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 07, 2009

ESPN Pollsters: Kentucky Derby No Match for Celtics-Hawks

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 6, 2009--Between wagers at Capital OTB’s Teletheater early on the Derby undercard, I checked my e mail. One was of particular interest.

It came from the majority equity partner in HorseRaceInsider, a man who invested in the site, pays the bills, and makes road trips possible.

Contained within was a link to, under the Sports Center banner, in which a poll question was asked: “If you could watch only one major sporting event today, which would it be?”

I believe there were seven possibilities listed and Kentucky Derby 135, “America’s Race,” finished second in the polling. Given the sporting landscape, the state of racing, the depressed economy and the hangover from Eight Belles, that wasn’t so bad.

Until you looked at the margin.

At the time I logged on early Saturday afternoon, there were over 7,100 respondents. Boston Celtics, first round playoffs, Game 7, was first at 72 percent.

The Kentucky Derby, a once-a-year tradition-rich event steeped in Americana was of interest to 7 percent of the respondents.

First Round NBA: 72. America’s Great Horse Race: 7.

Like everyone else tethered to the thoroughbred race horse these days, I immediately went on the defensive with spin control that went something like this, explaining:

“The average age of Sports Center pollsters is probably 25 with no discretionary income, so who cares? They’re the kind of fans who line up at 4 AM to get the best seat in the house at the NFL draft.”

Of course, I was way beyond embarrassed, the way racing organization executives should be.
I asked myself how long it would be before HRI’s exalted ruler started wondering exactly what he had gotten himself into, if he hadn‘t done so already.

HRI celebrated its third anniversary Monday of Derby week. Many said it wouldn’t last. Among those, industry types who occasionally log on probably wish it didn’t exist at all. That’s OK, it comes with the territory.

The response I received in return went something like, “that might be true, but this is criminal. Racing should be at least as popular as NASCAR.”

My rejoinder was “yes, but you must remember that several generations of young people grew up without watching racing on television.”

As a kid, I got hooked on racing because of Win Elliott and Frank Wright who appeared on the “Race of the Week” show from New York on over-the-air, WOR-TV, channel 9.

It was the mighty Kelso who sealed my fate. It seemed every time I tuned in he was picking up weight from a previous win. I remember the announcers made a big deal of that. Back then I didn’t know a PP from a tepee.

The result was always the same; Kelso won. He was a horse you could believe in. This racing thing must be pretty easy if you know how.

Of course, there’s no race of the week anymore, hasn’t been for decades. This is the TVG, HRTV era, but not if you live in certain parts of the country where those networks are unavailable or where cable doesn‘t exist or if can’t afford to pay for premium channels.

Or if the Historical Society in your town doesn’t allow you to put an antenna on the roof?

Wonder how the industry respond to the Sports Center poll? (A) stick it’s head in the sand, (B) wring its hands, (C) blame Internet bloggers or (D), renew its contract with ESPN.

Here are two ideas to raise awareness that likely will yield one of four negative responses: (1) hate the concept, (2) logistically untenable, (3) love the concept but hate its author, or (4) we won’t act on it for two years so we can claim originality at that time.

No idea is perfect and far better minds than mine can tweak the following to make it work. First, some considerations:

All-sources handle on the Kentucky Derby declined for the third straight year but still reached almost $105 million.

(Meanwhile, attracted a record 787,000 visitors on Oaks and Derby days and overnight television ratings were the best in 17 years. So ascribe the handle decline to the most inscrutable race in decades, uncertain footing and 19 runners compared to 2008’s 20. Derby handle was only half as bad as overall year-to-date averages).

The new awareness concept is a return to the old “Race of the Week” television show with a few twists, preferably on an over-the-air or basic cable network such as NBC’s Bravo which filled the Oaks void left by--you guessed it--ESPN.

Sorry, Bristol, no Rachel Alexandra for you!

Post time for the new 30-minute Race of the Week program: 6:20 EST. (A bi-monthly program would also provide awareness and context, as long as it’s something like the 2nd and 4th Saturday of every month). Call it "American Sweepstakes," like the Irish Sweepstakes used to be.

