Brush And Crush

One, of many reasons, harness racing is better

September 3, 2016

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The thoroughbreds could learn something from their harness racing brothers and sisters.

Last Saturday at Saratoga (the thoroughbred version) the $1 million Sword Dancer Invitational was contested at a mile-and-a-half on the grass. The race was highlighted by 1-5 shot Flintshire, owned by world famous Juddmonte Farms and trained by perennial top turf trainer Chad Brown. Flintshire is one of the world’s best turf horses.

Included in the race was a horse named Inordinate. Inordinate, also trained by Chad Brown and owned by Juddmonte, was entered to be a “rabbit” for Flintshire. Flintshire is a closer who wants fractions to close into.

Rabbits are tolerated — if not expressly allowed — in the UK, and are used often by big barns wanting to ensure proper paces for their charges. In other parts of the world, like Hong Kong, they are banned. You can say they are technically against the rules in North America (under rule 4035.4 in New York state), but it’s a grey area, and they’ve been used in the past.

But during Saturday’s race it became quickly apparent that this wasn’t your regularly-scheduled rabbit race.

Inordinate broke a little slow, then was ridden hard to challenge pacesetter Roman Approval. Roman Approval, a front-runner, had to be restrained into the suicidal :46.18 first half pace. Near the head of the lane, Inordinate – the rabbit — began to slow, but lo and behold, right behind him, trying to find a path at the hedge was his stablemate Flintshire. Inordinate’s rider (Aaron Gryder) looked back, and took a right turn, which allowed the big favorite room to get through. While doing so, he bumped Roman Approval. Flintshire went on to win the race. (you can watch the race here).

Despite these tactics that most would describe as at least questionable no action was taken by the stewards.

Soon after, a mini-firestorm outside the main racing press started to occur. On Facebook, Twitter and chatboards, myriad owners, trainers, fans and bettors were apoplectic.

“This looks so bad”

“The fix was in”

“They let the big barns do it, and smaller owners get screwed”

“Who is minding the store?”

Those were just a smattering. There were literally hundreds of comments of that ilk.

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A few days later, the owner of Roman Approval decided he too was none too pleased, so he filed an appeal.

“Aaron Gryder didn’t ride to win, and he rode carelessly, endangering my horse, my jockey, and everyone else in the race,” he told the Bloodhorse.

Watching this race, and the aftermath, something struck me. In today’s harness racing, we have big stables just like Juddmonte. We have a plethora of two- and three-horse entries from power stables. We have owners of these horses who want to win the big races to enhance their equine’s value in the breeding shed. Why have we not seen this happen almost every week in this sport of late?

Let’s say Always B Miki has the eight hole, and his main foe Wiggle It Jiggleit has the wood. How hard is it for Jimmy Takter to use another horse to drive Montrell Teague into the ground in a :52 half with Miki third over, ready to pounce?

How difficult is it for him to instruct a driver of a stablemate to push Ron Burke’s Mission Brief into submission from the 1/8th pole on, hoping she breaks, so one of his blue-blooded colts can win a Hambletonian?

How difficult is it for Ron Burke to instruct his drivers to yell at the head of the lane if they need room, and have their pal part the rail like it’s the Red Sea?

It’s not difficult at all. In fact, it’s pretty darn easy.

In the past — and even in the present — there have, at times, been some gaming with entries, so it’s not like it’s never been done.

“Shannon Majority inexplicably cut the mile for Nihilator that day after never having left in his life,” noted harness racing historian Bob Marks, in reference to Nihilator’s assault on the World race record at the Meadowlands back in 1985.

“Sweet Luck was the rabbit in the Bret Hanover-Cardigan Bay affair but there were only five in there and he was working for himself doing what he always did, cutting the pace,” he added.

And yes, in this power-stable day and age we’ve seen stablemates give tucks, and we know for certain Yannick is not going to park a well-meant Takter-trained stablemate.

But time and time again, stakes race after stakes race after stakes race, year after year after year in the modern age, what happened on Saturday at Saratoga simply doesn’t happen in harness stakes racing.

Why? I think there are a few reasons.

First, I think the regulators of the sport – along with participants — have made it pretty clear that these kinds of tactics during a race are not tolerated.

Remember the Hambletonian in 2006? Driver Trond Smedshammer was almost immediately suspended and fined for what is called “helping” in harness racing – moving over so a stablemate can get through up the rail. The regulators, participants, fans and bettors – four groups who rarely agree – seemed to praise the decision as a singular entity. Strong messages are important for any sport, and harness racing is no different.

Second, this sport does a lot of racing. If you or I get a bad post or we’re up against it — stakes race or not — there’s always next week. Why devise some cockamamie plan that probably won’t even work and may get everyone suspended, when you can try again in two weeks?

Third, this sport is close knit. Sometimes this is not a great asset – the “buddy, buddy” driving system is often criticized – but this part of harness racing culture, to me, is quite grand.

If John Campbell strode into the paddock to drive your longer shot in a million-dollar race, he’d want to talk about how he could get a slice of the purse. If you sat him down and told him he had to go after another horse to ensure a :52 half so a different stablemate could have a better chance to win, he’d probably (nicely, it’s John after all) punch you in the nose.

The horse he’s supposed to be going after is trained by nice people, you see. Jonas and his wife were up at dawn to get the horse ready, they have family in the dining room from out of town, and they’re all hoping for a win. John drove one of Jonas’s horses last month and had a nice victory. Marvin has a piece of Jonas’s horse and John deals with Marvin all the time. Cory is a nice kid who John wants to beat, but he wants to beat him on the square.

It’s just not something that sits well with most people in this sport.

It will be interesting to follow what happens to the owner of Roman Approval’s appeal. It’ll be neat to see if the stewards change the way they handle “rabbits” here in North America due to the happenings in the Sword Dancer on Saturday. No one is sure.

What I think we do know is, no changes have to be made in harness racing to curb this practice, because, despite power-stables and three and four-horse entries, it’s something that simply isn’t a big issue. Harness racing, in my view, should be very proud of that.

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