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, January 17, 2008

Lies, Damn Lies, and Handle Figures

At first blush, the news that betting handle in 2007 remained virtually flat--down 0.37% from the previous year--is not welcome news.

Betting on thoroughbreds had reached a high-water mark in 2003, but has fallen 3% since, and thats not encouraging, obviously.

And it was a heady time for racing, too, then and since. Starting with the Triple Crown bids of Funny Cide and Smarty Jones, the improbable Giacomo beating the popular Afleet Alex, and the pre-and-post Barbaro phenomenon, racing was back on the publics radar.

But racinos, even if they arent the home run they were forecasted to be--except in Pennsylvania, where theyve been hitting it out of the park--is a concept that clearly has helped.

In addition to helping feed various state coffers, purses rose 5.5% last year; not insignificant. At least horsemen havent been killed by the shortfall that saw betting handle go from $15.1 billion in 2003 to $14.7 billion in 2007.

The fact that the total number of racing dates declined by 0.82% also must be factored in to lend context. Clearly that helps to further understand the declining handle.

Alan Marzelli, CEO of the Jockey Club and Equibase, was quoted in a Bloodhorse story lamenting a lack of proper cooperative technology to measure why the 2003 handle sky has been falling. He wondered if it was leakage, wagering dollars going off shore, or people betting on other sports.

The latter would be the worst of all scenarios. Why would anyone stop gambling on an intellectual game that really pays well when you win, as opposed to picking 52.5% on King Football just to break even?

Or, worse, fears that bettors are rejecting horse racings product.

Marzelli said he couldnt speculate on the effect of signal wars. He probably meant he wouldnt speculate. But I can. Its a case of needy/greedy bet-takers signing exclusive agreements with needy/greedy racetrack operators.

Another case of racing reaping what it sows instead of allowing the marketplace decide. Having the marketplace decide would have resulted in better customer service. What a concept! Customer service!

The sloppy Monmouth track didnt help all-sources handle that was down $29 million despite three additional Breeders Cup races spread over two days.

It didnt help that Advanced Deposit Wagering platforms werent made readily available to all bettors until the 11th hour prior to the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup. Nor was it good for the bottom line when TVG and were completely shut out of the Derby betting market.

(We wont know how we will be able to compare this years Derby to 2007 because Churchill Downs Inc. no longer wants you to see their handle figures anymore, at any of their tracks).

The point of all this it that somehow purses went up while handle went down. Thats not just counterintuitive, its crazy. And now that the ADW situation is trending toward the elimination of exclusive agreements, handle figures to grow this year over 2007.

So 2008 might not be such a bad year after all. Who knew?

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A Heads Up for New York’s Racing & Wagering Board

Heres another situation the New York State Racing & Wagering Board probably wont address. Only this time it wont be because its taking a neutral position and doesnt want to rankle political feathers, literally biting the hand that allows it to feed. (Even if its the racing industry, the tracks and OTBs via our takeout dollars, that helps pay board salaries).

I could have laid this on the New York stewards, who may or may not act on this because either they failed to notice it or because a rival horseman forced their hand by bringing it to their attention.

Now, I dont know if the rules of racing apply in the case of newly acquired horses--the racing rule that states trainers must be consistent in the use of equipment.

And this is all about protecting bettors and the publics perceptions.

In todays nominal feature, the eighth race at Aqueduct, a secondary allowances, optional claiming event for older horses around two turns, a game old pro named Ricardo A, 12-1 on the early line, is entered as part of a David Jacobson-trained entry.

Ricardo A won his last start wire to wire by 3- lengths, a victory termed handily in the official chart. He was claimed for $35,000 by Jacobson, who shows a flat-bet profit with recent claims, winning the next start off the claim at a 19 percent clip.

At the price, I seriously considered picking him to win in the feature race analysis I write for HRI every New York racing day. But I couldnt do it. Why? Because Jacobson will be adding blinkers to Ricardo As equipment this afternoon.

Even if there were no such rule in the book, stewards should never allow an obvious equipment change, blinkers on or off, following a win.

