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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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

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Thursday, October 08, 2009

Longer Saratoga Too Much of a Good Thing?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, October 7, 2009--Four more days.

When the 2009 Saratoga meet ended, this town got sleepy again and the residents had time for reflections on a race meet recently concluded and some simulcast buddies asked: “Do you think NYRA will ever extend the Saratoga meet?”

Yesterday they got their answer from the only people that matter, the ones who conduct big time thoroughbred racing in New York.

I have believed for some time that anything with a Saratoga logo on it sells, but also believed that six weeks was about as far as you could push the envelop and still maintain the quality of Saratoga’s racing product.

But then I recalled what the last two years have been like, the quality of racing resembling something of a new millennium less than. Call it Saratoga racing; the new reality.

My answer was that I didn’t know what NYRA would do. If it were up to me, I probably wouldn’t, that six weeks is as far as you could go. But, then, there is this.

Short fields and bad weather notwithstanding, last week’s Super Saturday at Belmont Park, in terms of stakes quality arguably the deepest this year, attracted 7,000 people from a metropolitan population base of about 20 million.

Give or take, that’s about half of what Saratoga would draw on a typical Thursday. Based on that, extending the Saratoga meet was a decision the Tin Man could have made, a real no-brainer.
Add to that economic reality the fact that Saratoga rebounded this year, down about 2 percent in attendance and handle compared to industry handle declines of over 12 percent in that time frame.

Of course, Saratoga’s improved numbers were a bit of a mirage when compared to the disastrous season that was Deluge 2008. Weather has a disproportionately large effect on attendance and handle here as compared to any other race meet on the planet.

The folks in this “city in the country” don’t consider themselves citizens of a one-horse town anymore. They haven’t for some time. A college town, Saratoga has a youthful energy all year long It’s the summer home of the New York City Ballet and New York Philharmonic.

Bruce Springsteen and Dave Matthews played the Saratoga Performing Arts Center this year. Thanks to an overly aggressive Chamber of Commerce, there’s always a special event taking place. Saratoga Gaming and Raceway is a year-round presence and is a huge success story.

Property values, even in a depressed economy, have held fairly well, dipping a max of around 10 percent when the bottom fell out of the housing market. It’s no wonder that many of the locals feel that racing isn’t the tail that wags the dog anymore.

Of course, that’s a bit provincial. Tax rates would be a lot higher if not for the tax revenue the track generates. The Oklahoma Training Track season, from mid-April to mid-October, makes a significant contribution to the local economy. Summer track rentals enable many of the locals to pay their taxes for the year with perhaps a bit left over for a short vacation.

But this site of the battle that changed the course of the Revolutionary War has a fierce independent spirit. Whether that spirit will translate into a reluctance to leave home and hearth for almost seven weeks next summer remains to be seen.

Certainly, bar and restaurant owners, and shopkeepers on Broadway, began holding small celebrations when they heard the news today. Oh, boy.

On balance, the NYRA has enjoyed a close relationship with local leaders and the citizenry. Any feathers that might have been ruffled by this announcement will be stroked back in place. Although the favorite is that most local leaders will be saying all the right things in the days ahead.

Next year’s Saratoga meet will begin on Friday, July 23 and consist of 40 racing days. It will feature a Wednesday through Monday schedule that lasts until Labor Day, September 6. Although rumors swirled that change might be coming, the lid was kept closed until today.

Each day of the meet will feature a stakes race and, pending approval from NYRA’s Board of Directors, the Grade 1 Coaching Club America Oaks will be shifted from Belmont Park to Saratoga’s first weekend.

It would come as no great surprise if the NYRA decided on a twilight presentation for opening day. Many people in town take off from work to attend opening day at the races. If the lid-lifter began 2:30 or 3 p.m. Friday, the result could be an all-time opening day record.

In addition to encouraging handle and attendance figures from the 2009 Saratoga meet, horsemen entered twice as many applications as there are stalls. It figured that the number of betting interests per race would increase from last year.

But this turned out to be the good news and the bad.

Times change, obviously, and it’s unreasonable to think that even a 36-day meet could compare aesthetically to the 24-day Saratoga meets of yesteryear. And, of course, they don’t make thoroughbreds like they used to, either.

Given all that, it is the pressure to improve the bottom line, however, that has resulted in a whole new culture among the horse population. Day to day, the quantity may be up but the quality is down.

While a handful of powerful stables still dominate Saratoga racing at the highest levels, they are unhappy with the focus on cheaper races, both in the condition book and the races that are written on a day to day basis, called extras. Their beef is that not enough condition-book races go with enough frequency.

NYRA President Charlie Hayward is correct when he notes that at a time when many tracks have cut back on racing days, Saratoga continues to race six days a week and with larger fields. And there‘s no question that, on balance, the Saratoga race meet is the country’s best of all longer race meets.

