Monday, December 30, 2013

A Christmas Tale

HIGHLANDS, NJ, December 28, 2013—I’m no hum-bugger, nor Scrooge in training, but this was one of those Christmas seasons that was washing over me, something happening in the rest of the world, just not in my part of the universe.

It was the penultimate day before Christmas when the phone rang at 7 a.m. Good news seldom comes by phone that early in the morning. Form held.

I was staying with a good friend on Long Island, on my way to Highlands, New Jersey—where the Jersey Shore begins and the home of my daughter Jen, where the family was to celebrate Christmas day.

Toni already was in the land of Christie, up from South Florida to nurse-maid my oldest who recently underwent surgery. It was Jen on the phone, telling me that Toni had been taken by ambulance to the ER three hours earlier with chest pains.

I collected my clothes, and my thoughts, and made the drive from Deer Park, watching my speed, trying to stay focused, and positive.

Toni, with Jen alongside, was in Riverview Hospital in Red Bank, still in pain but very much alive. Morphine was insuring that the discomfort level remain manageable while she awaited a room upstairs.

The following day, Toni was administered a stress test, an echocardiogram and a sonogram of the carotid artery. Of course, the carotid is where strokes live.

Toni passed the stress test but it took over a day to get the other results. The hospital has a very good reputation and, in fact, Jon Bovi, whose house can be seen from Riverview on the east side the Navasink River, had his children delivered there, a fact I found somewhat comforting.

On Christmas Eve at noon, Jen and I were in Toni’s room awaiting her return from the testing area. Jen told me about a region above her left wrist where an I.V. was inserted that was tender to the touch. The red area appeared to be moving up her arm.

I looked at it and knew it was phlebitis, having dealt with it while in college. I told her to call her surgeon immediately. She described the symptoms and the doctor asked how far she was from Bayshore Community Hospital where he was making rounds.

We made the 25-minute drive from Riverview to Bayshore where her surgeon confirmed my suspicion. She was placed on antibiotics and was told that if there was no response, she would need intravenous antibiotics.

And if that didn’t work, it would back to Bayshore for surgery.

On Christmas morning at 9:30, the phone rang as I was having breaking at the Sheraton Eatontown, which happened to be the Breeders’ Cup media center the year Monmouth Park hosted the wettest event day on record.

“It’s a Christmas miracle, dad,” Jen said. “The infection stopped spreading and the redness is beginning to fade.”

One down, one to go; but, still, no word on Toni’s last two tests.

Shortly after I arrived at Jen’s, the phone rang. It was Toni saying that the cardiologist had been by to visit, that the last two tests were negative, and that she was “ready to blow this popcorn stand.”

The admitting doctor on staff followed the cardiologist’s visit, sounding like a college football analyst. “Not so fast,” he said. “That cardiologist is always doing those things. I need to talk with him. There’s something on the ‘echo’ that I want to check first.”

Prison break aborted.

Finally, about two hours later, I got a second call. “Get me out of here,” Toni said.

The emergency turned out to be an acid-reflux experience so bad that the chest pains sent Toni to the cardiac ward. She had a negative reaction from a generic replacement for Aciphex, the only medication that keeps her particular condition in check.

The generic drug that the supplementary-insurance company had recommended not only didn’t work but took Toni’s problem to the next level.

The following day, we spent two hours on the phone with the insurance firm after the doctor had written a new prescription for Aciphex with the initials d.a.w.—dispense as written.

The prescription could not be filled, however, because coding language between the drug provider and insurance company was in error. If it were not for CVS Pharmacist Judy Picinich taking mercy on us, intervening with Empire Mediblue, we still might be arguing our case.

Fortunately, the issue was resolved and I was never so relieved to purchase 30 pills, a 15-day supply, for the bargain price of $170.

For all the critics of the Affordable Care Act, I admit that there might be a reasonable case to be made. But one way or another, that issue will be resolved in the future. Until then, people will just need to deal with a badly broken healthcare system.

On Christmas Day, I received two of the best gifts ever, presents that only can be described as priceless. Sometimes, Christmas comes when least expected.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Time Has Come for Reality to Eclipse Tradition

SOUTH OZONE PARK, NY, December 17, 2013—Time for a reality check.

It is resolved that while the event was intended as a championship defining moment, year-round, three surface racing mitigates this proposition. In the name of fairness and Eclipse Awards, it’s a body of work that all too often decides season-ending honors.

Put another way, wishes aren’t horses and the Breeders’ Cup World Championships fail to crown title holders as often as it makes a season or a career an indelible memory.

