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, July 16, 2008

When All Else Fails, Blame the Jockey

Windsor Locks, Ct., July 12, 2008--Joe Rocco, how could you do that to me? What, you thought a handicapper might blame his own self?

Joe, not that you should lose any sleep because I failed to hit the board in the Connecticut OTB handicapping contest. But it would have been nice had you won a couple of races on Saturday’s Delaware program.

Delaware was one of five regional contest tracks, along with Belmont Park, Monmouth, Philadelphia Park and Suffolk Downs. Each contestant had a $100 starting bankroll to wager straight; win, place and show only, at minimum 10 $10 bets. After that, it was any amount goes.

I looked at all five tracks the day before, seeking playable races, i.e., horses with a good chance to win at double-digit odds. Many of the races I chose had three, four or five conceivable winners. The horse that fell through the parimutuel cracks would be my play.

I found two possible races at Monmouth, one at Belmont, two from Suffolk, five at Delaware, and a staggering eight races at Philadelphia Park. In the height of the summer racing season, and on a Saturday, Philly Park. Who’da thunk it?

At decision time, I chose to pass the Belmont race; good move, saved money. I skipped one of the two Monmouth races, another good move, but, on my last play of the contest, I tapped out on 20-1 Jolly Good Guy, a five-claimer who chased the pace to the three-sixteenths pole, where he began running sideways.

At Suffolk, I passed on the first of two plays, the 12-1 Hubbard, bet down to 9-2, and a winner, after being placed first when he got bumped and crowded the length of the stretch by the odds-on favorite. But I did bet Smarty Brown, a 5K maiden-claimer, who finished in mid-pack after showing early speed at 17-1.

But the day was over long before the finale from Suffolk. The tone was set on the very first wager, a wide open maiden race on turf at Philly Park.

We thought four horses could win it. Two were bet too heavily; the others went off at 5-1 and 8-1, respectively. I bet the better value, the 5-1 shot. The 8-1 shot paid $19.60; the 5-1 chance finished second.

Check, please.

In the fourth at Philadelphia, Designer Stripes finished third in a six-horse field at 7-1. In the fifth, Smart Alliance was third at 6-1 (should have passed, in retrospect, he was 12-1 on the early line). In the next race, Sir Togo finished third in a six-horse field at 9-1.

This was getting old. I just couldn’t get off. One win and you could start thinking parlays of shorter-priced but still bettable horses. I was making mini-dollars at the windows, taking logical horses over the price plays in exactas and trifectas.

In the seventh, 7-1 Cimmeron Sue clipped heels and Jose Flores lost his irons. In the next race, Baloobas was fourth of six at 6-1.

But I really liked a horse in the ninth. I thought Indian Reef, 10-1 on the early line and breaking from post 10 at a mile on the turf, could be a huge price because of the wide post. His competition was anchored on the also-eligible list.

However, Gran Cesare got in from the AEs and, from post 10, beats Indian Reef with a rail run on the far turn while my 10.50-1 chance cranked up five wide after leaving from post nine. The 11-10 exacta with the 3-1 favorite was good for $69, but I was still zero-for-the-contest.

Ultimately, all but one price play finished in the money at Philadelphia. Maybe I should have been thinking show bets which, ironically, was the partial tack taken by the eventual winner. And this was the point where Rocco might have helped out a little.

It was about mid-tournament and some of the better races (read better prices) were coming up, like the fifth from Delaware Park. Rocco was on a sharp speedster named Pattysbuddy from the rail, 12-1 on the early line. I was so confident I didn’t welcome the late scratch of the formidable early favorite, Run With Me; it would hurt the odds.

Actually, Rocco rode the hair off his mount, rating him well in quick fractions while under pressure, pulling the rug on the field into the lane and looked home free--until Tony Dutrow’s Light Sentence nailed him in the final strides. At 7.70-1, and at a critical juncture, a win would have put me in position to do some damage.

But it really was the ninth at the Stanton track that was my personal feature of the day. In the 1-1/16 miles maiden turf route, I thought half the 12-horse field could win. Certainly one would fall between the cracks, and one did, Danny Furr’s Great Kate Above, Rocco up.

No one without gray hair would know this but Furr--a good old boy in the best sense of that term--was a long-time assistant to MacKenzie Miller. “Mack” Miller was a 1987 Hall of Fame inductee and a turf ace. Great Kate Above, 15-1 on the early line, opened at 30-1 and virtually stayed there. I bet enough to put me into the lead as no one had broken the contest open yet.

