John Pricci

HorseRaceInsider.com 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 MSNBC.com, 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, July 09, 2009


Triple Crown’s Winners Get Back to Work


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 8, 2009--In the past week, all the Triple Crown winners were back on the work tab and in the headlines. For racing fans what happens next is promising to be the big fun.

Interesting how the works seem to reflect the divergent paths Mine That Bird, Rachel Alexandra and Summer Bird are taking to their next assignments, including the unscheduled, unknown path of the Preakness winning filly, America’s most popular horse.

Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird worked a slow five-eighths in his recent introduction to the Monmouth Park surface. Pointing for the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational August 2, the 1:04 2/5 move was the first of four works intended to advance his condition.

Recall that his first work at Belmont Park wasn’t all that fast either but the end result turned out pretty well. It is clear that he needed to do something and trainer Tim Ice said he’d probably benefit from the exercise.

If he were mine, I frankly wouldn’t mind if her were no fully cranked for his Shore debut even with its million-dollar purse. I’d leave something in the tank for the Travers over a distance that better suits his talents and over a rival that would further lift his profile.

Summer Bird wouldn’t be the first horse to use the Haskell as a bridge to the Travers. Considering only horses that have completed a Haskell-Travers sweep, there have been five in the last 25 years, the latest Point Given in 2001.

The Travers is Mine That Bird’s major summer goal. The filly could possibly wind up in the race as well. Whichever colt wins the Derby/Belmont rubber takes the divisional lead and possibly Horse of the Year, too, in the unlikely event both Rachel and Zenyatta fall flat in the fall.

The Derby winner had his second work since the Belmont on Tuesday. On the surface it was a pedestrian half mile in 49.40 over a fast Churchill Downs surface. Looking deeper, however, the move was indicative of the good horse he is.

After going off slowly in 25.60, he finished up with an energetic :23.80 quarter mile and galloped out another furlong in :12.40, a sharp 1:01.80 while finishing up around a turn. Perfect. He’ll have two more works in advance of the West Virginia Derby, August 1.

Mine That Bird’s people have gotten a two-race commitment from Mike Smith, who got along with the gelding in his Preakness debut ride. This was a good choice given the pivotal significance of the Travers. It also means Zenyatta’s people are keeping their Breeders’ Cup options open.

Now if Zenyatta runs in the Ladies Classic, Smith, depending on the next two results, could wind up back on the Derby winner in the Classic. Or, the most fascinating occurrence, Calvin Borel could get the mount back for the Classic. Wouldn’t that be something?

MTB’s connections are making possible this major Breeders’ Cup storyline: Highly improbable Derby winner takes Classic; Borel earns redemption for Belmont miscue. But first things first, getting past Mountaineer and Saratoga successfully.

Monday’s lung opener for Rachel Alexandra on the Oklahoma training track was just that, a chance to get a blow after hanging out for a week in the same stall occupied the last two years by Horse of the Year Curlin.

What makes this filly so special, enormous talent notwithstanding, is her attitude. When she was paddocked at Belmont Park on the Thursday before the Mother Goose, she was so unflappable it looked as if she were sleeping.

Then, on the afternoon of the Mother Goose, as a fairly large crowd surrounded the ring straining to get a better look. And there she was, surrounded by security and busy handlers, standing quietly until it was time to go to work.

When finally led out of the stall and given a circumference of the ring, there were no histrionics. Neither strapping nor small, Rachel was up on her toes but not too high, just right. The only element separating her from the herd is her head; unmistakably female.

All this makes her special, to go from near slumber to winning the Mother Goose by nearly 20 lengths in record time, the Kentucky Oaks by more than 20. Calvin Borel has it right: “She’s not normal.”

It’s her temperament that allows such a brilliant animal to go a half mile in :50.67, with a gallop out of five furlongs in a dawdling 1:05. She does what she has to do when she has to do it and does it in a manner her handlers think is best.

