11/26/2012 11:38AM

Bergman: New-old Meadowlands classification system raises questions

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Will the uncertainty of where horses will be classified keep horsemen away from the Meadowlands this winter?

After hearing the Meadowlands announce that it will employ the A-B-C class system at the coming meet, I had to wonder whether its president Jeff Gural’s favorite song was Tyrone Davis’s “Turn Back The Hands of Time.”

The instant irony was that New Meadowlands was going back to something “Old” Meadowlands proved antiquated when it opened its doors to all in 1976.

The hands of time have changed through the 36 years and it’s safe to say the only thing similar about our sport today is that our horses still have four feet.

One could say there was nothing wrong with the A-B-C system when employed at Yonkers-Roosevelt and other tracks before the Meadowlands first opened. It served a purpose and was received well by horsemen and patrons. It could also be said that although the Meadowlands in 1976 used the condition system that in theory allowed horsemen to classify their own horses, racing secretary Joe DeFrank’s “discretion” often modified it.

Though New Meadowlands has had the approach of trying anything for a period of time to see if it will work, it’s curious it would attempt to try the A-B-C class system at a point in history when it will be so painful to attempt to make it work.
Mind you from a handicapping and consumer point of view there is nothing wrong with this change. What is concerning is just how racing secretary Peter Koch will impose his will upon a stable area that simply doesn’t exist.

As someone who worked in the race office at Roosevelt Raceway under racing secretary Larry Mallar for a number of years and saw the mechanics of the system, I have to question the wisdom behind what the Meadowlands is trying to do.

What Mallar had to work with and Peter Koch won’t are light years apart. First and foremost, Mallar had a stable area that housed a large majority of the horses that competed at Roosevelt on a six-night a week schedule. Second, in order for horses to be allowed to race at Roosevelt, trainers had to get Mallar’s approval. Then they had to physically submit the horses “papers” to the race office where they were put in a virtually locked file.

Thus, Mallar had complete control of the horses he would be classifying. Upon receiving the papers Mallar would assign a class to all the horses he had on file and in effect balance the numbers so he had ample supply of each class to fill his races.

Move ahead to the Meadowlands’ current plight and see that there will be no stable area. That has been removed forever with the Meadowlands planting the steel necessary to erect a brand new grandstand. Second, there are no physical papers required for horses to race at any track in North America. No trainer must submit papers for the race office to hold. The trainers now control these electronic papers and the location of their horses. Though the Meadowlands may have theoretically “modernized” its process of communicating with horsemen through “texting”, it will find this process not nearly as effective as the public address system that allowed race secretaries to page horsemen in order to fill the remaining spots to complete a race card.

While the A-B-C system does give the racing secretary a tremendous amount of control over each and every racing card, it can only be effective if there is a large enough pool of horses to draft from. For this reason it may be just as hard for Koch to put a competitive program together. Actually it may be even harder. That’s because horsemen, who enjoy the option to race at multiple tracks, may decide they don’t want to put a specific horse in a class they think it doesn’t fit. Under Mallar, if a trainer didn’t like where his horse was classified, he either had to put the horse in claimers, race in that class or probably be forced to move his entire stable somewhere else.

What has made Koch’s job that much more testing is that because the Meadowlands has elected to race just three days a week with roughly 34 races offered, the pool of actual horses willing to race there has naturally been smaller, than say a track where horsemen know all of their horses can race. In other words, why should a large stable commit to race at the Meadowlands if all of its stock can’t get in to race at least three out of four weeks?

It’s possible that Woodbine and Mohawk may elect to cut the racing schedule in 2013 due to the impending end to the slots at racetracks partnership. If that happens there may be a lot of horses in shape to race in Ontario with no place to go.

The Meadowlands could be the beneficiary should the events in Ontario play out this way. But one has to wonder whether a three-day weekly schedule will be enough to convince horsemen to commit to move significant stock to New Jersey for January and February, if horses won’t be able to get raced with regularity.

In essence A-B-C racing just might be a great alternative if Peter Koch has the tools (horses) to work with. As the Meadowlands meet approaches there are far too many questions that need answering. Perhaps first among them would be an announced purse structure for the meet.

I’ve spoken about it in the past and can never repeat this enough. January and February have consistently been the best betting months of the year for the Meadowlands and the harness industry. In order to guarantee the best product and a chance at the best handle, horsemen must know if the risk of racing at the Meadowlands this winter is worth their while.

Will the uncertainty of where horses will be classified keep horsemen away from the Meadowlands this winter?

Let’s hope not.