Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Whole Lot of Kicking and Screaming Going On

Yesterday, the Meadowlands released the list of trainers who are eligible for the rewards program where the reward is having preference to race in the B-2 or lower classes as well as the non-winners of 1, 2, 3, and 4 pari-mutuel races lifetime classes.  All other classes remain open equally for all trainers.  The trainers who qualified for the reward were:

Eric Abbatiello              Tony Alagna              Ronald Burke              Mark Capone
Ron Coyne Jr               Jonas Czernyson      Nikolas Drennan        Steve Elliott
Mark Ford                     Mark Harder              Joseph Holloway        Richard Johnson
Douglas Lewis              Joseph Martin           Julie Miller                   Larry Remmen
Christopher Ryder        Mark Silva                 Jeffrey Smith               Ake Svanstedt
Jimmy Takter                Linda Toscano

These were twp ways to qualify for the preference reward.  If you had more than 60 starts at the Meadowlands from March 28, 2014 thru the end of the meet or if you had at least 20 starts at the Meadowlands during the same period and you made more starts at the Meadowlands than all other tracks combined during the same timeframe, you qualified for the award.

If you are a trainer on the list, you are pleased.  If you are not on the list, you are probably kicking and screaming over being excluded from the rewards list, especially if you missed by a couple starts or are a small stable or a trainer who tried to serve two masters, Peter Koch at the Meadowlands and Karen Fagliarone at Freehold for both NJ racing secretaries often were asking trainers to enter horses, making trainers chose one track over the other and possibly costing themselves preference at the Meadowlands entry box this winter.

While no preference system based on the number of starts is completely fair as someone is always going to end up on the short end of the stick by a start or two, or some owners will change trainers to one who qualifies to play the system, this system is better than none.  After all, if you are a trainer who supported the Meadowlands during the period the Pennsylvania tracks were open, how would you feel being jammed at the entry box by the carpetbagger who raced in Pennsylvania all season long and decides to race in the winter at the Meadowlands when there are no other racing opportunities available, knowing they will abandon the Meadowlands once Pocono Downs and/or Harrah's reopens?  Something needed to be done to reward and protect the loyalists and this was seen to be the fairest way to go.

Before anyone criticizes management at the Meadowlands, this system was designed with input from the horsemen via the SBOANJ.  If people have complaints about this system, make sure they get their share of grief.

As I mentioned, there is no perfect system.  If I developed this preference system, being the small trainers support both Freehold and the Meadowlands; New Jersey tracks, I would have had the second condition exclude the starts made at Freehold from the "than all other tracks combined during the same timeframe" condition.

For those trainers afraid of being blocked from the entry box, it should be noted trainers like Jimmy Takter are not racing horses at the lower levels so some of these trainers may as well not be on the list.  Also, for those small trainers with green horses, the conditioned classes still have the added condition of New Jersey-sired affixed to them so that will reduce the influence of the trainer's preference (NJ sired horses will earn a 60% bonus in NJ sired preferred events).

The bottom line is those who supported the Meadowlands deserve to race this winter while those trainers who spent their season in Pennsylvania deserve to have little opportunity there.  You need to show love to get love back.  Now is the time to pay the bill.

The Breeders Crown has announced the tracks holding the Breeders Crown events through 2017.  While the Meadowlands will host the events in 2016, WEG returns to the circuit in 2015, after bypassing the Crown due to the uncertainty of the Ontario racing environment.  Perhaps more important than the return to WEG and the Meadowlands, is the addition of Hoosier Park to the rotation in 2017.  With the addition of Hoosier Park, the Crown will make its first visit to the mid-West in a long time.  Their addition to the rotation is welcome.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How Are The Drivers Doing In Comparison To Last Year?

About 17% of the 2014 calendar remains, but this is not particularly rich territory for stakes money; the sire stakes programs have run dry and the Grand Circuit is winding down. Yes, there are more than a few stakes races in November but December is practically barren.

Some drivers have already earned more than they did last year, while others are falling short. The leading driver is Yannick Gingras, who has parlayed his first call affiliation with Ron Burke and Jimmy Takter into a substantial $3.9 million lead. As of this moment he has earned $13.7 million, which will be $14 million in no time. This is almost 97% of what his horses earned in 2013. By the weekend Gingras will have eclipsed that number.

Last year’s leading money winning driver, Tim Tetrick, is hurting—relatively speaking—from Gingra’s monopoly on the best drives. At this point Tetrick has earned 61% of what he did last year. Earning $6.2 million—the amount it would take to get back to last year’s level—between now and New Year’s Day would be a Herculean task. One must keep in mind that he missed several weeks at the start of the year when he had his hip replaced. Recent stakes wins with Burke’s Big Boy Dreams, Sayitall BB and Clear Vision may signal a shift to getting more drives for the Burke Barn in the future.

