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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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Tracks and Horsemen Learning Less Is More

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 21, 2009--As if they learned from attendance and handle figures released by racing officials at the recently concluded Hollywood Park meeting, Del Mar also has embraced the less-is-more concept for their 70th race meet that begins today.

If you require proof that the measure to reduce the Del Mar race week to five days--with Mondays and Tuesdays dark--adopted last winter was a good idea, you only need consider the HollyPark meet statistics which were, in these hard days for industry and economy alike economy, almost promising.

Indeed, when was the last time you noticed attendance was up at an American racetrack in 2009? I don’t know if you should legitimately count Gulfstream Park, which has a free gate, but you certainly can infer some positive signs from a 6.71 percent increase in handle.

Actually, based on across-the-board revenue gains in all facets of Gulfstream Park's business operations, officials projected an attendance increase over last year of 8.49 percent. Must be some accounting trick learned from a Goldman Sachs investment banker.

As for increased handle: “Racing five days a week led to an automatic increase in field size, and bigger fields attract interest and leads to higher handle,” Gulfstream President/General Manager Bill Murphy told HRI at that time. “The five-day-a-week program was a major factor in our meet’s success.”

The 55-day Hollywood meet featured a four-day week, down from five. And while an on-track average attendance increase of .8 percent doesn’t exactly set the pulse racing, it is a positive, especially when weighed against on-track handle losses of 9.1 percent, more an economic barometer than a measure of product popularity.

The move to four days undoubtedly was the right way to go. At the time of the reduction, business was off 20 percent and significant purse cuts were sure to follow. And any time a track can beat the current national downward spiral is a reason to party.

Which brings us to today’s Del Mar opener, where more than 50,000 members of the fun-in-the-sun set are sure to frolic into early evening at the seaside track. Even the horsemen got into the less is more spirit: The traditional opening-day Oceanside Stakes will not be split for the first time since 1988. This, of course, is an attempt at levity. But increased gas prices and high unemployment in the state is not helping the buzz normally associated with this feel-good meet.

Clearly, however, date retrenchment worked well at Gulfstream Park and helped reverse negative trends at Hollywood Park. For all anyone knows, it might have worked at Churchill Downs this spring but, of course, we’ll never know for sure.

CDI’s mission statement apparently states something like: “We’ll do what we must to succeed at the bottom line and it’s none of your damn business how we do it.” They broke their self-imposed media silence only to tell the world (read stockholders) how successful the Churchill After Dark experiment turned out.

The idea of retrenchment is sold to the public on the notion that additional dark days provide horses, horsemen and players needed rest and recuperation time, in the hope all that will lead to bigger fields, higher quality of competition and an overall better product. As an artificial demand stimulus, this tack ain’t so bad, either.

The move apparently is popular with the SoCal horsemen: “I've always wanted Del Mar to be five days anyway, for selfish reasons,” said trainer Ron Ellis in a recent online report. “But from a business standpoint, I think it was a very wise move because there's just not [enough] horse inventory to sustain a quality meet six days a week.”

Added Ellis: “I'm a little concerned about whether they'll be able to sustain a five-day week because Hollywood Park had trouble with a four-day week. It's not going to be that easy… because horse inventory is down so much.”

Given that reality, yet wanting to minimize the handle reduction given the fewer betting opportunities available, Del Mar added extra races three of the five days, “losing” only 26 races in all. “Short fields [are] a lot easier to win but from the gambler's perspective, players don't like to bet on small fields and that's what drives the whole industry.”

Whenever reasons are given for a reduction in race dates and how the tack will or will not increase handle, no one seems to consider the personal economy of the bettor. Horseplayers either have $50 or $500 or $5,000 to lose in any given wagering session and not a penny more, ATMs notwithstanding.

But horseplayers cannot bet more money than they have, unless of course they’re betting with the local bookie. But most bookmakers don’t take horse bets anymore. Their exposure, unless they're part of a bigger organization, is too high. Nowadays neighborhood bookies take horse action only as an accommodation to their sports customers.

Doug O'Neill would agree, echoing Ellis’s remarks in that same story. “I think if you give the horses and bettors, who are the ones who really drive our game, an extra day to kind of freshen up…you could look at it as having one less day [that might] make more money.”

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Will Virginians Love Barbaro’s Brother in their Derby?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, JULY 17, 2009--Our weekly simulcasting sojourn in search of good horses and potential scores takes us to New Kent, Virginia and Colonial Downs, site of today’s Virginia Derby.

Has it been 12 years already?

It certainly didn’t take long for this 10-furlong grass route to become an established stop for promising young three-year-olds en route to loftier turf goals later in the season.

A Grade 2 event, it was Crowd Pleaser beneath Jean-Luc Samyn who took the inaugural in 1998, the first of two victories for Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard.

