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.

Most recent entries

Monthly Archives


Saturday, July 25, 2009

Easily Lies This Crown

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 24, 2009--With one exception, this will be the last Saturday we’ll be scouring the country for nationally featured racing programs and potential plays.

That’s because Saratoga Race Course will throw open its gates for the 141st time starting Wednesday, through Labor Day, September 7.

The exception from my Spa duties will come Sunday, August 2, a.k.a. Haskell Day. Because you make exceptions when a Preakness winning filly is scheduled to meet the Belmont Stakes winner and another talented male who at this stage already has beaten his elders. It's a big deal.

So we’re going to the Jersey Shore, too, where we'll blog live from Monmouth Park throughout Haskell day. And, with seven other stakes races being offered, we might even find a horse or two to bet on. But that's a coming attraction.

Today, meanwhile, via the miracle of past performances and simulcasting wagering sites, we’ll be visiting the Middle America hotbed of thoroughbred activity, Shakopee, Minnesota, where Canterbury Park will host its 11th annual Claiming Crown program.

Sixty-two horses that have run for a claiming price either last year or this, will run in seven featured events with purses ranging from $50,000 to $150,000. The qualifying claiming tags for these starter allowance events are from $7,500 to $35,000, depending on the division and purse.

What makes the day interesting, and very challenging for handicappers, is that those 62 horses made their most recent starts at 12 different tracks, literally from one end of the country to the other. It’s not every day you get to see claiming horses race for purses worth an aggregate $600,000.

The nominal feature is the $150,000 Claiming Crown Jewel on the dirt for horses that have started for $35,000 or less the last two years. The curiosity is that the nine-furlong two turner drew only a field of six.

The 2-1 early line favorite is Antrim County, Claimer of the Year 2008, as determined by the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, one of the event’s co-sponsors. Antrim County is, in a fashion, a defending Claiming Crown champion.

Last year, Antrim County won the Claiming Crown Iron Horse, restricted to horses that raced for $7,500 or less. The Crown Jewel is for horses that have started for a $35,000 tag since Jan. 1, 2008.

Should he repeat, Antrim County would become the only horse in Claiming Crown history to win in different divisions. Scheduled post time for the Crown Jewel is 6:45 PM, EDT, with live coverage on the TVG network.

While the equines might not be nationally known names, many of the human connections are. Russell Baze, the world’s all-time leading jockey with over 10,600 career victories, has four mounts on the card, and Julien Leparoux, this year’s leading money winning rider, has five.

Robby Albarado and Jeremy Rose, Triple Crown race-winning riders, have mounts, too, as does Rosemary Homeister Jr., who recently became the second leading female rider in the sport’s history, trailing only Hall of Famer Julie Krone.

Canterbury offers an 11-race card on its signature day, eight of them for added money. Among the wagers offered are Rolling Pick 3s beginning with the first race, a Pick Six, and the popular fractional wagers; Dime Supers and 50-Cent Pick 4.

Those options are likely to come in handy this afternoon. We reviewed the eight features for quite some time yesterday and they’re very competitive. Here are a few ideas that may come in handy.

The Pick 4 sequence begins with race five. The six-furlong Rapid Transit offers the closest thing to a single, early line favorite Grand Traverse (2-1).

His major rival is the second favorite, Max Ahead, but the favorite’s best Equiform sprint figures tower over the entire group. The best part about his figures is that they were earned at the distance and on four different racetracks.

If not for Max Ahead, players would be hard pressed to find a single in any of the next three events. In the Express, we left three of the 10 horses open. In the Glass Slipper, we found four impossible to separate. In the Emerald, the 14-horse turf route, we have four--and that might be too conservative.

The weather forecast in Shakopee calls for partly cloudy skies with a 20 percent chance of showers. I expect my Pick 4 ticket to look something like this: 1/ 2,8,9/ 1,3,4,7/ 3,7,9,11. The early line for the four fillies in the final leg are 10-1, 12-1, 12-1 and 6-1, respectively. Hope I'm alive to them. A $24 risk seems a reasonable investment to find out.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (9)


Thursday, July 23, 2009

We Have Met The Enemy, And He Is Us

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 22, 2009--It’s hard to know where to start. The tone for the following was set on Monday when I read a story on the Paulick Report that was so vexing I screamed #%*&$#! at my computer screen.

The story concerned Don and Mira Ball, owners of the Donamire Farm just outside Lexington, Ky. According to the report, the Balls have contributed $243,317 to the Republican Party in Kentucky and nationally over the last seven years.

