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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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Extra Races, Speedy Jockeys and Dead Horses

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September 11, 2009--While we don’t usually look forward to a change of venue away from Saratoga, this year we’re happy to make an exception.

Because of the opening day sloppy track and the expected wet conditions for Saturday, our private little experiment might have to wait.

What I’m waiting to see is whether the race-riding tactics that were so prevalent at Saratoga will continue at Belmont Park. To wit:

When’s all this quarter-horsing going to end?

Due to the narrower circumference of Saratoga oval compared to the wide expanse of Belmont Park, one would expect that riders would jockey more aggressively for early position.

But exactly when did Saratoga race riding become Southern California BS style--Before Synthetics?

Seemingly, there were an inordinate number of excruciating pace battles every day. Just like Santa Anita and Hollywood Park in the old days; no easy leads.

Since Saratoga isn’t the speed-biased surface it used to be--back in the days when horses like Gusty O’Shea won the Hopeful--it was impossible for me to back speed horses with confidence at the recent Spa meet.

And since the Saratoga track is virtually bias free, except for those times when a drying-out surface deadens the inside path, it was curious why so often there was such a logjam for early position.

These tactics virtually eliminated the chances of handicap-able speed horses that were assumed to dictate the early fractions of a race.

It made many sprint races at Saratoga unbeatable for handicappers trying to pick winners using conventional pace handicapping techniques.

If there were three readily identifiable speed horses in a race, a hot pace battle among the three could be predicted with some certitude. Nothing unusual about that.

But when so many speed duels developed seemingly from out of the blue, riding tactics often appeared highly questionable to some respected observers we spoke with.

When horses with ability to press the pace were used hard in a battle for the early lead instead, handicappers are allowed to ask: What’s going on here?

At the same time, Saratoga tote board activity was often spooky. “Smart money” manifests itself at one of three different times: early, late, or somewhere in between.

Of those varieties, I personally prefer the smart early money that often “blows out” to a fair price just as late tote action is finding the form horse, or “steam” horses among first-time starters and the like. Late money attracts a crowd, often destroying value.

But the spooky part of the Saratoga tote action had little to do with the money bet: Rather, it was the money that didn’t show that so many times proved scary.

Handicappers must often make difficult decisions, whether the price on a horse represents value or whether it’s “running on three legs,” or “dead on the board.”

Dead money is an interesting phenomenon. I describe it, somewhat whimsically, as “smart money that didn’t bet already.”

Since leaving my public handicapping days behind aside from HRI feature race analysis or the occasional television appearance, my betting emphasis is to seek value, which is not to say betting on longshots. Under the proper circumstances $4 can be huge value.

Generally, I’m looking for two types of mid-priced horses to play, preferring to optimize in the 6-1 to 8-1 range or the longer 10-1 to 15-1 longshot category.

Using this approach I won’t cash a lot of tickets. Psychologically, I need to be OK with that. It’s why value betting isn’t, and shouldn’t be, for everyone.

Parenthetically, too many public handicappers throw the term value around without thinking confusing “value” with “non-favorite.” By definition, these terms aren’t close.

Whether betting favorites, mid-priced horses, or longshots, dead on the board often translates to dead on the track. And I can’t remember another race meet anywhere when the tote determined how well horses would perform. Or not perform.

A theory about the tote board phenomenon at the recent Saratoga meet:

On too many days, race cards were dominated by “extra races,” events not in the condition book but races created to take advantage of the immediate horse population.

The new emphasis in the racing office is to create larger and larger fields. That, or races put on the daily schedule to accommodate a particular horse or horseman.

There’s nothing sinister about this. But when races are made to go for certain outfits, rival horsemen know it because they’re “hustled” into spots they weren‘t pointing for. Often, the whole racetrack knows what’s going on.

Hustling horses into races is common practice everywhere. That’s why it’s important for bettors to read race conditions very closely. And that’s why one horse is so live and several so dead on the board. Trainers are written into and out of races. An inside game is very tough to beat.

So I’m very anxious to see what the race shapes and tote board activity looks like at Belmont Park. But I’ll wait for fast footing before drawing any conclusions.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Week Two: Lots of Buzz, Much of it Good

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 11, 2009--

Good Karma at the Sales
Potential Buyer Inspects Yearling Before Monday's Sale
Potential Buyer Inspects Yearling Before Monday's Sale
Photo by: Toni Pricci

The first of two sessions under the big top of the newly renovated sales pavilion at the Fasig-Tipton sales of Select Yearlings could not have gone too much better, including a rare appearance by jeans-wearing Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum.

Apparently, those were his work clothes. When he walked by us, he was going too fast to get a good look. He had his head down, seemingly deep in thought over his sales catalogue.

Not only did his appearance indicate how seriously he was taking his foray into the horse sales business in Saratoga but wanted to be a player in the ring, too. His reputation for being the world’s most prolific buyer of horseflesh is well deserved.

The sheikh bought a pair by first-year sire and magnificent champion, his own Darley Stable’s Bernardini, winner of the 2006 Preakness, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup.

