What the heck happened in the Hambletonian?

Two inquires, judges placing a horse the winner and an appeal to the courts is just the beginning of the colossal mess that was the 92nd edition of the sport’s biggest race.

by Dave Briggs

The footage of last Saturday’s Hambletonian final has been watched and dissected more times than the Zapruder film and opinions and emotions have run the gamut with the social media pundits. Yet, a week later, we are still left with only one definitive — it was one colossal mess.

That mess goes far beyond the fact second-place finisher Perfect Spirit (Ake Svanstedt) was placed the winner of the $1 million event at the Meadowlands after the first horse across the line — What The Hill driven by David Miller— was placed ninth for interfering with Guardian Angel As (Jason Bartlett) in the stretch.

It even goes beyond the fact What The Hill’s trainer, Ron Burke, has appealed the judges’ decision to the New Jersey courts.

There is a raft of other ramifications compounded by the fact that, in the first turn, the bettor’s second choice, elimination winner International Moni (Scott Zeron), made an uncharacteristic break. That break was later amended and charted as interference, but that call has also proven controversial.

Zeron said Victor Gio It, driven by Yannick Gingras, knocked International Moni off stride. Gingras, who won four stakes and purses of more than $850,000 on Hambletonian Day, politely declined to comment.

Though interference was noted, Victor Gio It was not placed. He crossed the line sixth, but was subsequently elevated into fifth place — and a $45,000 payday — after What The Hill was placed ninth and all horses from eighth spot on up were bumped up one notch.

Put aside, for a moment, the emotions of all this happening in the sport’s biggest race, on its biggest stage on, with its biggest purse, in front of its only national television audience (check out the story on page 9 for some emotional reaction). The details of the case are one thoroughly knotted mess impossible to untangle to the satisfaction of all.

“It’s just a shame that our biggest race, on national TV, and that happened. I’m not pointing fingers at anybody, it’s just a shame. It sucked, believe me,” Miller said.

Trainer John Butenschoen — who had three horses in the final in just his second Hambletonian appearance — summed the day up well.

“In the pre-race interviews, I said it would be nice to be able to have the horses show up and be healthy, no one make a break and let them settle in on the racetrack. You’d like to see everyone get a fair shot at it, but as the race unfolded a dream race turned into a nightmare scenario for everybody,” said Butenschoen, who is considering his own appeal since his horse Giveitgasandgo finished seventh, was bumped up to sixth with the What The Hill placing and could have been nudged up another spot into the money had judges also placed Victor Gio It.

“It’s been like hitting my head against the wall for the past four days. Butenschoen said Thursday. “It was supposed to be a fun day when I had three horses in the Hambletonian, and now I’m trying to figure out what’s right, what’s wrong, what to do. It’s very aggravating and frustrating, to say the least.”

He is far from alone in feeling frustrated, particularly just three weeks after Huntsville put a wheel inside a pylon in the stretch while winning the $738,550 Crawford Farms Meadowlands Pace. Presiding judge John Tomasello said judges examined the stretch footage — as they do after every race — but decided posting the inquiry sign was not necessary given Huntsville clearly went inside just one pylon and was in no violation (full story here).

“It’s too bad that our two biggest races at the Meadowlands so far have had controversy to deal with,” Butenschoen said.

As for being disqualified for interference in the Hambletonian, five days later David Miller said he thinks the judges made the wrong call to place his horse, What The Hill, behind Bartlett’s Guardian Angel As, a horse that finished ninth after the break.

“My opinion is that they made the wrong call,” Miller said. “It was on CBS… I think maybe they made the obvious call because of the TV time. I stood in the winner’s circle for four or five minutes and (the judges) never called me and never asked my opinion.

“When the contact was made, and there was contact, no doubt about that, my horse was out of the hole and the horse that I ran into, supposedly, hit the top of my wheel. He did not hit the side of my wheel, he hit the top of my wheel. There were a few things going on that made that happen.”

Miller said he’s referring to Perfect Spirit “coming off the rail” and the race favorite, third-placed-second Devious Man, driven by Andy Miller, “drifting in.”

“I think I was the victim of circumstance,” David said. “I think they didn’t have the time to really look at it and they just made the obvious call.”

Andy Miller said he wasn’t impacted in the stretch.
“I got a good trip. My horse trotted home pretty well,” he said. “I thought I had a shot at winning when we were heading for home, but there were some unfortunate incidents in the stretch. The officials had to make a call and they made a call. Everybody’s got an opinion about it, but the officials made their call and I think that’s where it lies… Hopefully, we’re there again next year with a shot.”

