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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Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Horseplayer’s Appetite Demands a Varied Menu

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 29, 2009--My friend “The Vinman” is at it again. I know that there are several Vinmans populating racing chat rooms everywhere, but we‘re talking about the REAL Vinman here.

For better or worse, he’s the one from New Jersey. Had to mention that as people from the Garden State get very sensitive about, you know, living in the shadows.

Anyway, The Vinman I know is best described as a horse-playing nerd--and I mean that in the best possible way. On this site, we often muse about the intellectual stimulation and challenge that handicapping thoroughbreds affords.

The Vinman is who we have in mind when making that point. He’s so fastidious in his research that his findings can make your hair hurt. He is nothing if not exhaustively thorough.

His mission in life is to create the perfect parimutuel wagering menu, one bet at a time. And damn, if he’s not getting closer to that goal all the time.

Most of Vinman‘s friends are horseplayers who have implicit faith in their leader. He is the creator of all good things syndicate. And on major event days they have had their super-exotic moments in the sun. Just ask the IRS.

If you’re a long-time Pick 6 player in New York, you may remember a time when the sequence ended with the feature race of the day. A typical horseplaying no-lifer, the Vinman thinks about things the rest of us commonly accept as our punishing fate.

Reasoning that for Pick 6 purposes a full field of turf sprinters, or maidens, is preferable to five “good horses” in the day’s big race featuring an odds-on favorite. A large-field finale would hold the promise of the kind of score Pick 6 players covet.

Further, since Pick 6 bettors also play the late Pick 4, which ended with the final race of the day, that would mean one less race requiring exhaustive research; the work already done.

Either way, dove-tailing is good. If alive in the Pick 6; make a defensive play in the Pick 4. If not; there’s another chance to make a lot for a little at half the cost.

The Vinman made his pitch to former New York Racing Association executive Bill Nader and the shift was made to the last six races on any program. It works.

On Thursday I received a copy of Vinman’s latest missive, this one addressed to NYRA President Charlie Hayward. It was nine pages, 4,594 words short. This did not include 25 pages of attachments, delivered to Hayward and COO Hal Handel in three-ring binders.

Hair hurting yet?

The attachments contained spreadsheets charting betting handle on the $1 Pick 4 and Pick 5 at Oak Tree Santa Anita 2008; the 50-Cent Pick 5 at Monmouth on Breeders’ Cup weekend 2007, and the $2 Pick 6** offered at Hollywood Park with a mandatory payout.

Would you be surprised to learn that the Pick 6 with mandatory payoff attracted handle of $3.3 million, a record for a non-Breeders’ Cup pool?

The most surprising discovery was the enormous popularity of the 50-Cent Pick at Balmoral--Balmoral Harness. After the Pick 5 went un-hit for three nights--unusual given the low cost--the carryover reached $76,000, attracting handle of $218,384. The 50-Cent Pick 5 was hit, paying $18,192.70

In addition to the above, Vinman projected how much wagering would be generated on a 50-Cent Pick 5 at Saratoga, based on last year’s Pick 4 Spa handle. Using the Pick 5 Oak Tree handle as a base, and weighing it against the Pick 4 pool as a percentage of Pick 4 handle, an assessment was made of the Pick 5‘s popularity.

Based on analysis of the data above, and extrapolating from Pick 4 handle of almost $1.5 million, 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 occasions.

(I tried to reduce Vinman’s projections down to their essence. Anyone interested in receiving the spreadsheets, indicate such in the comments section below, provide an e-mail address, and I’ll forward his complete study).

Cutting to the present chase, then, Vinman would like to see a 50-Cent Pick 5 with carryover offered at the upcoming Saratoga race meet.

While instituting a 50-Cent Pick 3 seems superfluous, offering a $50-Cent Pick 4--available at 15 other tracks--and a 50-Cent Trifecta--currently available at nine tracks, including some majors--makes sense.

Vinman also would like to see a $1 Pick 6 with mandatory payout offered on an experimental basis.

Finally, another, new wager that might interest professionals, novices and the bankroll-challenged. The 50-Cent “Daily Showdown”--with carryover--is a variation on the “Place All” theme available out west. The difference, of course, is that your horse can finish first, second, or third.