Saratoga is located in an area that not only loves thoroughbred racing but supports it. And it’s probably unreasonable to think that if the quality of the horses produced in this country is on the wane, that the standard of Saratoga’s present-day racing product shouldn’t reflect that reality.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Anxiety High as Industry Awaits Monitor’s Study of Safety Alliance

ELMONT, NY, October 6, 2009--With Belmont’s Super Saturday now in the books, focus shifts West this weekend where Santa Anita, as a prelude to Breeders’ Cup, will offer five Grade 1s and a Grade 2 over Saturday and Sunday.

But instead of focusing on the horses in these races and how the results might impact the championship round, the synthetic surface issue once again is beginning to dominate the storylines.

Sadly, it seems impossible to open a major race meet in California without considering concerns for early-meet breakdowns at racetracks in a state that has mandated the use of artificial surfaces.

If the results of this synthetic experiment has not yet sounded the death knell for the continuation of top class California racing as we know it, the surfaces have, at the least, given the industry a black eye it hopes is only temporary.
As a prelude to Breeders’ Cup 2008, the Los Angeles Times reported, if memory serves, seven catastrophic injuries in the run-up to Breeders’ Cup’s first ever two-day event.

When the prestigious 2009 Del Mar race meet opened, and a horse named Mi Rey suffered a life-ending breakdown before the meet was even two hours old, the seaside track’s opener--one of the sport’s great happenings--left an all-too-familiar bad taste.

That would have been unfortunate enough, but the story gained legs because the race accident came four days after a maiden-claimer named Mad for Plaid broke her left front sesamoids at the finish line after completing a company workout. She was euthanized.

Del Mar’s safety issues have been well documented in recent years going back to May, 2006. Not long after Barbaro’s Preakness misstep, the California Horse Racing Board hastily called for mandatory installation of synthetic surfaces at major tracks throughout the state.

This year, three years after the fact, Richard Shapiro, the former California Horse Racing Board Chairman, said in hindsight he should not have pushed for a mandate, stating he was very disappointed with how the synthetic surfaces have performed.

Shortly thereafter, Del Mar executives circled the wagons and produced statistics indicating that the surfaces were successfully stemming the tide of breakdowns in a major way. Critics accused them of using incomplete statistics to support their claims.

The question is--not only in California, but everywhere--whether training fatalities, or any fatality that occurs off-track after sustaining an on-track injury, are included in the statistics package.

The honest answer is that no one knows for sure, and that’s what makes the success of NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance Track Safety Accreditation Program so vital to the industry‘s future on this issue.

When we visited this topic recently, HRI readers expressed a healthy amount of skepticism regarding the Alliance; it’s standards, protocols, effectiveness and the veracity of its methods and findings.

Now with Breeders’ Cup coming back to the Pro Ride surface, warring California factions are beginning to launch their salvos again, claiming the present surface has degenerated because of heavy use, the effects of weather, and poor maintenance. Further, they claim horsemen are reticent to complain fearing retribution.

The problems were exacerbated this past weekend when a pair of two-year-old colts competing in the Norfolk Stakes suffered non-displaced condylar fractures during the running of the Grade 1 prep for the Juvenile, and would be sidelined until next year.

And this coming not long after Del Mar, a track that received S&IA accreditation, suffered 13 fatal injuries during this year’s race meet. Did the S&IA miss something here? Is the methodology sound?

To date, only Pimlico has failed to receive accreditation and that was due to clerical circumstance, failing to have proper written protocols in place. Tracks must seek S&IA accreditation. Most have their ducks in a row before inviting inspection to see if they measure up to the Alliance’s Code of Standards.

At this point, Pimlico has provisional accreditation. Finger Lakes in upstate New York has took almost six months to meet the S&IA Code of Standards and finally will be inspected for accreditation later this month.

There is a certain amount of peer pressure by Alliance tracks to insure that all other tracks meet these uniform standards for the good of all.

The Alliance is powerless to enforce measures as it’s not a regulatory body. What it does is to require Alliance tracks to advocate for regulatory change at the state level. The system is far from perfect, success depending on whether the states take an interest in helping to solve this problem.

There are no definitive safety standards in place and cannot be until Dr. Mick Peterson of the University of Maine completes his study of track surfaces, researching the effects of weather conditions, temperature, soil composition and density, using of an artificial hoof to measure the impact that occurs when a horse strikes the surface.

All this is very much a work in progress. The entire industry is playing catch-up with itself, dealing with problems that should have gotten their attention long ago. But that’s ancient history and the industry is moving on.

By year’s end, everyone will know if the industry has made progress after independent monitor Tommy Thompson, the serious minded former Secretary of Health and Human Services, finishes his investigation into every facet of the business. Meanwhile, the sport will hold its collective breath at least until the finale at Santa Anita is run on November 7.

Written by John Pricci

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