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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Thursday, July 23, 2009

We Have Met The Enemy, And He Is Us

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 22, 2009--It’s hard to know where to start. The tone for the following was set on Monday when I read a story on the Paulick Report that was so vexing I screamed #%*&$#! at my computer screen.

The story concerned Don and Mira Ball, owners of the Donamire Farm just outside Lexington, Ky. According to the report, the Balls have contributed $243,317 to the Republican Party in Kentucky and nationally over the last seven years.

Nothing wrong with that. Sadly, the American way is that money buys access and influence.

The problem is that it was Senate Republicans who were responsible for killing House Bill 2 that would have permitted slots at Kentucky racetracks. Presently, the Commonwealth is losing a significant share of the gambling market to its neighbors.

Given this trend and the current state of the Kentucky horse industry, it’s not inconceivable that River Downs someday could be in position to offer larger purses than Churchill Downs.

This might be hyperbole of the worst kind, but neither can the notion be summarily dismissed. The point here is that the math is as immutable as Kentucky’s uncertain future.

What rightfully makes horse lovers everywhere so angry is the knowledge that highly recognizable thoroughbred breeders could support any political party that doesn’t seem to care whether Kentucky’s signature industry lives or dies.

Donamire Farm is hosting a fundraiser July 28 honoring the Senate Republican Caucus for the benefit of the Kentucky Republican Party Senate Trust. What chance does any industry have when its successful practitioners could sell it out?

This development could not have come at a worse time. This week, on opening night of the Fasig-Tipton July Select Yearling sale, the pall of the worldwide economic downturn coupled with racing’s uncertain future hung over the pavilion.

Gross and median figures were off 33 percent. The average yearling price was down 24 percent. The buy-back rate was 42 percent. No amount of spin can assuage those numbers.

Imagine what they might have been had Sheikh Mohammed’s bloodstock agent John Ferguson gotten stuck in traffic?

What makes this fundraiser so troublesome is that Don Ball, former president of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, could reap a windfall should some breeding farms go under. Ball’s primary business is Ball Homes LLC.

The housing market might be dead, but if you can buy prime development real estate for cents on the dollar and build the homes yourself, well, you get the idea.

When it comes to influence peddling, it’s no better on the other side of the aisle. The Washington Post reported this week that Senator Max Baucus (D-Montana) received $1.5 million in 2007 and 2008 from health care organizations and lobbyists to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee

Baucus chairs the Senate Finance Committee and plays a pivotal role in the crafting of health care legislation reform. Yet another terrible message sent.

In Albany New York, the World Capital of Dysfunctional Government, the Task Force on the Future of Off-Track Betting appointed by Governor David Paterson and legislative leaders has been entrusted with making recommendations on how off-track betting operations can be improved, made more efficient.

The scary element here is that this panel recently asked fans and industry players for suggestions and a good number of the respondents said the New York Racing Association and harness track operators should either run off-track betting or that the OTBs should be merged into one entity to avoid function duplication.

On the issue, Catskill Regional Off-Track Betting President Donald Groth, whose reputation as a loose cannon precedes him, said in a letter to task force Chairman John Van Lindt that the panel shouldn’t even consider a merger.

A Thoroughbred Times story quoted Groth from the letter: “The problems of OTB are not with its management nor its regional design…The problem with the OTB model is to be found in the amended statutes that have diverted too much important revenue to the support of failed/failing racetracks/raceways in New York.”

He didn‘t stop there. Groth said the panel should call for repeal of the statute allowing out-of-state account deposit wagering operators to take bets from New York residents, “costing off-track betting sites tens of millions of dollars.”

Perhaps you thought the Balls had no conscience.

In the interests of candor, I’ve had cups of coffee at three Regional OTBs since leaving Newsday’s employ in 1996. I enjoyed my short stint at Suffolk County Regional OTB; New York City OTB not so much.

I occasionally appear as a handicapping analyst on the Capital OTB television network. Capital is by far the most progressive and fan friendly of the three organizations I‘ve known. And my opinion is shared by most Capital District OTB fans and bettors lucky enough to live in America’s best horse racing environment.

It was no surprise when New York’s premier racing franchise, under the state’s yoke now and totally the state’s property when the franchise expires in 2033, didn’t see things the same way. “There’s a tremendous amount of duplicative infrastructure between OTB operations and NYRA,” President Charles Hayward said in the same TT story.

Hayward also referred to the separate tote contracts, independent Internet wagering platforms, phone betting, marketing, wagering venues, and a statewide television network that should be united as one entity, adding “the bricks and mortar strategy is obsolete.”

If that’s true, then so should the following: With the exception of Saratoga and a dozen other racing days during the year, Aqueduct and Belmont Park should padlock its gates and act as a studio for a reality series “America’s Got Thoroughbred Talent.”

