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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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Evening Attire: Working Class Hero

Saratoga Springs, NY, January 16, 2009--His biggest win might have come in the Jockey Club Gold Cup of 2002, and his last victory in the mile and a half Greenwood Cup at Philadelphia Park in record time, but if Evening Attire ever had to report to work daily like many of us do, he would surely arrive carrying a lunch bucket.

No modern fancy-pants of a race horse would ever think about getting the job done at age 10; he would have been retired and munching on alfalfa a long time ago. But not Evening Attire.

Actually, the old man tried retiring once before, but his A-type personality wouldn’t allow it. In fact, if he didn’t get back to work he probably would have hurt himself trying to stay active. Ultimately, a suspensory injury would force him to the sidelines late last year.

The only thing fancy about Evening Attire--a name that would belie his work ethic--was his favorite track, Saratoga. From the rear window of his stall, the son of Black Tie Affair would watch the races, the crowd noise stirring up all his pent up adrenaline.

But when he did get to run he never failed to fire his best shot.

In all, the gray gelding went to the post 69 times--unheard of in this era of the hot-house speed oriented thoroughbred--ad earned a top-three finish in 40 of those races.

He won a race at all three New York tracks, a total of 15 wins in all, nine of them stakes, including the Queens County Handicap and Saratoga Breeders’ Cup Handicap, twice.

Evening Attire earned his $2.9 million the old fashioned way; finishing on the board in a dozen more added-money events.

This is only fitting for a horse that lived and thrived in a racetrack working family environment.

Evening Attire was bred by Hall of Fame trainer Tommy Kelly, who bought his mother, Concolour, at auction, and was trained by Kelly’s two sons, first Tim, then Pat, whose wife, Karen, exercised him occasionally.

The gelding is co-owned by Kelly’s by longtime partners and friends, Joe and Mary Grant of Boston, who, although not related by blood, probably should be.

Evening Attire was the equine pet the two families shared that happened to be a damned good race horse.

The year the dappled gray won the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the families agreed, and trainer Pat Kelly concurred, that Evening Attire had earned a trip to Arlington Park in Chicago for the Breeders’ Cup.

Following the JCGC, Mary Grant was approached by a bloodstock agent working for a sheikh and offered her more money than she probably had ever seen to sell the horse. “Evening Attire is not for sale at any price,” Grant told the agent.

Last October 25th, Evening Attire was brought to Belmont Park one last time. The visit included a final circumference of the paddock ring and culminated in a warm winner’s circle celebration before family members and a good number of the normally hardscrabble New York fans.

It is fitting that Evening Attire has retired to a life of leisure at Akindale Farm in upstate Pawling, New York, owned by the late horse owner and philanthropist John Hettinger.

Dedicating his life‘s mission to the abolition of horse slaughter, Hettinger dedicated his farm to the rescue, rehabilitation and retraining of retired thoroughbred racehorses.

Also fitting is that the NYRA would honor this local equine legend by renaming the Aqueduct Handicap the Evening Attire, in memory of this rare animal’s class and heart.

And what better place to do so than at Aqueduct, a workingman’s racetrack hard by Jamaica Bay in Queens, New York.

In the absence of a firm opinion in the Aqueduct feature race this afternoon, players might consider a $2 hunch play on Judiths Wild Rush.

Like Evening Attire, Judith’s Wild Rush seems to give his all every time out, he’ll be a fair price, and it would be appropriate if the 90th renewal of this newly renamed handicap were won by an eight-year-old gray horse, a grandson of Black Tie Affair.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, January 16, 2009

For 2008 Season, Fans Decided Triumph Trumped Tragedy

Saratoga Springs, NY, January 15, 2009--The National Thoroughbred Racing Association has announced the 2008 “NTRA Moment of the Year” as voted by the fans.

The last-to-first victory by Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic earned that distinction, outpolling, in order, Big Brown‘s Kentucky Derby victory, and the tragic image of Eight Belles pulling up after the finish of the Roses Run.

Interesting that the favorite for 2008 Horse of the Year, Curlin, whose victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, making him racing’s first $10-million earner, would place him no better than fourth from a list of 12 dramatic images or historical achievements of the past year.

Virtually ignored were Peppers Pride--a filly who labored in obscurity while setting a modern North American record with her 17th consecutive victory racing in her home state of New Mexico--and the powerfully comprehensive victory of the filly Goldikova over older males in the Breeders’ Cup Mile.

The NTRA Moment of the Year was launched in 2000 starting with a review of the dramatic racing events of 1999. The purpose was to give fans a voice in the Eclipse Award process, having them choose either from the array of human emotions or dramatic displays of equine athleticism.

Two things were striking about the results from the past 10 years that unfortunately says something about why thoroughbred racing has had hard time reaching anything close to a mainstream audience:

Indications are that the public seems to care more about the wide range of human emotions racing elicits than they do about these athletic animals and perhaps, similar to what has been said about NASCAR fans, the macabre possibility of extreme danger.

The first-ever “NTRA Moment of the Year” was the unforgettable scene involving a jockey, the late Chris Antley, who jumped off his injured Triple Crown mount, Charismatic, after the finish of the Belmont Stakes until help could arrive.

In 2002, the passing of Seattle Slew, the last living Triple Crown winner, was the moment fans chose to remember. In 2006, it was the emotional scene at the New Bolton Center as Barbaro fought for his life after breaking down in the Preakness Stakes.

That would be three horrific moments in the last decade that made the ultimate indelible impression upon racing’s fans. Not quite sure if that says more about the sport or more about its fans.

