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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Saturday, November 08, 2008


Open Letter to Jess Jackson: Send Curlin Home a Winner


Saratoga Springs, NY, November 7, 2008--With the emergence of undefeated Zenyatta onto the national stage, the battle for Horse of the Year Eclipse honors has become a true horse race.

Zenyatta’s impressively comprehensive Ladies Classic victory has earned the tomboy four-year-old the respect of voters that extends beyond the borders of her Southern California home. Given that reality, don’t be terribly surprised to see Curlin back on the racetrack this year.

This summer at Saratoga, and again in the fall, the chatter surrounding another start for Curlin beyond the Breeders’ Cup Classic focused on the Japan Dirt Cup in December, Jess Jackson remaining serious in his quest to add to his colt’s racing legacy. HRI thinks there's a better way. Thus, we're going right to the man:

"Dear Mr. Jackson...

Please don’t do it. Don't send the colt to Japan, or anywhere else for that matter. You don’t owe the sport anything at this point. Despite your concerns and those of your trainer, you tried a turf experiment, to no avail. Then, after the season ending injury to Big Brown, you saved the Breeders’ Cup Classic. You said you'd run providing he trained well. That he did, but it didn't work out. Still, more people watched him on television this year than last.

Now it’s time to think of yourself, your trainer, and your horse. There's nothing left for the colt to prove. The Clark, over a Churchill track he likes, and where he’s already stabled, gives Curlin his best chance to go out a winner and simultaneously secure Horse of the Year honors.

No one’s going to remember that Zenyatta’s people had a chance to challenge Curlin and the rest of the boys in the Classic, opting instead to keep their filly undefeated and eschew a trip at 10 furlongs for the first time. Given Jerome Moss’s devotion to the sport, he was entitled to share in Breeders’ Cup glory. But in a Horse of the Year context, that’s another conversation.

Make it easy on yourself this time. If Curlin is to run again this year, race him at home if your trainer gives the green light. At the moment, Curlin and Zenyatta are in a Grade 1 tie with four victories each. But this is a deadlock that can be broken in the Clark.

In addition to giving it a go on turf and synthetic, you left big money on the table to bring Curlin back at four, not to mention seven-figure insurance premiums. If you think you owe anyone from this point forward, take a look in the mirror. You’re in debt to the man staring you in the face.

But I have selfish reasons, too. While Breeders’ Cup is the titular end of the racing season, 2008 is far from over.

When I returned to the media hotel after the Breeders’ Cup and checked my e mail, I opened a missive from a good friend who reminded me to stay strong; there were only 183 more days to the Kentucky Derby.

I thought, OK, but at that point I didn’t know for certain who was the more deserving juvenile champion. Vineyard Haven won Grade 1s impressively at Saratoga and Belmont Park, including the storied Champagne; Midshipmen won two Grade 1s at Santa Anita, including the title defining Juvenile. But how am I supposed to reconcile dirt Grade 1s vs. synthetic Grade 1s? I still don’t know. No one does with certitude.

Then I remembered the Cash Call Futurity. With a championship on the line, Bobby Frankel might have opted to race Vineyard Haven against Midshipmen in a winner-take-all. Neither he nor Bob Baffert could afford to duck a season-ending Grade 1 providing, of course, Mr. Baffert remained Midshipmen’s trainer.

Clearly it seems that Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai will win the Kentucky Derby, even if he has to buy every good horse available to do so. Now that he owns Vineyard Haven, these two colts are unlikely to meet each other until May's first Saturday. Either way, he will own the two-year-old champion.

There are plenty of racing fans that feel as I do. Watching top horses compete is the only thing that turns a wagering game into a sport. And my love for cashing tickets ranks way up at the top of life’s lists.

Undeniably, sir, you are a true old-school sportsman in an era bereft of such individuals, to say nothing of your willingness to shake the trees for the good of a game that came under great scrutiny this spring.

So, if Steve says Curlin’s doing good, run him in the Clark on Thanksgiving weekend, racing‘s last hurrah of the year. Curlin and his connections deserve to go out on a winning note.”

