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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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Handicapping Conundrum: Skill vs Luck

Loyal HRI reader Mark Muiler must think he’s a standup comedian. Muiler e-mailed this yesterday: “Quick Question: In your opinion what percent of handicapping is
luck, and what percent is skill?”

Suppose you’d like a quick answer, too, right Mark?

Well, there isn’t a quick answer to your quick question.


Because it’s not a quick question; it’s a trick question.

The honest answer is I have no idea. But neither does anyone else. Of course, that won’t stop me from trying.

I’m a horseplayer and it‘s not in our DNA.

If the ADWs, the State Racing and Wagering Board, Wesley Snipes’ friends over at the IRS and doping out turf sprints can’t stop me, what makes you think some little quick, trick question could?

OK, here‘s your answer. Quantitatively, it’s 80-20, with 20 being the luck part. Qualitatively (read reality based) it’s closer to 50-50.

But on some days, it’s 0-100.

When I make a nice pick and folks come up to praise Caesar, not to bury him, my stock false-modesty answer is: “I’d rather be lucky than good.”

It may be false modesty but it’s no less true.

Horseplayers go through equal periods of Messiah complex and self-loathing on a regular basis, as much as five or 10 times during a single simulcast event. It’s the nature of horseplaying humans.

But I think I have a better handle on these ups and downs--another way of saying lucky or unlucky--than most horseplayers. Why? Because of the unwritten press box rule.

When you walk into a baseball clubhouse, you’ll come across a sign that reads: “No Gambling Allowed.”

Ask Pete Rose.

But while it’s not spelled out specifically on the walls of racetrack press boxes, a related sentiment is also true:

“No Cheering Allowed.”

Parenthetically, the unspoken rule was later amended by Andrew Beyer, who deemed it permissible to root enthusiastically if the proceeds from your wager was equal to 10 percent or more of your annual salary.

A reasonable man, Mr. Beyer, although I cannot remember whether that proviso came before or after he put his fist through a press box wall one sunny Florida afternoon when the luck ratio was in the 0-100 category.

The point is that nearly four decades of no cheering has conditioned me not to get too high or too low about what’s unfolding between the fences of a race in which I am vested, important for focus and objectivity

To Mr. Muiler’s point, the awful truth is that no amount of brilliant handicapping can make up for a horrible stumble, a ten-wide rally, or the loss of a photo by the re-bob of a head.

It’s for all the those reasons that you must be able to put a price on a horse’s head and bet only when getting true value, the most overused and misapplied term in the handicapper’s lexicon. But I digress.

I wouldn’t be able to live with myself as a wagering professional unless I truly believed that hard work can help factor out some of the unlucky things that go on.

However, luck has little to do with it if you’re betting a pace presser from post 10 in a grass sprint or taking a rally type from the rail post out of the chute in a middle-distance sprint.

Good handicapping CAN overcome bad luck.

But, luck, she does give us the fickle finger at inopportune time. As if there were opportune times.

Here’s something I’m working on but have been unable to pull the trigger on because each gambling event is, logically, mutually exclusive. To wit:

You’re between two horses in the first race of the day, either would be a great value play. You choose one and he gets checked and steadied all over the lot. The other gets the perfect inside-out trip for an easy win.

Or the horse in the second half of the double to which you are alive for a good score goes wire to wire by a dominating five lengths, but is disqualified for crossing over too quickly to the rail, forcing some no-chance rival to take up behind him.

This is when my subconscious screams: “Pack up figures and trip notes, you‘re out of here.”

Invariably, I stay. Almost invariably, my bad luck doesn’t change until the following afternoon.

There’s no logical reason why the fifth or eighth race of the day has anything remotely to do with what happened in the second half of the early double. But I’ll be damned if it doesn’t.

That said, I always have, and will continue, to take the game seriously and I’ll continue to work hard and succeed.

I’ve been blessed in so many facets of life that you’ll seldom hear a woe-begotten tale--even if I must listen to yours--but I think the gods of racing might have been kinder in a couple of life-altering spots I can think of.

The true bottom line is that if I don’t do my homework and lose, it’s on me. But since I cannot control the unknowable, my only recourse would be to re-load and come back tomorrow.

But if I really believed that luck were that important, then why do I also sometimes respond to handicapping praise by saying “the harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Inaugural: Christmas Morning in America

Saratoga Springs, NY, January 20, 2009--Inauguration Day in America. Broadway in late morning was clear and sharp, like the message would be. But it was still quiet now, like just another Saratoga morning in January.

Quiet, too, inside Circus Café, at Broadway’s heart, SRO in August. Preparations were being made for its Inaugural Ball celebration, libations and food, nourishment for spirit and body, getting in preparedness.

And the people began to gather, slowly, perhaps waiting for Barack Obama to tell us all what we can do next.

Tables were beginning to fill now and people started bellying up to the bar. And the moment was at hand, and the room was becoming hushed now.

Diane Feinstein was taking the podium in our Nation’s Capital and began the process of jump-starting America.


Then there was an invocation, the swearing-in of a new Vice President. And then the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court rewrote the Oath of Office and the country’s 44th President responded and a country’s Original Sin was forgiven.

