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, October 09, 2008

Meet the New Boss, Same as That One

“People are making and cancelling bets on horses after races have begun. Let me repeat that: PEOPLE ARE MAKING AND CANCELLING BETS ON HORSES AFTER RACES HAVE BEGUN.

“Does anyone have a problem with that?” asked Ray Paulick, which you must admit is a fair question.

Paulick, erstwhile editor of Bloodhorse magazine and presently doing good work on his web-site, “The Paulick Report,” was blogging live earlier this week from a subcommittee hearing on integrity, part of the “Task Force on the Future of Horse Racing in Kentucky.”

And what did Paulick learn? He learned that calling a meeting is no guarantee that all the attendees will show up.

The integrity subcommittee couldn’t gather a quorum when three of its six voting members failed to show up for their first session this past Monday. And, according to subcommittee chairman Ned Bonnie, they were prepared to address the problem but couldn’t. Dare we call it a profound lack of interest?

Sub-chairman Bonnie was joined by fellow Kentucky Horse Racing Commission members chairman Robert Veck Jr., Robert Vance of Kentucky’s Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet, and KHRC executive director Lisa Underwood.

Either too busy or too disinterested to attend were fellow members Tracy Farmer, Brian Lavin and Duncan Pitchford.

The Task Force is the brain-child of Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear, whose recent argument for cracking down on illegal Internet gambling was reviewed by a Franklin Circuit Court judge the day after the failed Task Force meeting.

Gov. Beshear filed a lawsuit in September that would block Internet access within the commonwealth to 141 online gambling websites. After the suit was filed, Judge Thomas Wingate filed a seizure order requiring that the domain names of these sites be transferred to the state, according to a story.

It’s not clear there’s legal precedent for such an action. After unsuccessful attempts by Beshear to have the General Assembly to put a constitutional amendment before voters to legalize casino gambling, his Internet lawsuit opponents challenged Kentucky’s jurisdiction, its legal right to change international and interstate commerce laws, claiming it didn’t allow due process in the seizure of the domain names. Under state law web-sites are not defined as gambling devices.

Apparently the governor won’t allow due process to interfere with websites he terms “leeches on our communities” that hurt Kentucky’s horse industry. Too bad he couldn’t impress that same urgency on Task Force members who would protect horseplayers instead of concentrating on insulating the horse industry from competition. If you can’t exploit it, shut it down. By any means necessary.

All this has implications beyond gambling. The Beshear lawsuit was the impetus for an emergency meeting called by parties interested in keeping the Internet deregulated, online gambling or not.

According to the story, think tank Bluegrass Institute, the Interactive Media and Gaming Association, the Internet Commerce Association, representing domain-name investors and developers-- potentially you and me--and the Poker Players Alliance--one million strong in the U.S.--are among several more organizations having no wish for government to decide the future of Internet commerce.

Perhaps no other sport and/or gambling industry has its future survival and growth so inexorably tied to the Internet, an industry whose lifeblood is wagering. In Kentucky, where horse racing is preeminent, leadership appears more interested in what horseplayers bring to the table than the horseplayers themselves.

Professional horseplayer Mike Maloney, a “whale” in gambling parlance, has been testifying before any group with an interest in learning about how the wagering component in horse racing works, and he’s been trying to expose the lack of wagering pools security.

Like Wall Street investors, horseplayer confidence has been eroded by a mid-20th Century tote system that has been--and continues to be--exploited by hackers and thieves, a scenario exacerbated by some unregulated off-shore bet shops, a network of disparate simulcast sites, and outdated regulations.

It’s no surprise, then, that parimutuel handle in the U.S. is down nearly five percent. Not all of it can be blamed on bad weather, gaming competition, or the recessionary economy.

“According to Keith Chamblin,’” wrote Paulick, quoting an NTRA source, “the attitudes of racing’s best customers can be summed up in five words: ‘Our core fans are pissed’.

“Consumers are pissed because they feel cheaters continue to win races at an alarming rate by using performance enhancing drugs. They are convinced people are making or cancelling bets after races begin. And they see racing commissions, task forces and blue ribbon panels as pointless exercises conducted by mindless political appointees who are too out of tune to understand the problems, or too apathetic to fix them…

“It should be noted that a majority of the ex officio non-voting members of the integrity subcommittee were on hand in Kentucky this week, including owner-breeder Gary Biszantz, [Maloney], and businessman Frank Kling, who spent a great deal of time and effort working on wagering integrity issues as a member of the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority, a panel dissolved by Beshear earlier this year and replaced with the current racing commission.”

