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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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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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Jackson, Fisher Shunned by Eclipse Voters

Saratoga Springs, NY, December 9, 2008--On Thursday, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, National Turf Writers’ Association and Daily Racing Form jointly published the names of three semi-finalists in each of 16 Eclipse Award divisional categories.

The announcement excluded Horse of the Year, which is an honor open to all horses. Winners are to be honored the night of January 26 in Miami Beach.

There were very few surprises in most categories which, of course, is not to say there weren’t some oversights in our view. To wit:

In theory, the Eclipse Awards were created to serve the interests of thoroughbred racing as a sport. But do they accomplish that goal?

For instance, isn’t it bad enough that steeplechase racing is ignored by most racetrack bean counters because wagering on jumpers is misunderstood making it, by definition, unpopular compared to flat events?

Can’t understand why does the industry continues to basically ignore one of its few successful segments, one that seldom fails to draw crowds that would make some major flat venues blush.

Steeplechasing attracts crowds of 25,000 and more at it most popular meets, including families, and does so without a gambling component. What can racing learn from that?

And when wagering is part of the attraction at conventional flat meetings, why can’t those tracks make information about betting on jumpers more readily available?

While at Newsday a decade ago, I conducted a five-year study of steeplechase racing in New York, back in the day when jump races were regularly presented, or at least more often than they are today.

I was surprised to learn that favorites won at a near 50 percent rate, leading to one obvious conclusion. Good jumpers, like many that compete on the major circuits, don’t fall.

Perhaps, if the average bettor knew that, handle would improve. The public should also understand other subtle differences.

In flat racing, three-year-olds are the glamour division. In steeplechasing, they’re babies. On balance, they have little chance to beat their elders.

In the main, a little education is what’s needed in this business.

While there is an Eclipse category for steeplechase horses, there isn’t one for steeplechase trainers. And why might one be needed?

Maybe because Jack Fisher--trainer of the 2008 pro tem champion, got Good Night Shirt to go 5-for-5, all in Grade 1 competition, on five different courses at varying distances, over a span of eight months.

No horse, including Curlin, Big Brown and Zenyatta, owned such a resume last year. This kind of performance and horsemanship is rare, indeed. Fisher failed to make the semi-finals.

And why must voters be so bottom-line oriented?

Wasn’t Jess Jackson’s gesture to keep Curlin in training--long before it was known that ownership issues might prove irreconcilable--worthy of at least a top three finish?

Not to mention that Jackson campaigned the reigning Horse of the Year, and his horse is the favorite to repeat in that category.

I find it curious when a majority of the industry’s promotional and administrative arm; mainstream media who chronicle the events, and “America’s Turf Authority since 1894” can pay so little homage to the spirit and traditions upon which an entire industry was built.

Here are the Eclipse Awards finalists, horses listed in alphabetical order:

Two-Year-Old Male: Midshipman, Old Fashioned, Vineyard Haven

Two-Year-Old Filly: Dream Empress, Maram, Stardom Bound

Three-Year-Old Male: Big Brown, Colonel John, Raven’s Pass

Three-Year-Old Filly: Eight Belles, Music Note, Proud Spell

Older Male: Commentator, Curlin, Einstein (BRZ)

Older Female: Cocoa Beach (CHI), Ginger Punch, Zenyatta

Male Sprinter: Benny the Bull, Midnight Lute, Street Boss

Female Sprinter: Indian Blessing, Intangaroo, Ventura

Male Turf Horse: Conduit (IRE), Einstein (BRZ), Grand Couturier (GB)

Female Turf Horse: Cocoa Beach (CHI), Forever Together, Goldikova (IRE)

Steeplechase Horse: Be Certain, Good Night Shirt, Sovereign Duty

Owner: Godolphin Racing, IEAH Stables, Stronach Stables

Breeder: Adena Springs, Stonerside Stable, WinStar Farm

Trainer: Steve Asmussen, Richard Dutrow, Jr., Bobby Frankel

Jockey: Robby Albarado, Rafael Bejarano, Garrett Gomez

Apprentice Jockey: Inez Karlsson, Pascacio Lopez, Abel Mariano

Written by John Pricci

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