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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Friday, July 03, 2009

Regulators Fiddle While Horseplayers Burn

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 2, 2009--At Monday’s press conference trumpeting the upcoming 2009 Saratoga race meet, NYRA President Charlie Hayward announced new directives sanctioned by the State Racing and Wagering Board Chairman that would allow superfecta wagering with fewer betting interests.

For thoroughbred tracks in the state, the Board has given permission to conduct superfecta wagering with seven program betting interests. The wager would remain viable if there is a late scratch after the horses leave the paddock that reduces the field to six interests.

As racetrackers say, “close, but no cigar.”

This SRWB rules change doesn’t go far enough and hence is less significant than it should be. Indeed, it’s an improvement. It makes it unnecessary for the racing office to hustle some no-chance entrant just to make a potential superfecta race go, and saves the tracks and the state money by making refunds in the above scenario a non-starter.

Hayward also indicated that the Board is working on changes that will affect Pick 3, Pick 4 and Pick 6 wagering and, most significantly, a rule allowing uncoupled entries in all races. In addition to being a “purse-money-only” handle saver, it also increases field size and wagering in a significant way.

We queried the State Racing and Wagering Board Wednesday regarding multiple-race wagers and the status of allowing uncoupled entries. “It’s not soup yet,” we were told.

I’m aware that good food takes time but this stock has been cooking for some time. A change in the coupled entry rule has been at issue for as many as four years, when then NYRA executive Bill Nader, now with the Hong Kong Jockey Club, was the point man.

How hard is this, really? Senseless delay costs the state’s taxpayers money, although it’s good for job security for political appointees when they can say improvements are in the pipeline. Permitting uncoupled entries, now way past overdue, helps horseplayers and the state alike. Stop “protecting” thinking horseplayers from themselves.

We have often stated here and in other venues that NYRA, with the possible exception of Keeneland’s racing association, has been more responsive to bettors than any other major jurisdiction. Acknowledging that there are more pressing matters at hand, NYRA’s responsiveness to bettors recently has begun to wane.

On this site May 30, we wrote a piece on the handicapping researcher known to his colleagues as “Vinman.” He e-mailed us to say that he had sent a nine page letter to Hayward and COO Hal Handel including 25 pages of attachments with spreadsheets charting betting handle.

Vinman studied the $1 Pick Four and Pick Five at last year’s Oak Tree-at-Santa Anita meet, the 50-Cent Pick 5 at Monmouth Park on Breeders Cup weekend two years ago, and a $2 Pick Six with mandatory payout offered by Hollywood Park. Here were the findings:

The Pick 6 with mandatory payout attracted handle of $3.3 million, a record for a non-Breeders’ Cup pool. After a 50-Cent Pick 5 went un-hit for three consecutive nights at Balmoral, a harness meet, the carryover reached $76,000. Handle on the fourth night was $218,384. The 50-Cent Pick 5 was hit, paying $18,192.70.

Vinman then projected how much wagering would be generated on a 50-Cent Pick 5 at Saratoga extrapolated from 2008 Pick 4 handle. Using the Pick 5 Oak Tree handle as a base and weighing it against the Pick 4 pool as a percentage of handle, an assessment was made of the Pick 5’s popularity.

Based on analysis of the data model above, handle on a Travers day 50-Cent Pick 5 would have reached $389,318. Further, 50-Cent Pick 5 handle for the 2008 meet would have exceeded $100,000 on eight days.

Using supporting data, Vinman, who convinced Nader to move the conclusion of the Pick 6 to the final race on the card because the inevitable dovetailing with bettors hedging wagers in the Pick 4 pool theoretically would--in addition to reducing the handicapping workload--result in increased handle. So he suggested an addition to the 2009 Saratoga betting menu on an experimental basis.

The proposal included a 50-Cent Pick 5 with carryover; a 50-Cent Trifecta, popular in many jurisdictions; a $1 Pick 6 with mandatory payout and a 50-Cent “Daily Showdown” with carryover, modeled on the West’s “Place All.” He reasoned that the many casual fans attracted to Saratoga are intimidated by handicapping and betting. Fractional wagering would keep costs to a minimum during the learning process.

As stated, changes in the wagering menu requires SRWB approval. No one can blame the association for not wanting to confuse the uncoupled entry issue with how wagering works. Uncoupling entries have been a priority for years but hasn’t been achieved due to unconscionable SRWB foot-dragging.

