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, December 05, 2008

Dueling Moments of the Year

Saratoga Springs, NY, Dec. 4, 2008--The folks over at the National Thoroughbred Racing Association reminded us yesterday that voting was underway for the tenth annual "NTRA Moment of the Year."

Has it been a decade already?

Fans who vote for the winning “moment” will be entered in a drawing for a flat-screen TV and the momentous event will be recognized at the Eclipse Awards ceremony next month in Miami. Here are the nominated events, listed chronologically, my comments in italics below:

Pyro charges past all 10 of his foes in the stretch to take the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds

Not a single observer I respect failed to be impressed with that living trip note; hopelessly last on the fence, followed by a threading search for racing room, then that big, BIG finish. But he won’t get my vote. I’m punishing him because he could never replicate anything like it in a big spot beyond 8.5 furlongs. Those types will break your heart more often than not.

Reigning Horse of the Year Curlin dominates the Dubai World Cup

A huge wow moment. The big chestnut was keen, but controlled, throughout and you could something special was going to happen. It did. Robby Albarado was so excited at the top of the stretch, he said afterwards, that the finish line was a blur, located somewhere up the stretch, floodlights guiding the way home. Must be amazing to feel that kind of power, knowing there’s 10 percent of $3.6 million awaiting at the end of the Nad Al Sheba straight.

Big Brown powers home from post 20 to take the Kentucky Derby

What, no stinking Florida Derby now? I know I’ll never forget last May‘s first Saturday. I was sitting atop a barstool at Capital OTB’s Albany Teletheater, my cash and handicapping cred on the line. Phew! Got past that pesky first turn smelling like a rose. He’s outside going down the back, comfortable but losing ground. OK, Desormeaux must be super confident, or not smart enough to know better. Desormeaux makes his move which at that point was allowing Big Brown to do his thing. They take command of the race at headstretch. “Be the big horse,” I yelled. “Be the big horse…” Much celebrating ensues, followed by the grousing. “Should have had the damn super!” But don’t be a sore winner; be thankful.

Exhilaration turns to heartbreak as Eight Belles suffers a fatal injury following the Kentucky Derby

In the car, heading back to Saratoga. “Let’s go celebrate with some fish fry and a beer,” I said to Toni. Thirty-five minutes later and look at that! “It’s our day, honey, a spot right in front of the door.” The cell phone rang and it was my oldest, Jennifer. “Congratulations, dad, but I’m sorry about what happened to that horse.” “What horse, Jen?” Finished only half the fish fry; had an extra beer. Sometimes this game really sucks.

Big Brown spurts away from his opponents in the Preakness Stakes

What was it the great Jack Buck once announced: “I can’t believe what I just saw!” So how was this possible; how could it be? More impressive than the Derby? What the hell kind of horse IS this? Big Brown finished so fast Desormeaux couldn’t keep him straight. Those strides; they must be a hundred feet long. And that aerial shot; big-time instant acceleration. So cool.

Triple Crown hopeful Big Brown is eased as Da' Tara wins the Belmont Stakes

Sometimes this game really sucks.

Red Rocks spoils Curlin's grass debut in Belmont's Man o' War Stakes

Curlin didn’t hate the turf but certainly didn’t like it, either. Albarado tried to motivate him halfway down the backstretch. The overall effort wasn’t as bad as it looked. I can still see his action down the straight, but it was far from memorable.

Curlin wins the Jockey Club Gold Cup to become North America's first $10 million earner

Man, he had to work hard for that win. But, hey, it was better than his Whitney, and he appeared somewhat within himself as he crossed the finish line. Memorable? Hardly.

Peppers Pride stays perfect and sets a modern North American record with her 17th straight victory

Read all about it. Never saw it. Shame on me, I know. I never made a concerted effort to see it, either. Yes, it’s truly remarkable when you win 17 straight of anything. So then how come my blood’s not boiling, not even now, and I have medication for that, I think.

Zenyatta caps her undefeated season with a resounding, last-to-first win in the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic

Now that was something! It was the Lady’s Secret Redux, only against really good fillies this time. I know she comes from behind, but from that far back? What’s Mike Smith, crazy? No, I am. Oh ye of little faith. Maybe next year she’ll try the Classic. She’s a one-run tomboy. Physically, she’ll handle it. Hoping Jerry Moss takes a page from Jess Jackson’s book. He must still have some of that Herb Alpert money, right?

