Thoughts on integrity, Gural, Schnittker and Leavitt

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

by Ron Gurfein

Tidbits: I have recently been privileged to receive what I would consider inflammatory banter between both thoroughbred and standardbred industry leaders via email during the height of the 2019 season. I will not name names because It is not in the best interest of our sport, plus I stir the pot often enough.

The many claims that Jeff Gural was mistaken in declaring that we had a serious problem with drugging in our industry were not only recently proven way off base by the FBI, but they look to me to have been an insult to Jeff’s intelligence.

Obviously he was well aware of the scheme of misconduct that was rampant in both industries, but to protect the ongoing investigation was tight lipped and for good reason.
I am not asking any of the naysayers for public apology merely a personal note would suffice.

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No one has a better voice of truth and reason in our sport than Ray Schnittker. The opening article of last Friday’s edition of HRU (full story here) says it all.

You may think he is curt, and he can be at times, but he hits the nail on the head every time he raises the hammer.

I could not agree more with his assessment that the New York State Racing and Wagering Board needs to do some immediate soul searching. True they don’t have the capacity of the FBI but since the FBI has done their dirty work it’s time to respond.

All who know me are well aware that I am not a hanging judge and many have accused me of being on the wrong side of track, defending the bad guys.
This is far from the truth. I just get incensed when I see a miscarriage of justice.

I have always been an outgoing guy and after spending my life in harness racing I find oft times the accused are my personal friends. I still believe they should hang if guilty.

New York has done nothing in my lifetime to truly clean house. The FBI has afforded them the opportunity, here’s hoping they don’t miss the boat.

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Lots of wasted ink in HRU last Sunday. I like Art Gray. He is intelligent and an inventive individual. However, his outlook on integrity, although well meant, is based on a premise that doesn’t work anymore.

I am getting tired of hearing myself say these words but, Out Of Competition Testing is the only prayer that our commissions have that can work and to this writer it doesn’t work too well.

In the metropolitan area of New York, there are few stabling areas where sniffing dogs can apply their trade. None of the big drug trainers are stupid enough to have syringes in their possession at a track. The ones you will catch are some poor guys that can’t afford a veterinarian. Ninety-five per cent of the stalls that we’re available on racetrack grounds in the New York City area are gone forever. Drug detecting dogs at Vernon would be a major waste of money.

It is well documented that Macy’s doesn’t listen to Gimbles. Rene Allard and Richard Banca were permitted to race at Yonkers and Chris Oakes and Allard both raced at Pocono but neither was permitted to race at the Meadowlands. Is it up to Jeff Gural to present his case to New York and Pennsylvania so there will be mutual exclusion? I don’t think that’s going to happen. Each commission protects their own authority. Is it right? Absolutely not, but as of this date I am not certain anyone besides you and me care. It blows my mind that a Rick Kane or a Cammie Haughton wouldn’t pick up a phone and call Jeff or Jason Settlemoir and say what do you have? What should I know about this situation? The answer is simple: nobody wants to make waves, no one want to get involved in any litigation.

Until this behavior is reversed, the federal government will be our only savior.

This brings me to Alan Leavitt’s claim that there can never be a Commissioner of Harness Racing. I agree, as I have stated in the last paragraph there is no parity between states. But like all things, change is necessary to achieve greatness.

A group of three or four selected by the USTA president and his Canadian counterpart should formulate a plan and present it to the membership for comment, change and approval. Then they should meet with one Commission member from each state and province to discuss the method to which it would be implemented.

My personal suggestions for the group would be John Campbell, Jason Settlemoir, Ray Schnittker, Bill O’Donnell and Blair Burgess. This is not some pie in the sky idea, it is very workable. Somewhere someone has to take the first step.

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My friend Per Henriksen wrote to add some pertinent information on my article on headpoles in Europe as posted a few weeks ago. One correction, you can use one headpole now in Sweden but you cannot use two. Two points of interest: 1. Henriksen feels that the veterinarians’ scrutiny in Europe is far superior to North America and that many of the horses that we race that are passed by the vets would be scratched in Scandinavia. 2. He also points out that the Euro tracks have way more banking in the turns than do our ovals and therefore the amount of stress on the right knee is far less than it is here.

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I have been trying to avoid comment but no questions came to me in print so I feel compelled to vent.

