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, July 12, 2008

Curlin’s Road to Immortality Starts Today

To grass, or not to grass? That is the question and, with that, the grand Curlin experiment begins today in the 11-furlong Grade 1 Man o’ War at Belmont Park.

Steve Asmussen, the trainer who’s left nothing to chance when it comes to the 2007 Horse of the Year, begins prepping for a go in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at the track modeled after Longchamp, the site of what has been called the world’s most prestigious horse race.

For the first time--I don’t know, ever?--the Man o’ War is not in its traditional place on the Belmont fall calendar. To make the NYRA turf program all it can be, the Man o’ War was moved to the summer meet this year, to be followed by the Sword Dancer at Saratoga and the Turf Classic, back at Belmont, in the fall, Grade 1s all.

But first things first for Curlin, and a meaningful test it will be for a horse that hasn‘t been beaten since this time last year.

Four of his six Man o’ War rivals are Grade 1 winners, including two winners of the Breeders’ Cup Turf, the redoubtable Better Talk Now and Red Rocks, one European who actually prefers firm ground.

The group also includes last year’s Sword Dancer winner, Grand Couturier, and the Gran Premio Di Milano winner, Sudan, now under Bobby Frankel’s shed and a recent Grade 3 prep winner for this at Golden Gate Fields.

Actually, Sudan rates to move forward off his recent race and will have to if he wants to be competitive. But it certainly appears that he’s been pointed this way by Frankel, who probably didn’t count on the Horse of the Year being part of the fray.

Curlin’s two main obstacles are the two Turf winners. Our guess is that while Bobby Ribaudo wouldn’t mind winning this, a repeat victory in the Sword Dancer, which would be his third start of the season, is the more coveted target.

Mission Approved and True Cause just look too ambitiously placed in this spot.

Nine-year-old Better Talk Now might have lost a step to age but not much more. He still wants to be competitive, still earns Grade 1 performance figures, and just wants to beat you. He showed that in the recent Manhattan before running into the herd while in the midst of his rally. It didn’t cost him the win, but clearly he would have finished closer.

Graham Motion’s gelding goes sans rabbit today, but likely will get an honest enough pace from either Mission Approved or Sudan, perhaps both. Per usual, Ramon Dominguez takes the call.

Red Rocks just likes racing on this side of the pond. Two years ago he won the Turf over firm Churchill Downs ground and last year was a good third in the bog at Monmouth Park, the classy winner English Channel benefiting from a dream trip under the conditions. Patient Javier Castellano replaces ebullient European star Lanfranco Dettori.

Of course, it’s Curlin’s race to lose despite his grass inexperience. He’s worked three times since winning the G1 Stephen Foster, including a seven-eighths breeze around the dogs on grass at Churchill in 1:31 2/5, satisfying his trainer.

On the Equiform performance scale, it appears only Better Talk Now and Red Rocks can pose a serious threat the favorite, whose figures tower over the group. If Curlin takes to the turf, everyone else is running for second. There’s nothing to it--but to do it.

Hope It's A Clear Day: We’ll be watching the Man o’ War from Connecticut OTB’s Bradley Teletheater, trying to win a handicapping contest for which we qualified with a Top 20 finish in New Haven tournament last winter.

A live money contest, it costs $100 to enter and $100 to buy in. The handicapper with the highest bankroll wins, players getting to keep the money in their account at contest’s end. Handicappers can wager in person or on line; win, place and show only.

In addition to prize money, the top three finishes earn a spot in the 2009 World Series of Handicapping at the horseplayer friendly Orleans in Las Vegas.

The five regional contest tracks are Belmont, Monmouth, Delaware, Philadelphia Park and Suffolk Downs. If you have an interest, you can get more information from Connecticut OTB’s Todd Hill at 203.946.3140.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

New York Harness Horsemen Off Stride with Fans

Joe Faraldo Esq., president of the Standardbred Owners Association of New York, believes that the state’s legislators should deal with “another racing-related ticking clock...” That a “new operating relationship will need to be forged between [the recently reworked New York City-OTB] entity and New York’s resurgent harness-racing industry.”

What ticking clock? What resurgence? Unless the latter refers to what VLT revenue has done for purses. I use traditional measures, such as fannies in the seats or significantly increased handle. I don’t see much evidence of either. I don’t feel the love.