Any change in the wagering menu requires State Racing and Wagering Board approval. Even if NYRA management and fans believe some of the above are no-brainers, there’s no such animal in the world of New York politics.

But who knows? In this environment interesting additions to the Saratoga wagering menu might have a chance. Revenue, anyone?

**Correcting dollar denomination

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, May 29, 2009

Blue Horse Shoe Loves Anacot Steel

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 28, 2009--Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin is one of the game’s most dominant trainers, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy cashing a ticket every so often.

But if he keeps touting his Charitable Man to win the Belmont Stakes every time he's asked for a quote, he’s not going to get any value.

Should Rachel Alexandra start, the Peter Pan winner would be the probable third betting choice in the June 6 classic.

“Part of me wants her to run and part of me doesn’t,” McLaughlin said on Thursday’s national teleconference. “But I think we can beat her.”

We’re sure McLaughlin thought long and hard before making that declaration. He knows something about winning the champion’s test, having won it with Jazil in 2006. McLaughlin also believes Rachel Alexandra’s demanding recent schedule will be a factor.

“Rachel is a superstar and the Preakness was a great day for our industry. But for both of them to run back [a third time] in thirty-five, thirty-six days, it’s hard to do. That will make it tough for her to win the Belmont at a mile and a half.”

Not that McLaughlin thinks the distance is any tougher on horses than the Derby. “The mile and a half probably takes more out of a filly,” said McLaughlin. "But I don’t think the [distance] takes more out a horse than a mile and a quarter does on the first Saturday in May. The faster fractions and bigger field make the Derby a tough race on a horse.”

As for the Derby winner, the former Wayne Lukas protege thought the wet track and Calvin Borel was the difference in Louisville but that the Preakness validated Mine That Bird. “I have a lot of respect for him, he’s a gutsy little gelding.”

Should Rachel start, like everyone else, McLaughlin expects her to be a pace factor. “If she runs, she’ll probably be forwardly placed and I do think we can beat her,” went the reiteration.

“It would mean a lot to the Belmont Stakes and the NYRA if she’s in it, but Mine That Bird brings a lot to the race.”

Northern California ace Jerry Hollendorfer, while less confident than McLaughlin, is pleased with the progress being made by tough-trip Derby competitor Chocolate Candy.

"He seems to be getting over the track very well,” Hollendorfer said. “When Garrett [Gomez] worked him, he said he got over the track well. We’re very happy to have Garrett on our horse.

"You can only guess [if your colt has improved since the Derby]. But we think we’re in a pretty good position, we think we can get the mile and a half.”

It appears that Hollendorfer may be seeing the same chink in the armor of the two favorites that McLaughlin sees: "I don’t know how they’ll bounce back, but I assume if both are starters they've been doing very well.

“Speed is an asset in any race and [Rachel Alexandra] brings a great deal of speed. The Belmont has been good for speed horses. I think Mine That Bird is a very legitimate horse. I don’t think there’s doubt in anyone’s mind that he’s a real runner."

The Derby winner is a different type, of course, and trainer Chip Woolley is well aware of the advantage pace horses have in this race.

“History says you need to be a little closer to the pace. So he’s got his work cut out,” Woolley said, but he won’t take the horse out of his best game:

“We’re not going to change his running style. It’s imperative we get the right trip and make our move at the right time. The main thing is just to ride with patience. If you push the button too early, you could come up empty at the wire.

“We were the best horse in the Derby that day, and I felt we were the best horse in the Preakness. Going into this I think we have the best horse.”

And three races in five weeks?

"If the horse hadn’t been on his very best game we probably would have passed [the Belmont] up."

Woolley said the gelding will get a month off and have three more races this year, concluding with the Breeders’ Cup Classic. As for the other two, "we haven’t really decided. We’re looking at all options, every major race around. It could be anywhere."

With the announcement of the filly’s Belmont status expected to come Monday at the earliest, Woolley still doesn’t have a rider:

“I’m gonna’ give Calvin as much time as possible. He won me the Derby. I owe him the opportunity if it’s possible. I don’t want Calvin sitting on the sidelines."

