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, May 29, 2008

Creating a Personal Doomsday Scenario

This is supposed to be the happy season for fans of the sport, damn it. But not if you have a pulse, not if you keep up with the latest developments, not if politicians and government agencies are involved.

You would think that with all the sexy happenstance surrounding Big Brown--the coolest horse in town--his connections, his quarter cracks, his glorious quest, it would be enough to keep us on the edge of our saddles.

But if you’re a horseplayer living in New York, you have a special kind of angst to deal with here, what with the insufferable NYRA franchise flap finally settled, sort of, the greedy power-mad politicians and, now, the New York City Off-Track Betting state of affairs.

If you bet on New York racing, as everyone in this country does at one time or another, the cost of wagering, like gas, milk, beef and all the rest, might rise. Because when politicians see a problem, they throw money at it.

Our money.

The NYC-OTB situation is the latest racing industry joke. Clearly, the closing of some bet shops has addressed a redundancy, the inability of the marketplace to keep some betting parlors viable.

There is no arguing with that portion of New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s plan. Bloomberg didn’t become a mega-successful businessman without knowing how to read a P & L statement, play hard ball, or how to apply a velvet hammer.

But his argument that NYC-OTB loses money is simply untrue. Yes, the “held harmless” provision mandating that OTBs pay harness tracks for the right to take off-track bets on nighttime thoroughbred races, a failed concept, has hurt the bottom line badly.

Someone must take the blame for not eliminating this provision once it was established that thoroughbred fans weren’t supporting their sport and that harness fans weren’t crossing over to wager on thoroughbreds. Some compromise in this area has been way overdue.

But how can OTB claim to be losing money because of the surcharge they impose on winning bettors? How can they claim the surcharge as an expense?

Indeed, surcharge monies go from the OTBs to the counties in which shops operate. No problem. That was part of the original agreement, the reason OTBs were created in the first place.

However, to claim that these monies represent a “loss” is completely disingenuous. For openers, it’s not OTB’s money. It’s the money that should have been returned to bettors via parimutuel rule. It’s the money bettors give up for the convenience of wagering off-track.

Now OTB wants to fix its problems by having the public pay for it, as if horseplayers weren’t already taxed usuriously. There has been talk of raising the takeout on straight wagers from 14 to 16.5 percent and on multiple wagers from 17 percent to 19.

(Exotic wagers involving multiples of three or more already are subject to a 25 percent hold).

Personally, I had a simple solution to the problem if higher takeout became a reality. With few exceptions, I’d simply bet elsewhere. Racing at Churchill Downs, Arlington Park and Hollywood Park, to name three venues, doesn’t represent that big a drop-off in quality.

But because of what happened to Eight Belles in Louisville, the federal government is threatening to investigate the industry; from unsound breeding practices, to the use of steroids, to permissive race-day medication, etc., etc.

And what are the feds using as a wedge issue? The Interstate Horseracing Act that allows simulcast wagering across state lines. They have sent letters to industry leaders, intending no doubt to line them up for questioning as if they were the racing equivalent to big tobacco, big oil.

So all had better get their collective acts together. Then, if for some reason, a boycott of higher New York takeout rates doesn‘t work and the feds wind up pulling the plug on simulcasting, then I’d have to figure a way to bet in Great Britain, or off shore, or with a bookmaker. Or maybe I’ll just stop betting on horses altogether.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Racetrack Customers Not a Delaware North Priority

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY--You want a reason to root against the Delaware North corporation getting the VLT franchise at NYRA’s downstate track(s)?

It’s called customer service, or customer consideration, if you prefer. It might also be reflective of the reason why warm bodies don’t support their local racetracks the way they used to.

I’m not sure when it first became a Pricci family tradition, but my wife Toni and I attend the races every Memorial Day. We can’t help it. We’re Metropolitan Handicap weenies; Met Mile geeks. And since there’s live harness racing on holidays, it’s a good reason to support the local track.

Since we live in Saratoga Springs, we attend Saratoga Gaming and Raceway, a.k.a., Spa Harness, a.k.a., the harness track. Even NYRA chief Charlie Hayward wagers here when he’s in town during the off season. It's comfortable here; the employees are courteous and accommodating.

As a loyal weekend warrior, I try to help the handle at both Spa Harness and Capital OTB on alternate weekends. I consider it a community obligation. Here’s some background:

A few years ago, Delaware North bought Saratoga Raceway and turned it into a successful racino; using VLT revenues to make significant upgrades to the facility, erect a nightclub, raise purses and, in general, elevate the product and the experience. The previous owners had operated it like a mom and pop concern.

But it was a place where everyone knew your name, or acted like they did, and the trackside restaurant was open on weekends for cross-breed simulcasting. There were live mutuel clerks to handle your action and self service machines. There were only two caveats:

The clerks would close their windows following the last race from NYRA tracks but SAM machines remained open. Further, you needed to close out your lunch checks and leave around 6 p.m. so that the wait staff could get the restaurant ready for that night. Unless, of course, you were staying for the live racing.

Those were the house rules. None of the regular customers--many were fairly large bettors--had a problem with any of it.

Delaware North came in, shuttered the restaurant for a time, and made upgrades to the point where it became a warm, comfortable and very well appointed dining room.
They did a beautiful job.

When the restaurant reopened, a gourmet concept was tried. The food was very good, albeit not terribly exceptional and pricey. The one thing Saratoga didn’t need was yet another upscale restaurant.

