Guru taken to task over Zeron, more thoughts on Crown elims and “elitist” stakes at WEG?

HRU Feedback (2019-01-20)

January 20, 2019

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Gural on The Guru, Zeron and Burke

I was shocked to read what Ronnie Gurfein wrote about the Rick Zeron matter (full story here).

As I understand it, about one month before the Hambletonian last year, inspectors found vials of drugs and, allegedly, Rick, in an effort to mislead them, (falsely labelled the) drugs to make it look like they were therapeutic. If true, it would seem to me that is about as bad as it gets when we talk about integrity, especially considering that 30 days later a horse he owned and trained won the Hambletonian. As far as I am concerned, it will be a long time before you see any horse trained or owned by Rick Zeron at any of my three tracks, including Atlanta. I think this incident is a major black eye to the sport and I applaud the fact that his horse was stripped of his eligibility to an O’Brien Award. USHWA should have done the same thing, but obviously that did not happen. As far as all of the complaints I have received about the perception that there is a double standard when it comes to Ron Burke, I want to publically make it clear to Mr. Burke and all of his owners that he will receive a 90-day suspension from the three tracks that I control if the appeal of the latest violation he received at Northfield is denied. In addition, if Mr. Burke receives another suspension, he will automatically, regardless of the appeal process, receive a minimum of a 90- day suspension; and if it is a Class 1, Class 2 or TCO2 positive and he appeals, all of the owners who stay with him would run the risk of not being eligible to any stakes races at my tracks for one year. I believe that would also apply to WEG, but I do not speak for them. No sport can possibly expect the public to support their product and wager on it if they don’t have confidence that the horses are all racing on a level playing field. Unfortunately, we all know that is not the case right now, but hopefully that will change in the near future.

— Jeff Gural / president Meadowlands Racetrack

Gangle on The Guru

Just offering some feedback regarding The Guru’s recent thoughts on the Rick Zeron situation.

First of all, I certainly agree with The Guru that not enough information was provided by the regulator here in Canada. The AGCO should have been more transparent with its ruling and offered more details (a major issue in the sport). Secondly, what IF Mr. Zeron’s bottles where EPO, is six months enough? I’m not going to debate the length of suspension, but the bottom line is that Mr. Zeron broke the rules. You mentioned how it’s a lengthy suspension and that it’s going to cost him income. However, I’m sure Mr. Zeron is fully aware of the consequences prior to being caught. What if Atlanta was treated with these unlabeled bottles? She would be racing at an unfair advantage. What about the owners of horses that finished 2nd, 3rd, 4th etc in the Hambletonian. There are two ways of looking at this issue.

— Greg Gangle / Port Stanley, ON

Nixon on The Guru

Mr. Gurfein,

I quite enjoy your HRU column, and I agree with you that the AGCO should be much more transparent, not only with the Zeron case, but in all matters regarding horse racing in Ontario. However, I disagree strongly with your opinion that the Zeron penalty is over the top. Additionally, you recommend that the AGCO should be more lenient, as in the Daley case in NJ where Mr. Daley was suspended a mere 90 days for possession of a shockwave machine and unlabeled meds. If the industry is serious on promoting integrity for the participants, handicappers, and promoting horse welfare, these penalties need to be strong.

Mr. Zeron was found to be in contravention of several “Rules of Standardbred Racing 2016”. Mr. Zeron has yet to offer comment on his position of what was found in his barn or the circumstances leading to the ruling. There is a lot of speculation and rumour surrounding the case: stolen prescription labels, bribery, false allegations against former employees. The rules are perfectly clear. You may not possess a shockwave machine, or unlabeled/mislabeled medication. Mr. Zeron’s past is not squeaky clean. Again, no public comment from Mr. Zeron only thickens the cloud of speculation.

Mr. Gurfein, you recommend that the AGCO follow NJ in how they (NJ) penalized Noel Daley. How about NJ follow AGCO on penalties? Mr. Daley is currently under suspension (unless I’m mistaken) from 11/25/18-02/22/19 and has a $10,000 fine for a similar infraction. He also has a history, specifically a 2005 arrest by NJ State Police for “possession and use of prescription legend drugs without a prescription and also possession and control of hypodermic syringes and needles”(USTA). If we are truly serious about the integrity of the sport, as everyone “claims” to be, then contravention of the rules should be dealt with harshly. If we wish to gain the confidence of the bettor, new owners, and animal welfare activists, the penalty is supposed to hurt.

Additionally, Ron Burke was assessed a positive in November 2018 for Gabapentin. He has had recent (last 24 months) positives for Betamethasone, Glaucine, TCO2 and now Gabapentin. I do not recall anything as of yet on any media platform reporting the Gabapentin positive. I cannot understand any possible therapeutic effect for Gabapentin for equine use. Is the silence a double standard? Was it to not darken the Foiled Again farewell tour? A 30d suspension seems light, and leads to the perception of a double standard.

