01/11/2016 11:00AM

Bergman: Mourning the loss of Classy Lane victims

Garnet Barnsdale
Chantal Mitchell (second from right) was one of many who suffered catastrophic losses.

Growing up the son of a New York City Firefighter I never felt quite comfortable hearing the sound of a siren. It meant something with potential catastrophic ramifications was likely taking place and the hope was that no one would get hurt.

“Buildings can be rebuilt,” my father would often tell me.

What he never told me was whether life was involved. I guess that was a way of protecting me from the ultimate dangers he faced when on call of duty.

I knew there were many reasons that fires broke out and plenty of ways to prevent them. I knew nothing of barn fires. Living in metropolitan New York there was rarely an incident that involved animals.

The tragic fire that took place this past week at Classy Lane Farm and took the lives of more than 40 horses happened at the absolutely worst possible time. Without warning and without mercy, the fire spread too fast to be extinguished.

Buildings can be rebuilt I kept thinking but there is no way to repair the immediate damage done.

It’s wonderful that we have an industry that can come together. Perhaps one of the landmarks of horse people that I have witnessed over the course of my experience within this sport is their incredible resilience and eternal optimism no matter what is thrown in their paths.

Horses routinely break down and horsemen and caretakers don’t lose faith. They recognize that time is the great healer and horses and humans tend to recover equally with the lapse of it.

We can only hope that the horses that perished didn’t suffer very long. For their safety they are locked in stalls overnight and it’s hard to swallow that they couldn’t collectively break out and run to freedom. No doubt they all had the will and determination to do so if only an opening had existed.

A lifetime of winners and great horses passed through the Ben Wallace stable and throughout the ups and downs of racing, Mr. Wallace was always professional and courteous to all that needed his ear. The fact that he actually was able to give interviews in the hours that followed the fire is a testament to the kind individual he is. No one would have blamed him for being too shaken up to speak, but Wallace was able to convey to the world outside of horse racing the devastation to so many connected to the horses.

We mourn the loss of those wonderful horses and hope those most closely associated with them can find some small comfort knowing that others care deeply about their plight as well.

French Simulcasts

Yonkers Raceway kicked off its 2016 simulcast to France season on Sunday afternoon and the hope from horsemen and throughout the industry is that this “experiment” will one day yield much greater results. Not all experiments work perfectly and there have been some ups and downs along the way, but the good news from the horsemen’s perspective is that it will continue in 2016. Reports of last year’s wagering indicate that somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million was wagered from Europe on the Yonkers signal. Yonkers Raceway and its horsemen share in 3 percent of that figure. That means some $300,000 was added to the Yonkers purse fund for the calendar year that concluded in December.

“That’s not much money” is probably something critics might say considering the sacrifices made by the horsemen. After all, not only were races carded on Sunday mornings but field size swelled to 10-12 horses in each race sent overseas.

That’s where we must put statistics aside and instant gratification even further away. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the real victory can only be achieved when that $20 million in handle becomes commingled with North American wagering.

Carryovers have shown the horse racing industry what happens exponentially when pool size is increased. Yonkers handle has been anemic and without an influx of fresh money it is near impossible to attract the kind of gambler necessary to build on it. That’s why commingling, even just a few times a year, could prove to be the quickest way to revive a stagnant gambling base. Fortunately for Yonkers and its horsemen the purses make it easier to accept the larger field size.

JAYWALKING: I would be a huge fan of the new Meadowlands 6:35 p.m. post time if only it meant that races would end by 10:30 p.m. That has not proven to be the case as the racing has turned the way of a marathon that takes more than five hours to complete. I can’t say that I know the attention span of all ages, but I can’t see the benefits of extending the program or adding so much time between races. It really wasn’t that surprising to see the incredible success the Meadowlands enjoyed with that post time when employed on the post-Christmas and post-New Years Day 15-race cards. Both came after gamblers had pent up energy after a wagering hiatus.

Is the five-hour card really beneficial to either on or off-track wagering?

In theory 14-horse races should help the Meadowlands get a handle boost, at least from one of its races, but that may prove difficult even for a creative racing secretary like Peter Koch to pull off. What we have seen for the most part in these races are incredibly mismatched fields and limited movement. Despite the added horses and added distance, there is just too big a disparity between horses racing at the lowest level at the Meadowlands these days. If half of the field of 14 has a chance to win, the bettors will anxiously enter the fray. Wagering on these events when only a couple of horses can contend makes it a less attractive proposition for many gamblers.

While I haven’t always agreed with what departing Meadowlands Director of Racing Darin Zoccali has had to say, I think he has an incredible passion for the sport and devoted himself to the greater good of the industry. That passion is something that won’t be replaced when his job is split up internally.

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