Nothing wrong with that. Sadly, the American way is that money buys access and influence.

The problem is that it was Senate Republicans who were responsible for killing House Bill 2 that would have permitted slots at Kentucky racetracks. Presently, the Commonwealth is losing a significant share of the gambling market to its neighbors.

Given this trend and the current state of the Kentucky horse industry, it’s not inconceivable that River Downs someday could be in position to offer larger purses than Churchill Downs.

This might be hyperbole of the worst kind, but neither can the notion be summarily dismissed. The point here is that the math is as immutable as Kentucky’s uncertain future.

What rightfully makes horse lovers everywhere so angry is the knowledge that highly recognizable thoroughbred breeders could support any political party that doesn’t seem to care whether Kentucky’s signature industry lives or dies.

Donamire Farm is hosting a fundraiser July 28 honoring the Senate Republican Caucus for the benefit of the Kentucky Republican Party Senate Trust. What chance does any industry have when its successful practitioners could sell it out?

This development could not have come at a worse time. This week, on opening night of the Fasig-Tipton July Select Yearling sale, the pall of the worldwide economic downturn coupled with racing’s uncertain future hung over the pavilion.

Gross and median figures were off 33 percent. The average yearling price was down 24 percent. The buy-back rate was 42 percent. No amount of spin can assuage those numbers.

Imagine what they might have been had Sheikh Mohammed’s bloodstock agent John Ferguson gotten stuck in traffic?

What makes this fundraiser so troublesome is that Don Ball, former president of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, could reap a windfall should some breeding farms go under. Ball’s primary business is Ball Homes LLC.

The housing market might be dead, but if you can buy prime development real estate for cents on the dollar and build the homes yourself, well, you get the idea.

When it comes to influence peddling, it’s no better on the other side of the aisle. The Washington Post reported this week that Senator Max Baucus (D-Montana) received $1.5 million in 2007 and 2008 from health care organizations and lobbyists to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee

Baucus chairs the Senate Finance Committee and plays a pivotal role in the crafting of health care legislation reform. Yet another terrible message sent.

In Albany New York, the World Capital of Dysfunctional Government, the Task Force on the Future of Off-Track Betting appointed by Governor David Paterson and legislative leaders has been entrusted with making recommendations on how off-track betting operations can be improved, made more efficient.

The scary element here is that this panel recently asked fans and industry players for suggestions and a good number of the respondents said the New York Racing Association and harness track operators should either run off-track betting or that the OTBs should be merged into one entity to avoid function duplication.

On the issue, Catskill Regional Off-Track Betting President Donald Groth, whose reputation as a loose cannon precedes him, said in a letter to task force Chairman John Van Lindt that the panel shouldn’t even consider a merger.

A Thoroughbred Times story quoted Groth from the letter: “The problems of OTB are not with its management nor its regional design…The problem with the OTB model is to be found in the amended statutes that have diverted too much important revenue to the support of failed/failing racetracks/raceways in New York.”

He didn‘t stop there. Groth said the panel should call for repeal of the statute allowing out-of-state account deposit wagering operators to take bets from New York residents, “costing off-track betting sites tens of millions of dollars.”

Perhaps you thought the Balls had no conscience.

In the interests of candor, I’ve had cups of coffee at three Regional OTBs since leaving Newsday’s employ in 1996. I enjoyed my short stint at Suffolk County Regional OTB; New York City OTB not so much.

I occasionally appear as a handicapping analyst on the Capital OTB television network. Capital is by far the most progressive and fan friendly of the three organizations I‘ve known. And my opinion is shared by most Capital District OTB fans and bettors lucky enough to live in America’s best horse racing environment.

It was no surprise when New York’s premier racing franchise, under the state’s yoke now and totally the state’s property when the franchise expires in 2033, didn’t see things the same way. “There’s a tremendous amount of duplicative infrastructure between OTB operations and NYRA,” President Charles Hayward said in the same TT story.

Hayward also referred to the separate tote contracts, independent Internet wagering platforms, phone betting, marketing, wagering venues, and a statewide television network that should be united as one entity, adding “the bricks and mortar strategy is obsolete.”

If that’s true, then so should the following: With the exception of Saratoga and a dozen other racing days during the year, Aqueduct and Belmont Park should padlock its gates and act as a studio for a reality series “America’s Got Thoroughbred Talent.”

