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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Saturday, December 13, 2008


Racetracks Must Think Outside the Boxscore


Saratoga Springs, NY, Dec. 12, 2008--Sports betting, legal and otherwise, is back in the news. According to a Philadelphia Daily News story at http://www.darrowc@phillynews.com on Thursday, the Governor and General Assembly of Delaware could act to legalize sports betting as soon as the summer of 2009.

Delaware, Oregon and Montana are the only states in addition to Nevada that enjoys a “Grandfather exemption” to a 1992 federal law that prohibits gambling on sporting events.

Since this would come under the aegis of the Delaware state lottery, it’s not as if we’re talking about real sports betting, which federal law enforcement officials estimate as a $300-billion illegal enterprise. Damn, talking real bailout dollars there.

So, no, we’re not talking about taking the Giants plus points to beat the Cowboys Sunday night in Dallas--but we could be talking about the possibility of taking the points and that a healthy Brandon Jacobs would rush for more than 100 yards.

This is known as a parlay and would be purchased much as any lottery card would be sold. The Jacobs portion of the wager is more correctly known as a proposition bet which, believe it or not, is enormously popular and a growth area in the field of sports betting.

Something akin to this could be a great promotional tool for increasing attendance at racetracks if they were ever granted permission to conduct this form of lottery wagering, which technically got VLT machines into many racetracks.

There will be the usual roadblocks. The first, of course, is the holier-than-thou, look-the-the-way, wink-wink attitude of professional sports leagues such as the NFL, MLB and NBA. College sports, in as much as their athletes are unpaid, have a better argument.

Meanwhile, what are college athletic scholarships and “living expenses” if not a monetary consideration in return for services rendered? And isn’t the idea to fill those 80,000-seat stadiums, and the university’s coffers?

And aren’t television networks interested in charging the same advertising rate in the final five minutes of a blowout, when underdog bettors might be in receipt of a 14-point spread that “levels” the playing-field scoreboard?

Will the hypocrisy never end? If it weren’t for gambling, sports would never be as woven into society’s fabric as it is; the popular diversion from real-life issues that it has become.

Safeguarding the integrity of the game? Please, that goes on now. They caught the NBA ref, didn’t they? And don’t you think those paranoid rantings on sports talk radio have made the NFL league office increase its vigilance?

Doesn’t Las Vegas already contact the leagues whenever there’s a suspicious betting pattern on a game? And that includes action on college sports. But, I digress.

Before racetracks can embrace sports betting as a marketing tool, it must in practicality skirt existing federal statute. The three states outside Nevada do this with a lottery concept, such as in the example described above.

But aside from flat-out props, of which there are a zillion possibilities, simply attaching an over/under provision to the traditional pointspread would qualify nicely.

Will it work? Is it worth the effort?

Definitely, maybe.

Everyone knows there’s been virtually no cross-over from the casino part of the racino to the racetrack part of the racino. In fact, at Prairie Meadows Racetrack, a recent study concluded that casino receipts increased on days when live racing was conducted.

Not the intended effect, but proving there’s some synergy nonetheless.

As structured, racetracks cannot conduct sports betting, even by state statute. Why? Because the house sometimes loses. It’s why point-spreads move; how casinos try to avoid “exposure.” It shouldn’t be called book-making; it should be called book-balancing.

But that’s the beauty and simplicity of parimutuel wagering. And here’s how it would work:

According to Friday’s betting line, the Cowboys are a consensus 3-point favorite to beat the Giants tomorrow night, with an over/under of 45 total points.

If tracks in states with legal parimutuel wagering offered tickets with four permutations of Cowboys -3 and O/U 45, with a 10 percent takeout [the same as bookmakers; betting $55 to win $50], the payoff would be based on number of tickets sold, just like a horse race.

Payoffs would be virtually the same as what bookmakers pay now. If equal action were attracted on all sides, minus the 10 takeout, the payoff would be $7-plus on a $2 bet. But if your combination attracts smaller play, the payoff would be higher. The converse is also true.

Whatever the payoff, winning prices would be posted at kickoff so that bettors would know what sides attracted the most play and how much they‘d win. Want more handle? Offer a readily available half-time line for those bettors looking to optimize, save or somehow catch a middle: winning on both sides.

In theory, sports bettors might collect even more than the traditional even-money paid on winning sports wagers if, say, the Giants and Under attracted less play than any of the other three possibilities. Either way, it’s a simple programming issue that puts a new spin on playing the pros and ponies promotions.

The catch is that the wager would be made available only on track when and where live racing in conducted. It won’t be a handle bonanza--but then neither is the Matrix or other prop type bets offered by Churchill Downs.

The idea is to put fannies in the seats.

