I have made no secret of the fact that slots has been a double-edged sword to the harness racing industry. Sure, for those tracks which receive revenue, purses are higher, track operators are getting revenue to cover racing’s losses. But what about the downside? Druggist trainers cheat to get an advantage over honest trainers. Owners, seeking to compete or land their share of slot money head over to the popular trainers, either knowing what is going on or closing their eyes, not wanting to know what is going on.
What does this mean to the smaller, honest trainers? Typically it runs them out of the industry as they are unwilling to do what they feel is required to remain successful. It has always been tough for the smaller trainers, casino revenue has made it almost impossible for them to survive and support their families.
Recently, I talked to a friend of mine who used to be a trainer and with the exception of some redaction to protect his identify as he still is involved in the industry from the periphery. This trainer raced primarily in Pennsylvania, both before and after the advent of slots. Despite having a small stable, he had horses racing in the Open Class for a period of time, occasionally racing in New York and New Jersey. On the whole, these are his views; I can't speak on all the views he expresses.
I stopped training and driving almost 3 years ago. My last horses was [redacted], who won 5 races down in Chester and old [redacted], who won at Freehold for me. The business is tough for the little guy. My best friend got out at the same time. It is very hard to compete against the greedy chemist trainers who ruined the sport.
I would love to get back into it if Freehold had higher purses so I wouldn't have to ship too far away from my family. It is impossible to make a living with the purses at Freehold unless you do it as a hobby.
The hardest thing I ever did was walk away from what I loved to do, but when you work hard seven days a week and do everything right and then have to race against these chemist trainers and can't beat them it rips your heart out. Then, if you claim a horse off of them the horses go backwards from the drugs they are on. It’s terrible, when they are caught, someone else goes down as a trainer. It’s a joke as they are one step ahead of all the state testing labs.
When asked how slots has been a double-edged sword with some trainers treating their horses as machines doing whatever is necessary to win even at the expense of the horse, he replied:
You are 100% right, I am so glad that you see what is going on. Most of the vets that are linked to these trainers are the real criminals
In 2007, a horse I trained broke the track record where I was racing, only to have a super trainer claim it away three months later.
I mentioned to him I know another trainer who won’t go into the claiming game because of the rent a horse mentality as well as the temptation to ‘help’ a rent a horse. Which got this response:
I totally agree with her. The claiming game is like musical chairs silent owners and trainers share the same horse.
These are tough words to read. No, not every trainer is a cheat, but certainly a good number are being forced to straddle the line to remain competitive, some crossing the line. There is no doubt post-race testing is a joke, I laugh each time a state reports its annual testing summary, knowing the testing is inadequate at best.
Do people care? At times you wonder when Jeff Gural is accused of being a bully for excluding certain trainers if people think trying to run a track where integrity rules is not a noble cause.
When slots first came to New York, the thoroughbreds experienced a high number of breakdowns as they threw any horse with four legs in to race regardless of soundness. Harness racing fortunately, didn't suffer these problems but make no mistake, there were seismic changes in owners' attitudes. Mind you not everyone changed for the worse. Unfortunately, many of those who refused to compromise their beliefs have found themselves on the sidelines while those willing to adapt continue on.
It makes one wonder. Are slots worth it? I'm not so sure.