The only camp not heard from yesterday was the filly’s, but it probably didn't matter to McLaughlin, who said: “I wouldn’t trade places with anybody.”

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Race Riding or Reckless Riding, That Is the Question

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 27, 2009--The news that jockey Jaime Theriot would appeal a 30-day suspension meted out by the Illinois Racing Board for his role in an accident that left Rene Douglas partially paralyzed in a Chicago hospital was inevitable.

Thirty days, as opposed to the usual seven given for careless riding. Is the larger penalty supposed to represent justice for an accident that barring a miracle has changed a man’s life forever?

Is 30 days enough if Theriot was careless to the point of recklessness? Is a thousand thirty days enough? If what the doctors fear is true, is it just that Theriot goes back to work at all?

Pity that any suspension was levied out without a full hearing. And had Theriot not filed an appeal, there would have been no hearing. Theriot would just have to live with the knowledge of his actions; Douglas would have to live with the consequences.

Does the longer suspension mean that Theriot was reckless when he sought running room with a raging mount? Or was he just race riding, just trying his best to win?
Three weeks ago, the sports world went gaga when Calvin Borel literally scraped paint in midstretch, squeezing tightly between a rival and the fence to win the Kentucky Derby.

What if, at the instant Borel threaded his mount between another rival and the fence, his rival lugged in? Mine That Bird might not be alive today, much less trying to win a second jewel. For that matter, neither might Borel and his dream of a personal trifecta.

Had there been a Derby incident, would Borel’s tactics been viewed as reckless? But get through he did, becoming a national sports hero courted by both Leno and Letterman.

Race riding is dangerous business. It’s why these underappreciated athletes earn big money--20 percent of them, anyway--while the rest labor in the shadows cast by the game’s stars simply trying to support themselves and their families.

Jockeys talk about the danger of the profession all the time and in the same fashion. They acknowledge danger as part of the business but they don’t think about it. If they did they wouldn’t be able to do the job.

A jockey’s livelihood demands split-second decisions and taking risks. You hear the apt quote regarding their job description all the time: Jockeys are the only athletes followed by an ambulance while they’re working.

A good point was made this week that what Theriot did is something that occurs many times every racing day. Horses get steadied and checked all the time, only this time it resulted in an accident.

The question remains: race-riding or recklessness?

Parenthetically, in New York right now, a relatively new jockey on the circuit has been so reckless that the rider was approached by a present and future Hall of Famer who proffered advice. Their attempt at a heads-up was summarily and rudely rejected.

The same sources informed HRI that the rider in question dangerously rail-rode Rajiv Maragh in a recent Belmont Park race. Hopefully, the stewards there will investigate the matter before something untoward occurs or a messenger is shot.

The 30-day suspension has pinned a guilty sign on Theriot’s back without benefit of a full investigation that goes with the appeals process.

If transparency truly existed and stewards were made to submit full written reports in the commission of their duties, all might have a better understanding of what happened last weekend and what punishment, if any, is appropriate.

Theriot’s career recently had taken off. No one knows what effect Saturday’s incident will have on his professional future. Or how living with the knowledge of what happened in the 2009 Arlington Matron Handicap will affect him personally.

Bumping incidents happen dozens of times a day, but the majority are ignored, no inquiry is posted, no objection lodged. No physical harm, no outcome altered, no foul. It never happened.

Just as racetrackers must admit when an otherwise sound horse takes a bad step resulting in tragedy that it’s part of the game, so, too, is what happened to Rene Douglas, only on a larger, human scale.

So it’s very important that people know whether Theriot was race riding or being reckless. Either way, the 30-day ban isn’t tough love and doesn’t send a message. Justice was not served by this ad hoc decision and neither was it good public relations.

There might be extenuating circumstances that makes sense of all this, but since there are no uniform standards, no mandated transparency, rule-makers will continue making things up as they go, even in an over-regulated industry.

Until the results of the hearing are known, the 30-day suspension by the Illinois Racing Board is the collective action of judge, jury and executioner before the fact. And how does that do anyone involved in this sad situation any good?

Written by John Pricci

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