The best driver, fixing racing broadcasts and why VD was lightning fast

The best driver, improving racing broadcasts and why Vernon Downs was so fast

June 1, 2018

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by Ron Gurfein

Editorial: Talk about the Wild West. It just moved a little further east. A well-known barn raced a very short-priced claiming horse recently. The horse was odds on and won easily. I see the horse was claimed by one of the stable’s premier owners, obviously with a different trainer. Subsequently, the horse was raced back and reclaimed by the original barn. There is probably nothing illegal about this transaction, however it is certainly unethical and as a judge I personally would have voided the claim. Thinking about this I am wondering if the race office or judges realized how unscrupulous this kind of maneuvering actually was.

When the Big M returns to greatness shortly, we will see fantastic racing without any of this nonsense. The sad thing is the barn in question makes millions. How greedy can you be to do something this dumb for a few thousand dollars? I am no purest, but I was so annoyed I had to print this.

Bob Carlson from Ontario asks: Who is the best harness driver in the world today and why?

Unfortunately, I have little awareness of the best of the Down Under or European drivers so I will stick to North America and say unequivocally, in my less than humble opinion, that Yannick Gingras is the best that you can have today. I believe that a great amount of the success of Jimmy Takter and Ronnie Burke are the Yannick Factor. Remember, when he drives for them, the rest of the field is missing the “It Factor” so even when the big stable has a horse that’s less than the favorite, the best driver is removed from the mix. I am definitely prejudiced when it come to Yannick because in the waning years of my career his win percentage for me was at some ridiculous level. I find, even to this day, he has the ability to communicate that many drivers severely lack. A trainer wants the truth plain and not sugar coated, and that’s what he delivers. He always answers texts and has a plan for his week and for the most part knows where he will be on a given day. Another thing I found was that if you have the best horse and Ron or Jim are in with you he will invariably drive your horse.

I get tired of hearing that anyone who had his clients would look great. I totally disagree there are many others that drive for Takter and Burke and few do nearly as well.

Don’t get me wrong there are many great drivers, but you asked for one and he happens to come from Canada, too.

Of note, the Hambletonian trophy that has thus far avoided Yannick’s grasp will be in his hands on the first Saturday in August, the Guru predicts.

Billy Bigler asks: You asked on Facebook for a website to see the Elitloppet and I sent you one did you get to enjoy it?

Absolutely, and thanks so much. After seeing the production I was amazed what a fabulous job they did and I don’t even speak Swedish.

Hearty congratulations to two of my really good friends, Jerry (the prince of Providence) Riordan, and Wim Paal the famous German driver that delivered their great win in the 2018 Elitloppet with Ringostarr Treb. In the first heat, Wim protected the rail and let one horse go on the way to the quarter where he immediately retook the lead, slowed the pace to a walk and sprinted home for an easy victory.

The second heat, however, was no walk in the park as the competition was far more difficult. Ringostarr Treb went to post the second choice behind the Elizabeth Caldwell-bred Propulsion. Trained by Daniel Reden, a baby faced young man that has talented beyond his years, Propulsion made a great race of it with a furious late charge falling a bit short. I personally don’t think Propulsion looked very comfortable in the last turn and had trouble closing the gap. He was forced to go very wide coming into the stretch, leaving too much track between him and Ringostarr Treb and not enough time to get there. But I don’t want to take a thing away from the winner. The preparation was perfect as were both drives. The horse was very strong in a very fast mile.

Jerry and I have been friends since we both trained for Lou Guida and when Jerry moved to Italy he was very helpful keeping the peace between me and Lou, which wasn’t always so easy. Interesting that I first met Wim Paal when he won the Lotteria for Jerry and Guida with Embassy Lobell in 1993. His longtime girlfriend Alesandra Baldi is Lorenzo Baldi’s sister and Lorenzo won the Orsi Mangelli in San Siro, Milan for me with Trustworthy. What a small world. Wim and I became close and he spent a while in the U.S. and trained and drove some of my horses. I think he returned to the European circuit because on the continent a driver is a Rock Star. Not so much in the U.S.