“What are [industry leaders] going to do address the concerns of racing’s best customers?” Paulick finally asked.

Good question, Ray. Here’s another: When will racing learn that parimutuel takeout rates that approach usurious levels are helping to tap out racing customers at a dizzying rate?

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, October 03, 2008

From Wall Street to Main Street to Union Avenue

Pardon the interruption, but I’d like to say something here.

I believe that Wall Street is Main Street. “Bailout” doesn’t sit well with many Americans. Can’t blame them even a little. And the media is playing to that rage. “They ought to help out the people, the little guy,” was one gray-bearded loaded-question response on the 11 o’clock news Wednesday night. “We shouldn’t have to bail out fat-cats on Wall Street who gambled and lost.”

Yes, the “recovery” bill needed better language, transparency, fail-safe measures and all the rest. But Wall Street is Main Street. Because what about the middle class guy that worked hard, got a good job with a management-matched IRA plan, is now in his 60s, retired, and his 401K is all he’s got?

He’s hoping for a liquidity injection, I’ll bet. I know I am. So is Warren Buffet, the greatest handicapper who ever lived, who doesn’t need the cash but termed the current crisis an “economic Pearl Harbor.” Because that’s what it is when small businesses with a track record of success can’t get a loan, under the golden arches or anywhere else.

Banks aren’t lending money to other banks in this environment. C’mon people!

This recovery bill is nowhere close to perfect but is much more than a Wall Street bailout which, on its face, is exactly what it is. But only in part. Let me put it terms than an aspiring Vice-President might ask:

“Need a new car, do ya’?”

There was a recent quote from a Presidential candidate that made sense. But only one. And it wasn’t from the guy who suspended everything, only didn’t, ran back to Washington, accomplished zero, then took credit for acting quickly. Laughable if it weren’t so serious. Another reason why people hate the machinations of Washington D.C.

At least, the quote from the other candidate had a common sense quotient: “What this bill does is to keep a crisis from becoming a catastrophe.” I leave it to you to figure out who said what.

Meanwhile, I hope the media keeps the light shining and the pressure on, and that the people keep the pressure on the media to do that job responsibly. It would be a nice thing if those footing the bill had some say in all this, yes?

And does this sound like socialism? Surely hope not; my plate’s already overflowing.

Gambling, including betting on horses, once was considered to be recession proof. But that doesn’t seem to be true anymore, in case you’ve missed those downward spiraling handle figures from all across the country.

Churchill Downs figured it out many months ago. They don’t want to start a short-sell run on the common shares so they stopped making their daily handle figures public. It might give the wrong impression. As it turned out, they worried in vain. Short selling, anyone?

The current recession--interesting how so many politicians, media, or even the Six-Pack Joes still won’t call it what it is--doesn’t figure to help racetrack handle despite the fact that the information and data keeps getting better all the time. Why?

Because the game’s getting harder all the time, that‘s why.

Three surfaces demand more time for daily research. Security issues notwithstanding, late betting patterns rob from bettors the ability to know they’re making the proper bet relative to value. The best horse and the best bet, mutually exclusive events, can exist within the same race.

Today’s players have become more sophisticated. They’re beginning to cannibalize each other. And usurious takeout rates make it impossible for even the most sophisticated whales to profit without rebates. So what shot does the weekend warrior have? Guess.

What does all this mean to me? It means it’s time to jump into the pool with both feet! I know, I know, if my timing were any better I’d be a dancer.

The times are tough and might get a whole lot tougher, well into 2009, at least, especially if the House of Representatives fail to see the urgency. Unless, of course, they could sneak a few pork barrels of their own into the chamber.

Yes, times are tough and tough times demand tough measures. It’s time for me to start betting in earnest, probably after Breeders’ Cup which, artificial surface or not, still remains one of the best betting opportunities of the year. Then why the delay?

Because that same Breeders’ Cup and HRI will make heavy demands on my time and because the Pro Ride surface at Santa Anita likely will remain a work in progress right up until post time on “Ladies Day.”

