John Pricci

HorseRaceInsider.com 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 MSNBC.com, 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, September 13, 2008


Fan Wants Media To Be Part of the Solution


Saratoga Springs, NY, September 12, 2008--His Internet handle is Indulto. I may or may not know him. I can say for sure that I don’t know his given name. But I know that he’s a racing soul mate, a kindred spirit who addresses issues that concern him with intelligence and passion. So maybe we all should listen up.

Indulto might be pleased to learn that I know his namesake was a King Ranch runner, trained I recall by the venerable Max Hirsch. I remember him as a versatile stakes winner whose best game was late running sprint speed, the kind that seven-eighths of a mile usually hits right between the eyes. If memory fails I’m certain the two-legged Indulto will let me know.

I might have done this once before--reprinting a comment in its entirety on the lead page--after which I will react. But it’s reproduced here because Indulto has something important to say; to the industry, to Breeders’ Cup and to turf writers; the entire gamut of racing society.

And the parties should listen because my sense is that Indulto speaks for all loyal racing fans/horseplayers. So we’re clear, the slash indicates that racing fans--loyal followers of a sport--and horseplayers--the complimentary practitioners, are different entities, which makes racing the best game played outdoors. The groups can be mutually exclusive or exist as a hyphenate. But their goals, even with different agenda, are as one.

Indulto’s comment followed a piece I wrote: “As in Presidential Politics, Horse of the Year Narrative Has Changed.” (If you missed it, you can read the story in HRI’s archives. If you read it, perhaps you should revisit it, as I did, to draw your own inferences).

“Indulto says:
12 Sep 2008 at 04:17 am

JP,

…I did read [your] pieces which is why I was taken aback by what appeared to be your sudden enthusiasm for a BB-Curlin meeting on a synthetic surface, as well as by your suggestion that Curlin’s camp would be the ones doing the ducking if that didn’t happen.

Just because they built it doesn’t mean anybody has to come. HOTY doesn’t have to be decided on October 25 just because it’s in the BC’s interest that it does. And it probably won’t be. IF BB doesn’t run in the JCGC because his connections are concerned with BB’s ability to handle Belmont, then fine, nobody’s quacking. Owners of Champions are good guys when they don’t let bettors take risks when they themselves have doubts. Same for Curlin in the “Classic.” But if both win or lose their respective events and then either refuses the Clark as well, then Daffy and/or Donald has a permanent home.

As to my inferences, if you are not a fan of synthetic surfaces and not in favor of running the BC at a venue with a synthetic track (at least in the near future), then why did you lend credence to this misguided endeavor and promote risking a less-than-optimal performance by either or both contestants in an event on which few will be able to bet with confidence? Consistency is a quality valued in turf writers as well as equine competitors.

Perhaps I’m overreacting, but it doesn’t seem enough just to recognize the colossal blunders committed by BC 2008 planners that created this frustrating situation; missteps that so many turf writers have brought to their readers’ attention. I’ve never seen so many comments from readers so up in arms about anything related to racing that wasn’t accidental like the Eight Belles and Barbaro tragedies.

Frankly, I don’t understand why people aren’t falling over themselves to send a message like the following to the BC so that both they—and the industry as a whole—will start listening to their customers: “Stop diluting interest and enthusiasm for the game by putting on races we don’t want to watch or wager on, and start cooperatively planning and scheduling those that we do. Keep faith with the sport’s competitive traditions. Start growing participation and handle by leveling the playing field for both players and owners, and universally reducing the high takeout that continues to shrink racing’s share of the gambling dollar.”

So, JP, my question to you and your colleagues is: ‘Are you going to help seize what appears to be an opportunity to influence the changes needed to turn the sport around and preserve the game? Are you collectively willing to lead the way as some of us have requested, or are you all going to remain “journalistically neutral” and simply report on what happens after having raised our awareness?’

Respectfully,
Indulto”

What was it Ed McMahon said when he had money? “You are correct, sir.” The Horse of the Year championship does not have to be decided on October 25, and with both Big Brown and Curlin facing retirement at the end of the year, why not the season-ending Clark at Churchill Downs for the whole thing?