Racing fans could then text in their bets. Who knows? Between the recent machinations of special interest groups of every stripe, maybe that’s where we’re headed already. So start working on those I-Bet applications now. Standard texting rates apply.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Tracks and Horsemen Learning Less Is More

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 21, 2009--As if they learned from attendance and handle figures released by racing officials at the recently concluded Hollywood Park meeting, Del Mar also has embraced the less-is-more concept for their 70th race meet that begins today.

If you require proof that the measure to reduce the Del Mar race week to five days--with Mondays and Tuesdays dark--adopted last winter was a good idea, you only need consider the HollyPark meet statistics which were, in these hard days for industry and economy alike economy, almost promising.

Indeed, when was the last time you noticed attendance was up at an American racetrack in 2009? I don’t know if you should legitimately count Gulfstream Park, which has a free gate, but you certainly can infer some positive signs from a 6.71 percent increase in handle.

Actually, based on across-the-board revenue gains in all facets of Gulfstream Park's business operations, officials projected an attendance increase over last year of 8.49 percent. Must be some accounting trick learned from a Goldman Sachs investment banker.

As for increased handle: “Racing five days a week led to an automatic increase in field size, and bigger fields attract interest and leads to higher handle,” Gulfstream President/General Manager Bill Murphy told HRI at that time. “The five-day-a-week program was a major factor in our meet’s success.”

The 55-day Hollywood meet featured a four-day week, down from five. And while an on-track average attendance increase of .8 percent doesn’t exactly set the pulse racing, it is a positive, especially when weighed against on-track handle losses of 9.1 percent, more an economic barometer than a measure of product popularity.

The move to four days undoubtedly was the right way to go. At the time of the reduction, business was off 20 percent and significant purse cuts were sure to follow. And any time a track can beat the current national downward spiral is a reason to party.

Which brings us to today’s Del Mar opener, where more than 50,000 members of the fun-in-the-sun set are sure to frolic into early evening at the seaside track. Even the horsemen got into the less is more spirit: The traditional opening-day Oceanside Stakes will not be split for the first time since 1988. This, of course, is an attempt at levity. But increased gas prices and high unemployment in the state is not helping the buzz normally associated with this feel-good meet.

Clearly, however, date retrenchment worked well at Gulfstream Park and helped reverse negative trends at Hollywood Park. For all anyone knows, it might have worked at Churchill Downs this spring but, of course, we’ll never know for sure.

CDI’s mission statement apparently states something like: “We’ll do what we must to succeed at the bottom line and it’s none of your damn business how we do it.” They broke their self-imposed media silence only to tell the world (read stockholders) how successful the Churchill After Dark experiment turned out.

The idea of retrenchment is sold to the public on the notion that additional dark days provide horses, horsemen and players needed rest and recuperation time, in the hope all that will lead to bigger fields, higher quality of competition and an overall better product. As an artificial demand stimulus, this tack ain’t so bad, either.

The move apparently is popular with the SoCal horsemen: “I've always wanted Del Mar to be five days anyway, for selfish reasons,” said trainer Ron Ellis in a recent online report. “But from a business standpoint, I think it was a very wise move because there's just not [enough] horse inventory to sustain a quality meet six days a week.”

Added Ellis: “I'm a little concerned about whether they'll be able to sustain a five-day week because Hollywood Park had trouble with a four-day week. It's not going to be that easy… because horse inventory is down so much.”

Given that reality, yet wanting to minimize the handle reduction given the fewer betting opportunities available, Del Mar added extra races three of the five days, “losing” only 26 races in all. “Short fields [are] a lot easier to win but from the gambler's perspective, players don't like to bet on small fields and that's what drives the whole industry.”

Whenever reasons are given for a reduction in race dates and how the tack will or will not increase handle, no one seems to consider the personal economy of the bettor. Horseplayers either have $50 or $500 or $5,000 to lose in any given wagering session and not a penny more, ATMs notwithstanding.

But horseplayers cannot bet more money than they have, unless of course they’re betting with the local bookie. But most bookmakers don’t take horse bets anymore. Their exposure, unless they're part of a bigger organization, is too high. Nowadays neighborhood bookies take horse action only as an accommodation to their sports customers.

Doug O'Neill would agree, echoing Ellis’s remarks in that same story. “I think if you give the horses and bettors, who are the ones who really drive our game, an extra day to kind of freshen up…you could look at it as having one less day [that might] make more money.”

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Will Virginians Love Barbaro’s Brother in their Derby?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, JULY 17, 2009--Our weekly simulcasting sojourn in search of good horses and potential scores takes us to New Kent, Virginia and Colonial Downs, site of today’s Virginia Derby.

Has it been 12 years already?

It certainly didn’t take long for this 10-furlong grass route to become an established stop for promising young three-year-olds en route to loftier turf goals later in the season.

