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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Friday, February 13, 2009

Tampa, Oaklawn Join Derby Trail on Futures Pool Weekend

Saratoga Springs, NY, February 12, 2009--With 78 days remaining until Kentucky Derby 135, time has come to jump into the fray. But we’re doing so slowly, somewhat reluctantly. Call it fear of the unknown. The really unknown.

With last year’s Breeders’ Cup championships run on a synthetic surface, and with the acknowledged division leaders, including juvenile champion Midshipman, being trained in Dubai, what are we to make of their form on Derby day?

Triple Crown developments are slowly starting to take hold. Yesterday at Nad Al Sheba Race Course, Vineyard Haven, the second most accomplished juvenile of 2008, had his season’s debut in the G3 U.A.E. Guineas, along with mates Desert Party and Regal Ransom. VIneyard Haven was a one-paced fourth.

What will yesterday’s result mean? For that matter, what will the results of any synthetic surface prep mean on May’s first Saturday? Thus far, synthetic prep stars and those having classics tune-ups on foreign shores are 0-for-Kentucky.

This weekend's races might yield some light on what we’ll need to know if the aim is to score out on Derby day. And isn’t that the point of all this?

At Tampa Bay Downs, the little track that could, the three year old program earnestly gets underway in tomorrow's Sam. F Davis, accorded Grade 3 status this year. It’s the first of four graded preps for this holiday weekend. We'll preview those races in tomorrow's post.

Saturday also features the G3 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields, while on Monday Santa Anita's G2 San Vicente is certain to get some aspiring classicists started.

The headliner of the weekend, of course, will be Monday's G3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park, kicking off the Arkansas route to its Derby and beyond.

The Southwest features the debut of Old Fashioned, certain to close second choice to “the field” in Kentucky Derby Futures betting that opened yesterday. The Remsen winner is training right along while put under no pressure by trainer Larry Jones.

A new wrinkle has been added to futures betting the year, the Derby Futures Exacta, unavailable this weekend but offered by Churchill Downs’ in Pools 2 and 3.

Future wagers are always risky, a sucker play on their face. But Futures Exacta has the potential for yielding serious windfall payoffs by increasing the level of difficulty, yet allowing for defensive plays on a pay-for-play proposition. But the future is now. The following is a thumbnail sketch of 23 individual Pool 1 entrants, in alphabetical order:

Beethoven: Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes winner was better-than-looked fourth in Gulfstream’s Holy Bull. Fails Dosage parameters at a lofty 5.86. Developing nicely.

Big Drama: Winner of five straight including quickly run Delta Jackpot missed Holy Bull with minor injury, which could be disguised blessing. Dual dosage qualifier; good development pattern.

Capt. Candyman Can: Impressed winning the Hutcheson, showing another dimension. Strong dosage profile. Fastest race at 2 was Churchill two-turner.

Chocolate Candy: Good third in classy CashCall Futurity at 2 then won California Derby stylishly this year. Working bullets for tomorrow’s El Camino Real. Slow but developing nicely. Has dosage pedigree, connections.

Flying Pegasus: Never a backward step and a promising wide-trip second in the Risen Star. Capable of improvement, but must answer the distance question. Dual Dosage qualified.

Friesen Fire: Gutsy score in Risen Star and apparently is learning to rate. Certainly fast enough for Larry Jones. By A.P. Indy and a dual qualifier, it won’t be pedigree that beats him. Still needs settling.

Giant Oak: Good second in Kentucky Jockey Club at 2 then suffered through horrendous Risen Star trip at 3, but still finished up willingly. Has dosage qualified pedigree and potential to improve greatly.

Haynesfield: Visually impressive New York-bred winner of the open Whirlaway, his fourth straight score, winning by wide margins. Certainly fast enough and has dosage pedigree but 10 furlongs seems far.

Hello Broadway: Kin to Nobiz Like Shobiz stayed gamely for place in Hutcheson season’s debut. Has Derby style, connections, looks, very strong dosage profile and certainly ran fast enough at 2. Interesting at sufficient odds.

