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, September 12, 2008

Other People’s Money

Saratoga Springs, NY, September 11, 2008--The chart arrived via e mail this morning courtesy of NTRA and Equibase. As you scan the figures over a comparable time frame from last year to this, and the entire year-to-date number, the picture is clear and comes as a surprise to no one.

Thoroughbred Racing Economic Indicators For August 2008
August 2008 vs. August 2007
Indicator August 2008 August 2007 % Change
Wagering on U.S. Races* $1,389,600,847 $1,428,242,220-2.71%
U.S. Purses $128,030,999 $115,712,47710.65%
U.S. Race Days70963910.95%
Year-To-Date August 2008 vs. August 2007
IndicatorYTD August 2008YTD August 2007% Change
Wagering on U.S. Races* $9,863,917,032 $10,273,868,002-3.99%
U.S. Purses $788,090,090 $767,888,3082.63%
U.S. Race Days4,2424,2130.69%
* Includes worldwide commingled wagering on U.S. races and separate pool wagering in Canada on U.S. races.

While the numbers might not be alarming they nonetheless cause concern. Wagering on horse racing in the United States from all sources hit it’s high water mark earlier in the millennium and has been flat ever since. But things seem to be getting worse.

While Breeders’ Cup event day(s) attracts huge world-wide handle, HRI’s best guess is that its totals will match those of last year, an event handle-compromised by extremely inclement weather.

What Breeders’ Cup Ltd. might expect this year is an increase in volume due to the added races but that assessment coupled with similarly anticipated decreases in handle due to the synthetic surface in non-turf events. At best, it's probably a wash.

The thing that jumps out is that the industry as a whole is trying to maximize revenues by increasing the amount of product it makes available. To date that hasn’t worked. Other reasons? The insane wagering-platform wars for one, the counter-productive increase in the number of racing dates and races for another. The opportunities go up, the purses go up, yet the handle goes down.

It’s as if myopic bean counters never heard of parimutuel takeout and don't grasp its relationship to churn. The deadly combination of takeout and increased opportunities is wearing out horseplayers both mentally and economically--those that are still with us as bettors continue to skew older and older.

All this puts me in mind of Lawrence Garfield. Remember him, from the movies? Consider the words of the fictitious corporate raider, whose business sense seems at least as accurate as the racing industry’s real problems. To wit:

“This company is dead. I didn't kill it. Don't blame me. It was dead when I got here. It's too late for prayers. For even if the prayers were answered, and a miracle occurred, and the yen did this and the dollar did that and the infrastructure did the other thing, we would still be dead.

“You know why? Fiber optics. New technologies. Obsolescence. We're dead, all right. We're just not broke. And do you know the surest way to go broke? Keep getting an increasing share of a shrinking market. Down the tubes, slow but sure.”

And that’s exactly what’s happening to the industry. It devalued its product by overexposing and diluting it. It failed to embrace new technologies. It failed--and continues to fail--to understand the immutable law of takeout. They pay lip service to it, returning a few nickels and dimes here and there, but won’t change the paradigm.

You might ask, as does Mr. Springsteen, is there anybody alive out there? There are, but like a model constructed by America’s power elite, it’s about the preservation of fiefdoms. Dozens of strategic partnerships are created every year but seldom do these agreements yield big picture results.

Perhaps racing’s biggest mistake, as was suggested by Vic Zast in a recent HRI column, was expanding to an all-racing-all-the-time format, eliminating the seasonality that made the opening of each meet special.

When I was back at St. John’s four decades ago, the date March 20 was always circled. It marked the opening day of the New York racing season at Aqueduct by the sea. Aqueduct! Seasonality made a day at the races special, as did clubhouse dress codes, for that matter.

But the industry followed the country’s lead and dumbed the whole thing down, trying to increase its share of the entertainment dollar, chasing a market of competitive interests that in no way resembled the special feeling of a day of sport, a day at the races.

Yes, racing had a gambling monopoly back then. But what it never failed to promote was that wagering on horse races was an intellectual pursuit that offered, and continues to offer, the best bang for your gambling buck.

Education is the key. A new handicapping model needs to be created that emphasizes that each race is a market unto itself, that there are prices, or odds, at which horses should be played or laid.

As Zast wrote the other day, “gamblers today can get a bet down whenever he wants and betting’s as ho-hum as the highway. Coincidentally, it’s almost as interesting.”

Then there’s Lawrence Garfield’s take: “I love money. I love money more than the things it can buy. There's only one thing I love more than money. You know what that is? It’s Other People's Money."

