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, April 16, 2008

Spring Arrives in Saratoga

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 15, 2008---Three events occurred yesterday that touched people’s lives, two on a national level.

On this anniversary every year, Uncle Sam digs down deep into the pockets of its citizenry. To that I’d like to say, fair enough. Everyone should pay taxes for the privilege of living here. But then I think about how it’s a lot fairer for some than it is for others.

And I thought about the people who celebrated Jackie Robinson’s integration into baseball 61 years ago on this day in 1947. Any activity that elevates an entire society certainly is cause for celebration and OK with me.

But a lot closer to home, down the street, in fact, there was a third event that had most people in this town, especially merchants, smiling: The opening of the Oklahoma training track on Union Avenue.

Yesterday dawned bright and cold, even for this latitude. While it might have been 43 degrees in New York City, the thermometer outside my window read 28. And that just wasn’t fair. The spread from downstate to upstate usually is about 10 degrees, often less.

What I absolutely couldn’t riddle, though, was how it was 44 in Rensselaer, a suburb of Albany. I walked up and down Broadway all morning but still couldn’t find two bookmakers that would offer a 16-degree middle. No free money today.

But the coffee was hot and bagels still warm inside the clockers’ stand, where head timer Fred Bond was holding forth.

“This should be fun,” he said, as if he had seen me yesterday. “Last year we had eight hundred head here, this year eleven hundred.”

You don’t have to be a poker expert to recognize a full house when you see one. Guess it helps when horseman know that the track they’re supporting won’t go out of business anytime soon. They’re good for another 25 years, at least.

Of course, there weren’t many horses on the track that racehorses have called home since 1863.

Horse Haven, a portion of the Oklahoma facility, [see slide show], was the site of the original Saratoga Race Course, now is located across the street, where National Grid recently butchered some of the more stately trees that line the block surrounding the race course. I digress.

But three hundred horses already are on the grounds, most belonging to Gary Contessa who, while racing is being conducted downstate, will still have 125 head stabled here.

Assume that anybody who fills races the way Contessa does will have no problem getting all the stalls he needs.

Contessa is not the only powerhouse with several barns full of horses. By July the Saratoga race meet will be looming and half the stalls will be filled with two-year-olds.

Todd Pletcher and Kiaran McLaughlin, with lots and lots of babies, will have 75 stalls each. Nick Zito will have 57 stalls. Pencil in Bill Mott for 53, Christophe Clement for 50. Rick Dutrow, Bruce Levine and Rick Violette will all have 40 stalls, Linda Rice 36.

Angel Penna Jr. will have stalls at Oklahoma this spring and Seth Benzel, long time Pletcher assistant who strikes out on his own at the end of the current Aqueduct meet, will have a 22-horse division here for new client and prominent owner, Gary West. Forty horses from Sheikh Mohammed’s string will arrive around May 1, according to Darley assistant Anna Hollander.

Of course, Oklahoma’s a great place to get horses fit over it’s deeper track. The surface had been worked on by track maintenance personnel for the past 10 days. Yesterday it was a little crunchy under foot, owing to some moisture on top and the freezing temps.

As expected, there wasn’t much opening day activity except for a few horses stretching their legs alongside the stable pony and a handful of gallopers; some blowing out through the lane; others feel-good run-offs energized by the cool morning.

As if taking their cues from the activity at Oklahoma, flower beds were being turned and municipal workers were clearing away the remaining tree limbs, victims of the long Saratoga winter.

In this town, spring started yesterday.

View accompanying photos by: Toni Pricci - Opening_Day_at_Oklahoma.pdf

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Lone Star Park’s New Fan Friendly Wager

Perhaps the foresight and consideration for the wagering public shown last year by racing executives such as Ron Geary, president of Ellis Park, and Lou Raffetto Jr., formerly of Pimlico and now of the National Steeplechase Association, is beginning to reap rewards for the average horseplayer in 2008. At least it is in Texas.

