12/09/2013 1:05PM

Harness drivers getting the shaft?


Imagine while you are hard at work you find out that there have been discussions about cutting your pay 40 percent! Well, an independent report on the recently concluded annual American Harness Racing Secretaries meeting in Florida revealed just that possibility for harness drivers.

[DRF HARNESS: Sign Up for the FREE DRF Harness Newsletter Today!]

Here is the exact statement made by the reporter as it relates to the drivers:

“Discussions also took place about possible universal consideration of the mandatory driver and trainer fees paid from purses. That in the “old” days owners were paid the entire purse and then they worked their own deals with trainers and drivers. Now most every track deducts 5% of the owners purse to both the trainer and driver and that consideration should be given to changing that percentage to 7% for trainers and 3% for drivers. It was also noted that some tracks paid a stipend to every driver competing in a race, up to $25 if they fail to finish in the top five.”

Here is the complete release from the USTA website: http://xwebapp.ustrotting.com/absolutenm/templates/article.aspx?articleid=56983&zoneid=1

Apparently the major thought process behind the possible action is that trainers are with the horses seven days a week and put in more time with them.

Did I miss something? Don’t trainers charge between $30 and $100 per horse, per day as a training fee? Sure, some of that money goes to feed and expenses, but at least a part of it stays in the trainer’s pocket. In most states drivers simply get their 5%. Perhaps if a top driver like Yannick Gingras or Tim Tetrick got $75 or $100 for every horse they drove, reducing the rate would be more realistic.

While most trainer clearly work very hard and I’m not against them getting more money, their daily fee at least allows for that possibility. If you are a good trainer winning at a high rate, you can charge more. If a random trainer or owner lists Gingras on a horse, he doesn’t get to say, “I won’t drive unless you give me $XX”. He must drive if programmed. His only sure way to earn is through the 5%.

Decide for yourself if you think this is a fair comparison, but professional coaches and managers don’t make more than the players. Does Joe Girardi make more than Derek Jeter? I think not. Plus, like it or not, the drivers are the star of the show along with the horses. I can ask any 10 casual fans who trains Captaintreacherous and maybe a few will know. But all 10 will likely know that Tetrick drives him.

And what about the risks?

Drivers head on the track each day and risk their lives. Many of them are on the track two and three thousand times a year for pari-mutuel races. Off the top of my head, this year alone, Jeff Gregory, Cat Manzi, Jim Marohn, Mike Forte and I'm sure many others have missed at least some time due to injuries from on-track accidents. Anthony Coletta is still in a coma and fighting for his life after an unfortunate mishap at Harrah's Philadelphia on November 17. 

Driving a standardbred may not be as life-threatening as some other extreme sports, but there is an inherent danger involved when you sit in the sulky behind a thousand pound animal going 30-plus miles per hour. Trust me, I've done it before and after the recent incident with Coletta, my excitement to jump back into the bike has been tempered a bit. 

Like any fan, you can point to what the top drivers make and say it is excessive. Just like you can say the contract that Jacoby Ellsbury or Robinson Cano signed is extreme. But what about the guy racing at the tracks without VLT-subsidized purses? Ronnie Wrenn Jr leads the nation in wins with 654 in 2,909 starts and has earned $118,145.  Should he be forced to take a pay cut down to $70,887? That would be just $24 per start for the leading driver in the country!

How about the numerous guys who have earned in the $50,000 range this year? Should they have their checks cut to $30,000? Before taxes!

Thoroughbred jockeys and trainers get 10% of the winnings of their mounts. By that scale, drivers and trainers are both underpaid. That said, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard either group complain about the percentage they receive.

Almost everyone in all professions feel they deserve more money, but aren’t there more important issues in the sport that need to be addressed?

Perhaps Gingras said it best on Twitter, “Why fix what’s not broken?”