Brian Sears, who has done a masterful job balancing his regular gig at Yonkers with lucrative drives on the Grand Circuit, is in the same boat as Tetrick: Sears has earned 60% of what he did last year. He would need $5.4 million during the final two months of the year to get back to his 2013 total. Bee A Magician and Royalty For Life were a pair of money trees for him in 2013. As he closes in on 9,000 career wins, Sears is setting himself up for next year: Kelvin Harrison’s freshman pacer In The Arsenal should prove to be a lucrative mount for the White Knight in 2015.

Ron Pierce has benefited from driving Takter’s Shake It Cerry and Uncle Lasse and Burke’s Sweet Lou, but he is still close to 27% short of last year’s total, while David Miller, chauffeur of 2014 millionaire McWicked, is almost 34% short of his 2013 total. Burke and Takter have consumed so much of the oxygen that any driver who is not one of their regulars is suffering the consequences.

Brett Miller, who drives for both, and had the top sire stakes trotter Billy Flynn for Steffan Lind, has already earned 25% more than he did in all of 2013--$1.7 million. The other night he drove Not Afraid, Yoga and Lyonssomewhere for Takter in the stakes races at Yonkers. He has also earned lots of money with Burke’s Clear Vision. Brett is having a career year.

Matt Kakaley, another Burke regular, has earned 95% of last year’s $7.5 million total and will surely be well past it by season’s end. Matt won the $500,000 Messenger Saturday night with Burke’s All Bets Off. The winner of the 2010 Rising Star Award is still in his mid- twenties and has been a regular for Burke from Yonkers to Hoosier Downs to Pocono—wherever he is needed. Kakaley is number seven on the money list right now.

Chris Christoforou is another one having a terrific year; he’s already more than 25% ahead of last year’s earnings thanks in large part to his affiliation with Casie Coleman and her stable full of OSS stars by first crop stallion Sportswriter.

Aaron Merriman and Ronnie Wrenn Jr, both best known for their impressive dash winning totals, are making some serious money this year. Merriman, who leads the race for the dash title, is 13th overall on the money list and has already surpassed last year’s earnings by more than 25%. And Wrenn, who is second on the dash list, has already topped his 2013 bankroll by almost 28%. Winning lots of races is swell, but lots of money is better.

Younger drivers aren’t feeling the impact of Yannick cornering the market on dominant stakes horses the way the stars like Tim Tetrick, Sears, Pierce and David Miller are. The 21-year-old Buckeye Tyler Smith, who was the youngest driver to get to 1,000 wins, has already earned 91% of last year’s total and is assured another fine year.

Yonkers regular Jason Bartlett is 8th on the earnings list and is the leading driver at Yonkers Raceway—almost a million dollars ahead of second place Brian Sears.  Right now he’s within $50,000 of last year’s total, so he’s obviously having an excellent year. His colleague George Brennan is a couple of spots behind him on the overall money list and third at Yonkers. Brennan is still 28% short of what his stock earned in 2013.

James MacDonald, who missed three months due to injury last year, has almost doubled his earnings to this point in the season. He’s jumped from nowhere to the top 25.

Eric Carlson, who ranks fourth at Yonkers, is ten spots ahead of last year’s finish on the earnings list and his drives have already netted almost 15% more than he earned in all of 2013.

Trace Tetrick, the leading driver at Hoosier Park, who won three ISS Super Finals, with Color’s A Virgin, Churita and Freaky Feet Pete, has already topped last year’s earnings by almost 12% and has moved into the top 20. Winning the Allerage Trot with Creatine at The Red Mile was a major breakthrough for him. The infusion of casino dollars into purses in Ohio and Indiana is giving a boost to Midwestern drivers like Wrenn, Trace Tetrick and Tyler Smith.

Nuncio’s million dollar bankroll has lifted John Campbell 14% above what he earned in all of last year. And Scott Zeron has solidified his role as a regular in the Northeast as well as on the Grand Circuit. His alliance with Tony Alagna, which has led to drives on the likes of Artspeak, has raised his profile considerably. Zeron is already 3% ahead of what he earned in 2013.

Jim Morrill led the NYSS once again, but Yannick grabbed some of the high dollar Burke action and Morrill is at 68% of last year’s total. Mark MacDonald, who was number two in the NYSS, is at about 80% of last year’s total, which is very good considering that he missed time at the beginning of the season after a surgical procedure.

So, while Gingras is hoarding the frosting on top of the cake, a number of journeyman drivers like Brett Miller and younger ones like Tyler Smith are having outstanding years.

Joe FitzGerald

Monday, October 27, 2014

Ontario Introducing Sirens; What About Everyone Else?

