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, January 29, 2009


The Changing Face of Eclipse Accomplishment


South Ozone Park, NY, January 28, 2009--This being awards season, some final thoughts on Eclipse recognition before getting on to new business.

And I’m thinking now Clint Eastwood must know how Jess Jackson felt, and vice versa.

Actually, there might have been more justification for snubbing Eastwood and his “Gran Torino” than overlooking Jackson’s contributions to his industry this past season.

After all, 2008 was a year when those who toil in the Hills of Hollywood enjoyed an excellent season and gave so many superb performances.

Could it be, I’m wondering, in light of last year’s Screen Actors Guild strike, that perhaps Hollywood’s practitioners saved their best efforts for what is referred to in the sports world as a “walk year?”

Actually, it wasn’t so much that Jackson wasn’t honored as the sport’s leading owner as much as it was that he didn’t even make the cut.

A ludicrous disgrace.

Jackson campaigned the defending Horse of the Year to a repeat title in thoroughbred racing’s defining category, first one in over a decade.

I can remember when, back in the day, justifiably or not, that probably would have been enough.

But no need to pine nostalgic here. An in-the-money finish, at least, was certainly deserved, for all the well documented reasons.

While Jess Jackson is a man of extraordinary means, he’s no member of racing’s good old boy network. Whenever he saw something wrong or unfair, he spoke his mind.

And good old boys don’t do that.

The fact that he did so in front of a Congressional hearing eliminated any chance he might have had at winning an industry popularity contest.

But even if he had finished third in the final accounting, the vote still went to the wrong owner.

I am no Frank Stronach apologist, but running a racetrack operation and a breeding and racing empire are vastly different areas. Sometimes this line is badly blurred.

Stronach the racetrack operator and Stronach the owner-breeder don’t belong as part of the same currency much less the flip side of the same coin.

But the balloting in the owner category could just as well have been conducted in Daley’s Chicago or on the Redneck Riviera.

According to Daily Racing Form reports, sixteen individuals or consortiums received votes among the 242 ballots cast, and Stronach nosed out IEAH Stable and partners, 47-46.

With Jackson not making the cut, IEAH, with 11 Grade 1 victories with eight different horses, was a prohibitive choice. If not, the competition would most likely come from Zayat Stables, not Stronach.

But even as IEAH was the choice of two of three voting organizations, the National Turf Writers and DRF staffers, the fix was in when NTRA racing officials at Stronach-owned voted for their man by a 17-4 margin.

While racing secretaries by trade are considered great handicappers, perhaps it’s time to suspend their voting privileges if conflicts get in the way of objectivity.

Balloting history is replete, not only in the above example, with racing executives voting for the owners and trainers who brought the “big horse” to their racetrack…as if soft highweight assignments weren’t enough inducement.

This obvious conflict of interest should no longer stand.

And neither should categorizing owners as separate entities, effectively punishing partnerships.

Balloting data supplied to voters does not currently include listings of such partnerships under the “graded wins” or “earnings” categories of listed rankings.

Consequently many IEAH winners, like West Point Stable in 2007, weren’t included. For voting purposes in the future, horses should be listed in the names of the managing owners that do the syndicating. Until a better solution comes along, that would be more equitable.

Further, votes should not be accepted nor calculated until after New Year’s day so that late-season graded wins and earnings won’t be marginalized. Late season results could prove the difference in categories that are too close to call.

In the age of Internet voting, there’s no reason why voters shouldn’t be made to wait until the last possible moment before casting a ballot.

Additionally, an Eclipse panel created among representatives of the three voting blocs should be empowered to suspend future voting privileges of individuals it deems as not taking their responsibilities seriously.

Fair minded people will know it when they see it. There simply was no reasonable defense for not casting championship ballots for Zenyatta or Stardom Bound, no justification whatsoever.

That’s what abstentions are. Wouldn’t it have been more honest had a voter abstained rather than cavalierly cast a ballot for Ginger Punch, and Sky Diva and Rachel Alexander, respectively, in the older mare and juvenile filly divisions?

And hasn’t time come to consider a category for Synthetic Surface Performer of the Year, or something to that effect? Current voting reflects the results of competition on two surfaces, only now there are three.

