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, February 04, 2009

“Animal Planet’s” Jockey Series a Score for Thoroughbred Racing

Saratoga Springs, NY, February 3, 2009--As any regular HRI reader would know, I haven’t found much to be Pollyanna about recently. Then the overnight mail brought news of a positive development about the game that temporarily has changed all that.

If all 12 episodes of the upcoming Discovery Channel reality based docu-soap series, Animal Planet’s “Jockeys: Win or Die Trying,” are as good as the rushes that came in the mail Monday, it will be a good start toward getting America to feel good about the sport of thoroughbred racing again.

The job was difficult; scaling down for mass consumption a story about jockeys as athletes so that spectators can learn more about and appreciate the spectacle of men and women racing each other on horseback knowing that, if 2009 were an average year, two of their colleagues will have been killed in racing accidents.

Horse racing: The story of human and equine athleticism combining in partnership to put on a sparkling death-defying show. Or it can be something else. Like the man on camera said: “It’s a drug called action and it makes this whole thing work.”

It sure does, and the film’s executive producers combined to make the piece gritty, realistic and multi-layered. Only knowledge of the game can accomplish this and Liz Bronstein, who, along with co-executive producer Tina Gazzerro took the project from concept to conception, gets what it means to be a racetracker.

As she explained during an NTRA Monday teleconference: “Our family spent the Jewish holidays at the track.”

The captivating imagery came in bursts: There was Old Thamesian who reared at the start of the third race and inadvertently crushed the foot of his jockey, a fresh-faced Kayla Stra, who may be a long way from her native Australia but who nevertheless brushed herself off and got right back up on the 30-1 shot.

It was her first American mount and she was trying to convince the Southern California horse colony that her talents are worthy of riding and winning at Santa Anita because, you know, “winning a race is better than sex.”

Two races later, it was the powerful image of budding champion Zenyatta winning the Lady’s Secret with those incredibly long strides. It was a well executed ride by Hall of Famer Mike Smith in a paceless four-horse field, but who would be the first to tell you what it means to ride a filly like her.

“I’ve been blessed. You get to ride champions like her that you may never see in a lifetime. If she ever got beat, it would be my fault, not hers.”

Then, a few frames and a couple of hundred yards out of the Santa Anita starting gate, Corey Nakatani and Easy On The Eye both fell to the turf course, Nakatani losing any live mounts he might have had for the upcoming Breeders’ Cup courtesy of a broken collarbone.

There was Joe Talamo’s girlfriend, Elizabeth, saying “I like everything about him except what he does for a living. He’s risking his life every day.”

Talamo’s thoughts on the subject? After winning a race in which a horse and rider went down but escaped injured, Talamo said: “Yeah, saw it out of the corner of my eye. A broken arm. Broken legs, a broken collarbone, that’s a given,” he shrugged.

The image of an emotional Chantal Sutherland talking about leaving her parents back in Toronto, telling brother Doug she will take her career to Southern California, and informing boyfriend Mike Smith after moving into his Sierra Madre condo that he was about to lose all his closet space.

Life never gets more real than that.

And on what it means to be a veteran rider, Jon Court and Aaron Gryder talked about the challenge of competing in a hungry, young man’s game. A family man, Gryder spoke of the dangers jockeys must live with every day.

“I’m 38-years-old and being a jockey is my livelihood,” Gryder said. “If I die I want my children to know I loved them every day I was alive.”

The camera caught everything viewers would want, what fans of the reality genre surely would recognize as “the tension stare.” And, more to meaning, the lens captured the special vibe that lives inside the people who ride race horses for a living.

Some of Trevor Denman’s race calls seemed staged for dramatic storytelling effect and continuity, but that’s a small quibble in a piece that portrays horse racing as genuine sporting theater.

If something like “Jockeys” had been mass marketed every year for the last two decades, horse racing might not now be perceived as something that happens five days a year and summers in Saratoga and Del Mar.

Bornstein talked about filming jockeys as compared to other athletes. “So often we work with people who badly want to be on TV. Desperation has an odor. But the jockeys were different, they were dedicated to what they were doing.”