I Want Revenge: Just missed, then good three-year-old debut behind Pioneerof the Nile. Dual dosage qualified, but on the slow side and lacking dirt form to date.

Midshipman: Juvenile champion training in Dubai is fast and classy, a dual qualifier with a strong dosage profile. Will get dirt experience in the Emirates--then he has to ship back.

Notonthesamepage: Positively brilliant and an impressive winner of the Spectacular Bid. Cannot conceive his getting the Derby distance.

Old Fashioned: Fast, classy and still untested winner of the nine furlong Remsen at 2 working well for season’s debut on Monday. A dual qualifier with excellent performance figures, he’s the protem Derby choice to send Larry Jones riding off into the sunset.

Papa Clem: Certainly has improved with distance racing and just missed in the recent Robert B. Lewis. Dosage qualified but with slow performance figures and no dirt form to dirt.

Patena: IEAH purchase was a very good second in the Lecomte, flattered when Friesan Fire came back to win. Dosage qualified, with heavy classic wing values. But figures look explosive and he goes first-time Rick Dutrow in Louisiana Derby. Wise guy play.

Pioneerof the Nile: On a classy roll for Bob Baffert and really impressed after angling out to flurry home in the Robert B. Lewis. Showed development, leaving room for more, in the Lewis. But, then, there’s the dirt. Very nice colt.

Silver City: Romped in Oaklawn’s Dixieland sprinting, now gets tested by Old Fashioned on Monday. Seriously fast colt with a win at Churchill has good dosage profile and the potential to become a player.

Stardom Bound: Juvenile filly champion showed her considerably class taking the Las Virgenes under less than perfect circumstances, now will try males in Santa Anita Derby. A dual qualifier with room for further development time-wise, she’s never run on dirt.

Taqarub: Very fast and undefeated in three starts has yet to race beyond six furlongs. Dosage qualified but I have my doubts vis a vis the trip. Fountain of Youth should provide some clues.

The Pamplemousse: Upset the now sidelined Square Eddie in the San Rafael for second straight two-turn win without defeat for stretchout ace Julio Canani. Dosage qualified, he’s never regressed but at some point must try dirt. Goes next in the synthetic Sham.

This One’s For Phil: Exploded for Rick Dutrow in Sunshine Millions Sprint. Dosage qualified, he appears certain to regress next out in the Fountain of Youth. If he doesn’t, that Secretariat bronze in the Belmont paddock better expect company.

Vineyard Haven: Second most accomplished juvenile of 2008, he was rated into submission then ran on one-paced in yesterday’s U.A.E. Guineas, appearing short of condition. Dual qualifier should benefit from the debut. For $12 million, he had better.

West Side Bernie: Was a very good third in Holy Bull when compromised by extreme outside position. Graded stakes toughened and a dual qualifier, his performance figures put him in Derby contention at this juncture.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Despite Valid Claims, Minor’s Hialeah Dream Facing Major Obstacles

Saratoga Springs, NY, February 10, 2009--Do good things come to those who wait, as has been alleged? Do good things happen to good people?

Is Halsey Minor, Internet gazillionaire and lover of the sport, an altruistic soul trying to live his dream or just another businessman who sees opportunity in snatching up a dormant property for pennies on the dollar?

Should it make a difference? Isn’t it the fervent wish of reasonable people that Minor realizes his dream and gets a chance to restore one of racing’s past treasures to its former eminence?

If Minor can pull this off he deserves all the support he can gather on both the front- and backsides of America’s racetracks and within the industry’s corridors of power. I know I’ll be rooting for him.

All know the challenges involved. There are vast differences between reality and pie in the sky. But if a restored Hialeah can enjoy even a modicum of its former glory, it could give rise to the notion that the sport will not only survive but prosper.

