10/22/2012 11:51AM

Bergman: Passive driving hurting the sport

USTA photo
George Brennan

After watching the sixth race on Oct. 12 at Yonkers Raceway I got sick.

The event, advertised as a $44,000 open handicap for pacing fillies and mares, looked like a competitive race on paper. The posts were drawn and handicapped to put the better horses on the outside.

What happened in the race was beyond my comprehension.

That’s because three horses left sharply from posts six, seven and eight. Anyone who has watched Yonkers races consistently knows how rare it is to see three horses leaving from the outside posts combined over a 12-race program, let alone all in one race.

So heading into the first turn it was easy for me to expect that the pace would be fast and furious.

Unfortunately there were no gunrunners competing in this race.

Any semblance of competition quickly evaporated as Naughtytilltheend rolled toward the front off the first turn, then Royal Cee Cee N, driven by top driver George Brennan, was able to float into a wide gap created by Jason Bartlett driving Artsy Princess. For a moment I thought 18-1 shot Late Flyin N, who was parked from post seven, would actually be forced to drive to the front. That hope diminished as Brennan quickly grabbed his horse up to allow the Gilbert Garcia-Herrera-trained horse a safe spot along the pylons.

So what do we have?

Instead of four horses vying for control of the richest race on the card, one goes to the front and two of the track’s leading drivers allow horses to improve position favorably without a hint of concern for the place or pace that has been sacrificed.

When the opening quarter flashed in :28 3/5 my blood began to boil.

When the half was reached in :58 3/5, I understood exactly why bettors have not flocked to Yonkers even though the track offers the highest purses in North America.

Meadowlands chief Jeff Gural made an impassioned plea before the New Meadowlands opened earlier this year for drivers to keep the holes closed over his mile track. It was well intended mind you, but the drivers at the Meadowlands were unable to oblige him, not because they didn’t want to, but because too many fields at the Meadowlands over the last meet were class mismatches.

This isn’t the case at Yonkers, where the class system has worked to match horses and Steve Starr’s open handicaps at least offer some effort to balance out the races and make them more competitive.

If ever there was a time to fix the races to make them more compelling it is now.

Presiding judge Nick Ferriero has been given the power by the rulebook to fine drivers who allow horses to improve positions needlessly.

I attempted to speak by phone with Ferriero about this race, but the presiding judge at Yonkers for the last 18 months told us this. “I won’t speak to you over the phone. If you want to meet in person I’ll talk to you.”

I asked Ferriero, a New York state employee, if he would have the decency to answer our questions if we posed them in email form and sent him his way.

“I don’t do anything over a computer,” Ferriero said

Ferriero did send us to the New York State Racing and Wagering web site where a record of his fines and suspensions is represented for all to see.

In the last 12 months, Ferriero has fined a driver for giving a hole on ZERO occasions.

Maybe that’s why he’s not talking?

Why not blame the drivers?

The same reason I don’t blame the drivers on the road for going 70 in a 55 m.p.h zone when there are no police in sight.

I’m sure there are some professional drivers out there, and amateurs too, who would suggest that all Bartlett was trying to do when he let Brennan in front of him was to assure cover behind a top contender. This has often been a driving strategy that gives a horse a better chance to win. The argument is much weaker, however, when the early pace is slow. For when the early pace crawls, anyone allowing tucks is simply giving away the innate advantage that comes with an inside post draw.

It’s hard not to notice that Brennan could have let Late Flyin N linger on the outside if he so desired. The fact that Brennan drives a good number of horses for Late Flyin N’s trainer, the incomparable Gilbert Garcia-Herrera, could have been one reason he allowed the horse a “courtesy” tuck.

What’s troubling for the sport is for all the money being spent on trying to cultivate the best product, the direction of the races has been weak. There have been way too many similar incidences across North America where drivers simply surrender advantages to horses routinely and in the process break down any attempt to make the races at least a little more attractive to watch.

It is precisely the style of race witnessed on Oct. 12 at Yonkers Raceway that allowed the Meadowlands to spring from wetlands in New Jersey to become the premier harness track in North America. Too many players lost interest in a product that had become stale and lacked any punch and all too often produced short payoffs.

Now that the Meadowlands has been weakened by its own purse structure, Yonkers should have the advantage. It certainly has the horsepower and the driver colony available to it to put on a great show.

Or is it simply the fact that Yonkers has too many races that has numbed the drivers on a nightly basis?

Does the guarantee of high purses each week for drivers, trainers or owners make it impossible for them to care whether they win or finish fifth on a given night?

Should we blame the judges?

You know that would be too easy as well. That’s because although Nick Ferriero is appointed by the state, the success or failure of the harness product is not likely to change his pay structure. Certainly by not making waves, something New York’s judges have been doing with incredible consistency over the years, Mr. Ferriero and his associates are protecting their livelihoods.

This is an area where all horsemen must come together and decide once and for all whether they have a moral, ethical and financial obligation towards providing the best racing every night.

For racing must be entertaining to captivate an audience. And it must be consistently competitive to guarantee a betting public.

Now is not the time for a “country club” atmosphere to permeate the racetrack.

Please horsemen - fix these races!

Only you can.