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, October 16, 2008

Finally, NTRA Puts Racing on Proactive Track

As everyone knows, this game has been studied to death. In the Thoroughbred industry, if you want to acknowledge a problem, you form a committee to study it, make recommendations, then wait for nothing to happen.

Call me crazy, but I’m hopeful this time. Further, I have reason to believe that the newly created Safety and Integrity Alliance, a cooperative of racetracks and other industry organizations, in time, can and will work. The operative phrase is “in time.”

On Wednesday the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) with racing industry leaders outlined a series of safety and integrity reforms. Through this newly created alliance, America’s largest racetracks and horsemen’s groups in the U.S. and Canada are charged with the responsibility of implementing reforms under the watchful eye of an independent monitor.

New Yorkers, don’t jump to conclusions here. This is different from the Getnick & Getnick scenario whereby a so-called independent monitor would oversee how the New York Racing Association would correct its problems in advance of the franchise renewal process.

In that case NYRA paid the firm handsomely and no one was surprised when it found that the association successfully addressed their problems and hence were citizens in good standing. NYRA subsequently reached an agreement with the state to keep its franchise another 25 years in return for handing the deeds to its three racetracks over to New York State.

Tommy G. Thompson, the former four-term Governor of Wisconsin and Secretary of Health and Human Services during the Bush Administration has been retained by the NTRA as an independent counsel for the Alliance through the auspices of Thompson‘s high powered Washington D.C. law firm. Governor Thompson will conduct an ongoing review and provide an independent and public assessment to the Alliance.

“I’m passionate about horse racing. Fans think of it as the Sport of Kings and they want the horses and jockeys to be safe, and that the sport is above suspicion and ethical,” said Thompson in a national teleconference.

“There was no quid pro quo, no pre-condition. I call it as I see it,” said Thompson, who “took on the issue of food inspections much to the consternation of the White House. I will work to insure transparency in this process.” A racing fan, Thompson attended the Kentucky Derby three years ago and later became part of the West Point Thoroughbreds syndicate group that owned the accomplished Flashy Bull.

According to an NTRA release, the reform initiatives are the broadest and most comprehensive in the sport’s history. To wit: uniform medication rules for each racing state; a ban of anabolic steroids from racing competition; out-of-competition testing for blood and gene doping agents and pre-race testing; uniform penalties for all medication infractions; mandatory on-track and non-racing injury reporting; mandatory installation of a protective inner safety rail; mandatory pre- and post-race security and the adoption of a placement program for Thoroughbreds no longer competing, an organized step toward the ultimate elimination of horse slaughter.

The proposed reforms were approved by the NTRA Board of Directors, representing North America’s leading racetracks, owners, breeders and horsemen, at a special Board Meeting in September and communicated via e-mail to NTRA-registered fans prior to the start of a New York City press conference. NTRA President and CEO Alex Waldrop was joined by Executive Chairman Robert Elliston, Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association Chairman Alan Foreman, and Governor Thompson.

Participation in the Safety and Integrity Alliance is voluntary and its ultimate success will be determined by market factors. “Our job is to make and implement strategy based on good science,” said Waldrop, describing how the process would work. “It’s a huge agenda that will take a couple of years [to implement fully]. It will measure performance against stated goals and objectives. The market place will determine whether tracks complied to the spirit of the alliance by rewarding good behavior and supporting those tracks.”

It sounds good on paper. In order to implement reforms as soon as possible, the NTRA will call on member organizations to adopt house rules as a first step to the ultimate goal; the adoption of uniform state regulations via statute. The Alliance will function as a certification/accreditation body for the purpose of recognizing and incentivizing compliance by all stakeholders.

“If you don’t comply with the rules, you lose your certification,“ Waldrop said.

Every leading racetrack and horsemen’s association in North America representing an estimated one million industry participants has pledged to support the Alliance and its reforms. Waldrop indicated the Alliance soon will broaden to include other racing organizations, individuals and fans. He said there is no plan to increase parimutuel takeout to fund the project--“a step in the wrong direction”--and that in no way is the Alliance advocating for any type of [synthetic] surface.

Alan Foreman, Chairman of the national Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said “the health and safety of our horses and the integrity of our sport are our highest priorities. We know there are significant concerns. This is a first step forward. We are committed to seeing that these reforms and standards are implemented across the nation."

All Alliance members will be made to sign an affirmation of the following Articles:

1. The health and safety of our human and equine athletes and the integrity of our sport are our highest priorities.

2. NTRA Alliance Members shall participate in, mutually support and/or endorse the uniform application of each of the reforms and related initiatives set forth on the document attached to this pledge (the “Reforms”) and the issuance by NTRA of annual public reports to monitor the progress of achieving Alliance objectives.

3. The NTRA Alliance shall develop an objective certification/accreditation methodology to recognize Members who support and comply with the Reforms.

4. NTRA Alliance Members shall petition regulators in their racing jurisdictions to adopt the regulatory reforms set forth in the document attached.

5. NTRA Alliance Members shall begin implementation of the reforms immediately unless otherwise provided.

6. The NTRA Alliance shall provide regular, public communications with horseracing fans, regulators, legislators and industry stakeholders to maintain transparency.

7. In the future, the NTRA Alliance shall consider additional Reforms, including expansion of its focus from health and safety for equine and human athletes in horseracing to other more broadly defined initiatives (e.g., wagering security) directed to the improvement of the sport’s integrity and transparency.

