HRU Feedback (2019-07-07)

Why drivers giving tucks isn’t a huge issue

Some racing fans get annoyed when they see drivers giving tucks. This happens when a horse leaves from an outside post and improves its position into a tuck, usually before the quarter.

I have to say that I’m ambiguous about this, and here’s why: First of all, I’ve been following harness racing for 48 years, and at most tracks, drivers got tucks, even way back when. So this is nothing new. The only track I can ever remember seeing that didn’t have that many first-turn tucks was the Meadowlands, but that really only lasted for a few years in its heyday. The story is that racing secretary Joe DeFrank told the drivers he didn’t want them to give tucks.

But I’ve not only see many horses get tucks at the Meadowlands, I’ve bet on many horses that got tucks, and won. I’m not so sure I would have been happier if they got parked out and finished last. I’ve also seen many horses win stakes races at The Big M that left from an outside post and tucked, including horses driven by great money drivers like John Campbell and David Miller. As some of you may know, when one of the top drivers is looking for a tuck, they usually get it. If you don’t give it to them, good luck getting the lead the next time you’re leaving and you need the top driver to yield.

When you’re talking about the early days of the Meadowlands, over 40 years ago, you’re talking about a completely different kind of racing than we have now. Drivers didn’t need tucks back then, because the fractions and final times were much slower and it was easier to leave from the outside posts. And, as some of you older folks may remember, the backstretch action at the Meadowlands was frenetic, so there really was no need to leave and tuck. You could just follow the lively flow and win the race from third or fourth over. Great drivers like Campbell and Ron Pierce routinely won races rallying from far back. Many times they were 10th at the three quarters and still won. That rarely happens now.

Those days are gone. That kind of action gradually faded and pretty much went away for good with the introduction of the offset speed sulkies that came out in 2003. As long as these speed-biased bikes are used, the famed “Meadowlands shuffle” is a part of history. If a track literally forced drivers not to give tucks, I don’t know if I would ever bet a horse from an outside post at that track.

We have to be cognizant of the kind of racing we have now. At most harness tracks, the outside posts win HALF as often, in terms of percentage, as they used to. If you tell the drivers that no one is allowed to tuck, then you may as well race five horse fields because you’ll virtually eliminate the outside posts from the race.; you’ll have even more 2/5 shots winning from the inside posts than you have now. So, better watch what you wish for.

I understand why people don’t like seeing the tucks. They called them “courtesy tucks”. But not all tucks are courtesy tucks. Sometimes it’s a strategy, because you’re better off letting a longshot tuck rather than get caught behind sluggish cover.

It’s not just the tucks that people complain about. Based on comments I’ve read on social media, I’ve noticed that many people blame the drivers for the lack of action in the races. But should bad racing be blamed on the drivers? When George Brennan and Brian Sears were both top drivers at the Meadowlands, they were interviewed, separately, in the Meadowlands paddock. Both drivers said that the reason why there wasn’t as much movement as there used to be was because the fractions are so much faster and no one wants to pull first over into a :27 third quarter. That’s exactly right. The driver’s actions are directly related to the modern day speed bias; to the type of racing we have now.

— Bob Pandolfo / Northampton, PA

Banks on laundry list of problems

I can’t resist attempting to lower my blood pressure by verbalizing some thoughts on a few horse industry related issues….

I had not been to Yonkers Raceway in a few years until spending an evening there a few nights ago. It was a sad and sobering homecoming in a variety of ways! The facility is even more rundown and depressing than ever before. If even 100 patrons were there for the racing, I did not see them. Only two actual tellers were working the outdoor windows and fewer than 50 patrons were in the vicinity. The once nice restaurants are gone, with only a dilapidated and very limited food court replacing them. Even the vast slot casino was empty, with fewer than 5 per cent of the slot machines being used. No pride, no energy, no cleanliness, no hospitality anywhere.

The races were boring, with no functioning outside video. A few races had no audible outside race calls. The delays between races was interminable, with no entertainment or commentary available. The “drag” on post times was beyond annoying and hard to justify, as wagering is minuscule and only casino revenues can begin to address operating costs! After race 7 there was a long delay (over half an hour) because one of the light arrays luminating the track lost power. Interestingly, even when fixed, there was a delay in getting race 8 horses onto the track, and the remaining races continued to have excessive intervals – creating a race card that was supposed to start at 6:50 pm (but started at 7:05) and didn’t conclude until 11:30! Just a horrific and deplorable experience that had better change or racing there and in similar venues will certainly disappear!

On the racing end, a point surfaced that I find important to discuss, as it impacts tracks, judges, owners, trainers, and drivers. From a variety of different sources, I was told that Yonkers has been trying to push drivers to drive more aggressively, and not to hand up easily when in front. I understand the rationale behind the policy — if, indeed, that is Yonkers’ policy — but it is counterproductive in so many ways! The bigger problem at Yonkers and all tracks is the willingness of drivers, for a variety of reasons, (some good some bad) to give seats to leavers. This significantly affects race flow, looks dubious to punters, and needs to be strictly policed. Preventing drivers from opening holes could have unintended consequences, perhaps making races even less interesting and less competitive. Allowing “sits” clearly is problematic! Tough issue! BUT pressing drivers to jeopardize their horses by mindlessly being over aggressive on the front end is just plain wrong! If a driver gets to the front and wants to slow things down to protect his horse or to inspire a retake, that MUST be his prerogative! If a track wants to create a reasonable minimum speed per quarter, so be it….but they cannot tell drivers — who work for the horse owner and trainer — to knowingly drive contrary to trainer instructions for fear of being handed a suspension by track judges! In many of the races that night, this aggressive approach seemed to surface. If what I was told is truly happening, we in the industry need to enter the fray and speak up on this point! Drivers have to be able to protect their equine partners and drive appropriately per trainer/owner guidance, not in a cavalier manner designed to placate judges! As long as a minimum pace is being adhered to, all drivers must be free to drive as they see fit – with “sit in” policy a real and difficult issue!

