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, November 21, 2008

No Work Stoppage at Aqueduct; Uncoupled Entries Coming in 2009

South Ozone Park, Queens, NY, Nov. 20, 2008--Back in the day when I was gainfully employed, arriving at the Rockaway Blvd. entrance of Aqueduct-by-the-Sea at 10:40 a.m. would be considered late. There were all those trip notes to transcribe into the previous day’s result charts. Only then could the parimutuel blood-letting begin anew at first post.

The wide double-gate at the entrance was shuttered, but a smaller one was open and I was able to drive through. There were no security guards, or parking personnel, to verify credentials, and general parking was now free. Just as well since there were no other cars, or people, to service.

The admission gates on the N.E. grandstand entrance were closed to the public according to the large sign, adorned in Aqueduct’s blue-and-yellow motif. But I’m sure it will be booming in 2010 when the VLT players, blank stares affixed, rush through at that end of the building that will house a new kind of iron men, equipped with lights, buttons, bells and spinning reels full of bars, cherries and 7s.

And round and round the reels will go and where they stop it is hoped that people will be staring at them, a fervent wish of track management, keepers of the state coffers and, if they know what’s good for them, present and future horseplayers. No one has the luxury of caring less.

If enough slots fetishists deposit enough quarters to keep not only the mares, but the horses and geldings going, too, the building once again will have the energy that was missing today. That’s nowhere close to a perfect world but right now it’s the only world that the Thoroughbred business has, the only one that’s making financial sense.

I continued driving to the other end of the building and attempted to park in front of the clubhouse area normally reserved for working press. Tony Johnson came over and told me that that area had become a preferred lot, but I was welcome to park anywhere else close by. But as usual Johnson, who’s been so accommodating for close to three decades, hooked me up with a spot.

Johnson, like so many other employees in ran into on my way to the press box, was concerned that the rumors that have been circulating for a few months were true, that Aqueduct would be closed in February and March so that work could begin in earnest in the grandstand’s designated VLT area.

The Aqueduct grandstand doesn’t house horseplayers anymore. It’s been closed for some time, the interminably delayed VLT-area building process now approaching eight years--eight years of Albany politics that irresponsibly has dawdled over the awarding of a racing franchise and VLT franchisee. Considering that New York State currently is in a $12 billion hole, the legislators should be subpoenaed to testify as to their dalliance.

Halfway through the program, to the relief to Tony Johnson and the other NYRA employees I spoke with, NYRA President Charlie Hayward came up to the press box bearing news on the winter work stoppage.

“I don’t know where this rumor even got started," Hayward said. We just got our franchise, we just got money from the state. We want to run in the winter. We haven’t even had a meeting to discuss it. Delaware North [the VLT franchisee] told us they don’t want to disrupt racing and that there was no need to.”

That wasn’t the only rumor that was dismissed. There was another that the NYRA would be granted permission by the State Racing and Wagering Board to conduct wagering with uncoupled entries in all races where the same trainer has more than one starter, but for different owners, beginning January 1.

“The Board cannot say whether they are in favor of a ruling or not,” Hayward explained. “They have solicited industry comment on it. No one knows how that will come out, but [if the comments are favorable] they could write a rule and submit it [to legislators] for approval. We’ve had to cancel superfecta wagering or force horses out of races. We just want a rule that’s consistent with other jurisdictions.”

Hayward said he was confident the rule regarding uncoupled entries, which NYRA has petitioned the SRWB since January 2007, would be changed but not by New Year’s Day.

As I looked around Thursday morning, and again when I turned on CNBC after arriving home later in the afternoon, I decided to take any good news I could get no matter how inconsequential. A win is a win, especially for those NYRA employees who were looking down the barrel of a dark and cold February and March.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Marketers Should Put Cart Before the Horse

Saratoga Springs, NY, November 19, 2008--While Eclipse balloting for 2008 Horse of the Year between reigning champion Curlin and the undefeated Ladies Classic winner, dominant filly Zenyatta, figures to be a contentious vote, the elevation of the great three-year-old filly Zarkava to European Horse of the Year status earlier this week came as a surprise to no one.

