HRU Feedback (2017-07-02)

Gural responds to criticism

I have to comment on Christopher Fenty’s criticism on the way the campaign to save Vernon Downs was run (2017-06-25 Feedback).

While I guess I am considered a polarizing figure, to be honest, I have never understood why. My partners and I have invested over $400 million to convert Vernon Downs and Tioga Downs from moribund bankrupt racetracks into the only non-half-mile tracks in New York State. I would guess we certainly have more on-track customers than many of the other tracks. The Meadowlands was days away from closing so I doubt the industry thinks having Vernon, Tioga and the Meadowlands open is such a bad thing. I hate dishonesty and I hate the thought of putting chemicals into an animal so I spend several hundred thousand dollars at the Meadowlands to try to eliminate as many of the drug guys as possible. I think it is important if we are going to create new fans to have a better product, which is why I think racing our best three year olds at four is important. We all know for an absolute fact that in Europe, where the sport is far more popular than it is here, they race their best horses and breed them at the same time. For some reason what works in Europe apparently will not work in the United States. Maybe our horses have different reproductive systems.

As far as Vernon is concerned, I tried for three months to get the state to lower the tax rate as part of the budget process, which is how it was done last year for Finger Lakes and Aqueduct, but I failed. At that point, I thought the only way to get it done was to pressure the legislature and unfortunately it involved threatening to close — which I certainly would have. Once these new casinos were added upstate, Vernon was losing about $2 million per year so I do not know why anyone would expect me to keep it open. Fortunately, my strategy worked and it is interesting to note that the HHACNY made no effort whatsoever to help pass this legislation. Who ever heard of horsemen at a racetrack that is about to close not speaking out and demanding that the state take actions to keep it open?

As far as the Meadowlands is concerned, I have no doubt that there will be a casino there at some point, but it is going to take time and I am prepared to wait as long as it takes. Obviously, with the horse shortage and the disadvantage we have on purses, you are correct that some of the cards have been with short fields and cheap horses have not been what we wanted. The reality is our customers bet over $2 million per night and the racing is far more competitive than what we see on the smaller tracks. In addition, we have an $11 million stakes program so if I wanted to I could easily increase the purses for the overnight races by simply eliminating the stakes, but that would devastate the breeders and that would hurt the business dramatically.

I hope that explains what happened at Vernon Downs as I tried to do everything under the radar without threatening to close and it simply did not work.

— Jeff Gural / chairman Meadowlands, Vernon Downs and Tioga Downs

Trevor Ritchie: in response to Pelling and in defence of drivers

(Editor’s Note: We received this letter from two-time Canadian Driver of the Year Trevor Ritchie on June 4 with full intention to publish it that week in response to comments trainer Brett Pelling made in HRU regarding drivers. The letter was subsequently misplaced and forgotten about. Saturday, when seeing Ritchie’s name in Bob Heyden’s Hollywood’s Hits column, the penny dropped and, after a search, we discovered the letter was never published. Our apologies to Mr. Ritchie. It was worth publishing and is presented here now. Ritchie is responding to comments Pelling originally made to HRU (full story here). (Pelling’s comments were repeated in Dean Towers’ column here)

Just a comment on Brett Pelling’s driver thoughts and suggestions.

Brett thinks drivers should be paid 3% of winnings instead of the standard 5%. While Brett is not alone in thinking that, there are others that would gladly pay their favorite driver 7% or more to have them on their horse instead of one of their competitors horses.

My suggestion to Brett and trainers that think like Brett, is to let it be publicly known and personally known to their drivers, that they expect a kickback of 2% from their drivers and any driver that does not comply will not be back on another horse the trainer trains.

While I’m on the subject, I am curious to know why Pelling did not drive all the horses he trained, since in his opinion, he was over-paying his catch drivers. He could have pocketed all those 5%’s for himself. With all that extra income he could then have given some of his owners a bit of a break on the training bill, if he so chose.

Brett also thinks drivers are being made as too big a star in the public’s eye. He certainly is entitled to his opinion, but from my experience, when I was lucky enough to win a big race and was asked to do a live interview alongside the trainer, while walking back to the padlock with the trainer I can never once remember a fan (both young or not so young) asking the trainer for an autograph, but numerous times I was asked to give one. Is Pelling saying those fans are wrong in choosing who they think are the stars?

As for race bikes and drivers’ posture, since Pelling thinks all horses should have the exact same bike and all drivers should have the exact same posture, I assume he won’t mind that all trainers feed their horses the exact same feed and supplements and all horses get treated both pre and post race exactly the same and all horses be trained exactly the same mind week. That might level the playing field in some bettors’ minds. I read a lot on how gamblers are losing confidence in our product because some trainers have UTRS’s that are off the charts compared to their competitors.

— Trevor Ritchie / Acton, ON

RE: Vernon receives tax break to stay open

I think this is good news not just for Vernon Downs and Central New York, but also for the sport of harness racing. I think it is a fine track, nestled as it is in the rolling hills of Oneida County, an idyllic place to watch the races. It has a fine surface, especially for young horses.

I saw my first horse race there when I was 13 — in 1966, when Bret Hanover (he was a good one!) paced in 1:54 as a three-year-old. I remember in the ‘70s when I was old enough to go by myself or with a date (I saw some good action not just at the windows but also in the parking lot down by where the starting chute used to be) and 8 to 10 thousand on a Saturday night was routine. We may never see crowds like that again there, but with a uniform drug policy and the right kind of promotion I am sure we will yet see many nights of fine racing at Vernon and other tracks around the country.

And allow me to commend the staff at Harness Racing Update for a job well done!