Can these seven commandments help lead the industry to the promised land? Maybe, maybe not. But it's a good first step.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

A Stimulus Package for Lagging Thoroughbred Handle

Compared to the rest of the world economy, thoroughbred racing in the United States is not doing all that bad.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association and Equibase Company Thursday released the “Thoroughbred Racing Economic Indicators“ for United States and Canadian pari-mutuel wagering on U.S. Thoroughbred racing.

The figures released covered the third quarter of this year and how it reflected on purses and number of racing days.

During the third quarter, pari-mutuel handle decreased 9.85 percent from last year‘s seasonal figures. As compared to what on the Dow Jones average, 40 percent from October to October?

As a result of reduced handle, purses in the third quarter of 2008 were down 2.3 percent compared to the third quarter of last year, while race days were 1.2 percent fewer.

For the nine months that ended September 30, wagering was down 5.75 percent compared to 2007 levels, with purses dipping 0.04 percent and race days by 0.87 percent.

Thus far, $10.7 billion has been wagered this year as opposed to $11.4 billion in the first nine months of 2007, those figures including worldwide commingled wagering on U.S. racing and separate pool Canadian wagering on American races.

If the current trend continues, total betting for the year would fall below the $15 billion-mark, the annual average handle this decade.

Should this trend continue, the contribution that parimutuel taxes makes to state coffers where racing is conducted would be reduced sharply, which traditionally results in a loss of services via budget cuts, especially in the area of education, which can ill afford it.

The good news is that there’s a way to reverse the trend, possibly as soon as the middle of 2009.

But unlike the recent Congressional “bailout,” there’s no pork attached to this measure, not if the goal is to raise revenues as soon as next year. The taxpayers, read horseplayers here, would garner instant rewards, too, infusing their added income into the thoroughbred economy.

This is the tide that can lift all boats, those of the customer’s, racetrack’s, horsemen and states where betting on horses is legal. And where does this infusion come from? What can reverse the current trend and stimulate an industry that contributes to so many economies?

It’s called a tax reduction; lowering parimutuel takeout. Whenever and wherever lower takeout has been enacted, over time it’s resulted in increased handle--read revenue to all here. For the groups mentioned above, it’s a win, win, win, win. Less is more; a little smaller slice of a much larger pie

Brains, vision and guts, based on positive past performances. What could be easier?

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Even Post-Race, It’s Caveat Emptor

The sensational performance of the sensational Zarkava notwithstanding, last Sunday’s Arc was a little bit of a mess, wasn’t it.

First there was the American payoffs snafu, hubbed through Arlington Park, posting show payoffs that were incomplete, incorrect, or both, the result of a failure to acknowledge the dead heat for show.

Then, in a lovely bit of irony, along came the owners of It’s Gino, one of the dead-heaters, to say that it wasn’t a tie at all, that their horse clearly won the battle for third.

All anyone had to do, they said, was to look at the reverse mirror image displayed by the photo finish camera showing that the number 9, It’s Gino, a clear third in front of number 6, Soldier of Fortune.

We did just what the owners suggested. And what is it they say in the NFL? Oh, yeah, inconclusive.

Of course, there was more at stake than the show payoffs. Trifecta and superfecta wagering was conducted on the Arc, and It’s Gino was 150-1.

According to Arlington Park, the information regarding a dead heat was not communicated to the hub that handled all U.S. simulcast wagers. Arlington had posted the original result with Soldier of Fortune finishing third, It’s Gino, fourth.

Although I’m not sure whether they conducted an exhaustive Richard Kimball-type search, Arlington communicated to the Equidaily web-site that they were “looking for patrons at all wagering sites affected by the mistake who bet #9 to show, the 16-1-9 trifecta, and the 19-1-9-6 superfecta.”

Once they informed their simulcast partners, Arlington then recommended that fans contact the manager at the point of purchase to receive payment.

Of course, that’s if those patrons who were told #6 Soldier of Fortune had finished third hadn’t discarded their “losing” tickets on It‘s Gino.

As an aside, bettors who discarded their tickets might have some recourse by asking managers to check self-service bet machines to verify the tickets sold on that machine by checking the sequential order in which bets were made, providing they had other sequential tickets or other means to prove they were betting on that machine, at that time.

Otherwise, it’s caveat emptor and hasta la vista baby.

As we blogged yesterday, the Governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky this week took legal action to shelter the racing industry from competition, a measure he hopes will make online gambling go away. Advantage: corporation.

However, for horseplayers caught up in the Arc payoff fiasco, the wager would have been protected. Placing online horse bets leaves a digital trail. Arlington said that anyone who wagered online would be notified by his wagering provider and would automatically receive a credit. Advantage: player.

As a result of the dead heat, payoffs were, as expected, significantly different. The 16-1-6 trifecta returned $145.20; the 16-1-9 $1592.20. The Dime superfecta combining 16-1-6-9 paid $491.70, compared with $2212.68 for the 16-1-9-6.

Players that either bet online or were able to produce tickets with the #9 third will make out a lot better than the owners of It’s Gino. Here’s why.

The photo [posted on the Equidaily site] of the reverse image of the Arc show finish clearly indicates that It’s Gino had his nose on the finish line. However, second finisher Youmzain, racing outside both It’s Gino and Soldier of Fortune, obscured the view of Soldier of Fortune’s nose.

While it appeared that It’s Gino was ahead of his show rival, the photo doesn’t show it conclusively because the hindquarters of Youmzain’s rider, Richard Hills, hid Soldier of Fortune’s nose from view.

When no determination of a close finish can be made with certitude--routinely with horses that finish between rivals--stewards everywhere have no choice but to declare the result a tie.

Written by John Pricci

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