Many American trainers have raced in Europe, few have stayed and certainly none as long as Jerry. It takes a special person to change his and his family’s lives to that extent. But it certainly is a possibility for a young man or woman to consider today. The lifestyle is amazing. The crowds, like the 60,000 at the Elitloppet are a weekly, not yearly, occurrence and the betting is over the top compared to the U.S. However, America is a very special place and is not so easy to leave.

Richard Herman asks: I know both you and your buddy Art Zubrod have been critical of various television productions of horse racing. What could we do in our sport to improve the shows?

I watch most of my harness racing on my computer attached to a large screen smart TV. I find the picture pretty good most of the time, and you get full volume through your television. I can’t stand watching TVG do harness racing. To me it’s embarrassing how they can’t pronounce the names of world class horses or drivers. This is a display of not caring or basic laziness or both on their part and it infuriates me. The worst is when they put a $300,000 harness race on tape delay to show the finest $5,000 claiming race from Los Alamitos and then take another five minutes to explain how the jockey on the favorite did the wrong thing.

My new pet peeve came this weekend watching the great Memorial Day Sunday card from Harrah’s Philadelphia when the announcer in between each of the earlier races would say there goes Hannelore Hanover going by in her warm up, there goes Filibuster Hanover etc.etc. What the hell? I am sitting home looking at an odds board on my screen and this guy is telling me what’s going on, on the track not even saying the horse looks good or bad. Why not show the picture of the warm ups. We still are a gambling sport. If you have time to editorialize what you are seeing on the track why not show the customer, it might just improve the handle. Now if there is some kind of rule against this that I am not aware of I apologize but as of this writing I know no such provision.

As a matter of fact, I think showing warm ups would be a major change for the better and the bettor. Eliminate replays. If necessary, you can show them any time and they are available 24/7. Both the Meadowlands and Red Mile have interviews with trainers, drivers and owners before and after the races. I am sure this increases confidence in many gamblers as well as making the production very entertaining.

Nothing will ever replicate Sam McKee’s great work at the Jug and the Red Mile, which was so enjoyable it could make a 20-race Jug card all day fun.

It would also help to have one handicapper to give multi-race picks for Pick 3, 4,and 5’s.

We must also end the drag time before post. That is the time between the listed post time and the actual start of the race. Some tracks are bigger offenders than others, but the closer to perfect we get the more pleasurable experience it would be for the viewers.

I love the crowds attracted to the replica bands at Pocono Downs. I am sure they help the handle and they put on a wonderful show between races. If any tracks still care about on track handle this would be another avenue of consideration. I realize that this was off the beaten path from the original question, but please consider it writer’s privilege.

David Elliot asks: I have seen fast racetracks in my life but why was it so ridiculously fast at Vernon Monday afternoon?

I watched all the races and was surprised at the speed myself. The 1:50.3 mile of Atlanta pulling away from another very good filly in Plunge Blue Chip was more than impressive.

To properly answer your question, I called a few of the drivers and the general consensus was that it was a perfect day hot, in the 80’s no wind and track condition was excellent. Most felt that the track was always one and a half or two seconds faster than the Meadowlands so it was like the perfect storm, very much like the evening race 25 years ago when Beat the Wheel won in 1:51.3 at the Big M.

This does set up a great scenario that has been discussed all winter at Sunshine Meadows. Manchego vs. Atlanta, a great story, that may possibly not even happen on the first Saturday in August. What happens if one goes in the open and the other races in the Oaks? KEEP TUNED.

I have had many of you asking about the Hambletonian eligibles and what the picture looks like. I still favor Wolfgang and Manchego and not because I trained and loved both dams but because of their performance on the track. Now we throw Atlanta in the mix and it starts to get very interesting. As soon as some others start hitting the track I will be answering those queries.

Please keep the questions coming in and have a wonderful week.

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