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

They Don’t Get Much Better than Hettinger, Kaufman

They were giants.

Maybe not in the Allen Jerkens, or the Angel Cordero Jr., or the Sheikh Mohammed sense of the word, but in the best-thing-about-this-game meaning of it all. Racing lost a lot when John Hettinger and Art Kaufman, a.k.a. Lee Tomlinson, died over the weekend.

I never really knew Hettinger, never had a long conversation with him. But there was a brief visit, only one, shortly after his acceptance speech for an award he received from the New York Turf Writers’ Association for his accomplishments and for being a pioneer in the horse advocacy movement.

Hobbled by infirmities, he sat in his seat at the Gideon Putnam hotel that night and spoke eloquently, even if a bit longer than usual for an acceptance speech, on the subject of horse slaughter. I just wanted to say hello afterwards and thank him for his efforts.

I’m ashamed to admit this now but I had no awareness of what a huge issue horse slaughter was and remains today. But he was so passionate that I felt compelled to introduce myself, shake his hand, and say thanks not only for educating me and others but for caring about the animals that give my life beyond my family meaning.

Like most men who fought the good fight, the big fight, Hettinger led an interesting, impassioned life. A Yale-y by education, he taught at Harvard before going on a mission of personal discovery while he worked for an American corporation in Mexico City.

But after a short visit to Spain some years alter, he decided to move there with his family, invested in some property, made a small fortune, and 17 years later returned to the United States the year a colt named Secretariat put racing on the cover of Time and Newsweek; heady times, indeed.

With the money he made abroad, Hettinger expanded his father‘s 18th Century farm house to 800 acres and became an integral part of the New York-bred program when that branch of America’s breeding industry was in its infancy.

In preparation for a life later devoted to serving horses--”all of my best friends have four legs”--he was instrumental in putting New York’s state-bred program on the national map.

Back in that day, Akindale Farm studs such as Personal Flag, D’Accord, and Sir Wimborne were the local industry’s foundation sires. Hettinger’s best horse, Warfie-- trained by Nick Zito, who would become a lifelong friend--thrilled her owner by winning the open class Long Island Handicap, in 1989.

There are plenty of generous and devoted people in this industry who have dedicated themselves to giving something back. But how does the saw go? When you’re the first, you’re the best? That was John Hettinger’s life. The race horse lost a huge advocate last weekend.

So did horseplayers.

I was first introduced to Art Kaufman as a fan. I dutifully coughed up $50 for a booklet he published called “Mudders and Turfers,” the forerunner of what today are the Tomlinson Ratings. As co-host with Paul Cornman of Daily Racing Form’s Saratoga seminars at Siro’s, I invited Lee Tomlinson to be a guest handicapper.

That night we broke bread and remained friends since, which makes me far from unique. Anyone who ever met Artie called him a friend. In language that all racetrackers understand, Artie Kaufman was a sweetheart.

As all who labor in the role of horse advocacy owe a debt of gratitude in Hettinger, horseplayers and handicapping practitioners owe “Lee Tomlinson.” His sire ratings assigned a numerical value to the success that offspring of a certain sire would have on wet tracks and grass.

Tomlinson’s inspiration was born of a love for handicapping and wagering. Wet tracks were always anathema to his bankroll and, like the saying goes, if it was a dark day, he wouldn’t play. But if he had some formulary that would measure wet-track and turf tendencies of the most popular American sires, he’d be equipped for the parimutuel wars.

Time was when every wise guy in New York had a streamlined yellow booklet sticking out of his back pocket. And the ratings worked, seemingly better back then than they do today, perhaps of their relative exclusivity 22 years ago. That and the fact that pedigrees have become so homogenous.

A decade later, “Sprinters and Stayers” was introduced as a companion piece, doing for distances what M & T did for surfaces. In 2001, he sold his methodology to the DRF.

Artie was an original thinker and was at the forefront of the statistical revolution. Back then serious players had to write down trainer and jockey tendencies into notepads or their track programs for transcription and reference at a later date.

Now all past performance companies have extensive data banks of technical material most horseplayers never believed possible two decades ago. In that context, sports handicappers, especially football bettors, were ahead of the curve. Just like Artie was.

The last time I saw him was at a surprise birthday party Sara Dunham threw for her father, trainer Bob Dunham, at the Westside Stadium café in Saratoga. Sitting across from Artie and his wife Jackie, and Tom and Renee Amello, we talked and argued about what all racetrackers talk about at such gatherings:

“Seen any good movies lately?”