— Robert Caldwell / Oxford, MI

Merriman DQ

This race and the judge’s decision typifies one of the fundamental problems with the sport today (full story here).

Show that replay to 10 people and you will not get a unanimous decision as to what action to take or not take.

Show it to 10 judges and you would probably get multiple opinions, and I’m not sure any of them would be wrong. And that’s the problem.

The complete lack of standardization in judging has become a pebble in the shoe of harness racing. “Did he go inside the pylons?” “Did he gain an unfair advantage?” “Did that five inches that he went inside the pylons make a difference?”

We’ve seen and heard all of them.

The pylons that replaced the hub rail years ago made for a lot of ambiguity in harness racing. What is an infraction in NJ is not in PA. Get taken down in Canada, stay up in DE.

Is a game worth playing when you aren’t really sure of the rules going in? If you expect rulings to be uniform and then they are not, do you want to come back and play?

In this case, what is obvious is that the #2 and 6 horses were not bothered and not involved. The others all had an issue with breaking. It doesn’t appear that #5 caused any interference to cause a break. Not sure what Merriman was supposed to do here.

It was ugly all the way around, and the fact that the horse STILL won the race says lots about the quality of that particular race.

Maybe it’s time for one set of judges in a central location in a studio, to review all the potential fouls nationwide. Like what hockey does.

At least then, you may not like the calls, but they will be made by the same people every night.

— Vic Dante / North Caldwell, NJ

Quick hits

Knowing that I wrote a long spiel last time, I wanted to include a few other things on my mind that I omitted. First off, I believe one of the best solutions to boring racing (i.e. 99 per cent of Yonkers racing) would be the adjustment of the passing “lightning lane.” I like the passing lane in principle. However, I think the best solution, especially for small tracks with long stretches, would be shorten the passing lane. Although it wasn’t needed, Balmoral Park, installed a passing lane as the horses neared the wire. I think a shorter passing lane would lead to more chance and strategy in a race. If the pocket horse decides to sit, he can still use the lane to his advantage, but the driver would have to worry more about the strength of the lead horse. Instead of just waiting to come out of the last turn, the driver would have to be fearful that outside horses would get an edge on him before he reaches the lane mid stretch. Tracks with short stretches, such as Northfield, really don’t have to adjust that much. However, I do not believe the passing lane should be removed. The driver should get the chance to be rewarded for positioning his horse well. It’s just the full passing lane provides too much of an advantage.

Also, the idea Yonkers is floating around re trailers and gimmicks is still not going increase the activity in the race. Once the horses settle, the racing will be the same. If the experiment does yield early movement with horses being parked, does anyway want to see a horse abused and hung the whole way because of the start configuration? Yonkers would be better suited experimenting with an extremely slanted starting gate, if it can be developed. The slant definitely seems to help horses at The Meadows. Yonkers just might need a greater slant. Another idea, although it’s doubtful, would be to increase the purse paid out to the top two, maybe three, horses. With the money Yonkers is going for collecting a third, fourth, or fifth might be more than if that horse won an open at Monticello or Freehold. Point is, it pays the bills and helps drop the horse in class to where he can do more damage later. Maybe more front loaded money would encourage more risk. However, it’s beyond doubtful the SOAofNY would allow that to happen.

Finally, elimination races are terrible. Not much more can be said. Although it might not be fair to a horse who is a late bloomer or started a year late or slow, the best format was that of Battle of Brandywine Day. Having a big money final to those racing best with the others relegated to the consolations makes for better race as it also encourages horses to race more to be able to qualify for the said final. A similar method is used to limit Kentucky Derby starters.

Finally, I wish the Meadowlands would make a choice on Hambo day regarding the Hambo format. I despise this lousy elimination format where winning the elimination means basically nothing. If you’re going to have heats, the Hambo should be run traditionally with a horse needing to win TWO heats. Although it’s bad for betting, the race off is actually exciting as we’ve seen with Park Avenue Joe and Probe. If you’re going to stick with this format, just run the final on Hambo day and have elims the week before like with the Oaks.

— Christopher Fenty / Mt Kisco, NY

More thoughts on marketing

RE: my letter in last week’s HRU (2017-06-25 Feedback):

The more I think about it, I agree with the others that we DO need a NATIONAL marketing effort, because the industry has a large number of major races, especially this time of year and until the fall. I have talked to only one person in my life who did not know about the Triple Crown in thoroughbred racing. Everybody else knows, because we have heard about it from somewhere, even if we don’t follow the runners.

The standardbred industry already has the perfect advertising agency and that is the Ken Heineken Advertising group. He knows the industry, and has for many years. But, the leaders of each track still have to promote their own track, to get attendees from their own location. Most tracks offer additional entertainment; wine tastings, cook-offs, pony rides, carriage rides. The list is endless! One favorite that draws a crowd at every track is the “Meet and Greet”. Every fan wants to know what their favorite driver looks like as a person/without the helmet, and they want a chance to say “Hello” to them, and get their autograph. If you want people to come and bet, then hire a handicapper to come and set up a table/booth and sell their tip sheets, and explain what to look for and how to read a horse’s body language during the warm-ups. Don’t just sell them a program and be done with them. For each of us who truly love harness racing and want to be there in person, we need to do a little something extra, too. I once went to our local library, and asked them to set up a display on harness racing. I had posters provided by the USTA. They did it, and when I checked back, the few books they had on the subject, like “Rambling Willie, The Horse That God Loved” and “Single G, The Horse That Time Forgot”, were checked out quickly. They had to fill in with other books about horses.

— Lorraine Truitt / Salisbury, MD