It doesn't happen often but event day also can elevate the status of mere equines to that of legend, and that’s what makes Breeders’ Cup racing’s greatest event. But the best laid plans…

Last week, a juvenile named Shared Belief exploded on to the late-season stage, taking everyone’s breath away by remaining undefeated winning his Grade 1 two-turn debut in fast, grand style and throwing four hooves into the Eclipse ring.

But what are we supposed to make of the fact that all victories have come over a man-made surface and not God’s good earth?

Is it really fair to compare that accomplishment to those of major Grade 1 mile-or-more dirt runners such as Havana, or New Year’s Day, or Bond Holder?

I don’t know about you but I have trouble delineating the difference between apples and oranges.

One could make more meaningful comparisons if Shared Belief were measured against G1 All-Weather horses Tamarando or We Miss Artie or, even to a small degree, Outstrip, a grass horse and winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf.

Of course, there will be times when subjectivity is needed to separate horses whose accomplishments on the record are thisclose.

But short of a point system, or a warm weather December Breeders’ Cup that for all intents would bring the racing year to a close, isn’t the idea to establish a measure of objective finality?

Unlike, say, the modern day justice system, shouldn’t we be seeking the truth in an effort to get it right? Shouldn’t that be the true goal?

And if that’s the real objective, hasn’t time come to establish a separate, third Eclipse category for synthetic specialists? If dirt and turf are separate but equal classifications, why not acknowledge All-Weather as a separate category?

With Hollywood Park about to close permanently, where will next year’s Shared Belief come from? And should there be opportunities to make an end around November’s Breeders’ Cup results?

As long as there are major tracks such as Del Mar, Arlington Park and, most notably, Keeneland that host All-Weather racing, this murky picture doesn’t figure to clear up any time in the near future.

All Weathers notwithstanding, chaos exists in many Eclipse divisions. Older horses separate dirt and turf excellence; why not juveniles? Consider Outstrip, e.g., a juvenile whose record worthy of some recognition, somewhere.

Never worse than third in five starts, the Godolphin gray has three wins, including the G1 Juvenile Turf, the G2 Champagne at Doncaster, and a neck defeat when runnerup in Goodwood’s G2 Vintage.

That’s a slate conceivably worth an entire enchilada, but at least should put him in the conversation about the two year old that was the most accomplished of 2013.

Pundits can argue all day whether those credentials are Eclipse worthy Eclipse, but all that is required for consideration is one start in North America. Chances are, however, most voters are unlikely to give this colt a second thought.

It’s understood that with all the problems the industry has, tweaking the Eclipses is odds-on to be a non-starter. But one of racing’s good things--recognition of excellence-- can be made better.

If industry elites do decide to take a look at this, it shouldn’t be made to be about the hardware, or the length of the Eclipse Award program. Frankly, the awards show is not appointment TV, not thus far, anyway.

What does matter is that racing excellence and, by extension, horsemanship should be recognized at the highest level. If the number of awards become unwieldy, put a bunch of them together for recognition and applause, an equine equivalent of the Oscar for sound editing.

A third All-Weather category likely would be very popular with the people who buy at auction, their trainers and, of course, breeders by giving them more drums to bang as their horses would have more opportunities to distinguish themselves on the racetrack and in the breeding shed.

Less racing but with more accomplished stock sounds like a reasonably good, promotable sell. An All-Weather Champion provides added value in the marketplace.

Eclipse expansion is worth serious consideration. An All-Weather surface is not dirt and it’s not turf. It’s a different animal entirely. Versatility should be recognized and rewarded. As presently constructed, the ability to do so doesn’t exist.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, December 03, 2013

DRF Minus

SOUTH OZONE PARK, NY, December 3, 2013—For me, last weekend’s holiday horse racing feast had only one negative: Discovering that “America’s Turf Authority” doesn’t take its brand slogan very seriously anymore.

If it did, Daily Racing Form wouldn’t compel its customers and racing fans to pay a premium to read, of all things, routine stakes advances meant to showcase the game’s brightest stars while keeping fans informed and engaged.

In an age where mainstream racing coverage has all but disappeared in markets not named Southern California, Kentucky, or Saratoga, thoroughbred racing’s paper of record is no longer in the business of bringing you all the news needed to follow the sport comprehensively.

It’s what happens when the corporate mission is to monetize everything.

From the beginning, Thoroughbred racing, with boxing and theater to a lesser degree, kept the publication alive over a span of three centuries. The converse is also true.

Racing’s fans could always depend on “the Form” to let them know what was happening to their favorite horses and about the horsemen who labor on the backstretch of America’s racetracks.

