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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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Stewards’ Rulings Demand Transparency, Accountability

The good news is that I hit a trifecta last Saturday; the bad news is that I got crushed. You see, it wasn’t the kind of trifecta that you want to catch.

I was disqualified out of three winning wagers, an exacta and two trifectas. None would have made me rich. But on a bad handicapping day, you take anything the racing gods allow.

One of the disqualifications caused quite a stir, the other two didn’t, and they were justified. But Proud Spell’s disqualification from second in the Mother Goose Stakes was anything but fair to a majority of the betting public.

As stated, I was having a bad handicapping day, but was exacta-ly right in the Mother Goose. I thought Oaks heroine Proud Spell was vulnerable, turning back to one turn at a shorter distance. Besides, the karma surrounding the Larry Jones outfit hasn’t been very good lately.

So, with the talented and promising Music Note an underlay at 8-5--I needed 2-1 to bet her straight--I walked up to the window and bet the 4-2 exacta cold. Proud Spell was too much filly to finish worse than second.

They’re off! You win! Check that, you lose!

Now I did have a vested interest in the outcome. But anyone who’s been to the races with me knows I’m objective. Doesn’t make me smart; just fair minded. That must come from all those years in the press box where, in the interests of decorum and professionalism, there is no cheering allowed.

Parenthetically, that rule later was amended by turf writer Andrew Beyer about two decades ago when he decreed: “cheering is permitted if the score you’re about to make is equal to, or greater than, 10 percent of your annual salary.”

I can’t remember if that came before or after he put his fist through a press box partition in Florida after a particularly vexing result. But I digress.

For all those who are unaware, there once was a hard and fast rule that a horse “must maintain a straight course.” That's still the case but the spirit of the rule was changed recently to give stewards more latitude, essentially making all decisions judgment calls.

Back in the day, even the inadvertent striking of a rival in the face with a whip was cause for automatic disqualification. That is no longer the case, although I think it should be.

I have no problem with the judgment calls of professionals with one proviso: that they be consistent. On balance, New York’s stewards are no better or no worse than officials from other major jurisdictions.

At times, they lapse into inconsistency. But that wasn’t the problem in the Mother Goose; bad judgment was. In my view, the stewards’ decision served neither the letter nor the spirit of racing’s rules.

Never Retreat, the filly that was placed second following the disqualification of Proud Spell, was at least as culpable as the favorite when it came to the trouble incurred by both fillies during the running of the Mother Goose.

Race-riding, Alan Garcia on Never Retreat, suckered Gabriel Saez into taking the rail path as the quartet straightened away into the Elmont stretch. Whether Saez and Proud Spell had sufficient room is questionable, but the notion that Garcia shut them off is not.

While he had no obligation not to do so, Javier Castellano on the winner tightened it up on both fillies as they brushed by to take command. Saez is a talented young rider, but certainly didn’t cover himself in glory aboard the Oaks winner last Saturday.

When the field was into the straight, Never Retreat drifted to nearly the center of the course, while Proud Spell, having checked out from close quarters at headstretch, altered her course back inside for running room.

After getting some daylight, and with his filly surging, Saez got her off the inside several paths when, at that point, tiring pacesetter Never Retreat first began drifting in. The fillies came together making contact with each other.

Finally, after straightening out again, and as Proud Spell began to pull away, she drifted out precipitously despite Saez’s right hand insistence, and soundly bumped the even-paced Never Retreat while quickly pulling away, 1-¾ lengths clear at the finish.

So, the first evil doer was rewarded for the later transgression of another rival, who was retaliating not for the first incident--when she was purposefully shut off at headstretch--but for a second incident in which Never Retreat was just as much at fault.

The result should have been allowed to stand.

This is another example of how the sport shoots itself in the foot. And while the industry likes to use the words transparency and accountability, they act as if they have no understanding of what that means.

Instead of taking a leadership role by following the example of foreign jurisdictions that seem to get things like this right, the New York Racing Assn. doesn’t mandate that its stewards--one each appointed by the state, the Jockey Club, and the association itself-- be accountable.

Whenever a disqualification occurs, a written explanation should be made public. Such transparency is something that many segments of the racing media have been imploring the tracks to do for years.

The problems facing the game, as everyone knows, are myriad. This is an easy one to fix, but nobody will step up and do the right thing. The majority of Mother Goose betting public lost about a half-million dollars on a bad call.

And if you didn’t read about it in the papers, or on-line, no one would know it happened. The New York State Racing and Wagering Board? Does one really even exist?

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Patrick Valenzuela: What Might Have Been

With medication, legal and otherwise, much in the news seemingly minutes after the running of this year’s Kentucky Derby, the focus has centered on its use in race horses as it relates to health, safety and integrity. But the animals and their keepers aren’t the only ones heavily reliant on painkillers that treat body and mind.

Rick Dutrow’s personal drug issue was a significant back-story in the days following Big Brown’s Derby victory. In fact, NBC Sports did a full blown feature on Dutrow and his personal problems during its Triple Crown coverage.

Just imagine if Pat Valenzuela and not Kent Desormeaux were Big Brown’s regular partner.

