Shocking lack of transparency in Zeron case and how I became The Guru

The Guru details his origin story, but not before admonishing the AGCO for lack of transparency, firing back at Jerry Riordan and commending Clay Horner for his detailed Breeders Crown ideas.

Tidbits: Once again I am horrified by the lack of transparency exhibited by a commission. Ontario’s over-zealous punishment of Rick Zeron is absurd (full story here). Unless they are hiding something, i.e.: what substance was in the bottle. A half-year banishment for an unlabeled bottle and a shock wave machine is over the top, but as I said was there heroin or EPO in the bottle? Why don’t we know the facts?

Someone on Facebook said Zeron should do the time and not fight and all will be well. But, of course, it costs him a year of income and that’s a chunk of change in my view. If, in fact, there was no serious drug in that bottle, I think the commission should look at a similar case in the U.S. where Noel Dailey received 90 days for the same infraction.

Some insight to my good friend “The Prince Of Providence” Jerry Riordan’s ripping my opinion in last Sunday’s HRU (2019-01-13 Feedback). You have given new meaning to nitpicking. I made sweeping generalizations about the appearance of the French Trotter and if you ask any horseman 99 per cent would agree with my assessment. Cocktail Jet that you use as an exception is smaller, but still bulkier and heavier boned than his American counterparts. As far as American blood percentages, I have received emails from all over the continent criticizing my take on the matter. Consequently, last Saturday night I had the pleasure of dining with Frank “The Elder” Antonacci of Lindy Farms and Murray Brown of famed Hanover Shoe Farm. I produced one of the emails for their appraisal and it involved the amount of American blood in the stallion Ready Cash. The consensus of opinion was that the stallion had 12.5% American blood at best.

I am far from a scientist so when I answer these questions please accept my opinion graciously as I am painting an overall idea. As for Piaf, she had no greater fans on our side of the pond than Mike Lachance and me. We drove all over this country listening to her magnificent voice. Mike would translate her songs to me while she was singing. Sadly, she passed away many years before my first trip to Paris. Yes, Jerry, I know you were joking but I decided to say it anyway. Happy New Year, my friend.

I am a big fan of Clay Horner. I think he is bright and quite innovative to say the least.

But sometimes, the lawyer in him takes him on a tangent. He is spot on with his ideas of fixing the Breeders Crown (full story here). All his ideas are well worth considering, but when he starts to create the actual conditions, the results become so convoluted or complex they are to difficult to understand, no less implement. The breeding business is very tough right now and with fewer foals some of Clay’s numbers for stallion contributions would be crippling. However, the idea is great, but on a smaller scale.

I feel like as he wrote the conditions he kept coming up with scenarios that he felt he left up in the air so he kept adding new rules. I would like to see him trim the fat and come up with the same plan in a more simplistic style.

Murray Brown asks: (A long involved question and I prefer not to write an autobiography on my column I will make it as simple as possible). How does Ronnie Gurfein, a New York City born and bred kid, a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, arguably the best public high school in the country become involved in harness racing? Trace your route to stardom and becoming a great horseman. Name the three people who most influenced your rise. You were probably a teenager before you realized a horse had four legs.

I was a child when I knew a horse had four legs. My parents had a farm on Andersen Avenue in Closter, New Jersey from 1940 to 1952. Bill Parcells’ uncle was a major Polo player and owned the adjacent farm. He taught me to ride when I was 5 years old. None of the roads in the area were paved so they were very horse accessible. I had a little cart that my dad would let me drive to town in the later years to buy Dolly Madison ice cream. But none of my childhood experiences had anything to do with my involvement in the sport. By the way, there are a few Bronx Science graduates that are familiar faces on the harness racing scene, including Ziggy Wolkomir, a breeder and owner for many years that had horses with both Chuck Sylvester and me.

My first wife’s dad was an avid horse fan and he would take me to Yonkers and Roosevelt. I really wasn’t a gambler but I loved the races. My father in-law was a songwriter and was friendly with Paul Vance who was an owner with Jerry Procino. This was my first taste.

I was promoted by a crazy man Ricky Kurtz and claimed two horses from Jimmy Cruise. Jerry’s Pluff and The Inlaw and with the steady assistance of Frank Popfinger, my first real mentor, it was winter I will never forget. The Inlaw bowed a tendon and we double dropped him and Jimmy claimed him back.