I’ve made many friends at the DRF in the course of 40 years, and even worked for them a bit, conducting handicapping seminars at Siro’s in Saratoga and as a sports handicapper.

And I’m convinced that DRF’s present day editorial people must horrified by this change in focus, at once understanding that revenue pays the bills but now are left to wonder “why did I get into this business in the first place?”

Oh, yes, their passion to be involved in Thoroughbred racing on some level.

If recent events are a measure, it appears that DRF is no longer in the new news business, and into everything else. The original charter to promote the sport has become secondary; racetracks and profitability, not readership, are now the true constituency.

No disrespect intended, but if you wanted to read about what’s happening at Tampa Bay Downs or Zia Park this weekend, you could still do that by simply logging on to

But if fans wanted to know what the Clark or Cigar Mile players were saying in advance of possible championship defining events, they would have to pay a premium to read about it on DRF Plus.

The DRF’s focus has changed dramatically since it entered the bookmaking space. Instead of supporting the game and the racetracks as it once did, it now competes for the dollars created by an industry and infused it with purpose, it now monetizes the stories fans want to read about.

The Thoroughbred industry is incestuous. Tracks and their ADWs never really put any pressure to bear on this once-partner now-competitor. Indeed, online wagering competitor Xpressbet powers the DRF betting platform, and tracks continue selling the DRF product in their buildings.

Who knows, maybe this is payback going back to the time when tracks got into the past performance business, selling their overpriced track performance programs at a cost that was still cheaper than buying the Form.

Traditional mainstream news has moved into a space once occupied by new media. But even though cyberspace is endless, mainstream media has all but abandoned horse racing. In the interim, meanwhile, tracks have learned that no-news can be good news.

The industry now controls the message almost completely while avoiding the spotlight’s hot, hostile glare. It is no wonder racetrack press releases are being disseminated by communications outlets for free all over the Internet.

HorseRaceInsider started out on a shoestring seven years ago and created a press release section to fill the considerable gaps a one-man staff couldn’t. Commentary and insight, not hard news, became the true grist of the Internet’s mill, especially in a business founded on the opinion that one man’s horse can beat another’s.

Press releases provide fans with racing information with sanitized quotes that almost never acknowledge accompanying storylines that could be viewed as being controversial, even if an essential part of the story.

Equidaily was the first news aggregator to take the LexisNexis route to disseminate racing information. Ray Paulick took that idea, added his reporting skills and brought in a partner to create a sound business model. Horse Races NOW most recently entered this space, coming in and essentially ripping off both.

In practical terms, DRF stopped covering the game when it got into bed with the racetracks, the most glaring example when it failed to even acknowledge that a boycott of Santa Anita betting pools organized by the grassroots Horseplayers Association of North America group that was protesting a significant rise in takeout existed, much less that it was successful.

For the first time ever, horseplayers were given a voice. Sounds like a news story to me.

This past weekend featured great, bettable races that had possible Eclipse Award implications--the case in both the Grade 1 Clark and Cigar Mile.

Fans could have read all about it had they previously purchased a one-year subscription package (among other plans offered) to DRF Plus for $119.95. The stakes advances were free to DRF Bets customers. And so the cross-promotion goes.

Javier Castellano rode five winners on the Cigar Mile program, underscoring the fact that he is New York’s dominant reinsman after injuries to Joel Rosario and Johnny Velazquez seriously curtailed their Eclipse aspirations.

The story on the DRF website Monday from Aqueduct had the headline: “Castellano Could Get Eclipsed by Stevens” You couldn’t read it unless you were DRF Plus subscriber or DRF Bets customer.

I live in the “real world.” If a company wanted to charge for information related to wagering, they should have at it. If a customer can benefit financially from the fruit of the organization’s labor force, paying a premium has some justification.

But if you wanted to read about the pros and cons of Gary Stevens’ comeback in Eclipse terms, or learn about Shug McGaughey’s 2014 Kentucky Derby mindset, that cost money.

What this policy will cost the Thoroughbred industry down the road is incalculable.

There simply are too many racing organizations that want to charge customers a premium for almost anything worthwhile; from the rake on making a bet to the past performances that drive the horse betting business.

I might live in the real world but I don’t have to like it. Charging for important stakes advances, or stories like the Jockey Eclipse scenario, is a terrible disservice to the industry and its fans, showing a lack of regard for the sport of modern-era horse racing.

On the DRF Plus order page, there is a note that reads: “If you would like to donate $1.50 to the Keeneland Library to digitally preserve a full page of Daily Racing Form's historical editions, check this box.”

I wonder how much DRF policy makers would charge for a bowl of Rocky Mountain Oyster Stew.

Written by John Pricci

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