According to one reviewer, the series, which debuts Friday at 9 p.m. EST on Animal Planet, hits the drama trifecta: animals, jockeys and danger.

Set your DVRs.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Greed at Heart of Latest ADW Dispute: So, What’s New in the World?

South Ozone Park, NY, January 31, 2009--More… more… more. How do you like it, how do you like it?

Or, paraphrasing the oldie but goodie drugs catchphrase: “It’s enough to make you sick. But it’s not enough to make you stop.”

As an aside, more people are collecting unemployment now than at any time since records were first kept four decades ago.

More than $18-billion dollars worth of our TARP money, public money, went to a handful of Wall Street executives as a reward for running their companies into the ground while our economic demise escalates.

Helping to finish what the real estate implosion started.

Mr. Obama, I voted for you because things were supposed to be different. So tell me. How do you like post-partisanship so far?

But you did give those Wall Streeters a good tongue-lashing. And what happened?

What happened is they won’t have to dig into their savings to pay the bills on their Hamptons get-away retreats, like I did, to eat.

Paraphrasing Keith Olbermann, make them give the damn money back, sir! Send the message that greedy, unregulated people can't steal anymore just because they can.

Or don’t.

Instead invite the other side over for more tea. Perhaps next time you may get a vote. They have one priority now: 2012.

Is Rush Limbaugh’s bully pulpit bigger than the one the American people gave you?

You have the right idea, getting more with honey than you can with vinegar. But please remember the bees are disapperaing. Like our way of life, maybe for good. This is not cyclical; it's systemic. So fix it please, sir.

Fortunately, I have all the food I can eat. It’s my children, and their children, that concerns me now.

Don’t know why I’m being so hard on you, sir. Frustration, I guess. Because the business I have chosen is no better.

No one wants to sacrifice in the racing industry, either, to find creative ways of making things work. They prefer to dig their heels in the ground and sing: More… more…more…

People in the racing business think they’re entitled to more revenue, even while the model's broken, as if they're the only ones having a tough time.

They see a customer, Las Vegas casinos, as competitors for wagering dollars, yet gladly take Vegas money in exchange for racing product. It's not a good deal unless both sides win, right?

But they want more money now, haven’t gotten it, so they’ve stopped giving the customer their product. They believe they’re entitled to more because they made a bad deal in the first place.

I went up to a mutuel clerk the other day and demanded that he pay me $11 on the 4-1 shot I just won on because I made a bad deal betting their races in the first place because the takeout rate’s too high.

He didn't understand me when I said I made a bad deal yesterday so I need to get paid today.

Truth is the Vegas casinos are doing worse than the tracks. So they have no reason, or maybe no loose cash, to pay more right now. Timing is everytrhing.

So some casinos decided they’d rather risk losing money by booking bets themselves instead of playing middle man. They refused to pay ransom on races from Gulfstream, Santa Anita, Oaklawn and the rest.

The casinos are being pennywise, the betting consortium representing the track's ADW arm say. People won’t bet on races without pictures; the casinos will lose money; it would be cheaper to meet our demands, they believe.

Meanwhile, other tracks sit on the sidelines and are waiting to see how things will shake out. If Vegas pays, the thinking goes, they’ll pay us, too.

More.. more.. more..

We all want more revenue but won’t concentrate on the conventional things that generally attract customers: Lower cost, better service, better product, innovations.

I’m not optimistic, or couldn't you tell. We’ve been doing business the same way for so long that it's too late to change; the old human nature syndrome. So it's not reasonable to think people will take less until they absolutely have to. More of he-who-has-the-hammer-wins, just like those Wall Street masters thought.

People won’t sacrifice, won’t give up their way of doing business until forced. We’re Americans. We’re entitled. And we’ll stick with our ideologies. Even if it kills us.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, January 30, 2009

Serious Derby Colts in Action This Weekend at Gulfstream Park

South Ozone Park, NY, January 29, 2009--If you’re based on the East Coast, Friday marks the traditional first step on the road to Triple Crown glory, first stop Churchill Downs on May 2.

As Yogi might say, Saturday comes early this year.