Would I love to see that, over a track both horses like? Absolutely. Will it happen? Maybe, but probably not. But I’ve seen this movie. Both horses need to have something to gain to make the risk worthwhile. My experience is that one would back down. But you’re right. There’s no good reason both shouldn’t try.

Why am I lending credence and promote risking a less-than-optimum performance? Good question. It’s because I honestly believe the Classic is the best way to get these two together; glare of the spotlight, whole world watching, et al. Doesn’t make it right, just pragmatic.

Again, you are correct. I should have more respect for the fans, the viewing audience and my fellow horseplayers who seemingly don‘t want to see this matchup on anything but legit dirt.

However, racing on a surface that has been given high marks in Australia for training, but is an unknown for racing, provides an up-front advantage to neither. It may not be the race bettors want, but it wouldn’t do the sport any harm. True champions, as we’ve stated before, shouldn’t court excuses.

Finally, we’ve been painstakingly outspoken on the negative effects that high takeout rates have on the health of the bettors and the industry; in this context, one and the same.

State government operatives do not grasp takeout’s negative effects on handle via the churning of betting dollars, or simply refuse to acknowledge it because they have no interest in long range results, only those from election cycle to election cycle. The industry has done an awful job educating those who control their destiny.

Finally, turf writers can always do a better job. But I would argue that most independent writers who don’t work for media companies in league with, and dependent upon, racetracks for their own financial well being, do a good job at trying to keep the industry honest, albeit there are sycophants in every corporate society. Backstretches and front offices of racetracks are no exceptions.

It’s not that the messenger doesn’t deserve some blame but, Indulto, you might be giving the media too much credit. It can make suggestions but lacks the power to make things happen. Often, it has the opposite effect.

On days when a turf writer has done his job well, he earns a cold shoulder from track executives. No one is immune from criticism and that goes both ways. The media’s best ideas are seldom implemented because if they were, it would tantamount to track's admitting failure of some kind.

The best way I know to lead, as you suggest, is to identify and offer solutions to fixable problems, and to make the general racing public aware of issues. Then it’s up to the racing public to act. They are starting to build grass roots organizations.

If the racing public is willing to fund it, and find a voice to lead on issues, perhaps they can one day organize on a grand scale and be a force for change. The question then is whether they really want to make an effort.

Meanwhile, HRI staffers will continue to observe, comment, and keep the pressure on racing‘s leaders. Without any real power, that’s all any of us can do.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, September 12, 2008


Other People’s Money


Saratoga Springs, NY, September 11, 2008--The chart arrived via e mail this morning courtesy of NTRA and Equibase. As you scan the figures over a comparable time frame from last year to this, and the entire year-to-date number, the picture is clear and comes as a surprise to no one.

Thoroughbred Racing Economic Indicators For August 2008
 
August 2008 vs. August 2007
Indicator August 2008 August 2007 % Change
Wagering on U.S. Races* $1,389,600,847 $1,428,242,220-2.71%
U.S. Purses $128,030,999 $115,712,47710.65%
U.S. Race Days70963910.95%
 
Year-To-Date August 2008 vs. August 2007
IndicatorYTD August 2008YTD August 2007% Change
Wagering on U.S. Races* $9,863,917,032 $10,273,868,002-3.99%
U.S. Purses $788,090,090 $767,888,3082.63%
U.S. Race Days4,2424,2130.69%
 
* Includes worldwide commingled wagering on U.S. races and separate pool wagering in Canada on U.S. races.

While the numbers might not be alarming they nonetheless cause concern. Wagering on horse racing in the United States from all sources hit it’s high water mark earlier in the millennium and has been flat ever since. But things seem to be getting worse.


While Breeders’ Cup event day(s) attracts huge world-wide handle, HRI’s best guess is that its totals will match those of last year, an event handle-compromised by extremely inclement weather.

