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 11, 2009

Despite Valid Claims, Minor’s Hialeah Dream Facing Major Obstacles

Saratoga Springs, NY, February 10, 2009--Do good things come to those who wait, as has been alleged? Do good things happen to good people?

Is Halsey Minor, Internet gazillionaire and lover of the sport, an altruistic soul trying to live his dream or just another businessman who sees opportunity in snatching up a dormant property for pennies on the dollar?

Should it make a difference? Isn’t it the fervent wish of reasonable people that Minor realizes his dream and gets a chance to restore one of racing’s past treasures to its former eminence?

If Minor can pull this off he deserves all the support he can gather on both the front- and backsides of America’s racetracks and within the industry’s corridors of power. I know I’ll be rooting for him.

All know the challenges involved. There are vast differences between reality and pie in the sky. But if a restored Hialeah can enjoy even a modicum of its former glory, it could give rise to the notion that the sport will not only survive but prosper.

The lottery folks tell us that all anybody needs is a dollar and a dream. But to complete the Hialeah superfecta, racing’s renaissance will need people with passion and vision. too. Minor, the founder of CNET, has past performances indicating he’s got plenty of both.
The immovable object here is, of course, John Brunetti and his Bal Bay Realty company, which were ceded the deed to the Hialeah property by the City of Hialeah in 2004. On Monday, the Paulick Report website reported that Minor and Save Hialeah Racing Inc., a South Florida not-for-profit, filed suit against Brunetti and the City of Hialeah stating Brunetti is not the rightful owner.

The suit seeks to nullify the deed transfer from the city to Brunetti, claiming Hialeah had no lawful authority to transfer ownership because Brunetti failed to comply with the terms of the lease-with-an-option-to-buy agreement. Hialeah residents were never given an opportunity to vote on the transfer via charter-mandated referendum.

Minor approached Brunetti with a buy offer last summer but was rejected. Minor’s suit contends Brunetti failed to live up to the terms of a lease-purchase agreement mandating that he offer live racing via parimutuel permit and maintain the property in the same condition as when the lease was signed.

For me, Hialeah is a repository of unforgettable memories. I covered the first career defeat of juvenile champion Devil’s Bag’s in the Flamingo of 1984. Two years later it was the great Turkoman who rendered seeing disbelieving, coming from Palm Avenue to win the Tallahassee Stakes with a final furlong in an other-worldly :10 1/5 seconds. In his next start he won the storied 10-furlong Widener in track record time.

As Hialeah’s simulcast host for two years, there was the interaction with fellow horseplayers, sitting at the feet of Citation on hot Florida afternoons, watching Pete Rose on Saturdays bet his brains out on West Coast simulcasts following the live card. Betting horses on the turf course, magnificent and fair, and dirt races on an honest main track, virtually free of bias.

Hopefully a judge can accomplish what Minor’s personal plea couldn’t; convince Brunetti--as was suggested here in an August 9 post--to take the money and walk away. Here's an edited reiteration:

“The good news is that Minor…is willing to invest the $30 million it will take to make the grand dame whole….

“No one’s ever doubted John Brunetti’s love and dedication to Hialeah Park…It’s sadly ironic that Brunetti’s love of Hialeah might have been instrumental in helping to destroy it…

“The regulation and deregulation of Florida racing dates has been a concern since Arcaro and Shoemaker had the bug. And the issue was always the same…the prime winter dates…

“Brunetti was offered the middle dates for six weeks in perpetuity. But he wanted more. That hubris was the beginning of the end of Hialeah... But he did keep Hialeah alive when others would have walked away…

“Minor is eager to fight an uphill fight. He wants to prove that thoroughbred racing--the animals, color, pageantry, people and the intellectual exercise of handicapping is still a good sell, that the sport can once again thrive if conducted in a proper setting...

“Minor wants to bring fans closer to the horses, get them to fall in love with the total racetrack experience the way he did. And he’s putting his money where his ideas are...

“If John Brunetti still loves Hialeah and has the sport’s best interests at heart, he should let the new guy with the energy, fresh ideas and capital have at it… If John Brunetti truly loves Hialeah, he has to let it go.”

Hialeah Park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and in 2007 the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the property as one of 11 most endangered historic places in the United States.

The legal argument is the charter “provides that the city shall not give, donate, sell or otherwise dispose of city real property, parks or recreational areas without approval of the electorate in a referendum held at a general or special municipal election.”

No referendum was held when the city transferred the deed to Brunetti in 2004--two years after Brunetti’s company made it clear, the suit claims, “it intended to abandon thoroughbred racing and undertake residential development on the property.”

