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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Owner Profile - Wendi Wiener

Wendi Wiener with 'BB Bug"
In another entry in our occasional profile segment, I interview horse owner Wendi Wiener who races and resides in California.  When it comes to racing standardbreds, it doesn't get much tougher than the Golden State where not only is harness racing the ugly stepchild of thoroughbred racing, it is a sport under constant threat since they stopped racing at tracks like Las Alamitos.  Throughout the years, harness racing interests have been threatened with the extinction of their beloved sport on numerous occasions, the most recent threat coming when the California Exposition State Fair decided it would no longer operate a harness meet at Cal Expo, although they were willing to lease the facility to another meet operator.

It appears the lifeline has been thrown out once again as an agreement with European Wagering Services and Golden Bear Racing, who will manage the meet for EWS, has been agreed to.  However, once again racing is hurt by a cut in racing dates; the meet scheduled to begin on August 24 now scheduled to begin on November 2nd.   A final agreement needs to be reached with Cal Expo and licensing must granted by the CHRB in order to ensure racing returns to California.

Bewareoftheaffair winning earlier this year at Cal Expo with broken hopples..
You have to be an individual with incredible dedication to racing to keep going at it and Wendi Wiener is one of those, having owned race horses since 1990 in California, continuing to race to this day.  In addition to racing her string of five or six horses, Wiener also breeds many of the horses that race for her including her current stable star Bewareoftheaffair, known around the barn as BB Bug.  As well as breeding and racing, Wiener is a believer in retiring our ex-athletes to good homes.

So what is it that keeps owners racing in California despite the odds, at one time racing at Hollywood Park, training at Del Mar, then moving to Los Alamitos and Fairplex (Pomona) before ending up in the state's capitol Sacramento?  From racing all year to what is now seen to be an eight month schedule racing two or three days a week for paltry purses?  Wieners responses may surprise you.  While we talkg about the situation in California, other topics are discussed. which concern racing nationally..

AS:  When did you get interested in horse racing?
WW:  I got interested in racing back in the 1960’s-1970’s when I lived in New York and when we moved to California back in 1978, I became friends with Del Insko.  My husband Stu loves to bet while I don’t.  Since I love horses, it became the perfect arrangement; I get the horses and Stu can bet.

AS:  What was the name of the first horse you become an owner of?
WW:  Shot N (1982, T, 9, 1:56.3, $57,448) who is still here with me and will be 30 years old this October.

AS:  How many horses have you had racing at any one time?
WW:  I have had up to six or seven horses racing at a time.

AS:  How many horses do you have racing right now?
WW:  At the present time, including horses turned out until racing resumes in California, I have five horses in the racing stable.

AS:  Do you own horses on your own or do you own them in partnership?  What decides which way you go?
WW:  I have horses both in partnership and on my own.  If they are homebreds, they are all mine.  I did pick up Math Major who has the same sire (Hi Ho Silverheels) as my best horse Bewareofthisaffair (2006, P, 6, 1:55m, $53,604) so I took the chance of buying her all alone.  When it comes to claimers, they are owned almost always in partnership. 

Bewareofthisaffair (1:55m, $53604)

AS:  There is always talk about when to start racing horses.  When do you start with your horses at the races?
WW:  My homebreds start when they are ready which means they typically  start just before they turn four years old.  So when you look at a horse like Bewareofthisaffair and see that she has earned only $53,604, that is basically two and a half years of racing.  Not so bad for a state with small purses.

AS: I notice Nathalie Tremblay is your current trainer?  How did you meet her and what was it about her that made you decide to use her?

WW:  I started with her father Nicol Tremblay but he passed a few years back.  Since Nicol had my horses, I’ve known Nathalie forever.  We are a lot alike in the care of the horses; love and caring is on the top of the list.   I had Cold Affair (1999, P,7, 1:54.1m, $93,656) racing at the time (now a pensioner) ant Nat wanted to train him.  I told her then she better get her trainer’s license which she did and the rest is history.  A good history.

AS:  There seems to be a lot of female trainers, what do you account that to? 
WW:  Not to say women care more than men, but I do believe we have that special touch.  Maybe it’s seeing every horse as a special horse. It also shows harness racing is not a male-only sport.

AS:  While harness racing is so welcoming to women trainers, there seems to be a resistance to them becoming drivers (other than their own horses).  What do you attribute this to and do you think it is a problem.  If a problem, what would you suggest for getting more women in the race bikes?
WW:  Acceptance.  I believe after a woman has proven herself to the driving colony, she will be accepted.

AS:  That’s fine, but how do you overcome the owner’s resistance towards women drivers?
WW:  You find the owners that do not resist.  A good woman trainer that is also a good driver I would say is a bonus.    Remember, initially, people resisted woman trainers.   Woman drivers need to build the trust and prove themselves, nothing happens overnight.

