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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Saturday, April 11, 2009


What Ever Happened to Juan Valdez?


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 10, 2009--Some things, you know, are kicky. Such as when I received an e mail from Andrea Murta requesting an interview.

Murta is the New York correspondent for the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo and is writing a story on American horse racing which will appear in Sunday’s edition of her newspaper.

Since the paper is printed exclusively in Portuguese, I thought I’d share the interview with you because a) racing issues never get old for HRI’s audience and b) I'm assuming that, like me, your Portuguese might be a little rusty. Here goes:

Q: When do you think the sport began losing its audiences and why?

A: Attendance and handle began to flatten at the start of the last decade then showed shows of decreasing noticeably in the last few years. Actually, on-track attendance might have begun to lag earnestly in the 1980s with the proliferation of simulcast wagering. When the point of ticket-purchase changed, so did where the fans went to wager. It became a convenience market.

Current Internet wagering adds to this dynamic. In terms of developing new fans, there was a lack of leadership in the U.S. because there’s no central authority. The states and individuals tracks thought--and probably still think--of themselves as competitors. The states show no appreciation for this agri-business, only the revenue it raises. The rash of catastrophic breakdowns in our signature events this millennium has hurt the game significantly in terms of how racing is perceived by the general public.

Q: Is the current situation dangerous for the future of horse racing in the country?

A: Racing is at a crossroads. It must find ways to keep fans/bettors engaged and to attract new ones. In crisis there is opportunity. The industry has begun to make some strides. The hope is that it isn’t too little, too late.

Q: When was horse racing in its prime and what was different then?

A: In pre-World War II times, events like racing, college sports and boxing were king. In modern times, the golden era for racing was the 1970s as three American Triple Crown winners emerged. There was far less competition for the wagering dollar. Later, the growth in leisure time activities didn’t include going to the races.

To appreciate the beauty of thoroughbred racing is easy but to sustain it by teaching the audience how to appreciate it through the art/science of handicapping comes with a steep learning curve.

As the desire to learn waned as America turned its attention to money and consumerism, that lifestyle didn’t lend itself easily to the patience needed to learn anything. Better marketing practices would have helped here, but that’s too easy to say without proposing a solution to the problem.

Q: Have (cq) the economic crisis affected the races much? I have some numbers that show that the wagering is lower now than it was last year, when it already wasn’t ideal...

A: As stated, wagering flattened then started to decrease. Actually, racing was doing fairly well when compared to other industries after the market crash of September, 2008, including the first two months of 2009. Handle was down but not as low as the economy in general. But March was an eye-opener; down over 10 percent compared to 2008, the first double-digit decrease I can remember.

Q: Would a different model for horse racing, one that didn’t depend on bets, be feasible?

A: A different wagering model would be feasible but not the elimination of wagering altogether. Wagering dollars sustain purses. Without either there would be no industry. Besides, a big part of racing’s allure is that it’s a participatory sport.

Q: In Brazil there is a large discussion on whether horse racing is a real sport, because of the betting system. What do you think of that discussion, is horse racing a sport for you?

A: That same conversation is being held here as well and there is passion on both sides. In my heart of hearts, I don’t understand it. For me, the love of the contest as theatre, the appreciation of thoroughbreds as magnificent creatures, my personal enjoyment and need for wagering as an adjunct means of income, and the gratification that comes from correctly “predicting” future outcomes are notmutually exclusive events. I will never accept such limited thinking.

Q: Are the jockeys athletes like in any other sport?

A: Jockeys are the most underappreciated athletes in all of sports. Are golfers athletes? Race car drivers? Those games are tests of skill and physical stamina, which for me defines what athletics are. Not only is a jockey’s job inherently dangerous, but 110-pound people guiding thousand-pound animals through narrow openings with proper timing and strength without the benefit of being able to call a “time out” to strategize at 40 miles per hour is appreciated not nearly enough.

Q: How does the wagering, if so, interfere with the sport side of horse racing?

A: It only “interferes” with the sport side when that becomes the perception observers choose to see. Actually, wagering is an enhancement by providing a truly meaningful rooting interest, helping successful bettors identify with their favorite horsemen; the jockeys and trainers, an appreciation for their skill sets. Every person who ever wagered on a horse will tell you that the wager helps intensify interest by narrowing the focus and appreciation for the athletic event.
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Q: Finally, have you heard of a female jockey from Brazil named Maylan Studart? If so, what do you think of her?