Now before I get branded as a “thoroughbred guy,” which is what happened when I spoke before state representative Ivan Lafayette’s committee investigating the closure of Roosevelt Raceway a couple of decades ago. Roosevelt was the first track I ever attended.

When Lafayette asked about the deal made between the raceway’s owners, who ran the track into the ground, and an investment group closely linked with Senator Alphonse D’Amato’s brother’s law firm, the eventual buyers, I told him what I thought: “It’s a land grab. It stinks.”

My love of parimutuel racing and horses was fostered at Roosevelt and Yonkers Raceways. My first favorite “big horse” was Adios Butler. Then Bret Hanover, a pacing Secretariat. There was the Cardigan Bay and Overtrick rivalry--every bit as entertaining as Affirmed and Alydar.

I’ll never forget Ralph Baldwin’s great trotter, Speedy Scot, who broke on the first turn, spotted the field at least an eighth of mile, and came back to win the Yonkers Trot in 1:59 and change, when a sub-two minute mile meant something. And the Haughton family, and the Dancers, and George Sholty, a great driver who helped revolutionize the sport.

I mention all this because Faraldo apparently thinks he can move the harness sport forward by going back to the future. It’s not that Faraldo’s thought process isn’t provocative, after all, he has a job to do. But in representing his constituents, he failed to consider a big part of the sport’s equation: the fans.

Faraldo’s recent contribution on the times site harkened me back to what a high-level NYRA executive once told me back in the day when I was cutting my teeth in the business: “Remember that what’s good for the horsemen is usually bad for the public.”

Faraldo states that many of NYC-OTB’s wounds were self-inflicted. That’s not one-hundred percent true. All the OTB regions, and many racing executives off all stripes, believed at the time that night-time thoroughbred racing at OTB would be a home run for everyone, mostly because harness handle had become so negligible.

The belief was so universal that the harness tracks lobbied for, and received, something called a “held harmless” provision, based on projected night-time thoroughbred handle. When those estimates fell woefully short, OTBs were paying harness tracks from anticipated revenues that never materialized. It seriously affected the bottom line.

In the capital district of New York, Saratoga Harness learned it could make a more profit if they simply didn’t open on NYRA dark days, living off their mandated share of thoroughbred handle.

VLTs have taken the state’s leading harness tracks off life-support. But there is no acknowledgement of that, Faraldo stating that “the payments to the racing industry NYC-OTB complains about…are simply a legislative response designed to hold the state’s rapidly rebounding racing and horse breeding industries harmless in the face of OTB’s counterproductive decision to replace New York racing with out-of-state racing.”

Say what?

The legislation was meant to bolster the harness industry in the face of new night-time competition from thoroughbreds. What Faraldo is really saying here is that he doesn’t want New York harness tracks competing with top harness circuits such as the Meadowlands, Woodbine Harness and their like.

Further, Faraldo supports a popular notion that the OTBs should be consolidated… ”ultimately shifting responsibility for off-track betting to the New York racing industry it should be supporting.”

Why not just come out and say it; that as far as the state’s harness horsemen are concerned, we want to be our own OTB?

“The most direct approach would be to mandate that all OTBs in New York feature New York harness racing at night, both in their parlors and on their cable programming. This would protect New York harness racing’s market share in the evenings and reduce OTBs obligations to the harness industry.”

The fact that the State Racing and Wagering Board already does mandate that cable programming service all New York tracks first was not acknowledged. When there is a conflict with other racing venues, preference must be given to New York tracks and shown live. Out of state tracks can be live only when there’s no live racing being conducted at a New York track.

What Faraldo really wants for his group is the elimination of all simulcasting competition. Never mind that almost nine of every 10 wagering dollars are spent on out of state races these days. Horseplayers need, and deserve, more opportunities to find playable, competitive races, not fewer.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

What’s Big Brown Trying to Tell Us?

Atlantic Highlands, NJ, July 8,2008--It’s a month after the fact and there’s still no escaping questions about what really happened to Big Brown in the Belmont Stakes.

The latest was posed to me over the recent holiday weekend, about 20 minutes to the south and east of where Big Brown will make his next start, at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, New Jersey.

After getting a hug at first sight--apparently that’s what’s meant by Greetings from Asbury Park--Sol gave us a big hello. It was the Stone Pony on July 4th eve and Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes were between sets.