What Breeders’ Cup Ltd. might expect this year is an increase in volume due to the added races but that assessment coupled with similarly anticipated decreases in handle due to the synthetic surface in non-turf events. At best, it's probably a wash.

The thing that jumps out is that the industry as a whole is trying to maximize revenues by increasing the amount of product it makes available. To date that hasn’t worked. Other reasons? The insane wagering-platform wars for one, the counter-productive increase in the number of racing dates and races for another. The opportunities go up, the purses go up, yet the handle goes down.

It’s as if myopic bean counters never heard of parimutuel takeout and don't grasp its relationship to churn. The deadly combination of takeout and increased opportunities is wearing out horseplayers both mentally and economically--those that are still with us as bettors continue to skew older and older.

All this puts me in mind of Lawrence Garfield. Remember him, from the movies? Consider the words of the fictitious corporate raider, whose business sense seems at least as accurate as the racing industry’s real problems. To wit:

“This company is dead. I didn't kill it. Don't blame me. It was dead when I got here. It's too late for prayers. For even if the prayers were answered, and a miracle occurred, and the yen did this and the dollar did that and the infrastructure did the other thing, we would still be dead.

“You know why? Fiber optics. New technologies. Obsolescence. We're dead, all right. We're just not broke. And do you know the surest way to go broke? Keep getting an increasing share of a shrinking market. Down the tubes, slow but sure.”

And that’s exactly what’s happening to the industry. It devalued its product by overexposing and diluting it. It failed to embrace new technologies. It failed--and continues to fail--to understand the immutable law of takeout. They pay lip service to it, returning a few nickels and dimes here and there, but won’t change the paradigm.

You might ask, as does Mr. Springsteen, is there anybody alive out there? There are, but like a model constructed by America’s power elite, it’s about the preservation of fiefdoms. Dozens of strategic partnerships are created every year but seldom do these agreements yield big picture results.

Perhaps racing’s biggest mistake, as was suggested by Vic Zast in a recent HRI column, was expanding to an all-racing-all-the-time format, eliminating the seasonality that made the opening of each meet special.

When I was back at St. John’s four decades ago, the date March 20 was always circled. It marked the opening day of the New York racing season at Aqueduct by the sea. Aqueduct! Seasonality made a day at the races special, as did clubhouse dress codes, for that matter.

But the industry followed the country’s lead and dumbed the whole thing down, trying to increase its share of the entertainment dollar, chasing a market of competitive interests that in no way resembled the special feeling of a day of sport, a day at the races.

Yes, racing had a gambling monopoly back then. But what it never failed to promote was that wagering on horse races was an intellectual pursuit that offered, and continues to offer, the best bang for your gambling buck.

Education is the key. A new handicapping model needs to be created that emphasizes that each race is a market unto itself, that there are prices, or odds, at which horses should be played or laid.

As Zast wrote the other day, “gamblers today can get a bet down whenever he wants and betting’s as ho-hum as the highway. Coincidentally, it’s almost as interesting.”

Then there’s Lawrence Garfield’s take: “I love money. I love money more than the things it can buy. There's only one thing I love more than money. You know what that is? It’s Other People's Money."

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008


They Don’t Get Much Better than Hettinger, Kaufman


They were giants.

Maybe not in the Allen Jerkens, or the Angel Cordero Jr., or the Sheikh Mohammed sense of the word, but in the best-thing-about-this-game meaning of it all. Racing lost a lot when John Hettinger and Art Kaufman, a.k.a. Lee Tomlinson, died over the weekend.

I never really knew Hettinger, never had a long conversation with him. But there was a brief visit, only one, shortly after his acceptance speech for an award he received from the New York Turf Writers’ Association for his accomplishments and for being a pioneer in the horse advocacy movement.

Hobbled by infirmities, he sat in his seat at the Gideon Putnam hotel that night and spoke eloquently, even if a bit longer than usual for an acceptance speech, on the subject of horse slaughter. I just wanted to say hello afterwards and thank him for his efforts.

