11/12/2012 10:23AM

Bergman: Driving posture is detrimental to the game

Lisa Photo
Driver Trevor Ritchie has an old-style way of sitting in the bike.

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?