On another note, there are some very large bass in every drop of water at Sunshine Meadows. Brandon Mills is a great guide.

— Justin J. Nixon / Amhertsburg, ON

More thoughts on Zeron

These trainers, if found to be dishonest or unethical with their treatment of horses, should be banned, period. It’s not right. They get slaps on the wrist and continue to do the same thing. The only way to clean up your organization is to get rid of them. Then and only then will other trainers start to take this seriously. Cheaters, regardless of any violation, need to go. Clean up the act.

— Tom Dossey-McKinnon / Clarksburg, MD

Van Camp will no longer pay into WEG’s “elitist” stakes

Dear harness fans:

It is with great dismay that I noticed the decision by the WEG about stakes restrictions.

The decision to change the conditions for the Canadian Trotting Classic (full story here) is in my opinion a very bad move for the industry. Putting this condition on the stake makes a difficult sport even more difficult for the little guy!

I have owned horses for 30 years and have been a regular stakes nominator for most of these years. I will no longer make any payments toward stakes with these elitist restrictions. I understand there seems to be issues with elimination races, I would like to see the facts behind this, as I don’t see any drop off in wagering on elimination night versus a regular race night with this level of purses (full field exceptions aside). The reason the eliminations are good are aplenty! More stakes owners will make stakes payments. The late blooming horse will have a chance. I owned Your So Vain who in 2013 entered the CTC with not much money made, won his elimination handily and was a strong second in the final. Had these rules been in place, he was not in the top 10 earners on entry date. The old rules give an owner with a decent level horse the opportunity to be eligible in case they are a late bloomer. (It will probably take lifetime earnings of $200-300k to be able to race). So here is the example: there is a 2-year-old champion that makes 400k, yet at 3 he makes next to nothing, another horse was immature at 2, earns 200K at 3, but wont qualify for the race… Elitism at its best!

If WEG had considered this change properly there are ways to come up with some alternatives… There are a few — top 5 go to final, all others have elimination for remaining spots, or other options.

What is the fear of eliminations? Makes zero sense to me, but I will guess the stakes nominations will fall considerably. It may take a year or two, but it will happen. OSS horses who are marginal will no longer enter… Only top-end 2-years-olds need apply. John Campbell has more knowledge about horse racing in his baby toe than an entire board of directors (at WEG) have!

— Paul Van Camp / Port Perry, ON

Crown eliminations or not?

Eliminations or no eliminations, that is the question.

I have a suggestion that could possibly settle both sides.

Each racing jurisdiction in North America, that subscribes to the Breeders Crown, should send its champion to the Breeders Crown.

That colt born in British Columbia has the same shot as one born in the Maritimes or New York, or Florida, or Ohio. It won’t be a matter of points, or money, but a final of champions.

Talk about dreams, and entries — not every horse would be a Father Patrick or Bettors Delight, but perhaps a Pet Rock, or some other ‘regional’ sire.

And what if there are 15 champions? Hello Europe!

Additionally, it is called the Breeders Crown.

How much of a ‘breeders’ event would it be, if most of the entries were sired by the same leading sire?

This suggested format, guarantees a variety of sires in any one event.

Truly, a “Breeders” Crown.

— Marty Adler / Amherstburg, ON

Add qualifying times to eliminations

Here is a suggestion to the eliminations where the drivers are saving the horse until the final, put a qualifying time to the race. Last year, the 2018 North America Cup was won by Lather Up in 1:48.1, but the week before he won his elimination in 1:49.2 a full one second and one fifth slower. The 1:49.2 in the elimination is a walk in the park for most that enter so make each elimination that the winner must win in 1:48 or less and the other finishers must finish in 1:48.4 and under to make final. The reasoning is quite clear if they can win a elimination in 1:49.2 and come right back a week later and drop 6 fifths then they should be able to go to the well in the eliminations.

— Bob Adams / London, ON

Kudos to Clay

I would like to add my kudos to Clay Horner’s plan to end elimination races for The Breeders Crown (2019-01-13 Feedback here).

A little tweaking to his wonderful suggestions should make everybody happy. I like his 10-horse races for 2yos and 12-horse races for 3yo and up. I love his assessment that since this is the BREEDERS Crown, the stallion owners need to kick in a much bigger chunk of the pie. My only issue with his proposals is that it includes eliminations based on certain criteria. NO!! There are no eliminations for The Kentucky Derby, no eliminations for the Breeders Crown! Let’s start with bullet points based on Mr Horner’s suggestions so modifications can be debated and focused:

• Winners of pre-determined races automatically qualify. Let’s use 4 races as a starting point. (Mr. Horner suggested 2). The Breeders Crown committee will ultimately decide on the appropriate number.
• Seven next top money winners. (Assuming four entries from qualifying races)
• One wild card entry based on a single race. Entries for the race can be determined in many ways — Earnings per start? Most wins? Fastest win time? The BC team can kick it around.
• If eligible horses don’t enter, they can either be replaced by the next in the earnings list, or second place in the Wild Card race. Something else to kick around.

