The book on race secretaries

The book on race secretaries

April 17, 2020

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Plus, thoughts on horses that toe out compared to those that toe in and whether trainers can see instant talent in young drivers.

by Ron Gurfein

Tidbits: I personally am not a supporter of the use of Clenbuterol. In fact, I think we would be a lot better off if we banned the drug altogether, as the quarter horse industry has.

That said, I truly feel the new Ontario rule regarding the time frame for use of the drug is fine for the thoroughbred horses, but, in effect, bans the drug from the standardbreds. Twenty-eight days out as a rule is okay if you race every 40-60 days, but how can it be applied to a sport where the horses run every seven days?

This is without question one of the least though out decisions I have ever heard.

Billy Bigler asks: You have trained for six decades can you tell us about the race secretaries that you have raced for pros and cons?

I have been very lucky. With all the racing I have done in my lifetime I only had one race secretary that I found fault with and he was a total Neanderthal. He had no redeeming qualities and if someone discovered he was a clone of Adolph Hitler it would have been no surprise to me. He will however remain nameless, although the lack of his name in my discourse will give the old timers a good hint.

Larry Mallar at Roosevelt Raceway was the first of my experiences. I was young and dumb and he looked at me like I was young and dumb. I asked stupid questions and he made sure I understood they were stupid. But that said, Larry was fair and very businesslike the way he ran his office. He was truly one of the most laid back of all the men that I have encountered. He did warm up to me as years went by and we ended on a good note.

Phillip Tully at Monticello Raceway was, not only a genius but basically the inventor of my career. He was my best friend, biggest fan, oft times major mentor as well as biggest critic. The spring and summer racing in the Catskills provided a setting that would put a smile on any race secretary’s face as the atmosphere is filled with fun and excitement. Not only for the racing but also because it is a very long holiday with restaurants, hotels and all sorts of entertainment.

Phil was just the first of a long line of great guys, the things that he did for me would fill a novel and I will save that story for another day.

He was followed by his assistant Ralph Swalsky who was a great friend and a meticulous race secretary, but could easily get to yelling even with little or no provocation. Those outbursts unfortunately were more often than not aimed at another dear friend and his assistant Jerry Glantz who was bright and very much the opposite of Ralphie. That trio was followed by a true Mr. Nice Guy — probably too nice — Bruce Munn. He always had a smile on his face. He was a family man that didn’t know how to lose his temper. He was fair and understanding and provided the horsemen with the least volatile race office we had had in many years.

I liked Munn a lot mainly because he was very much like Mark Lydon who I raced for in Philadelphia. Mark began his racing career as assistant to the famed Pope of Liberty Bell Park. Jim Lynch a soft spoken senior fellow that represented the epitome of class.

Mark and Bruce would always greet you the same way and never went off course.

Some race secretaries will work with you others will want you to work with them and then there was Eliot “Doc” Narotsky, at Sportsman’s Park, Maywood, Balmoral, Springfield and DuQuoin. Actually the director of standardbred racing for the state of Illinois, dear friend and a long-time traveling mate. I am not sure of how it happened but somehow I became a part of the Narotsky family for a quarter of a century. People would question our relationship as if I was getting favorable treatment. We were racing stakes not overnights for God’s sake. I will not get into how great the race offices function with Doc at the helm because I am biased, but I will tell you that wherever he was, the other tracks he was running were in constant contact and he was on the phone in the middle of every draw at every track whenever he was forced to be racing at a different venue. This was a constant, even in the middle of dinner.

The odd thing is that the race office in Sportsman’s did throw me a bone but it wasn’t Doc Narotsky it was Phil Langley, a wonderful friend in his own right (who unfortunately passed away last week, he will truly be missed). It was the night of the aged American National and Imperfection got in tight quarters at the top of the stretch and made what I think was her only break. Phil called me to his office that was indeed one of the most elegant in our sport, and informed me his entrees for the open trot at Balmoral had been light and if I left the mare in Illinois the track was very fast and she would likely break the world record that Worldly Woman had set two weeks previous. I listened, and so did Imperfection, who with Dave Magee aboard set the world record the following weekend.

That brings me to the king of the race secretaries along with the most formidable race office in the history of the sport. Joe DeFrank, son Doug, Dandy Don, Warren, Phil and the ladies of team DeFrank including wife Beryl and Lee and all who ran the well-oiled piece of machinery called The Meadowlands Race Office.

