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, April 23, 2008

Hall of Fame Voters Make Right Calls But Balloting Needs Tweaking

Couldn’t be happier that contemporaries Carl Nafzger and Edgar Prado will be inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in August as first-ballot nominees. Because it’s good when ability and humility can be recognized all at once.

“If you don’t believe in God, study my life,” Nafzger said after collecting his thoughts when he learned of his induction on Monday. “It’s been a miracle.”

Said Edgar Prado: “Just to be nominated for the Hall of Fame among all my peers was great. To win is amazing.”

The addition of the 73-year-old Ismael Valenzuela, as determined by the Historic Review Committee, was no less gratifying.

I fell in love with the game after I fell in love with Kelso. Back in the day it seemed he was in the feature race every Saturday. The handicap weights kept going up and up; 130, 133, 136, whatever. But the result was always the same.

Valenzuela won 22 of those stakes races aboard Kelso. When considering that history often associates the great Eddie Arcaro with Kelso, Valenzuela’s accomplishments on the great gelding needed to be recognized.

Throw in a couple of Kentucky Derby victories and it must have been a slam dunk for the committee to bestow such a deserved honor. They made a good call with the hard-hitting and versatile Ancient Title, too.

I recognize the 14-for-17 slate of the filly Inside Information as deserving, even if I voted for Silverbulletday. The same can be said for Manila, although I preferred Best Pal.

The late Robert Wheeler was deserving but he didn’t make it.

Whatever differing opinions concerning eligibility and voting rules as expressed by, well, virtually everyone, my colleague Steve Davidowitz proposed minimum benchmarks for Hall inclusion that are worthy of serious consideration.

Surely greatness should include some objective standard, some framework for reaching an honorable accord. Davidowitz, in some instances, set the bar very high. Perhaps that’s as it should be:

A jockey who wins 6,000 races and 50 graded stakes should gain an automatic Hall of Fame berth. I’ll say. Five thousand, with the same graded stakes proviso, works for me.

Or jockeys who win a combined 10 Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup races, or led the country in money-won, and/or number of races won, for a total of eight years.

Those would be automatic Hall of Fame credentials, indeed.

Any trainer whose horse sweeps the Triple Crown should gain an automatic berth. (In the case of Billy Turner, who accomplished this with Seattle Slew, the only one to do so while undefeated, his absence from the Hall is a charade).

Trainers that win eight Grade 1 stakes; or 12 graded stakes including six Grade 1s; or two or more Eclipse Awards; or two or more money-won titles; or a combination of four Triple Crown and/or Breeders’ Cup victories--would deserve automatic inclusion.

Haggle over specific numbers but the notion that some objective standard should merit inclusion by rite is worthy of discussion.

But no one who loves the sport should feel cheated this year. This was no popularity contest, although it could have been considering the character of the awardees.

As the winner of over 6,000 races and more than $207-million in earnings, including five champions, an Eclipse Award, and three Triple Crown races, to enumerate a few of his accomplishments, no one can deny Prado’s greatness.

Nafzger’s Hall of Fame destiny was sealed when his second Kentucky Derby winner, Street Sense, crossed the finish line at Churchill, racing’s first winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Derby. His first Derby horse, Unbridled, was only the second to win the Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic in the same season.

Nafzger guided three-year-old filly champion Banshee Breeze to five Grade 1 wins and last year won only 18 races but over $4.3 million in earnings, 24th nationally, the only trainer in the Top 100 in earnings with fewer than 100 starters.

And the moment wasn’t lost on either man. Said Prado to “This sport is very, very special because you never know who you can meet around the corner and which one will have a champion for you to ride.”

“You’ve got to remember the responsibility of where you are now,” Nafzger said. “You represent a sport and you better represent it good. I just hope I can represent it as good as some of the people who are in the Hall of Fame.”

Current Hall of Famers will be in good company, too.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Spring Arrives in Saratoga

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 15, 2008---Three events occurred yesterday that touched people’s lives, two on a national level.

On this anniversary every year, Uncle Sam digs down deep into the pockets of its citizenry. To that I’d like to say, fair enough. Everyone should pay taxes for the privilege of living here. But then I think about how it’s a lot fairer for some than it is for others.

And I thought about the people who celebrated Jackie Robinson’s integration into baseball 61 years ago on this day in 1947. Any activity that elevates an entire society certainly is cause for celebration and OK with me.

But a lot closer to home, down the street, in fact, there was a third event that had most people in this town, especially merchants, smiling: The opening of the Oklahoma training track on Union Avenue.

Yesterday dawned bright and cold, even for this latitude. While it might have been 43 degrees in New York City, the thermometer outside my window read 28. And that just wasn’t fair. The spread from downstate to upstate usually is about 10 degrees, often less.

What I absolutely couldn’t riddle, though, was how it was 44 in Rensselaer, a suburb of Albany. I walked up and down Broadway all morning but still couldn’t find two bookmakers that would offer a 16-degree middle. No free money today.

