10/20/2011 9:27PM

New Jersey Judges hand bettors the short straw

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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.­