Respectfully,

John Pricci,
HorseRaceInsider.com executive editor

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, November 06, 2008


What Happens If Horseplayers Also Want Change?


Don’t mean to alarm anyone in the halls of industry but until and unless something is done about the Advance Deposit Wagering situation--past, present and future--the sport has little chance going forward.

Gloom and doom hyperbole? Think again. Here are the thoughts of one loyal horseplaying constituent, regular HRI contributor Doug Amos:

“Could you please add some knowledge to this ongoing ADW nonsense? How can Internet players present a problem? We add no expenses of any kind to their plants or operations.

“Besides not needing seats, parking, washrooms, service reps or housekeeping, we do not even smoke near or swear within earshot of any of their patrons.

“Isn’t anything from us obtained with the least possible amount of overhead? If anything, should we not be allowed to wager with a reduced takeout? Isn’t anything from us, in effect, found money?”

A dispute between Thoroughbred horsemen and ADW companies essentially began anew with the recent opening of the Hollywood Park meet. Bettors are used to being shut out from online wagering at many of the sport’s best venues, including Hollywood and Churchill Downs most recently.

The reason? Horsemen, more appropriately an alliance of horsemen known as the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Group, want a bigger share of racing’s shrinking pie. What they don’t fully grasp is that if they remain on this hardball course they will only hasten racing’s demise.

In these difficult times, it’s not like they’re being reasonable. The THG is looking to increase its share of their split with the tracks and ADW’s from 20 percent to 33 1/3. And they believed they’re entitled. After all, they put on the show.

Never mind that this money wouldn’t exist without the creation of privately financed ADWs that exist beyond the wagering arms of the tracks themselves. Never mind that beyond the seed money, ADWs must finance, staff, program and develop software, promote, market and provide customer services.

Never mind that tracks must maintain huge facilities, provide housing for equines and their handlers, perform track maintenance, maintain the property, insure, light, climate control, park, staff, maintain barns and dorms, market, promote etc., etc.

Horsemen put on the show. True. But the tracks and ADWs give horseman the opportunity to earn. They facilitate the entire process by handling the wagering dollars that make purses possible.

The ADW issue has been ongoing for years and something must give before it‘s too late. None of the sides seem able to hammer out an agreement. So the tracks will continue to lose along with the horsemen. Per usual, no one has considered the horseplayer in all this. Without them, the rest is conversation.

Throughout the country most simulcast players have had to maintain several accounts to bet the tracks they follow. And that was pre-impasse. Not only is it poor customer service and public relations, it’s a horrendous model.

Once people learn they can live without their present avocation, they’ll find another pursuit. The fan base is dying off as it is, on track and off. Given the prohibitive cost of creating a new customer, racing can ill afford to lose any of its shrinking base. There’s no wiggle room.

And we’re not even considering over-saturation of the product and the high cost of wagering via excessive takeout rates. ADWs are the only growing segment of the horse racing economy and situations like this threaten that growth.

A look at the recently released Equibase wagering handle chart is instructive. Note that despite fairly precipitous declines in wagering, both from month-to-month and year-to-date, October ’08 purses declined by less than half compared to ’07, while purses YTD are relatively flat despite almost 6 percent handle decline.

Thoroughbred Racing Economic Indicators for Oct. 2008
October 2008 vs. October 2007
    
Indicator October 2008 October 2007% Change
Wagering on U.S. Races* 1,125,935,224 1,209,867,991-0.0694
U.S. Purses 124,591,684 128,821,050-0.0328
U.S. Race Days513535-0.0411
    
Year-To-Date October 2008 vs. October 2007
    
IndicatorYTD October 2008YTD October 2007% Change
Wagering on U.S. Races* 11,880,842,435 12,621,510,379-0.0587
U.S. Purses 1,016,530,042 1,021,157,160-0.0045
U.S. Race Days 5,299 5,363-0.0119

* Includes worldwide commingled wagering on U.S. races and separate pool wagering in Canada on U.S. races.

