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, 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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Sunday, November 30, 2008

All Too Familiar Tale of Triumph and Tragedy

South Ozone Park, NY, November 29, 2008--It matters not whether you’re a horse lover or a horseplayer; if you love this game there are days when it will break your heart. It was one of those days yesterday at Aqueduct Racetrack.

If you wagered on Tale of Ekati to win the Cigar Mile, you were rewarded as justice was served. But if you love the animals, too, it was difficult to watch.

Imagine for a minute that you were Larry Jones, who announced earlier this year that 2009 would be his last as a trainer. And after the Remsen it would appear that “Cowboy Larry” might take one good, final shot at the Kentucky Derby before hanging up his hat in the stable office.

But first he needed to experience déjà vu all over again.

Before saddling Old Fashioned, the undefeated odds-on favorite to win the 95th Remsen Stakes, he got one more haunting reminder of what had happened to the horse he had trained for this year’s classic.

In no small way was it ironic what happened to the impressive winner of the Grade 2 nine-furlong Demoiselle for juvenile fillies. Beneath Garrett Gomez, Springside had come from last to annihilate five other females including G1 Frizette winner Sky Diva--the 35 cents to a dollar favorite--by 9-½ widening lengths.

But then, at about the same spot Eight Belles began to go wrong at Churchill Downs, Springside took a bad step.

“As she was galloping out she swapped leads and I heard a pop,” explained Gomez. “All the way around she was very willing. When I moved to the outside she was really impressive. She never indicated that anything was wrong. Hopefully, I got her stopped in time.”

Gomez jumped off the filly before reaching the mile pole on the lower first turn and his quick reaction might have saved her. Trainer Josie Carroll barely had an eighth of a mile to celebrate the runaway victress of the 87th renewal of the G2 fixture.

According to Dr. Greg Bennett, Springside suffered a fracture to her right-front pastern. It was not comminuted, the skin was in tact, but neither was a simple break. The filly will be shipped to the New Bolton Center at Pennsylvania University Sunday morning for observation. New Bolton was home to Barbaro in his final days after the Preakness.

In the Grade 1 Cigar, Wanderin Boy wasn’t as fortunate. He shattered his left-front sesamoid bones and, unable to be saved, was euthanized shortly after 5 p.m.

Wanderin Boy had chased the pace of speedy California invader Monterey Jazz throughout a strongly run race and he went wrong soon after he and John Velazquez reached the top of the straight. In two previous starts he was third, then second, to reigning Horse of the Year Curlin in the G1 Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup, respectively.

Meanwhile, Tale of Ekati followed the leader from fourth while saving ground under Edgar Prado in the Cigar. Soon after entering the straight, the team shot through an opening on the fence to take command but quickly was replaced by Harlem Rocker who lugged in at that exact juncture, forcing Prado to take up and alter course outside.

Tale of Ekati re-rallied gamely but failed to catch the leader by a nose in 1:35.01. Clearly, he had more than a nose worth of trouble and was awarded the win. Todd Pletcher, trainer of Harlem Rocker, didn't see it that way. "Tale of Ekati didn't appear to really check and he had every opportunity to go by our horse. In my opinion he was never going by. I'll talk to [owner Frank Stronach] and see if he wants to appeal the ruling."

Bribon and Arson Squad finished strongly as a team for third and fourth, Bribon doing a head better in the late going.

In the end, however, it was this year’s maligned three-year-old class that had finished one-two vs. their elders in the final Grade 1 of the New York season.

And now it looks as if Jones will have a highly promising three-year-old for his final season as a trainer.

Old Fashioned broke like a shot, taking early command before jockey Ramon Dominguez backed down the pace. Under control in moderate fractions, Old Fashioned improved his lead with Dominguez motionless until midstretch, where he resorted to light, left-handed encouragement to keep his colt running a straight course. Appropriately, his time of 1:50.33 was 1.38 seconds faster than filly Springside.

Old Fashioned raced his final three furlongs in a very worthy :36.15, a final eighth in :12.22. “They let us run out there pretty easy,” said Jones, assessing his horse’s performance. “I was very grateful to see the fractions, especially as they came around the far turn.”

“It was pretty impressive,” said Dominguez, stating the obvious.

If Old Fashioned is the goods, then perhaps runnerup Atomic Rain has a future, too, despite finishing 7-¼ lengths behind. The Smart Strike colt was making his first start since breaking his maiden going five furlongs at Monmouth Park on June 5, making the Remsen a very tall order given the severe rise in class and distance.

“He ran well,” said Prado, taking the ride for trainer Kelly Breen. “Unfortunately, the winner had everything his own way. But I was proud of him.”

Breen’s assistant, Miguel Santiago, was just as happy. “I think he’s got a bright future ahead of him. We’ll take him to Florida for the winter, regroup, and look ahead to next year.”

But now that undefeated Old Fashioned has gotten nine furlongs without too much difficulty, the question becomes whether he will get 10. “Judging by today,” answered Dominguez, “there’s no telling how far he can go.”

Written by John Pricci

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