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, 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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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

“Animal Planet’s” Jockey Series a Score for Thoroughbred Racing

Saratoga Springs, NY, February 3, 2009--As any regular HRI reader would know, I haven’t found much to be Pollyanna about recently. Then the overnight mail brought news of a positive development about the game that temporarily has changed all that.

If all 12 episodes of the upcoming Discovery Channel reality based docu-soap series, Animal Planet’s “Jockeys: Win or Die Trying,” are as good as the rushes that came in the mail Monday, it will be a good start toward getting America to feel good about the sport of thoroughbred racing again.

The job was difficult; scaling down for mass consumption a story about jockeys as athletes so that spectators can learn more about and appreciate the spectacle of men and women racing each other on horseback knowing that, if 2009 were an average year, two of their colleagues will have been killed in racing accidents.

Horse racing: The story of human and equine athleticism combining in partnership to put on a sparkling death-defying show. Or it can be something else. Like the man on camera said: “It’s a drug called action and it makes this whole thing work.”

It sure does, and the film’s executive producers combined to make the piece gritty, realistic and multi-layered. Only knowledge of the game can accomplish this and Liz Bronstein, who, along with co-executive producer Tina Gazzerro took the project from concept to conception, gets what it means to be a racetracker.

As she explained during an NTRA Monday teleconference: “Our family spent the Jewish holidays at the track.”

The captivating imagery came in bursts: There was Old Thamesian who reared at the start of the third race and inadvertently crushed the foot of his jockey, a fresh-faced Kayla Stra, who may be a long way from her native Australia but who nevertheless brushed herself off and got right back up on the 30-1 shot.

It was her first American mount and she was trying to convince the Southern California horse colony that her talents are worthy of riding and winning at Santa Anita because, you know, “winning a race is better than sex.”

Two races later, it was the powerful image of budding champion Zenyatta winning the Lady’s Secret with those incredibly long strides. It was a well executed ride by Hall of Famer Mike Smith in a paceless four-horse field, but who would be the first to tell you what it means to ride a filly like her.

“I’ve been blessed. You get to ride champions like her that you may never see in a lifetime. If she ever got beat, it would be my fault, not hers.”

Then, a few frames and a couple of hundred yards out of the Santa Anita starting gate, Corey Nakatani and Easy On The Eye both fell to the turf course, Nakatani losing any live mounts he might have had for the upcoming Breeders’ Cup courtesy of a broken collarbone.

There was Joe Talamo’s girlfriend, Elizabeth, saying “I like everything about him except what he does for a living. He’s risking his life every day.”

Talamo’s thoughts on the subject? After winning a race in which a horse and rider went down but escaped injured, Talamo said: “Yeah, saw it out of the corner of my eye. A broken arm. Broken legs, a broken collarbone, that’s a given,” he shrugged.

The image of an emotional Chantal Sutherland talking about leaving her parents back in Toronto, telling brother Doug she will take her career to Southern California, and informing boyfriend Mike Smith after moving into his Sierra Madre condo that he was about to lose all his closet space.

Life never gets more real than that.

And on what it means to be a veteran rider, Jon Court and Aaron Gryder talked about the challenge of competing in a hungry, young man’s game. A family man, Gryder spoke of the dangers jockeys must live with every day.

“I’m 38-years-old and being a jockey is my livelihood,” Gryder said. “If I die I want my children to know I loved them every day I was alive.”

The camera caught everything viewers would want, what fans of the reality genre surely would recognize as “the tension stare.” And, more to meaning, the lens captured the special vibe that lives inside the people who ride race horses for a living.

Some of Trevor Denman’s race calls seemed staged for dramatic storytelling effect and continuity, but that’s a small quibble in a piece that portrays horse racing as genuine sporting theater.

If something like “Jockeys” had been mass marketed every year for the last two decades, horse racing might not now be perceived as something that happens five days a year and summers in Saratoga and Del Mar.