None of this is good, of course. But to not accept some revenue declines while the industry suffers significant losses seems unreasonable and selfish. Things are bad all over. Failing to negotiate in good faith is like today’s unpopular ballplayer who signs a contract then decides he made a bad deal.

Horsemen need to live with the deal they made then get over it. Of course, they’re entitled to a little more. But everyone’s rowing the same boat and a 65 percent increase is outrageous in this environment.

Keep on losing players one by one with such an arrogant posturing and you’ll learn to reap what you sow. Like the electorate, players are mad as hell and will decide one day not to take it anymore. They’ll just find other games to wager on. Willing to roll the dice on change?

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008


For America and the Racing Industry, Let the Healing Begin:


Saratoga Springs, NY, November 4, 2008--Election Day.

I’ve been a little distracted today. Maybe more than a little.

Hope you were, too.

Fortunately, it was a dark day on the major racing circuits. I’m sure only Wendell Corrow was in action today at his venue of choice, Philly Park. Hopefully, he had the early double.

Then went out to vote.

I did, then came home to write.

The following, then, is best described as stream of lunacy.

There were two people in front of me at my polling place, one was Toni. I learned later that unless I had an overwhelming number of African American voters living in my district, long lines wouldn’t be an issue.

I’ve been immersed--no--make that obsessed with this presidential election.

George Will and Colin Powell both voted for Barack Obama. As did I. So then why does my head still hurt?

I thought I’d get away from it all for a few minutes on this dark day and switch over to Mike Francesa’s show on the YES network. He was talking politics. Unfortunately with the same arrogant bearing sports fans have learned to accept.

Don’t agree with his politics. But I’ll listen to anyone who at least tries to be fair, big picture fair, not just me-give-me-mine pocketbook fair.

Now, can everyone stop talking about taxes already. They’re going up, more for some than for others. Someone has to pay for the mess that has been the last eight years, and the last 30 days.

Deregulation, laissez faire, small government.

Who’s kidding who? Conservatives, in brand only, spending more wildly than any liberal would dare to dream.

Buzz words for the status quo. People don’t change, they say. Those days are gone forever goes the mantra.

Me-give-me-more.

MSNBC is broadcasting live from Rockefeller Center. Yesterday it was called Election Plaza.

Those TV suits never miss a trick, do they?

Here’s Luke Russert doing a remote, live from Bloomington, Indiana.

The polls in this county close at 6 pm, said the young Russert. This is a very conservative district. Bush carried the county by 21 points in ‘04, he said. “If it’s called early for Obama, before seven-thirty, it could be a very long night for the McCain campaign.”

“The apotheosis of the Obama ground game muscle.” I was waiting for him to channel his dad: Indiana, Indiana, Indiana.

“Obama’s made 49 visits to Indiana and has 47 field offices, LBJ was the last Democrat to win Illinois in ‘64.”

Back to you Nora O’Donnell.

And now this word from Pat Buchanan: “What is the electorate voting for? This campaign has enormous potential to end in disillusionment.”

Without cynicism, the status quo is lost.

The Redskins lost Sunday night, which means the incumbent party’s out. That betting system is a perfect 17-0. Really.

Then I heard you could get a price on what time the concession speech comes. Any time after midnight was 3-1.

If I still wanted to bet on the outcome, one Vegas sports book was quoting McCain plus 165 electoral votes. Thought briefly about taking it, too. A great emotional hedge. (Maybe I could middle my man)?

In New York City, actor Tim Robbins’ name was taken off the voting rolls in his district even though he voted in the democratic primary. He had to go to the Board of Elections downtown to clear everything up. He did, and voted later.

Dirty tricks didn’t begin and end with Nixon. And, no, it’s not funny. I pride myself on having a sense of humor. But on this subject, in this election, I don’t.

I’m still so damn angry. In the last eight years--just to mention two issues--I’ve become guilty until proven innocent. And if my government’s trying to get the goods on me all they need do is tap my cell phone. No worries, Verizon. You’re forgiven; preemptively.