The filly ran great but finished third. The chart footnote…“made a four wide middle move then was gaining ground late…” doesn’t quite get it. Rocco technically did nothing wrong, but he could have been a little more patient with his rally, waiting for the straight instead of losing valuable ground on the final turn.

The 32.20-1 chance lost place by a half length (costing me a real-dollars exacta), the whole race by a tad more than two lengths. The winner was a 7-5 first-time starter from the Graham Motion barn. (Rain Date will probable ship to Saratoga and beat me there, too).

Mack McClyment of Forrest Hills, Md. finished first after betting $34 to win on Thou Swell in the eighth from Belmont, the winner paying $45.60. Good for him; I don’t even like the horse now.

In the final analysis it was a fun day at a very nicely appointed facility. We’ll point towards New Haven next winter, where Oaklawn Park is not expected to be among the contest tracks. That means no Joe Rocco, who won the Delaware finale on Saturday with Dixies Valentine by eight lengths, paying $3. Big deal.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Curlin’s Road to Immortality Starts Today

To grass, or not to grass? That is the question and, with that, the grand Curlin experiment begins today in the 11-furlong Grade 1 Man o’ War at Belmont Park.

Steve Asmussen, the trainer who’s left nothing to chance when it comes to the 2007 Horse of the Year, begins prepping for a go in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at the track modeled after Longchamp, the site of what has been called the world’s most prestigious horse race.

For the first time--I don’t know, ever?--the Man o’ War is not in its traditional place on the Belmont fall calendar. To make the NYRA turf program all it can be, the Man o’ War was moved to the summer meet this year, to be followed by the Sword Dancer at Saratoga and the Turf Classic, back at Belmont, in the fall, Grade 1s all.

But first things first for Curlin, and a meaningful test it will be for a horse that hasn‘t been beaten since this time last year.

Four of his six Man o’ War rivals are Grade 1 winners, including two winners of the Breeders’ Cup Turf, the redoubtable Better Talk Now and Red Rocks, one European who actually prefers firm ground.

The group also includes last year’s Sword Dancer winner, Grand Couturier, and the Gran Premio Di Milano winner, Sudan, now under Bobby Frankel’s shed and a recent Grade 3 prep winner for this at Golden Gate Fields.

Actually, Sudan rates to move forward off his recent race and will have to if he wants to be competitive. But it certainly appears that he’s been pointed this way by Frankel, who probably didn’t count on the Horse of the Year being part of the fray.

Curlin’s two main obstacles are the two Turf winners. Our guess is that while Bobby Ribaudo wouldn’t mind winning this, a repeat victory in the Sword Dancer, which would be his third start of the season, is the more coveted target.

Mission Approved and True Cause just look too ambitiously placed in this spot.

Nine-year-old Better Talk Now might have lost a step to age but not much more. He still wants to be competitive, still earns Grade 1 performance figures, and just wants to beat you. He showed that in the recent Manhattan before running into the herd while in the midst of his rally. It didn’t cost him the win, but clearly he would have finished closer.

Graham Motion’s gelding goes sans rabbit today, but likely will get an honest enough pace from either Mission Approved or Sudan, perhaps both. Per usual, Ramon Dominguez takes the call.

Red Rocks just likes racing on this side of the pond. Two years ago he won the Turf over firm Churchill Downs ground and last year was a good third in the bog at Monmouth Park, the classy winner English Channel benefiting from a dream trip under the conditions. Patient Javier Castellano replaces ebullient European star Lanfranco Dettori.

Of course, it’s Curlin’s race to lose despite his grass inexperience. He’s worked three times since winning the G1 Stephen Foster, including a seven-eighths breeze around the dogs on grass at Churchill in 1:31 2/5, satisfying his trainer.

On the Equiform performance scale, it appears only Better Talk Now and Red Rocks can pose a serious threat the favorite, whose figures tower over the group. If Curlin takes to the turf, everyone else is running for second. There’s nothing to it--but to do it.

Hope It's A Clear Day: We’ll be watching the Man o’ War from Connecticut OTB’s Bradley Teletheater, trying to win a handicapping contest for which we qualified with a Top 20 finish in New Haven tournament last winter.

A live money contest, it costs $100 to enter and $100 to buy in. The handicapper with the highest bankroll wins, players getting to keep the money in their account at contest’s end. Handicappers can wager in person or on line; win, place and show only.

In addition to prize money, the top three finishes earn a spot in the 2009 World Series of Handicapping at the horseplayer friendly Orleans in Las Vegas.

