The case against Lou Pena, the origin of my colors and thoughts on greater transparency at draws

That and much more in the latest edition of harness racing’s most popular advice column.

by Ron Gurfein

Tidbits: Six years ago, the New York Racing Commission suspended trainer Lou Pena and fined him over $300,000. When the situation was first made public I said it shows that if they want to get you they will.

According to a Commission release, in 2015, Pena “was found responsible for 1,719 equine drug violations in 675 races.” The Commission, “sanctioned Pena after a comprehensive investigation of veterinary records determined that he entered and raced horses that had been impermissibly treated between January of 2010 and April of 2012. Following a hearing, Pena was banned from the sport for three years and fined $343,400.”

I am not a Pena fan. I really don’t even know him, but I believed that the evidence was so ridiculous it would be overturned on appeal by any judge with the facts laid out in front of him. Sure enough, the court over ruled the commission. This week, we’re informed that the highest appellate court in the state over ruled the lower court’s decision and Pena is guilty as charged.

The case that was presented could have put the cleanest of trainers in major jeopardy because of the lack of true record keeping in the sport. Often times, the injection date and the billing date can easily be off by a few hours, which, according to the court’s decision, would be enough to render a trainer guilty of having a vet administer drugs too close to race time. This decision is a dangerous sign. It represents a horrid travesty of justice and, hopefully, a Federal court chooses to hear the facts and overturn it.

I am not portraying Mr Pena as choirboy. In fact, his performance as a trainer is so unusually successful I highly suspect that he cheats, but an unsubstantiated opinion has no right to condemn in these United States. There are many out there cheating day to day without being caught and suffering banishment and fine, just like there are murderers roaming the streets. No one should face punishment without legitimate proof.

The Guru’s handicapping talents are alive and well. Although the pari-mutuel price was less than overwhelming, Captain Crunch, with a picture perfect drive from Scotty Zeron, didn’t disappoint. For those of you interested in gambling, the track bias factor can work in your favor more often than not. Last week, I pointed out that the colt was a victim of a drive that was against the track bias as 11 of the 13 races were won by horses that came from off the pace. Scotty changed his tactics to a challenge from off the pace and locked up Captain Crunch’s year-end honors with a crushing 3 3/4-length triumph. If you read my column after the Breeders Crown nothing much has changed as to my opinion of the victors in the year-end honors. The only exemption would be in the premier division of the 3-year-old trotting colts that to me was inconclusive at the time because of the scratch of Six Pack from the Crown that left a question mark. However, after the performance of Tactical Landing Saturday evening, my final choice ends with him. In my heart, I think down the line Six Pack is a faster colt, but sickness set him back at the wrong time. Tactical Landing proved once again that even though he is not the handiest horse to drive he is tough as nails and has no quit in him. He has the most important virtue a horse can possess, he wants to win.

All things considered it was a fabulous year for the industry. We witnessed the emergence of some great new sires in Father Patrick, Trixton, Captaintreacherous and Sweet Lou. You can’t go wrong breeding to any of the above. Muscle Hill and Chapter Seven continued to keep their dominance evident, and with the exciting freshman year of the super-talented Walner approaching if you are a trotting horse breeder the world is your oyster.

Going off the grid a bit, I find the need to vent a little. I reside in Philly and Boca Raton. I route for the Eagles and the Dolphins. The Eagles have had a difficult year, but in the awful NFC division in which they play, miraculously they are still alive for a chance to defend the Super Bowl championship. Carson Wentz played well on Sunday and beat an awful Giants team. On the other hand, the wonder boys Adam Gase and tainted Tannehill blew a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. I am not sure who is worse. The quarterback has proven to be a complete bust, Gase sticks by him for some unexplained reason. With three minutes left in the tied game, the Dolphins have the ball and Gase, with his love at quarterback, calls three running plays. The only way I could understand those calls is if he bet the Colts. It was a sad joke. Until the coach and the quarterback are gone there is no hope for a team that actually has some very talented players. Equate this to our sport. If you had a trainer, how many years would you give him for you to be in the black? Certainly not seven.

To my dear friend Casie Coleman Herlihy the final tally is Stag Party $514,000 U.S. and Captain Crunch $635,000 U.S. You are great at what you do and you have a wonderful Horse of the Year in McWicked, but Captain Crunch is the 2-year-old pacing colt of the year. Actually, if McWicked didn’t finish the year as strong as he did there were more contenders for that Crown that I have ever seen. If he had slipped a bit I could make a case for Shartin N, or Atlanta, the filly winner of the Hambletonian. But he didn’t slip and the race is over with.