The first was a daughter of Storm Beauty--the family of Gold Beauty, Dayjur, Maplejinsky and Sky Beauty--for $1.2 million.

The second, from champion three-year-old filly Birdtown which, of course, produced Birdstone, classics winner and sire of two of this year’s classics winners; the Kentucky Derby’s Mine That Bird and Belmont champion Summer Bird. The colt cost $1.3 million.

The highest price Bernardini of the night, ironically, was not sold. It seems $1.6 million was not enough to reach its reserve minimum. Hip #39 was a daughter of Teeming whose second dam, Better Than Honour, produced three-year-old filly champion and Belmont Stakes heroine Rags To Riches.

This filly was originally pin-hooked as a weanling for $1 million and $1.6 million apparently was not enough return on investment. By the next night she was off the grounds.

Humphrey S. Finney Would be Proud of the Improvements Pictured Here
Humphrey S. Finney Would be Proud of the Improvements Pictured Here
Photo by: Toni Pricci

On balance, it was an excellent debut for the “new Fasig-Tipton” of Saratoga, the facilities vastly improved by its new owners.

Business wasn’t bad, either. The year-over-year averages improved from $302,000 to $335,000. The median was up from last year‘s $235,000 to $250,000 on Monday. The sales concluded last night.

So, What Was the Arlington Million Course Condition, Anyway?

Guess that depends on your interpretation. The problem is knowing what window to take the information to the next time any of August 8 runners return.

Following Saturday’s second race at Arlington Park, the course condition was upgraded from “yielding” to “good.” That information was available to reporters in the press box and perhaps even announced to the crowd.

The problem is that no one who looked for the information on the tote board knew this to be the case, or about 90 percent of the betting audience. The course was labeled “yielding” throughout the afternoon.

An e-mail from Ron Flatter of 1050 ESPN in New York, came with this report on his blog for Sport 927 Melbourne. It read, in part:

“The condition of the turf was impacted by steady overnight rain and a stiff, day-long breeze in steamy, 81-degree heat. But it was also the subject of unnecessary debate all day.

“The tote board seen by the 28,141 at the track said the grass was “yielding,” a tertiary rating. But it was shown on the official results filed by Equibase – the bible of US racing data – as “good,” a secondary rating shy of “firm.”

“It could not have been both for any one race. But this is America, which finds new ways to simultaneously bamboozle and discourage punters. Suffice it to say the track probably would have rated about a 3.5 on the Australian scale.

“Dave Zenner [of Arlington Park] just shrugged the whole thing off - although he's not the guy who would have made the decision.

“I actually think some stubborn sort at Equibase was the one who decided based on the footing and kickback in the 1st race that they would change their [result] sheets-thereby creating confusion in future PPs.”

So be aware there is some question as to the correct course condition on the Arlington Million day program. Perhaps the track and Equibase will look into the matter.

Interested to learn that in Australia ratings are provided that give horseplayers a better sense of the going on which horses? Do you wonder why it’s not done here?

Perhaps the NTRA might do some good in this spot? Seems like the kind of non-controversial standardized improvement that everyone could support. All that’s needed is the will to do some good. And it costs nothing.

Wazzup with Breeders' Cup?

It seems that Fasig-Tipton isn’t the only organization that’s catering to the industry’s power brokers and fans alike. After substantially lowering admission and seating costs at this year’s event, a step in the right direction, now comes word that Breeders’ Cup will adopt the standard colored saddle towels for the championship races.

I must admit I think the royal purple ones used by Breeders’ Cup are, well, royal, really cool. But it seems an effort is being made to become more fan friendly. Better late than never. An idea for the B C folks. Please keep the purple saddle cloths for training purposes, to delineate the Breeders’ Cup horses from others stabled at Santa Anita. Perhaps have the participants keep those used for training as a memento.

Hall of Fame Day, Memories in the Making

We’re not in the business of promoting ideas put forth by the industry or racetracks that don’t have a direct positive effect on the fans but here’s a pretty neat exception.

After the 2009 Hall of Fame class including trainers Bob Baffert and Janet Elliot, jockey Eddie Maple, and horses Ben Nevis II, Silverbulletday and Tiznow are inducted Friday morning, the honorees will be celebrated with a trackside parade in vintage cars provided by the Saratoga Automobile Museum.

At approximately 12:15 p.m. from the top of the stretch, each Hall of Fame member will be introduced by track announcer Tom Durkin prior to a winner’s circle ceremony. The vintage autos include a ’67 Mustang, ’58 Oldsmobile, Firebird convertible, MGTD and the Saratoga Automobile Museum’s own signature car, a 1928 Model A truck.

Hope all simulcast locations will carry the video feed. It’s a nice way to honor excellence and achievement as fans throughout the country get to experience something positive about the game they support.

Spa 141 Business Still Brisk

With the 2009 race meet now a third of the way into the history books, attendance is up 4.8 percent with an on-track handle increase of 8.3 percent. All-sources handle is down slightly at 1.7 percent from 2008 totals, a positive when considering the national average for the year is down nearly 11 percent.