AS:  How long have you been racing in California?
WW:  Since 1990.

AS:  What was your favorite track to race at?  If not Cal Expo, what caused racing to end there?
WW:  Los Alamitos was my favorite track although I may be biased since I lived down South.  My horses did very well racing at Los Al.  Unfortunately, racing ended there thanks to management issues resulting in the track being owned solely by an individual interested in quarter horses.

AS:  At one point harness racing was at Hollywood Park, Los Alamitos, and at some other fair tracks.  In your opinion, what happened to cause racing to find itself out of these tracks and racing only at the California State fairgrounds?
WW:   When Cal Expo came into the picture, people put “too much” faith in it being our savior.  We refused to talk to other tracks such as Pomona.  In my honest opinion, we did very well going north (Cal Expo) and going south (Los Alamitos) and it worked.  Now, we have some horsemen who oppose racing anywhere else but at Sacramento, yet they don’t even live in California now.  The bettors and those interested in the on-track experience are down south where we don’t even have a presence. 

AS:  What do you think turned the public away from harness racing?
WW:  Perception.  People believe everyone is a cheater but that is so far from the truth.  There are LOTS of very good, honest people who work hard, no short cuts taken.  We also suffer from a lack of advertising.  You can’t go to the races if you don’t know they are in your backyard.

AS:  I know some people complain about how Cal Expo ran the harness meet at the fairgrounds, yet they took over only because Sacramento Harness, a horsemen’s group went bust.  What did they do wrong?
WW:  Yes they took over BUT… My But is where is advertising, where are the incentives for those of us who stay and race in California? 

AS:  Have you meet any of the proposed new operators (Golden Bear Racing or European Wagering Services)?  Have they made any promises?
WW:  We (the horsemen) are the last to know. No one has kept the horsemen in the loop.  I can’t talk about promises because as a horsewoman, I have heard nothing recently..

AS:  What do you think needs to be done to get harness racing back on track in California?
WW:  To get horsemen to come to California, we need incentives and we need purses large enough that people can survive on them.  We need to get the fans back so advertising is essential.  We need to have RUS racing, celebrity racing and the things we used to do which made coming to the racetrack fun.  We need to make the racetrack a place where families want to come to.  Children are our future.  There are lots which can be done.  We need to hope the new management team does it or the end result is something which scares me. 

AS:  A lot of what you are saying is what Jeff Gural is trying to do at the Meadowlands.  What do you think of Gural’s efforts in New Jersey?
WW:  He’s trying.  Hard to guess what the end result will be; time will tell.

AS:  There is a Diamond Alliance where horses from California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa can run in races restricted to state breds at their respective tracks.  What do you think of the Diamond Alliance?
WW:  I approve of it.  I was leery in the beginning, but it allows not only those horsemen with a few months of  racing a year in their home states the opportunity to come out and race in California, it allows us to go to their states when we aren’t racing.  With the number of breeders dwindling we need to work together.  Mind you, we are not talking about states that have year round racing.

AS:  While not exactly close, do you think there would be any benefit to having some type of partnership with horsemen in British Columbia?
WW:   I think any partnership at this point is a good thing.  It would be nice to see all of harness racing working together.

AS:  So it seems you feel the different racing interests are not working together.  Are you talking breeders, horsemen, or both?  Why do you think these groups refuse to work together?
WW:   I wish I had the answers. All groups, be them owners, breeders, or racetracks need to be open with their members as well as other stakeholders in the industry.  We all want to succeed and for that to happen, everyone needs to be in the loop.  A successful racing industry helps the tracks as well as the breeding industry.   It should not be us versus them.  Groups must be open in their communications.  After all, rumors are often worse than the truth.

AS:  I noticed this year you have sent some horses to Running Aces to race during the shutdown.  What made you decide to go out there this year when you haven’t in the past?

WW: With no racing until what looks like November 2, I decided to send a few of the lightly raced ones and claimers there hoping to earn some purse money.

AS:  How do California horses compare to horses in other states?
WW: If you are talking about Cal Breds, I believe we stack up with the best of them.  If you are talking about our lower claimers, we stack up right there with a lot of the tracks, excluding the Meadowlands, Yonkers, and perhaps a few others.