That was Artie. A renaissance kind of guy, film buff and European racing geek, organizing group trips across the pond for major events like the Arc or the storied Ascot meet, etc.

I’ll miss his banter, smile, wit and intelligence, his always interesting e-mails, his spirit and a voice I never heard raised above a tone of civility. It hurts.

Artie Kaufman was a class act, a real gentleman. These days that’s about as fashionable as high-button shoes.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Trouble Lies Just Above the Surface

There’s a strong possibility that the first Saturday card of what used to be the Belmont Fall Championship Meet--but now could be termed the Fall Championship Prep Meet--might fall victim of Hannah, today’s forecast calling for as much as six inches of rain in the New York metropolitan area.

The first two of 10 Grade 1 events at this session, the Garden City for three-year-old fillies turf fillies and Ruffian for older females on dirt, are the focus of today’s program. These events are meant to build an Eclipse resume by either confirming established championship form or by throwing new hooves into the ring.

One of the elements that distinguishes this meet is the participation of European shippers which either are seeking Grade 1 credentials or establishing a front for an assault on the Breeders’ Cup, where championship scores can really change.

Yet today’s Garden City drew one, modest European shipper, Shaker, who brings a meager 1-for-9 slate across the pond despite competing in very moderate company. Shaker never has run in anything but listed stakes, sent off at double-digit odds in five of those nine starts.

This might be circumstantial evidence on which to build a case but with the Breeders’ Cup being run on the Left Course, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more of the same, i.e., less European participation at this meet than in past sessions.

While synthetic tracks like the one installed at Santa Anita is considered more Euro-friendly, the narrow turf course and balmy temperatures do not favor European style, particularly after a long, tough season on the expansive undulating courses of Europe.

But the Euros are not the only ones that might not support New York’s stakes program by prepping for the Cup at Belmont. Some of the locals figure to ship elsewhere to get a run over artificial ground, even if not all synthetic tracks are created equal. And that’s a problem.

According to David Grening’s on-line story at, Todd Pletcher and Kairan McLaughlin are sending at least one horse elsewhere to prep for the Cup on a synthetic surface. Last year, six Breeders’ Cup winners at Monmouth Park prepped at Belmont Park. This year, I’m betting under that total.

Even over conventional tracks, it’s tough for outlanders shipping into SoCal. In six editions of Breeders’ Cup, 20 of 43 race winners either prepped at a Southern California track or were SoCal-based. Indeed, West Coasters have won more than their fair share no matter what the venue.

Since all synthetics are not the same, it’s no given that Polytrack form will hold up on the new Pro-Ride track at Santa Anita, a surface that has drawn raves in Australia as a training surface. Same goes for Hollywood Cushion Track.

Based on empirical data, the news that Curlin will run in the Jockey Club Gold Cup is not necessarily great news for Belmont Park on Sept 27. Santa Anita’s Goodwood on the same day might be the more preferable option.

If you have to meet Curlin--if indeed that’s where the 2007 Horse of the Year runs after the JCGC--you might as well do so for all the marbles, on a foreign surface, and in a warm climate.

Like it or not, the Santa Anita surface will share the storyline with the horses at the 25th Breeders’ Cup. Synthetic tracks rule in California, and many of the prominent local horsemen have yet to land on the same page regarding the surface.

John Sherriffs, trainer of the mighty Zenyatta, told the LA Times this week that artificial surfaces are “too hard on young horses.” And that “being a logical person, and seeing how things are now, you ask yourself, why go against City Hall?”

Trainer Gary Sherlock said that the track was “pretty good” at the end of the meet, although he was among the minority, according to the story. Leading trainer John Sadler thought the speeding up of the Del Mar surface resulted in “not more, but different” injuries, while owner Tom Gerrity said it was “like running on concrete.” Gerrity had a filly suffer a broken knee in a training accident last month.

There’s no doubt that the tweaked Del Mar surface has been an improvement on the dirt surface of 2006 that helped produce 19 catastrophic breakdowns. Last year, that number was reduced to six; this year, eight. But there were 69 career or season-ending injuries in the first two weeks of the 2008 meet.

At Saratoga this summer, by comparison, there was one breakdown during the races, and that was on turf.

The synthetic surface controversy won’t end anytime soon. Said outspoken future Hall of Fame, Bob Baffert: “This was sold to us as being better than dirt. If it’s not better than dirt, why have it?”

That’s probably what the Belmont Park racing office will be thinking as it tries to fill its stakes races this fall.

Written by John Pricci

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