Attendance for the first 12 days has averaged 23,403, compared to 22,325 in 2008, an off year, while the daily handle average up over the $3 million mark to $3,243,513. To this point last year it was $2,995,253. With good weather expected today through the weekend, expect the trend to continue.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Rachel’s Talent Still Limitless

OCEANPORT, NJ, Aug. 3, 2009--It wasn’t long after Rachel Alexandra crossed the finish line at Monmouth Park, Calvin Borel standing in the irons and blowing kisses to the 37,090 on hand, that the question was raised: How good?

Immortalizing a Haskell Legend
Immortalizing a Haskell Legend
Photo by: Toni Pricci

Well, not even Borel could answer when asked by Monmouth Park television host Mike Curci in the Haskell winner‘s circle. “I really don’t know how good she is sir.”

Calvin calls everyone sir, which is why people like him.

Standing in the clubhouse during the ceremonies, Monmouth Park General Manager Bob Kulina was asked the same question.

“You can’t compare two-year-olds with three-year-olds but I saw Ruffian run here [winning the 1974 Sorority], and I think this is the best filly I’ve ever seen run at Monmouth Park.”

“She’s one of the best ever,” said Lou Raffetto, former trainer, longtime racing official and now CEO of the National Steeplechase Association. “The game needs her to keep winning.”

When I wrote last winter that Rachel Alexandra was “reminiscent” of Ruffian, colleague and friend Cary Fotias said it might be premature to use the “R” word.

“Not any more,” Fotias said after the filly’s thoroughly comprehensive Haskell score.

Someone in the Monmouth press box said she heard somebody drop the “S bomb.” Well, comparing Rachel Alexandra to Secretariat, the consensus Best Horse Ever, is getting ahead of ourselves.

But looking at Big Red’s three year old season beyond the Triple Crown, it wasn’t until fall, when he beat his elders and won impressively on grass, arguably completing the greatest season ever, did he ultimately define himself in a historical context.

The Triple Crown notwithstanding, Rachel Alexandra has been almost as impressive this year. Stakes and track-record victories, a number of 20-length margin scores and two Grade 1 victories over males, including the Preakness, and now, with victories over the Derby and Belmont winners, hers is one of the more amazing resumes in racing history.

How High is Up
How High is Up
Photo by: Toni Pricci

And so it was very interesting to learn that among future possibilities, a Saratoga program could include a start in the prestigious Woodward Stakes. Talk about defining Rachel’s place in history.

No three year old filly in the modern era has beaten classic winners twice in the same season. Now, with a chance to beat older males at scale weights, how would that grab the historians? By their annals, I should think.

If Rachel’s connections are intent on a Saratoga run, the September 5 Woodward allows another week’s recuperation time.

And in the battle for Horse of the Year honors, a Woodward victory would nullify any potential victory by Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic--should her connections decide to go that way.

It’s the been-there, done-that argument. Zenyatta may be a reigning champion but Rachel is the leader in the clubhouse. To my mind, Zenyatta would have to settle the issue on the racetrack.

Breaking Fast from the Gate...

For the New York Racing Association, which has gotten off to a strong start at the Saratoga 141 race meet, an appearance by Rachel Alexandra in the Woodward would give them huge weekends back to back, bringing the meet to a roaring conclusion.

Meanwhile, attendance gains of 13.5 percent, an on-track handle increase of 5.0 percent, and all-sources wagering, up a tad at 1.1 percent from the 2008 totals through week one, are numbers NYRA officials would have happily signed for a week ago.

While the weather opening week was not quite Chamber of Commerce good, it certainly was an improvement over last year, mitigating the enthusiasm somewhat. But that’s taking the hard line.

The biggest and best business news had to do with the smallest of gains, those made in all-sources simulcasting. Those figures are very encouraging in light of industry trends for the first half of the year, when nationwide handle was down nearly 11 percent.

The racing office deserves much credit here, making good use of the talent available to fashion interesting and competitive cards. A crowd of almost 34,000 for the meet’s first Saturday is eye-opening, as was average field size of 9.2 starters per race for the first six days of racing.

...And Faster Still

When he went to the sidelines looking very much like the most talented three year old in America, Quality Road was high on almost everyone’s list of top Kentucky Derby contenders.

When he returned in Monday’s G2 Amsterdam, he resembled one of the most talented horses in the country, period, and a serious challenger for Rachel Alexandra.

Tall order? Yes, but the ability is obvious. Assistant race caller John Imbriale wasn’t the only observer to question the running time of 1:13.53 for 6-½ furlongs. That clocking seems impossible for an Eastern track, even for a talented horse like Quality Road. The time smashed the track record by nearly a full second.

No doubt the track was lightning fast but then so is Quality Road. A check of the HRI archives proves we were a big fan of the individual when we saw him in South Florida this winter. Well, he’s filled out since then.

He toyed with his Amsterdam rivals. Watch the replay and judge for yourself. And he wasn’t at his sharpest, either. Johnny Velazquez was forced to urge him into the race early after a bobbled beginning. With or without Rachel, this Travers is coming up huge.

Written by John Pricci

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