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 15, 2009

Players Take Sensible Approach to Odds Drop Issue

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 14, 2009--Last week we wrote here about how one California State Senator authored a bill making its way through the legislative process that one day might result in wagering being monitored in real time in that state.

We asked for comments, reiterating that request on Sunday, July 12th in a column titled "If You Have a Minute, We Need Your Help". The piece gave a brief history of the few incidents where wagers were made after betting ended, and where late-odds drops created the false perception that “past posting” was commonplace.

The comments have been tallied. There were 69 responses--excellent for a fledgling site--most answering our inquiry directly. Others engaged in dialogue both on message and on the periphery of perception in general. We asked if betting should be stopped at post time before horses are loaded into the gate.

Twenty-four respondents answered that betting should be stopped either at post time or, at the latest, when the first horse was loaded into the starting gate. Four voters were opposed and two others seemed to indicated no real preference either way.

One interesting aside was that respondents appeared troubled by the “perception” that late-odds drops were the result of past-posting. Sadly, the only inference that can be drawn from that is that horseplayers seem to care more about how false perceptions hurt racing than regulators do.

The majority of horseplayers want betting pool information transmitted in real time but they, too, live in the real world. Many acknowledged how expensive the ultimate solution is and are well aware of racing’s economic issues. But they want the problem addressed.

One of the recurring themes is that an immediate solution--the halting of betting at post time--is available to the industry now, but for some reason the tracks refuse to enact the temporary measure because it results in short term handle losses.

Most understand that while shut outs are inevitable at first, bettors would soon adapt their wagering to the new, stringent schedule.

Racing’s audience, those who remain loyal horseplayers despite the mistreatment they believe they’re getting from racing’s power brokers, understand the issues involved, many giving the issue far more thought than those working on the inside.

For those unwilling to take the time to read through all the threads on this subject, here are some truncated comments from HRI posters that best illustrates the majority opinion of racing’s customers.

From Cangamble, Thread #14: “…I conducted this [same] survey at and two of every three players wanted betting stopped at 0MTP… and I’m sure there were some racing executives voting not to stop wagering…”

And #36: “…When only a few tracks shut off early… players will either avoid those tracks or bet back the money at another venue, so this has to be done by the entire industry. There is no way handle will drop if racing adopts the ruling throughout the industry.”

From HANA President Jeff Platt, #18: “…Close wagering early enough to allow ALL pools to be merged and final before the first horse is loaded into the gate… Show a countdown timer graphic on the track video feed. When the countdown reaches 0:00 close all wagering for that race…”

From Erik, #31: “…Divert some slot money away from purses and fortify the structure of the game… If the game’s INTEGRITY is not protected, people won’t play…”

A Few Creative Solutions:

From Thomas Byers, #57: “At exactly five minutes to post, close Pool 1! These odds are now guaranteed. Note--there will still be a late fluctuation, of course…. Pool 2 begins a fresh wagering proposition for the late, ‘smart’ money. Which pool would you use?”

From Vic Harrison, #59: “Love the idea of separate win pools... That may be as close as we get in North America to fixed odds wagering… For example, 4 unique win pools each with their own separate odds, during the 20-minute period between live races…Could make for an exciting day at the races.”

Clearly, this could solve the problem temporarily. The industry could take its time: Begin Jan. 1, 2010. Until then, announce repeatedly that a change in betting procedure is coming so that fans will have no excuses.

When instituted, have the track announcer remind bettors twice a day; when changes are first announced and again later in mid-card: All betting stops at post time.

Post big numbers on track monitors, counting down from :59 seconds. Every track must comply. It’s the one measure on which all can agree.

If implemented thoughtfully, it costs nothing and sends the right message: Racing really cares about its players think. After, maybe work can begin on coordinating post times, etc., etc. Little things that can stop the stampede out the door. If not…

The Consequences:

From Dennis, #20: “…When only three of four track remain, then [we’ll have] real time information, exchange betting, and fixed odds betting will be accepted…”

From Jack Z, #34: “This has been my rant for sometime now… It is mind boggling to see the almost total disregard management and the industry has for its life line, the bettors! I’m tired of having to fight inane battles over something that can be fixed in a flash if the industry would get together as one!”

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, July 11, 2009

From Miami to LA: Speed then Stamina

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 10, 2009--Our regular Saturday trek around the country in search of good horses and wagers took us to two really hot weather spots: Miami and Los Angeles.