“Ronnie, if I knew he was that bad, I never would have taken him back.” I still remember Jimmy’s words in that slow drawl to this day. We really didn’t have New York stock so we moved to Monticello and Ricky told me he knew the answer to success. He said, “if they don’t race well we just won’t feed them.” I SPLIT. I then hooked up with Donnie Prussak, but that was short lived, though he was a wonderful friend. Although I didn’t know too much, I was easy to talk to and owners gravitated to me. I had a small stable at Monticello and learned my trade. I was surrounded by great horsemen that were more than willing to share their secrets, not like Roosevelt, where all was hush-hush. Levi And Eldon Harner, George Gilmour, George Forshey, Bobby Camper, Jim Curran, were all willing to put up with my constant questions. But there were a few that were inundated by my queries: John Patterson Sr (Big John) and Albert Hanna, and Giles Lachance were most responsible for my education. To me, there was never a better mechanic than Albert. He taught me things that most don’t know today.

I was learning a lot, but wasn’t making any money. My best friends at the time, Max Brewer, the announcer at Monticello, Phil Tully and Peter Rhulen (insurance) would have lunch almost every day at The Chateau across from the track. Phil was the most successful horse trader in the history of the sport and consigned horses under the name of his farm, Woodstock Stud. All three had profound influence on my success. Max bought me horses and we were very successful. We opened our own agency Brewer and Gurfein, but that is a tale for another time as it was short lived with Max’s premature passing at age 39. However, the creation of Brewer and Gurfein in actuality was the start of a friendship that literally changed my life. It was a winter sale at Yonkers and both Tully and I would house our help in the Holiday Inn On Tuckahoe road that had a huge indoor pool. A kid with longer hair than I had, a teenager, was in that pool with about two dozen beautiful girls. It turned out to be Frank “The Elder” Antonacci. That was 45 years ago, and aside from a few years in the penalty box, it has been a wonderful ride. The tale of our friendship I will save for another day. Peter Rhulen, gave me a nice stable of horses and we had some success but not enough for him and I got fired. I had some decent horses of my own and was able to sustain myself feeding off the open trotters in Monticello with the likes of Spirea and Hardesty.

I started buying and selling horses and was a frequent purchaser at mixed sales from Yonkers to Delaware, Ohio. My first big break came when I bought Franconia at Harrisburg a decent 3-year-old sires stake filly for $21,000. Phil Tully, unbeknownst to me, was the underbidder. She became a world champion and among her many accomplishments, she won the Maple Leaf Trot. She was sold to Swedish interests. From then on, Phil kept me busy by buying me horses I could never afford — Cayster and Kerry’s Crown were two of the major ones.

In the spring of 1991, Frank “The Elder” called me from Florida. “I have a project for you. I have a Prakas colt that I really know has ability but needs a new home to bring it out.” When MB Felty appeared on my doorstep I perused the eligibility that looked like a chicken ran across the page. The horse may have had one clean line and nine efforts with breaks. Believe me, he was not an easy horse, but hard work and a driver with one of the best pair of hands in the business (John Patterson Jr.) we won some minor stakes and then won the Gold Cup at Vernon. I was on the national scene for the first time in my life at 50 years of age. Felty went on to win his Hambletonian elimination and finish second in the final.

The next key to success was created by the retirement of Howard Beissinger. He left a void for the Crown Stable horses. Frank “The Elder” Antonacci stepped right in on my behalf and requested that his uncle Frank give the horses to me. As they often say, the rest is history. It began with Crown Stables, Lady Starlet (undefeated winner of the Merrie Annabel) and Victory Dream (1994 Hambletonian winner) and carried on to this day where in retirement I am still working for the wonderful family.
The three people that most influenced my rise were Phillip Tully, Frank “The Elder” Antonacci and Guy Antonacci (Frank’s dad). Adding Guy to this list may surprise some, but deep down inside in the early days, he was the BOSS and he always made me feel comfortable and that he was in my corner. I would be truly amiss to not mention Jerry and Frank M. Antonacci Jr — “The Elder’s” brother and son, respectively, who I am certain in their own quiet way had much to do with many of the favorable decisions on my behalf over the span of our relationship.

Being a good horseman is a combination of learning what to do and more important when to do it and paying attention to the littlest detail. It is all common sense.

To those whose questions went on the back burner this week, I apologize. I thought when I started that some of the columns were too long and thus I set an approximate word count to enhance your reading pleasure. I will get to the backlog next week. The answer to Murray’s question could have been a novel. It took restraint to cut it this short. Please keep the questions coming, and have a wonderful week.

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