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Bergman: Driving posture is detrimental to the game
Of all the places to put the cart before the horse, just how in the world did the sport of harness racing do that?
Driver Jim Morrill Jr. first called it to our attention this summer.
“These bikes (sulkies) are so much longer they’re like jog carts,” Morrill said. “In the past if you were trailing in an eight-horse field you were about eight to ten lengths behind. Nowadays you could be twelve to fifteen lengths off the leader.”
And people want to know why harness racing has become speed favoring, not just on half-mile tracks, but EVERY track.
Morrill wasn’t just speaking about the sulkies, though they do seem a bit longer. He was in fact speaking about the drivers and their new postures while cutting the pace. Just take a look at Tim Tetrick (below) nearly parallel to the racing surface as he guides another horse to victory. Contrast that with Trevor Ritchie, an old-school driver (above) sitting upright and tight to the horse.
It may not seem like much on the surface, but when you start stretching out fields with invisible gaps it’s easy to understand why closers are having such a hard time reaching the leader.
The late Alan Kirschenbaum loved the sport of harness racing and went back far enough to recall when drivers rarely extended past a 90 degree angle in the bike. He wrote a blog for the Canadian Sportsman on the subject, one of many well-thought and heartfelt pieces he would author for the sport when not producing comedy for television.
What Kirschenbaum saw clearly was the radical change that had taken place, not just with the new sulkies designed to track better and shift the weight off a horse’s back to reduce the obvious drag from toting a cart, but how the drivers learned to best utilize the bikes. Tim Tetrick is the best driver in the sport right now and much of his success has to do with his ability to take the weight off his horses and propel them through the stretch.
Mike Lizzi Photo
But look at another successful driver such as George Napolitano Jr., who can on a nightly basis be seen pointing horses on the front end at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs while parallel to the ground.
The fact is that this driving style works because it helps horses maintain a higher rate of speed and at the same time keeps added distance between the front end and the back end.
Worst of all it’s all perfectly legal!
It’s legal because no one in the racing business has spent the time to oversee the sport from a gambling perspective. When the newer bikes were approved, few if any took into account where the drivers would be sitting in relation to the horse. Few questioned the added distance the handholds would be from the back of the horse. In the photo of Yankee Paco winning the 2000 Hambletonian, Trevor Ritchie’s handholds are tight to the back of the horse, assuring that his body would be upright.
Look at Tetrick and see the handholds much further back allowing him to tilt without losing his grip on the horse. Now take that added distance and multiply it by eight or ten!
Alan Kirschenbaum left this world far too early but I would like to propose “Alan’s Rule” as a way this sport could thank and always remember him. The rule would provide that handholds be made to sit at a distance from the rear of the horse that guarantees a driver sit no worse than at a 90 degree angle while driving a horse.
Just think of all that extra distance between horses disappearing in a blink. Just think how the sport can be changed when suddenly closers have a chance to be closer to the leaders.
For those who think the distance between horses is not a factor, just think about losing a photo by a neck or even a half-length. Does that not matter?
The margins between horses change the dynamic of the race. This isn’t thoroughbred racing, our sulkies force horses to race in line or behind cover. Why should the lead horse get the advantage of an additional quarter-length between him and every horse to the trailer? The magnification of the distance in a 10-horse field is enough to wipe out horses before they reach the first turn.
Alan Kirschenbaum was right when he wrote a blog on this subject and the sport was wrong then for not paying it enough attention. If harness racing is to regain popularity as a betting entity, it need first understand that the more variables we can add to the betting product, the more bettors we will attract. It’s really no secret.
It’s hard to argue with those making the sulkies when they have only one interest and that is to create a bike that allows horses to move more freely and in effect go faster for the distance.
Maybe, just maybe, we’ve gone too far with these bikes, for it is the style of sulky that has put drivers in the prone position. Maybe it’s time to roll back the clock a little and ask for just a hair less speed and a little more balance to our racing product.
Tim Tetrick will be a great driver whether sitting at a 90 or a 180 degree angle.
Unlike some other modifications that have been proposed, asking drivers to sit upright will not cost the sport one dime. Moving the handholds to where they once were should be rather easy. Perhaps this change and this change alone will stop the never ending supply of “different” sulkies and then we could go back to creating just “one-style” bike that universally goes behind all horses.
In my mind this is the least we can do to thank a friend of racing.
Why not give “Alan’s Rule” a chance?
This is something ive been observing for years.Why does a driver get to lean into the space behind him?Morrill and Kirshenbaum are correct.Long handholds and stretching out push. the rest of the field further behind.Driver and sulky should be as compact as possible behind the horse.Its become too much of an advantage too be on or near the lead and that hurts the product.Shortening the handholds would be a good step and would also be safer for the drivers and horses
What a bunch of hog wash . To say that sulkies force the horses to race in line thats just wrong . Jay you must see hoe they race in scandinavia and france even Australia. If you want to propose a change how about being more creative with classes for the horses make it more competitive or change the length of he rces that would make thing intresting but how the guys sit please, the other drivers should be onthe attack if being ten lengths off is so bad. We can be more creative than lets ban this or that.
Jay, I couldn't disagree with you more...maybe those who are complaining to you are looking at what Timmy T. and Yannick are making every year and seeing drives and earning slip away bc they refuse to adapt. They are the future of the sport...if they think Tim is lengthening fields...maybe they should get out and moving rather than wasting half the race driving Indian File for a half mile...lots of respect for you Jay but you are way off base for a lot of reasons that are too long to enumerate...
Indeed, look at vintage photos of Buddy Gilmour, Joe O'Brien, and Clint Galbraith, to name three, and you will see that they often would sit at LESS than a 90 degree angle as they urged their horse to the wire-and usually only with their hands, not with the whip.
stan is living in the past. why don't we reduce the size of tennis racquets, hockey goalie's pads and gloves, baseball gloves, etc.? while we're at it , let's bar basketball players over 6'6"? football players over 250 lbs? how about the new weightless running shoes? the fans want speed. the breeders want speed. the owners want speed. sports thrive on records being broken. the breeders cup at s.a. had 3 dirt and 2 turf track records broken. it's what the fans want. stan is the greatest guy in harness journalism ever. he's just living in the past.
Great, very thoughtful column. I am chagrined that these thoughts haven't come to mind as I watch race after race, with little change in position, especially at half-mile tracks, without any necessarily built-in surface bias. I also wish that I knew about Alan Kirschenbaum well before his untimely and sadly ironic death.
Absolutely right! A professional player I know has been telling this for years, when you include the long handholds the distance a horse has to make up from behind is several lengths more than it used to be. And you know I agree on the universal bike idea. Great column.