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, June 11, 2008

Desormeaux Never Had a Chance; Racing’s Steroid Era Must End

It’s been days since the stunning non-performance by Big Brown in the 140th Belmont Stakes and everyone is still seeking an explanation, a reason for such a glaringly listless performance.

The truth is the fans and the industry will never know for sure until the results of a test, one that should have been administered on the morning after the Belmont, are made public.

Ever heard of Hypoadrenocorticism? Neither had I. But as a Big Brown fan I cannot accept what I saw last Saturday at Belmont Park. “Not himself” was not a suitably acceptable explanation, nor should it be, I thought.

Now I know better. Not only was “not himself” acceptable, it’s the only answer. Perhaps with an added qualifier. Because what I have learned since is that the Big Brown of Kentucky Derby and Preakness fame might not have been himself, either.

Maybe every single horse that’s ever been administered steroids, whether it be of the anabolic or corticosteroid variety, was never truly itself from the moment it got its first dose. Here’s what we didn’t know in the moments after the Belmont, nor learned from Dr. Larry Bramlage.

Hypoadrenocorticism is known by other descriptive names: adrenal exhaustion; turn-out syndrome, or steroid letdown syndrome. The condition, according to wikipedia sources, is a poorly documented cause of poor performance in race horses. Apparently not even experts in the field understand it fully.

But they know this much: Poor performances are usually attributable to the withdrawal of exogenous corticosteroid. It’s been a month since trainer Rick Dutrow was forthcoming about administering Winstrol, a non-corticosteroid, legal in 28 racing jurisdictions, to all his horses on the 15th of every month.

At that time, Dutrow said that he didn’t know what it did, but liked using it, and referred the media to his veterinarian, one of several he uses. Dutrow never said that his horses received corticosteroids, and subsequently admitted that Big Brown hadn’t received Winstrol since April 15.

Corticosteroids are commonly administered to race horses for one of two reasons, neither of which is good for the animal or the sport. By injecting it into the joints, it reduces musculoskeletal pain. Its other use is as a stimulant by causing a state of euphoria.

Prolonged corticosteroid therapy causes decreased secretion of ACTH by the pituitary, which results in adrenal atrophy. Withdrawal of exogenous corticosteroids may result in low concentrations of plasma cortisol.

Another symptom of turnout syndrome may be adrenal exhaustion, caused by the chronic stress of training. Or, perhaps, racing three times at the highest levels over three different surfaces in five weeks. Additionally, long term use of anabolic steroids may lead to adrenal insufficiency.

There are five clinical indicators of Hypoadrenocorticism, two of which are depression/lethargy and intolerance to exercise. According to what is known about the condition, the best time to test for this is the morning after a poor performance, seeking out either low concentrations of cortisol or a decreased response to ACTH stimulation.

There are three acknowledged methods of treating steroid letdown syndrome: The gradual withdrawal of corticosteroid treatment; turning out the animal for a period of one to three months, and decreasing alternate day doses of ACTH.

Relative to the above, either Dutrow or his veterinarians must supply some answers to racing authorities, preferably before the wrong people start asking those same questions.

Personally, there were many indications that Big Brown was not himself Belmont day. I watched video of him in the paddock on the large infield screen from my reserved grandstand seat. He appeared listless, not the inquisitive colt I’ve seen several times before.

But I’ve learned not to trust my lying eyes since the first time I learned that stretch runners don’t come flying down the homestretch to win a race. Rather, they simply decelerate at a slower pace than front-runners racing on tapped reserves.

Big Brown looked no better live in the post parade. He was sweating--something that horses should and must do on 94-degree afternoons. But the sight of kidney sweat, often a sign of internal stress that’s unknowable to onlookers, is never a positive.

Appearing listless is one thing but there were other indications this wasn’t the same undefeated winner of five races, three Grade 1s and two classics, by a total of 39 lengths.

The barn said that he had been rank--hard to handle--in the two days preceding the race. That’s not him, either. Neither was it him seen throwing his head, tugging at the reins on several occasions; nor was he a pretty picture prior to loading into the starting gate. We had never seen skittishness from Big Brown like that before.

Clearly there were other factors at work, too. He wants to run outside of horses. If not, why would his connections choose post 20 in the Derby when there were four other options available at the time?

The Belmont’s rival jockeys knew this, too. Alan Garcia on Da’ Tara got in front of him going into the first turn. Eibar Coa on Tale Of Ekati trapped him in a box on the lower first turn. Without question, Big Brown resented his jockey’s restraint and probably the tight quarters he was in, too.