And the enduring memory will be of a young mother looking up at a television, cradling and rocking a baby in her arms, smiling at the words and images on the screen. It was warm and loving and hopeful.

Finally, the moment had arrived.

Then it was gone.

It was lunch time and Broadway was alive with energy now, people and cars in motion. And before you know it will be racing season here again and a new meeting will dawn.

And a new day dawned and America must exhibit a quality modern day life has done without for so long; patience and sacrifice.

* * *

America in Song

“I stand on the shoulders of Giants,” he said in a speech in Selma Alabama.

When all he had was a dream.

A dream on the road to becoming, at once, the 44th, and the 1st.

And he rode Abe Lincoln’s rails to complete a distant vision.

And he rode those rails all the way to Lincoln’s White House.

Come on up for the rising.

Happy Birthday to you, America.

Because you are now and forever will be, the United States of America.

It’s been a long time comin’.

And change has come to America.

And our hope is that in tough times we as a people are one.

The dignity is in the work, not in the Banjamins.

So there might be little pink houses for you and me.

One heart.. one love.. let’s get together and feel all right.

And at the end of the storm, is a golden sky

And the sweet silver song of a lark.

The world, keep on turnin’

Preachers, keep on preachin.’

Pride, in the name of love.

One more come in the name of love.

The celebration of American renewal.

The founders’ dream lives on in our time.

Workin’ on a dream.

From California, to the New York highlands,

the Redwood Forest, to the gulfstream waters

This land was made for you and me.

There’s something’ happenin’ here

And change has come to America

To touch America’s soul.

“A call to choose our better history,” is the challenge.

America, the Beautiful

From sea to shining sea.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Evening Attire: Working Class Hero

Saratoga Springs, NY, January 16, 2009--His biggest win might have come in the Jockey Club Gold Cup of 2002, and his last victory in the mile and a half Greenwood Cup at Philadelphia Park in record time, but if Evening Attire ever had to report to work daily like many of us do, he would surely arrive carrying a lunch bucket.

No modern fancy-pants of a race horse would ever think about getting the job done at age 10; he would have been retired and munching on alfalfa a long time ago. But not Evening Attire.

Actually, the old man tried retiring once before, but his A-type personality wouldn’t allow it. In fact, if he didn’t get back to work he probably would have hurt himself trying to stay active. Ultimately, a suspensory injury would force him to the sidelines late last year.

The only thing fancy about Evening Attire--a name that would belie his work ethic--was his favorite track, Saratoga. From the rear window of his stall, the son of Black Tie Affair would watch the races, the crowd noise stirring up all his pent up adrenaline.

But when he did get to run he never failed to fire his best shot.

In all, the gray gelding went to the post 69 times--unheard of in this era of the hot-house speed oriented thoroughbred--ad earned a top-three finish in 40 of those races.

He won a race at all three New York tracks, a total of 15 wins in all, nine of them stakes, including the Queens County Handicap and Saratoga Breeders’ Cup Handicap, twice.

Evening Attire earned his $2.9 million the old fashioned way; finishing on the board in a dozen more added-money events.

This is only fitting for a horse that lived and thrived in a racetrack working family environment.

Evening Attire was bred by Hall of Fame trainer Tommy Kelly, who bought his mother, Concolour, at auction, and was trained by Kelly’s two sons, first Tim, then Pat, whose wife, Karen, exercised him occasionally.

The gelding is co-owned by Kelly’s by longtime partners and friends, Joe and Mary Grant of Boston, who, although not related by blood, probably should be.

Evening Attire was the equine pet the two families shared that happened to be a damned good race horse.

The year the dappled gray won the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the families agreed, and trainer Pat Kelly concurred, that Evening Attire had earned a trip to Arlington Park in Chicago for the Breeders’ Cup.

Following the JCGC, Mary Grant was approached by a bloodstock agent working for a sheikh and offered her more money than she probably had ever seen to sell the horse. “Evening Attire is not for sale at any price,” Grant told the agent.

Last October 25th, Evening Attire was brought to Belmont Park one last time. The visit included a final circumference of the paddock ring and culminated in a warm winner’s circle celebration before family members and a good number of the normally hardscrabble New York fans.

It is fitting that Evening Attire has retired to a life of leisure at Akindale Farm in upstate Pawling, New York, owned by the late horse owner and philanthropist John Hettinger.

Dedicating his life‘s mission to the abolition of horse slaughter, Hettinger dedicated his farm to the rescue, rehabilitation and retraining of retired thoroughbred racehorses.

Also fitting is that the NYRA would honor this local equine legend by renaming the Aqueduct Handicap the Evening Attire, in memory of this rare animal’s class and heart.

And what better place to do so than at Aqueduct, a workingman’s racetrack hard by Jamaica Bay in Queens, New York.

In the absence of a firm opinion in the Aqueduct feature race this afternoon, players might consider a $2 hunch play on Judiths Wild Rush.

Like Evening Attire, Judith’s Wild Rush seems to give his all every time out, he’ll be a fair price, and it would be appropriate if the 90th renewal of this newly renamed handicap were won by an eight-year-old gray horse, a grandson of Black Tie Affair.

Written by John Pricci

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