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, November 26, 2008

Protect the Betting Public: Scratch Stormin Normandy

I’m left of center when it comes to the amount of slack I’m willing to cut horsemen when I see things that offend my gambler’s sensibilities. I like taking an edge as much as the next horseplayer.

Then, too, there’s the “Kalish Rule” we blogged about last week. Sage advice to guide our way through the slings and arrows of the track’s parimutuel gauntlet: “On the racetrack, never jam up a hustler.”

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t think of, but not this time. This time I’m putting the interests of the wagering public before my own selfish wagering plans on Thursday‘s feature race at Aqueduct Racetrack.

In order that the public’s interests be protected, the New York stewards must order that Stormin Normandy be scratched from the Fall Highweight Handicap.

Hasn’t Main Street taken enough of a beating recently?

We’ve often written about our respect for Stormin Normandy’s trainer, Rick Dutrow, as a horseman. Yes, there are all the whispers and all the infractions and Dutrow’s run-off personality to consider.

But of the whispers, I say prove it. This is America. Again.

And of the infractions I say he served his time, even if some of those penalties were of the slap-on-the-wrist variety. And of his run-off personality, I say, deal with it.

What would you prefer? More of the “I couldn‘t be more pleased with my horse’s progress” trainer-speak?

In the glare of the Triple Crown lights, Dutrow made public the fact he made a six-figure bet on the horse he saddled to win the 2005 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Saint Liam won, paying $6.80. Mr. and Mrs. William Warren Jr. got their Horse of the Year title.

And Dutrow got the money. Good for him.

This is not to suggest there was anything sinister about Stormin Normandy’s performance in Sunday’s restricted Itaka Stakes, in which he took the lead in moderate fractions, bore out at the half-mile pole, and backed up through the field to finish last, 52-¼ lengths behind the winning Love Abroad.

Yes, pulled up on the far turn. Just like Big Brown in the Belmont.

But even when Dutrow’s horses are beaten, they normally run competitively. According to research by Nick Kling for his Troy Record column, 5.9 percent of all Dutrow’s dirt starters since 2003 were beaten 20 lengths or more.

That compares with 7.8 percent for Todd Pletcher, 10.6 percent for Kiaran McLaughlin, and 13 percent for Hall of Famer Bill Mott. Further, Dutrow’s beaten-off favorites numbered 2 percent of all his starters, while odds-on choices beaten 20-plus lengths occurred at a 1.4 percent rate.

Stormin Normandy’s awful finish at 7-10 was atypically stunning. This doesn’t happen every day. So what’s the public supposed to make of it? Assessing condition is a fundamental part of the handicapping process. One could surmise the horse went off form, then one might be wrong.

With quick turn-arounds, Dutrow is something of a savant. With horses returning at six furlongs on four days rest or less, Dutrow has a five-year slate of (31) 13-3-6, a win percentage of 42 and an in-the-money percentage of 71. Coming back on three days rest, Dutrow’s 7-for-14.

But how many of those runners were eased?

There’s another issue at work here. Entries for Thursday were taken on Sunday. What if Stormin Normandy was stretched to the limit to beat state-breds going a mile. Would Dutrow have entered him back in four days against three graded stakes winners, two of those G1, carrying 131 pounds?

The public should have confidence that the horse they’re betting is fit to race. And jockey Edgar Prado didn’t gain admission to the Hall of Fame this August because he’s adept at getting his mounts to back up through the field.

Dutrow may have no intention to run Stormin Normandy in the Fall Highweight. He entered two horses, including uncoupled mate Nakayama Arashi. (That recent Dutrow claim is coupled with Ferocious Fires, trained by his brother Tony, due to common ownership interests).

But none of this looks very good, and any game that depends on wagering should be very aware of appearances. Perception is reality. Just listen to callers into sports talk radio on any given Monday after some NFL official badly blows a call the previous day.

Racing has mechanisms to protect the public. Placing Stormin Normandy on the vets’ list, forcing him to the sidelines for a short duration, is one way.

This is a lose-lose situation. Should Stormin Normandy win, what does that say about Sunday’s effort, where over $668,000 was bet in the straight, exacta and trifecta pools alone? How much of that included the odds-on favorite?

