Did voters get it right in 
Trainer of Year?

by Brett Sturman

This week, the United States Harness Writers Association (USHWA) voted conditioner Brian Brown as the 2017 Trainer of the Year over trainer Ron Burke. In doing so, Brown won the honor despite training earnings of $5.8 million compared to Burke’s $21.1 million and 151 wins to Burke’s 889.

In a way, Burke has become a victim of his own success. If the award were based strictly on the numbers he would win it every year, but the fact that his powerhouse stable hasn’t won the Dan Patch for Trainer of the Year since 2013 (and only twice in his career) shows that there is something else at play in deciding who wins.

For a trainer to earn $20 million in seasonal purses would have seemed impossible not too long ago – and still is highly improbable for anyone else – but Burke has made it seem routine for him in recent years. And while he’s crossed that milestone once again this year, he’s going to finish down slightly from last year and well off his astonishing total of $28.4 million from 2014.

Burke’s top stars were led by older female trotter of the year Hannelore Hanover, who is probable to be named overall Horse of the Year as well in February. He also trained 3-year-old male trotter of the year What The Hill as well as 2-year-old filly pacing champion Youaremycandygirl.

Brown won the award thanks to his standout sophomore pacing colts, Downbytheseaside and Fear The Dragon. The two 3-year-olds who earned just shy of $2 million this year combined. The colts finished 4th and 5th respectively in the final Hambletonian Society / Breeders Crown poll, but both dominated much of the national headlines from week to week almost the entire season, including knocking heads in some of the best races of the year. In the process, it made Brown, an Ohio native, a name on the national level.

Not to be overlooked was the Dan Patch 3-year-old pacing filly champion Blazin Britches who not many even heard of until August. She was also campaigned by Brown and earned $540,000 this year. Combined with the two colts, the top three horses from Brown’s stable accounted for $2.5 million of the $5.8 million won by the entire stable.

Here’s the thing. Nothing should be taken away from the year that Brown had and there’s no question that his openness and friendly demeanor throughout the year aided his cause with his voters. I can attest first hand that no matter the circumstance Brown always made himself available for comment and to provide as much information about his pupils as he possibly could. It’s these qualities that deservedly earned him the Good Guy award that he will receive at the upcoming Dan Patch awards. But it’s hard to say he should have overtaken Burke as the top trainer because of his candor.

In a close race such as this, I’d think that the person training the presumptive Horse of the Year should get the nod. Even more to the point, Burke pulled off an upset win in the Little Brown Jug with Filibuster Hanover at the Delaware County Fairgrounds – Brown’s home base – over Downbytheseaside. I like Brown a lot and hope we get to see tons more of him on the big stage next year and in years to come, but in a tough choice I think the voters got it wrong on this one.

The bad and good in Pennsylvania

It’s that time of year where the thoroughbred and harness tracks in PA submit their proposed wagering formats to the state Department of Agriculture, and based from what was made public this week there was little headway made in the form of takeout reduction.

Mohegan Sun Pocono still boasts a 30 per cent takeout rate for all trifectas and superfectas, while Harrah’s Philadelphia proposes a takeout rate of 30 per cent on trifectas and 32 per cent on superfectas. The Meadows maxes out at a 25 per cent takeout rate for tris and supers, which at least isn’t as egregious as the other two tracks.

It continues to baffle as to why tracks would openly be so bettor unfriendly. These are tracks already posting perennial low handle, so why not do something to entice – or at least not openly drive away – people to play your product. Plus, with the racing product being near fully subsidized by slot machines anyway, why not pass some of those slot dollars on the customer in the form of a takeout reduction? I guess we’ll never know.

On the good side, PA came down hard last week on owner/trainer Pete Vumbaca. Following the claim of his horse Quick Fun N at Harrah’s Philly two weeks ago, Vumbaca erupted into a tirade in the paddock that included marking the horse’s halter with a series of anti-Semetic slurs. In response, Vumbaca was issued by the racing commission a 3-year-suspension, a $5,000 fine and a lifetime ban from claiming.

Pennsylvania might not have it right in other areas, but this was a strong punishment for something that simply has no place in the sport. Good for them.

Economic indicators

With just a couple of days remaining in the calendar year, it appears that the amount wagered on harness racing in the United States will be down close to 5.5 per cent when compared to the prior year. What’s worse is that the 2017 number will be down close to 10 per cent when compared to 2015, and nearly 15 per cent when compared to 2013.

On the other hand, total race purses are up two per cent when compared to last year. Publicly, we hear from time to time about attempts made to increase handle, but if purses continue to remain where they are or even increase, I wonder how many track executives privately are even bothered by the handle decline. The declining handle but increasing purses certainly presents a unique dynamic.

Foiled Again watch

The most anticipated event through the early part of 2018 will be when Foiled Again notches his 100th career win. Currently standing with 98 career wins, Foiled Again will begin his 14-year-old and final racing season on the heels of a decent try last week at the Meadowlands from post 10 against some pretty stiff competition. Currently not in to go this weekend, my prediction is that he’ll get 100 sometime by March and it would be nice if he could get it at the Meadowlands where there would be a good deal of fanfare for the event.