Changing my tune on same-day Hambletonian heats, my thoughts on Santa Anita and scratching due to track conditions

Changing my tune on same-day Hambletonian heats, my thoughts on Santa Anita and scratching due to track conditions

March 21, 2019

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by Ron Gurfein

Tidbits: My best wishes for a speedy recovery to Matt Krueger, who sustained multiple injuries in a horrible accident in the first race at Pompano Park on Monday night. I saw the race and must say it was one of the worst accidents I have ever witnessed. On The Deck on Saturday I was told that he had made it clear that he was headed north with Tony Alagna this year. I hope that will still come to pass. Get well soon my friend.

I have always had a serious preference for heat racing in the Hambletonian. My reasons were always social and never economic, much like my personal life. I really wanted all the owners that put up all that money and all the trainers that worked so hard to get a horse capable of winning the big dance to be able to enjoy the excitement of the big day. To me, if there were eliminations the week before 20 of the 30 owners that entered would miss out on the excitement.

On Saturday, I had the opportunity to speak to John Campbell, the president of the Hambletonian Society on the subject. He made some very valid points that I have never taken into consideration that I will discuss with you now.

To me the most important consideration he made was about the elimination platform. Although 30 owners and trainers won’t have the opportunity to all be present for a few hours on the big day, 10 will have the pleasure of the glory and the anticipation for an entire week. Truthfully, I never thought of it that way. Next, he pointed out that the format that involves printing a program page after the first heat has a major deleterious effect on the betting handle.

He went on to say, “It’s never a good sign when we handle more on the Oaks final than the Hambletonian final.”
Another fact that I have never taken into consideration, for publicity purposes it much easier to provide in-depth coverage to 10 horses for a week than to 30. He also pointed out that it makes television coverage more fluid and less complex. Another interesting point was that today’s standardbred is a totally different style animal than the ones the heat racing was created for. Colts today are built more for speed and are lesser in bulk than their earlier counterparts that were bred for endurance.

Do I like the idea of going back to eliminations? Of course not. However I want the Hambletonian Society to do what’s best for our sport and Campbell made some very reasonable points.

Therefore I will no longer be a crusader for heat racing in the Hambletonian. I hope it all works out for the best.

Paul Madison asks: What is your take on the Santa Anita situation?

Some sportswriters are digging a hole for the industry. Why print that whips and Lasix have anything to do with the sad set of circumstances surrounding the death of 22 horses in less than three months at Santa Anita in California? To ignore the simple truth that the drainage has eroded the base to the extent that there is a uneven layer below the cushion is unfathomable.

On top of that, to have people in authority say the racetrack is okay without stripping it to the foundation is ridiculous.

Lasix is an anti-bleeding drug. Does it make a horse go faster? Sometimes. But it basically lets a horse perform more efficiently by eliminating some degree of blood in his lungs. It is used by 99 per cent of thoroughbred racehorses on our continent and you don’t hear this breakdown tale from Gulfstream to Aqueduct and points west. I personally am not a fan of the drug as I know it has some deleterious effects on the animal, however it is beyond the pale to suggest that it is a cause of breakdowns in these instances.

What amazes me most was a half-page article in Sunday’s New York Times trying to explain all the above, including the ever-ominous presence of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), but nowhere in the entire body of the piece was there any mention that maybe, just maybe, there was something wrong with the track.

Richie Johnson asks: Are you depressed by the performance of your favorite 3-year-old Game Winner at Oaklawn Park yesterday?

Absolutely not.

Don’t despair over the performance of Game Winner in the Rebel Stake last Saturday. He is still my Derby Pick. This track situation at Santa Anita has sent Bob Baffert on a circuitous route to Churchill Downs and between the bad weather and the track cancellations he was forced to make moves with his 2019 phenom that were nowhere near the paths that American Pharaoh, and Justify took.

First of all, he never got any short distance bullet works in and he curiously used some long works to prepare. Far be it for me to question his genius, but I am more than guessing that track condition was involved. He lost to a very good colt in Omaha Beach. The Richard Mandela trainee was speed tightened in his previous start after following a :21 and :43 first four panels running off by nine lengths. Hopefully Santa Anita will right the ship and we will see them meet again in the Santa Anita Derby in a few weeks. However, if they are unable to make the track safe, there are plentiful options for Baffert to pursue. I would love him to make an appearance in the Florida Derby, but I think it’s to close to his last race and quite a distance from home, but I can still hope. If there is trouble in Arcadia City, maybe the Bluegrass In Keeneland could be a stepping-stone. Whatever path he takes, I am certain he will appear at Churchill Downs the first Saturday in May.

Joel Kravet asks: Have you ever scratched a horse because you thought the track condition was not good for your horse? In a case like Santa Anita what are the trainers going to do with their horses, walk them and leave them in the stall?

I did answer this type question a while back but I will do it again because it is so apropos to today’s situation in California. To begin with, our sport is not nearly as lenient to race day scratches as the thoroughbreds are. There are, however, some venues that will allow it among them the Red Mile. Unfortunately, the only way to scratch a horse from a bad track in the standardbred world is to lie. “My horse is sick” is the best way out. Our horses are far tougher than our thoroughbred counterparts and can endure far worse racetracks than they can, but I remember an incident well where discretion was the better part of valor. It was the fall meet at the Red Mile, Self Possessed was a 2-year-old and entered in either the Bluegrass or International Stallion, I don’t remember which. It had been raining steadily for 24 hours and the track was a quagmire. I knew at 10 a.m. my colt would stay in the barn. There were a few other scratches but the best of the 2-year-old crop at that point was not one of them. He won easily, but that was the last time he would ever race.

As for the trainers at Santa Anita they can exercise their horses they won’t break down jogging, they could swim them, but the logical thing is to get the hell out of there to a safer environment.

Like I described above, Baffert’s top 3-year-old always shows 47h workouts, but since the track has come up questionable I see 6f 115b. It looks like he is steering away from sprints that tighten and thus the shortness of his colts in the Rebel on Saturday. All great trainers realize the pitfalls of the racing surface they are using and create a schedule to accommodate the circumstances.

Stay tuned.

To all my readers, thanks as always for your wonderful emails, please keep the questions coming in. Weather and entries permitting I will give a full report on the first qualifiers at Sunshine Meadows in my Sunday column The View From The Deck. GO CATS and have a wonderful week.

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