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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Thursday, June 05, 2008

A Whiter Shade of Pale

Maybe it’s because it’s sports, more correctly, “only horse racing,” but it amazes how many media critics in the run-up to the Belmont Stakes have surfaced to detail the misdeeds of the connections of a horse trying to become thoroughbred racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner.

Perhaps some of my colleagues should be re-assigned to the news desk, where they might have done some good exposing life’s real evil doers. God knows racing continues to have its share of serious problems. But the planet has a whole lot more.

We in the media like to think we have the fortitude to tell it like it is, as the late Howard Cosell might have said. But where were the serious journalists--not those of us who toil in the candy store of American life, the world of sports--when members of the current administration in Washington D.C., and we all know who they are, outed covert CIA operative Valerie Plame?

In any other time of war, this would have been defined as an act of treason. Where were the scurrilous print editorials back then? Is Keith Olbermann the only journalist unafraid to speak truth to power in real time?

On a finer point, where was the indignant outrage directed toward Hillary Clinton’s actions on the same night that Barack Obama became the presumptive presidential nominee of the Democratic party?

Did she need to remind us--at that precise moment in time--about the 18 million voters who backed her candidacy? Did she ever truly recognize the historical achievement of a man whose race was a significant factor in his people being denied the liberty and justice to which we all pledge allegiance?

I suppose that scenario is less about the presence of wrong than the absence of right. Maybe it’s just that on some days negativity wears me out a little more than usual.

Pardon the rant, or don’t, that’s up to you. But the issues we take seriously in this country obfuscate the real problems that concern us all, which I‘m sure pleases those of us who make significant contributions to the entire dumbing down of America process.

So Big Brown’s owner Michael Iavarone lied, representing himself as something he’s not nor ever was. Were you ever in need of a second nickel to rub next to the only one you have? And didn’t he pay for those “crimes?”

The second thing he did after getting into the racing business as a licensed owner was to seek out a “juice trainer.” At least that’s what people thought he did when he hired Rick Dutrow.

Dutrow is licensed, too. He broke the rules and he paid his debts to racing society. So whose failing is it that Iavarone and Dutrow are standing at the precipice of helping to make racing history, their’s, or the system’s? Does the blame lie with the people in the sport, or those who make its rules and regulations?

And isn’t all this angst, mine and the rest of the media’s, misdirected? Aren’t all fans of the sport--those who support it and those of us who cover it--still reeling from the fate that befell Eight Belles in her quest to win a Kentucky Derby? Fans want to love their favorite sport, not feel embarrassed by defending it.

So, for one day, starting at midnight Saturday June 7, can we all just agree to enjoy the moment, celebrating a pageant that goes back to the early days of slavery in this country, and marvel at one of God’s most beautiful creations.

Bearing witness to a once and future piece of American history is a good way to enjoy a summer’s day.

Ironically, just as this blog was being completed, pinch-hitter Jason Giambi hit an 0-2 pitch for a two-run, walk-off home run and a dramatic 9-8 Yankees victory, overcoming a five-run deficit for a team that’s been playing lousy baseball.

As a Yankees fan, and well aware of Giambi’s checkered past, how am I supposed to feel right now? It’s all very confusing, like the color gray. Half black, or half white?

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Creating a Personal Doomsday Scenario

This is supposed to be the happy season for fans of the sport, damn it. But not if you have a pulse, not if you keep up with the latest developments, not if politicians and government agencies are involved.

You would think that with all the sexy happenstance surrounding Big Brown--the coolest horse in town--his connections, his quarter cracks, his glorious quest, it would be enough to keep us on the edge of our saddles.

But if you’re a horseplayer living in New York, you have a special kind of angst to deal with here, what with the insufferable NYRA franchise flap finally settled, sort of, the greedy power-mad politicians and, now, the New York City Off-Track Betting state of affairs.

If you bet on New York racing, as everyone in this country does at one time or another, the cost of wagering, like gas, milk, beef and all the rest, might rise. Because when politicians see a problem, they throw money at it.

Our money.

The NYC-OTB situation is the latest racing industry joke. Clearly, the closing of some bet shops has addressed a redundancy, the inability of the marketplace to keep some betting parlors viable.

There is no arguing with that portion of New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s plan. Bloomberg didn’t become a mega-successful businessman without knowing how to read a P & L statement, play hard ball, or how to apply a velvet hammer.

But his argument that NYC-OTB loses money is simply untrue. Yes, the “held harmless” provision mandating that OTBs pay harness tracks for the right to take off-track bets on nighttime thoroughbred races, a failed concept, has hurt the bottom line badly.

Someone must take the blame for not eliminating this provision once it was established that thoroughbred fans weren’t supporting their sport and that harness fans weren’t crossing over to wager on thoroughbreds. Some compromise in this area has been way overdue.

But how can OTB claim to be losing money because of the surcharge they impose on winning bettors? How can they claim the surcharge as an expense?

Indeed, surcharge monies go from the OTBs to the counties in which shops operate. No problem. That was part of the original agreement, the reason OTBs were created in the first place.

However, to claim that these monies represent a “loss” is completely disingenuous. For openers, it’s not OTB’s money. It’s the money that should have been returned to bettors via parimutuel rule. It’s the money bettors give up for the convenience of wagering off-track.

Now OTB wants to fix its problems by having the public pay for it, as if horseplayers weren’t already taxed usuriously. There has been talk of raising the takeout on straight wagers from 14 to 16.5 percent and on multiple wagers from 17 percent to 19.

(Exotic wagers involving multiples of three or more already are subject to a 25 percent hold).

