Great racing in Paris and Florida, the evolution of decks and my biggest mistakes and success stories at sales

February 2, 2018

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by Ron Gurfein

I received a really nice note from Clay Horner this week RE: the revised WEG/Gural integrity rule and the delay caused by the Ronnie Burke TCO2 positive. Horner is as anxious as we all are to see the new rule finalized, however the crafters of the document are more concerned with getting it done properly than speeding to a solution.

However, it is a mystery to me as to why Burke’s horse was retested on Saturday and 72 hours later there is no information available as to the results. If in fact the horse came out with the same numbers, or even close, it would shed a totally new light on the subject and put a major kink into the new rule’s process.

Paul Bruce asks: I know you are a fan of both thoroughbred and standardbred racing. What did you think of the big races in Paris and South Florida?

What a great weekend it was for the racing industry. A fabulous finish to the Prix d’ Amerique, providing us with one of the best races we have seen from Paris in years. Plus, the $16 million show from Stronachland (Gulfstream Park). Although very predictable, it was a social event in south Florida. We had the opportunity to see the last races of two great horses — one won easily as was expected, the other beaten by a great drive and there was no shame in his defeat. Gun Runner and jockey Florent Geroux destroyed a very suspect field in the second edition of the Pegasus, a race where you put up $1 million for a place in the gate and don’t have to name the horse till a later date, strange but true. Thinking as a trainer it’s a good bet for you, not so good for the owner as there were 12 entered and all received at least $650,000. However, that meant that eight owners lost $350,000. I could see that if there was no big favorite it could work out better. Of note, when they were saddling Gun Runner the horse identifier checked the tattoo and nodded his okay and with that Steve Asmussen said, “Thank God we brought the right horse.” Although the undercard was lacking and the cost of admission exorbitant, the crowd was great and the beautiful people were out in force. I even spotted a few standardbed folks in attendance.

Sixteen hours later, after more reformations than I care to enumerate, the Prix d’Amerique was contested in Paris at the Vincennes Race Course, which is, in my opinion, the best racing surface in the sport. The favorite, Propulsion, an American horse bred and raised by Elizabeth Caldwell in Kentucky finished a very creditable third within a length of the winner Readly Express driven by Björn Goop. Bold Eagle the morning line favorite after a gutsy stretch performance had to settle for second-place money.

Something I found very interesting is that they bet $40 million on the entire Gulfstream card and the bet 40 million euros or $49,350,000 on the Prix d’Amerique alone. There were no statistics on the total Paris card available.

Paul London asks: I noticed that a trainer had a trotter race exceptionally well and in a post race interview he said, “We pulled the shoes.” I am confused as to what the rules are, can you shed some light on the subject?

Paul, I hate to say it, but there are no rules. It seems to me that it is up to the discretion of the racing commission in the various localities as to whether this situation is addressed. There should be uniform rules for this and many other things like medication. Hopefully this will eventually happen. For now you are at the mercy of the equipment checker most of whom are very thorough and you should check the changes that appear on the TV screen. At most of the Pennsylvania tracks you will see this horse “no front shoes.” Don’t look for it now because the only trainer I know of that will pull shoes in the dead of winter is me and I am in sunny south Florida writing a column for your entertainment.

Jim Romans asks: I would be very interested to know the evolution of the viewing decks at the south Florida training areas.

Bill Bigler has raised the bar on the subject. He has built the most beautiful decks the sport has ever seen, creating a warm and friendly atmosphere to the process of viewing the standardbred colts. However the origins of “the deck” were not for patrons, but for the trainers. The originals were on the training side of Pompano Park in the ‘60s and ‘70s. They were built on the track where the trainers would sit and await their training sets. The large barns of the time, Haughton, Dancer, Popfinger, Silverman, Baldwin, Beissinger, with the familiar assistants as Apples Thomas, Bones Vaughn, Tim Brown and the unforgettable Doc Morris would sit on the deck and await the grooms to bring the horses. Jerry Glantz reminded me that the Haughton barn was so big that they had an old rotary dial telephone on their deck to call the barn and tell them to send up the next set. The owners in those days would congregate at the track kitchen where there was a viewing stand that could accommodate lots of people as well as tables outside where you could have breakfast and watch the horses at the same time. The decks at Pompano could not have been like the ones we have now at Sunshine Meadows, not because Bigler wasn’t born yet, but because of the logistics, the barns were not aligned to the track.

The decks as we know them today started there popularity in the early ‘90s with my barn and Per Erickson, Jimmy Takter, Continental Farms, Mark Omara, Bruce Nichols, Fred Grant and Lindy Farms (that shared my deck)Bill Popfinger,and Doug Miller.