But I must come clean. I’m admitting this freely and without duress, and it doesn’t matter that no one’s bothered to read me my rights.

Yes, I wore white after Labor Day.

The Dow closed up 305 points. And you know what they say? The market hates uncertainty.

But not as much as they love deregulation, I bet.

Older Americans are losing their jobs and young Americans can’t find one. There are three young people for every job opening. Maybe that’s why hundreds of students were lined up before the polls opened on the Indiana campus.

At the Chicago Rib Shack in London, a barroom full of the 150,000 ex-patriots living in England are having an election party. Hopefully, they all cast absentee ballots.

In Chesapeake, Va., one district reported a six-hour wait to vote. That’s a disgrace. In this country? With its technology?

Damn the technology, pass the pencils and paper. Check out what the ballot looks like in Palm Beach county, Florida. Again!

And, please, no more fancy touch screens like the ones supplied by a good friend of the father of a certain president, who just happened to be a president himself.

The voting booth: Don’t leave Ohio without it.

Colleague Vic Zast was far more reasoned than I on this subject, when in Monday’s HRI column he discussed the challenges facing the country and the racing industry and how the two dove-tailed. Wrote Zast:

“Unlike [the] election, in which voters decide who gets to frame our reality, horse racing provides no direct referendum for fans to acknowledge their acceptance or rejection of the abilities, policies and philosophies of the industry’s leaders other than through the turnstile or betting window.

“The recent feigned respect paid by the establishment to fan-based organizations, while new, is superficial. This is still, and will ever be, the “Sport of Kings,” which by definition excludes subjects. Luckily, current royalty appears to the issue-oriented, insightful and capable.”

A reader, Indulto, responds: “We live in a democracy and each time I stand for the raising of our flag at the beginning of a racing program, I’m thankful that I live in a country where I’m free to—among other things—gamble on horse racing, and I’m grateful to those who sacrificed life and limb so that I and others can engage in almost any pursuit we wish.

“At such times, I also lament the fact that some of my fellow countrymen—particularly those in remote locations or who are too infirm to attend live racing—are prevented by a variety of factors from using the internet to wager on any race they choose at any of the nation’s tracks through any national ADW and watch it live.

“The game itself, however, has become undemocratic. Not only do players no longer all receive the same payoff on their bets, but the emphasis on exotic wagers with high wager minimums on each combination also effectively limits full, i.e., competitive, participation to the vast minority of players with huge bankrolls.

“If polling is accurate, a majority of citizens will soon be infused, for at least a while anyway, with the hope of rebuilding the middle class, renewing our reputation and practices for fairness and personal freedoms, and recapturing our place at the forefront of nations whose strength and policies support peace and political freedom externally as well as internally. Perhaps that hope and empowerment to change the status quo will trickle down from politics to horseplaying.”

And thoughts from a pragmatic Richard R.:

“Only the CFO’s pronouncement that, ‘we’re broke and need to file for bankruptcy’ will shatter the dream.

“Grocery chains know more about their customers who spend $50 per week than racetracks do about their customers who bet $1000 per day. Even grocery chains conduct business with their customers down to the penny. If the register says you’re due $4.91, you get $4.91.

“At the racetrack if the payoff calculation says you’re due $4.91, you get $4.80! Multiply this by the hundreds of thousands of such transactions that occur each year. It’s like your neighbor siphoning a little of your gasoline each day. He hasn’t had to buy gas for 5 years!

“Horse Racing’s leadership doesn’t get it and that won’t change after this or any other election.”

Summarized Zast: “We can choose hope over fear, unity over division, the promise of change over the power of the status quo,” said a presidential candidate along the campaign trail. His is a message appropriate to horse racing.”

Does anyone doubt that, for the country and its youngsters, and for the game and its future, the road is long, winding and fraught with difficulty that demands sacrifice? No wonder my head hurts.

Written by John Pricci

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