Racing fans could then text in their bets. Who knows? Between the recent machinations of special interest groups of every stripe, maybe that’s where we’re headed already. So start working on those I-Bet applications now. Standard texting rates apply.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (15)


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Tracks and Horsemen Learning Less Is More

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 21, 2009--As if they learned from attendance and handle figures released by racing officials at the recently concluded Hollywood Park meeting, Del Mar also has embraced the less-is-more concept for their 70th race meet that begins today.

If you require proof that the measure to reduce the Del Mar race week to five days--with Mondays and Tuesdays dark--adopted last winter was a good idea, you only need consider the HollyPark meet statistics which were, in these hard days for industry and economy alike economy, almost promising.

Indeed, when was the last time you noticed attendance was up at an American racetrack in 2009? I don’t know if you should legitimately count Gulfstream Park, which has a free gate, but you certainly can infer some positive signs from a 6.71 percent increase in handle.

Actually, based on across-the-board revenue gains in all facets of Gulfstream Park's business operations, officials projected an attendance increase over last year of 8.49 percent. Must be some accounting trick learned from a Goldman Sachs investment banker.

As for increased handle: “Racing five days a week led to an automatic increase in field size, and bigger fields attract interest and leads to higher handle,” Gulfstream President/General Manager Bill Murphy told HRI at that time. “The five-day-a-week program was a major factor in our meet’s success.”

The 55-day Hollywood meet featured a four-day week, down from five. And while an on-track average attendance increase of .8 percent doesn’t exactly set the pulse racing, it is a positive, especially when weighed against on-track handle losses of 9.1 percent, more an economic barometer than a measure of product popularity.

The move to four days undoubtedly was the right way to go. At the time of the reduction, business was off 20 percent and significant purse cuts were sure to follow. And any time a track can beat the current national downward spiral is a reason to party.

Which brings us to today’s Del Mar opener, where more than 50,000 members of the fun-in-the-sun set are sure to frolic into early evening at the seaside track. Even the horsemen got into the less is more spirit: The traditional opening-day Oceanside Stakes will not be split for the first time since 1988. This, of course, is an attempt at levity. But increased gas prices and high unemployment in the state is not helping the buzz normally associated with this feel-good meet.

Clearly, however, date retrenchment worked well at Gulfstream Park and helped reverse negative trends at Hollywood Park. For all anyone knows, it might have worked at Churchill Downs this spring but, of course, we’ll never know for sure.

CDI’s mission statement apparently states something like: “We’ll do what we must to succeed at the bottom line and it’s none of your damn business how we do it.” They broke their self-imposed media silence only to tell the world (read stockholders) how successful the Churchill After Dark experiment turned out.

The idea of retrenchment is sold to the public on the notion that additional dark days provide horses, horsemen and players needed rest and recuperation time, in the hope all that will lead to bigger fields, higher quality of competition and an overall better product. As an artificial demand stimulus, this tack ain’t so bad, either.

The move apparently is popular with the SoCal horsemen: “I've always wanted Del Mar to be five days anyway, for selfish reasons,” said trainer Ron Ellis in a recent online report. “But from a business standpoint, I think it was a very wise move because there's just not [enough] horse inventory to sustain a quality meet six days a week.”

Added Ellis: “I'm a little concerned about whether they'll be able to sustain a five-day week because Hollywood Park had trouble with a four-day week. It's not going to be that easy… because horse inventory is down so much.”

Given that reality, yet wanting to minimize the handle reduction given the fewer betting opportunities available, Del Mar added extra races three of the five days, “losing” only 26 races in all. “Short fields [are] a lot easier to win but from the gambler's perspective, players don't like to bet on small fields and that's what drives the whole industry.”

Whenever reasons are given for a reduction in race dates and how the tack will or will not increase handle, no one seems to consider the personal economy of the bettor. Horseplayers either have $50 or $500 or $5,000 to lose in any given wagering session and not a penny more, ATMs notwithstanding.

But horseplayers cannot bet more money than they have, unless of course they’re betting with the local bookie. But most bookmakers don’t take horse bets anymore. Their exposure, unless they're part of a bigger organization, is too high. Nowadays neighborhood bookies take horse action only as an accommodation to their sports customers.

Doug O'Neill would agree, echoing Ellis’s remarks in that same story. “I think if you give the horses and bettors, who are the ones who really drive our game, an extra day to kind of freshen up…you could look at it as having one less day [that might] make more money.”

Written by John Pricci

Comments (10)


Page 226 of 268 pages « FirstP  <  224 225 226 227 228 >  Last »