A Grade 2 event, it was Crowd Pleaser beneath Jean-Luc Samyn who took the inaugural in 1998, the first of two victories for Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard.

Future Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher also has two, but it’s Sheppard’s fellow Hall member Bill Mott who leads the Virginia Derby pack with three. The race has launched the careers of the remarkable Silver Tree and champions Kitten’s Joy and English Channel.

This year’s running features the most hyped horse of 2009 not named Rachel Alexandra, Nicanor. Why? Because I’ve never seen his name without the parenthetical: “Nicanor, the full brother to Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro…”

That doesn’t make him a bad horse. In fact, it makes him a very promising one. But it wasn’t until trainer Michael Matz made the switch to turf did the colt’s pedigree begin to shine.

The 7-2 early line favorite was unraced at 2 and finished second in his first three starts on dirt this winter. After the switch, the Dynaformer colt broke his maiden by 15-¾ lengths, followed by a less than compelling allowance win, both at Delaware Park.

Rising star Jose Lezcano, who gets along especially well with grass horses, has the ride.

Battle of Hastings, who won the Colonial Turf Cup June 20, returns from his California base and is the early line second choice at 4-1. Regular rider Tyler Baze will partner the field’s most accomplished runner.

Hold Me Back is third choice at 5-1 despite never having won on grass. Trained by Mott, Hold Me Back most recently was 12th in the Kentucky Derby following a rough trip. Kent Desormeaux rides the Giant’s Causeway colt.

A winner of two of three starts on synthetic surfaces at Turfway and Keeneland, including the G2 Lanes End and a G1 placing in the Blue Grass, that experience and his freshness augur well for the turf meant colt. His late kick just oozes turf style.

Florentino has winning credentials--as does El Crespo and the unlucky Straight Story--in a compellingly wide open renewal. Even price shot Lime Rickey is not without a chance. A great betting race, post time is 6 p.m.

On Equiform performance figures, the best numbers of Florentino, Straight Story, El Crespo, and Battle Of Hastings would fit neatly under a blanket. Further, Straight Story, Battle Of Hastings, Hold Me Back and Lime Rickey are off Equiform patterns that signal likely improvement. What to do?

Getting value is absolutely mandatory here. I wouldn’t consider any contender at less than 4-1--and that’s taking a bit the worst of it. We’re not betting Barbaro’s kid brother under any circumstances, especially at early line odds. Just can’t believe he’s mentally ready for this test.

There are two other added money races that compromise an all-stakes Pick 3. The sequence begins with the Kitten’s Joy for three-year-olds and up at 1-1/16 miles on the inner Colonial course. It’s no easier than the Derby.

Early line favorite Vanquisher (7-2) is deserving of the honor. He clearly owns the best record at the distance, 4-for-6, is five weeks fresh, has tactical speed, an inside draw and the best company lines in the race.

The five year old is reuniting with Alan Garcia, who won a restricted stakes with him at Gulfstream Park. Greg Griffith trains the gelding for George Steinbrenner at his Tampa base.

Two others of interest are Tiger Woodman (5-1) and Jazz In The Park, an overlay at anything resembling early line 12-1 odds. ‘Tiger’ has had four works since his too-late rally in the overnight Tinman Stakes, a race that produced three next out winners. If the race falls apart, ‘Tiger’ and Julien Leparoux will be ready to pounce.

But ‘Jazz’ is the most intriguing. His figures rank with the best in the group. His tactical speed and mid-pack draw could find him in a garden spot, and he owns enough kick to grind this out at long odds. He loses Leparoux to ‘Tiger’ but picks up position-conscious Cornelio Velasquez. Interesting, to be sure.

The Virginia Oaks is a G3 for three year old fillies going nine furlongs. Or just call it the middle leg of one of the tougher Pick 3 sequences we’ve ever seen.

Complicating it is that I’ve been waiting to bet back on Shared Account, 11-1 in her restricted stakes turf debut at Belmont Park last out, but now winds up in a G3 without ever having won on grass as the 3-1 early line favorite from post 11. Please.

But Shared Account never, ever had a chance to run on Long Island until it was too late. Graham Motion taps Edgar Prado to replace Jeremy Rose. Her main rivals? Almost all of them.

Most notably: Oh So Nice (5-1), making turf debut for the Informed Decision team of Julien and Jonathan. Must be working sweetly on grass at the old Strawbridge spread. And Excelente (9-2), who has good figures before suffering through a wide trip in the Indiana Distaff two weeks ago.

And there’s Fast Tigress (4-1), with competitive figures and toughened by graded stakes company. And Blind Date (7-2), a little win machine that might outrun her speedy pedigree, Kent Desormeaux aboard.

Can’t even throw out Super Poni (15-1), drawn inside with Rosie Jr., having the meet of her young life.

Hey, they got Dime Pick 3s in Virginia?

Written by John Pricci

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