I’m ashamed to admit this now but I had no awareness of what a huge issue horse slaughter was and remains today. But he was so passionate that I felt compelled to introduce myself, shake his hand, and say thanks not only for educating me and others but for caring about the animals that give my life beyond my family meaning.

Like most men who fought the good fight, the big fight, Hettinger led an interesting, impassioned life. A Yale-y by education, he taught at Harvard before going on a mission of personal discovery while he worked for an American corporation in Mexico City.

But after a short visit to Spain some years alter, he decided to move there with his family, invested in some property, made a small fortune, and 17 years later returned to the United States the year a colt named Secretariat put racing on the cover of Time and Newsweek; heady times, indeed.

With the money he made abroad, Hettinger expanded his father‘s 18th Century farm house to 800 acres and became an integral part of the New York-bred program when that branch of America’s breeding industry was in its infancy.

In preparation for a life later devoted to serving horses--”all of my best friends have four legs”--he was instrumental in putting New York’s state-bred program on the national map.

Back in that day, Akindale Farm studs such as Personal Flag, D’Accord, and Sir Wimborne were the local industry’s foundation sires. Hettinger’s best horse, Warfie-- trained by Nick Zito, who would become a lifelong friend--thrilled her owner by winning the open class Long Island Handicap, in 1989.

There are plenty of generous and devoted people in this industry who have dedicated themselves to giving something back. But how does the saw go? When you’re the first, you’re the best? That was John Hettinger’s life. The race horse lost a huge advocate last weekend.

So did horseplayers.

I was first introduced to Art Kaufman as a fan. I dutifully coughed up $50 for a booklet he published called “Mudders and Turfers,” the forerunner of what today are the Tomlinson Ratings. As co-host with Paul Cornman of Daily Racing Form’s Saratoga seminars at Siro’s, I invited Lee Tomlinson to be a guest handicapper.

That night we broke bread and remained friends since, which makes me far from unique. Anyone who ever met Artie called him a friend. In language that all racetrackers understand, Artie Kaufman was a sweetheart.

As all who labor in the role of horse advocacy owe a debt of gratitude in Hettinger, horseplayers and handicapping practitioners owe “Lee Tomlinson.” His sire ratings assigned a numerical value to the success that offspring of a certain sire would have on wet tracks and grass.

Tomlinson’s inspiration was born of a love for handicapping and wagering. Wet tracks were always anathema to his bankroll and, like the saying goes, if it was a dark day, he wouldn’t play. But if he had some formulary that would measure wet-track and turf tendencies of the most popular American sires, he’d be equipped for the parimutuel wars.

Time was when every wise guy in New York had a streamlined yellow booklet sticking out of his back pocket. And the ratings worked, seemingly better back then than they do today, perhaps of their relative exclusivity 22 years ago. That and the fact that pedigrees have become so homogenous.

A decade later, “Sprinters and Stayers” was introduced as a companion piece, doing for distances what M & T did for surfaces. In 2001, he sold his methodology to the DRF.

Artie was an original thinker and was at the forefront of the statistical revolution. Back then serious players had to write down trainer and jockey tendencies into notepads or their track programs for transcription and reference at a later date.

Now all past performance companies have extensive data banks of technical material most horseplayers never believed possible two decades ago. In that context, sports handicappers, especially football bettors, were ahead of the curve. Just like Artie was.

The last time I saw him was at a surprise birthday party Sara Dunham threw for her father, trainer Bob Dunham, at the Westside Stadium café in Saratoga. Sitting across from Artie and his wife Jackie, and Tom and Renee Amello, we talked and argued about what all racetrackers talk about at such gatherings:

“Seen any good movies lately?”

That was Artie. A renaissance kind of guy, film buff and European racing geek, organizing group trips across the pond for major events like the Arc or the storied Ascot meet, etc.

I’ll miss his banter, smile, wit and intelligence, his always interesting e-mails, his spirit and a voice I never heard raised above a tone of civility. It hurts.

Artie Kaufman was a class act, a real gentleman. These days that’s about as fashionable as high-button shoes.

Written by John Pricci

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