No stopping Surick at Freehold

by Brett Sturman

Trainer Nick Surick is in a world of his own these days at Freehold Raceway. The Freehold native has dominated the first two months of the year at the daytime half-mile oval to an astonishing degree.

Through February, Surick has raced 131 starters at Freehold and has won with nearly half of them with 62 wins. He also has finished second 30 times and third 16 times, which means his starters have finished first or second 70 per cent of the time and have hit the board over 82 per cent of the time.

Surick’s UTRS (trainer) rating stands at a rarified .641.

What’s notable isn’t that Surick is the leading trainer this year at Freehold, but the extraordinary rate at which he’s been winning. Surick was the track’s leading trainer in 2015 and, so far this year, he leads second-place trainer Vincent Fusco by 62 wins to 12 wins. Fusco won the training title last year. At the end of 2016, Surick had 30 wins from 147 starts and through February he’s already doubled the win total from all of last year.

Surick sits second in training wins (65) nationally behind only Ron Burke, and all but three of those wins have come at Freehold. Of those three remaining wins, two of them have come at Yonkers (two for 28) and one from Dover (one for 13). Surick is currently winless at the Meadowlands (0 for 13); a track he has had success at in recent years.

How do we explain Surick’s remarkable success at Freehold — but no place else?

For starters, almost all Surick-trained horses at Freehold are overwhelming favorites. So overwhelming, in fact, that in recent weeks Freehold has started to bar show wagering in races that have Surick horses. The barring of show wagering isn’t uncommon in stakes races where certain horses are superior to their competition, but it’s a rare occurrence in
overnight racing where fields are more evenly matched (although interestingly enough in the seven races from the past week that didn’t allow show wagering, Surick’s horses only won three of those).

Trainers enjoying a wave of success will routinely point to their mastery of a condition sheet as one of the main factors in their success. But in Surick’s case there is no denying that the Freehold condition sheet plays to his advantage. Specifically, a large majority of Surick-trained winners come from money conditioned events that carry an optional claiming condition. Thursday and Friday this week alone, nine of the 11 horses entered by Surick were eligible in races that they exceeded the earnings conditions for because they were entered in with a claiming tag. This allows the same horses to be jammed in at the same low levels week in and week out.

Of course there’s nothing to prevent someone else from stepping in and claiming one of these horses, but how many people out there are looking to claim a $7.5K claimer to race for $3,000 or a $5K claimer to race for $2,500. Also, no one wants to claim off a trainer batting .500 for the obvious reason that they might not have the key to reach the same level of success for the horse.

I remember a few years ago when trainer Lou Pena achieved similar success with claimers and racing secretaries from all over were forced to restructure the conditions of their races. I realize that sometimes multiple conditions need to be combined in order to fill races, but a parade of heavy favorites (even more-so than usual, which is saying something) isn’t in the best interest of the track and Freehold bears some accountability in this instance. At the very least, the track should explore the possibility of mixing up the condition sheet and make the earning conditioned and claiming conditioned races independent on one another so that races can be more competitive. Freehold has had the same condition sheet for as long as I can remember and this appears to be as good a time as any to consider making changes.

Other factors could be the training colony at Freehold bears no resemblance to what it once was and Surick simply is hands-down better than what his peers consist of. Similarly, the drivers for Surick-trained horses lay over much of the Freehold driving colony. Andy Miller drives routinely, but Brett Miller was in town on Thursday for all Surick drives and even George Brennan got in on the action and made a cameo last Saturday.

Perhaps the best question though is why Freehold to begin with. Convenience of the location aside, Surick is someone who has become accustomed to racing on the big stage and has trained or been associated with numerous Grand Circuit winning horses. With that level of success and still being in the early stages of his career, why apply that craft predominantly to lesser quality stock and meager purses?

Exactly half of the current Freehold meet is now in the books and it will be interesting to see if Nick Surick can keep up the seemingly unsustainable pace throughout the close of the season on the first Saturday in May. If he comes anything close to it, he’ll go down as the most dominant trainer ever at Freehold over the course of a meet.

Last Week’s Bankroll: $915
Total Wagers: $94
Total Return: $180
This Week’s Bankroll: $1,001

Woodbine, Saturday March 4

Race 2: Check out fresh import OUR SKY MAJOR N for trainer Duane Marfisi; that was some mile upon debut two weeks ago! Although out of Down-Under mare Sky Beauty, he’s sired by Art Major and he could be quite a force on the WEG circuit very soon. He was that good in his first race here that the technical step up in condition shouldn’t mean anything and I hate to even take a dead chalk in this print but I actually think something in the area of 4-5 would be fair; we’ll see. JJS DELIVERY worked himself too high up in class and should find this group more to his liking; faces a tough foe in #5. ROCKIN WIZARD makes his fourth start off the layoff and he’s immediately found his better form; will be heard from.

$40 Win 5
$5 Exacta 5/4,8

Race 4: DOVUTO HANOVER was claimed last out for an apparent bargain purchase of $15,000. He steps up but lands the rail to compensate and more importantly driver and trainer Cullen has been sharp of late; I think he’ll fire at first asking in the new barn. COBALT MAN is the obvious one to beat despite starting from the outside and he has loads of speed to overcome it; fastest on paper. MUSSELSFRMBRUSSELS would have easily dispatched of these if the race were a month ago but it doesn’t look like that trip to Yonkers and the Meadowlands was worth it; drops too. BANK SHOT HANOVER makes his third start back from the layoff for Allard; exits a confidence building score.

$10 Win/Place 1

$2 Exacta Box 1-5-6-8

Race 9: PRESCOTTS HOPE drops to an unusually low level and this unreliable type is more than fast enough to beat these if right; 7-year-old gelding seeks to get back on track and he’ll likely take some action. TRACEUR HANOVER is the other big dropper in here for Moreau and he lost a tough one two back to the classy Domethatagain; will be firing out for Filion. THE ROCKINATOR debuts for Allard and those miles from Miami Valley don’t look bad; I’d be inclined to include if the price was right.

$15 Win 9
$3 Exacta Box 6-7-9