On balance, Tiznow’s ultra courageous victory over Giant’s Causeway in the 2000 Breeders’ Cup Classic; Afleet Alex’s superb athletic victory in the 2005 Preakness, and Rags To Riches stunning defeat of Curlin two years ago at Belmont Park also made the fans’ personal highlights reel.

But that makes it a three-memory dead-heat between triumph and tragedy. Not quite sure what that means either, but the tragedy quotient among racing fans seems disproportionately high.

Clearly, the big picture perception of what immediately comes to mind for racing fans is something the racing industry needs to work on.

Either way, a decade’s worth of Moments forms an interesting list. But I wonder what qualified as the NTRA Moment of the Decade?

They were, in order: Antley and Charismatic; Tiznow and Giant’s Causeway; Tiznow’s dramatic Classic repeat over Sakhee; Seattle Slew’s passing; Funny Cide’s Kentucky Derby.

These moments were followed by Birdstone’s Belmont Stakes upset of Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex’s Preakness victory, Barbaro’s recovery; Rags to Riches’ historic Belmont upset and Zenyatta’s Ladies Classic.

I’ve narrowed my list down to Afleet Alex and Rags to Riches. Ultimately I decided that I might see another filly win the Belmont before I could even conjure up an equine acrobatic stunt like Afleet Alex’s ballet in Baltimore four years ago.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Lights… Camera… Traction

Saratoga Springs, NY, January 14, 2009--Could not be happier that the Hennegan Brothers documentary "The First Saturday in May," which chronicled the lives of six horses and their connections who chased the 2006 Kentucky Derby, won a Media Eclipse Award in the National Television Feature category.

Finally, someone told a story about what it means to be a racetracker following your dream, unlike the back-story nonsense you typically get in some drama which invariably gets almost all the details wrong.

It still annoys me to the point of anger when I see blatant mistakes that could have been easily corrected had a phone call been made to the switchboard at the local racetrack:

“Say, we’re doing a movie in which thoroughbred racing is an integral theme. Who would be the best person to talk with if we wanted to verify facts and details?”

I find it amazing that in all this time no one has written a screenplay for a racing movie that could capture the imagination of the public by showing the audience what racetrack life is like at its best, and at its worst. Either way, it would be great theater.

I’m not going to get into a discussion, or list the Top Ten racing movies of all time. Tastes vary.

I’m sure I’m in the minority but I think “Let It Ride” was overrated. A good, not great, comedy, for me it lacked credibility. Yes, I know. We all know racetrack characters like Trotter and Looney. Funny? Yes. A real knee slapper? Hardly.

I loved “Boots Malone” when I was a kid but it’s stereotypically dated now. “National Velvet” is dated, too, but it remains a sweet movie thanks to the chemistry between two young actors, Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney.

“Champ” was somewhat convincing, especially the Hialeah backstretch scenes, but things have gotten so bad recently that some Internet horse lovers were bragging about a recent episode of the new Timothy Hutton vehicle, “Leverage.“

It was awful.

“The Killing,” which I believe was Stanley Kubrick’s first feature film, was a terrific caper flick, a noir classic. The racetrack scenes were authentic enough and I have had many favorites die on me at the half-mile pole--but never like that.

“A Day at the Races?” It’s the Marx Brothers. They can do no wrong.

For me the recent “Seabiscuit,” based on Laura Hillenbrand’s account, and “Phar Lap,” struck the right note for what it means to be human and professionally tethered to the race horse.

The definitive backstretch drama has yet to appear on the silver screen. If I were smart enough, I’d write it myself. Though I am available for a collaboration.

Should anyone prove clever enough to write the ultimate backstretch drama, the Hennegans have it in them to be racing’s answer to the Coens; savvy, clever, and with just the right touch of irreverent humor.

Someone get these boys a budget and let them have at it.

There’s another documentary out there somewhere--if a reader knows about it, please post--called “The Track.” Believe I saw it many years ago on the PBS station in the New York City. It was about the lives of racetrackers, warts and all.

The great Hall of Fame horseman John Nerud was prominent in the film’s credits. Set at Belmont Park, it was as authentic as backstretch life gets. I remember that trainer Bob DeBonis was featured prominently.

But “The Track’s” most memorable moment occurred when the camera caught Hall of Fame jockey Jacinto Vasquez’s agent and quintessential racetrack character, Harold ‘Fats’ Wiscman, holding forth in the racing secretary’s office.

He must have startled the narrator when he gave him a glimpse of what it means to have empathy for a fellow racetracker.

“If you got one eye, we call you squint. If you got one leg, we call you peg. Don’t lay down around here ‘cause if you do we’ll roll right over you.”

A genuine movie about racetrack life might spur interest in the sport, a drama based on the chase to a big race, selling a big yearling at the sales or staging a betting coup, doing for racing what “Rounders“ did for poker.

The Hennegan documentary had a limited run in 25 cities due to prohibitive distribution costs and because the indie market model didn’t make economic sense.

“The First Saturday in May” wouldn’t have been made at all without the support of Churchill Downs Inc., the Jockey Club, and the NTRA. The Hennegans logged over 150,000 miles on the project that took almost a year and a half to complete.

The kind of movie I want to see will take a brilliant writing, talented--if not bankable actors who believe in the project--private sector dollars, and people who know racing and know what they‘re doing.

The place? New York City. When? Sometime in the future. The first Commissioner of the National Thoroughbred Racing League is getting ready to hold his first press conference.

It’s two days before the golden anniversary of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships in Tokyo. Horsemen are threatening to withhold their entries unless they get a bigger share of the American ADW handle, and….

Written by John Pricci

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