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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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Patrick Valenzuela: What Might Have Been

With medication, legal and otherwise, much in the news seemingly minutes after the running of this year’s Kentucky Derby, the focus has centered on its use in race horses as it relates to health, safety and integrity. But the animals and their keepers aren’t the only ones heavily reliant on painkillers that treat body and mind.

Rick Dutrow’s personal drug issue was a significant back-story in the days following Big Brown’s Derby victory. In fact, NBC Sports did a full blown feature on Dutrow and his personal problems during its Triple Crown coverage.

Just imagine if Pat Valenzuela and not Kent Desormeaux were Big Brown’s regular partner.

I’ve been thinking about that since I read that Valenzuela rode five winners at SunRay Park in Farmington, New Mexico last Sunday. He finished second twice and fourth in his other three rides, earning a check for every mount he accepted that afternoon.

Valenzuela, of course, lost a conditional license to ride in California last year when he was caught driving his car while under the influence, DUI. Liquor never had not been his problem. It was an addiction to demon cocaine that got him suspended 10 times, 11 if you count the latest ban in December of 2007.

Valenzuela will be 46 in October. In 1980, when he was 17, it was a very good year. It was a very good year to accept the mount on Codex and became the youngest rider ever to win the Santa Anita Derby, the first of four for trainer Wayne Lukas.

He would, however, have to wait nine years for Charlie Whittingham to give him a leg up on Sunday Silence for his first Kentucky Derby victory. Three years later, he became the first jockey to ride two Breeders’ Cup winners on a single program.

Indeed, back in the day Valenzuela was racing’s fair haired boy and rising star, earning the George Wolfe Memorial Award, as voted by his Southern California peers, by the time he was 19.

But a decade later the West Coast riding colony was calling for his ouster, claiming that his repeated suspensions for drug abuse made him a danger to their life and limb.

You could probably add retirement portfolio to that list, too, and it would be prudent if you didn’t invite Valenzuela and Corey Nakatani to the same party.

During the 1990s, Valenzuela added a battery of missed tests and hearings with the stewards to those suspensions and once shaved all his body hair so that the presence of drugs couldn’t be detected in DNA studies.

Last month Valenzuela was granted a Louisiana license and began riding again at Louisiana Downs. When asked about his plans for later this year, he said he’d return there after a short vacation with his family and then would like to try the Fair Grounds later in the year. Maybe, California, he said, as if there would be no problem.

Valenzuela, an easy inclusion in the Top Ten riders I’ve ever seen, is approaching a career milestone of 4,000 victories. It’s probably 2,000 less than he should have had already if not for his personal demons, and that’s too bad.

Pat Valenzuela is an engaging man, personable, very likable. In a business where jealously finishes a second only to ego, he’s easy to root for. It is hoped that he now has his life under control.

But when I read about his five-win day last weekend, my first reaction was to shake my head and recall the words of Robert DeNiro, as the fictional character Lorenzo Anello in Chazz Palminteri’s screenplay, “A Bronx Tale.”

“The saddest thing in life,” Anello advises his son, played by the young actor, Lillo Brancato, “is wasted talent.” Life, imitating art, imitating life.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

New York Horsemen Take Proactive Stance; National Action Needed

I’m setting an over/under of the next 48 hours until IEAH Stables’ proposal to restrict the use of medication in their horses by October 1--with the exception of furosemide--will be described as grandstanding, ineffectual, window-dressing public relations and be summarily rejected as worthless.

That notion, of course, has some validity, especially since Dr. Lawrence Soma’s statement before last week’s House Sub-Committee Hearing on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection that Lasix does not prevent exercised induced pulmonary hemorrhage and enhances performance.

So then why should IEAH bother? Because it’s one small step taken by an individual in the right direction that sends a better, albeit contradictory, message, with the promise that they will pay racetracks to perform pre- and post-race drug tests on IEAH horses racing at those venues.

They pledge further that if any illegal trace amounts in their horses are found they will donate the entire purse to an unspecified thoroughbred charity, to be determined at the time of the donation.

This does, however, beg at least one question. Will any of that money find its way to their own equine hospital being built across the street from Belmont Park, in essence donating money to themselves and taking it as a business expense?

Now that’s the kind of creative accounting that made it possible for the New York City Off Track Betting Corporation to claim it was going broke while netting yearly revenues in the low eight-figure range.

IEAH issued another challenge--a suggestion that probably will wind up on the cutting room floor--that racetracks print in their official programs which horses race with medication and which will not, and that the program also should indicate which owners and trainers decline to divulge this information.

The IEAH group and their trainer, Rick Dutrow, probably will get no benefit of the doubt on this one because the group’s spokesman was not forthcoming about his background, and the trainer was, in the run-up to the Belmont Stakes.