If you missed Dave Briggs’ two-part story on Jimmy Takter, go to the archives and read it. It is without a doubt one of the best columns on out sport that was ever put in print.

I would like to personally wish Jimmy a wonderful retirement and hope that he doesn’t get as stir crazy approaching 60 as I have approaching 80. Thinking of our more than 25-year friendship and the fact he is 20 years my junior, I taught him a few things about training, and he taught me many things about life.

For those of you with an interest in thoroughbred racing, my friend Des Tackoor sent me a link to a story that is quite newsworthy. Recently an unraced colt by Tapit named Coliseum breezed four furlongs in :47.2 at Santa Anita. The reason this performance was notable is that the colt is owned by Godolphin and was sent to his new trainer Bob Baffert in an effort to win their first Kentucky Derby. A race that is probably the only event that has eluded the stable, that has most likely won every other major stake. The colt will not have any easy task because his new stablemate will be Game Winner the undefeated 2-year-old trained by Baffert and headed toward year-end honors as the best 2-year-old colt.

Dave Briggs asks: What is the origin or story behind the selection of your racing colors?

It’s no secret I am an older fellow. Thus my color selection came at a time in the ‘60s when a lady at the USTA was rather stringent about your colors and designs. To be honest, you were in the hands of the Philistines, so to speak, or in a boat without oars.

To be as polite as I can, you could select anything you liked but received exactly what she wanted you to wear. Being a not so passive young man, the fight (I couldn’t win) erupted and lasted months until I was draped in silks that reminded many of a creamsicle. It was a full white top (as opposed to the Eisenhower type jackets worn in the next decade) with two wide orange stripes. Aside from the fact that I had little idea of what I was doing, I truly looked like some type of clown. Kids were usually thrilled to put on their colors I was embarrassed, to the point that I would actually borrow others trainers’ colors to warm up my horses. I have more win photos with me in the blue and gold of Frank Popfinger than in the orange and white of the young Guru.

I did learn quickly that the judges found it more important that you had white pants on and could care less about “registered” colors. Many years went by before I had any colors that were my own. One of my best friends whose colors I loved was Mike Metcalf with his Captain America suit. Basically it was the same pattern I wear now with the exception his were red, white and blue. Sadly we lost Mike to an auto accident at way too young an age, but not before he had Irv and Vics make a short jacket for me with the exact same pattern as his in the colors I had applied for originally — brown and white (see photo previous page). The colors were a gift for my 30th birthday. PS , not only were they never registered, but they are on my statue in the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame In Goshen. I wonder if I am the only one. Somehow I doubt it.

Adriano Sorella asks: There’s been some talk about post draws and elimination races stacked with the best horses. This in turn leads us back to a never ending “transparency “ issue. Computer draws are programmed by humans and there’s no live video streaming of the draw. With technology the way it is, what do think of having the draw live on social media ie: Facebook Live?

I, for one, after training horses for more than half a century, do not believe in conspiracy theories in my sport. For sure there have been rotten apples that have committed egregious acts that will promote these theories, but to my knowledge they are few and far between. Draws are always subject to error, whether it be by machine or human being. But dishonesty is totally non existent. I covered the subject of elimination draws a few weeks ago so I will not beat a dead horse. It is nice to know that there are owners like you out there that care about a subject like this, so as much of a reach as it seems I will not dismiss it. I am sure there are many owners that would like to see the draw, but it appears to be a difficult procedure on a daily basis. Maybe for stakes races it could be done as the Meadowland broadcasts the draw for the Hambletonian. In all fairness to the sport, this should be done for entertainment purposes and not because we question the validity of our system. You are not the first one to bring up the subject however. Many years ago I had a client that had a colt draw the 10 hole at the Meadowlands two weeks in a row. He called me at 6 am and requested that I go to the race office and watch the draw. I got suckered into assisting in the draw and when the colts name was called I drew him number 10. I reported the post to the owner, but omitted that I was involved in his misfortune out of sheer embarrassment.

Thanks again to all my readers for the kind words. I am sorry for the long tidbit section and the short question segment as sometimes I get carried away with ideas I think will interest you. The training lists should be completed shortly. If you are a trainer of a stable with two year olds in Florida and would like me to list them please send me the list to Include the name, sex, sire and dam. Thank you.

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