The folks at Lone Star Park have introduced a new Pick 5 wager with a 12 percent takeout at it recently opened spring/summer meet. While the posted payoffs will be based on a $2 ticket, box and wheel wagers in the Pick 5 will be accepted in $1 denominations.

“Our players have asked us for a lower takeout wager and we have responded to their requests,” said Lone Star president and general manager Drew Shubeck in a prepared statement. “We think Lone Star Park’s new Pick 5 wager is an exciting new bet that will return more money to our loyal customers.”

And help grow Lone Star’s handle in the long run, too.

The $1 Pick 5 wheel is not Lone Star’s only fractional wager. The Grand Prairie track also offers a Dime Superfecta--racing’s fastest growing popular wager--the 50-Cent Pick 4, and $1 exactas, trifectas, daily doubles and Pick 3s.

Critics of fractional wagering, those champions of the upperdog, say that fractional wagering hurts and doesn’t help handle. They have the statistics to prove it. Besides, it’s what their big bettors, a.k.a. whales, want.

While it’s true that 10 percent of the horseplaying population accounts for about 80 percent of total handle, ignoring smaller bettors does the game a disservice in the long term. When average players can maintain liquidity, gains are made at the bottom line.

Multiple pools are racing’s most popular for obvious reasons. Players holding sizable bankrolls enjoy a significant edge over those that show up at the track with a double sawbuck and a dream. They don’t need the wagering menu set against them, too.

Nothing is accomplished when players get busted out. The average bettor fights a tough battle with parimutuel takeout on every wager he makes. Fortunately, longshot payouts occasionally compensates. Not to mention how helping the little guy serves the tracks, too. Tracks and simulcast facilities need live bodies to help pay employees who sell everything from mutuel tickets to past performances to hot dogs.

There’s something else that gamblers appreciate. It’s called customer service. The immutable rule regarding takeout is the more money returned to winning bettors, the more they bet in return.

Apparently the management at Lone Star gets that. Good for them; good for the player.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

There’s No Place Like Home

As always, it's good to be home. The HRI Racing to the Kentucky Derby tour was the big fun, an enervating privilege.

We got to see Payson Park again, and Palm Meadows and Palm Beach Downs for the first time.

Palm Meadows is what I envision training in Dubai would be, meaning, no expense was spared.

As you expect from a training center in a tropical climate, the barns were airy and spacious. The training track itself is nothing short of magnificent. Horsemen, known to bitch about everything, have nary a disparaging word about any of it.

Frank Stronach may not always have 20-20 vision but give him this: He doesn't pinch pennies, even if they're OPP. Palm Meadows is secure and idyllic, a great place for horses to develop and/or freshen up.

Payson is still wonderful with its tree-lined entrance and the barns stretching out one after another have generous yards in between.

But the surface is the star, and its viewing stand provides a sight line and setting that conjures up European training centers. The place could use a splash of fresh paint here and there, but that would be to pick at nits.

My favorite training spot was Palm Beach Downs which, like Palm Meadows, was a personal maiden breaker. The security is so tight that it resembles a gated community for horses.

The place is so exclusive you need to punch in a code for the gates to open so you can enter. Just as we arrived a horse van pulled up. We pulled over, dropped in behind the van, and tail-gaited our way in.

Ambience? Think Oklahoma training track with better facilities.

Mornings on the racetrack or at training centers are the best thing about the game. No thoughts are given over to afternoon blood-lettings. It's all about the horses.

If more people were introduced to the sport in this way, its fan base would double overnight.

And so, I was feeling pretty smug Tuesday morning as I curled off exit 14 on the Northway onto route 9P, a.k.a. Union Avenue, as you proceed west toward the town of Saratoga Springs.

Then suddenly, in a place called home, comes the realization that when you fix a gaze upon racetrack grounds as Saratoga Race Course comes into view, it takes your breath away.

Saratoga, where the world's best thoroughbreds have raced for centuries, looked magnificent in the morning light. It felt like hallowed ground. Mecca.

It's good to be home. Always. And despite its familiarity, we know we can never take Saratoga, the town or the racetrack, for granted ever again.

Written by John Pricci

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