At Gulfstream Park, the old school Hutcheson Stakes is the first race out of the three-year-old blocks. Why old school? Seven furlongs, that’s why.

“The Hutch” is back in its rightful place on the South Florida racing calendar--an important beginning, not the mid-meet after-thought it’s been in recent years.

Old schoolers believe that seven furlongs is a great wake-up call from season-ending juvenile slumber, a spot to shake out the physical and mental cob-webs.

At the highest levels, seven-eighths might be the most demanding distance there is, requiring a blend of condition, speed and class.

The many aspiring classicists that debut in a spot like this might not be fully cranked but they do need to be fit. A trainer could do more harm than good by getting his horse blitzed first time out, possibly requiring even more time to regroup. And how much can an under-trained, non-competitive horse truly benefit from the effort? Debuts are an interesting and delicate balancing act.

Having the Hutch horses race on Friday gives accomplished runners their moment in the spotlight so that fans can assess where their favorites are developmentally even with three more months remaining in the prep process.

Saturday’s featured Holy Bull at nine furlongs gives the more advanced sophomores a chance to get started for those trainers not wishing to turn their horses back into a sprint and getting them all speed crazy.

Actually, this is a great East Coast schedule that provides something for everyone, this weekend including supporting maiden and allowance races at meaningful distances that have attracted another serious horse or two.

In fact, a one-mile maiden race for three-year-olds on Saturday will mark the debut of Nicanor, the most hyped first time starter since The Green Monkey--and we all know how that turned out.

The well documented interest in Nicanor is because he’s the late Barbaro’s kid brother from the same human connections. If fact, Edgar Prado made a public pitch to ride the colt and will his wish from Michael Matz in Saturday’s eighth at Gulfstream.

The race drew 13 entrants and Nicanor will break from post four at 4-1 on the early line. I’m as interested as anyone, but I’m not up to all the hype.

Maybe it’s because of what tragically happened to his brother that I find the interest in him tinged with a certain ghoulish creepiness. Or maybe it’s just me. But first thing’s first.

Friday’s Grade 2 Hutcheson attracted eight entrants of which three are serious Derby aspirants at this point in the season: Hello Broadway (5-2), Break Water Edison (3-1) and Capt. Candyman Can (3-1).

These are three very good colts and it will be interesting to note their progress throughout the spring.

When last seen, Break Water Edison and Hello Broadway finished 1-2 in the one-mile G3 Nashua Stakes. Both colts raced well and their Equiform performance figures were among the fastest posted by a juvenile going a mile or farther in 2008.

Each coming off a layup from November 2, Hello Broadway has worked eight times and appears the sharper of the two coming into the race. More of a forward factor, he has an edge over Break Water Edison, who’s worked 10 times in the interim.

The bad news for BWE is that his rail draw likely means he’ll need to be hustled early, something trainer John Kimmel would rather avoid. However, Kimmel and Barclay Tagg, trainer of the early line favorite, will need to keep tabs on Ian Wilkes’ colt.

Capt. Candy Man has speed and stamina when he needs it, was toughened in three juvenile graded stakes, and arguably may be the most accomplished. A little closer to the race having finished second in the G2 Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs Thanksgiving weekend, he might prove sharpest of the three.

Saturday’s Holy Bull has also drawn a sizable field, 11, with early line choices West Side Bernie (3-1) and Beethoven (4-1) drawing posts 10 and 11, respectively.

West Side Bernie, a worthy runnerup in the Delta Jackpot, and Beethoven, winner of the Jockey Club Stakes, do not have the race to themselves, especially from out there in Big Brown land.

Danger To Society is undefeated in two starts, is well regarded by trainer Ken McPeek, who’s 31 percent in 2009, nicely drawn inside and is already a nine-furlong winner over the track. Regular rider Robby Albarado is aboard the 5-1 early-line third choice.

Saturday’s opener is interesting, too, as explosive Aqueduct maiden winner Well Positioned gets his season started for owner Paul Pompa Jr. and trainer Pat Reynolds. Pompa owned Big Brown before selling a major interest in the colt to IEAH Stable prior to the Derby campaign.

And so it’s January 30, and it’s Game On.

Written by John Pricci

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