David Miller said he is realistic about the prospects of his camp winning its appeal.

“I’ve never, ever, beaten these calls,” he said. “I think it’s like spotting Big Foot, it’s very rare.”

Bartlett said his horse was definitely interfered with by What The Hill.

“David knew he had room at some point, and then got me,” Bartlett said. “It was just very unfortunate that it had to happen in that race. My horse, he hung in there pretty tough and longer than most people would have thought.

“I was just trying to get as much money as I possibly could. I’m trying to do what I can do to finish fourth or fifth. I was looking to see who had trot, who didn’t, but that’s about it. I was just trying to stay my course and get as much money as I could. Andy drifting down didn’t really affect me. Andy was doing what most drivers would do, kind of moving down, but he didn’t touch me. He was trying to get as much money as he could, too.”

Bartlett said he takes offence to those that suggest Guardian Angel As was fading in the stretch and, as such, it didn’t matter that there was interference.

“I’m not saying that Dave did it on purpose — I’m not saying that — but if a horse is done in any particular race that means you can just move over? Just because it’s the Hambletonian doesn’t mean that all rules of racing go out,” Bartlett said. “Maybe my horse was getting tired, but at the end of the day, that cost the people who I was driving for $50,000 to $100,000.”

He also dismisses the critics who say his horse didn’t deserve to be in the mix due to it being a 55-1 longshot.

“If you watch the eliminations, my horse was very, very good. I didn’t use him very hard and he had a lot of trot finishing,” Bartlett said. “I thought my horse was as good as any horse in the eliminations so I gave him a shot to win the race… In the lane, I was just trying to keep my course and get as much money as I possibly could… My horse stuck in there a lot longer than most people thought he would.”

Through all of this — the disqualification in the stretch and the break in the first turn — bettors were impacted as much as anyone else.

International Moni is bred and owned, in part, by Lindy Farms. Farm president Frank M. Antonacci said he was “pummelled by people that bet on (International Moni)” as he made his way to the paddock after the race. “I was doing the walk of shame back to the paddock,” he said.

Break in the first turn

It was that much more frustrating considering International Moni’s driver said the break was caused by Gingras and Victor Gio It.

“I was just leaving out of the gate, and trying to protect my position,” Zeron said. “It looked like a bunch of people were leaving. Bartlett had already crossed over and Yannick was trying to flow it out to get way ahead of Andy, or some people, and I wanted to protect my spot. So, I stayed up three-wide and things started to get a little bit tight and Yannick’s horse just drifted into my front legs and my horse got knocked off stride.

“We don’t drive like that. We’re all professionals out there and… especially in a race like that, you just don’t risk things like that. So, for Yannick to have gotten close enough to make contact with my front legs, it was insane to believe that really happened.”

Antonacci said, “the part that makes this even more difficult is this is professionals at the pinnacle of the sport. You could watch a million more races and see people have plenty of room in that turn. It’s hard to accept that a professional can’t control their horse in the first turn.”

Keep in mind, of the drivers in the final, only Zeron and Brian Sears have won the Hambletonian. Zeron admitted with a million dollars and the prestige of winning the Hambletonian on the line, drivers “all drive a little different, a little more aggressive. But I still feel like your horse is your horse going into that race. He’s not going to magically get two seconds better,” he said. “So, for people to drive horses that are 99-1 way harder, it makes no sense to me. I think you should still drive your own race and don’t force the issue, but there’s a lot people forcing the issue.

“Even if it’s one dollar, you just want a fair shake. That’s the end of the conversation – we just wanted a fair shake and didn’t get one.”

Why no objection?

Asked why drivers seldom file objections, Zeron said, “in an overnight race, we like to leave things to the discretion of the judges. In the Hambo, I thought it was very clear cut that I was hit off stride. I don’t know about the camera angles, but when I was in there you could tell it was starting to get close and then all of a sudden, it was too close and I went off stride. To me, it was pretty clear cut what happened, but they were also occupied with maybe a bigger inquiry… if Yannick had gone on to win the race, I would have had no problem putting an objection in.”

Antonacci was watching from a sky box in the Meadowlands grandstand and said he, “clearly knew what happened right when it happened… I know the horse… and I could see live what happened with my own two eyes. I didn’t know 1,000 per cent definitively at the moment, but I had a very good idea of what I thought had happened.