The work gives no indication of what those handlers may be thinking. Given her ability, any scenario that’s chosen makes sense. A second victory over males in the Haskell could provide an insurmountable Horse of the Year lead. A Travers victory would make that a cinch even if Zenyatta became the leading undefeated horse of all time.

The longer her connections and those of Zenyatta dawdle on a future specified meeting place, Rachel can go her own way, sealing the Horse of the Year deal before leaves begin to fall. Then she could work on her place in history with an ambitious 4-year-old campaign.

The second season has begun. Where all these slow breezes lead is anyone’s guess. But it’s lifting the dialogue in a game badly in need of good news.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009


Out the Inbox


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 7, 2009--

Item: NATIONAL HANDLE FIGURES PLUMMET IN JUNE

In the first five months of 2009, racing’s slide kept pace with unfortunate developments of the economy. Thank you, Wall Street.

But then June came and went with total worldwide commingled wagering down nearly 17 percent from June, 2008. For the year the decline has averaged 10 percent a month. And that's after being down more than 7 percent last year.

Losing 37 days of racing didn’t help in the short term and indications are there will be more contraction with the numbers getting worse before they get better. Thank you, investment bankers.

Excluding weekend action, daily handle continues falling because the product’s quality has continued its slide while product cost, in the form of high takeout rates, is busting out customers at an accelerated rate.

If racing is to get healthy, there needs to be further contraction, a lot more. Ultimately this will improve the quality of the wagering product, create demand--even if by artificial means, less being more--and increase betting handle. Even for those who love it, racing sadly has become commonplace.

If dropping takeout rates won’t fly given current realities, what about the introduction of new head-to-head wagers, based on the existing betting exchange model, with lower takeout as an adjunct to parimutuel wagering. Perhaps parimutuel fixed odds betting.

Some change in the paradigm must be made to help keep players liquid and to generate some mainstream buzz.

But try something, anything.

Item: RACING NEVER FORGETS, FORGIVES

As the industry readies for the opening of its two most popular boutique race meets, this score just in: In the number of Breeders‘ Cup “Win and You’re In” Stakes, it’s Del Mar 8, Saratoga 0.

This shutout is not payback for remarks made last year by New York Racing Association President Charlie Hayward concerning Belmont Park’s getting passed over for the 2010 Breeders’ Cup.

During the 2008 Saratoga meet, Hayward said he and Breeders’ Cup President Greg Avioli had a handshake agreement. Avioli acknowledged the conversation but not the agreement. Hard feelings followed, not for the record, of course.

Given tax code changes in the city of Louisville, making Breeders’ Cup event day a more profitable venture for all, and the organization’s increased presence in Kentucky, probably had a lot to do with Churchill Downs getting the event.

But looking at some of the past performances of racing’s leaders, the odds that this was a form of retaliation is somewhere around even money. But executives aren’t the only ones.

Shane Sellers was virtually blackballed by horsemen and racetracks for trying to raise the scale of weights, increase insurance coverage and freedom to advertise. He might have gone about it with more tact but for his peers to turn their backs?

It’s five years later and weight minimums in most states have been raised to 116 pounds, minimum insurance benefits for injured riders is now $1-million and jockeys have permission to wear ad patches, issues that Sellers fought for, among others. His payback were years in exile.

He returned to the racetrack last week and won with his first mount back, resuming his career at 42, going back to his Louisiana roots to do so. A man of principle deserves the support of fans and colleagues alike.

Item: SUFFOLK DOWNS BACK ON LIFE SUPPORT

This spring Suffolk Downs owner Richard Fields was so confident that thoroughbred racing had a future in Massachusetts that he said the 2010 season would usher in a new era, the East Boston track becoming a destination as an entertainment complex “where people can come to have fun.”

That, of course, will depend on whether or not legislation will make some form of gaming a reality. Should it happen, there will be a hotel and a casino on track grounds with infrastructure improvements making entrance and egress possible, a win for racing and the community.

