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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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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Saturday, October 03, 2009


Summer Bird Splashes Past Quality Road in Gold Cup


ELMONT, NY, October 3, 2009--There’s no way to say this without sounding like a disparagement of Summer Bird, who owes me absolutely nothing. He saved me in the Belmont Stakes and made me a Travers celebrity for 15 minutes. I owe him.

Having said all that, however, I sure would love to have seen today’s Jockey Club Gold Cup contested on a fast, try track. Meanwhile, however, all hail Summer Bird, who stands on top of the three-year-old division and is in position to do a lot more come time for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

And, not to forget, Summer Bird began his year in Southern California, so he’s been there, and has done that. But would the result have been different of a fast, dry track? Anyone who thinks that question unfair is not being completely honest.

One only need rewind to the Shadwell Travers, with Summer Bird on the outside and Quality Road on the inside, just like today, except for the fact they were both out in the center of the sloppy track, the same kind of surface Quality Road had trouble negotiating in Saratoga.

But this base is sandier, which he probably appreciated, and a good horse, a very good horse such as Summer Bird, doesn’t need to lug his racetrack around with him. If you play the game outdoors, you must be prepared for anything.

At first, Quality Road, a track record performer in both his starts prior to his third-place Travers finish, didn’t even want to play, balking at the gate, refusing to enter the outside slip despite the persistence of the assistant starters. Finally, they left him alone and he slipped his way in.

But he sure did get out of there in a hurry, rushing up in hand to join the speedy Tizway, who had taken the lead almost immediately from an inner position that enabled him to save some ground as the three-year-olds and their elders curled around the elbow bend into the Belmont backstretch.

And so Tizway was shadowed by Quality Road, then vice versa, then vice versa again, at which point Kent Desormeaux urged Summer Bird up from the center of the track, not allowing his main rival to slip away. It was clear at that point that Desormeaux knew that he had the only other sophomore in the field to beat.

As the leaders began then run into Belmont’s wide sweeping turn, and as Quality Road dispensed with Tizway, Desormeaux asked Summer Bird to attach himself to Quality Road’s hip. They raced as a team, way out in the track, with more than a quarter-mile remaining.

Quality Road and Summer Bird raced as a team, matching strides until the Belmont/Travers winners asserted his superiority to become the first three-year-old in 20 years to win those two three-year-old classics and the JCGC.

Since trainer Tim Ice, who won the first race of the day, and whose wife Heather gave birth to their first child last month, a girl, added blinkers to his colt’s equipment, Summer Bird has not been beaten by another male [ed. note].

As the team approached the finish line, it appeared to the naked eye that Quality Road wasn’t staying the 10 furlongs, a question going into the JCGC with his brilliant but distance-challenged pedigree. But on replay it appeared that Summer Bird was stronger, better conditioned to handle the circumstances. Quality Road was still trying but tiring.

Summer Bird is no mere mud lark. He loves it wet, yes, but won the Belmont on a fast track. Quality Road proved yesterday that he can handle a wet track, it just doesn’t move him up in the manner it moves up Summer Bird. We’re not say it was Seattle Slew’s Jockey Club, but Quality Road passed a class test in defeat.

You hear it all the way, wishing thinking about horses forming rivalries. But these two really have a chance to do just that, should both stay sound and remain in training. Summer Bird has no known issues; Quality Road has those tender tootsies.

We can only hope they go at each other long enough to eventually stand next to each other in some starting gate somewhere, dry sand and loam beneath their feet.

***
On recent proven ability at the highest level, Gio Ponti had no equal. There was but one question to answer and, in the final analysis, the answer was no.

Gio Ponti couldn’t stay a mile and a half, at least not over Belmont’s boggy Widener turf course, settling for second to pacesetting Interpatation who rallied back after being passed to snatch the victory from the favorite who appeared to be en route to a routine score by “the best horse.”

Instead, it was the gelded seven-year-old who proved best yesterday beneath Robby Albarado. Telling finished third, but was placed fourth following a stewards’ inquiry for impeding fourth finisher Grand Couturier, who was placed third in the new order of finish.

But Interpatation is nothing if not persistent. His resolve has now earned over $1-million for his owner Elliot Mavorah, befitting for a horse who hit for the cycle. A horse, hitting for the cycle?

Well, Interpatation finished fourth in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational in 2006, third in 2007, and, you guess it, second last year. Meanwhile, his last victory of any kind came at Philadelphia Park in September of 2007.

His past performances are interestingly indicative of his performance figures which, while not spectacular, were consistently very good, just about a half-notch below that of the best in his division.

Bob Barbara has always trained this gelding which, before yesterday, had finished third in 11 of 49 lifetime starts. Yesterday, he snatched the brass ring away from one of the strongest favorites on the Jockey Club undercard.

