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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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Time for Reflection on a Life Well Lived

We interrupt our coverage of thoroughbred racing to remind you that at 4 p.m. today, services for the late Tim Russert will be broadcast on national television. It’s what his family wanted and clearly what this the late husband and father deserves.

I’ve been a dad for 32 years. I think I’ve done a fairly decent job because my daughters have grown up to be great people; kind, considerate, fair minded, and very respectful of seniors. That seems like an objective measure, so I‘m comfortable thinking this way.

When I woke up Father’s Day morning and turned on the television, there was a still photograph of Timothy J. Russert on the screen, above the dates 1950-2008. Tim Russert might have been a huge Springsteen fan, but it is Billy Joel who reminds us that only the good die young.

Russert, the poster boy for fatherhood and Big Russ’s son, died suddenly last Friday. Like so many Americans, days later I remain in a state of disbelief, an uncomfortable mix of shock, anger and profound sadness.

It was Keith Olbermann who brought this subject up Friday night on MSNBC. Trying to get beyond his grief, Olbermann attempted to put his colleague's death in some big picture perspective. That’s what journalists do, especially at times like this. Does Russert’s death have meaning beyond tragic loss for the family he left behind? .

Journalists are expected to reach deep into the recesses of a place where Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite once and still live, searching for meaning, the why of it all. That’s if they can summon up the dispassion needed for the job.

Fair? Justice has nothing to do with any of this.

The loss was and is profound in ways yet to be measured. When do we learn why, at the conclusion of the August conventions, the end of the election cycle in the wee hours of the first Wednesday in November, on January 20 when the next POTUS takes his oath of office?

Only God, the God of Russert, of Moses, of Mohammed, of Allah, the God of us all, can know this.

And so I spent Father’s Day morning watching “Meet the Press”--because if it’s Sunday it’s Meet the Press--with my family. I thought about what it means to call yourself a journalist.

I fancy myself one, which I define as a truth-seeking, straight-record setting exposer of wrong-doing. I hold feet to fires as if I had a right to be judge, jury and executioner.

Journalist? Next to Russert I feel fortunate I can even use the term, spell the word correctly without first clicking on a link. Because of Russert and his role models, I can take pride in the profession, in some measure giving back for the privilege of having a voice in a sport that I love, the game and the people and animals in it.

If I could take anything from a man I’ve never met but long admired for his work ethic, pursuit of truth and service to country, a job done with consumate professionalism and understanding, it would be to become a better journalist.

To accomplish that I must become more objective, look for a third source when two won‘t do, and be less personal in critical commentary. I admit that at times I’ve been guilty of playing “gotcha,’” getting too emotional when frustration levels climb into the red zone.

It’s business and sometimes I take it personally.

But I can do better because of some shared background, a big city kid from a working class family with a parochial education times three--or maybe because the pursuit of truth and justice--not political capital and greed--is the true American ideal.

My daughter Linda watched “Meet the Press” with me on Father’s Day and was taken with Tim Russert’s outlook on life; how it's everyone’s responsibility to bend down and pick up those among us who are less fortunate.

“I don’t even know the man,” she said, “and he makes me want to be a better person.”

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Next Up for Curlin, Big Brown: How About the Breeders’ Cup Turf?

The Triple Crown is over, Big Brown is now back on Winstrol, and Curlin is expected to take care of business in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster today.

Now what?

While it outwardly appears that all of Curlin’s connections are on the same page, maybe cracks are beginning to show in the Big Brown camp.

For now, and probably for the rest of the season, Kent Desormeaux is Big Brown’s present and future rider, barring a repeat of the Belmont Stakes strategy scenario. Then all bets are off.

Edgar Prado, who invited Rick Dutrow’s wrath for his Preakness race-ride, is still, in Dutrow’s words, his “man.” But, like Bud Delp said of Bill Shoemaker, Bob Frieze is just a phone call away. Desormeaux, however, is Michael Iavarone’s man.

Tangentially, a question for Iavarone. You hired Gary Stevens as a consultant on all things Big Brown, so please settle this for me. Was Stevens hired to possibly confer with Desormeaux on pre-race strategy, or to throw him under the bus after the fact?

Disappointed minds would really like to know.

The barn’s post-Belmont game plan was to run in the Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic. Now the owner is talking about a Travers prep, the $1 million Haskell, which works, of course. Iavarone also talked about how the Monmouth Park surface probably would be to Big Brown’s loving.

There was no mention of a purse boost, or an “appearance fee,” something which is included in the past performance lines of New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority management. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, despite the creepiness.

But Dutrow said he’d prefer to train Big Brown up to the Travers. With the Triple Crown over, Dutrow wants him on the kind of schedule that works for all Dutrow‘s horses, and it might serve Big Brown better, too.

It could be that Iavarone is erring on the side of the Benjamins here. Nothing wrong with that, either.