If you didn’t commit murder or similar felony and were breathing you could get stalls at the Meadowlands. Being accustomed to the ever frightening stall application syndrome, it was a breath of fresh air when my awful barn of miscreants was accepted to attempt to compete in the colosseum of harness racing. That was the good news. The bad news was the 0 for 56 startling realization. I think Joe’s theory was that you will learn fast enough if you belong. That old system of the dictator in the race office has suddenly disappeared.

I will be honest, the first 10 years I raced at the Meadowlands I was petrified to go in the race office. Then when my daughter’s godfather Warren DeSantis became one of Joe’s assistants I slowly but surely gained the courage to visit.

I don’t want you to think DeFrank and company were severe, the were really all wonderful people. It was more like I was a kid from the minor leagues coming to the Yankees. It could be quite intimidating.

The PS is I had a wonderful run at the Meadowlands for almost 40 years and today we are all friends and are on a first name basis.

It would terribly remiss of me to mention a dear friend and at many times savior, who although she has never gotten the major title has been a major factor guiding The Meadows race office for way longer than she would like me to discuss. Cricket Colbert — sweet, adorable and smart as a whip. In 60 years of racing way before cell phones existed I missed the box once in my life. It was at The Meadows a long time ago when I was trying to enter a horse for an hour and a half in between trips at the Meadowlands and got busy signal after busy signal.

I called Cricket to cry on her shoulder and she assured me it would never happen again. I love her and I miss her. She is one of the silent bright lights in our sport.

I must go north of the border for another favorite of mine, Scott McKelvie, and his lovely wife Lori. Although I only raced in stakes at Woodbine and Mohawk, Scott, in the race office and Lori in the commission office always made my dealings simple and enjoyable. They provided us with the easy way, all ran smoothly, no bumps in the road. It’s simple to enter, easy to get the results of the draw and a pleasure to get licensed. There are plenty of venues that Scott and Lori could give lessons in cordial 101.

Last but not least, Steve Starr. Most likely the longest tenure of any race secretary in the sport’s history. We were never close friends as I hardly ever raced in Yonkers with the exception of sires stakes or the Yonkers Trot. I will become closer as we are both retired and Steve’s sister Robin is my friend and neighbor.

His race office seems to have been smooth as silk also. I know that he was the type of guy that would give anyone a chance. As for stalls he didn’t have a whole lot of space to give away. I wish him well in his retirement.

To Connie and Dill of Red Mile fame you both know I love you but this column has become out of touch with space and reality.

Peter Larkin asked on Facebook: There is some prejudice against pigeon-toed horses because they are prone to dish out and therefore waste action, yet there have been some great ones. Have you ever been associated with any?

I have been associated with many as I consider it a non-negative attribute. I also believe that toeing out and paddling wastes far more action.

This will show what a totally non exact science horse training is, and here’s why.

Two Hall of Fame trainers myself and Chuck Sylvester are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Chuck loves toed out horses I hate them, I love toed in horses he hates them. Chuck has won four Hambletonians I have won three. Maybe he is right.

That said, Continentalvictory and Self Possessed were both toed in. Admittedly I do not know of Chuck’s four winners, but I think my two of three makes a positive statement.

Tom Santoro asks: Many young drivers come up and are floundering for a few years. Yet some burst on the scene with exceptional talent like Walter Case, Matt Kakaley Yannick Gingras, John Campbell and Mike Lachance. Can you as a trainer see their talent immediately?

To begin with, none of the above with the possible exception of Matt Kakaley was anything like an overnight wonder. Michel started as a kid in Quebec actually driving as a child and had been driving for many years in New York after Canada before he ever hit the Grand Circuit. John raced in Ontario and then Monticello for a few years before the Meadowlands. Casey raced in Maine and Monticello for many years and never really caught on in the big time for any length of time, although he certainly had the talent. He was a wonderful kid but his own worst enemy. Yannick had been driving for quite some time and I remember Myron Bell telling me he was going to be a great one and that I should put him down on some of Brittany’s horses He was very smart and very likeable. He came to the Red Mile when few trainers knew him and created a business for himself. My personal opinion is that his intelligence has made him the best driver in the world. As for Matt, I remember at qualifiers his first year at Pocono after racing mostly at Pompano Park and Northfield, Erv Miller pointed a finger at him and said to me “that is the next John Campbell.” Still a youngster, he is well on his way.

Of course, when you are in the bush leagues, as I was for most of my career, you can tell the drivers with rare talent right away. But many chose to remain out of the limelight, as did Billy Parker Jr., and Marvin Maker. So you really don’t know how they would be on the big stage.

Thanks again to all of you for your kind words. Please keep the questions coming in and have a wonderful week. STAY SAFE….

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