Pennsylvania’s Bill Bercury on why he never forgets the mantra “Harness Racing is Fun.”
by Chris Lomon
The four words on Bill Bercury’s race bike serve as a daily reminder to himself, and others, of what standardbred racing should be all about.
Even on the rainiest, windiest and downright dreadful days in Pennsylvania, there’s very little, if anything, that can bring down Bercury, a long-time horse owner and trainer.
That sunny outlook, however, can lead to the occasional good-natured ribbing from his fellow horsepeople.
“I have the words, ‘Harness Racing Is Fun’ on my race bike,” said Bercury, who’s based in Slippery Rock, a borough in Butler County, PA. “Sometimes, when it’s miserable outside, or you’re in the middle of winter, people will tease me when I go rolling by on the track. They’ll say things like, ‘So, is harness racing still fun, Bill?’”
For the man who has no more than six horses in his stable at a time, his response, usually in the form of a smile, is always the same.
And despite the odds suggesting otherwise, Bercury has proven that less can be more when it comes to standardbred success.
Even so, there are two particular hurdles that immediately come to mind when it comes to maintaining a winning operation.
“The declining opportunities for the better horses is one challenge,” said Bercury. “It makes it a little more difficult to pay what they’re worth. The Meadows has not filled their open pace or open trot consistently over the last year. They’ve eliminated their open mare trots. So, it’s a little more difficult. We’ve been racing a little more at Northfield because of that. That’s one of the challenges we have facing us now.”
Another one is the work that goes into keeping a band of a half-dozen horses in winning form.
Bercury views those efforts as a source of pride.
“In order to have success with a small group of horses requires a lot of attention to detail and a good eye,” he said. “It also requires the understanding to know not every horse you have will work out the way you hope. We work very hard, watching for opportunities to buy good horses. My wife (Renee) has a very good eye for them. She does a great job of taking care of the horses as does my assistant trainer, Mike McDowell. They are hands-on every day. We are all out there every day, seven days a week. We make sure the horses are happy and sound. You get to those little problems before they become big ones.
“And Renee’s constantly coming up with horses that fit our stable well. That’s the first thing – to get a good athlete and when you do, doing everything you can to have them fit in your stable. If they don’t fit into your stable and perform, admit your mistake, and go and get another one. Don’t sit there and pray. Praying’s good for everything, except the weather and your horse’s performance.”
The amiable horseman hardly needs any divine intervention.
In 2019, Bercury fashioned a .580 UTRS (Universal Trainer Rating) and won the title in the ‘less than 300 starts’ category.Over 123 starts, his pacers and trotters notched 51 wins and earned $617,870, an average of more than $5,023 per start.
“I’m proud of the consistency. We have horses that have performed for years and they continue to perform. They are not overnight wonders. They consistently go out there and average $4,500 a start, and the horses continue to be in that training average of .500. That’s pretty exciting. They are dedicated, capable athletes, who we do everything we can to take good care of.”
His six-pack of stars includes Touchamatic, 2019 Older Pacing Mare of the Year at The Meadows, and winner of 18 of 36 starts last year. Eight-year-old mare Barn Girl, has 66 lifetime triumphs from 132 starts and over $860,000 in purse earnings. Wind Of The North, a 10-year-old trotter, 55-time winner, and million-dollar earner, is on the mend, and on the road to a return.
“There are so many of them I could talk about,” said Bercury. “Touchamatic, she’s a full-sister to the Breeders Crown winner American History. She’s just a hard-working, dedicated, big, strong, sound athlete, who loves to race. She is never in the corner of the stall when you come to get her. She’s right there, ready to go. Right now, she’s the star of the stable.
“Barn Girl has been a wonderful mare. She holds the world record on a half-mile track for a mare. She’s won over half of her lifetime starts. I mean, how many horses do that? She had a few problems at the end of last year, but we’re working to bring her back, slowly and comfortably. I think she’s going to come back and race well again. Wind of the North… a millionaire. He’s just happy, strong, and sound. I don’t know what else I can say about him. I just bought Blue Ivy (A daughter of Captaintreacherous) at the end of last year. She’s a 4-year-old now, and she has five wins in a row. She’s been on vacation and she’s getting ready to qualify. What an impressive horse she is.”
Bercury’s sizable contributions to racing don’t end at the wire.
He’s been instrumental in the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association’s (MSOA) marketing efforts, and has helped The Meadows develop and improve its Super Hi-5 wager.
“I’ve been part of the MSOA for the past six years, up until now,” said Bercury. “MSOA has done a lot of great things for the sport. They have done a tremendous job in pushing harness racing in western Pennsylvania. Lori Romanetti (MSOA secretary, and board member) is doing great work. Dawnelle Mauk (Marketing Director, MSOA), she is the consummate professional. She does a great job of finding opportunities for racing publicity. Evan Pattak (writer) is getting race reports to the individual newspapers – we get articles all over western Pennsylvania – when a horse wins. It’s all out there. That’s something the MSOA has to be very proud of.”
Just as Bercury is proud of a small-scale stable that continues to deliver big-time results.
Don’t expect Team Bercury to rest on its lofty laurels, or hang up its tack any time soon.
“I think having a smaller stable gives you the opportunity for excellence. You’re not there trying to filling holes, or trying to get your owner two horses because that’s what they are looking for. It’s about being able to maximize the production of each horse you have in your stable. We only have six in our stable. You have to insist on excellence for each one of your horses.”
On this day, Bercury is driving to The Meadows where he’ll soon be in the sulky for morning training.
“The sun is shining and there’s not a cloud in a sky,” he said.
Which sounds like it would be a great day for harness racing.
“Absolutely,” said Bercury. “But, really, every day is.”
Just like his race bike says.