***
It was Dynaforce that was supposed to be the off-ground specialist, it was Bill Mott who was seen doing the rain dance just for such an occurrence. But Pure Clan is no slouch, she likes cut in the ground, too, and the wide turns at Belmont as well, even if the Flower Bowl was run on Belmont’s inner turf course.

And who, after all, times the late turf rally better than Julien Leparoux, who always seemed to have his mount comfortable in the Belmont bog. And by the time she rallied up to the hindquarters of Criticism, who had just emerged with the lead in midstretch, the Pure Prize four-year-old second favorite methodically wore the leader down and drew off to a 2-¾ length score.

Actually, it wasn’t supposed to be that easy. Dynaforce is just that, a hard-hitter, and she was about to pounce as the end of the backstretch approached, Kent Desormeaux sneaking up the fence and seemingly about to take the lead and perhaps blow the 10-furlong route wide open.

But Edgar Prado, checking out his rear view mirror aboard the frontrunning Leamington, closed the hole. Desormeaux was forced to check, Dynaforce lost momentum and, as it turned out, any chance to win, as Pure Clan and Criticism went on with it. Another outsider, Queen of Hearts, finished a non-threatening third.

It’s unknown how this race can impact the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf, given the conditions. It just doesn’t rain in Southern California at this time of year. But Pure Clan also has won on firm ground.

The Hollywood Oaks, in SoCal, of course, was her first career Grade 1 score. It seems as if you line her up and point her in the right direction, the filly will do the rest. Kudos to trainer Bob Holthus, who obviously has kept this filly happy over a sustained period of time.

***

The rains came, they came in earnest and they came with lightning at about the Vosburgh quartet entered the starting gate. And by the time the prohibitive favorite, Fabulous Strike, reached the quarter pole in front after stalking pacesetting Go Go Shoot, the surface had turned to a sea of tiring slop.

And so Fabulous Strike began to tire and Kodiak Kowboy, switched outside by Shaun Bridgmohan for the deep-stretch run, continued his forward momentum and nailed the favorite two strides from home, hitting the timer in 1:10.08 for the six-furlong scale weights event. Munnings finished third, extending Pletcher’s Grade 1 winless streak to 49, according to the NYRA communications department.

The four-year-old Posse colt was making his first start for Steve Asmussen, replacing Larry Jones, who replaced Asmussen previously and saddled him to a second-place finish in Saratoga’s Forego last time out.

Kodiak Kowboy owns one victory in three starts on an all weather surface and likely would be formidable should his connections decide to try the Breeders’ Cup Sprint early next month.

***

My editors at Newsday told me never to write a weather lead, for obvious reasons. But this place, Belmont Park, can be so snake bitten. As the horses left the paddock for the first of five Grade 1s, the Beldame, the skies opened big time. Fortunately, the first result was as formful in the running as it looked on paper.

Music Note loves Belmont Park, she likes the distance, loves moisture in the track and, preferably a target. But as she stalked the leading Unbridled Belle from the inside portion of the now damp surface, and with Unbridled Belle’s mate, Captain Lover, sitting off the favorite, it was looking like the perfect use of an entry.

As Rajiv Maragh moved the Godolphin filly off the inside to take aim, it was a question of whether she had the leader all along, or whether it would be a battle down the long Belmont straight. And battle they did, however briefly, until Music Note asserted herself leaving the eighth pole. Maragh simply rode her out from there, making sure that the filly knows she needs to finish what she started.

Was trainer Saeed bin Suroor worried, given the chess mate down the backstretch? “I talked with the jockey before the race. She likes to sit a little behind, nice and relaxed. She was happy, he was good with her. Now we’ll take her to the Breeders’ Cup.”

The leading Unbridled Belle was the last Grade 1 winner for Todd Pletcher in New York since today’s Beldame runnerup won this same race in 2007, a streak extending through 48 different entrants. But Pletcher will be coming back in the very next race with Munnings, a three-year-old trying to beat his elders in the Vosburgh.

***

It’s been said that weatherologists often are less reliable than the journeyman public handicapper. And, after all, how many chances do they have to get something right? The answer is two: rain or shine.

The handicapper has infinitely more variables to deal with but he’s cut no slack. But if the weather person says rain and it doesn’t, people are happy. Don’t know how many people are happy right now, but it’s noon.

It didn’t rain last night, as advertised, or this morning, or, so far, this afternoon. Since no one knows how long this will last, all are enjoying it while they can. Got to find out what happened with Caribbean Sunset, the early favorite who was scratched from the Flower Bowl, one of five Grade 1 preps.

We’re back later this afternoon, as we will update you from Belmont Park throughout “Super Saturday.” Sure would like to see the Jockey Club Gold Cup on a fast track, like it is now. I don’t have a lot of confidence that will happen, however.

Written by John Pricci

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