03/17/2014 12:48PM

Harness Racing: Bongiorno’s Freudian Slip

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The hot topic from this past weekend was the removal of driver Joe Bongiorno from two horses on Saturday at the Meadowlands after he said on the in-house broadcast that he was instructed to race Shoobee’s Place and Code Word “conservatively” with an eye towards next week.

When I first heard the interview, I thought nothing of his comments other than I was glad Bongiorno was kind enough to inform me that I could give less consideration to both of those horses when contemplating my wagers. Now this is the kind of information that we need as handicappers—the truth.

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After finding out that the track officials pulled Bongiorno from the two horses in favor of Marcus Miller and Steve Smith, I was okay with the decision, but I wasn’t sure what the change accomplished. Were we to believe that the two new drivers would ignore owners’ instructions and drive aggressively?

The two horses, which finished fourth and eighth, were clearly flat on Saturday. If the Judges were looking to protect the public, wouldn’t scratching the horses have been the proper decision? The people who heard the comments knew that regardless of driver this might not be a good week to play those horses. But what about those that wagered early? What about the people who were watching without sound? What about the guy who went to the bathroom during the interview? Scratching the horse would have been the only true way to remove all questions from the situation.

One of the more mind-boggling aspects about the entire situation is that on paper both horses appeared to be in good spots. Both were morning line favorites and in fact, I picked both horses to win! Why would an owner forego a reasonable chance at winning $7,000 (half the purse of each race) for the unknown of possibly facing Foiled Again, Apprentice Hanover, Sweet Lou and others next week? Either horse would need to finish at least second to earn more in the following week.

Quite frankly, Bongiorno’s comments should be nothing shocking to any regular handicapper. I’ve written about it in my race analysis hundreds of times with comments like, “Is this horse looking ahead to next week?” or “He already made the final and might not be going all-out.” or “I’m expecting a conservative drive from the outside post.” Part of the game as a handicapper is figuring out which horses are “live” and which might be looking for better spots down the road. Though, I have to admit that it would have been difficult to peg these particular horses as bad plays.

We ask guys like Bongiorno, Yannick Gingras and Andy Miller to come on camera to talk about their drives, and then the first time they don’t pick their words properly we slap them on the wrist? Bongiorno’s only crime was perhaps lack of seasoning. If the 20-year-old up-and-comer would have gone on air and said, “Shoobee’s Place has been used hard on the lead lately and I’m going to try to get him a trip tonight. Code Word is only making his second start of the year and may need one more start under his belt,” would anyone be outraged? Absolutely not. But one thing is certain, if owners ask him to drive their horse a certain way and he consistently ignores those requests, he won’t be driving many horses. Though, it should be pointed out that Code Word is owned in part by Joe’s mom Barbara.

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Other than saying hello or shaking his hand, I don’t know Joe Bongiorno very well. What I do know is when I show up at the Meadowlands qualifiers 30-40 minutes before the first race, he is one of the few drivers actually on-hand checking out his horses and warming them up on the track. And while he might not yet be one of the best drivers in the country, the guy is typically aggressive on the track and puts horses in play when they are in winning spots.

Despite the fact that I was able to squeeze a 700-word column out of Bongiorno’s audio faux pas, to quote a line from the movie Naked Gun, “Nothing to see here.”