The lottery folks tell us that all anybody needs is a dollar and a dream. But to complete the Hialeah superfecta, racing’s renaissance will need people with passion and vision. too. Minor, the founder of CNET, has past performances indicating he’s got plenty of both.
The immovable object here is, of course, John Brunetti and his Bal Bay Realty company, which were ceded the deed to the Hialeah property by the City of Hialeah in 2004. On Monday, the Paulick Report website reported that Minor and Save Hialeah Racing Inc., a South Florida not-for-profit, filed suit against Brunetti and the City of Hialeah stating Brunetti is not the rightful owner.

The suit seeks to nullify the deed transfer from the city to Brunetti, claiming Hialeah had no lawful authority to transfer ownership because Brunetti failed to comply with the terms of the lease-with-an-option-to-buy agreement. Hialeah residents were never given an opportunity to vote on the transfer via charter-mandated referendum.

Minor approached Brunetti with a buy offer last summer but was rejected. Minor’s suit contends Brunetti failed to live up to the terms of a lease-purchase agreement mandating that he offer live racing via parimutuel permit and maintain the property in the same condition as when the lease was signed.

For me, Hialeah is a repository of unforgettable memories. I covered the first career defeat of juvenile champion Devil’s Bag’s in the Flamingo of 1984. Two years later it was the great Turkoman who rendered seeing disbelieving, coming from Palm Avenue to win the Tallahassee Stakes with a final furlong in an other-worldly :10 1/5 seconds. In his next start he won the storied 10-furlong Widener in track record time.

As Hialeah’s simulcast host for two years, there was the interaction with fellow horseplayers, sitting at the feet of Citation on hot Florida afternoons, watching Pete Rose on Saturdays bet his brains out on West Coast simulcasts following the live card. Betting horses on the turf course, magnificent and fair, and dirt races on an honest main track, virtually free of bias.

Hopefully a judge can accomplish what Minor’s personal plea couldn’t; convince Brunetti--as was suggested here in an August 9 post--to take the money and walk away. Here's an edited reiteration:

“The good news is that Minor…is willing to invest the $30 million it will take to make the grand dame whole….

“No one’s ever doubted John Brunetti’s love and dedication to Hialeah Park…It’s sadly ironic that Brunetti’s love of Hialeah might have been instrumental in helping to destroy it…

“The regulation and deregulation of Florida racing dates has been a concern since Arcaro and Shoemaker had the bug. And the issue was always the same…the prime winter dates…

“Brunetti was offered the middle dates for six weeks in perpetuity. But he wanted more. That hubris was the beginning of the end of Hialeah... But he did keep Hialeah alive when others would have walked away…

“Minor is eager to fight an uphill fight. He wants to prove that thoroughbred racing--the animals, color, pageantry, people and the intellectual exercise of handicapping is still a good sell, that the sport can once again thrive if conducted in a proper setting...

“Minor wants to bring fans closer to the horses, get them to fall in love with the total racetrack experience the way he did. And he’s putting his money where his ideas are...

“If John Brunetti still loves Hialeah and has the sport’s best interests at heart, he should let the new guy with the energy, fresh ideas and capital have at it… If John Brunetti truly loves Hialeah, he has to let it go.”

Hialeah Park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and in 2007 the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the property as one of 11 most endangered historic places in the United States.

The legal argument is the charter “provides that the city shall not give, donate, sell or otherwise dispose of city real property, parks or recreational areas without approval of the electorate in a referendum held at a general or special municipal election.”

No referendum was held when the city transferred the deed to Brunetti in 2004--two years after Brunetti’s company made it clear, the suit claims, “it intended to abandon thoroughbred racing and undertake residential development on the property.”

It would seem that the suitor has a good case but Brunetti has powerful friends in Hialeah and Tallahassee. And here’s another cliché to consider: “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.”

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, February 05, 2009

So, What Has Racing Learned About Itself?

Saratoga Springs, NY, February 4, 2009--The remarks of two gambling executives at this week’s joint annual meeting of the Thoroughbred Racing Association and Harness Tracks of America were said to have made a favorably impression on industry attendees according to several Internet reports.