As a result of a mishap at Flamboro Downs which resulted in a head-on collision of two horses after an accident, the Ontario Racing Commission (ORC) has ordered all tracks to have installed by January 1, 2015 a system using warning lights and a siren to be used in the event of an emergency which requires drivers to proceed with caution or to stop the race.  The rule takes effect once the equipment is installed.

While this rule only effects the Ontario racetracks, it should become the standard throughout Canada and the United States.  For American tracks, it should only require the installation of a siren as they are required to have warning lights around the track already which are to go on whenever there is an accident or a horse gets loose on the track.  We know tracks hate to refund wagers on a wholesale basis and horsemen hate to lose the opportunity to earn purse money, but that should not trump the health and safety of racing participants, both drivers and horses.  If that is not incentive enough, the last thing you want is coverage of another head-on collision; something which would give ammunition to those opposed to horse racing.

Horsemen associations can negotiate in their next contract a provision which calls for purse money to be split evenly among all horses which were still competitive when the race was stopped if the loss of purse money is an issue.  We can adopt the rule used in some European countries which calls for the remaining horses to return later on the card to contest the race if less than half the race was contested when it was stopped; that should satisfy those worried about refunding wagers for a race declared 'no contest'.

Of course, the question is will racing commissions become proactive in the other provinces and states to adopt either the ORC rule or a modified version which allows for a race to be restarted?  That remains to be seen.  But it shouldn't have to depend on commissions being proactive; horsemen and/or tracks should petition their commissions to enact some version of this rule and enact it using their emergency rule making powers instead of having to go through 6 months or more of review before they can approve it.  

It took a relatively high-profile accident to get Ontario to act.  It shouldn't require another such incident to happen before the rest of the industry follows their lead.  Now is the time to make this an industry-wide standard on both sides of the border.

Delaware Valley Harness Memories ...

by Peter Lawrence, VFTRG Contributor

Brandywine Raceway, located on Naamans Road in Wilmington, Delaware, and Liberty Bell Park, situated at the intersection of Knights and Woodhaven roads in Northeast Philadelphia, were once a strong sister-track circuit in what's called the Delaware Valley region.

Both tracks are long-gone now.

I saw more of Liberty Bell than Brandywine, having worked in the Bell's publicity department in 1980, but I have a few recollections of Brandywine, too.

Brandywine Raceway from the Backstretch (Photo credit unknown)

This photo of Brandywine appeared on my Facebook feed a few days ago, so I decided to tack a few comments onto it, and pass it along.

It may not have always been such, but I recall Brandywine as having the nicer summer race dates, while Liberty Bell had the autumn through spring dates.

The Bell may've been classy in its younger days in the 1960s and '70s, but it was pretty seedy when I worked there. In retrospect, ownership may have already planned its sale and was bailing out, essentially running the place into the ground. A shopping center called the Franklin Mills Mall - renamed the Philadelphia Mills Mall as of last month - stands there now.

(Similarly, many folks remember the former Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island as a palace, and it was, for a long time, but its own ownership ran it into the ground as well, and it, too, was a dump at the end, in 1988. But that's a whole other story.)

Brandywine was a jewel during most of its existence. I never knew a fellow named "Colonel" Dave Herman, the track's one-time PR director, but I did (and do) know Marv Bachrad, who was the PR guy there 'til the end, and he's a jewel himself. He operated out of a freestanding building near the grandstand, which I think was known as the hospitality cabin, and it was a great place for the press - and owners, I think - to get their respective racing evenings started and finished.

(Marv is the public relations chief at Dover Downs in Delaware now, and has been for many years.)
Brandywine also had a state-of-the-art in-house TV patrol system, and you could count on seeing interviews and such, from the paddock and such, during the course of the night's races.

Following that background introduction, here are three other vivid memories I still have of Brandywine ...
One, I've seen day/night stakes races at different tracks on the same day - Freehold and Yonkers, Freehold and Roosevelt, Freehold and Meadowlands, for instance - but one night, a Sunday many years ago, I was nutty enough to see them at two different venues on the same night. I started at Freestate Raceway in Maryland, watched several divisions of, maybe, the Hanover Stake (might've been something else), which were right at the start of the card, then scooted up to Brandywine for the Battle of the Brandywine eliminations, which were late on the card up there.

(Oh, another day/night "degenerate double," a two-breed stakes double, I did was in 1985, the Preakness at Pimlico, and an early-season start for Nihilator at Freestate.)

Two, I've owned a few standardbreds in my time (none lately), and one was a stakes-winner, a B.G.'s Bunny pacing filly named Tri State's Baby, co-owned with my folks, my long-time friend Rob Goldstein, and several other people. She won any number of New Jersey Sire Stakes, including several at the Meadowlands, which was a big thrill, plus a Grand Circuit-type event, the Pocahontas, at, you guessed it, Brandywine, in 1984.