But what if Stormin Normandy runs terribly again? Or worse.

In my experience no circuit has been more responsive to the needs of the wagering public than the New York Racing Association.

Some methods to safeguard customers haven’t always proven popular, e.g., the “purse money only” rule when half of an entry is a last-minute scratch.

But any rule that errs on the side of caution is, in the main, a good one. That’s what the scratch of Stormin Normandy would be, erring on the side of the public.

That would be a decision for which horseplayers should be happy to give thanks.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Saturday’s Graded Stakes Favorites Demand Closer Inspection

Today’s feature races from most major venues around the country will make most weekend warriors anticipate next weekend’s holiday programs even more. A trio of Grade 3s, two from coast to coast; Aqueduct’s Discovery Handicap at a mile and an eighth and the Vernon O Underwood for sprinters 3 & up going three-quarters at Hollywood Park.

In the Midwest, Churchill Downs will offer the Falls City at nine furlongs on grass, a race supported by the ungraded Bet On Sunshine Handicap featuring the 6-for-6 Euroears, the scourge of the Fair Grounds last season.

Further to the south and east, Calder Race Course is presenting the Radar Love, another ungraded sprint but at the hybrid distance of 6-½ furlongs. Completing the CDI triad, Fair Grounds features two-year-olds sprinting 5-½ furlongs in the Old Hickory for boys and the Pontalba for the fillies.

As stated in today’s feature race analysis, the Discovery can be an interesting betting race depending on how you view the chances of Lieutenant Ron, the 6-5 early line choice.

The question is how Lieutenant Ron handles the nine furlong distance. He meets a handful of proven distance performers today, so either you take the short price on a horse with superior performance figures or you throw deep.

Lieutenant Ron is coming off a new top pace figure and has run much, much faster than the competition on more than one occasion. His pedigree is on the short side with both sire and grandsire throwing offspring who most effective distances have been less than seven furlongs.

The good news is that his trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin, is profitable with runners returning on this type of rest, going long for the first time and with graded runners. Alan Garcia, who won four races on Friday’s program, won’t hurt his chances.

The Falls City at Churchill features 6/5 early line favorite Thorn Song. When last seen in Kentucky, Thorn Song was winning the G1 Shadwell Turf Mile in fast time. When last seen anywhere else he set a pressured pace before tiring badly in the Breeders’ Cup Mile.

Today Thorn’s Song returns to his favorite venue, having won four of five starts on this ground. He’s been consistently fastest, gets along very well with Robbie Albarado. He owns a win and a second at nine furlongs but clearly prefers going shorter. Possible price shots include Mr. Sidney (15-1), Canela (8-1) and Yate’s Black Cat (5-1).

Mr. Sidney is a lightly raced four-year-old making his turf stakes debut for Bill Mott and Johnny Velazquez. Never having taken a backward step on Equiform performance figures, he’s 2-for-2 on grass and demonstrated on Keeneland’s Polytrack last out that he can handle faster fractions and still finish well after making a premature move to the lead.

Canela hails from the hottest human connections in Kentucky. Trainer Michael Maker has been a record setting performer at this meet and not many riders in the country are riding with more confidence than Julien Leparoux, a turf ace. Yate’s Black Cat, meanwhile, earns good figures with consistency, draws the fence, and is the longer uncoupled mate of the favorite.

The G3 Underwood is interesting for the return of Bob Black Jack (2-1), last seen in Big Brown’s Kentucky Derby, earning his way in with a runnerup finish to Colonel John in the Santa Anita Derby.

This looks like the proper return spot for Bob Black Jack with two wins and a second from three starts at six furlongs, and he’ll try to become the sixth horse from the Derby to win his next start. His recent five furlong work in :58-flat was fastest of 84 works by a three-year-old on Cushion Track last week.

The logical alternatives are unlikely to make you rich. Johnny Eves (3-1) with Garrett Gomez is the most accomplished sprinter in the field and can be depended on to run well consistently. Noble Court (5-2) is a promising sprint performer who keeps improving for John Sadler and easily could continue developing.

