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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Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Sports Betting Slowly Taking Root, Creating Strange New Bedfellows

HALLANDALE BEACH, Dec. 4--Several months ago, when HRI staffer Tom Jicha wrote that legal sports betting may not be the portal to free purse money for horse racing stakeholders think it can be, I thought his take was a bit premature, a tad alarmist.

It turns out that Jicha may have been prescient. He thought it through and posited that sports fans—especially those who like to mix a little action in with their game watching—would never consider betting on a horse race not named Kentucky Derby.

Coincidentally, at the time TJ was making his observation, I was roiling against last-flash odds changes made possible by computer-aided syndicates who make large last-minute arbitrage wagers that render the concept of “value bets” moot.

This environment, coupled with the burgeoning number of 30% super trainers working on virtually every circuit, has me whispering to friends and associates that if I were 30 years younger I might walk away from a game I’ve been passionate about for a half-century.

It would not be because I’ve lost my interest in the sport, just the day-to-day wagering, becoming a Saturday-only warrior for real. I love the track and backside environments, the majestic animals and racetrack lifers too much. My hunger for that will never change.

This revelation was brought home after I read recent statements on sports betting from league officials and bet-takers. According to British bookmakers, e.g., more bets occur during games than before it. FanDuel reports that in-game bets comprise 40% of their sports handle. Gamblers appetites for games requiring intellect have changed.

Concurrently, an NBA vice president tasked with fantasy and gaming confirmed his league has partnered with a sports data company hoping to turn statistical data into attractive wagering fodder, the way NFL stats turned Super Bowl prop bets into a huge revenue stream for bet-takers.

Sports league data partnerships are going to be providing bettors with reliable information they can gamble on. Said one: “[What the NBA gets in working with us [is the ability] to add a whole product layer that turns real-time data into an in-game [betting] product.”

Last week, Major League Baseball made MGM its “official” gaming and entertainment partner, a template created by deals already struck with the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League. All stakeholders share the proceeds: Bet-takers, leagues, athletes and the states.

The National Football League hypocritically maintains its opposition to the concept of legal sports betting. But now that it’s legal, they want federal legislation to address their concerns.

Interestingly, while the league has no direct investment in the fantasy sports space, 28 of its 32 teams are involved in sponsorship agreements. Wink, wink; nod, nod.

The NFL did, however, give the Oakland Raiders permission to move to Las Vegas, a town that takes in about $150 million annually from bets on “the big game.” And, unlike MLB and the NBA, they have not advocated for integrity fees--more hypocritical behavior.

While the public ban on sports betting was struck down by the Supreme Court this year, sports gambling is legal in only eight states, fewer operationally.

Pennsylvania comes on line early next year and while the measure is legal in New York, the official sign will go unlit until they figure out how to slice up the pie. Further, the betting action is currently limited to four commercial casino operators.

In Florida, of all places, a legal sports betting amendment was rejected by the voters at Midterms.

With statistical data that figures to be more reliably comprehensive than the information doled out to horseplayers, sports bettors will have what they need for intelligent in-game betting, prop wagering but, most critically, will wager at fixed odds. Sports bettors will know the precise ration of risk to reward.

Regarding sports betting conflicts of interest are, every sports betting scandal has been discovered and revealed by bet-takers. They are the first to recognize unusual betting patterns and are quick to alert the appropriate authorities.

While underlying drug issues also are a concern in sports, complaints are nowhere nearly as commonplace as concerns about horse racing’s lack of transparency and uniformity with respect to rules, regulations and adjudication--the heart and soul of integrity issues.

With the NFL season at full speed, Meadowlands/Fan Duel took in $2.4 million in sports wagers in October; Monmouth Park/William Hill booked a tad over $600,000. And those numbers figure to improve in November and December as racing interest slows to a crawl.

Unlike horse racing, sports stadiums don’t have animal rights activists lined up at their entrances, which was the case for Saturday’s high profile Gulfstream Park opener. Said TJ, after seeing the barbarians at the gate:

“They got the circus and they got the dogs; now they’re coming after us.”

Upgrade, Downgrade, All Around the Tracks

The American Graded Stakes Committee did its annual thing last week and, on balance, I can’t take too much exception to what they’ve done, even if some of the downgrades did take the wind out of some major sails.

Belmont Park’s Beldame is no longer a championship defining Grade 1 event. Neither is Churchill’s Stephen Foster, Los Alamitos’ Cash Call Futurity, or three former Grade 1s from Santa Anita; the Santa Margarita, Triple Bend and Zenyatta.

Not all downgrades can be blamed on post-apocalyptic Breeders’ Cup Prep Syndrome. The quality of competition and fewer number of competitors have helped make the downgrades justifiable--that and subsequent poor subsequent performances, of course.

Three races that proved a harbinger for future excellence were, notably, all sprints. The grassy Jaipur, the Woody Stephens, and the Churchill Downs Stakes, also at seven furlongs, have been upgraded to Grade 1 status.

Continuing this sprint trend for 2019; the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint, Twin Spires Turf Sprint, the Gallant Bob, the Eddie D and the Amsterdam Stakes were all elevated to Grade 2.

Given the turf and sprint trends that the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association has acknowledged going into 2019 and beyond, an Eclipse Award honoring these specialists may be an idea whose time has come.

Written by John Pricci

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