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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Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Simulcast Manifesto

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, October 14, 2009--Following opening remarks at the International Simulcast Conference hosted by Thoroughbred Racing Association and Harness Tracks of America Tuesday, I discussed and suggested, as a course of action, the weighted preferences of HRI readers.
HRI Executive Editor John Pricci Addresses Industry Issues
HRI Executive Editor John Pricci Addresses Industry Issues
Photo by: Toni Pricci

I explained why I believe presentation and information are paramount: Video must be pleasing to the eye, graphic packages legible and sharp.

And, if those criteria are met, racetrack brands would be perceived favorably and bettors would get the message that tracks want their customers to have fun and make money.

Bells and whistles notwithstanding, horseplayers need accurate and comprehensive data to make money. That data; scratches, equipment and medication changes, track conditions, surface switches, jockey changes and, of course, the odds, are variables that have a profound impact wagering decisions.

While I’m a fan of split-screen presentations if done correctly, I acknowledge the traditional pan shot remains the most popular method of presenting races to rank and file bettors.

Cutaways are anathema to most fans, and while not a big fan of those beauty shots myself, they are useful when broadcasting races from foreign tracks with unique layouts or when those hideously monstrous infield projection screens obstruct the view.
Executive Vice President Chris Scherf Welcomes Simulcast Panel
Executive Vice President Chris Scherf Welcomes Simulcast Panel
Photo by: Toni Pricci

Split screens are used most effectively in graphic presentations. All Will-Pays should be posted twice, at minimum, and at the same intervals daily. Television productions go out of their way to avoid duplication, but shouldn’t when it comes to data dissemination.

The modern simulcast player needs to evaluate copious amounts of information in short order. Be consistent. Every track can have its own style. Stick with that. More than anything horseplayers are creatures of habit. Searching for information costs players and bet-takers time and money. Confused players don’t bet with both hands.

With respect to camera coverage, players and fans want the same thing: Full coverage of the paddock and post parade. They want continuous pans of pre-race warm-ups right up until horses enter the gate.

And, please, no “pony parades,” and ban the use of black front bandages. Pan back to exotic-finish horses. For High-5 bettors, fifth is as important as first.

Every serious player I‘ve met loves and wants Trakkus. They love the Chiclets. Never again will players not know where their horse is, especially those racing between horses. And knowing exactly how far a horse travels is popular with trip handicappers.

Stop insulting the intelligence of players. Everyone knows people bet more on fast tracks than wet ones but be extremely diligent and don’t fudge track conditions. We know better, and you make the sport look small time. No one wants to get played.

Delineate entries on monitors and self service machines: 1 and 1A, 2 and 2B, etc. I personally have been burned more than once. Confuse me and I won’t bet as much, if I bet at all.

Crawls are inefficient. It has its place but perhaps should be used for results only. Crawls waste time. I believe that weight carried makes a difference, but I don’t want that information when I need scratches, jockey, equipment, surface and medication changes more.

Handicapping is a multi-layered process. Prioritize information. Perhaps scratches and other significant changes deserve their own separate page. Maybe monitors could be stacked, on top of one another or side by side; the top for track video, the bottom an informational page-by-page loop.

When at all possible, marry the program numbers and odds in the running order. Last year, when Keeneland strung out the entire running order across the bottom of the monitor during a race, the odds appeared directly below the betting numbers. Good stuff.

With the switch to Chiclets, odds were dropped as too much information in the same space became unwieldy and confusing. Voted best simulcast track of 2009 by a TRA panel, they will come up with a fan-friendly alternative. [In the spirit of transparency, I voted Keeneland second to Woodbine, with Churchill Downs third].

Post payoffs faster and with greater consistency, maybe utilizing a pop-up window. Standardize payoffs. Post all $2 minimum wagers: the Pick Six, Magna Five, W-P-S, etc., in $2 increments.

Post all fractional wagers--Dime Supers, Fifty-Cent Trifectas and Pick 4s--at the minimum offered. Horseplayers can do math. Stop trying to con newcomers by dangling big payoffs. Not sure I know anyone who’s ever hit a $2 superfecta.
It Takes a [Simulcast] Village
It Takes a [Simulcast] Village
Photo by: Toni Pricci

Change your wagering marketing strategy. Instead of a greedy money-suck, try encouraging players to remain solvent--especially if you want them to return tomorrow. Greed is not exactly in fashion these days.