I’ve been thinking about that since I read that Valenzuela rode five winners at SunRay Park in Farmington, New Mexico last Sunday. He finished second twice and fourth in his other three rides, earning a check for every mount he accepted that afternoon.

Valenzuela, of course, lost a conditional license to ride in California last year when he was caught driving his car while under the influence, DUI. Liquor never had not been his problem. It was an addiction to demon cocaine that got him suspended 10 times, 11 if you count the latest ban in December of 2007.

Valenzuela will be 46 in October. In 1980, when he was 17, it was a very good year. It was a very good year to accept the mount on Codex and became the youngest rider ever to win the Santa Anita Derby, the first of four for trainer Wayne Lukas.

He would, however, have to wait nine years for Charlie Whittingham to give him a leg up on Sunday Silence for his first Kentucky Derby victory. Three years later, he became the first jockey to ride two Breeders’ Cup winners on a single program.

Indeed, back in the day Valenzuela was racing’s fair haired boy and rising star, earning the George Wolfe Memorial Award, as voted by his Southern California peers, by the time he was 19.

But a decade later the West Coast riding colony was calling for his ouster, claiming that his repeated suspensions for drug abuse made him a danger to their life and limb.

You could probably add retirement portfolio to that list, too, and it would be prudent if you didn’t invite Valenzuela and Corey Nakatani to the same party.

During the 1990s, Valenzuela added a battery of missed tests and hearings with the stewards to those suspensions and once shaved all his body hair so that the presence of drugs couldn’t be detected in DNA studies.

Last month Valenzuela was granted a Louisiana license and began riding again at Louisiana Downs. When asked about his plans for later this year, he said he’d return there after a short vacation with his family and then would like to try the Fair Grounds later in the year. Maybe, California, he said, as if there would be no problem.

Valenzuela, an easy inclusion in the Top Ten riders I’ve ever seen, is approaching a career milestone of 4,000 victories. It’s probably 2,000 less than he should have had already if not for his personal demons, and that’s too bad.

Pat Valenzuela is an engaging man, personable, very likable. In a business where jealously finishes a second only to ego, he’s easy to root for. It is hoped that he now has his life under control.

But when I read about his five-win day last weekend, my first reaction was to shake my head and recall the words of Robert DeNiro, as the fictional character Lorenzo Anello in Chazz Palminteri’s screenplay, “A Bronx Tale.”

“The saddest thing in life,” Anello advises his son, played by the young actor, Lillo Brancato, “is wasted talent.” Life, imitating art, imitating life.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

New York Horsemen Take Proactive Stance; National Action Needed

I’m setting an over/under of the next 48 hours until IEAH Stables’ proposal to restrict the use of medication in their horses by October 1--with the exception of furosemide--will be described as grandstanding, ineffectual, window-dressing public relations and be summarily rejected as worthless.

That notion, of course, has some validity, especially since Dr. Lawrence Soma’s statement before last week’s House Sub-Committee Hearing on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection that Lasix does not prevent exercised induced pulmonary hemorrhage and enhances performance.

So then why should IEAH bother? Because it’s one small step taken by an individual in the right direction that sends a better, albeit contradictory, message, with the promise that they will pay racetracks to perform pre- and post-race drug tests on IEAH horses racing at those venues.

They pledge further that if any illegal trace amounts in their horses are found they will donate the entire purse to an unspecified thoroughbred charity, to be determined at the time of the donation.

This does, however, beg at least one question. Will any of that money find its way to their own equine hospital being built across the street from Belmont Park, in essence donating money to themselves and taking it as a business expense?

Now that’s the kind of creative accounting that made it possible for the New York City Off Track Betting Corporation to claim it was going broke while netting yearly revenues in the low eight-figure range.

IEAH issued another challenge--a suggestion that probably will wind up on the cutting room floor--that racetracks print in their official programs which horses race with medication and which will not, and that the program also should indicate which owners and trainers decline to divulge this information.

The IEAH group and their trainer, Rick Dutrow, probably will get no benefit of the doubt on this one because the group’s spokesman was not forthcoming about his background, and the trainer was, in the run-up to the Belmont Stakes.

In some ways, a similar accusatory tack was used to color the testimony of Jess Jackson, whose only fault recently has been to expose racing’s problems any way he could, proposing what many think are radical solutions, asking Congress to “please” help because when he looks around his industry he can’t find anyone in charge.

“We take baby steps when we need giant strides,” he said at the time.

Believing the industry can police itself, the only defense of racing’s practices at the hearing came from the Jockey Club and NTRA, arguably racing’s two most influential organizations, whose recommendations included the retooling of old ideas instead of embracing significant change--such as the banning of all race-day medication, including steroids and Lasix.

The New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association on Monday commissioned Cornell University to test for steroids, providing present and future funding for the sophisticated equipment needed to detect steroid use and further, by inference, designer drugs.

Good for them. And good for the IEAH group, too, for taking proactive measures. But unless some “giant strides” are made on a national level, i.e. the elimination of all race-day medication, ineffectual grandstanding might be an apt description.

Written by John Pricci

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