I’m betting that Sunday attendance would improve, at least incrementally, and that there might some crossover at racino venues because of the sports betting attraction. Further, horseplaying and sports betting require a handicapping discipline, more potential for crossover.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, December 12, 2008


HRI Readers Hold Their Own Symposium


Saratoga Springs, NY, Dec. 11,2008--For racing’s leaders just now returning from the University of Arizona Symposium on Racing and Gaming who haven’t had an opportunity to catch up on all things Forum, here is a sampling of how your customers responded to a recent HRI blog on the marketing of horse racing.

Reader responses address racing’s problems with suggestions on what might be done to improve the racing experience. Edited for clarity and to avoid duplication, this is what your fans think in their own words. HorseRaceInsider believes their feedback deserves its own stage:

Cangamble says: “I can’t believe [the symposium] has nothing on changing the mindset of the industry…In order to attract young players, it [needs] winners that new players can try to emulate. At its current pricing (track takeout), long term winners are almost as rare as mastodons unless the winner is getting a substantial rebate. There is no way racing can market winners on that [high takeout] basis.”

Sarnataro says: “I’ve played horses for over 30 years…Are the issues discussed much different than what was discussed [then]? An older fan base? Drugs? Trainers who juice?… What we love about the game, handicapping, is what makes the sport so difficult to market.”

Young Racefan says “I’m a newer fan…in my late 20s. Horseracing is entertainment for me. I have no knowledge of present day nor historical problems… Any new person on the track would not take a breakdown well… When I bring my friends… if they lose $, they want to be able to have a good story, or some sort of tangible takeaway like the casinos have…symbiotic entertainment relationships that soften the blow of dollar loss…

“It is HARD to learn how to handicap as a casual race goer…and until I start winning frequently I won’t be an everyday track person… The analytical people in my circle love it though!

“I like the experience, the history, the entertainment. I like the interaction in the paddock. I like the thrill. Now, how do you get people like me to keep coming back? I suggest positioning as an entertainment destination and work on recapture from there...

“PLEASE market to me in a way I can relate to. Keep it fun, quirky and rewarding. Reach out to me through social media, internet, local networking groups who meet monthly. Sponsor an event, then be prepared to CAPTURE.”

Cangamble [responding to Racefan]:: “They are marketing to you and have been for years. But it doesn’t work in a way that will get maximum return… By not marketing it as a competitive form of gambling, racing is losing big-time to other forms of competition… That is why the bottom line is getting its butt kicked by inflation when it comes to growth.”

Young Racefan [responding to Cangamble]: “How are they marketing to me…? I WANT to see it. I WANT to be targeted. I use my web/cell phone every day--but I see no message like radio stations and my fav haunts send to me. It comes about monthly and by showing my phone on premises, I get an incentive of some sort at the door.

“I don’t subscribe to a newspaper--all my content is online. I listen to MP3s, not radio. I have streaming news on my laptop. I attend wine tastings and restaurant openings, sporting and entertainment events…

“…I really don’t want to be labeled as a ’gambler…’ Even the Vegas commercials focus on night life, pretty people, pageantry…‘What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas’ is one of the most successful campaigns nationwide and plays off the ambiguity…

“…I want to be where seeing and being seen is part of the ‘scene…’ a sporting event, club, gallery opening, black-tie benefit, etc… I feel I represent the young professional with some discretionary income. What about when I retire--better hook me now or I won’t be there when I’m 65.”

Cangamble response:…“Many potential young fans are spending money on poker, sports betting and fantasy football: They know they can win long term, if good enough. We see poker players who made it big online and on TV. We need a carrot…”

Young Racefan response: “I think [those] are easier, less intimidating, more accessible from-your-laptop form of wagering… So who’s teaching the next gen of horse fans to be passionate at any level…?

“Marketing that [racing] is a game of chance is good, it has some appeal. But, really, the EXPERIENCE of actually being on track is what will keep me coming back. What makes the Ky. Derby so great? The experience. On multiple levels.

“I’m writing this to offer insight into the mind of my generation…I hope to be tomorrow’s wealth. I hope to attend as a pastime and not as an indulgence…There may be a new mentality emerging among all generations [based on] the current economy.”

Wendell Corrow says: “Win, lose or break even, a day at the track is an enjoyable experience…What hooks people is when they walk away from a gambling venture with more money in their pocket than when they arrived. Thoroughbred racing’s gambling options are more challenging, requires more intellect, and are far more interesting when the action starts--but who knows this?”

Vaguely Familiar says:… “On any given Saturday here in Maryland you will see a remarkable number of younger people. You may have noticed how active the marketing department here has been lately with great promotions every Saturday. Several racetracks are now getting into social networking sites… In regards to drugs: there isn’t an athletic/sport business out there that’s not trying to overcome the chemists!”