Every year I look forward to Calder’s Summit of Speed program despite the track’s high takeout rates. They put on seven stakes events, four of them graded, that have provided both memorable scores and beats in the past. A look at the All-Graded Pick 4:

This being the year of the filly and all, we’ll also take a look at what sadly promises to be the last Hollywood Gold Cup ever run, to examine whether Life Is Sweet, who’d rather meet males than stablemate Zenyatta, can become the first female in 41 years to do so. Chronologically, first things first.

Calder’s Graded Pick 4 gets started with the G3 Azalea for three year old fillies, the day’s seventh race. It drew nine fillies, three trained by super-trainer Marty Wolfson, two shippers, and one from super-trainer Kirk Ziadie.

Despite the fact that two fillies stand out on figures, it wouldn’t be shocking if any of six runners took this six furlong dash. But Underground (5-2), one of the shippers via Bob Baffert, and Royal Card (4-1), one of the Wolfsons, are fastest on performance figures.

Underground might be special. She won her only start on the front end on Cushion Track--not easy--coming the last quarter-mile in :23 3/5, also not easy. She earned a compressed :75¼ on the Equiform scale. Tyler Baze rides.

Royal Card has improved big time for Wolfson, recently earning figures competitive with Baffert’s filly. Paco Lopez rides. Royal Card’s 2-for-2 over the quirky Calder strip.

The G2 Carry Back is for three year old males at six furlongs. Half the six-horse field can win; Wolfson-trained favorite You Luckie Mann (9-5), Truest Legend (3-1), in from SoCal for Ron Ellis, and Not For Silver, from Pimlico for Michael Trombetta.

Truest Legend, 2-for-2 at three, and for Ellis, might lead this throughout. Ellis is having a profitable 2009 and is 2-for-4 going All Weather to dirt.

The G1 Princess Rooney lost its headliner, Indian Blessing, when the connections decided the medication she received to treat a problem might not clear her system in time for the race. Good judgment.

Half the eight fillies are particularly interesting in this wide-open sprint: Jessica Is Back (12-1), a four time Calder winner but coming off a lifetime top; Game Face (3-1), fast and classy, but inexperienced over the track.

Keep The Peace (6-1), also making her Calder debut, is fast, 3-for-4 at the distance, and draws leading rider Manoel Cruz. Marina Ballerina (6-1), who improved big time for Ziadie with blinkers, is 3-for-3 on the surface and lures Jose Lezcano from Belmont Park. They look like the value keys in here.

The G2 Smile Sprint Handicap completes the sequence and attracts defending Smile winner, Eclipse champion Benny The Bull (6-5). Regular rider Edgar Prado will attempt to repeat with the consistently fastest horse coming off a very good second to Fabulous Strike in the G2 Tom Fool, his season’s debut.

The play is to try beating Ikigai (2-1) in the exacta with How’s Your Halo (4-1). He won his prep for this impressively, earns good figures consistently, and his style suits the race shape. Cruz rides for owner/trainer Brian Prichard.

The G1 Hollywood Gold Cup has drawn a field of 13, 12 males and Life Is Sweet. We left six open, including, from the inside post out: Turf-to-All Weather Big Booster (12-1); defending Gold Cup winner Mast Track (20-1); Bullsbay (8-1), shipping in for Graham Motion and Jeremy Rose.

Then come the favorites, synthetic loving Parading (4-1) for Shug McGaughey and Kent Desormeaux; Life Is Sweet (9-2), second off the layup for John Shirreffs and Garrett Gomez, and Magnum (12-1), off a good prep and with excellent back figures at the distance over the surface.

Parading is the highweight at 119 pounds, followed by Life Is Sweet at 113, reflecting a five-pound sex allowance. A G1 winner of the Santa Margarita Handicap earlier this year, the filly is trying 10 furlongs for the first time but has the pedigree and style to do it.

Most recently second to Zenyatta is the G2 Milady, she was forced to alter course inside while her famed mate had clear sailing outside. Subsequently, she’s posted four consecutive bullet works on her home track and should get sufficient early pace.

If all that doesn‘t work, perhaps 2009 filly karma will.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, July 09, 2009

Triple Crown’s Winners Get Back to Work

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 8, 2009--In the past week, all the Triple Crown winners were back on the work tab and in the headlines. For racing fans what happens next is promising to be the big fun.

