Of Stanley Dancer, Billy Haughton, Joe O’Brien and Delvin Miller, which one was the best driver?

Of Stanley Dancer, Billy Haughton, Joe O’Brien and Delvin Miller, which one was the best driver?

December 18, 2020

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

by Ron Gurfein

Tidbits: The harness world was saddened with the passing of Joe DeFrank, who was truly a giant force in the industry. He was a man that I would refer to as a good friend and in his own way a guidance counselor.

There will be many words written in the following days and weeks but I think that he changed the industry for the horsemen in a way that was a true necessity.

Until Joe was instrumental in opening the Meadowlands, most, if not all, race offices were good ole boys clubs. Many trainers on the outside looking in found themselves begging for stall space even if they had quality stock. If you were lucky enough to be granted at least one stall to get in the door you then became financially indebted to the stall man to increase your count. If you weren’t an insider it was an evil system.

And then came Joe DeFrank. Not only did he attract the creme de la creme from all tracks but he broke the mold of the system. With Joe at the helm of what was to become the greatest harness track in history, all horsepeople were welcome. Everyone got the opportunity to compete. I really believe that instead of telling a trainer his horse would not do he would let the fellow find out for himself. That said, he gave me all the stalls I asked for in 1976 for the opening and I was 0-56 the initial year of the Meadowlands. I learned quickly what you needed between the shafts to compete.

I am not sure that Joe’s kindness went very far in changing the attitudes in the neighboring race offices as from that year forth I never raced anywhere else aside from my home base in Monticello, nor did I ever have to beg for stall space again.

R.I.P. my friend. You will be missed.

* * *

Let’s stop beating a dead horse and end the Justify/Hopertunity discussion here and now. We must bring our mindsets to 2020 instead of looking at trainer’s responsibility the way we did in 1960.

Horse racing has come a long way and responsible reporting should be a hallmark of the industry. I hate conspiracy theories and to me sportswriters are as guilty as news anchors in certain instances. Last week I pointed out that with new discoveries of environmental contamination my only major penalty of 50 years ago would have been thrown out.

Kudos to the veterinarians, and the commissions for coming full circle on the subject.

The naysayers have been frying Bob Baffert in the press and on social media.

One writer whom I respect wrote, “a rule is a rule” in regard to the California Horse Racing Board’s (CHRB) decision that in fact went against the rule claiming that the two Scopolamine positives were a result of Jimson weed as I reported to you last year.

He went on to say it all happened behind closed doors and was discarded because Justify needed the Santa Anita Derby points to be Derby eligible. What a bunch of idle gossip. Please chase the bad guys, don’t beat up on the innocents.

The CHRB has spoken, loud and clear. If you believe differently you have a right to your opinion. That said, I am sure they got this one right.

As far as the messy way the board handled the situation, I agree that it could have been handled in a better fashion but no one is perfect and getting to the proper outcome was, to me, of the utmost importance.

In essence, this is a landmark decision that throws the entire trainer responsibility rule under the bus, something that should have happened years ago. The rule was ridiculous in scope from the beginning as are zero tolerance rules. We live in a complex world and trying to simplify something that is not at all simple does nothing but wreak havoc on the participants.

This is not a hall pass to cheat. This opens the door for the honest trainer to be able to provide defense in cases that are not black and white.

* * *

In what I would call an unprecedented move, the Kentucky Sires Stakes have added a 50 per cent bonus program to the 2021 breeding season. Foals from Kentucky-based stallions from mares that remain in the state for 180 days will receive a 50 per cent bonus to all earnings first through fifth in all sires stakes events.

This may well be the significant reason for the lofty stud fee announced for Gimpanzee of $30,000. He will stand his first year in the state at Diamond Creek Farm in 2021.

* * *

Shout out to Chris Lakata and Lisa Palmiter (Team Lakata) doing a fabulous job. They are winning at many tracks and doing so often. My congratulations to winning owner Paul Negito, master of Joie de Vie Farm. He is a truly great guy. I remember when I trained for Paul’s mother Antoinette. She was a wonderful lady who would have a van sneak her horses out of my barn in the middle of the night to take them to a mystery soothsayer and return them before dawn. All those years she never thought I knew. How could I not give a lady like that free reign on what was of true importance to her?

Merry Christmas to the Lakata stable and all of their owners. Keep up the good work.

Redwood Taylor asks: Why is it that standardbreds can race 40 times a year and thoroughbreds only six on average?

You as a handicapper have looked at many horses up close and personal. All one has to do to answer that question is study the difference in the body style of the individual animals.