That was really cool.

And lastly, I don't remember the year Brandywine was knocked down, but whenever it was, I happened to be nearby, visiting relatives, and I stopped by the shuttered track, only to discover that it had already been demolished. I wish I still had the photo I took of what I saw that day, but I can describe it.
As seen from the lower turn, the top levels of the former grandstand (or technically, the clubhouse, I guess) pancaked straight down on the lower levels, as you might expect. But something I didn't expect to see was also the case.

The press box windows were still completely intact, not shattered, or even cracked. Same with several of the giant finish-line spotlights. It was almost as though the old lady didn't want to go down without a fight.

But I assume the demolition crew probably returned in a day or two and completed the job with sledgehammers or something.

Oh, well.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

Trotter/Horse of the Year Slipping Away?

After last night's miscue in the Yonkers International Preview, Sebastian K and his team are now at the cross roads.  While he may still win the Aged Trotter of the Year award, what was once a stroll towards his coronation as Trotter of the Year and possibly Horse of the Year is now questionable.

True, Sebastian K is not the first champion horse to be done in by those turns, but when you consider this was his third straight loss you have to wonder if going off stride was more than a half mile mishap; it is clear the champion trotter has lost his edge.  While the Swedish ex-pat dominated the first half of the racing season, he has been mortal as summer has rolled into fall.  Can you become Trotter/Horse of the Year based on early season success alone?  I don't think so.

Which brings Sebastian K's team to an interesting dilemma.  As reported by HRU, Ake Svendstadt is talking to the owners of Sebastian K regarding future plans for the 8 year old trotter.  If the decision is to come back as a 9 year old, it would appear we have seen the last of Sebastian K in 2014.  If they decide this is the last year of his racing, then Svanstedt will be willing to keep racing and finish the  trotter's career in the 2014 Breeders Crown.  A win in the Breeders Crown will put Sebastian K into contention for Trotter and Horse of the year, a defeat may make him more of an interesting footnote in American trotting.

Of course, there is more riding on the decision.  A Commander Crowe/Sebastian K battle in the Breeders Crown will make the Breeders Crown Open Trot THE match up of night two; the defection of either trotter will transform the race into just another stake race.  We should know more in the next couple of days.

Let's not take anything away from Natural Herbie, the Preview's winner.  While he may not have had the credentials many of the others have, but he has been racing hot at Hoosier Park in his last three starts for trainer/driver Verlin Yoder and deserved some attention.  I suspect we will hear more from this horse next year when he is staked to more FFA events

As we head towards the Breeders Crown, here are some interesting questions:

While it is a foregone conclusion that 3yo Trotting Colt of the Year is going to Jimmy Takter, will it be for Father Patrick or Nuncio?  It is obvious why Takter has tried to keep these two apart in most races, because they are clearly the best.  However, while Father Patrick would be the favorite for the award, what happens if Nuncio were to defeat him in the Breeders Crown?

Do we dare say Father Time is finally catching up with Foiled Again?  Yes, he just got nosed out in the Dayton Pacing Derby on Friday but the Foiled Again of the past would have been the one on the winning side of the photo.  Don't get me wrong, he is still a potent horse who will get his share of the purse money and an occasional win, but clearly he has lost a step.  Another question to be asked is if this will be his final year of racing?

Has Mcwicked peaked?  Mcwicked was hot early in the year but while his last couple of races hinted of a rebound, he was flat Saturday night in the Messenger Stakes, finishing 3rd.  I can understand him losing to All Bets Off who started right outside of him as he has been pretty hot himself, but the Mcwicked of old would have beaten Luck Be Withyou for second.  More importantly, he would have been eating up ground in the stretch instead of losing ground.

How impressive was Market Rally last night in the Hudson Filly Trot?  Forget how she and her stablemate Avalicious blew up not only themselves but the mutuel prices thanks to their miscues in the race, but what kind of performance did she give last night when being last, eight lengths behind at the quarter pole she brushed to have the lead before the half and carry it into the stretch when she paid the price for her miscue?  Often a horses best performance comes in defeat and last night will certainly go down as being pretty darn good.  This NYSS champion has earned a trip to the Breeders Crown and she may be one to watch in the 3yo filly trot.

How charmed is the Takter stable?  Not only did Nuncio win last night at Yonkers but up at Woodbine, the Takter stable benefited from some miscues and won the Goldsmith Maid with Smexi at $78.65-1.  In the Valley Victory, his entries finished 1-2.  Favorites, longshots it doesn't seem to matter.  I know it is the result of hard work, but it seems the stable is living a charmed life this season.