Goldikova unleashes a powerful stretch burst to defeat defending champ Kip Deville in the Breeders' Cup Mile

She wasn’t Miesque but she was pretty damn close. And the ground and layout aren’t the conditions she prefer, so that kind of acceleration was even more amazing. Meanwhile, what kind of beast is Zarkava? Goldikova couldn’t even warm her up!

Raven's Pass culminates a big day for the Europeans, defeating Henrythenavigator and Curlin in the Breeders' Cup Classic

I’m sure I’m a little daft, as Vic Zast, seated to my right in Santa Anita’s auxiliary press box, can testify. At the odds, I bet both European overlays to win the race, Raven’s Pass and Henrythenavigator, and boxed both in exactas with the logical suspects, including Curlin. When the reigning Horse of the Year began that big wide rally, I yelled for him to keep going. I know; crazy, right? Rooting against my money even if a 1-2 Euro finish would make me king for a day. But my memory of the race is Curlin at the three-sixteenths pole. He kept trying, but those wheels were spinning around, not catapulting forward. He was done. “Go Euros, Go!”

I’ve got this a two moment race: Zenyatta or Big Brown’s Preakness. You decide. A complete set of rules is available at

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

One Small Step for Transparency

Saratoga Springs, NY, Dec. 3, 2008--Just received my first invite of the holiday season. Well, it wasn’t exactly an invitation to some rip-roaring gala. Rather, it’s a hearing to decide whether proposed racing rules changes are fair.

What a concept? Transparency before anything happens.

The invitation came courtesy of the Michigan Department of Agriculture, from the Office of Racing Commissioner, Christine White. In a notice intended to provide revisions to the Racing Commissioner General Rules, the intent is, to wit:

“Offer Michigan horse owners, trainers and tracks the opportunity to compete more fairly with other racing jurisdictions by providing more opportunities for both Michigan horses and tracks to offer racing programs for more and better horses and additional revenue.”

The changes, however, lack context relating to how it would improve the quality of racing in the state. The first proposed change would be to revise R-431.3055 so as to increase “the amount of overweight jockeys may carry two pounds, from the current five pounds to seven pounds.”

Madam Commissioner, you can have my answer now and save the dollars you would spend on what I assume was private jet travel--you being from Michigan and all: Why not?

This is a reasonable, common sense request, especially in colder months when jockeys layer up in heavier, warm weather gear. Most states, in fact, already compensate for this fact of winter-racing life.

Although you likely might have a perception problem. Anything more than five pounds of overweight is a bit small-time tacky.

Now, I don’t mean to be obtuse but how this will have any bearing on improving the quality of racing in the state, or how it will make it possible to compete with out-of-state horses more effectively is lost on me. Perhaps there was another meaning.

The second proposal, to revise R 431.3075, calls for the elimination of the association clocker. To that I say emphatically: Whoa!

For all the information provided horseplayers in this data driven sport, it’s still falls short of the mark. (If anyone doubts this, refer to the information inside the racing program provided Australian horseplayers. It’s far more comprehensive that anything available to American bettors).

As if our money doesn’t spend.

The elimination of even a single clocker makes a difficult job harder for the rest of the staff. In addition to this information that’s vital to bettors, it does horsemen no favors when they can’t know how their horse is progressing, or to verify the information on their own stopwatches.

But worse is the critical information that would be denied horseplayers with a revision of R 431.3075.

Playing the races based on workout times is an entire field of study that would be lost if the information were unavailable. Loss of relevant information affects handle, which affects purses, which affects horsemen, which affects tracks, which affects state coffers.

Saving one salary, even in this environment, will prove to be penny wise folly. Don’t do it, please.

There are weightier issues, of course. But to involve--and hopefuly engage--the public in the process, is the kind of transparency that sends the right message.

So, thanks for asking, Madam Commissioner. At the moment, however, my winter plans do not include a sojourn to Lansing in late January.

More of the Same Old, Same Old

In terms of the aforementioned environment, the Thoroughbred Racing Economic Indicators for November are out and they are about what you might expect.
Month-over-month, wagering on U.S. races declined 9.7 percent in November, falling through the billion-dollar mark to nearly $969,000 compared to last November.

Despite an increase in racing days from 440 in 2007 to 465 this year, available purse money declined by a tad over $2-million; understandable considering that tracks in the ADW business mandated purse cuts if their simulcast signal was suspended as a result of the dispute over rights fees.

Year to date figures were less ominous compared to the economy as a whole. Handle is down 6.17 percent, to $12.8 billion, as compared to nearly $13.7 billion wagered in 2007.

