Two greats I turned down; deep thoughts on Lasix and why standardbreds keep getting faster, while thoroughbreds do not

by Ron Gurfein

Tidbits: My Hambletonian selection Wolfgang crushed his foes in his elimination of the Goodtimes at Mohawk. All things remaining status quo, he should easily repeat the effort in the final.

Why do the producers of major thoroughbred races on TV persist in having basketball and football specialists anchor their program? It’s truly an accident waiting to happen. Not only does it kill the flow of the program, but it makes the show so amateurish. Plus, it annoys me to no end, like the TVG announcers that do the show for harness racing. Where are Dave Johnson and Gary Seibel. When I was a kid, the announcer would do his homework. An icon like Marty Glickman could call harness, thoroughbred, basketball, football etc., all like a pro.

The Tony Alagna show was great at the Meadowlands Saturday morning and Captains Court had a great debut. Brittany Farm bred five winners in the eight races they were in and could have done better if the race office separated first- and second-time starters. Kudos to Joe Holloway who had a very good morning, too.

Justify was fabulous. I may not have made my followers a ton of money, but you didn’t lose. Coolmore has purchased the breeding rights to the colt so the future is interesting. They paid a reported $60 million and I wouldn’t be surprised if the number went up to $75 million with Triple Crown perks.

In the elims to the North America Cup, Alagna kept his hot hand going when Stay Hungary with Doug McNair became airborne in the stretch to win the first heat. The game little Bettors Delight colt Wes Delight was a delight for Emma Pettersson and Mark Harder with the talented Corey Callahan driving. The last division was the quickest and won by the odds on favorite Lather Up with a very crafty drive by Montrell Teague. The final will be quite a race.

For anyone interested in Broadway, I saw a fabulous show last weekend. If you have three spare hours some day go see My Fair Lady —it was outstanding. I saw the original 62 years ago and even though they modernized it a bit with some new songs and a little tilt to the story, I loved it.

Norman Rosen asks: I have been a racing fan for more than 50 years, why do the standardbreds keep going faster and the thoroughbreds remain basically the same?

I think there are a lot of different answers to this question. Breeding is the first answer. Although both breeds are guilty of excessive inbreeding, standardbred owners are far more limited in choice than their thoroughbred counterparts. Inbreeding can create physical and mental defects, but it may well create speed. Therefore, we are making a faster horse, but a more brittle one.

I have trained harness horses for close to six decades and there is no similarity between what a horse looked like in my barn in the 1960s and in the recent years. The modern standardbred is finer boned, lighter on his feet and overall a far more athletic looking individual. On the other hand, the thoroughbred hasn’t changed a bit. A great example of this would be a comparison of Secretariat, a product of the 1970s and Justify the winner of this year’s Triple Crown. Both were big rangy chestnuts but the former was much lighter boned and more racy than the latter.

The next reason — and one that, to me, is just as important — is the hub rail. Since we have removed all the hub rails in our sport, the tracks are automatically faster because the drivers feel more comfortable coming close to a pylon than a steel fence. Therefore, the tracks, although they measure the same, they become shorter. On the other hand, the same rail that was at the thoroughbred track in 1900 is still there.

Equipment is another factor to take into consideration. There have been 20 new versions of race bikes since I had my Houghton Faber. Each generation of sulky was a faster model. Add to that the harness with a quick hitch today versus tugs and tie downs of yesterday and the lighter weight harness, the story has no end.

I do however eliminate drugs from this equation because all trainers don’t use fancy drugs and when all the horses are going the same speed, performance enhancers are not involved. It’s when 1:50 is a good mile and a colt wins in 1:46 then I become suspicious.

Last, but certainly not least, is shoeing. Our running horse friends have been slapping on aluminum plates forever. Blacksmiths in our sport have to be far more sophisticated and the nuisances of shoeing for various racetracks and for speed and gait have improved immeasurably over the years. I was watching the North America Cup on Saturday and noticed there were more shoeing changes in one night than there would have been in one month in 1960.