This rock’n roll madman still does a 2-½ hour show night after night after night. But on this night he and the band were celebrating the 30th anniversary of “Hearts of Stone,” the album that elevated them from Stone Pony house band to iconic party-band status.

Opening for The Boss didn’t hurt, either.

So, lifting a page from Bruce Springsteen’s book, Southside’s entire first set was the complete album in sequential order--although I’m not sure they were very strict about that.

Anyway, it was time for a hot dog and a cold one, something to wash down the tequila shots Toni and I slammed down moments earlier. Hey, it’s the birthday of our country.

And that’s when Saul got me in a bear hug and said: “So, you should know, what happened to Big Brown in the Belmont?” Then, after a short pause, added: “It was the drugs, wasn’t it..?”

Saul is not a horseplayer. He’s just an old hippie and a big fan of the Bob Burger Band. They were Southside‘s opening act. Burger’s sidemen included three some-time, full-time members of the Jukes and a bass player from Blue Oyster cult.

Joining them on stage for the last two songs was legendary Jersey Shore musician Bobby Bandiera, who sometimes plays with Bruce or Jon Bon Jovi or the Jukes or pretty much anybody he wants.

The Burger Band played off with--what else, “An American Girl.” It was a great, energetic cover of the Tom Petty staple.

“…Saul, that’s not really fair, it was 10 things,” I said. “The shame of it all is that he wasn’t himself. He never had a chance.”

Two mornings later, I just missed Rick Dutrow and Michelle Nevin, trainer and exercise rider of Big Brown, who left Aqueduct’s Barn 10 about 15 minutes before I arrived.

I asked if I could see the horse and one of Dutrow’s assistants had a stable-hand lead me over to Big Brown’s stall. He was having breakfast. So I stood quietly for about a minute, looked around, and saw that every four-legged member of Barn 10 was having breakfast.

I spoke first: “How ya doin’, son?” After a long pause, he turned his head toward me, flicked his ears, then threw his head right back into the tub, moving it side to side as he licked around the pan. This is never a bad sign.

Frankly, I don’t know if Dutrow would have offered much had he still been there. He’s not talking so much these days, especially to the press. Who can blame him? Who can blame the press? I thought he might have spoken with me, but I really don’t know.

Nor do I know whether Big Brown ever will race again, how many times, or where he might race after the Haskell. Right now the Big Brown situation is a fluid as a beach line at the Shore.

I’ve told the story before about how I became attached to this horse’s personality when I first saw him in a Palm Beach Downs stall last winter. I called him a “neat horse,” an expression a lot of racetrackers use. But he really is a neat horse.

Between the scourings of the bottom of his feed tub, he’d pick up his head and clean off the outside, upper portion of the pail. After it was pristine, he went back to the bottom of the tub and began messing up the place all over again.

I stood there, probably for 15 minutes. Apparently, after the colt finally reached bottom, he decided he was thirsty and crossed over to the other side of the stall.

The pail that probably was hung up first looked a little filmy, straw scattered all over the top of the water line. The one closest to the webbing looked fresher with nary a blade of hay in sight. Big Brown drank from the more appetizing of the two. I just stood there watching.

With that, Big Brown made a complete turn, one circumference of the stall. He kneeled over, Trigger-style, and lowered himself onto his left side.

“..Saul, it was everything,” I explained. “Don’t care what the vets said. You need to be weaned off steroids slowly, not in the middle of a Triple Crown. That wing-ding he threw in the detention barn…going wild like that? That’s not him. And he was lifeless in the post parade, that’s not him, either.

“But I’m not alone. Even his trainer is still looking for the answers.”

I don’t know what Big Brown’s recent s-l-o-w workout was all about. I don’t know that you could even call it a workout. If it were some big brown horse named Joe and not the 2008 Kentucky Derby winner, it never would have been published.

Big Brown worked five furlongs in 1:02 and change Monday; better, but nowhere near those crisp five-eighths drills before the Florida Derby. He doesn‘t need fast works now, but a higher rate of speed would have been a little more encourging.

Still on his left side, Big Brown took two tries, but the second effort propelled him completely over on his right. Then he rolled back onto his left, then back to the right side again.

Almost instantly he got up, walked toward the webbing and put his head back into the tub. He didn’t have to tell me twice. Show’s over. Interview over. Time to get back on the Belt Parkway.

Written by John Pricci

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