Invest in High Definition television. Yes, it‘s expensive, but if you can afford it, bite the bullet on this one. Racing is competing with all other sports. And what sport's more colorful than thoroughbred racing? It’s no accident racing has been used in commercials for years to sell TVs. And High Definition is an excellent educational tool.

Coordinate the damn post times already, based on the European model, delineated by circuits, major and minor, or geographic, or time-zone considerations. The 1:00 in New York, the 1:10 in New Jersey, the 1:20 in Kentucky.

Then, schedule the balance of the card at 25-minute intervals. Bettors understand that horses can run off in the parade, flip in the paddock, or have a gate mishap. Fans will figure it out and cut the industry some slack.

In related areas, I know of two horseplayers who walked away from the game because of complications caused by betting platform exclusivity and the resultant infighting.

Players want Betting Exchanges. The new bet cuts both ways: Sharps love it because of its low takeout and level of sophistication; squares love it because it’s simple. Pick a side, just like in the NFL.

Increase and improve the quality of the Internet presentation. And, finally, three words: takeout, takeout and takeout.

Figure out a better split between tracks and simulcast venues and pass the savings along to the customer. The principle of churn is quite simple: The more money returned to players, the more they bet in return.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (22)


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Industry Must Talk to Each Other, Then the Rest of America

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, October 13, 2009--The following text is culled from my opening remarks at the Thoroughbred Racing Assn. and Harness Tracks of America International Simulcast Conference Tuesday morning regarding how the industry can improve the simulcast experience for fans and bettors.

The following is a truncated, albeit long winded, version of my presentation prior to a round table panel discussion. We’ll post a summary that combines your HRI poll suggestions with my input that was submitted to conventioneers in tomorrow’s Morning Line blog.

On balance, I thought the presentation went pretty well. The reaction from attendees appeared animated and mostly positive. Or, as my Capital OTB-TV colleague Andrea DeLong put it as I walked out: “Well done, you blabber-mouth.”

“Has Anyone seen the Native American casino ads with TV’s Poker Stars on the Oak Tree-Santa Anita Simulcast Feed? It was for the San Manuel Indian Casino and Poker Room.

Now, has anyone racetrack ads on the World Series of Poker telecasts? Maybe you have but I haven‘t….

Actually, racing can’t compete with poker. The cost of the racing product and the learning curve is too high. Racing can do something about both but, admittedly, that will take some time and time is running out.

But there is something we can do right now, however: We’re in the gambling business and we have to stop apologizing for that. I say we because I have a vested interest in the game; I’m too old to find a real job.

Why is it that, on balance, we give people a good shake for their money; offer great odds, opportunities for potential scores, but we never brag about that. What are we afraid of here, a vast right-wing religious conspiracy?

The lottery with its usurious takeout rates rip off Americans every day but racing never negatively campaigns against it. Why? Are we afraid of the state houses we’re forced to do business with?

The lottery and VLTs work because they are both mindless forms of instant entertainment and gratification. And the odds are about a million-to-one that people will make a life-changing score….

Horseplayers have an opportunity to make a life-changing score maybe 20 times a day. Our odds are much better, but nobody knows that, because every time we talk about gambling entertainment we do it with our hat in our hands.

Is a day at the races--the most fun that intelligent, successful and social people can have--out of step in the video game age, a mountain too steep to climb?

Perhaps, but simulcasting is the ultimate video game that offers a different kind of instant entertainment and gratification, and a chance to make a lot of money….

The drawback, of course, is that your customers have to be willing to think. If they are, this thing of ours still works, and it works big-time. In fact, the thinking part, like chess or bridge, is the fun part.

Everyone in this room was taught to fish at an early age and we’re still chasing that big catch, still trying to make a memory at the races. Wagering is the only thing that will save and grow this game again.

But first we must stop apologizing….

Mainstream media corporations look at our attendance figures and think we’re history. We can show them that they’re wrong.

What if every OTB or simulcast venue put in, say, a turnstile, for the sole purpose of counting the number of people that participate in the racing experience by making a bet, or two, or 20, every day?

Would the media ignore--I don’t know--100,000 people a day in New York City, or Los Angeles, or Miami? Wouldn’t they try to find a way to exploit that market instead?

Because of the Internet, it’s encouraging that fans and bettors are beginning to be heard. These are my constituents, and your customers. Please, talk to each other.

Every facet of the industry--from stewards, to track executives, to bet-takers--needs to speak with one voice….”