Outside of the barn and its connections, Curlin’s post-Foster schedule is still very much up in the air. The Louisville Courier Journal reported this week that Steve Asmussen wants no part of synthetic track racing for Curlin.

Not only is the trainer entitled, but good for him. Asmussen would rather have Curlin make his turf debut in Paris for $6 million than run for $5 million on whatever that stuff is at Santa Anita.

Knowing this to be the case, I asked Iavarone before the Belmont whether he’d consider laying this challenge down to the Curlin folks: Forget about having Paris, guys. If you want to run on grass, let’s meet in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. The Derby winner defeating an older Horse of the Year on grass might even add to Brownie’s breeding value. Given the correlation between Polytrack success on turf, maybe breeders would seek out Big Brown’s progeny because that offspring might have a reasonable chance for success on three surfaces?

Iavarone said that the Classic has far more prestige, perhaps erring on the side of the Benjamins again. Remember, the schedule is Iavarone’s call, not Three Chimneys’.

Barbara Banke, wife of Curlin’s principal owner Jess Jackson, thinks of their horse as a potential international star. Beyond the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, they are said to be considering the Japan Cup, another big ticket item. They learned in Dubai that Curlin can win without Lasix, important in Japan, not so much in Europe where drug testing, it is said, can be a bit spotty.

The Breeders’ Cup Turf is the only place where Big Brown can meet Curlin in the United States with international implications. Jackson is a sportsman, otherwise Curlin would be retired. Taking Iavarone at his word, so is he, saying before the Belmont that Big Brown would have two more races.

So think about this, please? Three million, plus breeding bragging rights, beats the old sharp stick in the eye.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Stewards Give Desormeaux Three Thumbs Up; Mr. Dutrow Goes to Washington

Kent Desormeaux’s meeting with the New York stewards yesterday was not the result of his being roundly criticized in the media and the Belmont Park backstretch for his ride on Big Brown in the 140th Belmont Stakes. Nor was it because the trifecta payoff appeared suspiciously low to many bettors.

A Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau investigation found no suspicious betting activity in any of the pools and so common sense prevailed: It was, after all, only a nine-horse field. Bettors looking for a score only needed to exclude the 3-10 favorite with the hoof issues, perhaps throwing out the maiden Guadalcanal, too, for bad measure.

Indeed, racing’s stewards have film sessions daily with riders to review the previous day’s races, with extra attention given to riding infractions and the defeat of short-priced favorites.

Nothing unusual about that. But the circumstances under which Belmont Stakes favorite Big Brown was anything but a routinely poor performance. And the eyes of, not only Texas, but, the entire racing world were on the 11th race from New York last Saturday.

How could it be any other way? Not only was immortality on the line but this is not a heady time for a sport that is, in the main, still reeling from the Eight Belles tragedy in the Kentucky Derby less than six weeks ago.

On the same day the New York stewards went to the movies with Desormeaux, where apparently his performance earned three thumbs up, the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection released a witness list for a June 19 hearing entitled “Breeding, Drugs and Breakdowns: The State of Thoroughbred Horse Racing and the Welfare of the Thoroughbred Race Horse.”

Guess the feds think there’s more to racing’s problems than a jockey that might have been overprotective of a would be Triple Crown champion. They will, however, speak with Big Brown’s trainer, Rick Dutrow, as well as several prominent owners, breeders, veterinarians, and racing officials, the heads of the five racing families.

Included among that group is Alex Waldrop, CEO of the Thoroughbred Racing Association, who called for a complete ban on the use of steroids by early 2009 on the nationally televised broadcast of the Preakness Stakes, won in a romp by Big Brown.

The hearing will be chaired by Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., and ranking Republican Ed Whitfield of Kentucky. (Apparently Dennis Kucinich was unavailable, busily working on another project).

Waldrop has been quite vocal on the steroids issue. Immediately after the Belmont, he said that racing cannot afford to have the legitimacy of its stars questioned with respect to the use of steroids.

Waldrop, however, is “not willing to concede that we don’t have a healthy breed,” and that “there has been a rush to judgment on the [speed vs. stoutness] issue.”

Of course, Waldrop must protect a robust market place--his organization vitally depends on the contributions of a fiscally healthy industry for its survival--horse sales being the driving force behind the business of winning a Triple Crown title.

Contrarily, empirical evidence has shown that the breed is not robust, tracing to the concentrated amount of inbreeding yielding early developing horses with speed, the kind of talent that cannot be taught.

Hopefully, Waldrop is thinking about taking on the sport’s problems one battle at a time. Steroid use is only the first step. Take it from the feds, and from the possible results of a hearing on, altogether now, “Breeding, Drugs and Breakdowns: The State of Thoroughbred Horse Racing and the Welfare of the Thoroughbred Race Horse.”

Written by John Pricci

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