20180223 - Ask The Guru

The inside story of what really happened in the 1999 World Trotting Derby

February 23, 2018

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Nearly 20 years later, Ron Gurfein reveals what really happened to his trainee Self Possessed in DuQuoin.

by Ron Gurfein

Bob Marks, among others, has asked what exactly happened in the 1999 World Trotting Derby.

Plain and simple, the way the cards fell, my owners were out $130,000, I had my pocket picked for $6,500 and a counterfeit sire was born.

It was early Saturday morning, Sept. 4, 1999. I left my room to have coffee with Doc Narotsky before heading to the track for what should have been a wonderful afternoon. However there were a few circumstances that changed a simple day at the office to an aggravating nightmare. This not unusual in horse racing, but this day should have never happened.

I have kept this story to myself for close to two decades and since it has a slight, but still negative, impact on some of my best friends, I have kept it too myself. Bob Marks lived this ordeal with me and he pushed my buttons on how interesting it would be for the rest of the industry to hear.

After my coffee with Doc I proceeded to walk to my car. When I left the motel I was greeted by a blast of hot air that was unimaginable. My car thermometer registered 91 and it was nine o’clock in the morning. If you have ever been to DuQuoin you know what kind of day I was in for.

The Derby had some very nice horses including Angus Hall, Enjoy Lavec, CR Renegade and CR Commando, however Self Possessed was at the top of his game beating his foes by five-and-a-half in the $1 million Hambletonian, in world record time, and by four in the American-National only a week before. It should have been a walk in the park.

It wasn’t.

Self Possessed won the first heat by two-and-three-quarter lengths from the nine hole but being parked three deep in the first turn by Angus Hall in 27 seconds took its toll. He was a very big colt and didn’t bounce back quickly and was still blowing quite a bit going out to the second heat. Mike Lachance raced him cautiously and he was beaten on the wire by Enjoy Lavec. This left me with a major decision. Do I go back a third heat on that 100-degree day or scratch? The World Trotting Derby payoff is strictly by summary. In simple terms, no money is paid until the last heat is over and if you scratch you get nothing. Already guaranteed $132,500 just for going behind the gate it wasn’t a hard decision. I went to the Narotsky compound and asked for more time. He said when the colt is ready we go.

My colt cooled down really well and was perky going on the track for the third and final heat. Although I had the disadvantage of the two hole, I was sure he could out sprint Enjoy Lavec under any circumstances. Honest fractions prevailed and Johnny Takter had his colt at the three quarters in 1:26. Mike eased the big colt out of the pocket and by mid stretch he had a head in front, then Enjoy Lavec changed lanes leaving substantial green paint on my brown race bike and caused my colt to veer sideways. The Derby was to belong to Takter and Perretti et al. I knew there was no time for an inquiry as the drivers were already in the limo with their colors on, very late for their private jet to Toronto. Lachance had said incidental contact, I said good luck in Canada and returned to the Narotsky compound to cry on Doc’s shoulder.

That horrid scenario did nothing to diminish my colt. He snapped back and crushed Enjoy Lavec in the Kentucky Futurity and went on to be a wonderful stallion. Enjoy Lavec on the other hand tried to destroy the Perretti broodmare band and to quote Bob Marks, “he never had a foal that could trot even a little bit in the paddock.” If it wasn’t for bad timing and the lack of an honest call he may have stood in Colorado.

Dave Briggs asks: What is the greatest song ever written.

Here we go with great again. I find it very difficult to categorize anything as greatest, but my favorite is one of the longest ever written.

MacArthur Park sung by Richard Harris and written by Jimmy Webb who also wrote Up Up and Away, and By The Time I Get To Phoenix (possibly a sequel) has been my answer for many many years. It was also recorded by Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross, Tony Bennett, The Four Tops and more recently Carrie Underwood.