Written by John Pricci

Comments (18)


Friday, October 09, 2009

A Must-Sea Breeders’ Cup Colt

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, October 8, 2009--With all the traveling and Super Saturday activities at Belmont Park last weekend, I never got a chance to see the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe until my friend Dick Powell, a noted Thoroughbred Europhile, e-mailed a YouTube video, identified with the subject line: “SACRE BLEU!”

So I watched it, and even though I made my bones as one of the early practitioners of trip handicapping in the 70s, I couldn’t find Sea The Stars until he burst through between horses to take the lead at the top of the long Longchamp straight, powering his way to an open lengths score in one of the world’s truly great racing events.

Shame on me, the ugly American racing fan, but it was only the second time I watched one of the colt’s races. The Juddmonte International was a field of four, but entry mates had Sea The Stars surrounded. Then, boom, he caught a sliver of daylight and was gone, demonstrating his now legendary turn of foot.

Powell’s first e-mail about Sea The Stars needed no translation. It simply stated: “WOW!” Well, Richard, I’ll see that Wow and raise you one Are-You-Kidding-Me?!

And I’m not referring to jockey Mick Kinane’s early handling of Sea The Stars, although I could be. From career starts two through nine, the 50-year-old European star has never been beaten on the three-year-old phenom; small field or large, firm or heavy ground, up inclines or down-up, down-up undulations.

If announcer Tom Durkin were calling the Arc, he would have described Kinane’s tactics in that first quarter mile as [Sea The Stars] “is wrestled back,” before moving on to “muzzled and suppressed.” In the old neighborhood, it would have been something like “ripped his face off.”

Yes, they love to run covered up Over There, and you really never want to take any runner out of his natural style, or his best game. Those tactics, no matter what the circumstances, beat 999 of 1,000 mortal Thoroughbreds.

Check the replay, You will hear the announcer use phrases such as: “not settling,” “having traffic problems,” “Kinane--the horse giving him a hard time in the early part of the race” then, furlongs later, “he’s still keen as they head down the far straight.” It rendered seeing disbelieving.

If exceptional nimbleness and a high turn of foot marked his Juddmonte performance, it was strength and power that was on display last Sunday. And to demonstrate those traits in the final two furlongs of 12, against 18 of Europe’s best horses--seven of the first eight were Group 1 winners--was stunning.

The debate began in less than 24 hours: Sea The Stars, the best of all time?

John McCririck--“Muttonchops,” as he is called on Breeders’ Cup telecasts--told Press Association Sport’s Nick Robson that Sea The Stars will be the benchmark against which future champions are measured, noting that European greats Nijinsky, Dancing Brave and Mill Reef all were all beaten at 3.
McCririck believes his handlers have nothing to lose if they aim for a seventh Group 1 in seven months, the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“There were two reasons why I thought he wasn't going to win watching the race. He sweated up very badly… Also, he was so keen in the early part of the race… normally a huge negative…The only other time I can remember a horse pulling like that in a Group 1 yet still winning is New Approach in the Derby.”

Wrote journalist Ben Linfoot: “I've never cheered home a 4/6 shot I hadn't backed with such, well, volume. My girlfriend would vouch for that. She broke off from watching the I-Player concerned I'd passed a kidney stone, was disturbed by a masked intruder, or something equally horrific.”

“Mick Kinane is a man of few words, so when he does speak it makes sense to listen… Kinane didn't exactly say his mount shouldn't go to the well one more time at the Breeders' Cup next, but as hints go they don't come much stronger.

“ ‘His coat has gone and he got hairy. He got warm today as he is getting his winter rug on. I don't know what John and the owners have in mind, but what he has achieved is phenomenal. Does he need to achieve any more? I don't know.’ "

Of course, Breeders’ Cup is making a huge pitch. “He’ll bring 10,000 fans and will mean another ten million dollars in handle,” said Breeders’ Cup CEO Greg Avioli.

I’ll take an Under parlay on both propositions for many units. But that’s not the point. While his campaign has been strenuously ambitious, his connections insist that we haven’t seen the bottom yet, that he pulls himself up at the end of his races once the job is done.

I never saw Phar Lap, or Ribot, or other legendary greats of the past. But I did see “Big Red” of Meadow Stable. Is Sea The Stars the second coming of Secretariat? Some will say yes, others no. But he certainly would work his way into the conversation.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (3)


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