And so it would be a bad spot to begin wagering as if my fiscal life depended on it, because it just might. Nothing that’s happened lately has given me confidence that all of it’s not just one big old boondoggle.

As risky as gambling for a living might be, I’d rather depend on myself. I did it before on a small scale and was moderately successful. This is different. But at least I can look in the mirror and not question my motives. I just can’t afford to sit around and do nothing.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Legendary Hall of Fame Riders Deserve Better

Can’t remember if I’ve mentioned this before. If I have, forgive the replication, but it’s just so infuriating.

The first time I became aware of the Breeders’ Cup Legends Tour was in an e-mail several months ago announcing the event. I believe I mentioned at the time that it seemed counterproductive for Santa Anita to host the final leg of the tour, an actual race where entries are drawn by lot, on the weekend prior to Breeders’ Cup event days.

Sorry, but this is more than a provincial happening, more than a Breeders’ Cup promotional effort to heighten awareness in the local market to sell whatever tickets might be left, or to burn the dates of Oct. 24 and 25 into the brains of simulcast players everywhere.

The Jockey Legends Tour, brought to you by Breeders’ Cup, my name for the event, is a living history of the sport that’s so much bigger than a mere marketing tool. Jockeys are the thoroughbred racing athletes who walk around on two legs, and speak actual words.

For the love/hate relationship that exists between racing fans and the game’s saddlesmiths--fans do both, sometimes simultaneously and with impunity--fans never seem to ignore them. Even the casual sports fan might get interested in an event like this. In Kentucky, Pat Day is more popular than any horse could ever be.

Yes, it takes riding a lot of favorites to win 4,000 or 5,000 or, incredibly, 10,000 winners. But I apologize again. I’m from the Jockey-as-Pilot School. I'm not the one that relegates them to the role of Jockey-as-Passenger.

The Jockey Legends Tour will have its second stop today at Belmont Park, where several retired Hall of Fame riders among Bailey, Cordero, Day, Hawley, Krone, McCarron, Pincay, Stevens and Vasquez are scheduled to appear.

The Tour began in Boston several days ago. I missed it. And I must have missed the memo, too. Had no idea. And this is my living, such as it is.

I get repetitive e-mail blasts on everything from breeding news to upcoming marketing confabs, which are much appreciated. There’s much to stay on top of in this game. But this was a big deal, one requiring extra effort.

Tomorrow the Tour rolls on to the Meadowlands, Saturday to Laurel and Sunday to Philadelphia Park. The following Thursday and Friday, it stops at Keeneland and Arlington Park. The Tuesday and Wednesday after that, Lone Star Park and Sam Houston, etc., etc.

See the trend here? My question is this: How does racing reap the benefits from this when fans are either at work, or just AWOL, period?

And why wasn’t the Tour announced much, much earlier, when there actually were 2008 budget dollars available for promotion by the tracks as well, where more races between these greats could have been conducted?

Why isn’t the Tour a Saturday and/or Sunday event, maximizing exposure? What if racing held a real special event and nobody came?

Please, someone in authority, comment on this below. Show me the error of my ways. I’ve been wrong before; I work at a disciple in which if I’m wrong two out of three times I’m considered a genius.

The riding legends, among the greatest the game has ever seen, were driven to greatness. This might be a small-handle betting exhibition to some, but don’t try selling that notion to a Cordero, a Bailey.

Of course, there’s an economic component involved for some of the jockeys, but most if not all, I have to believe, want to give something back to the game, want to compete again on some level. I would like to experience them experiencing that. In person. Live.

I can’t be at Belmont Park today. Nor will I be in California the weekend before I’m scheduled to arrive for HRI’s coverage of Breeders’ Cup’s silver anniversary program. I’ll miss the Legends race by a couple of days.

I’m sure I’ll get to see a videotape replay, or something on YouTube, someplace, somewhere. But I won’t be able to go down to the paddock, gauge fan reaction, perhaps even whoop and holler it up myself.

From time to time, it is acknowledged that jockeys don't get their due as athletes. Making dangerous decisions at 40 miles per hour without the luxury of calling a timeout to plot strategy; racing being the only sport in which an ambulance follows people while they perform their day jobs.

Maybe next year--if there is a next year for this event--more fans will be given a better opportunity to see some of the sport’s true greats in action. The fans and Racing Hall of Famers deserve nothing less.

Written by John Pricci

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