(Stewards should also mandate that first-time starters using blinkers be noted on the official track program, as should the use of tongue ties, on or off. Another issue for a different day).

Even if I werent a bit paranoid after four decades of betting on thoroughbreds, how am I supposed to view this change? Blinkers are about helping a horse to focus, or to sharpen a horses early speed, putting him into the contest earlier.

But I dont know what to do with Ricardo A because hes a nine-year-old! At this advanced age, horses cant be tricked into doing something different. He won his last start from gate to wire, so speeds not an issue.

As for improving Ricardo As focus, he owns a career slate of (65) 15-10-8. The term old pro was invented to describe horses like Ricardo A.

A huge part of the handicapping process is assessing trainer intent. I havent the slightest idea why Jacobson thinks this horse would need blinkers. And after four decades, if I had the chance I wouldnt even ask.

Either way, permitting this equipment change would leave a bad taste. The horse certainly doesnt need blinkers.

The only thing I can surmise is that if blinkers dont work and Ricardo A runs poorly, the horses form becomes needlessly darkened. So, after one bad running line, here comes a class drop, blinkers off, and bingo: one successful insider coup.

Again, this is not about Jacobson. Its about racing officials and the state agency responsible for protecting the betting public doing its job. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Jacobson should not be allowed to add the blinkers, period. Would that guarantee a repeat win? Not even with Joe Namath in the boot. Nothing is for sure in this game.

But given all the negative press racing receives--and not all of it is justified--why send the wrong message here?

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Truth In Advertising

God looks out for fools and drunks, the saying goes. To that point, Ive never considered myself much of a drinker.

Tee Palm called my cell early in the simulcast day Saturday, as he had the week before. We use slightly different approaches, but generally agree in principle.

We both liked Smooth Air to upset the Hutcheson last weekend. Got a great ride from Manoel Cruz and won at 9-1. Tee wanted to keep the karma going, I guess. Never a bad idea.

Hey, read your analysis on HRI, Tee said. Im on the same horse in the Affectionately, Stage Luck. But I dont think shell be anywhere near 6-1.

I didnt pick Stage Luck, I said. I picked the Levine filly. I cant believe this; I screwed up. Stage Luck. Shell be 2-1, tops.

Right, 2-1, he said. But Im reading it right here. Taking Stage Luck.

Well, I guess Stage Luck is the one that has to go on the record, Tee. If thats what it says in print, thats whats on the record, win or lose.


But Im betting the Levine filly. Lucky Revival. Think shell be 8-1.

Good luck, Tee said.

You, too.

If youve been playing horses for longer than five minutes you know how this story ends. Lucky Revival struggled to take the narrowest lead from the outside in midstretch.

But pacesetting Aliysa was resurgent, reopened what appeared an insurmountable margin approaching the finish line. Then, just as she shortened stride, here comes the cavalry. Stage Luck was finishing fastest of all in the middle of winter track and won it in the last stride.

If you bet one, you got three back.

Good for Tee, good for HRI visitors, and good for the Total Dollar Return on the bottom of the daily New York feature-race analysis. But bad for my win-place wager on 10-1 Lucky Revival.

I love the Packers tonight, Tee said. Who do you like?

I havent bet a football game since I stopped handicapping games for the Form. But since you asked, I disagree again. Guess Im with the conventional wisdom. I like the NFC dogs and the AFC favorites. Id say the Colts are the safest bet of the weekend.

I love the Colts tomorrow, added Tee.

As far as I know, Tee went 2-for-3 this weekend and got $6.10 on Stage Luck. Lucky Revival and I got hot and dirty. My NFL mind bets went 1-and-3.

But, hey, Eli played well, under control for a second consecutive week. The Giants won another road game and theyre going to play on the frozen tundra next Sunday.

Maybe even win a conference championship from a team that plays its home games in a place called Title Town.

Ill just go back to the drawing board, try to do HRI visitors some good, knowing that sometimes clichs do come true.

Written by John Pricci

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