by Murray Brown
Gordon Banks, together with his cousin and partner Marc Hanover might be the people with the greatest involvement in racing in North America that also have a racing operation in Australia and New Zealand. In Banks’ words “Racing in both areas is in trouble, in some places for the same reasons and in some for very different ones.”
But to quote the former racing writer for the Philadelphia Daily News Jack Kiser, “but don’t get me wrong, I love harness racing.”
Banks was fairly late to get to the game.
He was born in New York City. His mom Janice is Austrian. His father Russell, American. He describes his upbringing as ideal under the best parents imaginable.
He attended Trinity prep school in the City and then graduated from Amherst College. While at Trinity, he was on the same tennis team as John McEnroe.
“I wasn’t John McEnroe, but I was pretty good,” Banks said.
All dreams of becoming a world class tennis player were put to rest after sustaining numerous shoulder injuries while in school.
“I never fully recovered from them,” he said.
After school, he became an attorney and joined the law firm of Lord, Day & Lord, one of the oldest firms in New York.
While there, he was “head hunted” and then trained in numerous business operations. He became the president of Enviro Spray systems. He also was the president of GVC Venture Corporations and a partner in numerous private venture companies.
His specialty involved resurrecting distressed companies that were at death’s door.
“We were able to do so with several and then sell them for substantial profit. It was very rewarding, but very hard work. I lived and worked in Antwerp Belgium for quite some time and also traveled the globe. Over a period of time, I’d periodically became worn out and returned to the homeland for some R and R. While back here, I met a former fraternity brother who had become a harness trainer. He convinced me to buy a horse for him to train and race.
“I was 29 years old. I was reasonably well set financially. I said to myself, ‘Why not?’ We claimed a pacer named Stonegate Cadence. He promptly won five in a row for us. As many others before and after me have said ‘This is an easy game.’ I was to discover differently.
“My cousin Marc and me have since owned hundreds of horses and have had them in several stables with mixed success and some joy, that is until we met and became owners in the Linda Toscano stable. Since then it has been mostly terrific.”
Let’s begin with Linda. Tell me about your time with her.
“Linda is a gem. In terms of gems, I’d describe her as being the Hope Diamond. If all trainers were like Linda Toscano and her husband Brad McNinch, I am certain that we would have more owners than we do today. If I were asked to describe Linda in one word, the word I would use would be ‘family.’ In addition to being a masterful horse person, she is perhaps more importantly a great people person. She runs a great operation, has an incredible work ethic and perhaps just as importantly has a great deal of common sense. Most of her owners have been with her forever. Once you land in the Toscano-McNinch Stable, there is a good chance that as long as you are in the business, this is where you are going to remain. She treats all of her owners with the greatest degree of honesty and respect. She is the same way with all of her employees, most of whom have been with her for a long time. I’ll go so far as to say that if Linda left the business, that there is a good chance that Marc and I and probably many of her other owners would follow.”
You and Marc have followed a different path than most other owners. It’s a rarity to find owners racing and breeding horses in North America and in the Southern Hemisphere. How did the Down Under involvement come about?
“We had met John Curtin, who was looking to bring some Down Under horses to race here. John was interested in brokering a deal to import Presidential Ball to stand stud in New Zealand. He encouraged us to become involved. Looking back, it was a very risky thing in which to become involved. We knew next to nothing about the breeding business. We knew, but didn’t appreciate the degree that Presidential Ball had not met expectations while standing in the stud here. Nevertheless, we foolishly went along with the deal. Then we got lucky. From being considered as somewhat of a failure, PB rose from the dead. After the deal was consummated, he turned his lack of success around and was the second leading sire of 3-year-olds in North America. He was reborn. We had our own Lazarus. PB then went on to have a very successful stud career in the Southern Hemisphere. Of all the horses we have owned, Presidential Ball is the one from which we have earned the greatest financial benefit.”
You mention at one time your horse holdings numbered in the neighborhood of 100.
“It was crazy. It had got out of control. The racing end was our main business. But we now found ourselves in the breeding business owning 35 broodmares. We had the same problem that many people who both breed and race have. We could not sell our yearlings well. People were of the opinion that we were offering only the ones that for one reason or another were considered our culls. This wasn’t necessarily so, but perception certainly was reality. We had to make a choice. Our choice was to be involved in racing. We are no longer, if we ever were, commercial market breeders.”
This year has been a very successful one for you, both in North America and especially, abroad.