“I watched the other views and I thought it was quite clear what had occurred. At that point, I wanted to go back and talk with Scott. I thought they aren’t going to put much time into reviewing that one because we were out of the money and it was of no consequence to anybody what they do with it. By the time I made it back to the paddock, they had taken What The Hill down and placed Perfect Spirit up.”

In the case of International Moni and others, that placing changed a lot.

“When I heard the rundown of the race and I heard, obviously, about the big placing and I heard that Yannick was sixth, placed fifth, then I thought to myself that they must not have thought that I got interfered with,” Zeron said. “So I called (the judges) up and asked their reasoning. They said they looked at the shot twice and it looked close, but it looked like my horse ran on his own. So, my only argument is telling them what happened. He hit me, I know he hit me, he apologized to me. I said, ‘That’s all I can tell you. It won’t change anything now because you’ve already made it official, but I’d like an interference break.’ They said that they couldn’t give me one because they felt like he ran on his own… They later reviewed it and said it looked close enough that they would give us the interference break, but it’s not distinctive that there was direct contact. So maybe they didn’t have the right angle. I’m shocked that they wouldn’t, with the coverage.”

Judges don’t call drivers

Antonacci said several of the drivers in the race told him International Moni, campaigned by Lindy Farms’ head trainer Domenico Cecere, had been, “‘crushed’” or “‘crashed’” by Victor Gio It. “‘Crashed’ was the word used by most,” Antonacci said. “By the time I saw Scotty, the rundown had been made and he said, ‘They left (Victor Gio it) up.’ I said, ‘What do you mean? He was out of the money.’ He said, ‘No, he was placed fifth.’ I couldn’t believe that. I thought it was just absurd. I was in the paddock office at that point and called the judges and told them how ridiculous I thought it was. I said, ‘Did you speak to any drivers?’ because… Yannick was apologizing to Domenico after he was coming off the racetrack.

“They said no, that’s not their policy to talk to the drivers because they wouldn’t tell them the truth anyway. I said, ‘Well, for a million dollar race in the Hambletonian, when it’s the biggest race we’ve got, maybe they would.’ Maybe the other guys would drop a dime on somebody that’s going to lie. Yannick was owning up to it.”

Butenschoen said he was also frustrated that judges did not speak to the drivers in the race.

“All I can take from that,” he said, “is that if (drivers) lie or don’t participate in a post-race interview then shouldn’t you have the power to do something as a judge? If there isn’t enough concrete video evidence, why don’t you pursue it further and find out what happened? Just interview them, it’s just logical.”

An email to presiding judge John Tomasello requesting comment was not returned prior to press time.

David Miller said judges used to call drivers regularly, but likely became frustrated by the answers they received.

“Years ago, they used to call us,” David said. “We drive 3,000 races a year together, most of us, so if a guy shoves out a little bit late, they call us and we’ll say, ‘No, he didn’t bother me.’ I think they kind of took offense to that, so they don’t call us anymore… But, in a race like (the Hambletonian), with something like that, don’t you think they would at least want to talk to me and hear my side of the story?”

Butenschoen said, “there were quite a few people upset when Victor Gio was placed from sixth to fifth, after the disqualifications from the stretch. Subsequent to that, the chart comes out and doesn’t show an interference break. I don’t know how that quite happened because I heard what I heard. The next morning, the chart shows an interference break. Nobody was given any explanation as to what happened… Was there interference or not? It’s like being a little bit pregnant. You can’t be a little bit pregnant.”

Butenschoen said he had a “lengthy” discussion with the judges on Tuesday and they confirmed they normally don’t talk to the drivers.

“My take on it after I hung up was that they were going to contact parties involved in the incident and see what they would have to say,” Butenschoen said.

As of press time, there was no word on whether that had happened.

A tangled mess

But Butenschoen brought up a valid concern had judges chosen to place Victor Gio It.

“My question is… if they went back and amended the chart, regardless of any testimony or lack of any testimony, and Sunday morning it comes out that I’m seventh, placed sixth, placed fifth would we be having the same discussion with Victor Gio It’s party complaining? Would they feel the same way?” Butenschoen asked.

The trainer said that is part of the reason why he’s having difficulty deciding whether to appeal.

“I don’t want to be the guy to hold up a million dollars for the potential for a $35,000 difference, but it sounds like the Burkes are going to proceed with an appeal,” Butenschoen said, adding he is not sure Giveitgasandgo deserves to get placed higher based on where he finished in the race.

