These are a few of the significant events, performances and trends that occurred in the sport of harness racing during 2015.
Ron Pierce, the 59-year-old Hall of Fame driver who was third on the money list last year, with almost $11 million and 448 wins, has been absent for most of the season. He drove in 503 races in January, February and the first week of March before shutting it down for neck and back surgery. The problem with his neck was corrected, but his back has never come around, to the point where he raised retirement as a real possibility when interviewed in August.
Pierce has won 9,569 races and earned $215 million during his career. But beyond that measurable success, in the straight and narrow public world of harness racing Pierce is one of the few genuine characters; there’s nothing better than a post-race interview with Rockin Ron. He is sorely missed. Let’s hope his health improves to the point where he’s back driving in 2016.
Restricted races for four-year-olds early in the season has been a hot topic of late, and with the advent of the Graduate series we’re seeing it come to fruition. However, it’s noteworthy that JL Cruze, who earned only $25,000 at three, won the Graduate final as well as the Hambletonian Maturity, while Doo Wop Hanover, who had some success but was not a major figure as a colt, won the Graduate Pace final. Contributions from the high profile four-year-olds that folks were anxious to keep on the track, on the other hand, have been lacking.
Father Patrick started off with a win in the Maxie Lee, but he lost two legs of the Graduate and was sixth behind JL Cruze in the final. And he finished last in the Hambletonian Maturity. His stablemate Nuncio had a very good year—in Europe. Horse of the Year JK She’salady suffered her first loss in her Fan Hanover elimination, and dropped the final to 0 for 4 Wrangler Magic. Dan Patch winner Color’s A Virgin didn’t get going until the fall; Dan Patch winner McWicked never really got going; Pace winner He’s Watching retired in July; Shake It Cerry fell short of expectations….
After a five year run, Harness Racing Update ceased publication with the October 11 issue. The online newsletter which appeared in one’s email box from two to four times a week, depending on the season, had become the primary source of unfiltered information on the sport for many. However, advertisers never came through in sufficient numbers to sustain the operation for publisher Bill Finley and his staff.
They didn’t run the formulaic puff pieces that prevail in the sport’s media wing. Shortly before HRU closed shop trainer Ron Burke told Finley that, “HRU was the worst thing that ever happened to harness racing.” Perhaps “If you don’t have something positive to say, don’t say anything at all” should have been their motto? Two years ago this month we lost The Canadian Sportsman after a 143 year run. This is not an encouraging trend.
At a USTA Summit in July forty movers and shakers from various sectors of the sport put their heads together and came up with strategic moves that will hopefully expand and improve the sport. The USTA has lost 7,588 members over the past decade, while during that same stretch 7,395 fewer foals were born. It was decided that dedicating a larger slice of the purse pie to younger horses would help address the latter concern. And a series of initiatives, some involving social media, will take flight in 2016, with the aim of adding new owners. Strategies for using some of the slots dollars for marketing purposes were proposed. The need for gamblers, not fans, was raised. Are elimination races, which cause friction between horsemen and bettors, necessary was another topic up for discussion. USTA reps promised to carry the feedback from every sector to those in a position to address those issues.
The elevated prices being paid for decent older stock at the sales is one manifestation of the horse shortage in North America. On the pacing side, this situation is being dealt with in part by importing more horses from Down Under. It costs $12,900 to ship a horse here from Australia and $15,600 to bring one from New Zealand. Back in the 70s plane loads of expatriated pacers arrived regularly in Los Angeles and at JFK in New York. The abbreviated program lines that accompanied them confused bettors and fostered some dicey situations for regulators. And nothing has changed in that regard. Joe Bellino and his trainer Tony O’Sullivan and trainer Darran Cassar have been volume players in this market.
On the trotting side, we seem to be supplying the Europeans with ready-made high end stock, which is creating the sort of situation we had this year where the NA based aged male trotting class was as soft as whipped butter. Last year Nuncio, Maven and Creatine campaigned all, or most, in Creatine’s case, of the year in Europe. And just this month Oaks winner Wild Honey, Uncle Lasse and French Laundry have been sold to Swedish interests.
Cobalt was in the news last year, but interest in its effect on Standardbred race horses has increased in 2015. Kentucky regulators decided to issue a warning for levels 25 ppb and up and a more severe sanction for anything above 50 ppb. The Ohio Racing Commission is conducting a study involving five Standardbreds, while the USTA is funding a study centered on eight healthy, trained Standardbreds.
The Ontario Racing Commission approved adding a cobalt test to those performed on any horse routinely targeted for testing.
Trainer Aaron Lambert, who was bounced from The Meadowlands due to s cobalt positive in 2014, had another with Dynamic Youth at Pocono Downs in June. And hall of famer Chuck Sylvester was suspended for 15 days and fined $500 at the same track for a positive with the filly Murderer’s Row in June.
Much of the controversy over what does and doesn’t constitute an acceptable cobalt level should be stripped away after the data from these studies is reported.