10/20/2011 9:27PM

New Jersey Judges hand bettors the short straw


Racing needs me. And by ‘me’ I mean the bettors who show up at the track or wager from simulcast land at OTBs and on the web. If we are unhappy then we will simply stop wagering and the sport will cease to exist. This message needs to be heard by the officials in New Jersey.

There is supposed to be a certain expectation of security when wagering on racing. Your best interests are being protected by a governing body. Of course, you can lose your money — that’s why it’s called gambling. But, what happens when the agencies that are created to protect your interests simply drop the ball?

On Friday, October 14 at Freehold Raceway this very situation took place. Decisions that needed to be made were not acknowledged and the majority of the betting public — the industry’s best customers — got the shaft.

The scene starts in race seven. There was an $8,400-plus Pick Four carryover which created a pool in the $20k range; more than double any normal Pick Four pool at the track. The seventh race went off without a hitch. Then the fun began. The skies opened up and delayed the eighth race for over an hour.

Somewhere in the interim, drivers Cat Manzi, Andy Miller and Jack Baggitt, Jr. elected to leave the track. Manzi was slated to drive at Yonkers Raceway in the first race, so at least he had somewhere he was obligated to be. The other two catch-drivers had no other assignments elsewhere but decided to call it a day without regard for their listed commitments.

The judges were left with multiple major decisions. With bettors already invested in the Pick Four expecting Manzi (14,281 career wins as of 10/16) and his $151,177,632 in career earnings or Miller (7,275 wins) and his $84,573,985, who could be an acceptable replacement to keep the integrity of racing afloat?

The choices were decidedly underwhelming.

They allowed Joe Bongiorno, a “Provsional” driver with 15 career wins to drive the likely favorite Bells Are Ringing instead of Manzi in race eight. Not only was this a possible death sentence for those that wagered on the young 3-year-old filly in the Pick Four, but anyone who placed an advance wager and decided to leave the track or switch to another signal during the rain was forced to accept the new pilot.

In the ninth, Empire Hanover was the standout choice on paper with Miller driving. Not so much with replacement Peter Fusco, another “P” driver with six career wins since 1993 and only one drive to his credit in 2011.

The results from these races could not have been worse for the unsuspecting bettors of Bells Are Ringing or Empire Hanover. The former made a break before the start and came away eighth, 13 lengths behind the leader at the quarter call. She wound up seventh as the 1.70 favorite. Empire Hanover came away fourth and made a questionable early move to the rim before the half despite having a 10 length margin on the horse trailing him. After a brief backstretch bid he faded to fourth as the 1.10 wagering choice.

All due respect to Bongiorno, an 18-year-old newcomer with a possible bright future, or Fusco, who has been in racing for years, but neither could shine Manzi’s or Miller’s shoes in the drivers’ room.

The totals read: 21,556 wins and $235,751,617 in career earnings replaced by 21 wins and $73,297 earned.

How can this be considered acceptable? Doesn’t the New Jersey Racing Commission have an obligation to protect the bettors who were expecting an established pilot?

Any knowledgeable bettor knows how important a driver can be. Just pick up any track program and you will see horses in each race that received a major driver change and won. Shouldn’t any judge be able to recognize this angle?

What makes it worse was the availability of other, more accomplished drivers. Freehold regular Harry Landy, who has over 400 drives and 40-plus wins in 2011, was available to drive in both the eighth and ninth races. Eric Abbatiello, with nearly 900 starts and 80-plus wins this year, drove in races 9 and 10 and could have steered one in race eight, no? Even trainer and part-time driver Rick Pantano who drives 25 or so times a year, could have driven in the ninth instead of Fusco! Are any of these other drivers comparable to Manzi or Miller? No. Are they all superior to Fusco? With all due respect — yes!

Since NJRC officials elected not to return my phone call, maybe I can explain their poor decision by the lack of any mention regarding protecting the public in their “About Us” section on their website.

The NJRC website lists the following as their aim:

“The New Jersey Racing Commission is responsible for regulating the safety and integrity of the horse racing industry through the conduct of investigations, prosecutions and via regular monitoring. The Division of the New Jersey Racing Commission has jurisdiction over New Jersey's thoroughbred and standardbred permit holders and the authority to regulate racing at the state’s four racetracks. Activities included in the regulation of racing activities are the oversight of pari-mutuel wagering, supervising pari-mutuel operations at all the tracks and granting permits for the conduct of running the thoroughbred and standardbred race meetings in the state where pari-mutuel wagering is allowed.”

Nowhere in that statement does it mention protecting the public or being the guardian of their best interests. On the flip side, the New York Racing and Wagering Board could not be more clear on that focus.

“We safeguard the interest of the public, including the taxpayers and patrons by ensuring that the regulated entities and their employees participating in, or benefiting from legalized gambling operate with probity. We will expeditiously respond to all public concerns.”

Along those lines, a veteran horseman relayed a story to me where he listed a top catch-driver at a New York track and that driver failed to show. He was asked to place a substitute driver on the horse and said, “I have a ‘P’ license, I’ll drive.” The judge informed him that the horse was the morning line favorite and he needed to pick a replacement that was closer in skill to the listed driver or he had to scratch his horse. That judge got it! He understood that the bettors need protection!

Having spent 10 years walking through the judges’ booth at Yonkers Raceway and overhearing my share of conversations, I can assure you that thought was always given when late driver changes were required. I can still vividly hear former Presiding Judge Frank Pellegrino telling me that his job was to look out for the best interests of the betting public All of his decisions did not sit well with me, but at least he did what he thought was right for the bettors that keep the sport alive.

Many decisions made by racing officials are truly “gray area” judgment calls. They can go either way and while you may not agree, you give them the benefit of the doubt as they complete a sometimes thankless task of making tough call after tough call. 