“It would take two placings for me to finish fifth. I wasn’t expecting to get the money or anything like that, but I’ve got partners that I have to answer to and I get barraged by people asking about appealing,” Butenschoen said. “He didn’t perform for a fifth or fourth-place finish. He finished seventh and that was the way it was. But if there are rules in place that would elevate him, he would be entitled to receive that money – then we should get it.

“How about this scenario: I spend x-number of dollars on an attorney for an appeal and I win my appeal. And, because the placings have to be done as the events unfolded in the race, Victor Gio It gets placed behind International Moni and that elevates me from seventh to sixth place. Now, we have the Burke appeal. What if they rule that Jason was at fault, Ake was at fault, David was at fault, so we’re going to let the original order (before any placings) stand? I’m still seventh, placed sixth. I wasted all my time and money to verify that there was interference in the first turn and I’m still sixth. I’m not going to get any money anyhow. I’m pursuing a dead-end road that is going to cost a lot of money and create a lot of hard feelings.”

Bigger ramifications

There are much bigger ramifications for most involved.

David Miller said What The Hill’s value has been greatly impacted by the placing.

“He won the Peter Haughton, then came back at three to win the Hambletonian and the horse would be worth quite a bit more now in stud value,” David said.

Antonacci said International Moni, a son of French stallion Love You out of the great Moni Maker, “was 50 years in the making, and I really believe that. I thought it was three generations of hard work to get to this horse and to have the opportunity to win your elimination, be one of the favorites for the final and to be wiped out of the final and not have a chance to even race for it?

“For all the people in our operation — the groom, and everybody that’s worked day in and day out for that opportunity — it was just devastating. Financially, yeah, it’s the biggest race we have. You’re halfway there and it makes a big difference if you have a shot to the win race, be second, third, whatever. What is going to be is going to be at that point, but you just want a shot to have your horse display what he can do on that day and he’ll never have the opportunity again. That’s it. You get to race that race one time.”

In the shorter term, earnings could impact the rest of the season for this group of trotters.

“There’s a part that people aren’t paying much attention to, but there are several races the rest of the season that are determined by money earnings,” Antonacci said. “This is the biggest pot to determine that. My horse is put at a major disadvantage. (Butenschoen’s) horse (in fifth) would have got $45,000 more on his card and maybe the ability to get into some of those bigger races the rest of the year.”
As such, Butenschoen said he hopes all this could be ruled on quickly “because of the implications for the races coming up that are based on dollars earned. Is no one going to get credited with any purse earnings? Is Victor Gio It going to get into a race because they awarded him purse money that rightfully or wrongfully isn’t his? It changes everything.”

Corrections needed

Everyone interviewed for this story agreed changes are definitely needed.

“Sometimes just saying sorry isn’t enough and there has to be some sort of punishment along with it. Some sort of action-correcting steps taken, to make sure this doesn’t happen again. That’s what I’d like to see come out of this more than anything, to see the sport improve itself because of it,” said Antonacci, reached in Jackson Hole, Wyoming where his brother is to be married this weekend.

One suggestion is better camera angles are needed so judges can make definitive calls.

“I was at the Jackson rodeo last night. Two things that I took out of there. They had drones for TV coverage and judging. I posted a picture of that on Twitter. Two, they had a person commentating the event and explaining to the public every moment of the rodeo and there’s no betting. It was interesting what they said. They said, ‘Welcome to rodeo. This is a dying sport and we appreciate you being here and we’re going to do our best to explain to you what’s going on throughout the entire night.’ I said, ‘Wow. Couldn’t we learn something from that statement right now?’

“I’ve always said it about poker. Who would’ve thought that poker could be on TV? Well, it wasn’t until they put the hole-card camera that poker could be on TV. Now, all of a sudden, the person watching on TV had a perspective that no one else had sitting around that table. Those little things can make a huge difference and I haven’t seen many of them (in harness racing).”

Despite all the challenges, Antonacci said he is hopeful about the future.

“You know what I am optimistic about? John Campbell is head of the Hambletonian Society now and the guy is the greatest driver of all time. He knows when things happen or when it’s something that shouldn’t happen on a racetrack and he was never afraid… If there’s anyone that’s going to make a difference on that front – guys following the rules, conducting themselves professionally on the biggest stage – I think the right guy is at the helm to drive that change, so I’m excited to see that,” Antonacci said.