But the coffee was hot and bagels still warm inside the clockers’ stand, where head timer Fred Bond was holding forth.

“This should be fun,” he said, as if he had seen me yesterday. “Last year we had eight hundred head here, this year eleven hundred.”

You don’t have to be a poker expert to recognize a full house when you see one. Guess it helps when horseman know that the track they’re supporting won’t go out of business anytime soon. They’re good for another 25 years, at least.

Of course, there weren’t many horses on the track that racehorses have called home since 1863.

Horse Haven, a portion of the Oklahoma facility, [see slide show], was the site of the original Saratoga Race Course, now is located across the street, where National Grid recently butchered some of the more stately trees that line the block surrounding the race course. I digress.

But three hundred horses already are on the grounds, most belonging to Gary Contessa who, while racing is being conducted downstate, will still have 125 head stabled here.

Assume that anybody who fills races the way Contessa does will have no problem getting all the stalls he needs.

Contessa is not the only powerhouse with several barns full of horses. By July the Saratoga race meet will be looming and half the stalls will be filled with two-year-olds.

Todd Pletcher and Kiaran McLaughlin, with lots and lots of babies, will have 75 stalls each. Nick Zito will have 57 stalls. Pencil in Bill Mott for 53, Christophe Clement for 50. Rick Dutrow, Bruce Levine and Rick Violette will all have 40 stalls, Linda Rice 36.

Angel Penna Jr. will have stalls at Oklahoma this spring and Seth Benzel, long time Pletcher assistant who strikes out on his own at the end of the current Aqueduct meet, will have a 22-horse division here for new client and prominent owner, Gary West. Forty horses from Sheikh Mohammed’s string will arrive around May 1, according to Darley assistant Anna Hollander.

Of course, Oklahoma’s a great place to get horses fit over it’s deeper track. The surface had been worked on by track maintenance personnel for the past 10 days. Yesterday it was a little crunchy under foot, owing to some moisture on top and the freezing temps.

As expected, there wasn’t much opening day activity except for a few horses stretching their legs alongside the stable pony and a handful of gallopers; some blowing out through the lane; others feel-good run-offs energized by the cool morning.

As if taking their cues from the activity at Oklahoma, flower beds were being turned and municipal workers were clearing away the remaining tree limbs, victims of the long Saratoga winter.

In this town, spring started yesterday.

View accompanying photos by: Toni Pricci - Opening_Day_at_Oklahoma.pdf

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Lone Star Park’s New Fan Friendly Wager

Perhaps the foresight and consideration for the wagering public shown last year by racing executives such as Ron Geary, president of Ellis Park, and Lou Raffetto Jr., formerly of Pimlico and now of the National Steeplechase Association, is beginning to reap rewards for the average horseplayer in 2008. At least it is in Texas.

The folks at Lone Star Park have introduced a new Pick 5 wager with a 12 percent takeout at it recently opened spring/summer meet. While the posted payoffs will be based on a $2 ticket, box and wheel wagers in the Pick 5 will be accepted in $1 denominations.

“Our players have asked us for a lower takeout wager and we have responded to their requests,” said Lone Star president and general manager Drew Shubeck in a prepared statement. “We think Lone Star Park’s new Pick 5 wager is an exciting new bet that will return more money to our loyal customers.”

And help grow Lone Star’s handle in the long run, too.

The $1 Pick 5 wheel is not Lone Star’s only fractional wager. The Grand Prairie track also offers a Dime Superfecta--racing’s fastest growing popular wager--the 50-Cent Pick 4, and $1 exactas, trifectas, daily doubles and Pick 3s.

Critics of fractional wagering, those champions of the upperdog, say that fractional wagering hurts and doesn’t help handle. They have the statistics to prove it. Besides, it’s what their big bettors, a.k.a. whales, want.

While it’s true that 10 percent of the horseplaying population accounts for about 80 percent of total handle, ignoring smaller bettors does the game a disservice in the long term. When average players can maintain liquidity, gains are made at the bottom line.

Multiple pools are racing’s most popular for obvious reasons. Players holding sizable bankrolls enjoy a significant edge over those that show up at the track with a double sawbuck and a dream. They don’t need the wagering menu set against them, too.

Nothing is accomplished when players get busted out. The average bettor fights a tough battle with parimutuel takeout on every wager he makes. Fortunately, longshot payouts occasionally compensates. Not to mention how helping the little guy serves the tracks, too. Tracks and simulcast facilities need live bodies to help pay employees who sell everything from mutuel tickets to past performances to hot dogs.

There’s something else that gamblers appreciate. It’s called customer service. The immutable rule regarding takeout is the more money returned to winning bettors, the more they bet in return.

Apparently the management at Lone Star gets that. Good for them; good for the player.

Written by John Pricci

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