This decision was clear and simple — and the possible solutions were plentiful: 1) appoint better drivers; 2) pay off the Pick Four to everyone who won the first leg; 3) cancel the Pick Four and refund all wagers (this would have been a great option for the track, as the large carryover could have produced an even larger pool on Saturday); or 4) force the affected horses to race for purse money only and pay off the Pick Four to anyone who used those horses as well as the winners (this is probably the worst solution, but better than what transpired).

I enjoy wagering on harness racing in New Jersey. Despite the decline in quality stock at Freehold, I still enjoy playing the track. That said, this recent incident will give me cause for pause going forward. If drivers can just leave at will during a racing card and the New Jersey judges are not going to protect the bettors, well, maybe I’ll just play the lottery or save up for a trip to a Racino.­

Dusty More than 1 year ago
Derick: I think you nailed it. The betting public always gets short shrift. I recall when I fought the Meadowlands' decision to not have recalls for horses that broke. In another year, I remember publicly admonishing them for not programming sulky information about The Cheetah (cheater) and many other times, writing, "if the track losses five fans a night over these things, that will begin to add up and compound." Mind you, attendance was way down when I wrote that. Today, virtually nobody goes to the Meadowlands, Freehold and Garden State Park is closed. The worst offense to horse players was when PA legalized the new-breed of phony slot machines, giving huge purse increases to horsemen while licensing the operators to mint money, but chose not reduce the take-out for racing fans by a penny. In fact, in many cases they've upped the highest takeouts in the nation on some wagers. (Mind you, these machines allegedly have "random" payoffs. Yet, curiously, after they win, they go on losing streaks which generally erase all the winnings and any other money one deposits. Just about as random as putting a Cheetah sulky on a winning 8-1 shot and keeping that information private for those who work there.) And, don't worry. The same formula being used on the slots' players that were used on the horse players will produce the same results over the long haul. The casinos will be as empty as the race tracks. Don't worry either about the NJRC not caring about the public. They never have, why should they begin now? -Dusty Nathan
RichieD More than 1 year ago
Wow! Sounds like the public was setup. Can't imagine any owner wanting to use a provisional driver.........unless they're not trying to win!!
bobisimo More than 1 year ago
an extraordinary set of circumstances created this minor issue. out of tracks control. didn't want to refund pik4 bets so they hoped for the best. those who cashed arent' complaining. they will just churn the money over and over again anyway.
Jeff T. More than 1 year ago
Derick... this story is a great example of how the sport of horse racing continually loses ground to the casinos or the poker world. Who in their right mind would consider these decisions fair. NO ONE, not even the winner of the Pick 4 who "backed in" to a large payoff. This is disgusting news. I would never play anything in New Jersey and quit playing Monmouth earlier in the year.
Cgr More than 1 year ago
Enjoying the blog. Too bad for the poor call at Freehold.
Rock More than 1 year ago
Good angle Derik! I often wrestle with pick "N" where there are no listed rider or Jocks listed on multiple mounts. I get P.Ps. online in advance and check online for changes, and as if that's not enough... I try to evaluate the horses chances for previous riders, trainers' usuals and even who may be available at a given track for that race and wait 'till the last moment to pull the trigger. I wouldn't want to be alive in a pick 4 leg and find that Al Gore has replace Bill Gates at the same predetermined payout!
woodridgephil More than 1 year ago
Excellent column! We are the driving force in horse racing but they don't get it. By they i mean owners, trainers, track owners all of them. HIgher take out? they'll take . Pay for parking and programs . They'll take it. I love the sport but your column shows but one aspect of why horse racing is dying ! P.s. Don't want to be to negative I do love it so for all its troubles
Sil More than 1 year ago
Excellent article. After the safety of the drivers and horses the next priority should be fairness to the bettors. If the judges had a bet on one of the horses involved do you think this would have happened?
Penn National Rick More than 1 year ago
Thats what happens when neighboring states are able to go and lure the best away from the tracks. NJ under Christie has the tracks no longer getting the subsidies from Casinos in order to keep tracks afloat with bigger purses(which in turn may have kept the jocks). Yonkers which has a casino is making purses bigger so of course you would honor the commitment there. However, having a delay for over an hour is not right. You are right they should have done a cancellation or payout for 3 out of 4. NJ doesn't care unless it hits their bottom line and by then it will be too late. I used to go to Freehold back in the day...I hope Larry Lederman is doing well. --PNR
Slick Rick More than 1 year ago
First let me say I can understand your feelings , that being said your are wrong in so many ways . Lets start by the race in question . As the trainer and or the owner you have the right to enter your horse with any driver you choose . Next if the driver books then it is your right to replace them with who you want not the judges . The judges have no right to refuse your choice ! Next lets talk about NY , Yonkers does not allow a P driver to drive there so again the judges had nothing to do with the choice of the driver there either ! If you want to be mad at anyone its the drivers who booked ! I don't disagree about the refunds of the bets but the other spectrum is thats what creates big pools . Hope this clears this up abit . The judges should of answered your calls and could of told you this . [You have things pegged all wrong if you think I'm mad. Anyway, I believe you are incorrect. If a driver leaves in the middle of the program you do not get anyone you want. The judges must approve the decision, and if that is not the case in certain jurisdictions then it should be. Yonkers is the only track in NY that doesn't allow P drivers. I was not refering to Yonkers in my one example, but if I did, you can't just sub any lesser driver instead of one that has a P license. Some "A" licensed drivers are much closer to the P level than to the top drivers in the sport. I do agree that the drivers deserve some blame, but they are independent contractors and are looking out for themselves. Should they do the right thing, Yes. It is the Judges responsibility to protect the bettors. Thanks for the comments. - DG]