But right now things aren’t going well. The Massachusetts Handicap, Suffolk’s signature event, was canceled, and not just in the interests of saving purse money for everyday racing. It was either the Mass Cap or racetrack jobs. Management chose the latter.

Without enabling legislation this situation will become untenable. At stake is the future of thoroughbred racing in New England, not to mention jobs hanging in the balance.

Item: A THREE-HEADED CARRYOVER IN THE DARK?

I’m not a fan of the Super High 5. But that’s OK because I don’t have to play it. Considering the $1 minimum per combination and degree of difficulty, I can’t justify the expense. The intra-race wager is so difficult it comes with a carryover provision.

Churchill Downs’ will offer it during their fall meeting with a unique wrinkle; the carryover going to another track in another state. In the fall, that track would be Calder. Next spring, Arlington Park, both part of the CDI family of tracks.

The proposal is to take the carryover from Churchill and apply it to the next day’s Super High Five pool at Calder. The parimutuel take at Churchill is 19 percent; at Calder an almost usurious 27 percent. If it goes un-hit again, it reverts back to Churchill.

But one track’s innovation is another man’s bad bet. It’s hard to see this as anything but a method to attract play in a high-risk, high-takeout pool and create synergy between corporate relations.

Carryovers are good because when a carryover-infused pool is hit, the track pays bettors more money than it takes in, effectively lowering takeout. But it doesn’t help the average fan stay liquid and is unfair to loyal on-track bettors who wager only on their circuit’s live product.

If the goal is to create and service new fans, bets need to be simple, not difficult. People return to gambling sites when they have positive experience. But they should got something else right: night racing at the Downs.

No way did I believe opening-night attendance to be sustainable. But three Friday cards averaged nearly 30,000 a night, a huge number. On-track handle more than doubled, another surprise because an entertainment demographic was targeted. All-sources handle was up 10 percent, too.

It’s hard to remember the last time any racetrack got results like this. Talk about trend bucking. But isn’t it ironic how the corporation that stopped releasing business figures two years ago had no problem circulating these numbers?

It will be interesting to see what CDI does with this opportunity in the future. Fan education, anyone?

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, July 05, 2009


Everybody Into the Pool


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 4, 2009--There’s an excellent betting race at Hollywood Park this afternoon, the American Oaks on turf that has drawn an international field of 14 horses.

Interestingly, this is a Horseplayers Association of North America, HANA, buy-cott race. So, take a look at it and, if you have a hunch, bet a bunch. We have some ideas of our own.

Not only might you make a few dollars on today’s eighth race at the Inglewood track but it’s our way of sending a message that horseplayers can be a force for change.

The following is an e-mail we received from the HANA folks yesterday, detailing the concept for those of you who might be unfamiliar with it.

“The HANA “Pool Party" is a concept first detailed by HANA members and long time horseplayers, Mike Mayo and Ross Gallo.

“In a nutshell, we hope to pool a significant following of horseplayers, and horseplayer money each week, to bet into a specific pool, or track.

“We hope that the concept can mushroom and raise awareness of horseplayer-centric issues that can make our game a better one to play, and grow the sport of horse racing.

“No amount of betting is too small, we appreciate every dollar played.

“…Hollywood contacted Theresa Muller of HANA and specifically requested us for this week. They are going all out and the publicity will be great for our cause…

“We have a spot in the program, I believe Kurt Hoover will be talking about us on the in house broadcast and would hope we'll get some coverage on TVG.”

So, there it is. We took a look at the Equiform figures and the past performances. Here are the horses we left open for consideration in this scramble for three-year-olds on the turf at 10 furlongs:

Gozzip Girl (7-2), Magical Affair (6-1), Apple Charlotte (4-1), Acting Lady (12-1), The Best Day Ever (15-1), Well Monied (9-2) and Mrs. Kipling (6-1).

Relative to their winning chances and early line odds, the value fillies are Acting Lady and Mrs. Kipling.

Happy hunting!

Written by John Pricci

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