09/02/2012 9:32PM

Bergman: Debating the merits of uncoupled entries in stakes


Recently the debate picked up again in regard to coupling of horses in major stakes races. Some have argued that when $100,000 or more is on the line there is no need to couple horses in the wagering for betting purposes. The argument for uncoupling suggests there is no risk of a betting coup and no advantage that horses will get from teaming up. How the $100,000 plateau managed to define whether horses from a similar stable would help each other is anybody’s guess.

For me, New Jersey made its biggest mistake by sanctioning any uncoupling under any circumstances.

The coupling of horses may have had its origins because racing commissions were concerned that the betting public needed to be protected at all cost when horses with common interests entered any betting event. Over time there has been argument and successful shift away from coupling with what we guess was an implied understanding that just because horses had similar owners or trainers they had separate drivers who acted independently.

This past Saturday the $200,000 finals of the Pennsylvania Sire Stakes took place at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs. Of the four divisions the one that captured my eye was that for 3-year-old colt trotters. More specifically, I was focused on Magic Tonight. Earlier this year I had written about trainer Noel Daley’s four 3-year-old trotters with Hambletonian aspirations. Magic Tonight was among Daley’s best and even Beer Summit, an inexpensive yearling, had risen in Daley’s estimation to be a potential threat. On Saturday both colts were entered in the Sire Stakes final and due to separate ownership they were uncoupled.

While handicapping the race it appeared as if both Magic Tonight and Beer Summit had the most early speed capability in the race. Since the event was being held over a fast and speed favoring five-eighths mile track it seemed logical both would leave. When the race began both were out quickly but at the same time in no hurry at all. The two exchanged the lead early with Beer Summit gaining the front from his stablemate but non-entrymate. When Magic Tonight looked to regain there was no resistance from Beer Summit. Then Magic Tonight yielded the lead before the half to favorite My MVP and suddenly Beer Summit is sitting in the three-hole.

We bring this point to light not because we wish to imply something crooked went on. The facts are that Beer Summit and Magic Tonight acted exactly like an entry would despite the $200,000 purse. Had the two been competing aggressively against each other there’s a good likelihood the first and second quarters would have been much faster and neither would have willfully accepted a three-hole trip, which in this case amounted to a third-place check.

Anyone who watched non-entries race against each other in the Metro and Canadian Pacing Derby understands the value of separate ownership, trainership, and betting interests to a specific race. In both of those rich events there was a price to pay if you wanted to get to the front. Despite his recent past performances, Golden Receiver didn’t receive a free pass once in front and the connections of Aracache Hanover weren’t about to concede anything to the opposition in the Canadian Pacing Derby.

In the Metro, driver Brian Sears had to work very hard to get the heavily backed Vegas Vacation to the front from post 10. So when Andy Miller and Johny Rock made a move from the three-hole trying to overtake him by the half, Sears did not grab leather. Instead he fought on unwilling to bend, most likely because Johny Rock was not one of the three favorites in the race and Sears didn’t want to get stuck behind him.

The reality of real racing is that separate betting interests are an important part of any successful wagering operation. In New Jersey there was an outcry to separate horses with the understanding that tracks would benefit from more betting numbers in each race.

Again, however ,we believe the industry has moved in a direction away from the gambler and more towards the racetracks and individual owners. In the end the customer has to pay for the mistakes of a few.

The overwhelming number of entries is a direct result of an abundance of large stables as well as the swelling of horses owned in partnerships. While tracks have moved away from any second tier races limiting the number of starters, they have done nothing to guarantee the number of betting interests. I think the time has come for tracks to offer stakes races with a fixed number of betting propositions regardless of how many coupled entries there are.

So when last week’s Zweig filly division was contested at Vernon Downs and the nine-horse field had but three betting interests, the track should have instead of limiting the number of horses to enter, opened the gates to an amount that assured nine individual betting entities. In other words if that meant 15starters in the race with some starting from the second tier, so be it. If owners wish to enter two, three, or four horses in a race they have a right to do so. But that shouldn’t mean they are guaranteed a spot in the first tier. 

Perhaps instead of going away from the obvious, stakes rules should be rewritten with limitations on the number of horses a single trainer or single owner can enter in a specific race. At Yonkers, the Levy Series and Blue Chip Matchmaker finals have a two-horse limit per stable and per owner.

It is just wrong-headed thinking to expect drivers to act independently just because horses are uncoupled for wagering purposes. Their livelihoods are dependent on relationships with trainers and owners. An independent move may win a race for a driver but lose him an owner or trainer in the future.

In my mind the larger the purse the more likelihood there is for horsemen to work together for the highest return for those paying for their services. Unfortunately, since the industry has shifted away from a model that relied solely on the wagering dollar for its purses, it seems to have lost interest in protecting the bettors in all races.