The GOAT Challenge as an attempt at entertainment in the middle of a horrid pandemic for sure had merit. That said, that’s about all the positive I could glean from the project.

To begin with, there were, in this writer’s opinion, at least a dozen horses that should not have been mentioned in the same breath as the others.

So, let’s say for fun that’ s not important. The ceding was pathetic. They have ended up with two 15’s in the final four. Niatross and Mack Lobell were the two. If anyone that is functional and has watched harness racing since 1970 can name 28 better horses than those two I am buying you dinner.

Bill Bigler asks: You had a great run in one decade winning the Hambletonian three times in six years what are the chances that that can happen in this decade?

I have stated many times that the secret of success to Hambletonian victory is in the draft. What happens at the two major sales dictates future Hambletonian winners.

My feeling is that it is more likely now than it was in my time.

In the ‘90s there was more competition than today so it’s likely the best yearling prospects will end up in the same hands.

Today, there is only a handful of major buyers and fewer top trotting trainers. In my era, I had to contend with Takter, Sylvester, Eriksson and Dancer, winners of 16 Hambletonian’s combined.

Today, there are only two trainers with multiple Hambletonian wins: Chuck Sylvester and Blair Burgess both training small stables without the ability to financially compete with the Scandinavian juggernaut in the sales ring.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many talented trainers out there with the ability to win the big dance. The trouble is that most don’t have the money to compete in the sales ring as well.

So that leaves us with only two trainers with the ability and the clients to have that degree of success in the 2020’s. Both Ake Svanstedt and “Baby Trainer” Marcus Melander have the opportunity.

Someone out there is saying right now, ‘How about Tony Alagna?’ I am a fan. However, the ability to buy one top trotting colt cannot be the answer. Can Maverick win the Hambletonian? For sure he can, but what I am saying is Tony trains about 20 pacers to every trotter, he just doesn’t have the numbers to win three in nine years.

I am not saying that that won’t change, but he would have to acquire owners that want him to train their trotters as well as pacers. Marvin Katz would be a good start. As the breeder of Maverick and now part owner, a big season for the colt would achieve a major step in that direction.
Right now, Svanstedt and Melander, both with a good eye for horses as well as help from talented horse whisperers like Lina Alm, have all the money they need to buy the best.

Paul Robertson asks: The beaches are starting to reopen. It is time for The Guru to unleash some fabulous reading material for the summertime. What’s new and good?

What happened to the modern novel? The best writers of recent time that have come up with Jack Reacher, Harry Bosh and Amos Decker — names that we all love — have apparently gone on mental vacations. Lee Child, Michael Connelly David Baldacci and John Grisham have turned out nothing but trash for over a year.

It seems almost inconceivable to me that all four who rank among my top 10 favorite modern novelists could all go from great to dismal at the same time.

And the beat goes on. In the last two weeks I have started to read Walk the Wire ( Baldacci) and Camino Wind (Grisham) to no avail.

Please don’t get me wrong, these offerings are readable, but not up to the class and polish that we are used to getting from the pens of these great writers.

On a good note, I have a summer reading suggestion to any horse racing fan. It’s not a Hemingway piece and closer to what I would call fluff, but in hard times like these it will bring a smile to your face. It’s called The Greatest Gambling Story Ever Told by Mark Paul. It’s the ridiculous and totally unsophisticated story of two 31-year-old gamblers that make a sizable future wager on Winning Colors in the Kentucky Derby. It’s just plain fun with a lot of description of the D. Wayne Lucas machine of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

The funny thing is that I knew Wayne Lucas (to say hello to) at local restaurants in Lexington especially Debbie Brown’s Dudley’s when it was on Mill Street. By coincidence, due to the extreme cost of colts, he had talked to his owner, Gene Klein, about trying to buy a top filly to win the classic. I did the same with my band of clients and as it turned out we both were victorious at the same endeavor in a relatively short period of time.

However, I was a little pig and tried to do it again and really bit the bullet for a big ticket filly that at least became a good broodmare. Her name was Meadowbranch Magic ($335,000), and never made it past breaking an ankle in a 2-year-old baby race.

Thanks to all of you for the kind words. Please keep the questions coming in. Instead of making this column too long I saved two interesting questions for next week… Stay tuned and have a wonderful week.

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