Jeff Gural’s desperate times, desperate measures

Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, Act III,

Diseases desperate grown,
By desperate appliance are relieved,
Or not at all.

Today we would probably recognize Shakespeare’s work as the proverb, “desperate times call for desperate measures.”
That, I submit, describes Jeff Gural’s thinking this week, to a tee.

Two years ago, the Breeders Crown was faced with a peculiar set of circumstances. A trainer, on probation already in Ontario, received a positive test before the Crown finals, to be raced that Saturday. The trainer – Corey Johnson — was allowed to enter his two Crown starters, and Mr. Gural agreed because the trainer was yet to have his hearing.

A couple of months later, test results from those two Crown starters came back from Hong Kong, with “five times the amount of naturally occurring Cobalt in their systems.” One of the horses in question – Traceur Hanover – won his Breeders’ Crown event.

Gural must have been kicking himself. He was presented with a trainer who had a positive test pending, who was already on probation, yet he did not dig his heels in to try and get the barn’s Crown horses scratched, or transferred to another trainer. It was a desperate situation, but there were no desperate measures; the rules of harness racing were left to their own devices.

Fast forwarding two years, The Hambletonian Society and the Meadowlands have instituted some pretty tough detention barn and shipping rules. It’s pretty obvious the integrity of the event is on the front burner. In one case, with one trainer, we have all seen Mr. Gural’s action regarding what he believes was the bending of those rules.

“Trainer Chris Oakes has refused to relocate his two Breeders Crown horses entered at the Meadowlands to a training facility and or farm here in New Jersey. We also offered Mr. Oakes a compromise where as we would allow him to continue to train his two horses at his farm in Pennsylvania but under 24-hour surveillance paid for by us. Jeffrey R. Gural is hereby requesting that both Mr. Oakes horses be scratched from the aged Breeders Crown finals this Friday, October 28th,” said the release.

Unlike two years ago, there is no positive test, and as far as I know Mr. Oakes is not in a similar situation to Corey Johnson. But, as I see it, Mr. Gural’s madness does apparently have some sort of method.

Chris Oakes’ horses are already banned from entry in overnights at Jeff Gural’s racetracks. Why this has happened we are not privy to, but it’s a fact, and Jeff Gural knows why.

Mr. Oakes is a high percentage trainer, who does very well with his stock when entering his barn. According to Trackmaster data, since Jan. 1, 2015, he claimed 104 horses, and 35 per cent of them went on to victory. This is (minimum 40 starts) the highest win percentage of any trainer I found in this time period. Like it or not, fair or unfair, this raises red flags.

Meanwhile, Oakes has raced various times at Gural’s racetracks since Jan. 1, 2015. His record at the Meadowlands is one win in 16 starts. At Vernon, he is 0 for 7. At Tioga, he’s 1 for 8.

That’s a 2 for 31 record at Gural’s racetracks (mostly with stakes stock). In comparison, at Pocono (his home track) he’s won 32 per cent of his starts since Jan. 1, 2015.

Those numbers and facts are not pointing to Mr. Oakes being “guilty” of anything, and I want to make that perfectly clear. However, Gural asking for what he did of Oakes this past week – being under surveillance, coming in early for out of competition testing, etc – was clearly not a knee-jerk reaction. Whether his reasons are right, wrong or something in between is up for debate (and I get they make some people upset) but you’d have to be blind to not consider there were reasons.

Regardless, this time, unlike in 2014, it looks like Gural was not willing to let harness racing be governed by its own devices.

Diseases desperate grown,
By desperate appliance are relieved,
Or not at all.

Those famous words were uttered by Claudius about Hamlet. Claudius believed that Hamlet’s condition was a threat, and in desperation, he wanted to send Hamlet away immediately to save the Kingdom.

Gural too believes that sometimes, in some circumstances, the Kingdom of harness racing will be saved by banishing some Hamlets, through means he knows will be unpopular. He, like some of you, sees a feckless system of alphabets unable to adjudicate even the simplest of adverse events. He, this week, as he often does, stepped up to the podium to let that be known.

For those who are with him, respects what he is trying to do, and are looking for a leader, you cheer.

For those who aren’t with him, you are quick to point out that Hamlet was not, of course, the threat, and it was most important that Claudius stand aside; to let the Kingdom work through its issues on its own.

In the biggest of big pictures, integrity issues are messy. They’re polarizing and can be very personal. But, in my view, it’s important to remember they aren’t going away unless the sport decides to deal with them. This week’s messiness was not created by Jeff Gural or Chris Oakes. It’s simply a symptom of a sport in dire need of help.