Our original blog received many comments: Patrick Lamoreux, a parimutuel data analyst at Prairie Meadows racetrack, wanted a copy of Vinman’s spreadsheet data, as did Bruce, “Indulto” and “rwwuple,” who has “supported a $1-Pick 6 with mandatory payout for some time…”

Said Paul Stone: “Fractional betting is the best idea racing has had in decades. The propositions advanced are intellectually inspiring. Reducing cost through fractional betting may ignite some interest…Saratoga attracts many novices…”

Bruce thinks Vinman “may have only scratched the surface of 21st Century betting options…” Anthony Kelzenberg, who knows Vinman since the early 1990s, described him as “a guy who loves racing and is a real ‘analyst’ [having] a lot of integrity…”

Hopefully, he’s a man of patience, too. As of Wednesday Vinman’s yet to receive a reply from the NYRA, one way or another. Thank goodness he didn’t try to contact the SRWB, as I did Wednesday.
No one’s gotten back to me, either. Sometimes, a non-response says it all.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

Mine That Bird’s People Made the Right Call

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 1, 2009--Calvin Borel’s loss of his Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird as a future mount was inevitable and probably the best scenario for both parties.

Trainer Chip Woolley might have known that taking Mine That Bird far back off the early pace was the gelding’s hole card, but it’s quite another thing to execute the tack so effectively.

Call it right place, right time, or anything you please. But it’s doubtful whether any jockey who ever lived could have gotten as much out of the son of Birdstone as Borel did on the first Saturday this past May.

We’re not just referring to his death defying instincts and superb timing. And if you believe that description to be hyperbolic, go back to the videotape. That final sloppy sixteenth of a mile still seems unbelievable coming at the end of such an enervating run.

Borel’s exhibition, identified by many veteran observers as the best ride they had ever seen, completed a Cinderella story that began in the back of an old pickup 2,100 miles away and ended up a never to be forgotten piece of Derby history.

Borel’s ride provided a band of heretofore racing unknowns with a Triple Crown identity, simultaneously giving the skilled veteran a huge push toward the doors of the racing pantheon on Union Avenue.

Should that dream become a reality, it’s doubtful Borel will ever stop crying when called on to accept his plaque at the Racing Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.

Kentucky Derby 135 will be a moment that Borel and Woolley never will forget, but their association ended this week when Mine That Bird’s trainer and owners decided that enough was enough; they wouldn’t play the game of second call again.

The problem, of course, was that on the afternoon before the Derby, the real Cinderella of 2009 became a household name by virtue of her jaw-slackening victory in the Kentucky Oaks.

Woolley might have been an unknown but he’s nobody’s fool. He understood that Borel was emotionally attached and had a huge financial future aboard Rachel Alexandra, so he gave his Derby rider time to commit.

And so everyone waited while the filly’s new owners wrestled with their decision to run in the Preakness, or not. They made their decision, Borel made his, and the connections of Mine That Bird lived with all of it, hiring Hall of Famer Mike Smith for the Preakness.

When they welcomed Borel back aboard Mine That Bird for the Belmont, they were roundly criticized for being soft on what was perceived as Borel’s disloyalty.

But Woolley was smart enough to know that it was business, not personal, and he believed Borel gave Mine That Bird his best chance for redemption in the crown’s final jewel, thanking Borel by giving him a chance to accomplish what no Triple Crown rider had ever done before.

When Borel blew out the gelding in advance of the Belmont and “guaranteed” victory, Woolley might have winced but also had to be pleased his rider had so much confidence--too much, as it turned out.

After the Preakness, and again following the Mother Goose, no one can argue that Borel made the right choice. But this week it was Woolley who made the right decision. “This deal here’s a little different,” Woolley said this week.

Actually, it was a lot different. This time Borel and agent Jerry Hissam overstepped. Either that, or they think Warrior’s Reward is going to be the better three-year-old colt in the second half of this season.

Either way, it was the right business decision since Borel rides more horses for Ian Wilkes and his mentor, Carl Nafzger, at Churchill Downs than he’d ever ride for Woolley in New Mexico.

Woolley probably gets that but Team Borel’s hedging on whether they would ride Warrior’s Reward in the Jim Dandy or Mine That Bird in the West Virginia Derby on the same day just wouldn’t stand.

Rightfully so.

Warrior’s Reward is a colt on the come. He finished second in the Grade 3 Northern Dancer following an impressive romp in a previous Churchill Downs allowances.

Warrior’s Reward starts in Saturday’s Dwyer Stakes at Belmont Park, Borel up.

Mine That Bird’s major remaining targets are the Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic, with the Mountaineer race a bridge to Saratoga with another unspecified race heading into Santa Anita this fall.