Or, dumb it down, but American needs to appear somewhere in the title.

To begin, offer a purse of $500,000 that would double if it gets off the ground in a big way. Support the race with free past performances, a consensus of regionally respected public handicappers, and computerized rankings--all available on the Internet arm of the broadcast network or through other media.

Guarantee the national win pool at $1 million initially. Add an auxiliary gate to accommodate 20 starters, racing at a distance that provides sufficient run to the first turn.

If necessary, pay Churchill Downs to host it when it’s not conducting live racing. Grass Races of the Week would be held at Arlington, Woodbine or Belmont Park to accommodate field size, NYRA needing to remove the hedge separating it two grass courses with movable rails.

In addition to a full complement of wagers, add a “Super Ten,” or an Elite Eight,“ with carryover provisions. Interest racing newcomers, lottery types, and every day regular fans by offering fractional betting in 25-Cent increments.

“Box your exacta choices for less than a buck!”

Additional support comes from Internet advertising and a half-page ad every Thursday and Friday in USA Today, listing horses, trainers, jockeys, early line odds, a “Vets Corner” with complete and transparent medication list with tutorial, an expert handicappers consensus and sophisticated computerized rankings.

The more information and tutorials written in English, Spanish and hanzi (Chinese) that doesn’t talk down to its audience, the better.

The “American Race of the Week,” would be run under allowance conditions, entries to be taken a week in advance, with also-eligibles, to allow horsemen to make shipping arrangements. The post draw should be conducted the following Tuesday, allowing time to compensate for last minute injuries or unfavorable track conditions.

One race, every Saturday, with millions at stake for horsemen and fans.

Finally, offer an Instant Millionaire Contest--one toll-free call or text per household--to a fan selecting the Pick 10 or Elite Eight cold, with fractional times or winning margin to break ties, a potential ratings winner.

This should be enough to start a conversation, anyway.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Rail Road to Hall of Fame?

ALBANY, NY, May 2, 2009--It was worth the $200 I lost on the Derby to watch Calvin Borel ride his Street Sense race back, only better.

Useful to recall, too, that despite a generous near 5-1 price on Street Sense straight, he was the Derby 133 favorite. Mine That Bird was 10 times the price and this time Calvin was, oh, I don’t know, death defying?

The one thing you were sure of in the run-up to the most inscrutable Derby years was that for Borel, nothing could possibly top Friday’s Oaks in which he was more passenger than pilot aboard racing’s newest princess, Rachel Alexandra.

But “America’s Race” never stops surprising, never stops humbling, never stops enchanting, and never fails to fire.

Tom Hammond said it best on the NBC telecast: Watching Calvin Borel celebrate following a big win never gets old.

While you’d never know it to look at him, it turns out Borel’s Evil Knieval and Houdini on a hot blooded thoroughbred.

And now that he’s done the impossible twice, he’s earned elite status, leaving a crack open in the door that leads to the Hall of Fame.

It was a whoop-de-do performance straight out of the movies, not only winning with a gelding that was twice beaten in ungraded stakes at Sunland Park but demolishing 18 of the best three-year-olds in America still standing.

Hard to envision that this pinball wizard on horseback would become the seventh rider in history to sweep the Oaks-Derby double in the same year. And certainly he’d never get through on an entire Derby field again, right?.

Then maybe it wasn’t so impressive. He got through on 19 of them in 2007. Saturday, after the early morning scratch of I Want Revenge, he only had to get inside 18 of them this time. Check that: He did go around one.

Piece o’ cake.

At the Capital OTB Teletheater, there was the kind of shouting and excitement you might expect. But certainly not of the decibel level reserved last year for Big Brown.

Whoever would believe that the Sunland Derby would become a key race, but there it was: Mine That Bird scooting through on the fence and romping away from a deeply talented field.

Indeed, Mine That Bird was the second of three starters to emerge from the Sunland Derby victorious. The purse for that race already is $800,000. Not that it’s produced a Derby winner, it might become a Grade 3.