Sero says: I used to go to Saratoga Harness simulcast (clubhouse dining room)… It was enjoyable with your own monitor, a wagering console, plenty of room to spread out your data while having a nice lunch. I tipped well, bet significantly, and had an enjoyable experience. That all changed when the racino came in…I became a second class citizen since they were now subsidized by casino revenue…I wrote a letter on their web-site to which there was no response… I have not gone back since I am an irrelevant part of their equation, as the racino is doing very well without my wagering dollar while the horse fan base takes a step backward.

D. Masters says: “Maybe the powers…controlling racing need to remember that fans are bred, born, raised and cared for in perpetuity, just like the horses, jocks and caretakers--and they still haven’t gotten that right, either…Cut the racing dates, cheap claimers, improve customer service, track all betting with contributions to horse retirement, jockey/backstretch disability contributions, and educate so that more will bet… And get rid of drugs on race day with a national racing regulatory authority and enforcement. Period.”

Sheikh Comeonnow bin Sultan Ofswing says: “When will action begin taking the place of words?”

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, December 11, 2008


Horses to Watch


Saratoga Springs, NY, Dec. 10,2008--A shout-out to Steve Haskin of Bloodhorse.com for the heads up. It’s about today’s sixth race at the Fair Grounds, a two-turn mile featuring very soon-to-be 3-year-olds.

Haskin called it “one of the strongest and deepest 2-year-old allowance fields ever assembled at Fair Grounds…several of whom have already excited fans with their dazzling performances.”

Well, OK then.

So for those of you who never contract Derby Fever, think of this as a bonus free race analysis. But for those looking for possible Derby Futures plays, or enjoy seeing good young horses run, or just want to learn more about how the game is played, read on.

The main players in the nine-horse field are 5-2 early line favorite Indygo Mountain; Friesan Fire, second favorite at 3-1, and the 8-1 price shot, Escalon, shipping in from So Cal for trainer Doug O’Neill.

Of lesser interest but certainly worthy of mention are Uno Mas (6-1), Map Of the World (9-2) and Doc‘s Friend (6-1). Deep, indeed.

Bret Calhoun trains Indygo Mountain, a son of A. P. Indy who broke his maiden with complete authority by 6-¼ lengths going a one-turn mile at Churchill Downs on Nov. 19. He’s a worthy favorite, one that bears watching given his connections and pedigree. Owner Clarence Scharbauer of Alysheba fame doled out $600,000 for the September 2007 yearling.

Developmentally, Indigo Mountain’s done nothing wrong in a two-race career. He impressed with his maturity at first asking, earning an excellent Equiform performance figure, distributing his energy in a fairly efficient manner. A good sign.

Then, in start two, he not only moved forward winning over the Derby track but showed an improved combination of speed and power. Today we’ll see how he settles in his two-turn debut. His trainer has won with six of his last 16 starters in the past two weeks.

But figure that stakes-placed Friesan Fire will be the post time favorite. Trained by Larry Jones--who was so high on the colt before he started that he failed to personally accept an award from the New York Turf Writers this summer opting instead to drive from Saratoga to Delaware Park to saddle his A.P. Indy colt to a maiden debut win.

Following that was a creditable third in the Grade 3 Belmont Futurity and a fourth-place finish in the G2 Nashua. Adding blinkers for today’s race, he’s had three strong works over the Fair Grounds course including a bullet half-mile in :47-flat, breezing. It was faster than 219 other two-year-olds to work four furlongs in New Orleans this week.

On performance figures Friesan Fire never has taken a backward step, showing the kind of incremental development desired in a youngster. And his figures improved as the distances have lengthened, which makes sense given his pedigree. He’s not quite as fast as Indygo Mountain but is coming up to this race the right way.

California shipper Escalon finished third in the Cal Cup Juvenile and was beaten less than five lengths in the G1 Del Mar Futurity, won by subsequent Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Midshipman.

What Escalon lacks in performance figures he makes up for in experience and a two-sided distance pedigree. There are two significant firsts at work: first-time Patrick Valenzuela and, significantly, first-time dirt. First-time P Val is a positive; first-time dirt an unknown.

Before betting your money know that Jones has a fast, uncoupled stablemate of Friesan Fire in Doc’s Friend, the second fastest horse on the Equiform performance scale. And Steve Asmussen has a well bred colt, Uno Mas, a son of Macho Uno who owns a big performance-figure win over the track. No small edge that.

Finally there’s Map Of The World, a half-million dollar yearling purchased by B Wayne Hughes and trained by Al Stall. He moved forward in his second start while stretching out to seven furlongs, distributing his energy more efficiently second time out. He’s had three Fair Grounds works and will be ridden a third consecutive time by Robby Albarado.

Betting this race doesn’t figure to make you rich. But you don’t have to wager to enjoy it and learn from it. If you must, key Friesan Fire first and second in trifecta and superfecta pools, betting Friesan Fire to win at 2-1 or greater.

Written by John Pricci

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