There was $6.6 million less available in purse monies and 39 fewer days of racing. The figures reflect all U.S. interstate betting, as well as separate pool wagering in Canada on American races.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Deep Throat Vet: Colleagues, Cortisone Hurting the Game

Saratoga Springs, NY, Dec. 2, 2008--One day this fall I came across a veterinarian contact I had made, a person who has worked for decades at nearly every major racing venue in the country.

The vet spoke only on the condition of anonymity and his, or her, identity will be protected here. This doctor of veterinary medicine has a family and a thriving practice. But he, or she, no longer can remain silent.

This vet looks at the state of the game and wonders when regulators will finally get serious about what happens on the backstretch and shedrows of America’s racetracks.

“I want to run a theory by you about the dirt/synthetic/injury issue to see what you observer/handicapper types think about it. Here are my thoughts on how racing got to the point we’re at now:

The commercialization of the breeding industry.

Liberal medication policies of state regulators, allowing unsoundness into the gene pool.

The dominance of charismatic trainers, forcing other trainers to try to compete with [their] methods.

The widespread use of anti-inflammatory medications [Bute, Flunixin].

[Overuse of injecting] cortisone into joints [hocks, stifles, knees, ankles].

The sacrifice of thoroughbred horseflesh for the sake of speed.

Because of increased demand for veterinary treatment, large “group vet practices” now dominate the backstretch… kids straight out of school with no racing or even farm animal backgrounds, enticed by big paychecks and ‘glamour.’

Increased competition among veterinarians…creating a situation where veterinarians are treating whatever trainers want them the treat without the least hesitation, in order to maintain and build clientele, leaving lots of room for error.”

Again, speaking on condition of anonymity, the vet expounded further : “My point is this. The levels of cortisone that get pumped into horses legally in my opinion has a seriously detrimental effect on the body physiology that effects bone density…”

The DVM should know that we have written extensively in this space about how commercial breeding is the tail that wags the racing beast: Breeding for speed, not stoutness. The hot-housing, not healthy rough-housing, of young foals. The use of steroids. Corrective surgery. (And some might argue that the increase in number of graded stakes races has artificially raised bloodstock value).

Some racing organizations have countered these theories with statistics indicating there is no relationship between unsoundness and modern breeding trends. But this flies in the face of empirical data.

The modern racehorse runs far less often and requires more recovery time between starts. Now consider that while preparing to win a leg of New York’s old handicap triple crown series, the great Tom Fool worked a mile three times in a week, barbaric by today’s standards.

And so when the vet asked whether it was common for trainers to work horses in :46 and 58 and change, and if trainers always felt pressure to breeze every six days, rain or shine, and breeze fast, I recalled how it was back in my day.

I remembered the exercise rider who told me about Tom Fool but also how the old nurseries always worked their young horses fast. If the horses withstood the hard drills, they raced. If not, you never heard their names.

“After I [arrived at a major circuit],” the vet continued, “I was shocked at how many horses were being euthanized in the mornings. I was always of the belief that proper horsemanship combined with judicious medical advice could prevent most breakdowns. The number of horses I put down made me sick.

“The game might have passed him by but Jack Van Berg had it right when he went before Congress… There’s just no need to inject hocks, stifles, knees and ankles with [high doses] of Prednisone. Doctors treating humans for arthritis know to keep [cortisone] doses low.

“A big problem is that horsemen don’t want to lose the use of cortisone. [With proper diagnosis of leg issues] there’s no good reason for cortisone to be injected within 25 days. [Use the] European rules. That horsemen want to inject cortisone within seven days of a race is extremely common. Cortisone is the silent killer.

And this veterinarian, who has had experience with dirt and artificial surfaces, is skeptical regarding the efficacy of synthetic tracks as it relates to catastrophic breakdowns.

“When a horse is moving forward, his foot will slide when it hit’s the dirt. But when it hits synthetic, it plants, it holds them. If the [breakdown figures are better on synthetics] it‘s the management [increased scrutiny] of the horse, not the surface.”

In summary, the vet concluded: “As the years went on I felt uncomfortable working in a way that most trainers expected me to work. I feel the racing veterinarian/trainer relationship got distorted somewhere along the way and I mostly blame greed, a lack of spine, and a lack of knowledge of horsemanship on the part of my colleagues.

“[But something good] is going on concerning horsemanship and awareness on the backside to cause [recent positive] reversals. I still believe, however, that without a change in regulatory medication policy, the gains we are now seeing in equine welfare could be erased as time goes by.”

To date, there’s never been an academic study investigating the possible link of bone- density deficiency to the overuse of cortisone in the race horse. That might be a good place to start.

Written by John Pricci

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