If the Eclipse Awards are to have clarity and worth in the future, periodic tweaking must acknowledge the sport’s changes and more sincerely validate accomplishment.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Stardom Bound Deserving and Worthy of Derby Run


South Ozone Park, NY, January 27, 2009--The news that juvenile filly champion Stardom Bound is pointing for the Grade 1 Las Virgenes on February 7 at Santa Anita as a prelude to her run in the Santa Anita Derby in April is welcome news.

But the notion that her primary objective of the spring is the Kentucky Oaks seems disingenuous on its face. Why run against the boys unless your aim is to beat them? And she won’t make an all-time list if she happens to beat them at Santa Anita.

Sorry, wrong Derby.

So, let’s be honest. The real goal for Stardom Bound is the Kentucky Derby. In these times, you don’t spend $5.7 million on a filly, even a champion, to win the Oaks.

At this point, beating up on more West Coast fillies isn’t going to prove much. Been there. Done that.

Which is why Zenyatta should have run in the boys Classic and not the Ladies Classic, but that‘s another story.

The history of the IEAH folks who bought Stardom Pound is one of making astute purchases. See Big Brown and many of the other Grade 1 winners that made them the leading owner in that category in 2008.

But with Big Brown and Rick Dutrow and a miserably failed Triple Crown attempt came all the attendant negative publicity, and the IEAH group, fairly or unfairly, became the outfit that turf writers enjoyed beating up on the most.

Given the history of last year’s Kentucky Derby and the tragic accident involving the filly runnerup, Eight Belles, who could blame Michael Iavarone and all the others if they don’t wish to answer those kind of questions for the next three months?

“Don’t you think that fillies are at a physical disadvantage against males?” “Given what happened last year, do you think it’s a good idea?” “Aren’t you afraid another accident like last year’s would be the kind of calamity that would kill the game forever?”

We’re not going to pretend these aren’t valid questions. But here’s a few others.

“Aren‘t there circumstances when racing females against males is permissible?” “Don’t certain body types, or running styles, mitigate the perceived risks?”

“Is the defense that breakdowns are an unfortunate part of the game no longer tenable?” “Is the sport going to run scared the rest of its days?”

Real questions that deserve real answers.

There’s a history of celebrated fillies that have become a special part of racing lore mostly because they beat males: Shuvee. Affectionately. Winning Colors. Priceless Gem. Genuine Risk. Rags To Riches.

So it’s been done here before, just like it’s done everywhere else in the world.

Foundation; soundness; superior ability. Satisfy those parameters and running fillies against colts is not dangerous.

However, the mainstream press that covers the Triple Crown doesn’t appreciate this. And ambitious columnists looking for a fresh angle won’t care and will sound an alarm anyway.

And, as for groups such as PETA, any organization wishing to call fish “sea kittens” should never be taken seriously ever again. If the industry can’t win that battle, how can it ever expect to survive?

The thing we know about Stardom Bound at this point in time is that she is in the conversation when someone wants to know who the “best,” or “most talented,” or “classiest” three-year-old is.

Further, she has the right body type and Derby style. A strong, late finisher who runs turns well; the stress factor is reduced significantly for rally types. And she gets a five-pound head-start, too, 121 vs. 126.

The one fear observers have is that fillies who try to do too much to compete with males, and over-achieve as a consequence, force themselves beyond their physical limitations.

Ruffian’s ability to match strides with Foolish Pleasure was beyond her limitations. She couldn’t race within herself and beat a Kentucky Derby winner. She was hell-bent-for-leather speed. Those types are never easy on themselves.

Not like Stardom Bound, who runs hard only after you flip on the switch.

Of the leading two dozen Derby horses that have raced a mile or farther as late-season juveniles or early season sophomores, only three have run the same better final figures on the Equiform performance-figure scale.

Her temperament, style, ability and class notwithstanding, Stardom Bound's greatest Derby attribute is her juvenile foundation: Five starts, two around two turns, both resulting in dominating performances.

Getting her started in February, then seeing if she passes the colt test in the Santa Anita Derby gives her two Derby preps, just the way new trainer Bobby Frankel likes it. If something happens in the interim, the Oaks on the same weekend would be a great fall-back position.