Team Borel is doing what’s best for their future business. For Mine That Bird’s people, the future is now. They want the same rider for the gelding’s four remaining starts this year.

And so Woolley et al have made the right decision. Time will well whether Borel and company did the same.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

“She’s a Different Class”

ELMONT, NY, June 27, 2009--The two fillies that began the day at the top of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association polls put more distance between themselves and any other thoroughbred in America of either sex.

With her victory in the Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont Park, Rachel Alexandra won the nine furlongs for three-year-olds in 1:46.33, faster than Dark Mirage, faster than Mom’s Command, faster than Davona Dale and faster than Ruffian.

Those four fillies swept the old New York Racing Association filly triple crown series of the Acorn, Mother Goose and Coaching Club American Oaks. For those and other victories, each found their place in the pantheon on Union Avenue, the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

Rachel also ran faster than Lakeway, who set the Mother Goose stakes record 15 years ago. For those who didn’t see yesterday‘s race, it was another Ruffian-like performance.

As Calvin Borel said, “at the three-eighths pole, the other fillies started to get tired. When I asked her to run, that was it.”

But Borel didn’t ask her to run for too long a period. After sweeping to the lead at headstretch, she opened ground instantly, and that’s when the filly began to dominate.

What was absolutely scary to see was Borel beginning to raise up in the saddle as the sixteenth pole was still approaching and began to ease his filly. He wasn’t thinking about how far in front she might be.

And now Rachel is becoming a margin horse. She won the Kentucky Oaks by 20-¼ lengths with Borel sitting motionless. But yesterday, he was gearing her down well before the wire.

It was a Mother Goose record, and a 19-¼ length victory, over the fast-pace setter, Malibu Prayer. Here’s more historical context:

The track program indicates the Belmont Park record for the distance is 1:45.40, set 36 years ago by a horse called Secretariat. The somewhat hard-earned victory over his 4-year-old stablemate, Kentucky Derby-winning Riva Ridge, came in the inaugural Marlboro Cup.

Secretariat’s time of 1:45.40 was a world record at the time. It was later eclipsed by Simply Majestic in the Budweiser Breeders’ Cup Handicap at Golden Gate Fields on April 2, 1988, who raced the distance in 1:45-flat.

“I’m a modest guy. I was hoping for maybe 10 lengths,” said owner Jess Jackson, who quickly added, “I’m amazed by the combination of her beauty and her speed. I only worry about her getting injured, not getting beat.”

A quarter-hour later, the mighty Zenyatta extended her undefeated winning streak to 11 with a professional victory over five rivals and showed her class in comprehensive fashion. Closer to the early pace than usual, and with Mike Smith preferring her to build a slow momentum throughout, mindful of her 129 pounds, she was more grinder than devastating sweeper around the turn. Until about midstretch, that is.

“With that kind of weight it was tough getting her into stride. But once she got into it in the stretch, that was it,” Smith told a national television audience.

Hard to remember when a California race, even at two turns, had those kind of pedestrian splits. Fractions of :24.46 and :48.02, even on Pro Ride, is very slow at the Grade 1 level.

Pacesetter Briecat shook off mile pressure from Allicansayis Wow, tried to win it on the far turn but was joined at headstretch by Dawn After Dawn and battled with her, all while Zenyatta finally got to rolling.

When she did, as Smith said, that was it. She completed nine furlongs in a very worthy 1:48.15, all the more impressive considering the fractions and the fact that the place and show finishers, Briecat and Dawn After Dawn, were in receipt of 15 and 13 pounds, respectively.

It all begs the question of what next for both and will they ever meet beyond the NTRA Monday morning polling place.

“It would be great for the fans who I’m sure would like to see it. If she’s doing well, we need to find a way to make that happen,” said owner Jerry Moss. And where, since Rachel will not run in the Breeders’ Cup on the all-weather surface?

“We’ll meet somewhere, but no one’s going to dictate where that will happen,” said Moss.

“I don’t know,” said Jackson. “We’re going to go up to Saratoga and see if we can find a race. She tells us when to run. We hope they both do well throughout the year and we’ll meet somewhere.”

For now, both camps will enjoy the moment and hope all is well with both fillies on Sunday morning.

But the day belonged to Rachel Alexandra with her overwhelmingly dominant exhibition. Said Saeed bin Suroor, who saddled Mother Goose show finisher, Flashing. “She’s a different class.” Jackson put it another way: “She’s one for the ages.”

Written by John Pricci

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