“Actually the last several years have been quite successful. One great horse can make a big difference in any stable. This year, we have in our ownership the great 4-year-old pacing mare Amazing Dream, who is a multiple Grade One winner in Australia. She has won nine Grade One stakes. She has more than once taken on the boys and whipped them as she has done with older competition. She might be our once in a lifetime horse. As much as she has accomplished, I don’t believe we have yet seen her best. Presently, we plan to bring her stateside this winter. The plan is to see whether she is capable of taking on the best here in North America as she has done in Australia. The cherry on the sundae is that we own her in partnership with friends and fellow owners in the Toscano-McNinch stable Richard Gutnick, Tom Pontone and Joe Lozito Jr, who are also our partners in the outstanding trotting filly Lady Chaos and this year’s top New York filly Bare My Soul. Prior to Amazing Dream, we owned the Australian champion Major Don. This year we have the 3-year-olds Spock and American Dealer in Australia. We believe that they’ve shown enough for us to think they could become champions.”
Some horses brought here do exceptionally well, others not near as well. How do you explain that?
“It’s quite simple. Horses, as are people, are different. Some can adjust to new environments, others cannot. It has been the same way with horses exported for breeding purposes. Some adjust quite well. Others do not and in some instances have become sick and occasionally have died.”
How would you explain the differences between racing in Australia and New Zealand?
“Australian racing is quite similar to ours. Speed is the biggest factor. Horses are raced very aggressively, usually over a distance of a mile or thereabouts. Other than the big events, the overnights are similar to what we find over here.
“In New Zealand things are a whole lot more relaxed. The distances are varied. The way the horses are raced does not require near the emphasis on speed as in Australia and here. Horses generally last longer and are probably appreciated more.”
What can we learn from the folks Down Under?
“I don’t know that we can learn it. But racing in general has more of a fun atmosphere than it does here. There is lots more emphasis on the gambling, the food and drink available at the racetrack and the fun to be had there. Whereas here it seems to be all about winning which is fine. But a happy medium would probably be better.”
What is wrong with their racing?
“Several things: 1. Horses are penalized for being successful. Once they reach a certain level, they hardly are lowered in class. We all know that horses change over time. However, down there, once a horse goes on a downswing, there is no way it can be lowered in class to the degree that it remains competitive. Thus, one of the main reasons why so many of their horses are brought over here. They have reached their “Peter Principle” status — a level where they can no longer be competitive.
“2. Similar to here, they have a shortage of horses.
“3. The breeding industry is somewhat out of control. There have been and are stallions who end up breeding as many as 500 mares in a single season. This has resulted in an over surplus of mares by stallions such as Bettors Delight and Art Major for example. There will come, if it has not already arrived, a time where there is no place to go with these mares.
“4. They have a horrible national rating system where horses are penalized for doing well.”
How active are you in managing your horses over there?
“Extremely. We are on the phone on a daily basis. We have great people there as we do here and the lines of communication are wide open. We love it down there. Before COVID, Marc and I would visit about two or three times a year. Since COVID, we haven’t been. I miss those trips.”
Gordon, this interview would be quite incomplete if I didn’t mention your presence on social media and your dissatisfaction with the leadership of the United States Trotting Association. One of your successful life experiences has been in rescuing ailing businesses and leading them on the road back to success. Can the same be done with the USTA and to a larger degree with harness racing?
“Perhaps, But it would be a monumental undertaking. In order to do it, all segments of the industry, trainers, drivers, owners, racetrack management, USTA and any others would have to come together and work for the greater good for everyone. It would involve a multitude of tasks by numerous individuals.
“My major problems with USTA management involves what I believe to be their failure to reach out and unify the disparate parts of the industry and to communicate with them. They need to act for the greater good with input from the membership, not their own or what they perceive to be best. They need to be receptive of and answerable to criticism and not lock their eyes and ears to it. Their news function needs to be enhanced and not be focused on their ends — sometimes even censored. Let me give you an example. We sent out a release on Amazing Dream’s accomplishments. All other news media sites published it. USTA did not. I asked them why they didn’t. Their answer was, ‘It wasn’t interesting.’
“That wasn’t interesting, yet a race in Cannes Sur Mer with no American ownership or the fact that telephone service at a fair in Ohio was down, is interesting? C’mon give me a break. I dared to be critical of the USTA, so the USTA was going to get even with me by not printing a story about a great horse that I share ownership in. How petty can they be?
“The same applies to the recent controversies over HISA (Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act). I respect the right of USTA to publish their views on the subject. Yet, I believe that they are being grossly unfair, perhaps irresponsible by refusing to publish contrasting opinions coming from their members. That in itself is beyond reprehensible.”
Where do you see us in 10 years?
“We probably will still be around, but unless something miraculous transpires, on a much smaller basis than we are today. People just love to own horses and the thrills and camaraderie that go along with it.”
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