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HRU Feedback (2017-09-17)

September 17, 2017

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Love letter to Gural?

(Editor’s note: This letter was supposed to have been published in last Sunday’s HRU, but was accidentally missed. The author requested we publish it this week in reference to a letter by Jeff Gural that was in the Sept. 3 issue).

Jeff Gural, I love you and despite your seemingly incessant whining, I and most people involved in harness racing are eternally grateful for your immense contributions to the sport,

the chief of course being, the rescue of he Meadowlands from an impending demise.

You did invest a huge amount of your funds in The Meadowlands. But you were not the only one. There are others who invested and somehow they most often are overlooked.

Included in those investors were Brian Sears for sure and quite probably George Brennan as well.

Your letter of (Sept. 3) implies that Brennan and Sears knew of their plans before instituting them. I very seriously doubt that to have been the case.

How could they have been expected to know that? How would they have been expected to know that The Meadowlands would be reduced to racing two nights a week and except for the best (thanks to Jeff Gural and others) stakes program in harness racing, the purse structure is relatively meager, especially compared to the track across the river.

George Brennan and Brian Sears are working people, albeit seemingly affluent ones, in what is still a free America. They did what they felt was best for themselves. They still thankfully have that right.

Is their absence felt at The Meadowlands? Probably to some degree, but not certainly.

Despite you often racing with an assortment of what some might unfairly label as “manes and tails” and some not as well known drivers, you still put on the best racing show in North America. Your handle certainly reflects that reality.

It’s time to stop the complaining about issues that are years in the past.

I would love to see The Meadowlands regain its former status. So would just about everyone involved in our great sport.

Its time to look forward, not to constantly dwell on the past and do everything possible to get expanded gaming at what is still harness racing’s number one track.

I am extremely grateful for your perseverance, but I fail to see where the constant bickering does anybody any good.

— The Curmudgeon / Hanover, PA

Gural responds

While I know I shouldn’t respond to all the criticism it just seems hard to believe anyone could think the old (Meadowlands) grandstand was nicer then the new one. We hosted over 2,000 people this weekend for various social events besides our normal customers, so someone must think it looks nice. As far as my remarks about Sears and Brennan I was being facetious. I just wanted to make the point that when I decided to commit all of my time and financial resources I assumed the top drivers would stay. I agree the bettors don’t seem to care, but as a horse owner I am sure the owners would like a level playing field when they enter and having as many equally talented drivers helps.

Lastly, and most important, I am tired of being criticized for only caring about a casino. Faraldo said the same thing in a letter that Harnesslink published. Obviously a casino would be a big help and financially profitable but I would give away any big profit as I have been quite fortunate to be very successful in my real estate business.

The fact is, I began going to Yonkers and Roosevelt in high school over 57 years ago. I bought my first horse in 1973 and today I own all or part of 27 2yo and a dozen or so 3 yo and older horses racing under Little E LLC. You see my horses all the time including six racing (Saturday) including three in stakes at Mohawk. I have two breeding farms under the Allerage name about 40 broodmares shares in most trotting stallions and am selling 20 yearlings this fall. I probably watch more live harness races then anyone in the sport as I try to attend most Fridays when the Big M is open and most races over the summer at Tioga.

I tried to make the new facility something harness racing fans and owners could be proud of when they walked in, unlike many harness tracks. I put in a private club for owners so if they came with family and friends they had a nice environment to watch their horses race. To claim I am only interested in a casino is very hurtful. I work very hard. Right now my main focus is to get more groups to use the facility and more important to rid the sport of the drug trainers. I will not stop till I figure out what chemicals they are putting into these animals bodies just to win a race. So be warned I am committed to this effort. Thanks for letting me get this off my chest. I try my best.

— Jeff Gural / chairman Meadowlands Racetrack

Defending Yonkers

In last week’s HRU (2017-09-10 Feedback), a reader took umbrage with many things Yonkers Raceway, from the handle to the racing and everything in between. I can certainly understand the frustrations and the easy thing would be to suggest that he no longer watch and wager on races there.

But it was clear to me that the reader likes Yonkers Raceway and cares about it; if one cares, they complain, if they don’t they move on.

He referenced handle, specifically, that the lower the handle, the more the odds can fluctuate. That is certainly true. On Monday, in a matter of minutes, I saw a horse go from 5-1 to 3-5. That is frustrating for sure. You think you’re getting $12 value on a $2 bet and when the race is over it’s $3.20. Usually, the more money handled, the more stable the betting lines remain, which, is one of the reasons why bettors like the Meadowlands.