The continued prevalence of clearly apparent drug barns and beards must be intelligently addressed. It is ludicrous in this high-tech age to assert that through forensic accounting, surprise inspections, and good old detective work that one cannot catch the offenders! Everyone knows who they are and for whom they front. In most cases, clean trainers even know what the offenders are doing! Yet nothing effective really happens to change this dynamic!

Many say that banning all of the obvious offenders — where tracks have that exclusionary right — would prevent filling their race cards. Many are afraid of losing big owners who knowingly seek out drug barns, and fear that the industry couldn’t survive that loss. Some feel uncomfortable about privacy issues and absolute power to ban without clear causal proof. Some fear the injustices that might sometimes occur and the doubtless multitudes who will claim injustice! Some of the tracks have conflicts caused by ownership racing interests that could be asserted to color exclusionary decisions….

One thing is clear, however: harness racing cannot survive the current preponderance of beards and drug trainers who dominate claiming ranks and, increasingly, are playing a major role in 2 and 3 year old racing! A temporary shutdown because of too few entries might very well be a good thing for the industry! Big owners who willingly seek out drug trainers to win big races should be pushed out of this industry. To cut out a cancer, invasive techniques need to be pursued. Long term health requires short term costs, pain, and retrenchment! So it is in health issues, in business enterprises, and so it must be with racing. Innuendo, resentments, competitive pressures to compete with crooks are killing the business, racing’s reputation, and fan/owner interest.

Racing needs to create a national debate on all these matters, and to be proactive in addressing corruption, animal welfare, and drug issues that are, and will, decimate the industry we all love. A temporary shutdown provoked by aggressive integrity is long overdue. It will be painful, but without having the courage to risk a shutdown, nothing will change! And, perhaps, good people will step up and fill the void so that alarmist shutdown fears never become reality. Every racehorse needs to be guaranteed after racing care and a home. Every non therapeutic or potentially harmful drug must be banned from horse racing. Society will soon require it, so we would be wise to lead the movement, not resist it. If Lasix is not intrinsically dangerous to our equine athletes fight for it, because without it, our horse numbers will dwindle to the point that only 2 or 3 tracks will be needed. If Lasix is dangerous to horses, prove it, and figure out how to cope with that reality!

I know so many wonderful people in horse racing here and abroad. Many are beyond frustrated with the inability of our industry to move effectively on these matters. Good people try to move the needle, see their inability to do so, and retreat into lessened and silent participation in an industry needing their help. What can we do to break this logjam? All that care must be willing to risk something to effectuate change. There is no other way. I’ve owned racehorses over 35 years, some great ones, many not so great….but I can tell you what most of you silently tell yourself – the excitement, the feeling of community, the equity of real competition have been lost, replaced by apathy, frustration, yet a lingering love of what was and might be again. All of us need to do our part to change this.

We need to cut back the USTA to the small and boutique center of recording excellence it is meant to be.

We must create a NOT FOR PROFIT foundation to create centers of excellence for all other needed operational requirements – marketing, governmental outreach, international coordination of efforts and experience, legal and ethical issues, technology designed to specifically adapt our business to the 21st Century and to be relevant in a new technological age….

Funding must come from sale revenues, from licensing, from donors, from wagered dollars and stake surcharges, from an unlimited field of possibilities equally targeting all elements in racing, all vendors, all downstream beneficiaries so that sufficient funding exists to hire the right talent, afford the right initiatives, and reshape an old industry whose relevancy to large societal sectors has been lost.

We need a core of a dozen or more key players with the right connections to start the ball rolling. People willing to spend their own time and money in the beginning. No easy task! The USTA has to be cut down to size, perhaps merged with Standardbred Canada. That will be a fight! A new Foundation would have to be established, with the right charter and mission statement. Not so hard! Funding sources have to be identified and won over. Moderately difficult. Industry leaders have to push for change or be pushed out. Very, very hard!! The whole industry has to pull together, recognizing the problems at hand and the short term costs everyone will have to incur to create a lasting, successful, redesigned industry. Almost, but not totally, impossible.

I will commit time and money to this effort if those others who are needed to form the founding group surface with a desire to participate. A group of equals trying to get this industry we love back on track.

Sadly, it is the silence and refusal of the right “big players” to lead this change, to disrupt their comfort zone, that is making impossible these changes!

Guess I’ve said my piece on these issues. Blood pressure lower. People have asked me to speak up, now let’s see if the people needed to save this industry have the desire and fight to participate and help lead us out of the crematorium.

If not, I’ll just be one of the silent owners gradually lessening industry involvement but hopefully enjoying to a diminished extent what should be such a fun and passionate experience!

— Gordon Banks / Coral Gables, FL