AS:  Some people would be surprised to hear you say this.  Wasn’t Cal Expo racing a lot of $2,500 claimers?  Are you saying a lot of horses racing in this class can compete with horses in the same class elsewhere or horses racing in California for $2,500 tags could race competitively in higher claiming and conditioned classes elsewhere?  
WW:  A lot of the horses that were $2,500 claimers here in California are racing in much higher classes at Running Aces.  Some of our $2,500 claimers are going in 1:54-1:55 which to me they should not be doing if they are true $2,500 claimers.  So yes, I believe depending how race conditions are written; our $2,500 claimers are and can be competitive.  Not all of them, but if they can go that fast, why shouldn’t they be competitive with higher classes of horses?

AS:  Who is the best horse you ever saw racing in California?
WW:  Wow, we have had a lot of good ones.  I’m partial to Little Steven since I have bred my mare to him.  Other top ones I have seen are Sanabelle Island and Denali.

AS:  How does an owner survive racing horses at the purse levels you have been dealing with?
WW:  As my husband says, having a job besides the horses.  I have the horses and he works a full time job.  To survive on just the horses is very hard.  This is why things have to change. 

AS:  Being racing in Sacramento is not due to resume until November, where will your horses go when Running Aces is closed for the year?
WW:  The ones who have been at Running Aces will be turned out for a few months and I’ll bring Bewareofthisaffair (aka Princess BB Bug) and the others which didn’t go to Running Aces to race back in to resume training for the November opening of racing here.

Princess BB Bug and her Tweety Bird

AS:  Who is your all-time favorite horse you have owned?  Why is that the case?
WW:  Oh my gosh, I don’t have just one.  Every horse I own is special which accounts for the six retired horses residing here on my farm.  But to name a few, there is Catmancando (1993, p, 6, 1:56f, $53,930) and Lucky Leadem (1990, P, 3, 1:55.0m, $43,504); horses I trained at my farm track.  Shot N is a favorite because he was my first race horse and at almost thirty years old he is still a sweetheart.  Cold Affair is my homebred who showed me we can race huge and win big and have fun.  I could name them all.

AS:  Who is your current favorite horse?  Why?
WW:  Easily it is my BB Bug (Bewareofthisaffair).  BB Bug has shown me there is and can be a very special relationship between people and horses.  She is my heart and soul.  I lost her mother, Sanananna (1993, P, 4, 1:58.4m, $20,224) recently and do believe I got BB Bug from her for a special reason.  Sanananna was very special and dearly loved.  I make sure Bewareofthisaffair is seen in all yellow in honor of her favorite toy, Tweety Bird.  Right now, she is the big money earner in the barn, earning it the hard way as other than one series win, she has been racing in low purse events despite the fact she races in the top filly and mare classes.  She always gives her best effort in each start.  Nathalie and Dave Kuri take real good care of her. She is spoiled as she gets her OHs Cereal, Bananas, Teddy Grahams and pop tarts; it has gotten to the point that Nat and Dave need to make sure they have these treats for her as well when she is racing.  BB Bug has really opened my eyes to so many things.  Needless to say, when she is done racing, there will be a home for her FOREVER!

AS:  For those unfamiliar with California, what unique issues does harness racing have which it doesn’t have anywhere else in the country?  Do you think there are any solutions to these unique issues which can be worked on and if so, what are they?

WW:  We are in a state where everything is expensive and we are the only harness racing in the West.  California is broke (so to speak) and we race on state land .  California has made a deal with Indian tribes meaning we will never have casino gaming as part of the solution.  The only hope we would have it to get our own venue or to somewhere where we can make money, meaning racing in Southern California.  With all that being said, 'we' are still here.  'We' will never give up, we just keep on keeping.  We know the score and like other states who have problems, we do our best to keep racing going.  Let it never be said standardbred horsemen in California are not resilient.

AS:  Let’s talk about some issues which are national in scope.  Do you think there should be a fair start rule (where if a horse is 200 ft or more away from the starting line when the race gets started, the gambler gets their wager refunded and the horse is scratched for pari-mutuel purposes)?
WW:  I do believe all horses should be on the gate when the race starts.  If they aren’t on the gate, we should be refunding wagers made on them.

AS:  Is whipping a problem?  If so, what do you think should be done?
WW:  I can tell you if a horse of mine comes off the track with a mark, there will be hell to pay. Whipping does NOT have to be abusive.  All my horses respond to a tap on the butt or on the wheel disc.  There is never an excuse for abusive whipping and I am all for major fines being issues, not a pat on the hand and a mere $50 dollar fine.

AS:  Are there any drivers you won’t use because of the way they treat a horse in a race? 
WW: Yes there are.  Better I don’t name them here.  They know who they are.

AS:  What are your thoughts on Racing under Saddle (there was an exhibition race at the Meadowlands on Hambletonian Day)?
WW:  I absolutely loved it.  Not only is it something different for the people who came out to the track, it shows how versatile our standardbreds are.  I would love to see it at every track with wagering on these type of races.