The next issue was the half-mile oval. In a perfect world, every track would be the like the Meadowlands and be one mile around. But, how many mile tracks are there? Besides the Big M, there is Red Mile, Cal Expo and Hawthorne Race Course. They are followed by the 7/8 mile tracks at Hoosier Park, Mohawk, Woodbine and Vernon Downs and then the 5/8 mile tracks, which include Harrah’s Philadelphia, Pocono Downs and Plainridge Park. Many of the harness tracks are like Yonkers — half-miles. Buffalo, Batavia, Saratoga, Monticello in New York; Freehold in New Jersey; Northfield Park in Ohio. In addition, we have Western Fair in London, ON and Bangor and Scarborough in Maine. The point is Yonkers is far from the only half-mile in the land.

If you look at handle at most half-mile tracks, they are similar. Even though Yonkers offers better purses, that never has resulted in higher handles. One would think that it would, but it just isn’t the case. In fact, Monticello Raceway often handles more dollars per race than Yonkers with purses that range from $3,300 to $6,400 per race. There is no $500,000 Monticello Derby, yet bettors don’t seem to mind.

There are many races at Yonkers where the leader blasts out in :27, then takes the 30-second breather, but I see that at other tracks, too. The moving of the finish line back 100 feet has definitely helped the racing at the Hilltop Oval, maybe not to the satisfaction of all, but it has certainly to some.

The finish line is just one improvement at Yonkers. The purses have improved and like the reader noted, the HD signal that Yonkers features is very good. To me, the key to betting at Yonkers is getting to know it by studying and looking for trends.

It’s easy to pick on Yonkers, but the track has done the sport of harness racing plenty good over the years. It’s been around since 1899; it races five days per week, 235 days per year while many “racinos” offer a fraction of that. Most prefer the Meadowlands, but have they done handicappers a disservice by offering just 91 days of racing per year, mostly on Friday and Saturday nights? While the Meadowlands is dark, there is Yonkers churning away night after night, 12 months a year.

Is Yonkers the best track to watch and wager on? Perhaps not, but it’s far from the worst and it does deserve credit for hanging in there for 118 years.

— John Furgele / Glenmont, NY

Sturman is wrong

Brett Sturman could not be more wrong (full story here).

Cheating trainers represent a major real and reputational problem for our business. What is the evidence? In the first place, it is the absolutely dismal wagering levels at the tracks most known for a lax approach to integrity. In the second place, it is the difficulty in recruiting new owners to the business. In the third place, it works to undermine public confidence in the business and the long term confidence of governments in continuing to fund the business. Those are all very serious issues which ought to concern anyone interested in the future of our business.

In most cases, owners know the approach of the trainers they hire and far too many owners go looking for “high risk” trainers and switch to the new “hot” name or follow dutifully to the appointed string of “beards.” In that context, it is not surprising that many potential owners decide they aren’t interested in participating in a business with a reputational taint and severely tilted playing field. It is particularly galling in top level stakes racing where honest owners fund the great majority of the purses.

Brett claims the real problem is the failure to oust the “beards”. That is part of it but is an issue of both the cheaters who still race in their own name and the “beards.” He conveniently fails to note that most of these “trainers” operate at tracks which have shown no interest in ousting them and perhaps that is not surprising given that wagering support is not of great interest to them at all. On many days and nights, their racing seems operated for the benefit of the players and a “beer league” audience. Outside the confines of the local ball field, no one knows or cares, but the players tote home prizes and trophies worthy of the big leagues. It can’t and won’t survive.

Most of the casino supported tracks aren’t interested. Thankfully, the regulators in Ontario and Pennsylvania are — and hopefully New Jersey will follow. Owners are accountable in all other businesses; the results and value of their investments suffer or are completely lost due to legal and reputational problems. Ask the shareholders of Enron or United Airlines. After troubles arise, they don’t get to shift stocks before taking the hit on their troubled investment and that applies to both large and small shareholders. Owners in our business need to be accountable too. Owners who support bad trainers need to be called out, not mentioned in positive press nor invited to partner with good owners.

As many know, the Meadowlands and Tioga took responsible action in denying access to two major stakes races for Lady Shadow earlier this year. WEG required a trainer change before permitting her to race (last night) in the Milton Stakes. While her connections maintained her former performance was due to her love for her Canadian stall, it seems more likely to have been her missing friends Chris and Ron. After a long period of dominance in her category against the same horses, she failed to perform to a remotely comparable level in both the elimination and final. Both tracks did right by the responsible owners who paid to enter those races and ultimately gave our gamblers a much better and fairer product. This is an important precedent and we will build on it with additional Staking rules and vigilant observation.