In some ways, a similar accusatory tack was used to color the testimony of Jess Jackson, whose only fault recently has been to expose racing’s problems any way he could, proposing what many think are radical solutions, asking Congress to “please” help because when he looks around his industry he can’t find anyone in charge.

“We take baby steps when we need giant strides,” he said at the time.

Believing the industry can police itself, the only defense of racing’s practices at the hearing came from the Jockey Club and NTRA, arguably racing’s two most influential organizations, whose recommendations included the retooling of old ideas instead of embracing significant change--such as the banning of all race-day medication, including steroids and Lasix.

The New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association on Monday commissioned Cornell University to test for steroids, providing present and future funding for the sophisticated equipment needed to detect steroid use and further, by inference, designer drugs.

Good for them. And good for the IEAH group, too, for taking proactive measures. But unless some “giant strides” are made on a national level, i.e. the elimination of all race-day medication, ineffectual grandstanding might be an apt description.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

How About a New Bet Horseplayers Might Actually Win

How come most every time a new wager is introduced, the degree of difficulty is always very high? Because windfall payoffs make good publicity? Of course. And, after all, who doesn’t want the opportunity to make a score every so often?

But when the reasonable expectation of success depends more on bankroll size than skill, eliminating about nine of every 10 bettors, begs the question who benefits most? Certainly not the overwhelming majority of horseplayers.

And that’s not to mention the higher takeout rates that accompany super-exotic wagers.

Another Pick Six is just what this game doesn‘t need. In concept, the Sixty-Minute Six is nothing new. It’s a variation on the Magna Five theme, plus one. And the fast payoff concept has been promoted here before, too, thanks to erstwhile efforts of exotic pool wagering specialist, Vinnie Ralph.

Ralph’s idea, proposed to Churchill Downs officials earlier this spring, had more pizzazz and hopefully will be adopted by next year. He called his bet the Quick Six, and it included stakes races from all tracks in the CDI corporate family on the first Saturday of May, the bet culminating with the 20-horse Kentucky Derby. The cost of the wager? Fifty cents. "A bet for the little guy [that could attract significant handle]," Ralph wrote.

The Sixty-Minute Six, which begins June 21, will be offered every Saturday through August 30 and wets the inaugural beak with a $100,000 guaranteed pool. It involves races from four Northeastern tracks; Delaware Park, Monmouth Park, Philadelphia Park and Belmont Park/Saratoga.

Based on New Jersey Pick Six rules, it’s virtually the same as those that Pick Six players are already familiar. The takeout rate is 25 percent. Seventy-five percent of the pool is paid to winners of Pick Six, 25 percent to those picking five. In the event nobody picks six, 75 percent of the pool is carried over to the following Saturday. If there is a dead heat for win, both horses count as sequence winners.

There are no refunds due to late scratches; bettors automatically are shifted to the post time favorite. Should two horses attract the exact amount of play, the designated favorite will be the one with the inner-most post position.

If, however, a turf race is rescheduled to the main track, that race is declared null and void and the bet effectively becomes a Pick Five, or Pick Four, etc., etc. If four or more races are rescheduled, the entire pool is refunded.

The attraction is that since the wager commences late in the day, chances are high there will be several stakes races in the mix. The remaining benefits lie with the tracks, since players are compelled to look at each venue's past performances.

I thought Churchill Downs’ recently introduced Matrix was interesting in its outside the box approach. (Well, they had to come up with something after the useless Over/Under. I understand trying to simplify wagering for new fans. But this is dumbing down to the nadir level. And not many bettors walk up to the window and say: “Give me the 15, cold).”

The Matrix is a $9-minimum wager requiring bettors to choose any three horses they wish in one race. Essentially, the Matrix gives you a wager on each of the three horses to win and six separate exacta and trifecta combinations, which are boxed wagers. Payouts are calculated and paid on a fractional basis. In essence, the $9 Matrix is 15 60-cent wagers.

Simplistic on its face, it provides bettors wide leverage and an opportunity to make a decent hit for relatively small dollars. Obviously, the optimum time to play is when a favorite appears particularly vulnerable. On those occasions, a double digit winner could yield enough to pay for the other 14 “losers” on the ticket. Currently the bet is available on track only.

Now if there were software available on a national basis that could facilitate fractional wagering, then a typical fan could get more coverage for his limited bankroll, keeping him liquid. The greater the liquidity, the more money in the pool. The more money in the pool, the better for everybody.

When dime superfectas were first introduced, many management types complained it would impact negatively on other pools and affect bonanza payoffs adversely. Empirically, that doesn’t seem to be the case and superfecta pools have grown to the extent that they are creeping up on trifecta action.

But I do love how on big race days tracks keep the superfecta minimum at $1, which keeps many customers out of those pools. Ain’t greed grand?

Written by John Pricci

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