Increasing harness racing’s appeal, thoughts on training like Europeans and my time as Monticello Maitre D’

by Ron Gurfein

To begin with I want to thank Clay Horner for his kind words (full story here).

The truth is that without inquiring minds like his I would not have a column. His comments remind me of the fact that it is of the utmost importance we keep the dialogue alive on the subject of integrity. It became awfully quiet after WEG couldn’t finalize a solution that would satisfy the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO). My friends, let’s get back to the drawing board and come up with a much-needed answer. I feel you were close now let’s close the deal.

Phillip Gilmour asks: Someone told me that you were the Maitre D’ at Monticello Raceway. Is that true?

It is true, but for a very short time and under the weirdest of circumstances. It was early summer 1975. I was jogging a colt on the back track at Monticello and I heard a page on the loudspeaker, “Ron Gurfein come to the main office.” Well, if you were aware of racetrack management at that time (we had some kind of investigation every week) and you were in my shoes you would be having heart failure. The only time a trainer was summoned to see the gods was to get his walking papers. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. I was quite sure I hadn’t done anything to merit eviction, but in those days there was no guilt or innocence. If Leon Greenberg (CEO) thought there was something out of the ordinary you had 24 hrs at most to vacate the property. It’s about a two-minute car ride to the main office. You can imagine what danced in my head during that ride.

I walked through the huge double door to the main office and was greeted by Eileen McCollough, Leon’s secretary and was surprised she had a nice smile on her face when she announced, “Go right in. They are waiting for you.” “What does they mean?” I thought to myself. “Only one person is in that office.”

I opened the door and there to my surprise was Leon Greenberg with three member of the board of directors, Charlie Slutsky, Milton Kutcher and Sidney Sussman. None of the directors would appear for a hanging. Immediately after seeing the looks across the table I knew I wasn’t the subject of any investigation. Maybe they were giving me a seat on the board, ha ha ha.

Leon was very direct “Ronnie you have to help us.” He went on to describe their dilemma. The new disco was to open that weekend and the individual they had hired to run the operation was unable to obtain a New York State Racing license because of some unsavory activities in his past. “The board and I have decided that you are the perfect replacement. You will be the Maitre D’ on Friday night when we open.” Amazingly, there was no talk of salary and no discussion of what I was to do with the barn full of horses on the top of the hill, just simply, “You start Friday.”

My first thought was, “When the hell do they expect me to sleep?” The next few days I acclimated myself with the beautiful new disco and my waitresses, busboys etc. The plan was in place. Opening night was a wild one with Larry Rolla and Louie Gigante (the PRINCES of the Catskill social life) the first customers through the door, dangling a $50 bill for the best seats in the house. Since I most likely lent them the $50, I grabbed it immediately and had them seated in a prime location. FYI that was the only tip I accepted all night. I remember Mike Sorrentino tried to give me $100 and I wouldn’t take it. He was truly a wonderful man. It really was sold right out. The disco was beautiful and a howling success, but my lack of sleep and my disintegrating barn caused me to give notice and pray for a replacement ASAP.

It was a lot of fun and if I could do it again I probably would, but when it happened I felt that there was no way I could say no.

Clay Horner asks: What can tracks do to increase the appeal of harness racing?

There are two major factors here and they both involve money. That seems to be the dirty word as everyone wants to fix what is probably irreparably broken, but no one wants to pay the price. There is an old saying, “You have to speculate to accumulate.” I have no idea who said it but it is basically true.

In my long time in our sport there were many good PR men. Three stand out. Alan Finkelson, John Manzi Jr., and Joey Goldstein. Aside from being phenomenally successful, they all had one thing in common. They worked 24/7 and came up with the oddest plans to fill the stands that most often worked. Where are the high-profile PR people today? Nowhere. They don’t exist. Not because they are not available, but because the average racino could care less about harness racing, and would have no desire to pay them. Let’s go get some innovators.

My second suggestion also costs money. There is no proximity between the horses, drivers and trainers and the patrons. I have been at every major racetrack in the country both harness and thoroughbred and to me the Keeneland experience is the best. The bettor can get an up close and personal look at horses, jockeys and trainers. The Meadowlands outdoor paddock came close, but not close enough. Even the Red Mile before it was reconstructed had the paddock at close proximity to the public and on Futurity Day the horses paraded in front of the fans to the outdoor paddock right next to the clubhouse.

Clay, there is no earth shattering answer to your question because I remember even in the glory days management had short arms and deep pockets.

In thinking about the hair-brained schemes these guys would come up with, how do feel about a match race on the Fourth of July weekend. Foiled Again and Yannick Gingras vs. Usain Bolt. Would that get people through the gate?

David Cannon asks: I recently returned from Europe and experienced that the trainers there had a more intensive program for training than their American counterparts. They seem to focus on more training at slower speeds than less training at faster speeds. What is your take on this matter?

Just like in America, where the standardbred trainer trains harder than the thoroughbred conditioner because they are different type animals, the European style standardbred is not nearly as fine as the American version. They race mainly older horses on the continent and much longer distances. Our races here are like a sprint compared to many of the races abroad.

I think if you would turn the clock back 40 years we were training a lot more like our European counterparts because we were heat racing, plus a lot and the horses of that era were more of the body type of the continental version of today.

Per Erikson taught me the value of the straight track 25 years ago and I think both of us, as well as Jimmy Takter, trained more on the Euro style than American trainers do today.

Give credit to the breeders for the difference of the body and the speed of our colts today. In those categories we are far advanced from our thoroughbred friends. Their colts look the same and are not even as fast as they were 40 years ago.

Thanks again to my readers for the kind words. Please keep the questions coming and look for my Road To The Kentucky Derby and my discussion with Carlo Vaccarezza on the best colt. Without question this will be one of the most exciting Derbys in years. Have a wonderful week.

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