Interesting how the works seem to reflect the divergent paths Mine That Bird, Rachel Alexandra and Summer Bird are taking to their next assignments, including the unscheduled, unknown path of the Preakness winning filly, America’s most popular horse.

Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird worked a slow five-eighths in his recent introduction to the Monmouth Park surface. Pointing for the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational August 2, the 1:04 2/5 move was the first of four works intended to advance his condition.

Recall that his first work at Belmont Park wasn’t all that fast either but the end result turned out pretty well. It is clear that he needed to do something and trainer Tim Ice said he’d probably benefit from the exercise.

If he were mine, I frankly wouldn’t mind if her were no fully cranked for his Shore debut even with its million-dollar purse. I’d leave something in the tank for the Travers over a distance that better suits his talents and over a rival that would further lift his profile.

Summer Bird wouldn’t be the first horse to use the Haskell as a bridge to the Travers. Considering only horses that have completed a Haskell-Travers sweep, there have been five in the last 25 years, the latest Point Given in 2001.

The Travers is Mine That Bird’s major summer goal. The filly could possibly wind up in the race as well. Whichever colt wins the Derby/Belmont rubber takes the divisional lead and possibly Horse of the Year, too, in the unlikely event both Rachel and Zenyatta fall flat in the fall.

The Derby winner had his second work since the Belmont on Tuesday. On the surface it was a pedestrian half mile in 49.40 over a fast Churchill Downs surface. Looking deeper, however, the move was indicative of the good horse he is.

After going off slowly in 25.60, he finished up with an energetic :23.80 quarter mile and galloped out another furlong in :12.40, a sharp 1:01.80 while finishing up around a turn. Perfect. He’ll have two more works in advance of the West Virginia Derby, August 1.

Mine That Bird’s people have gotten a two-race commitment from Mike Smith, who got along with the gelding in his Preakness debut ride. This was a good choice given the pivotal significance of the Travers. It also means Zenyatta’s people are keeping their Breeders’ Cup options open.

Now if Zenyatta runs in the Ladies Classic, Smith, depending on the next two results, could wind up back on the Derby winner in the Classic. Or, the most fascinating occurrence, Calvin Borel could get the mount back for the Classic. Wouldn’t that be something?

MTB’s connections are making possible this major Breeders’ Cup storyline: Highly improbable Derby winner takes Classic; Borel earns redemption for Belmont miscue. But first things first, getting past Mountaineer and Saratoga successfully.

Monday’s lung opener for Rachel Alexandra on the Oklahoma training track was just that, a chance to get a blow after hanging out for a week in the same stall occupied the last two years by Horse of the Year Curlin.

What makes this filly so special, enormous talent notwithstanding, is her attitude. When she was paddocked at Belmont Park on the Thursday before the Mother Goose, she was so unflappable it looked as if she were sleeping.

Then, on the afternoon of the Mother Goose, as a fairly large crowd surrounded the ring straining to get a better look. And there she was, surrounded by security and busy handlers, standing quietly until it was time to go to work.

When finally led out of the stall and given a circumference of the ring, there were no histrionics. Neither strapping nor small, Rachel was up on her toes but not too high, just right. The only element separating her from the herd is her head; unmistakably female.

All this makes her special, to go from near slumber to winning the Mother Goose by nearly 20 lengths in record time, the Kentucky Oaks by more than 20. Calvin Borel has it right: “She’s not normal.”

It’s her temperament that allows such a brilliant animal to go a half mile in :50.67, with a gallop out of five furlongs in a dawdling 1:05. She does what she has to do when she has to do it and does it in a manner her handlers think is best.

The work gives no indication of what those handlers may be thinking. Given her ability, any scenario that’s chosen makes sense. A second victory over males in the Haskell could provide an insurmountable Horse of the Year lead. A Travers victory would make that a cinch even if Zenyatta became the leading undefeated horse of all time.

The longer her connections and those of Zenyatta dawdle on a future specified meeting place, Rachel can go her own way, sealing the Horse of the Year deal before leaves begin to fall. Then she could work on her place in history with an ambitious 4-year-old campaign.

The second season has begun. Where all these slow breezes lead is anyone’s guess. But it’s lifting the dialogue in a game badly in need of good news.

Written by John Pricci

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