A: From the little I’ve seen, horses run for her, so, obviously, she’s able to communicate with her hands through the reins what she wants from her mount. As far as athletic X’s and O’s are concerned, I don’t follow winter racing in New York closely enough on a daily basis to have a firm opinion of her skill set. They’ll be plenty of time to observe her at Belmont Park and Saratoga later this summer.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, April 10, 2009


Mullins Case Has Messengers Shooting Messengers


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 9,2009--I must admit something up front. I don’t have any sympathy for the trainer of the protem favorite for Kentucky Derby 135. How am I supposed to regard someone in the same business who refers to me as an idiot because I bet on the outcome of horse races?

Jeff Mullins said he made an “innocent mistake” because he didn’t know the rules regarding New York’s detention barn, meaning that he hasn’t read a trade paper, magazine, blog or the rules of racing for each jurisdiction in which he races.

But I certainly hope he’s aware that horseplayer dollars make the mares, and the horses go, too. Since, in that context, I make a contribution to his livelihood by helping to provide for purse money and, it should be noted, have put more than my fair share of children through school, I resent being called stupid.

Of interest to me is how some of the Internet media has lined up on the issue of Mullins’ entering the NYRA detention barn to administer an item sold in many tack shops around the country for $12 and which, by definition, is not a banned substance.

Internet media reaction has run the gamut from throw-the-book-at-Mullins to Kool-Aid-spewing apologies, arguing that the media shouldn’t complain about racing getting bad press when it’s the press who are fanning the flames, especially during a high profile season, for that would do more harm than good.

Let’s assume for a moment that the latter stance is correct. Then who is supposed to speak for horseplayers and the public at large?

Here’s my question: Would it be unreasonable to expect that the men and women who care for the animals on which I bet, and who guide the destiny of their horses and mine, to know the rules?

Forgive me, but I don’t I don’t think so.

The product that Mullins was allegedly going to give Gato Go Win, called “Air Power,” is described as a “horse cough medicine.” But that’s where it begins to get fuzzy for me. If a horse has a “cough,” should it be racing? And aren’t the chances good that the rest of the barn would be coughing, too?

In an advertisement for the product that appears on Equidaily.com, there is an illustration showing that Michael Matz of Barbaro fame uses and endorses the product. And Matz has no history of medication violations, unlike Mullins.

Last year Mullins received a “mepivacaine” violation and in 2005 one of his horses failed a pre-race blood test when excess amounts of sodium bicarbonate was found in one of his horses. This mixture, euphemistically called a “milkshake,” is universally banned because it‘s suspected to act as a masking agent and artificially prevents horses from tiring quickly.

New York racing rules allow for the use antibiotics, vitamins, electrolytes and food supplements, as long as they are administered orally and do not contain any drug or any properties acting as such.

The rules also state that medication may not be given to a horse while it is in the detention barn. That in part is why Mullins has hired defense attorney Karen Murphy who owns an excellent record defending horsemen in previous cases against the NYRA, as was the case some years ago involving Dr. Michael Galvin.

“We feel that this substance isn’t something that should be used on race day. We view it as having drug-like properties,” Joe Mahoney, Public Information Director for the State Racing and Wagering Board, told HRI yesterday in a phone interview.

“The [apparatus] used to administer the substance has been sent to the laboratory at Cornell. It could take weeks before this issue is resolved. We’re still gathering information. We want to be complete and thorough, that’s our number one obligation.

“As far as what [Mullins] told the media [in printed reports regarding a search prior to his entering the detention barn], it’s in conflict with the information we’re receiving from the association. It wasn’t in plain view.

“But, at the end of the day, the detention barn procedure worked.”

In a Thoroughbred Times post yesterday, Steve Blanchard, vice president of sales and marketing for Finish Line Horse, the maker of “Air Power,” said that Jeff Mullins misused his company’s product when the trainer administered Air Power in the detention barn to a horse about to race.

“My position is to train all of our employees in presentation and explanation of all our products,” Blanchard told T.T. “They have all been trained that you tell trainers not to bring our product into a detention barn. I do believe that even without our direction, all trainers know that.”

So, while it is true that not every rules violation is “cheating,” and that the racing media must explain the difference between the two to those who don't follow the sport regularly except for racing’s high profile events, neither should we knee-jerk into a defensive posture when incidents like the Mullins case occurs.

The racing industry, like politicians, uses the media when it’s to their benefit. At times like these the media is a double-edged sword. This story and, more so, the Paragallo case, has drawn swift reaction from racing’s regulators. This is a good thing: Acknowledge the problem; work to fix it.

But like it or not, it’s the media’s job to police the police. It’s the public’s job to police both. Perceptions notwithstanding, the media does want to be fair. All it needs is a good reason.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, April 04, 2009


Can the First Saturday in May Come Soon Enough?


