I hope I’m wrong, but…

by Alan Leavitt

Obviously, Jeff Gural and his faithful lieutenant, Jason Settlemoir, don’t buy my thesis that “dragging” is destructive to the integrity of our sport (HarnessRacingUpdate.com). I say this having just read a Meadowlands release that states the track will do as much dragging as it needs to do to achieve a $3 million nightly handle.

Let me quickly make it clear that I’ve known Gural for many years, and there’s no question that his personal commitment to integrity is beyond reproach. The issue here is that he doesn’t view dragging as an integrity issue, and I do.

The reality is that dragging has become an essential element in the minds of harness track operators, and you don’t mess with something so essential to your bottom line. This thinking ignores the fact that intellectually and logically dragging is indefensible.

Every thoroughbred track in North America gives the lie to the belief that betting handle suffers sans dragging. In the biggest betting race in North America, the Kentucky Derby, the horses are being loaded into the starting gate when the clock hits zero minutes to post time.

But dragging presents two major threats to the welfare of harness racing. The first is its totally negative effect on any effort to create new bettors or new owners. Who in his right mind wants to participate in a sport where the official clock means nothing?

Every other sport is scrupulous in observing its official time keeper. It’s the source of the highest drama of many football and basketball games, where the seconds are often counted off aloud on national television.

Beyond that, however, is something deadly serious. We are handing our enemies a perfect weapon to use against us. The casinos, who supply virtually all of our purse money, would love to be rid of us. They are much stronger politically than we’ll ever be, and sooner or later the tracks will wake up to the concept of decoupling. What better weapon to use against their mandated support of our business than dragging?

The same logic applies to the state legislatures and governors of the harness racing states. To a man, or woman, the politicians could find far better uses for the money that now supports a business that doesn’t even bother to operate honestly.

The sad aspect of all this is that the tracks could and would handle just as much money if they didn’t drag. The thoroughbred tracks are proof positive of it. But logic carries no weight here, and so we go blithely on, every night working our way toward our own destruction.

We’re now at close to the midpoint of the breeding season. From here until July 4, my arbitrary final day of the breeding season, the pressure on the popular stallions will increase incrementally. It’s a sad but true fact that the American trotting stallion is frequently a compromised breeding animal.

This has been true ever since my earliest days in the breeding business, which probably go back farther than many people alive today.

I syndicated Noble Victory in 1964, and he was, for the record, the first million dollar standardbred.

Pedigree-wise Noble was inbred 2 by 4 to Volomite, his paternal grandsire and maternal great grandsire. Volomite himself was a strong breeding horse, but Noble wasn’t. I had what in retrospect was an interesting experience regarding his fertility, although I would have used other words to describe it at the time.

You must understand that this was before the advent of artificial insemination, so every breeding was live cover, and mares were checked for pregnancy at 42 days. Operating in Hanover, PA, there was only one other breeding farm, Hanover, so there were no equine vets in the vicinity. You had to have a resident vet, and by the end of March mine had become unhinged and made only infrequent guest appearances. And as far as I could tell, Noble Victory hadn’t yet settled his first mare.

Somehow I knew the name Bill McGee, of the Lexington vet firm, Hagyard, Davidson, McGee. In desperation I called him, and he agreed to charter a small plane and fly up on the following Sunday. For good measure, I also mentioned that I needed a resident vet, and he said he’d bring with him a possible candidate for that job.

Under Dr. McGee’s direction we bred Noble to a tease mare, with Noble wearing a breeding bag, a euphemism of that day for a horse-sized condom.

Dr. McGee took a drop, made a slide, and put it under our microscope.

“Take a look,” he said to me. “Those salamanders aren’t very lively, are they?”

I looked and agreed, noting at the time that the foremost equine repro vet maybe in the world regarded sperm cells as salamanders. The he added something to the slide, and told me to look again.

“Those salamanders have just gotten a lot livelier, don’t you think?” he said.

“What did you do to them?” I asked, and Dr. McGee said he’d added something made from milk, called semen extender.

He then told me that things weren’t as bad as I thought, because he was sure some of our mares were in foal, it was just too early to call.

Then he introduced me to his companion whom he’d brought with him from Lexington. He took me aside and said that he was the best young vet he’d ever worked with, and he would do a good job for me. His name was John Mark Egloff, aka Tad.

That worked out great, and I take great pride in what a success Tad has become in our business.

One thing that sticks with me all these years later is a conversation we had shortly after Tad started at Lana Lobell. I repeated to him what Dr. McGee had said about him being the best young vet assistant he’d ever had.

Tad listened, and then he said, “I’m not sure what he based that on, since 90 per cent of the time all I did was open and close gates.”