09/14/2015 11:36AM

Bergman: International Trot field slow to take shape

Mark Hall / USTA Photo
Magic Tonight won the Elitlopp but hasn't impressed in North America.

The International Trot will be revived in less than four weeks time but I would hate to be the guy handing out invitations.

The world has changed drastically since the concept of an International Trotting race was fostered in 1959. What Roosevelt Raceway ushered in at the time was a race pitting the best American Trotters of the time against foes from across the globe. What made the race in that era was that the foreign horses were all virtually unknown to those in North America. Word of mouth was pretty much the only way one could get a handle on the horses that arrived from overseas. The race had a fascination that grew with time because not only were the horses mysterious before they arrived on these shores, their past performances were limited to the assumption of “approximate times and approximate distances.” Unlike the American horses that had fractional quarter times and positions throughout the mile, the foreign fleet arrived with no legitimate past performance information and competition lines that were as foreign to Americans as the horses themselves.

Fast-forward 56 years and there’s no wonder that only two horses have been invited to the race that is nearly upon us. With $1 million on the line there have been many social media slips that suggest that invitations have gone out to multiple horses but none have been officially announced by the track to date. That may change at any time considering that at times commitments can take weeks to iron out in order to insure horses make the trip across the Atlantic.

The difficult task for those at Yonkers making these critical decisions is whether to advance invitations to horses based on their reputations or whether to use actual current past performances to offer an invite. Of the two currently on the invitation list Magic Tonight already seems to be a potential longshot. True, the Elitlopp winner had the fascination of the crowd on Hambletonian Day when he appeared in the Cashman at The Meadowlands before finishing up the track. What he didn’t bring that day and has not since is his “A” game. Magic Tonight this past Saturday failed to qualify for the Maple Leaf Trot final at Mohawk being only one of the six entries in the elimination not to advance. His brilliant form leading up to the Elitlopp came in May. The International is going to be raced in October one has to wonder if there’s ample time to turn his form around. Unlike 1959 Magic Tonight’s past performances will be in full view.

The 2014 Elitlopp winner Timoko has been a name seen on social media over the last month. According to those reports his connections will be coming to the International in October. Unlike Magic Tonight, Timoko, a French-based horse, would be coming into the race with virtually little current racing form. He would be bringing his reputation, period. Timoko was supposed to race this past weekend but was withdrawn from a key International contest. Without question it’s imperative for Yonkers to invite a significant horse from France. During its greatest years the French trotters, with their ability to go the distance and travel outside without losing power, were the stars of the International Trots at Roosevelt. It’s impossible to know at this stage whether Timoko can arrive and be the modern day Une De Mai or Ideal du Gazeau.

Yonkers officials suggested a field of 10 horses when they fleshed out the International for October 10 on a Saturday afternoon for the $1 million purse at the one and one-quarter mile distance. At this stage it may prove difficult to come up with that many horses from abroad. Clearly those racing in North America have become a difficult group to assess over the last four weeks. Yonkers racing secretary Steve Starr is going to have his hands full in the coming weeks sorting out the horses that have lost form but sport impressive records as compared to those with recent wins but limited success throughout the campaign.

Saturday’s Maple Leaf eliminations had its share of surprises with Natural Herbie regaining winning form, perhaps at the most opportune time. The winner of last year’s International prep at Yonkers over eventual Breeders Crown champion Commander Crowe broke a six-race losing streak with the 1:52 4/5 neck score over Bee A Magician. While Natural Herbie might be a feel-good story for many, unless he captures Saturday’s final at Mohawk he would lack a significant North American stakes victory with just three weeks before the big race.

In the old days those putting together the International didn’t need past performances to sell the race. Besides they weren’t going to be available anyway. The International was sold strictly on mystery.

Steve Starr and company are left out in the open this year and have to select horses based on form that can be easily gathered on video pretty much anywhere on the planet. It’s going to require an immense amount of handicapping skill as well as the commitment of foreign connections to create a visual spectacle on the Yonkers racing surface.

JUST ONE MORE THING:  There were many opinions regarding the activities that followed this year’s Yonkers Trot. I was a bit stunned by the comments of Hall of Fame Driver Bill O’Donnell in Harness Racing Update regarding driver objections.

“In any other sport, the referees or umpires don't ask a player if one of your opponents should be penalized for breaking a rule. I've never heard an umpire ask a catcher if that last pitch was a strike. If the racing commissions were really in tune with the industry, they would scrutinize their judges more closely and replace the ones that they felt weren't doing their job. Drivers get paid to drive races, not to be a judge, too,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell seems to be in a time warp. Instant replay has been adapted and revised in many pro sports specifically designed to get the call right.

Unlike other sports harness racing has two significant groups that have a major financial stake in the outcome of the event: Owners and Bettors.

Most importantly in all other major sporting events the officials are on the field of play during the action. As Mr. O’Donnell should be quite aware most harness judges are far away from the action and may not see everything as perfectly as the drivers involved in the race.

Finally drivers aren’t paid to judge. That shouldn’t prevent them from being witnesses with a voice. Getting the call right should be essential to all followers of this sport.

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