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Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Loneliest Man on The Track

Being a driver is a mixed blessing.  You win a race you are a hero and if you lose you are a goat; at least to the trainer, owner, and the gambler that backed your horse.  When you drive a big-named horse then the microscope is really on you and you may as well be a baseball manager; a person with a target on your back.

Right now, the driver with the target on his back is Phil Hudon, the driver of Big Jim.  The last two losses in the Somebeachsomewhere and the North American Cup elimination has the armchair trainers calling for Hudon's head, blaming him for the losses.

What is wrong with Big Jim?  Let's go over the possibilities.

  1.  Over Hype -  Yes, Big Jim finished last year good, winning the Breeders Crown at Pocono Downs last year and the press ordained him the early favorite for 3yo pacer of the year this year.  Well, with due respect to our esteemed racing media, how many times have they been over enthusiastic with their praise for a certain horse only to have expectations fall flat the following year?  Remember on the trotting side the Peter Haughton jinx, where everyone expected the winner of the Peter Haughton Memorial to win the Hambletonian the follow year?
  2. Not a Darn Thing - Big Jim can be the same horse he was last year but something funny may have happened over the winter; some of the other horses may have improved much more than Big Jim and maybe he is just not that good this year when compared to last year.  As a result the strategy used last year may not work this year,  While it worked in the NJ Classic and Elimination, it has failed at Mohwak in the Somebeachsomewhere and NA Cup elimination.  Now, I am not privy to the instructions Hudon has receive before each race if any, but if you have something which works, why change it?  You don't change the first time; but after a couple tries.
  3. The horse may not be right. - Trainers are under no obligation to issue medical reports on individual horses; they work on them quietly.  Sometimes they are easily apparent, sometimes they are very subtle changes which no one can determine easily. Sometimes you race through a good part of the season until it comes to the surface.  Big Jim raced ten starts last year; only three horses in the NA Cup raced as many starts as a two year old.  Wear and tear may have occurred.
  4. A Change of Strategy is needed. Depending on the relationship between the driver and trainer, they determine a change in strategy is needed.  This happens hundreds of times during the racing year, but when you are a high profile horse it become public attention.  We are told this week Big Jim will race off the pace which to me suggests the horse needing to depend a little bit on racing luck may not be a 100% or has been surpassed by others.
  5. Nothing wrong with the horse but eyes on the big prize - Yes, the last two races were 100K and 50K races but this week they are racing for $1.5 million; just maybe the horse was being saved for the big score.  It wouldn't be the first time a trainer/driver did that.
  6. Luck - Racing boils down to good old racing luck.  Sure a better horse has a chance to overcome an ulikely trip but like it or not, racing is a game of luck which is why it is called gambling.
  7. Driver mistake - Mistake is really a hard word to use; typically it is deciding on a strategy which for some reason doesn't work out.  The horse is short; someone else you don't expect to take the sting out of you, etc.  Because of #6 very few of a driver's move is a true mistake; it is called 'that's racing'.  If you are a regular on a major circuit, you know how to drive on that circuit and it is not a question of competency; it is more who gets the top first call on the best horses (success brings more success). 
Typically, the problem is a combination of items 1-6; seldom #7, but the driver is the one that gets the blame.  After all, rather than admitting the owner or trainer made a mistake, it is easier to blame and replace the driver.  Often the driver didn't make a mistake either; it is just easier to replae a driver than it is to admit a problem of your own.  This is why in baseball, no matter how terrible a team is personal-wise, the owner fires the manager and not the general manager or players; it is always easier to replace one person than a slew of others and no one wants to admit they made a mistake. 

This is not to say a driver change is never called for.  Sometimes, a change of hands is all that is needed; not that the driver was bad but just gets along better with the horse.  Sometimes one of the other proiblems gets solved at the same time  But to claim another driver is no good is just wrong.. 

I wish people would stop blaiming drivers.  If a driver is that bad, he will change driving circuits or retire; most often they just get on another horse

Just the same, I think at the end of the baseball season, drivers and managers should get together.  After all, they both often get blamed for a problem that is often not theirs.

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