Unlike today, the conversations were rarely about horses, but mostly about politics. I remember one conversation very well. It was on my deck and the participants were Frank Antonacci, of Crown Stable, Guy Antonacci father of Frank the Elder and Gerald, Jimmy Vigliotti, Bill Perretti, Jim Wheeler and me. We were in a heated discussion on weapons of mass destruction. My comment was that Harry, my famed assistant, was more dangerous driving on 95 than Sadam with his WMDs.

The deck crowds were nothing like today either. A few times a year when George Segal would come to town, or Mrs Kleiberg would visit Per, they may have looked a little busy. But on a daily basis you had the Frosts, the Gerrys, and the Antonaccis, Wild Bill Perretti, and Big Jim Wheeler all denizens of south Florida. Traffic did get substantially better when Chuck Sylvester moved his operation from North to South Florida. We then saw more of the McDuffees and the Goodmans.

With the building of the Bigler deck last year and the wonderful hospitality of Tony Alagna and Stephanie and Myron Bell the Saturday on the deck has become a major event in south Florida racing. Although the place abounds with people all week long, Saturdays are a true party. There are times when at least 30 or more visitors will be watching eating and conversing. Even the sponsorship has grown to include David Reid of Preferred Equine and other titles, and Murray Brown of Hanover Shoe Farm fame and Frank Antonacci of Lindy Farm who actually shares ownership of the deck with Tony Alagna.

Toward the southern end of the track, Casie Coleman Herlihy has a beautiful new Bigler creation that a visitor may find a bit more on the conservative side than the group in the Alagna barn. Fred Grant, Paul Kelley and Rick Zeron can also provide nice viewing stands for the track. Anyone with an interest in harness racing should come visit on Saturday if you are socially inclined or during the week if you would like to learn about the business.

Phil Gray asks: I know you have bought and sold many horses in your lifetime, we all have successes and failures. What was a big mistake you made and a great buy you remember?

Unfortunately, the failures are stuck in your head, the successes you have to think about. I did make a horrible error in the mid 1970s. I was working with Don Prussak in the years after racing Songcan and he had a full brother selling at the Tattersalls in Lexington. Donnie couldn’t get away so he gave me a blank check and asked me to go to Kentucky and look at the colt. It was a long time ago and I don’t remember what bothered me about the colt but I couldn’t pass him. Not being confident in my appraisal, I asked two friends to look at the colt also. Phil Tully of Woodstock Stud and Mort Finder master of Pine Hollow. Unfortunately they both concurred with my decision. The colt was hammered down to Delvin Miller, I think, for $23,500, well within my budget. His name was Songflori. You know “the rest of the story”.

On the positive side, when the late John Cashman was visiting Sunshine Meadows on a daily basis he would be at my barn every morning at 6:30 sharp to discuss the daily business while I had my 4th cup of coffee. He told me George Steinbrenner had a bunch of bad horses and asked me if I would try them for a few weeks to determine their future. I accepted and my first ride for “the boss” I found myself upside down in the creek that borders the eurotrack. Not a fun beginning. After a few weeks, I said to John, “Take them all back. Tell George to keep one, a colt named Express It and sell the others.” Express It was a Supergill brother to Express Ride 4,153 $1,000,000+ that had talent but needed some time to heal and mature. What made me think he would listen to me, he didn’t listen to Billy Martin and there was not to be a Ronnie 2? It did get back to me that he was upset that I made a decision so quickly and didn’t really give the horses a chance. I would have thought he would be thankful that I did pull the trigger that fast and didn’t draw out a bad situation. I really lost track of the horses and really didn’t care and then one day I was looking at a mixed sale catalog and there he was Express It almost four years old and still unraced. Great pedigree or not he wasn’t the kind to demand much attention in the sale ring. The sale was not well attended as it was a brutally hot day at the Meadowlands in July and they hammered the colt down to me for $3,000, a $97,000 discount on his yearling price. The colt was fresh and sound and really looked wonderful. I gave half of him to my second trainer Chris Lakata who, as it turned out, drove him in all his starts, the first of which came on October 1 at Garden State Park where he won by 7 lengths in 1:57.1. He then reeled off big margin victories at Pompano in three of his next five starts and attracted a lot of European interest as Express Ride was a popular horse on the continent. For a green horse with less than $10,000 on his card in only 7 lifetime starts, one could never even dream that we were to receive a check in the low six figures. However, the purchasers were to be as rewarded as we were when the horse became a more than successful sire in Denmark.

Thanks to all of you for reading my column. Hopefully we can get to the new integrity rule by next week. Please keep the questions coming in to me at gurftrot@aol.com and have a wonderful week.

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