Even if he did so abruptly, Desormeaux got him to the outside of rivals as soon as he could, almost bowling over Anak Nakal to do it. Then, after straightening out into the backstretch, Coa did some more race-riding, making sure he kept Big Brown way out in the middle of the track.

And the middle of the main track appeared dead all afternoon, and Desormeaux had to know that. He was in a perfect three-wide position aboard Commandeered, a 2-1 chance in the day’s first race, and the team just floundered there, never making so much as a bid.

For this, superintendent John “Fast Track” Passero must take the heat. The Belmont Park surface was sealed and rolled tighter than a drum on Friday night, long after the rains of Thursday had stopped.

There might not be as much cushion on Big Sandy as there used to be, but the surface still requires a great amount of water. Given the extremely hot day and the notion that all the moisture had been wrung from the surface the night before, the surface certainly would have benefited from more water content.

Desormeaux said that he thought Big Brown “slipped up front” coming out of the gate. That did not appear to be the case. Television analyst Jerry Bailey said he couldn’t verify that either from slow motion replays, but thought he might have slipped in behind.

While Desormeaux should have given Big Brown more rein away from the gate to get his horse into the clear, the fact is the winner broke cleaner and faster. It wasn’t riding strategy that beat Big Brown. In fact, Desormeaux told close confidants afterward “I knew I had no chance in the post parade.”

Desormeaux knew he wasn’t astride a happy horse; one that with the exception of those rank-early beginnings never was into the bridle; one racing on a quarter-crack patched only 24 hours earlier; that runs down--anathema at Belmont Park; one stressed out and off steroids, one worth $50 million.

To blame Desormeaux is scapegoating and shows little understanding of the variables at work. Given the scenario, the rider was unfairly maligned and didn’t deserve to get thrown under any buses, including the one steered by Big Brown’s trainer, race strategy be damned.

“I saved a horse today,” was Desormeaux’s immediate reaction after the race. And considering what had happened at Churchill Downs five weeks earlier, and the PETA demonstrators carrying signs outside the gates of Belmont Park, what the hell was Desormeaux supposed to do, anyway?

Another possibility is that, as smart as he is, Big Brown was taking care of himself before he was pulled up. And maybe, by racing as poorly as he did, he’ll do more for the sport than any lasting impression a Triple Crown victory would have made on his troubled sport.

Racing authorities need to find out what tests were administered to Big Brown post-Belmont, and what those findings were. Then, like Barbaro has done for laminitis research, and like Eight Belles is doing for musculoskeletal inquiry, Big Brown’s stunning Belmont performance can be the catalyst for good; an all-encompassing ban on the use of steroids.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

A Whiter Shade of Pale

Maybe it’s because it’s sports, more correctly, “only horse racing,” but it amazes how many media critics in the run-up to the Belmont Stakes have surfaced to detail the misdeeds of the connections of a horse trying to become thoroughbred racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner.

Perhaps some of my colleagues should be re-assigned to the news desk, where they might have done some good exposing life’s real evil doers. God knows racing continues to have its share of serious problems. But the planet has a whole lot more.

We in the media like to think we have the fortitude to tell it like it is, as the late Howard Cosell might have said. But where were the serious journalists--not those of us who toil in the candy store of American life, the world of sports--when members of the current administration in Washington D.C., and we all know who they are, outed covert CIA operative Valerie Plame?

In any other time of war, this would have been defined as an act of treason. Where were the scurrilous print editorials back then? Is Keith Olbermann the only journalist unafraid to speak truth to power in real time?

On a finer point, where was the indignant outrage directed toward Hillary Clinton’s actions on the same night that Barack Obama became the presumptive presidential nominee of the Democratic party?

Did she need to remind us--at that precise moment in time--about the 18 million voters who backed her candidacy? Did she ever truly recognize the historical achievement of a man whose race was a significant factor in his people being denied the liberty and justice to which we all pledge allegiance?

I suppose that scenario is less about the presence of wrong than the absence of right. Maybe it’s just that on some days negativity wears me out a little more than usual.

Pardon the rant, or don’t, that’s up to you. But the issues we take seriously in this country obfuscate the real problems that concern us all, which I‘m sure pleases those of us who make significant contributions to the entire dumbing down of America process.

So Big Brown’s owner Michael Iavarone lied, representing himself as something he’s not nor ever was. Were you ever in need of a second nickel to rub next to the only one you have? And didn’t he pay for those “crimes?”

The second thing he did after getting into the racing business as a licensed owner was to seek out a “juice trainer.” At least that’s what people thought he did when he hired Rick Dutrow.