Future Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher also has two, but it’s Sheppard’s fellow Hall member Bill Mott who leads the Virginia Derby pack with three. The race has launched the careers of the remarkable Silver Tree and champions Kitten’s Joy and English Channel.

This year’s running features the most hyped horse of 2009 not named Rachel Alexandra, Nicanor. Why? Because I’ve never seen his name without the parenthetical: “Nicanor, the full brother to Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro…”

That doesn’t make him a bad horse. In fact, it makes him a very promising one. But it wasn’t until trainer Michael Matz made the switch to turf did the colt’s pedigree begin to shine.

The 7-2 early line favorite was unraced at 2 and finished second in his first three starts on dirt this winter. After the switch, the Dynaformer colt broke his maiden by 15-¾ lengths, followed by a less than compelling allowance win, both at Delaware Park.

Rising star Jose Lezcano, who gets along especially well with grass horses, has the ride.

Battle of Hastings, who won the Colonial Turf Cup June 20, returns from his California base and is the early line second choice at 4-1. Regular rider Tyler Baze will partner the field’s most accomplished runner.

Hold Me Back is third choice at 5-1 despite never having won on grass. Trained by Mott, Hold Me Back most recently was 12th in the Kentucky Derby following a rough trip. Kent Desormeaux rides the Giant’s Causeway colt.

A winner of two of three starts on synthetic surfaces at Turfway and Keeneland, including the G2 Lanes End and a G1 placing in the Blue Grass, that experience and his freshness augur well for the turf meant colt. His late kick just oozes turf style.

Florentino has winning credentials--as does El Crespo and the unlucky Straight Story--in a compellingly wide open renewal. Even price shot Lime Rickey is not without a chance. A great betting race, post time is 6 p.m.

On Equiform performance figures, the best numbers of Florentino, Straight Story, El Crespo, and Battle Of Hastings would fit neatly under a blanket. Further, Straight Story, Battle Of Hastings, Hold Me Back and Lime Rickey are off Equiform patterns that signal likely improvement. What to do?

Getting value is absolutely mandatory here. I wouldn’t consider any contender at less than 4-1--and that’s taking a bit the worst of it. We’re not betting Barbaro’s kid brother under any circumstances, especially at early line odds. Just can’t believe he’s mentally ready for this test.

There are two other added money races that compromise an all-stakes Pick 3. The sequence begins with the Kitten’s Joy for three-year-olds and up at 1-1/16 miles on the inner Colonial course. It’s no easier than the Derby.

Early line favorite Vanquisher (7-2) is deserving of the honor. He clearly owns the best record at the distance, 4-for-6, is five weeks fresh, has tactical speed, an inside draw and the best company lines in the race.

The five year old is reuniting with Alan Garcia, who won a restricted stakes with him at Gulfstream Park. Greg Griffith trains the gelding for George Steinbrenner at his Tampa base.

Two others of interest are Tiger Woodman (5-1) and Jazz In The Park, an overlay at anything resembling early line 12-1 odds. ‘Tiger’ has had four works since his too-late rally in the overnight Tinman Stakes, a race that produced three next out winners. If the race falls apart, ‘Tiger’ and Julien Leparoux will be ready to pounce.

But ‘Jazz’ is the most intriguing. His figures rank with the best in the group. His tactical speed and mid-pack draw could find him in a garden spot, and he owns enough kick to grind this out at long odds. He loses Leparoux to ‘Tiger’ but picks up position-conscious Cornelio Velasquez. Interesting, to be sure.

The Virginia Oaks is a G3 for three year old fillies going nine furlongs. Or just call it the middle leg of one of the tougher Pick 3 sequences we’ve ever seen.

Complicating it is that I’ve been waiting to bet back on Shared Account, 11-1 in her restricted stakes turf debut at Belmont Park last out, but now winds up in a G3 without ever having won on grass as the 3-1 early line favorite from post 11. Please.

But Shared Account never, ever had a chance to run on Long Island until it was too late. Graham Motion taps Edgar Prado to replace Jeremy Rose. Her main rivals? Almost all of them.

Most notably: Oh So Nice (5-1), making turf debut for the Informed Decision team of Julien and Jonathan. Must be working sweetly on grass at the old Strawbridge spread. And Excelente (9-2), who has good figures before suffering through a wide trip in the Indiana Distaff two weeks ago.

And there’s Fast Tigress (4-1), with competitive figures and toughened by graded stakes company. And Blind Date (7-2), a little win machine that might outrun her speedy pedigree, Kent Desormeaux aboard.

Can’t even throw out Super Poni (15-1), drawn inside with Rosie Jr., having the meet of her young life.

Hey, they got Dime Pick 3s in Virginia?

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Golden Oldies: Accentuate the Positive, Eliminate the Negative

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 15, 2009--Sometimes the news comes fast and furious.