Personally, I had a simple solution to the problem if higher takeout became a reality. With few exceptions, I’d simply bet elsewhere. Racing at Churchill Downs, Arlington Park and Hollywood Park, to name three venues, doesn’t represent that big a drop-off in quality.

But because of what happened to Eight Belles in Louisville, the federal government is threatening to investigate the industry; from unsound breeding practices, to the use of steroids, to permissive race-day medication, etc., etc.

And what are the feds using as a wedge issue? The Interstate Horseracing Act that allows simulcast wagering across state lines. They have sent letters to industry leaders, intending no doubt to line them up for questioning as if they were the racing equivalent to big tobacco, big oil.

So all had better get their collective acts together. Then, if for some reason, a boycott of higher New York takeout rates doesn‘t work and the feds wind up pulling the plug on simulcasting, then I’d have to figure a way to bet in Great Britain, or off shore, or with a bookmaker. Or maybe I’ll just stop betting on horses altogether.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Racetrack Customers Not a Delaware North Priority

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY--You want a reason to root against the Delaware North corporation getting the VLT franchise at NYRA’s downstate track(s)?

It’s called customer service, or customer consideration, if you prefer. It might also be reflective of the reason why warm bodies don’t support their local racetracks the way they used to.

I’m not sure when it first became a Pricci family tradition, but my wife Toni and I attend the races every Memorial Day. We can’t help it. We’re Metropolitan Handicap weenies; Met Mile geeks. And since there’s live harness racing on holidays, it’s a good reason to support the local track.

Since we live in Saratoga Springs, we attend Saratoga Gaming and Raceway, a.k.a., Spa Harness, a.k.a., the harness track. Even NYRA chief Charlie Hayward wagers here when he’s in town during the off season. It's comfortable here; the employees are courteous and accommodating.

As a loyal weekend warrior, I try to help the handle at both Spa Harness and Capital OTB on alternate weekends. I consider it a community obligation. Here’s some background:

A few years ago, Delaware North bought Saratoga Raceway and turned it into a successful racino; using VLT revenues to make significant upgrades to the facility, erect a nightclub, raise purses and, in general, elevate the product and the experience. The previous owners had operated it like a mom and pop concern.

But it was a place where everyone knew your name, or acted like they did, and the trackside restaurant was open on weekends for cross-breed simulcasting. There were live mutuel clerks to handle your action and self service machines. There were only two caveats:

The clerks would close their windows following the last race from NYRA tracks but SAM machines remained open. Further, you needed to close out your lunch checks and leave around 6 p.m. so that the wait staff could get the restaurant ready for that night. Unless, of course, you were staying for the live racing.

Those were the house rules. None of the regular customers--many were fairly large bettors--had a problem with any of it.

Delaware North came in, shuttered the restaurant for a time, and made upgrades to the point where it became a warm, comfortable and very well appointed dining room.
They did a beautiful job.

When the restaurant reopened, a gourmet concept was tried. The food was very good, albeit not terribly exceptional and pricey. The one thing Saratoga didn’t need was yet another upscale restaurant.

When that approach failed, DN went to buffet concept, a successful staple of the casino/racino business. The food is solid, again not exceptional, and the prices were scaled back although by no means was it a bargain.

Given a racino atmosphere, I thought that bargain prices for good food might bring more people into the building. But VLT business has been booming since Day One and now Delaware North apparently thinks it unnecessary to give something back.

On the racing side, there’s finally a new tote board so that harness fans now can tell the difference between an 8-5 and 3-5 shot. But the backside is still the equivalent of an equine barrio. If major improvements have been made, I haven’t heard that from anyone back there. And you'd think that by now a turf course might have been constructed at Finger Lakes. Pardon the digression.

We arrived when the doors opened Monday at 11:30 a.m. and I thought an omelet might be nice. “Sorry, sir, only a special holiday buffet is available.”

I wondered whether a holiday buffet was really special, or whether it was the regular buffet only served on a national holiday. I got my answer soon enough.

The food was OK, only OK, but overpriced at $18.95 per, coffee and soft drinks extra. Fine, no one was twisting my arm.

The joint was empty, surprising since a special holiday buffet was being served, but not surprising considering the racing program.

A look at the past performances and the horses scoring down showed they weren’t what the game refers to as “Saturday night” horses. But maybe the best horses raced on Saturday and Sunday. The quality of the horses certainly wasn’t up to holiday snuff.

But I shouldn’t complain since I was able to bet at the last minute despite the presence of only one clerk, two self-service machines, and one bet-runner to service the tables. Bet runners are good for straight bets, inefficient for trifecta and superfecta part-wheels.

The dining room no longer is available for thoroughbred simulcasting on non-live racing days. They no longer can justify the expense, which might be fair. That’s probably why Delaware North makes money; pay attention to the bottom line, not what customers may want.

The live card ended but three live NYRA races remained, including the Met Mile. But under this administration, the window closed following the live card, not the NYRA card, an inconvenient truth.

But here’s the point: Even the two self service machines were shut down!

So, a very ordinary buffet for two at a cost $48, plus tip, was paid, and now I was expected to get out. “The simulcast area is still open,” I was told. I never received a satisfactory explanation as to why the SAM machines needed to be shut down, nor an apology for the inconvenience.

Never mind that at that hour most tables in the simulcast area were taken and those that weren’t needed cleaning.

Stupid me, but at least I’ll never make the mistake of getting a table in Fortunes trackside restaurant again. And if you’re in this area, a simulcast fan of either breed, and don’t like being taken for granted, then neither should you.

Written by John Pricci

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