Bornstein talked about filming jockeys as compared to other athletes. “So often we work with people who badly want to be on TV. Desperation has an odor. But the jockeys were different, they were dedicated to what they were doing.”

According to one reviewer, the series, which debuts Friday at 9 p.m. EST on Animal Planet, hits the drama trifecta: animals, jockeys and danger.

Set your DVRs.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Greed at Heart of Latest ADW Dispute: So, What’s New in the World?

South Ozone Park, NY, January 31, 2009--More… more… more. How do you like it, how do you like it?

Or, paraphrasing the oldie but goodie drugs catchphrase: “It’s enough to make you sick. But it’s not enough to make you stop.”

As an aside, more people are collecting unemployment now than at any time since records were first kept four decades ago.

More than $18-billion dollars worth of our TARP money, public money, went to a handful of Wall Street executives as a reward for running their companies into the ground while our economic demise escalates.

Helping to finish what the real estate implosion started.

Mr. Obama, I voted for you because things were supposed to be different. So tell me. How do you like post-partisanship so far?

But you did give those Wall Streeters a good tongue-lashing. And what happened?

What happened is they won’t have to dig into their savings to pay the bills on their Hamptons get-away retreats, like I did, to eat.

Paraphrasing Keith Olbermann, make them give the damn money back, sir! Send the message that greedy, unregulated people can't steal anymore just because they can.

Or don’t.

Instead invite the other side over for more tea. Perhaps next time you may get a vote. They have one priority now: 2012.

Is Rush Limbaugh’s bully pulpit bigger than the one the American people gave you?

You have the right idea, getting more with honey than you can with vinegar. But please remember the bees are disapperaing. Like our way of life, maybe for good. This is not cyclical; it's systemic. So fix it please, sir.

Fortunately, I have all the food I can eat. It’s my children, and their children, that concerns me now.

Don’t know why I’m being so hard on you, sir. Frustration, I guess. Because the business I have chosen is no better.

No one wants to sacrifice in the racing industry, either, to find creative ways of making things work. They prefer to dig their heels in the ground and sing: More… more…more…

People in the racing business think they’re entitled to more revenue, even while the model's broken, as if they're the only ones having a tough time.

They see a customer, Las Vegas casinos, as competitors for wagering dollars, yet gladly take Vegas money in exchange for racing product. It's not a good deal unless both sides win, right?

But they want more money now, haven’t gotten it, so they’ve stopped giving the customer their product. They believe they’re entitled to more because they made a bad deal in the first place.

I went up to a mutuel clerk the other day and demanded that he pay me $11 on the 4-1 shot I just won on because I made a bad deal betting their races in the first place because the takeout rate’s too high.

He didn't understand me when I said I made a bad deal yesterday so I need to get paid today.

Truth is the Vegas casinos are doing worse than the tracks. So they have no reason, or maybe no loose cash, to pay more right now. Timing is everytrhing.

So some casinos decided they’d rather risk losing money by booking bets themselves instead of playing middle man. They refused to pay ransom on races from Gulfstream, Santa Anita, Oaklawn and the rest.

The casinos are being pennywise, the betting consortium representing the track's ADW arm say. People won’t bet on races without pictures; the casinos will lose money; it would be cheaper to meet our demands, they believe.

Meanwhile, other tracks sit on the sidelines and are waiting to see how things will shake out. If Vegas pays, the thinking goes, they’ll pay us, too.

More.. more.. more..

We all want more revenue but won’t concentrate on the conventional things that generally attract customers: Lower cost, better service, better product, innovations.

I’m not optimistic, or couldn't you tell. We’ve been doing business the same way for so long that it's too late to change; the old human nature syndrome. So it's not reasonable to think people will take less until they absolutely have to. More of he-who-has-the-hammer-wins, just like those Wall Street masters thought.

People won’t sacrifice, won’t give up their way of doing business until forced. We’re Americans. We’re entitled. And we’ll stick with our ideologies. Even if it kills us.

Written by John Pricci

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