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, 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 Network.com: “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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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 paceadvantage.com 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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