On its face that would be positive news. If the points that were made got the industry to listen as one, perhaps they can get he industry to think as one. This might be wishing thinking but it’s only February and I reserve the right to think positively until I tire from swimming against the tide of bad news.

The economy remains in free-fall but my gut thinks that racing is near the bottom, if not already there. Of course, the sport would have to not shoot off the other foot with continuing greed wars and avoid the kind of calamity like last year’s Kentucky Derby postscript over which it has no control.

The remarks of New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority president Dennis Robinson and Lee Amaitis, a former New York trainer but now the president of Cantor Gaming, a corporate hybrid of mobile and online gaming and a developer of total gaming solutions, were reportedly well received.

The problem is that the remarks didn’t break any new ground, nothing anyone hasn’t already heard. But that’s OK because the industry can’t think outside the box until it cleans up its own model. It might come to that one day. I just hope that anyone within eyeshot of this post survives long enough to see it.

Robinson correctly stated that the NFL and NBA prospered because they kept control of their of product in all markets, while boxing and Indy Car were marginalized because internal disputes ignored what is a.k.a. the big picture. Sound familiar?

Robinson’s Authority oversees a number of disparate sports franchises under one umbrella and two breeds of horse racing. He made a good analogy to describe just how different racing is from mainstream sports--sports upon which people also wager, illegally and in numbers that dwarf racing’s legal handle.

The multi-sport executive wondered what would happen if New York mandated that the Knicks play a 50-game season, New Jersey a 75 home-game season for the Nets, while Pennsylvania, awash in gaming dollars, makes the Sixers play a 100-game schedule. Good point.

But he never mentioned that the sport’s practitioners, while essentially playing the same game in different states are compensated at vastly different rates by statute. And Robinson made me consider something I had taken for granted: Many groups run the equivalent of a regular season, while a second group gets the all-star game and a third the World Series.

It points out the weakness that racing has no central authority, which turns out to be the difference between major and minor league thinking. Market factors might dictate that practitioners be paid at different rates, but is it too much to expect that all could agree on one set of drug rules?

What am I thinking? Tracks in different markets can’t even agree on how to stagger post times for everyone’s benefit.

Robinson and Amaitis were right to encourage the industry not to not rely as much on the big event and focus more on getting fans to bet throughout the entire year. Sounds a little bit like trying to put a head pole on a thoroughbred.

Big race days, not just the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup but events like Travers Day or Big Cap Day, the Arlington Turf Festival or New York Showcase Day, have a special vibe because they share a unique, yet universal characteristic: quality.

From the beginning track executives believed in the commercial viability of “the big horse.” That might have been true once but is not a given anymore: See Curlin. But it could also depend on the public’s perception of what special means, quality that excites fans and bettors alike: See Big Brown.

So “the big horse,” which may or may not prove to be a home run but “the big day” almost invariably is. New York Showcase Day promotes New York state-breds, quality stock that continues to improve but on balance still not the equal of Kentucky or Florida.

Showcase Day usually is the third most popular day on the New York betting docket. Special days attract special interest and greater participation by all segments. Large competitive races with good horses are a handle magnet.

It’s impossible to get bettors excited every day of the year. Even action junkies burn out. That can happen in an afternoon much less over a period of time. And betting on the same stale product every day is boring. Less is more whether the consideration is number of racing dates or takeout.

The NFL has only 20 big Sundays a year, Amaitis pointed out, before giving examples of how Major League Baseball expanded to a wildcard system and how ties no longer exist in NHL regulation. Change forces growth. Whatever doesn’t grow withers and dies.

Amaitis concluded by saying while expanded account wagering has helped service existing customers it has done little to attract new customers.

I wonder if anyone has considered trying to get sports bettors to cross over to racing, where the take is higher but so are the payoffs, as has often been suggested at this outpost. Both games have handicapping at their core, which is to say that thinking is permitted.

Since most people not afraid to think often are financially successful, maybe there’s something new the industry can try. It’s called education. I have some ideas about that. Anyone else?

Written by John Pricci

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