Of the price shots, only Wiredfortwotwenty (8-1) seems viable, the Brian Koriner barn winning with three of its last nine starters through Thursday with only one off-the-board finisher of that group. He will try to become the third subsequent winner from the seventh race on Oct. 9.

[CORRECTION: In the Nov. 20 blog, "Marketers Should Put Cart Before the Horse," Zarkava's significant 2008 victories were incorrectly reported. HRI regrets the error.]

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, November 21, 2008

No Work Stoppage at Aqueduct; Uncoupled Entries Coming in 2009

South Ozone Park, Queens, NY, Nov. 20, 2008--Back in the day when I was gainfully employed, arriving at the Rockaway Blvd. entrance of Aqueduct-by-the-Sea at 10:40 a.m. would be considered late. There were all those trip notes to transcribe into the previous day’s result charts. Only then could the parimutuel blood-letting begin anew at first post.

The wide double-gate at the entrance was shuttered, but a smaller one was open and I was able to drive through. There were no security guards, or parking personnel, to verify credentials, and general parking was now free. Just as well since there were no other cars, or people, to service.

The admission gates on the N.E. grandstand entrance were closed to the public according to the large sign, adorned in Aqueduct’s blue-and-yellow motif. But I’m sure it will be booming in 2010 when the VLT players, blank stares affixed, rush through at that end of the building that will house a new kind of iron men, equipped with lights, buttons, bells and spinning reels full of bars, cherries and 7s.

And round and round the reels will go and where they stop it is hoped that people will be staring at them, a fervent wish of track management, keepers of the state coffers and, if they know what’s good for them, present and future horseplayers. No one has the luxury of caring less.

If enough slots fetishists deposit enough quarters to keep not only the mares, but the horses and geldings going, too, the building once again will have the energy that was missing today. That’s nowhere close to a perfect world but right now it’s the only world that the Thoroughbred business has, the only one that’s making financial sense.

I continued driving to the other end of the building and attempted to park in front of the clubhouse area normally reserved for working press. Tony Johnson came over and told me that that area had become a preferred lot, but I was welcome to park anywhere else close by. But as usual Johnson, who’s been so accommodating for close to three decades, hooked me up with a spot.

Johnson, like so many other employees in ran into on my way to the press box, was concerned that the rumors that have been circulating for a few months were true, that Aqueduct would be closed in February and March so that work could begin in earnest in the grandstand’s designated VLT area.

The Aqueduct grandstand doesn’t house horseplayers anymore. It’s been closed for some time, the interminably delayed VLT-area building process now approaching eight years--eight years of Albany politics that irresponsibly has dawdled over the awarding of a racing franchise and VLT franchisee. Considering that New York State currently is in a $12 billion hole, the legislators should be subpoenaed to testify as to their dalliance.

Halfway through the program, to the relief to Tony Johnson and the other NYRA employees I spoke with, NYRA President Charlie Hayward came up to the press box bearing news on the winter work stoppage.

“I don’t know where this rumor even got started," Hayward said. We just got our franchise, we just got money from the state. We want to run in the winter. We haven’t even had a meeting to discuss it. Delaware North [the VLT franchisee] told us they don’t want to disrupt racing and that there was no need to.”

That wasn’t the only rumor that was dismissed. There was another that the NYRA would be granted permission by the State Racing and Wagering Board to conduct wagering with uncoupled entries in all races where the same trainer has more than one starter, but for different owners, beginning January 1.

“The Board cannot say whether they are in favor of a ruling or not,” Hayward explained. “They have solicited industry comment on it. No one knows how that will come out, but [if the comments are favorable] they could write a rule and submit it [to legislators] for approval. We’ve had to cancel superfecta wagering or force horses out of races. We just want a rule that’s consistent with other jurisdictions.”

Hayward said he was confident the rule regarding uncoupled entries, which NYRA has petitioned the SRWB since January 2007, would be changed but not by New Year’s Day.

As I looked around Thursday morning, and again when I turned on CNBC after arriving home later in the afternoon, I decided to take any good news I could get no matter how inconsequential. A win is a win, especially for those NYRA employees who were looking down the barrel of a dark and cold February and March.

Written by John Pricci

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