Responding to letter-writing critic, my take on Bill Robinson, dealing with pullers and more thoughts on maiden races

by Ron Gurfein

Tidbits: Last week I received a letter about my desire to seek a major increase in purse money for younger horses. I chose to answer this uninformed complainer in an open forum so that my readers will see what I listen to on a daily basis, and that all is not so cozy in the land of The Guru. The letter, titled Gurfein’s take is “laughable,” appears in Feedback from last Sunday and may be read here (2019-03-31 Feedback)

To begin with, the only butts I kiss are Lucas’s and Oliver’s. They are my two- and one-year-old grandsons.

The money bet on claiming races, or any races for that matter, has little to do with purses that we race for at present, with the exception of the Meadowlands. Tracks like Yonkers, Pocono, and Harrah’s Philadelphia, all with fabulous purse structures, have ridiculously small handles and would have a condition sheet that resembled the Illinois State Fair if it wasn’t for the buzz of the slot machines in the grandstand. Even the Meadowlands has increased its purses due to a supplement of cash from the State of New Jersey.

Now that I have debunked the basis of your entire letter, and I hope you realize that claimers have nothing to do with the purse structure, what on earth can be wrong with helping the breeders and yearling buyers? Farms produce jobs, horse sales raise tax money. All this is good for the economy. In the thoroughbred industry, the $90,000 maiden purses are often derived in major part by the money earned by associated sales companies that are selling million dollar babies, if not by slot machines. If Keeneland didn’t bolster its purses with money derived from their sale company, their purse structure would be a quarter of what it is today.

Is the crowd on The Deck wealthy for the most part? Absolutely,. However, it is always open to the world and I have yet to see anyone turned away. The crowd is mostly made up of Tony Alagna’s owners whose yearlings average $135,000 — or there about. It takes money to play that game. I don’t see how that is wrong.

I have yet to see a crumpet, although Murray Brown has introduced the deck denizens to flagels.

Another mistake you make is thinking that higher yearling prices hurts the small buyer. This is a slippery slope, but it doesn’t always work that way. At the lower level, it’s not that important anyway. If the sales market is up 30 per cent, a buyer at the top is paying $260,000 for last year’s $200,000 yearling. A buyer at the bottom is paying $13,000 for last year’s $10,000 colt. I would worry more about the continuing rise in upkeep because they both cost the same to feed and stake and train.

The people that occupy that deck are making harness racing a viable sport, included in that group are two men that saved what to me are the two most important harness tracks (The Red Mile and The Meadowlands) from extinction.

From the venomous tone of your letter I suggest it would serve you well to have much less negativity in your life and direct your energy to a higher purpose.
I didn’t want to be right about the premature reopening of Santa Anita. Sadly they weren’t able to fix the problem in a few days resulting in another horrid casualty.

The two major workouts for what I expected to be a showdown in the Santa Anita Derby are in. Game Winner worked 6 f in 2:12, very good but once again I think it shows that Baffert is staying away from sprints that he used on his two previous Triple Crown winners. Maybe because of the racetrack conditions or simply a different horse a different plan. On the other hand, Richard Mandela’s speedy Omaha Beach works 4f in :47, a work I really liked.

That’s the good news. The bad news is they will not meet in the Santa Anita Derby. Game Winner will be unbeatable at 2-5 with Omaha Beach shipping to Oaklawn. I don’t blame Mandela for an easier task before Churchill Downs one bit. The colt doesn’t need another dog fight before the big dance.

On the subject of the Big Dance, since Kentucky and Duke have both bitten the bullet I would love to see the real Cinderella of the tournament, Auburn, win the whole thing. Those kids are so tough and so fast, I am glad they have some time to regroup after a tough game with the Cats who to this writer’s untrained eye played a terrible game. Both Kentucky’s and Dukes losses showed up one important fact, one man cannot carry a team in this format. Both PJ Washington and Zion Williamson pay spectacular Sunday. Where were their teammates?

Dennis Babico asks: You were racing at the same time as Bill Robinson ruled the Meadowlands Racetrack. What is your opinion of his nomination to the Canadian Hall of Fame?

I make it no secret that the selection committee in the United States regarding our Hall of Fame is lacking to say the least. His proposed nomination simply shows me that our Canadian counterpart is not a whole lot smarter.

There are rules and guidelines to be followed and they should not vary from one individual to another, all should be treated equally on a level playing field. Pete Rose is among those adored sports figures that had been turned away from the baseball Hall of Fame because he broke the rules. That’s why as nice a guy and as great a player as he was he remains on the outside looking in. Our sport should be the same way. Bill Robinson is a very nice guy I like him and his family very much.

However, he simply pushed the envelope too much and too often. His nomination is beyond ridiculous. We have the same situation in America. Arguably the best trainer in Meadowlands history, Brett Pelling, is not in the Hall of Fame nor to my knowledge has he ever been nominated. Great trainer, nice man simply too many bad calls. I remember when I was nominated I had a positive 40 years ago for a topical nonsense drug and the committee called me and grilled me about it.

In recent years, I noticed that our screening committee has become far more lenient on the importance of positive tests than there were in the past. If this turns out to be a trend it’s a sad state of affairs for the horse community in general going forward.

I do think that the appointment of Steve Wolf to the selection committee is a step in the right direction, he is more than knowledgeable about the sport. That said, it is still my opinion that the final say in any nomination should have to pass a board of Hall of Famers only.

Anonymous from Dublin Ohio asks: I have a mare that pulls so hard I get tears in my eyes. Can you help me?

I certainly will try. I have had some of the worst pullers in harness history. None worse than the famous Beat The Wheel. There were times I witnessed her make a guy built like a WWF fighter cry. However, I made her manageable.

Before I get into bits, you must make sure all the correct simple things are done.

She must have an open bridle, no head check, loose girth, loose bridle, loose crupper, and ear plugs or an ear hood with plastic cups.

Now we have many bits to try and I will list them in order of severity. A mini bit is an obvious choice, then a mini bit backwards, then a crescendo bit, then a double twisted wire bit if you are still in trouble. Be very careful with the last two. I would walk them a little with my next selections as I have seen fillies lay down and I don’t want you to break a cart or a bike. First, a snake bit and make sure it is on tight, and last but very severe (may be able to stop a train) a JIC bit. It has two steel pieces that rest on either side of the jaw and when you tighten the lines they pull the pieces together. If none of these work call a sale company.

Joel Kravet asks: In regard to your article on increased money for non-winners races. How can a race secretary fill winter races for maidens or nw2 no matter what the purse structure is?

Unfortunately, your premise is wrong. There always are maidens and nw2. The later in the year, and the colder it gets, the poorer the product gets, but they are always there. Are those races more vibrant in the spring? For certain. Sadly, the people that still have maidens when the water buckets start to freeze are the ones that need the money the most. They have made a considerable investment and it is just not working out the way they planned it. Just think how much money is lost on a $25,000 yearling that is still a maiden in November of his 3-year-old year. I don’t care where you are racing or who the trainer is, that is a tidy sum. I think the owner deserves to get a decent purse at this point because after he wins a maiden he is likely to be in for a price and end up in another barn.

Another reason you see so many more maiden races in the warm weather is that you have 2-year-olds racing in those classes which in effect doubles the entries.
The harness world has lost Stephanie Cruise, a good friend, a wonderful gal and very hard worker. She lost her battle with that dreaded disease at the beginning of the week. RIP little girl, it was a pleasure having you in my life.

Thanks again for all the kind words. Please keep the questions coming in. Weather permitting The View From The Deck will resume Sunday.

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