Better watch out, Dubai.

The memory I will take from this ultimately will not be Calvin’s humble exuberance or an equally emotional Chip Wooley crediting other people who helped break his Derby maiden in his first shot.

Rather, it will be the site of Mine That Board flying through the Churchill stretch while his soggy hooves barely hit the ground. When racetrackers say that a horse was flying through the stretch, that’s what it looks like.

Even after the tour de force, no one knows how good the gelding is. A son of Belmont Stakes winning Birdstone and the Canadian juvenile champion of 2008, Mine That Bird just might have "freaked" on the wet track. Or, with the exception of runnerup Pioneerof The Nile and show finisher Musket Man, no one else really fired.

Friesan Fire was not persevered with after he was apparently well beaten and faded badly to beat one horse. Heavily backed Dunkirk lost his race with a stumbling start and an inability to handle the the off-going. Edgar Prado, instrumental in getting odds-on Louisville Handicap favorite One Caroline beaten on Friday, never gave Dunkirk a chance. Uncomfortable throughout, the pricey youngster raced between horses and never saw daylight.

Or who put it together while the whole world was watching. If it rains in Baltimore two weeks hence, we might be looking ahead to the most probable Triple Crown attempt ever.

So I lost my money on this year’s Derby, like lots of other people. The payouts were of a sort that left three-quarters of a million dollars on the Pick Six table and another quarter million for a Super High Five carryover, of all things.

Racetrackers say the place you lose it is the place you get it back. Nothing cleanses the soul like a fresh set of past performances.

Besides, I’ll always be a sucker for a real good story, the stuff of Kentucky Derby dreams.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, May 02, 2009

Kentucky Derby 135: May the Best Horse Win

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 2, 2009--Unlike the last two years when we were locked in to our Derby horses early on, Street Sense and Big Brown, this year I have no firm opinions.

Even if the track were fast, a third surface turned a difficult test into a guessing game.

And when you guess in this business, you lose.

This year, even the best Derby horses have warts. I’m not convinced we’ll get the Wood effort back from I Want Revenge. Dunkirk is seasoned but lacking in experience.

Friesan Fire will probably get his track. But for me it’s not the seven weeks as it is the 8.5 furlongs. I love Pioneerof The Nile as a racehorse, but I have no idea what to expect tomorrow. They are the Big Four, and they all have handicapping warts.

So I asked myself which horse will make me bang my head against the wall if I didn’t pick it and it won.

That horse is Dunkirk, and that’s because I lost my Derby horse when Quality Road went to the sidelines.

For the record, Dunkirk will win, I Want Revenge will place and Pioneerof The Nile will show.

How absolutely boring of me.

So let’s have some fun with the gimmicks--and you’ll be the one who decides who to use and how to play it. I won’t know what I’ll do for sure until later this afternoon.

But here’s the rule: There are four tiers: Top, Second, Third and Fourth, representing projected finishers of horses will believe will win or, at least, contend. Use them as you will. However, no tier, when layering the tickets, can jump more than one level.

Top Tier: Dunkirk and I Want Revenge

Second Tier: Friesan Fire, Regal Ransom and Pioneerof The Nile

Third Tier: West Side Bernie, Mr. Hot Stuff, Chocolate Candy

Fourth Tier: Musket Man and Papa Clem

In other words, the rule says I can’t use West Side Bernie to save in the Top Tier. Nor can I use Papa Clem to finish better than third. Got that? And, of course, a horse that can finish first obviously could finish second, third, fourth or worse.

The tiers, of course, represent the straight, exacta, trifecta and superfecta pools. I figure to be in all of them. Bet only what you can afford. Take one moon shot for a few dollars; the Derby pools are humongous.

Four numbers could change your life forever. If not, you’re out $5 or $10. As hard as it is, it‘s “America’s Race,” and it’s worth a sawbuck--if you’re truly a red-blooded American.

And, please, may they all come back safe.

Written by John Pricci

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