfstream Park West program, but things are different now.

It’s the dawn of a new era: Gulfstream Park West, formerly known as Calder Race Course, had its unveiling Wednesday.

You remember Calder: It’s the racetrack located hard by Sun Life Stadium, formerly known as Joe Robbie, as one opening-day cynic explained.

Although the paddock area is still pastoral, Calder never was known for its ambience: At best, the facility is best described as a seven-story monolith of glass and concrete servicing the horseplayers of Dade County, not Broward.

It’s a different clientele that goes live racing here, more blue-collar than Tommy Bahama. But there was energy in the building; the racetrack vibe was familiar and good.

The new brand is an issue that has the managements of Gulfstream and Calder, the Stronach Group and Churchill Downs Inc., respectively, jousting with each other. It’s as if both parties were heeding the counsel Frank Pentangeli offered Godfather Michael Corleone: To paraphrase:

“Your father did business with John Marshall, your father respected John Marshall…but your father never trusted Frank Stronach, or his New-England-born CEO, Tim Ritvo.”

Not much has changed at Calder, except for mostly everything. Horseplayers are relegated to the first floor by CDI decree, the company that still owns and maintains the building. There’s no box seating area, no dining room facility, no frills.

The news media still has access to the sixth floor, but that begs a question: Can it still be considered a racetrack press box without a betting window or self-service tote machine?

Signs of Gulfstream Park West are ubiquitous, as is the color motif of the Hallandale Beach facility right down to the closed-circuit graphics packages, although there were opening–day audio glitches reminiscent of Saratoga, circa 2012.

Cooperation between the GPW or CRC managements is obviously lacking; everything still a negotiation. Gulfstream did make significant improvements in the backstretch areas, which were sorely needed, but precious few on the front side.

Business-wise GPW gets the same revenue as bets that are placed on live Gulfstream product, two pockets of the same pair of pants.

But it seems apparent, since there are precious few concession stands on the first floor or other amenities that GPW management prefers to have their old gamblers go east. Unlike Gulfstream Park, I witnessed no young people as I walked the entire apron.

Not having been to the venue in several years, the tote board was newer than I remembered but the races were much the same, playing out in a fashion that veteran Calder handicappers know all too well. It’s a solid product.

The betting menu is the same as Gulfstream’s and not the old Calder sequences. The main difference is that GPW is offering a 20-Cent Pick Six but without the Rainbow 6 carryover provision. Without that, or pool seeding, P6 handle was $4,445.

Thankfully and correctly, the new managers brought the same takeout rates crosstown, levels that rank Gulfstream 10th on the current Horseplayers Association of North America track ratings, as opposed to 46th for Calder.

It would have been much appreciated, however--and it still may not be too late--to adopt old Calder’s 12% takeout rate for the Pick 5, the co-lowest in the country. That would give the new tenant something to shout about; an avenue to increase handle.

There is one lament that started with a thread from Internet horseplayer activist Andy Asaro re: California racing; a practice that has been a staple in South Florida since Gulfstream began running the Calder dates on the East Side: The Tijuana Shuffle Lives!

There is no question that Gulfstream Park is the big time. Any track that can offer essentially Grade 2 Saturday product when measured against behemoths such as Belmont Park, Keeneland and Santa Anita and still attract $6-million in handle is by any measure prime time.

But what’s going on pre-race at Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park now is decidedly bush league.

It has been posited online that post times are being delayed to allow more time for bettors to reach levels supporting “guaranteed” multi-race betting pools. But for all races at GPW opening day, it was a case of “suggested post times.”

The opener, scheduled for 1:05 p.m., was off at 1:13. The third race, with a scheduled 2:07 post, albeit following an inquiry and a delayed posting of payoffs, the first leg of early Pick 4 didn’t begin until 2:25, 18 minutes behind schedule.

The 10-horse field did two twirls on the main track before it even entered the turf course. The fifth race went off with only a two-minute delay, but the scheduled post of 3:09 was 20 minutes late, off at 3:29.

The hope is that the next step will not be to emulate South Florida’s old dog track tricks. Back in the day, track executives would sit in front of a bank of closed-circuit cameras monitoring the betting lines. Windows didn’t close until no people remained in the queue.

For all practical purposes, this is counter-productive. Knowing that post times are meaningless, bettors dally and invariably there are shut-outs, anyway--especially when inconsiderate bettors handicap directly in front of the machine, that’s if they’re even comfortable with the self-bet process.

Along with the audio glitches, there were self-service machines in my area that worked slowly, some not at all, while some were not programmed to take bet minimums or sequential wagers of any kind. It wasn’t until I identified the track as Gulfstream Park West 2, and not GPW 1, that I was allowed to box an exacta.

Further, there weren’t enough self-service machines available, hopefully something that will be rectified by Saturday. Maybe there were more people in attendance than was expected or perhaps the lack of cooperation between landlord and tenant was to some degree responsible. But at least Gulfstream Park has its priorities right: "Gulfstream Park Racing and Casino."

Reaching an agreement that by all accounts was in the best interests of present-day racing in South Florida, took long enough. But now that it’s done, each manager must make a concerted effort to act like an adult. If not, the horseplayer will get caught in the middle. Again.



Written by John Pricci

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