Our thoroughbred colleagues have taken the right lead in adopting new rules prohibiting participation in Breeders’ Cup races in the case of both recent and medium-term serious positives. We need to do likewise for our major events and we are working on that. As owners approach the yearling sales this year, they should be careful about their choices of trainers and partners. At WEG and the Gural tracks, the most significant sponsors of track based stakes, we are prepared to take the lead.

— Clay Horner / Chairman, Woodbine Entertainment Group

Astonished over Sturman’s column

I was astonished to read Brett Sturman’s article (full story here) in (Friday’s) HRU (9/15), in which he opines the new suspension of horses rule in Pennsylvania is unfair to owners. Sadly, there is a widespread perception amongst the masses that harness racing is a sport rife with cheats. Without growth, harness racing is doomed and growth is impossible unless and until the sport cleans up its act.

It will not be a government agency that purges the cheats, although rules like the new one in PA definitely help. The only way to stop the cheating is for a zero-tolerance policy of cheating be adopted, practiced and enforced by all participants of the sport, be they a trainer, a driver, a veterinarian, or an owner.

To suggest an owner is unfairly punished if one of their horses comes up with a positive test and is subsequently suspended, is ludicrous. Is it possible for a horse to test positive and the trainer be innocent? Of course it is. This could result from any number of circumstances, from an honest mix-up of medications being administered, to the vindictive act of a disgruntled stable employee.

I do believe before a suspension of horse and/or trainer is handed down, that all circumstances must be considered and a trainer’s past record must weigh heavy in the decision. It is incumbent upon all trainers to take every measure to protect the integrity of their operation, whether by stringent internal controls to properly manage treatments, barn surveillance systems, etc.

Brett Revington was absolutely correct in his assessment whereby horse owners have to be diligent and selective when choosing a trainer. That has always been my practice and my trainers are well aware I will not tolerate cheating in their barns, even if it doesn’t involve my horses.

In over 5,000 races in the past 20 years, I have never had a horse come up positive that I can recall. Once, I did have a trainer who was handed down a suspension after a few milk-shaking positives on horses owned by others. He immediately put a beard on his wife and all of his horses were moved to her, as trainer. In response, I immediately removed my horses from his/her barn, never to return. Unfortunately, he was a “nice guy” with a lot of natural ability, but we cannot look the other way and thereby enable the cheaters. Zero tolerance. Owner responsibility.

As for trainers to be avoided, Mr. Sturman, please get a clue! It doesn’t take a Philadelphia lawyer to figure out who’s crooked and who’s not. Indeed, there seems to be a group of owners who have a common practice of migrating to the newest cheat. When a particular trainer all of a sudden starts winning at an abnormally high rate, or horses come under his charge and immediately drop three seconds from their records, look at the roster of owners. Frequently, you see the same names patronizing other trainers of dubious character.

Mr. Sturman, do you want to know how to deal with the beards and the shadow trainers? The best way is to start by targeting the owners. These owners know they are aiding and abetting cheats and that makes them just as guilty. These trainers and owners are killing our sport and the rest of us honest horse people need to stand up and say enough is enough. The new PA rule is a small step in the right direction.

— Bill Donovan / Delray Beach, FL

More reaction to Sturman

In reference to Brett Sturman’s article about suspending horses along with trainers in Pennsylvania when a positive comes up and Brett’s thought that this also suspends the horse owner, I totally agree with the new rule in PA.

Sorry Brett, but it is the responsibility of the owner in selecting a trainer to try by all means possible to hire one that plays by the rules. My father and I had our stable, Leo Wolf & Son, Inc., for 30 years, racing an average of five to eight horses per year; claimers, conditional and two and three-year-old stakes horses. Over the 30 years we used eight different trainers and we NEVER had a positive test result.

Owners need to use proper business judgement as they would in selecting an accountant, a lawyer, a doctor, a veterinarian and a horse trainer too.There are many more trainers in our industry that play by the rules then not and owners must choose wisely when making their choice, or yes, they will see their horses suspended.

The USTA has Pathways that can help any owner see the past and pending fines and suspensions of every trainer in the industry. Current and new owners should be encouraged to use this service to help them in decision making.

Of course, there are extraneous circumstances that can occur, but that can also happen in any industry with the same unfair results to the client or owner. This new rule should help the vast majority of owners in our sport have some peace of mind for their investment(s).

— Steven Wolf / Coral Springs, FL

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