HEADLINE: Racing Needs To Rethink Slots Revenue Strategy

Thought provoking piece posted by Tom LaMarra on the Bloodhorse site today. In part:

“For too long, slots revenue has been allowed to mask the fact handle is heading south. If that was a problem before slots, it's worse now. There's more public scrutiny.

“It might be easier to protect gaming subsidies if it can be documented efforts are being made to spur growth in the core product, which is pari-mutuel wagering. Instead, we see very little put into racing marketing and public relations… lots of ‘We tried that, but it doesn't work.’

“If you say it doesn't work, that simply provides more ammunition for money-hungry legislators to say, ‘Why the heck are we doing this?’

“No one told horse racing groups they had to spend all their slots money on purses and breeding programs. But that's what has occurred, and now we have a competition over who has the highest purses rather than a thoughtful approach that looks at the big picture…”

* * *

Indeed, public scrutiny is a major issue. Everyone’s mantra is that the industry, never mind handle, is “dying.”

A major racing organization, any major organization, needs to take out full page ads in mainstream media comparing racing’s troubles to other industries. Just state the facts. Racing isn’t doing as badly as has been perceived.

Perception is the killer. Perspective combats perception.

There also should be statistics published relative to racing’s impact on economies world-wide. There’s money in green. I’ve never seen racing’s green space role sufficiently exploited.

I read where the Ohio Council of Churches is going to sue over installing VLTs. And I’m wondering, on moral or financial grounds? In one statement they were morally opposed. In another, the state wasn’t getting enough up-front money for licenses.

How about this? How about racing suing, or threatening to sue, racino operators who used parimutuel betting to launch their operations and now want to kick track operators out the door? How about showing some guts?

Yes, slots money has gone to purses and breeders. Good for them in the short term, but bad for everyone else down the road. The day of reckoning will come. Here’s an idea: Want to create demand? Cut supply. Increase efficiency.

If revenue is the issue, marketing of the sport’s gambling aspects is not optional. Exploit the fact that racing is about sport and gambling. Market it that way. Need slogans?

How about “Handicapping: Quality Time for Your Brain.” “Say No To Slots: A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste.” Go after the thinking market; target those with bucks. Play hardball. The masses will never get it, anyway.

HEADLINE: [Ohio] Reps Would Like to See Expansion of Slot Machines

“State Rep. Joe Koziura (D-Lorain) said Tuesday that putting video lottery terminals in the state’s seven racetracks is a good idea but it shouldn’t be limited to just racetracks…

“Horse racing is a dying industry throughout the country,” Koziura said. “It shouldn’t be for seven racetrack owners who become richer than they are. Why should we bail them out?”

* * *

Some racing organization needs to set the record straight. In print, on talk radio shows, anywhere they can. Explain that racetrack owners are not former Goldman Sachs alumni, that not all track operators are super-rich, nor is this akin to a “bailout.”

Explain how much thoroughbred racing alone has contributed to 38 state coffers since the beginning of time. And how that figure compares with the contributions of other industries?

Make a case. You’re only irrelevant if you want to be. Or, as one HRI reader said recently: “Hope is not a strategy.”

HEADLINE: Del Mar Lures Young Fans With Music

From San Diego News “Almost a decade ago, racetracks all over the country faced a decision: evolve or experience the slow death of a shrinking demographic…

“The racetrack in Del Mar…has managed to reshape the perception of horse racing through clever ad campaigns giving the sport a classic retro appeal…

“Along with the shift in marketing strategies came a series of live concerts, free with admission to the track…

“ ‘We realized that if we had any chance to grow our business,’ an executive said, ‘we were going to have to market to a younger audience’….

“So we changed the way we advertised. We changed the way we handle our publicity. We changed just about everything. We went with our new slogan ‘Cool as Ever.’…

“We changed the types of events we do at the track, all trying to attract a younger crowd to Del Mar….”

* * *

Before you think been there, done that, think again. I attended concerts at the old Gulfstream Park. Bands with name recognition, even if most of their “records” were filed in the discount rack. But I wasn’t the audience the track was trying to attract.

Bodies entered the building, sometimes 25,000 strong. Per Capita? Next to nothing. But they were in the house, hanging out after the concert. They seemed to enjoy themselves.

Music, or night racing, is what you do when trying not to lose yet another generation. Anything to get them in the building. Think this might work?

Give out 100 $10 vouchers good for wagering only, a free $5 win and place bet on that day’s feature race if they were willing to listen to a five-minute handicapping seminar.

Hopefully, they might think (a) this is pretty cool, (b) you can sort of figure this stuff out, (c) race excitement, color, and rooting for free money is compelling, or (d) that was a trip.

But first they must be in the building. Then a cool, young marketing person welcomes them to the track, engages them, and invites them to stick around after the concert to see if they won a drawing for a free $10 bet.

How do you think they might react to that experience? What if they won?

If they didn’t return once, which seems unlikely, at least they’d have something positive to say about the racetrack experience.

Written by John Pricci

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