SOUTH OZONE PARK, NY, April 4, 2009--After The Pamplemousse was scratched from the Santa Anita Derby, the Big Three became the Big Two. At Aqueduct, meanwhile, all were looking forward to a battle among the Big Two and a Half (West Side Bernie).

Then, of course, there was the Big-I-Don’t-Know at Hawthorne Race Course, which seems appropriate for a track located just outside Cicero, Illinois. Wonder if post positions are drawn by lot there or whether some other arrangement could be made, say, pay-for-play?

Another story for another indictment.

The scratch of The Pamplemousse didn’t exactly come as a surprise to those in the know. Sort of:

Interviewed by Santa Anita publicists this week, these trainers had the following comments: Mike Machowsky said: “I haven’t been impressed with the way The Pamplemousse has been training. Said Greg Gilchrist: “I’ve heard stories that The Pamplemousse is not doing well. I don’t know. That’s just the story I heard.”

But, then, there were these. From Hector Palma: “I like The Pamplemousse. He’s been training well.” Cliff Size Jr. said: “Julio’s horse [The Pamplemousse] looked good.” And from Eddie Truman: “I watched all three work Tuesday. They all looked good.”

That’s the racetrack for you. Can’t know for sure who you’re supposed to believe.

But apparently, Canani believed examining veterinarian Dr. Jill Bailey, who “pointed out an issue to Julio,” according to Dr. Rick Arthur, medical director to the California Horse Racing Board.

After the “issue” was confirmed by Canani’s vet, Dr. Helmuth Von Bluecher, they determined that “there were further diagnostics to do,” a decision was made to scratch.

Apparently, no one wanted to talk about the big old knot The Pamplemousse has on one of his tendons, the same tendon that other vets failed to pass when several offers were made previously to purchase the horse.

All the speed horses don’t need the lead to be at their best and all the horses are doing great.

And you thought obfuscation was the exclusive province of politicians, perhaps?

Canani was not available for comment prior to this post and indicated that the horse was still being pointed toward the Kentucky Derby. He has $180,000 in graded earnings.

Even if “further diagnostics” determine this was all much ado about nothing, the incident couldn’t have come at a worse time. Is there time to recover and ship to Keeneland or Oaklawn next week for the Blue Grass or Arkansas Derby?

Or maybe a week later for the Lexington Stakes? Or Canani could train The Pamplemousse up to the Derby. Or there’s a release forthcoming that says the horse has been retired and will stand at stud at XYZ Farm.

And so it goes in the seven-figure world of Triple Crown racing.

* * *

Whenever a horse explodes to victory, the racetrackers say “he freaked.” They also use that term when a horse just seems to sometimes defy logic, only they say the horse IS a freak.

Is that I Want Revenge? A dirt freak?

He might not be that but it’s clear he’s a damn good horse.

Because you don’t switch surfaces again--though it was inner dirt to outer dirt--stretch out, get left at the post, bumped in the stretch, come through a narrow opening with a burst of speed, finishing up the final furlong in less than :12 seconds going 9 furlongs.

Wow!

He missed the break, unprepared because he was distracted by another horse, jockey Joe Talamo said, adding that it might have been a blessing since he relaxed nicely going down the backstretch.

Then, showing maturity beyond his years, he didn’t rattle when caught behind a world of horses, got a break when Atomic Rain actually bumped him toward the hole he eventually went through, before ultimately setting sail for the wire, winning more cleverly than he had a right to under the circumstances. Reiterating, a good racehorse.

West Side Bernie improved as expected, apparently happy to return to sand and loam after a failed return to Turfway Park, finishing strongly for the place but never placing the winner in danger.

In terms of the big one in four weeks, ‘Revenge’s’ people must be happy to know their horse is talented, supremely versatile, at gutsy.

* * *

The scratch of The Pamplemousse changed the dynamics of the Santa Anita Derby, though not completely, since it was front end positioning that would determine the outcome.

With a soft pace on early, Garrett Gomez would not be fooled, and neither would his colt, despite clipping heels early on.

And so Gomez rode his San Felipe back, making a mid-race move for the lead, maintaining his position, then withstanding stretch challenges, mostly from Chocolate Candy who flew down the center of the course but, like West Side Bernie in the Wood, never placed the leader in ultimate danger.

Super Saturday was formful with three logical winners, all doing as expected, including Musket Man and Giant Oak in Illinois. But two continued to show high class, and one was exceptional.

Two more big preps next week. If they’re anything like this weekend’s, May 2nd can’t come soon enough.

Written by John Pricci

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