This format also enhances the integrity of the game as horses will need to fight for seconds and thirds on their way up the earnings ladder. Speaking of integrity, this has become increasingly relevant lately based on the notable issues with Zeron, Daley, Burke and Surick. Speaking of integrity and sports betting, what is the over/under for the date when the first big betting scandal hits due to the soon to be exponential growth of sports betting across the country. College basketball is the most likely first contender since the players don’t get paid and so few players can affect the outcome. The second most likely is the gaming tournaments. Yes, boys and girls, significant money is already being wagered on video games. If they ever have a big money tournament for Pong, put me down.

— Gil Winston / Manalapan, NJ

Welfare of the horse needs to come first

Yes, (shockwave therapy) works. Does that mean that every trainer who can afford one should have a machine and be the handler of that machine? NO! Not when it is against the rules of racing and these people are not qualified or licensed to do so. Why is it that trainers seem to think that they are so bloody clever and experienced that they can jump the rules of racing and become the administrators of drugs, treatments such as shock therapy and more? Would they visit a heart surgeon and do their own heart surgery?

Further, what the hell do they not understand about leaving a space of more than a few hours or a day or two between the treatment and the event? It can kill the horse, the driver/jockey and others around them. Jeezzzuuusssss.

Rick Zeron — you idiot — you deserve so much more “time off” than a mere 180 days. Noel Daley should have the same vacation time — not eligible for any award. He, too, broke the rules. Just because his offence didn’t warrant the same number of days doesn’t make him any less guilty. Lessening the number of days suspension is NOT the answer as suggested by Mr. Gall (full story here).

Of course, like so many of their stature in racing, they may think they above the rules. As for the O’Brien Award being pulled from Zeron and the very nice horse, Atlanta, is this really the main point of concern here? Not the fact that time factor may have been insufficient between treatment on any horse and its driver thus putting the horse and driver and every other horse and driver at risk on the track. Not the fact that he and far too many others are now in possession of their own shock machines and applying them as they see fit to their horses when it clearly states in the rules that they are only to be used by vets. Of course, we all know that many trainers still believe in that old theory that “if some is good, more is better.” There is another problem here. We, in the industry all know that some vets can be manipulated to do as the trainer asks/insists whether it is in the best interest of the horse or not. Thus they are breaking their own ethical rules and often the rules of racing by not insisting on the required time off to allow the numbing to wear off. If they were to also apply some anesthetic (such as lidocaine that would show up in a test), perhaps the trainer would be more inclined to allow the horse the appropriate time off before endangering its life by racing it too soon. But when is the health and welfare of the horse ever put first and foremost in this bloody business?

— Lynne Magee / Wingham, ON

Breeders Crown fixes

One large step forward for Breeders Crown might start with coverage. I have been following harness racing since Bret Hanover ran at Brandywine, watching the coverage on TVG left me very disappointed. Wedging the “Standardbread Championships” between cheap claiming races at Penn Natl and Carlestown is no way to sell the sport to anyone other than the hard core fan. TVG is capable of wonderful human/equine interest stories and perhaps they could use a format like TVG 2 to showcase the day in a way that actually promotes harness racing to a wider audience.

— Marvin J Friedman / Wilmington, DE

Cohen weighs in on The Guru over Zeron

I would like to make what I think should be an obvious point about the suspension of Rick Zeron and Ron Gurfein’s reaction to it in the Friday edition of HRU. Gurfein’s silly take– that the penalty is preposterous because no one knows what really happened– reminds me of the old line from “Fiddler on the Roof” about the ugly husband and his blind wife. With the way she sees and the way he looks they are a perfect match!

My understanding is that part of the reason why Zeron’s suspension is so long is because he is alleged to have tried to bribe someone to alter their story in a way that would shield him, Zeron, from accountability. You don’t need to follow the real world too closely to know how important it is for our laws to hold accountable those who try to obstruct justice, or perjure themselves, or suborn perjury in others.

In Zeron’s case, the alleged misconduct doesn’t just go to drugs and shock wave use it goes to the idea of a licensed trainer trying to conspire to cover up that misconduct. Whatever our views of illegal drugs in our sport, whatever iterations of due process we believe in, we all should be able to agree that the industry cannot last if trainers act this way. I look forward to the Guru’s new and smarter comments on this scandal– and it is a big scandal– now that he knows a little more about the facts behind it.

– Andy Cohen / Englewood, CO

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