AS:  What is your thought on odd-distance racing?  What do you think about distance racing?
WW:  I’m not a fan of it, the reason being our horses are trained at the mile and anything shorter hurts the closer or the horses that are slower to get in gear but able to kick it in another gear in the stretch.  With that, I had Time Out N racing (she is now 26 and pensioned here right on the farm.  She did win a 1¾ mile race at Los Al but being a New Zealand bred, I believe she was trained for distance racing.  While others think shorter races are great, I don’t believe I would put any of my horses in any of these odd distance races.

AS:  Cal Expo had some races this year with twelve horses in a race.  What do you think about horses starting in the second tier?
WW:  I didn’t like them at all.  I don’t like any horses in the second tier as we train our horses to race on the gate.  We qualify our horses on the gate as well.  In my opinion, twelve horses in a race is dangerous..

AS:  I know you currently have six retired horses on your farm; some you didn’t have much success with on the racetrack?  Do you retire all your horses that are no longer able to race competitively?
WW:  The ones I have here been successful in their own right and made money for me.  Not enough to say I’m rich, but they have kept me in the game.  One thing I do is retire them all before they have more serious problems.  We don’t throw our horses into a claimer to give others a big problem.  The horses tell you when it is time to retire.

A couple of the pensioners at the farm.

AS:  Who is your favorite pensioner?
WW:  That’s not a fair question (laughing).   I would say, Catmancando, Lucky Leadem, Cold Affair, Time Out N, Shot N and the sixth horse is not a standardbred, but I got him to be a best friend for my almost thirty year old Shotman N.    I would have to say Cat (Catmancando) is the biggest horse here and is the sweetest.  Those people who have never touched a horse go in with Cat and they all become lovers of the breed.  A friend recently came over with her three month old baby and Cat got close enough to nuzzle the baby gently; he is the sweetest and is known by some as the lover.  Of course, each have something special about them to make each of them my favorite.

AS:  Is there any formal adoption agency for standardbreds in California?  If not, why is that the case?  
WW:  No, there isn’t any formal adoption group.  A few of us have been doing it on our own.  I personally have been adopting horses since 1996 and I am fortunate that every horse I have put up for adoption has been placed.  The good thing is I find standardbreds are like potato chips, you can’t have just one.  Many people who have adopted a standardbred find them like potato chips, quite a few have come back to get a second standardbred.  I find it very rewarding to find horses a new home. 

AS:  Is there a major problem with unwanted standardbreds in California?
WW:  Not as much as people think.  People know to call me or some of the other people who are trying to place standardbreds.  Of course, there are some barns we won’t discuss

AS:  What is the biggest problem harness racing in California must deal with?
WW:  We must find a permanent home where we can race at without having to fear when the next shoe will drop. 

AS:  Is race day medication a concern out in California?
WW:  Not that I see,   My Horses get the minimal amount of Lasix which is permitted.  I can’t talk about the other barns I don’t know their views

AS:  What was your opinion of Lou Pena when he trained n in California?
WW:  Lou was a friend out here.   Years ago he was the first person to jump on SHOT N for riding.

AS:  What is the biggest problem harness racing in the United States must deal with?
WW:  Getting the fan base back, cleaning up the sport, and taking care of our retired horses.  Horses are not ‘throw aways’.  Owners and trainers MUST be responsible for what happens to the horse after racing and if an owner finds a home for the horse they must take steps to make sure the horse never ends up back on the track or finds itself in a bad situation.  While some rescues are too full to take in additional horses, some will work with you and adopt your horse out with their own contract. 

AS:  Any suggestions in how to deal with the fan base and cleaning up the sport? 
WW:  Advertise everywhere possible to let people know we exist.  Make it fun to be at the track and treat the bettors like they are important.  To clean up the sport, we have to stop with the slap on the wrists and suspend rule violators when needed for major offenses; days, weeks and monetary fines which will truly sting and act as a deterrent.

AS:  Is there anything you would like to add before we end this interview?
WW:  Let’s respect our horses, they are the ones that put on the show we all love.  I’m in this for the Long run, and pray there is a long run. There are very special people in harness racing, so let’s have people look around and find the good.  There is always a few bad ones that ruin it no matter what sport we talk about, but there are so many good people in the industry that they outweigh the bad.  As people look around, let them find the good.   There are always a few bad apples that ruin it no matter what sport we are talking about, we just need to make things as uncomfortable as possible for those individuals that they quit the sport on their own or are shown the door.

AS:  Thank you for your time.

1 comment:

JLB said...

Bay Meadows also offered harness racing at one time. Hollywood Park had the classiest meet, with trainers like Joe O'Brien and Doug Ackerman competing there.