Her honor, of course, was well deserved such was her dominance. She was one of seven horses to earn Cartier Racing Awards distinction, including older male Duke of Marmalade, three-year-old colt New Approach, stayer Yeats, sprinter Marchand d’Or, juvenile colt Mastercraftsman, and juvenile filly Rainbow View. Obviously, Zarkava also earned a Cartier for champion three-year-old filly.

Defeating older males in the legendary Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe was quite an accomplishment, indeed, but it was far from her only achievement. Her five victories this year enabled her to retire the undefeated winner of seven lifetime starts, including a victory over Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Goldikova.

A winner at a mile, mile and a quarter and mile and a half, it is a record worthy of Horse of the Universe acclaim. But just as so many of the best of our champions are whisked away to the breeding shed prematurely before their stature has a chance to increase public awareness, so, too, has her retirement by H.H. Aga Khan sparked displeasure among European race fans. They can’t understand why a filly, who can produce only one foal at a time, can’t race in her four-year-old season.

More than any other horse on the planet, it’s true that Zarkava has the least to prove. The vanquished listed above includes a peer, three-year-old filly Goldikova, who was so impressive beating older males in the Mile at Santa Anita in conditions that were not her favorite, displaying an electric turn of foot. But according to many European observers, Goldikova never demonstrated she was Zarkava’s class when they met in competition.

Of course, we’ll have to take those people at their word. European horse people are no less cash oriented than their American compatriots. Zarkava is gone, as is Derby champion New Approach, and her fellow three-year-old, Classic-winning Raven’s Pass.

Clearly, it was a very strong year for racing in the Old World. Then, with their season virtually complete, many shipped 6,000 miles into the heat of Southern California and dominated all the big match-ups.

But there will be no Classic repeat attempt for Raven’s Pass; no Arc challenge for New Approach, the rabbit-aided Newmarket course-record winner of the Champion Stakes. Sorry, but racing fans everywhere will not get another chance to see only the third horse in history to complete a Dewhurst, Derby and Champion triple.

You would think that we’d all be used to this kind of disappointment by now. With Curlin gone, there are no stars looming on the horizon, unless the Zenyatta people decide to take the cellophane off the behemoth filly, go on a nation-wide tour, and take on the boys at least once. Certainly, her physicality seems up to the challenge but I assume the chances of that happening are slim and none if their goal to is keep her undefeated. Unfortunately, with the Breeders’ Cup returning to Santa Anita in 2009, there’s no compelling reason beyond sportsmanship for her ever to leave the confines of the Golden State.

One area in which Europeans are more civilized than the Yanks is the voting process itself. A recent blog by HRI’s Vic Zast on whether race fans should be part of the Eclipse Award process created quite a stir, Zast making a reasonable suggestion that if fans were permitting to vote, ballots could be screened via membership in one of the newly formed grass roots racing organizations, avoiding possible ballot stuffing.

That doesn’t appear to be a problem in Europe. The eight Cartier Awards were decided by a combination of points achieved in established classic races, which seems a most sensible standard for gauging excellence, the opinions of racing journalists chaired by media veteran Brough Scott, and votes from Thoroughbred fans tallied by the Racing Post and Daily Telegraph.

If only we could be that sophisticated. Then perhaps the industry would pay to create a prime time awards special on network television featuring A-list musical entertainment and hosts and exciting clips of racing's equine and human stars that put a face on an industry peopled by many powerful and fascinating household names. Then try to attract international participation for broadcasting the program in racing capitals around the world. Act important and the public just might get the message you're sending. That, or limit your thinking to the confines of the same box.

If prime time reality television has proven anything it’s that the public will watch programming featuring some entertainment component. Think of it as marketing concept that puts the cart before the horse. Racing's high-profile sponsors just might find that notion appealing.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Buddy, Ax, The Goat and White Cloud

Saratoga Springs, NY, November 18,2008--Yesterday’s fascinating story about Buddy Jacobson as related by HRI’s Bill Christine opened a floodgate of memories. I, too, can remember when my friend, the late Pete Axthelm, who Christine also referenced, was adamant in his belief that Jacobson was innocent of murdering John Tupper, a love triangle story involving Tupper, Jacobson and a model named Melanie Cain.