People ask me all the time is it possible that we will catch up to thoroughbred times and the answer is an emphatic no. Although they have been stagnant we have only improved five or six second in the past 50 years so we still need another 12 seconds to be equal. Totally impossible.

Bob Pandolfo asks: I have a question regarding Lasix. Racehorses, especially thoroughbreds, but to some extent standardbreds, don’t run as many races as they used to. Could Lasix have anything to do with that? Is it hard to keep a horse hydrated when using Lasix? In your opinion should Lasix be legal? Almost every horse races on Lasix is it over used? Did any of you champion horses race without Lasix?

WOW. That’s a great LONG question. In answer to the first part, if you read the question that precedes this on speed you will note I talk about inbreeding. I think the frailty caused by this is far more deleterious to the amount of starts per horse than the use of Lasix. After speaking to many formidable veterinarians, they all agree that eliminating the use of Lasix would reduce the amount of horses available to race by more than 20 per cent. I personally never used the drug in all my years of training until I used it on a pacing filly recently with little success. I believe all horses bleed, obviously some more than others, which automatically makes Lasix a necessary evil.

It isn’t hard to keep a horse hydrated on Lasix because in the modern training world I believe that dehydration is a major concern of today’s upscale trainer. Mike Lachance was a great proponent of over-hydrating horses 30 years ago.

As for Lasix being legal, it has to be. We are suffering from a lack of horses in all forms of racing to ban Lasix no matter how much I dislike the drug would be a suicide move for the industry.

Is the drug over used? Probably. But that is the norm. It is a performance-enhancing drug, so if you have to race against it you are foolish not to use it or be at a severe disadvantage.

To answer the last part of your question, no champion horse of mine ever raced on Lasix. I don’t recall ever using the drug until two years ago, as I mentioned earlier. Trotting horse trainers are lucky in that respect because the Hambletonian Society has forbidden the use of the drug in their races and most trainers stay away from it. On that note, my selection for the 2018 Hambletonian, Wolfgang, raced on Lasix in his elimination to the Goodtimes on Saturday, but I am not concerned. Come the first Saturday in August, Sir Jimmy will have it figured out.

Bob Marks asks: Tell me about some of the ones you turned down that became great.

Thank goodness this is not a long list, or maybe my selective memory has shortened it. By far my two worst mistakes came more than 40 years apart. In 1973, my good friend and partner Donnie Prussak gave me a blank check to go to Lexington and buy the full-brother to Songcan (Florian—Ami Song). His name was Songflori and he looked nothing like his brother who was a big, rough-hocked colt that Donnie had purchased at the bargain price of $5,000 two years previously. He was a great two- and three-year-old and became a fairly good sire.

I didn’t like Songflori mostly because he was so different than his brother, but I was still wet behind the ears and I asked the opinion of two of the sport’s great breeders at the time and two friends, Phil Tully of Woodstock Stud and Morty Finder of Pine Hollow Stud. Unfortunately, both agreed with me. Subsequently, I walked to the sales ring and watched Delvin Miller sign for the bay colt for $23,500. He went on to win almost $500,000.

The next mistake was a few years ago when Billy Popfinger asked me to look at Marion Marauder in Lexington. I must be honest, I didn’t like him at all. He was far from my type of colt — squat and short-legged and not a lot of trot in the paddock. Talk about wrong, I was pathetic. In fairness to yours truly, the horse looks far better now that he has matured, but my praises could not be higher for Paula Wellwood for selecting him and creating a fabulous colt. Another instance of the apple and the tree.

Thanks again for all the kind words from my readers. Please keep the questions coming. Next week, Bob Marks asks what are your thoughts on the move of the Hambletonian from DuQuoin to the Meadowlands — has it become more like the Kentucky Derby or was DuQuoin a truer test of a champion?

Have a wonderful week.

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