But considering this filly’s talent, that’s all the Oaks should be. If the Derby were run tomorrow, Stardom Bound would be no worse than third choice in the betting. That, too, makes her worthy and capable of success on racing’s greatest stage.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, January 24, 2009


Handicapping Conundrum: Skill vs Luck


Loyal HRI reader Mark Muiler must think he’s a standup comedian. Muiler e-mailed this yesterday: “Quick Question: In your opinion what percent of handicapping is
luck, and what percent is skill?”

Suppose you’d like a quick answer, too, right Mark?

Well, there isn’t a quick answer to your quick question.

Why?

Because it’s not a quick question; it’s a trick question.

The honest answer is I have no idea. But neither does anyone else. Of course, that won’t stop me from trying.

I’m a horseplayer and it‘s not in our DNA.

If the ADWs, the State Racing and Wagering Board, Wesley Snipes’ friends over at the IRS and doping out turf sprints can’t stop me, what makes you think some little quick, trick question could?

OK, here‘s your answer. Quantitatively, it’s 80-20, with 20 being the luck part. Qualitatively (read reality based) it’s closer to 50-50.

But on some days, it’s 0-100.

When I make a nice pick and folks come up to praise Caesar, not to bury him, my stock false-modesty answer is: “I’d rather be lucky than good.”

It may be false modesty but it’s no less true.

Horseplayers go through equal periods of Messiah complex and self-loathing on a regular basis, as much as five or 10 times during a single simulcast event. It’s the nature of horseplaying humans.

But I think I have a better handle on these ups and downs--another way of saying lucky or unlucky--than most horseplayers. Why? Because of the unwritten press box rule.

When you walk into a baseball clubhouse, you’ll come across a sign that reads: “No Gambling Allowed.”

Ask Pete Rose.

But while it’s not spelled out specifically on the walls of racetrack press boxes, a related sentiment is also true:

“No Cheering Allowed.”

Parenthetically, the unspoken rule was later amended by Andrew Beyer, who deemed it permissible to root enthusiastically if the proceeds from your wager was equal to 10 percent or more of your annual salary.

A reasonable man, Mr. Beyer, although I cannot remember whether that proviso came before or after he put his fist through a press box wall one sunny Florida afternoon when the luck ratio was in the 0-100 category.

The point is that nearly four decades of no cheering has conditioned me not to get too high or too low about what’s unfolding between the fences of a race in which I am vested, important for focus and objectivity

To Mr. Muiler’s point, the awful truth is that no amount of brilliant handicapping can make up for a horrible stumble, a ten-wide rally, or the loss of a photo by the re-bob of a head.

It’s for all the those reasons that you must be able to put a price on a horse’s head and bet only when getting true value, the most overused and misapplied term in the handicapper’s lexicon. But I digress.

I wouldn’t be able to live with myself as a wagering professional unless I truly believed that hard work can help factor out some of the unlucky things that go on.

However, luck has little to do with it if you’re betting a pace presser from post 10 in a grass sprint or taking a rally type from the rail post out of the chute in a middle-distance sprint.

Good handicapping CAN overcome bad luck.

But, luck, she does give us the fickle finger at inopportune time. As if there were opportune times.

Here’s something I’m working on but have been unable to pull the trigger on because each gambling event is, logically, mutually exclusive. To wit:

You’re between two horses in the first race of the day, either would be a great value play. You choose one and he gets checked and steadied all over the lot. The other gets the perfect inside-out trip for an easy win.

Or the horse in the second half of the double to which you are alive for a good score goes wire to wire by a dominating five lengths, but is disqualified for crossing over too quickly to the rail, forcing some no-chance rival to take up behind him.

This is when my subconscious screams: “Pack up figures and trip notes, you‘re out of here.”

Invariably, I stay. Almost invariably, my bad luck doesn’t change until the following afternoon.

There’s no logical reason why the fifth or eighth race of the day has anything remotely to do with what happened in the second half of the early double. But I’ll be damned if it doesn’t.

That said, I always have, and will continue, to take the game seriously and I’ll continue to work hard and succeed.

I’ve been blessed in so many facets of life that you’ll seldom hear a woe-begotten tale--even if I must listen to yours--but I think the gods of racing might have been kinder in a couple of life-altering spots I can think of.

The true bottom line is that if I don’t do my homework and lose, it’s on me. But since I cannot control the unknowable, my only recourse would be to re-load and come back tomorrow.

But if I really believed that luck were that important, then why do I also sometimes respond to handicapping praise by saying “the harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Written by John Pricci

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