I still miss Ax, who died too young, but whose spirit, for me, still resides in every South Florida racetrack I visit, even the new Gulfstream, which I’m doubtlessly sure Axthelm would have hated.

Axthelm, network television’s first intelligent NFL handicapping analyst, was, of course, the author of the basketball classic “The City Game,“ which profiled the life of Earl “The Goat” Manigault, a New York City playground legend whose career, and life, was cut short by heroine, then in abundant supply on virtually every Harlem street corner in the early 1960s.

The Goat played in Rucker Park, the famed Harlem playground. He was a guard, 6 feet tall but with a 52-inch vertical leap. Billy Lawrence, one of my groomsmen when I tied the knot back in ‘69, told me how he saw Manigault take a quarter off the top of the backboard.

Lawrence, a shooting guard who could also play point, played for legendary high school coach Jack Curran at Archbishop Molloy, won over 100 college scholarships and once scored over 100 points in a CYO game, enjoyed a cup of coffee with Dean Smith at North Carolina before returning home to play for Joe Lapchick, then “Looie” Carnesecca, at St. John’s.

I could relate the entire story of the night we celebrated Billy’s last-second jumper at Alumni Hall to beat Cazzie Russell’s team, at the time ranked #5 in the country. But then this is a family blog.

Suffice it to say we started the evening at Joe Lisa’s bar on 43rd Avenue in Corona, drank for free when Rene the bartender--he preferred “Renny”--showed his appreciation for taking the Redmen plus points that Saturday afternoon. The night went rapidly downhill from there.

Axthelm, who heard of Lawrence, probably didn’t know that Lawrence was known as “White Cloud” by the Rucker regulars. He, too, played there with NBA types summers while still in high school. The nickname was given him by African American b-ball fans who greeted him as he got off the “A” train at 125th Street, providing him safe passage through the Harlem Streets until he reached the playground.

Can’t recall whether Billy ever played against Lew Alcindor, although I seem to remember he did. Alcindor, a.k.a. Kareem Abdul Jabbar, once called The Goat the greatest basketball player of his size in the history of New York City. And that certainly covers a lot of ground.

What Lawrence taught me about basketball I reciprocated by introducing him to Aqueduct, which was brand spanking new back in the day. In fact, we scheduled morning classes exclusively so that we could get to the track in time for the double via the back streets--18 minutes from the Hilltop campus to the front gate on Rockaway Blvd.--and Billy could return to the campus in time for practice.

In those days, before Kenny Noe Jr. came along and decided that starter handicaps were not in the best interests of racing fans and eliminated them--absurd, of course--Frank Martin, Carlos’ legendary grandfather, and Jacobson dominated those races. Especially Jacobson.

These prolific horsemen battled for leading trainer every year and between them dominated the starter handicaps every Saturday. Yes, the same type of race was carded every Saturday, run as the last race of the day and segregated by different claiming qualifications, distances and sex. Frank Martin had Table Hopper. Jacobson had Palenque III.

OMG how I loved those two horses! You couldn’t put enough weight on Table Hopper to stop him. Weight might stop a freight train but it never stopped Table Hopper. For the most part, however, no horse could catch Palenque III, not even Table Hopper.

Palenque III was my favorite starter handicapper and Jacobson kept him in form virtually all season. Racing actually had seasons back then and Palenque, the weight mounting with every start, went to the front beneath Hall of Famer Bobby Ussery--Jacobson’s go-to jockey and the greatest speed rider in the history of the game (sorry, Earlie)--and improved his position.

Palenque III was the poster child of Jacobson’s genius, his brilliant training career cut short when he was drummed out of the business by the association because he had the temerity to lead a strike against the NYRA to benefit stable workers that shut down the track for over a week. It didn’t help when he won an important stakes with an Ogden Phipps castoff, either.

Howard “Buddy” Jacobson, like Pete “Ax” Axthelm and Earl “The Goat” Manigault, died before they could accomplish even greater things, considering their talents. But never has it been said that life was fair, or that tomorrow is guaranteed to anyone.

Written by John Pricci

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