A real park in the Westlake district of Los Angeles carries the name. There have been many stories about how the song was written and it’s true meaning, but my favorite and most romantic is that Jimmy Webb’s girlfriend, a cousin of Linda Ronstadt, left him. He was truly heartbroken. When he was made aware of her impending wedding that was to take place in MacArthur Park he went to the ceremony but instead of announcing his presence he hid in a shed to watch the proceedings without being noticed. Subsequently, the rains came and watching the raindrops ricochet off the wedding cake he thought it created the effect of melting. Thus the famous phrase “someone left a cake out in the rain.”

An interesting fact about the song is that although it is a very highly-rated single it could have topped the charts in many places but the DJ’s never liked to play songs over three minutes and MacArthur Park is seven minutes plus.

Harrison LeVan asks: (10 questions) I can’t answer them all right now but will try one. As a young trainer what is the best way to market yourself to bring in new owners?

The potential owner base has drastically dried up in the past 10 years and not so much due to disinterest but to old age. I also see standardbred buyers going into thoroughbred ownership something that is quite as evident in recent years.

The best way to market anything is have it be good. You can’t sell an over-ripe tomato or a car that can’t go 40 mph. If you are good, they will come. If you are on your own, race the horses you have where they can win and don’t be afraid to lose them because if you are good at what you do there are plenty of others. Work hard and be totally hands on with all the horses in your care. Try not to miss a thing. Your horses and equipment should shine on the track no matter what class they are in and, most important of all, never enter a horse that will make you look bad. Please no 100-1 shots, unless you know they are better than they appear.

If you worked for a top barn ask your previous employer to send you some horses.

One of the new young guns of the industry, Andrew Harris, was helped immensely by his previous boss, Casie Coleman, who supported him vigorously.

Be social, share time with the owners, lunch, dinner going to the races. Relationships built on respect and trust are very important. Always be 100 per cent honest with the clients even if it means telling them something they don’t want to hear.

Communication is a major factor. Be there for them when they need you. Many things in our sport are not easy to understand and need serious explanation. Remember, if you don’t tell them the problem now it will most likely come back and bite you in the butt at some horribly inopportune moment.

Last but not least make sure you know what you don’t know, it will take you a long way.

Steven Katz asks: what are the biggest differences between those enamored with standardbreds and those finding favor with thoroughbreds?

I have had the opportunity to be a part of both worlds. I love both sports and like the people involved in all of racing.

The standardbred as a breed is far more manageable and likeable than his thoroughbred counterpart. Therefore, our sport is more hands on. I have broken hundreds of standardbreds to cart with nary a problem. I have broken a few thoroughbreds to cart with many a problem. There basic temperaments are quite different.

I think that the difference between the breeds is a determining factor in the attraction to various groups of society. Owning a string of racehorses was a fashion statement that was very attractive to old money. The Phipps’, Carnegies’ and Whitneys’ created social events out of racing to the point that the Saratoga Meet and the Keeneland Meet would attract all of high society.

While this was going on, many of the standardbred owners, a lot of self made millionaires and blue-collar workers, were enjoying a deli sandwich at The Stage.

Not to demean the vast wealth in our sport, but mostly new money, men that started with little or nothing, are the backbone of harness racing. Not too many owned a railroad, a bank, or a diamond mine.

Our sport is far more of a hands-on game. Trainers and owners alike have a closeness to the horse. Many owners train and even drive some of their stock, not likely to happen in the thoroughbred barns. Mike McCarthy, a good friend and the leading Jockey at Delaware Park for about a decade would always come to my barn and train with me. Can you picture me going over to Bobby Baffert’s barn and asking to go for a spin with American Pharoah or Arrogate? There was a time when we were more socially elite, but as the years passed so did many of the old money participants. I remember evenings in the Turf Club at Pompano where one could see a Johnson, Skoglund, Van Lennep, a Gerry, a Nichols or a Dodge. Those days are gone forever. One thing is for certain the new money in our sport is very game. After listening to gloom and doom for at least 10 years I think this sport is the healthiest it has been in a long, long time.

Thanks again to all my readers. Your comments have been wonderful. Next week Bob Marks asks what horses I have selected that I thought could be great and how they turned out. Have a wonderful week.

Have a question for The Guru? Email him at GurfTrot@aol.com.

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