When that approach failed, DN went to buffet concept, a successful staple of the casino/racino business. The food is solid, again not exceptional, and the prices were scaled back although by no means was it a bargain.

Given a racino atmosphere, I thought that bargain prices for good food might bring more people into the building. But VLT business has been booming since Day One and now Delaware North apparently thinks it unnecessary to give something back.

On the racing side, there’s finally a new tote board so that harness fans now can tell the difference between an 8-5 and 3-5 shot. But the backside is still the equivalent of an equine barrio. If major improvements have been made, I haven’t heard that from anyone back there. And you'd think that by now a turf course might have been constructed at Finger Lakes. Pardon the digression.

We arrived when the doors opened Monday at 11:30 a.m. and I thought an omelet might be nice. “Sorry, sir, only a special holiday buffet is available.”

I wondered whether a holiday buffet was really special, or whether it was the regular buffet only served on a national holiday. I got my answer soon enough.

The food was OK, only OK, but overpriced at $18.95 per, coffee and soft drinks extra. Fine, no one was twisting my arm.

The joint was empty, surprising since a special holiday buffet was being served, but not surprising considering the racing program.

A look at the past performances and the horses scoring down showed they weren’t what the game refers to as “Saturday night” horses. But maybe the best horses raced on Saturday and Sunday. The quality of the horses certainly wasn’t up to holiday snuff.

But I shouldn’t complain since I was able to bet at the last minute despite the presence of only one clerk, two self-service machines, and one bet-runner to service the tables. Bet runners are good for straight bets, inefficient for trifecta and superfecta part-wheels.

The dining room no longer is available for thoroughbred simulcasting on non-live racing days. They no longer can justify the expense, which might be fair. That’s probably why Delaware North makes money; pay attention to the bottom line, not what customers may want.

The live card ended but three live NYRA races remained, including the Met Mile. But under this administration, the window closed following the live card, not the NYRA card, an inconvenient truth.

But here’s the point: Even the two self service machines were shut down!

So, a very ordinary buffet for two at a cost $48, plus tip, was paid, and now I was expected to get out. “The simulcast area is still open,” I was told. I never received a satisfactory explanation as to why the SAM machines needed to be shut down, nor an apology for the inconvenience.

Never mind that at that hour most tables in the simulcast area were taken and those that weren’t needed cleaning.

Stupid me, but at least I’ll never make the mistake of getting a table in Fortunes trackside restaurant again. And if you’re in this area, a simulcast fan of either breed, and don’t like being taken for granted, then neither should you.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Triple Crown 2008 is like a Box of Chocolates

ELMONT, NY, May 21, 2008---Ever have one of those days? I had one yesterday. I was too late for an appearance by Big Brown on the track, who was likely to jog just to get those shipping kinks out.

Plus, the colt always wants to do something to prove that he’s a horse and probably had no one to play with at the barn. But his trainer wanted to make him happy.

So Rick Dutrow called a training audible, working about two and a half hours early. Big Brown’s minions would just have to stand there and like it.

Racetrack stable help has a name for this kind of behavior: Trainer‘s prerogative.

But the press conference, scheduled for 11 AM outside Barn 2, started on time, maybe even a few minutes early. On one side of the barrier was Dutrow, on the other about 30 notepads and maybe five hand-held cameras.

Nice day for a press conference, too. It was a beautiful morning with only the pleasant hint of a chill, sweater weather, and the man on the other side of the barrier was having the time of his life.

With apologies to Willie Nile, welcome to Dutrow’s head. He looks reporters in the eye and answers their questions straight out, without hesitation.

Writers have a name for this kind of behavior: Roguish charm.

Good, productive session. I’ve got enough material to maybe last a week. What should I write about? I know, something nobody will care about except me.

Wrong again, and the second time I was late today.

An Associated Press story appeared in my mail box and it was all about the second thing I asked Big Brown‘s trainer.

“Rick, on the Preakness telecast you said you didn’t appreciate the tactics of [Riley Tucker’s] jockey. That he didn’t have to move when he did. But I saw that rider fall back in the saddle a bit as Kent shoved him out a little bit, soon after entering the backstretch, and….”

“I just don’t think what he did gave his horse the best chance to win,” Dutrow said. “I had no idea what he was doing. He had to go out of his way, and we’re not real happy about that, either.

“He does a lot of riding for us, continued Dutrow. “The Zayat people [Riley Tucker’s owners] called me, and they didn’t care very much for his ride, either.”

Strong stuff. Especially since that jockey, Edgar Prado, widely regarded as America’s best money rider, will be enshrined into the Hall of Fame this August.

Prado, as might be expected, didn’t take the criticism well. “I got paid to win the race, not to pay favors.” Prado told the AP by telephone later in the day.

Wonder what instructions Dutrow might have given Prado when giving him a leg up on, irony o’ ironies, IEAH Stables, et al's Dark Cheetah, in the Red Wing Dream overnight stakes? Maybe they weren’t good ones.

Reads the chart footnote: “Dark Cheetah…checked along the rail awaiting room at the quarter pole, split rivals…ducked back to the inside…surged to the front, and yielded grudgingly late…”

Probably tried too hard on the 6-1 chance, ya’ think?

Well, it’s just what this Triple Crown chase needed anyway, a hint of controversy.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (9)


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