Thoughts on six-hour detention barns, the importance of caretakers and whether drivers should be fined for slow second quarters

All that and more in this week’s edition of harness racing’s most popular advice column.

by Ron Gurfein

Tidbits: Yannick never stops amazing. Somehow he found the shortest way around in the Ben Franklin and won for fun with the Ron Burke trainee Thats The Plan, who had not won a race this year. Doing so he defeated some of the top free-for-all horses of 2019.

Congratulations to Ake Svanstedt who successfully put Brian Sears and Tim Tetrick to sleep with a :57 first half in the Beal Memorial. Needless to say it never would have happened on a mile racetrack. It mystifies me how on a track that has 80 per cent of winners sitting first or second at the half, that two of the best harness drivers on the planet with the two best horses racing for $500,000 found themselves fourth and sixth at the half.

For those of you unfamiliar with Earl Beal Jr, he was a good friend, a wonderful man always helpful to the horse community and a fine horseman that left us way to soon. RIP my friend.

Is it possible that Gareth Dowse, whose only claim to fame in recent memory was doing some driving for Ray Schnittker, has become a better trainer than the great Jimmy Takter. It’s early in the season but his numbers say it’s so. His UDR is approaching .500. A number even Jimmy never achieved. Stay tuned…..

I had a nice discussion via email with one of the top standardbred breeders of modern times, Alan Leavitt, and he made some points about last week’s column on trotting mares’ parity with males that I would like to share with you. Alan points out that many of the great mares that beat the boys were big girls. “I have been thinking of the trotting fillies and mares that could beat the males and virtually every one I can think of was a big stout mare with very little if any female refinement,” he said.

He went on to explain, “we had Moni Maker down here for two breeding seasons and she was a big strapping mare. Snow White wasn’t even a true female, she was one third male, if you can quantify those things. Years ago, Armbro Flight was as big a Noble Victory when they raced.”

Peter Johansson (Fjarrtransporter/Export) asks: What is the importance of the groom? Does the trainer and the driver who spend maybe 10 minutes behind the horse get too much credit. I think a good horse can perform with any driver.

I wish what you say is true, because if it were I would have driven all my life and made an extra 5 per cent. Unfortunately you are wrong. Not only are a few drivers quite superior to others they seem to dominate, not just on ability but with an intimidation factor. For example, on a five-eighths mile track the winning move is to grab the lead before the half. The top drivers float and grab the lead and are never challenged the average guys won’t try that move for fear they will be outside for the duration. Many interviews that I have given in the past were about my thoughts on catch drivers and in my opinion it’s the best 5 per cent investment in sports. I can relate some instances that even changing from one great driver to another great driver can make all the difference in the world. Off the top of my head Buddy Gilmour never really got the most out of Matt’s Scooter and when they put Mike Lachance up he was a different colt.

Of course, the trainer is important. I will save that discussion for another day. However you are 100 per cent correct in that the grooms or caretakers, as I prefer to call them, are never given the credit they deserve. I am sure there are a lot of people that will read what follows and think I am nuts but that’s alright too.

I believe after six decades of training that certain caretakers get the most out of their horses and some just do not. It has nothing to do with actual care, more to do with personality and temperament.

I love the question because it gives me a forum to thank a few of the great ones that worked for me through the years.

You have all heard of Charlie’s Angels. I was blessed with Ronnie’s Angels, three girls that may have won as many races as they lost with some of their top horses. Marita Berglund won nine in a row with Continentalvictory, Emma Petersson 10 with Cantab Hall, an undefeated 2-year-old season plus the wonderful 3-year-old Self Possessed and Lisa Palmiter who cared for two of the winningest midgets Delicious and Lucy’s Pearl.

Phil Collura asks: Can you tell me why the Sun Stakes at Pocono Downs only had a six hour detention barn. The track informed me that it is a decision by the commission. With integrity being a major issue in the sport wouldn’t 24 hours be more appropriate?

The answer is simple Phil, you and I care about integrity because we care about the sport. However we don’t have to pay for it. I am not convinced that the commission is solely responsible for this decision. I know the players well and I am sure there is always track management pressure when that amount of money is involved. The powers that be in Pennsylvania are always expedient when it comes to spending big bucks. No one wants to spend time or money to protect the gambler. I think they could care less about the betting public, the casino pays the bills. There is no handle at Pocono and no people.

The difference in expense from 6 to 24 hours is immense. Once it becomes an overnight agenda you have many additional guards, maybe even three shifts, more bedding and more cleanup. We are talking about thousands of dollars that they have no desire to pay.

On the other hand, I think that detention for 6 hours is a total waste of time, so why they bother is simply just to make it look good.

If they would have no detention barn and spend the money on out-of-competition testing of some of the finalists six days out when the blood doping is done, they may actually catch someone. “Wouldn’t that be loverly.”

Linda Allaire asks: I remember that you like soccer. Watching the woman’s semi-final United States vs England there was no transparency with the benching of Megan Rapinoe in a huge game like this. Why wasn’t it explained properly?

Great question. I was livid and searching my iPad for an answer that never came till the half. Let me explain to my readers what exactly happened. Megan Rapinoe, the hottest player in the woman’s soccer world today, scored the last four goals for the United States, which represent 100 per cent of their total output. Opening the broadcast it was announced she would not start, with NO EXPLANATION! I thought soccer was a heavily bet sport on the continent. How is this possible? A betting coup, or sheer stupidity? I think the latter. It’s like having LeBron James on the bench for the seventh game of the playoffs without announcing it before game time. Basketball has rules against that. There are no guarantees on anything in any sport and you can have the end result go either way, but what an edge for insider wagering.

To make matters worse, the announcer led you to believe before the start of the game that Megan would not start, but was available to play. It turns out this was totally untrue also. At half time the announcement was made she had suffered a hamstring problem and would not play. PS. Thanks to an amazing stop by the U.S. goaltender on a penalty kick, the American girls were victorious by a score of 2-1 anyway.

Anders Strom asks: Can you go :26 to the first quarter and then :30 the next without any penalty? Were there any rules for this historically?

Horses go so much faster today and racing was so different back in the day. The foxy old timers would go the first quarter in 30 seconds and back the half down to 1:04 if they went 1:05 they got fined. At the beginning of every meet the presiding judge would meet with the drivers and lay out the rules, including backing down the half.

Today, this is relatively rare. If you go :26 you can’t go :26 or :27. Even if possible, it’s suicide. So I think in the modern day if you are traveling at a rate that does not cause confusion behind you are okay. However, if you do put the brakes on to an extreme where the drivers following you are running over one another then you are likely to be punished.

All in all, when you think about it, it’s not logical to fine a driver for going :26/:30 because that’s a half in :56, which is more than reasonable at any racetrack.

I am sure the Greenshoe race provoked your question, so I think a better one would be why your driver was so far off the pace in a :57 half going for all that cash?

Thanks to all of you for the kind words. Please keep the questions coming in. A great weekend of racing at the Meadowlands, The Meadows and Pocono Downs . Racing all weekend at Goshen featuring the Hall of Fame race.

Congratulations to all the new inductees and have a wonderful evening.

Have a question for The Guru?
Email him at