Dutrow is licensed, too. He broke the rules and he paid his debts to racing society. So whose failing is it that Iavarone and Dutrow are standing at the precipice of helping to make racing history, their’s, or the system’s? Does the blame lie with the people in the sport, or those who make its rules and regulations?

And isn’t all this angst, mine and the rest of the media’s, misdirected? Aren’t all fans of the sport--those who support it and those of us who cover it--still reeling from the fate that befell Eight Belles in her quest to win a Kentucky Derby? Fans want to love their favorite sport, not feel embarrassed by defending it.

So, for one day, starting at midnight Saturday June 7, can we all just agree to enjoy the moment, celebrating a pageant that goes back to the early days of slavery in this country, and marvel at one of God’s most beautiful creations.

Bearing witness to a once and future piece of American history is a good way to enjoy a summer’s day.

Ironically, just as this blog was being completed, pinch-hitter Jason Giambi hit an 0-2 pitch for a two-run, walk-off home run and a dramatic 9-8 Yankees victory, overcoming a five-run deficit for a team that’s been playing lousy baseball.

As a Yankees fan, and well aware of Giambi’s checkered past, how am I supposed to feel right now? It’s all very confusing, like the color gray. Half black, or half white?

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Creating a Personal Doomsday Scenario

This is supposed to be the happy season for fans of the sport, damn it. But not if you have a pulse, not if you keep up with the latest developments, not if politicians and government agencies are involved.

You would think that with all the sexy happenstance surrounding Big Brown--the coolest horse in town--his connections, his quarter cracks, his glorious quest, it would be enough to keep us on the edge of our saddles.

But if you’re a horseplayer living in New York, you have a special kind of angst to deal with here, what with the insufferable NYRA franchise flap finally settled, sort of, the greedy power-mad politicians and, now, the New York City Off-Track Betting state of affairs.

If you bet on New York racing, as everyone in this country does at one time or another, the cost of wagering, like gas, milk, beef and all the rest, might rise. Because when politicians see a problem, they throw money at it.

Our money.

The NYC-OTB situation is the latest racing industry joke. Clearly, the closing of some bet shops has addressed a redundancy, the inability of the marketplace to keep some betting parlors viable.

There is no arguing with that portion of New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s plan. Bloomberg didn’t become a mega-successful businessman without knowing how to read a P & L statement, play hard ball, or how to apply a velvet hammer.

But his argument that NYC-OTB loses money is simply untrue. Yes, the “held harmless” provision mandating that OTBs pay harness tracks for the right to take off-track bets on nighttime thoroughbred races, a failed concept, has hurt the bottom line badly.

Someone must take the blame for not eliminating this provision once it was established that thoroughbred fans weren’t supporting their sport and that harness fans weren’t crossing over to wager on thoroughbreds. Some compromise in this area has been way overdue.

But how can OTB claim to be losing money because of the surcharge they impose on winning bettors? How can they claim the surcharge as an expense?

Indeed, surcharge monies go from the OTBs to the counties in which shops operate. No problem. That was part of the original agreement, the reason OTBs were created in the first place.

However, to claim that these monies represent a “loss” is completely disingenuous. For openers, it’s not OTB’s money. It’s the money that should have been returned to bettors via parimutuel rule. It’s the money bettors give up for the convenience of wagering off-track.

Now OTB wants to fix its problems by having the public pay for it, as if horseplayers weren’t already taxed usuriously. There has been talk of raising the takeout on straight wagers from 14 to 16.5 percent and on multiple wagers from 17 percent to 19.

(Exotic wagers involving multiples of three or more already are subject to a 25 percent hold).

Personally, I had a simple solution to the problem if higher takeout became a reality. With few exceptions, I’d simply bet elsewhere. Racing at Churchill Downs, Arlington Park and Hollywood Park, to name three venues, doesn’t represent that big a drop-off in quality.

But because of what happened to Eight Belles in Louisville, the federal government is threatening to investigate the industry; from unsound breeding practices, to the use of steroids, to permissive race-day medication, etc., etc.

And what are the feds using as a wedge issue? The Interstate Horseracing Act that allows simulcast wagering across state lines. They have sent letters to industry leaders, intending no doubt to line them up for questioning as if they were the racing equivalent to big tobacco, big oil.

So all had better get their collective acts together. Then, if for some reason, a boycott of higher New York takeout rates doesn‘t work and the feds wind up pulling the plug on simulcasting, then I’d have to figure a way to bet in Great Britain, or off shore, or with a bookmaker. Or maybe I’ll just stop betting on horses altogether.

Written by John Pricci

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