The five regional contest tracks are Belmont, Monmouth, Delaware, Philadelphia Park and Suffolk Downs. If you have an interest, you can get more information from Connecticut OTB’s Todd Hill at 203.946.3140.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

New York Harness Horsemen Off Stride with Fans

Joe Faraldo Esq., president of the Standardbred Owners Association of New York, believes that the state’s legislators should deal with “another racing-related ticking clock...” That a “new operating relationship will need to be forged between [the recently reworked New York City-OTB] entity and New York’s resurgent harness-racing industry.”

What ticking clock? What resurgence? Unless the latter refers to what VLT revenue has done for purses. I use traditional measures, such as fannies in the seats or significantly increased handle. I don’t see much evidence of either. I don’t feel the love.

Now before I get branded as a “thoroughbred guy,” which is what happened when I spoke before state representative Ivan Lafayette’s committee investigating the closure of Roosevelt Raceway a couple of decades ago. Roosevelt was the first track I ever attended.

When Lafayette asked about the deal made between the raceway’s owners, who ran the track into the ground, and an investment group closely linked with Senator Alphonse D’Amato’s brother’s law firm, the eventual buyers, I told him what I thought: “It’s a land grab. It stinks.”

My love of parimutuel racing and horses was fostered at Roosevelt and Yonkers Raceways. My first favorite “big horse” was Adios Butler. Then Bret Hanover, a pacing Secretariat. There was the Cardigan Bay and Overtrick rivalry--every bit as entertaining as Affirmed and Alydar.

I’ll never forget Ralph Baldwin’s great trotter, Speedy Scot, who broke on the first turn, spotted the field at least an eighth of mile, and came back to win the Yonkers Trot in 1:59 and change, when a sub-two minute mile meant something. And the Haughton family, and the Dancers, and George Sholty, a great driver who helped revolutionize the sport.

I mention all this because Faraldo apparently thinks he can move the harness sport forward by going back to the future. It’s not that Faraldo’s thought process isn’t provocative, after all, he has a job to do. But in representing his constituents, he failed to consider a big part of the sport’s equation: the fans.

Faraldo’s recent contribution on the times site harkened me back to what a high-level NYRA executive once told me back in the day when I was cutting my teeth in the business: “Remember that what’s good for the horsemen is usually bad for the public.”

Faraldo states that many of NYC-OTB’s wounds were self-inflicted. That’s not one-hundred percent true. All the OTB regions, and many racing executives off all stripes, believed at the time that night-time thoroughbred racing at OTB would be a home run for everyone, mostly because harness handle had become so negligible.

The belief was so universal that the harness tracks lobbied for, and received, something called a “held harmless” provision, based on projected night-time thoroughbred handle. When those estimates fell woefully short, OTBs were paying harness tracks from anticipated revenues that never materialized. It seriously affected the bottom line.

In the capital district of New York, Saratoga Harness learned it could make a more profit if they simply didn’t open on NYRA dark days, living off their mandated share of thoroughbred handle.

VLTs have taken the state’s leading harness tracks off life-support. But there is no acknowledgement of that, Faraldo stating that “the payments to the racing industry NYC-OTB complains about…are simply a legislative response designed to hold the state’s rapidly rebounding racing and horse breeding industries harmless in the face of OTB’s counterproductive decision to replace New York racing with out-of-state racing.”

Say what?

The legislation was meant to bolster the harness industry in the face of new night-time competition from thoroughbreds. What Faraldo is really saying here is that he doesn’t want New York harness tracks competing with top harness circuits such as the Meadowlands, Woodbine Harness and their like.

Further, Faraldo supports a popular notion that the OTBs should be consolidated… ”ultimately shifting responsibility for off-track betting to the New York racing industry it should be supporting.”

Why not just come out and say it; that as far as the state’s harness horsemen are concerned, we want to be our own OTB?

“The most direct approach would be to mandate that all OTBs in New York feature New York harness racing at night, both in their parlors and on their cable programming. This would protect New York harness racing’s market share in the evenings and reduce OTBs obligations to the harness industry.”

The fact that the State Racing and Wagering Board already does mandate that cable programming service all New York tracks first was not acknowledged. When there is a conflict with other racing venues, preference must be given to New York tracks and shown live. Out of state tracks can be live only when there’s no live racing being conducted at a New York track.

What Faraldo really wants for his group is the elimination of all simulcasting competition. Never mind that almost nine of every 10 wagering dollars are spent on out of state races these days. Horseplayers need, and deserve, more opportunities to find playable, competitive races, not fewer.

Written by John Pricci

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