The legs of the standardbred match his body. They are thicker boned and when you stand back and get the overall picture they appear to have the ability to support the body above them. On the other hand, the underpinnings of the thoroughbred are slight and fine in comparison to the massive body they support.

They are simply much more brittle. They only train once a week and usually at distances much shorter than they race. Therefore, they are nowhere near as fit as our horses are.

That said, it’s most likely a Catch 22 because they are not sturdy enough to survive much in the line of morning works.

As one of my thoroughbred friends told me, it’s a great business if you stick to breeding and selling. Racing not so much.

I am not one for statistics, but the breakdown rate differential between the two breeds is staggering and the fatality rate is even worse. Standardbreds are much less likely to break down or die on the track.

Robert Smolin asks: Is it fair for harness drivers to be excluded from a track even though they are licensed and have no previous violations in the state? Why is it that management or race secretaries can say yes or no without merit?

Unfortunately, you selected the wrong writer to answer your question. I myself have been a crusader for many of those whom you speak, and I have been proven wrong by management 99 per cent of the time.

The power of private ownership affords management to pick and choose as they please and in most cases they are right on the money.

Be thankful I am not a presiding judge or a track owner. I would consider banning any trainer that wins at a 35 per cent rate in a heartbeat.

Remember one thing . The powers at the top know who the rotten apples are more often than not. You don’t have to have an arrest record to be a criminal.

These decisions are never without merit as you claim to be the case. And please don’t come down hard on race secretaries. They may be the ones to give a trainer his walking papers or refuse admission in the first place, however these decisions come from above.

I remember being in Ralph Swalsky’s office at Monticello Raceway when a driver was literally water skiing in the lake (standing up holding his horse back). Ten seconds later the phone rings and it was Leon Greenberg (track president). “Tell him he has 24 hours to leave the grounds.”

Jaclyn Morrison asks: We know Stanley Dancer, Billy Haughton, Joe O’Brien and Delvin Miller were the royalty of our sport. They were great overall horsemen in every sense of the word. Who do you think was the best driver?

This was my easiest question to answer thus far in my career. Without any reservation it was Joe O’Brien.

Not that the others weren’t capable reinsman and I will say that Stanley and Billy were more than capable, but Joe was comparable to the catch driver of today. It is very difficult to make comparisons 60 years apart but this writer honestly believes that Joe O’Brien could drive a horse with any man that ever lived. There were days when Joe would time trial 75 per cent of all the horses on a given day at the Red Mile. Just to give you an idea of how highly regarded he was by his fellow trainers.

Billy Bigler asks: What was your first Hambletonian experience like?

In a word: frightening. I know this is hard to believe, but I was quite shy of public speaking and was forced into many television interviews. I was an oddity to say the least. A boy born and raised in Manhattan, now on the world’s biggest stage for farm raised horsemen. Add to that, I had the favorite in the race with a horse that in my mind couldn’t be the favorite in any race.

His name was MB Felty, and he was by far the most difficult horse to train I ever started in a Hambletonian and maybe any race for that matter. My friend Frank “The Elder” Antonacci called me in early March of ‘91 to inform me he was sending a very fast 3-year-old Hambletonian eligible. I was excited, until I looked at his papers. He had a half dozen qualifiers and made at least one break in every one. There were so many X’s on his card it looked like a chicken ran across the page.

To call this a project was an understatement. The colt was a Prakas, and a dumb one at that, which may be in and of itself an oxymoron.

MB Felty definitely had speed, but he would run in so badly he needed a bigger track than the Meadowlands. A track that didn’t exist.

I won’t bore you with the details because I don’t want PETA on my back, but he did go to sleep a few nights a week with a huge burr headpole resting on his neck.

Unfortunately, his race records are too old to be accessible on the USTA’s Pathway system now and my memory is vague at best. He did have a good enough card going into the race to be the favorite with many thanks to his talented pilot Sonny Patterson. I recall he won the Founders Gold Cup in Vernon and was fifth mortally locked in in the Beacon Course (now the Stanley Dancer) as a 4-5 favorite in the start before the Hambletonian at the Meadowlands. He won his elimination easily and was beaten a neck by Giant Victory in the final after a very good trip.

The biggest mistake came after the race. Frank and I went back to the barn and were looking over the stall door of a very tired colt. Unfortunately, feeling bad for the distressed colt, we decided to send him to the farm for a few weeks to recover from the two-heat ordeal. He was in the paddock about a half hour and got a leg hung up in a fence. I am not 100 per cent sure, but I don’t think he ever raced again.

From where he was just five months previous to the race I would call the MB Felty story a minor miracle.

To all my friends, thank you for all the kind words. Please keep the questions coming in. I wish all of you a very Merry Christmas and a healthy, happy New Year.

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