It would seem that the suitor has a good case but Brunetti has powerful friends in Hialeah and Tallahassee. And here’s another cliché to consider: “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.”

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, February 05, 2009

So, What Has Racing Learned About Itself?

Saratoga Springs, NY, February 4, 2009--The remarks of two gambling executives at this week’s joint annual meeting of the Thoroughbred Racing Association and Harness Tracks of America were said to have made a favorably impression on industry attendees according to several Internet reports.

On its face that would be positive news. If the points that were made got the industry to listen as one, perhaps they can get he industry to think as one. This might be wishing thinking but it’s only February and I reserve the right to think positively until I tire from swimming against the tide of bad news.

The economy remains in free-fall but my gut thinks that racing is near the bottom, if not already there. Of course, the sport would have to not shoot off the other foot with continuing greed wars and avoid the kind of calamity like last year’s Kentucky Derby postscript over which it has no control.

The remarks of New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority president Dennis Robinson and Lee Amaitis, a former New York trainer but now the president of Cantor Gaming, a corporate hybrid of mobile and online gaming and a developer of total gaming solutions, were reportedly well received.

The problem is that the remarks didn’t break any new ground, nothing anyone hasn’t already heard. But that’s OK because the industry can’t think outside the box until it cleans up its own model. It might come to that one day. I just hope that anyone within eyeshot of this post survives long enough to see it.

Robinson correctly stated that the NFL and NBA prospered because they kept control of their of product in all markets, while boxing and Indy Car were marginalized because internal disputes ignored what is a.k.a. the big picture. Sound familiar?

Robinson’s Authority oversees a number of disparate sports franchises under one umbrella and two breeds of horse racing. He made a good analogy to describe just how different racing is from mainstream sports--sports upon which people also wager, illegally and in numbers that dwarf racing’s legal handle.

The multi-sport executive wondered what would happen if New York mandated that the Knicks play a 50-game season, New Jersey a 75 home-game season for the Nets, while Pennsylvania, awash in gaming dollars, makes the Sixers play a 100-game schedule. Good point.

But he never mentioned that the sport’s practitioners, while essentially playing the same game in different states are compensated at vastly different rates by statute. And Robinson made me consider something I had taken for granted: Many groups run the equivalent of a regular season, while a second group gets the all-star game and a third the World Series.

It points out the weakness that racing has no central authority, which turns out to be the difference between major and minor league thinking. Market factors might dictate that practitioners be paid at different rates, but is it too much to expect that all could agree on one set of drug rules?

What am I thinking? Tracks in different markets can’t even agree on how to stagger post times for everyone’s benefit.

Robinson and Amaitis were right to encourage the industry not to not rely as much on the big event and focus more on getting fans to bet throughout the entire year. Sounds a little bit like trying to put a head pole on a thoroughbred.

Big race days, not just the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup but events like Travers Day or Big Cap Day, the Arlington Turf Festival or New York Showcase Day, have a special vibe because they share a unique, yet universal characteristic: quality.

From the beginning track executives believed in the commercial viability of “the big horse.” That might have been true once but is not a given anymore: See Curlin. But it could also depend on the public’s perception of what special means, quality that excites fans and bettors alike: See Big Brown.

So “the big horse,” which may or may not prove to be a home run but “the big day” almost invariably is. New York Showcase Day promotes New York state-breds, quality stock that continues to improve but on balance still not the equal of Kentucky or Florida.

Showcase Day usually is the third most popular day on the New York betting docket. Special days attract special interest and greater participation by all segments. Large competitive races with good horses are a handle magnet.

It’s impossible to get bettors excited every day of the year. Even action junkies burn out. That can happen in an afternoon much less over a period of time. And betting on the same stale product every day is boring. Less is more whether the consideration is number of racing dates or takeout.

The NFL has only 20 big Sundays a year, Amaitis pointed out, before giving examples of how Major League Baseball expanded to a wildcard system and how ties no longer exist in NHL regulation. Change forces growth. Whatever doesn’t grow withers and dies.

Amaitis concluded by saying while expanded account wagering has helped service existing customers it has done little to attract new customers.

I wonder if anyone has considered trying to get sports bettors to cross over to racing, where the take is higher but so are the payoffs, as has often been suggested at this outpost. Both games have handicapping at their core, which is to say that thinking is permitted.

Since most people not afraid to think often are financially successful, maybe there’s something new the industry can try. It’s called education. I have some ideas about that. Anyone else?

Written by John Pricci

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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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