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.



Bruce Springstein More than 1 year ago
I have to say, that this is quite an article. Bergman may or may not be correct, and I would not have stuck my neck so far out here making the ascertions he has. That said, I commend the USTA and Yonkers Raceway for being as stoic as they were when a situation like this comes up. Frankly, they are far better human beings that I would ever be. Bergman, as long as he does not write stuff he knows is not true, certainly has a First Amendment right to voice his opinion. Gotta love the USA! I find it kind of interesting though that Harness Eye is a publication that would not exist without the past performance information it contains (at least I don’t think it would). Bergman’s company here, the Daily Racing Form, prints Harness Eye and another harness publication. So basically, the USTA has enabled Bergman to write this stuff that cannot be too helpful to Harness Racing in general, and Yonkers specifically. I went to the USTA web site and saw that three directors (Galterio, Faraldo and Rooney) either work for Yonkers or are involved with the horsemen there. So I have got to take my hat off to this group and the USTA for having the backbone to take this kind of criticism while supporting the very publishing group used as a forum for such criticism. Of course, perhaps the USTA is being paid a boat load of money for the rights to publish the information in Harness Eye, which would explain why they would not make waves here. But if not, then I have to say that these folks are much better people than I. For whether the allegations are true or false, if a publication I put in business did what was done here, I would not be in the least bit tolerant. So, great article and I now think much better of the USTA than I did in the past.
Bruce Springstein More than 1 year ago
Can this work?
Nathan More than 1 year ago
jack kopas, 30 years ago, (he was a leading driver and trainer in canada) was fined for telling the truth. " 1/2 the horses in every race, don't try because they are dropping lines or staying in the mdn, nw1, nw2, nw3, nw4, etc to grind out the dollars". nothing has changed. the game has always been fixed. also, when you race a harness horse 30-45 times a year, the chemist is your best friend. it is physically impossible to try every race without killing your horse. as an ex-owner in ontario and the meadowlands, i know what i am talking about.
Peter Mondi More than 1 year ago
The with racing , is that the judges are state appointments, with little or most times , no driving experiance. It is very hard to judge , if you do not know how the sport is done. Most judges in other sports , are ex participents, knowing how the sport is done . In Harness racing , the driver has to put in an objection first. That is sometimes not done , to avoid conflicts with a friend or trainer. Judges should always be the ones questioning a instant. When I was driving , with 26 years experance, the judge would ask, " Where did this happen" , I always wanted to say, " Your the judge, you tell me " When I got out of the bussiness , I tried to be a judge, going to Columbus for the judgeing course. After completeing the course, I was told for $ 5000.00 , I could beput on a list. I told the person , " If I had to buy my way in , I didn't need to get involved." The state doesn't care about qualified judges, it only uses the jobs for political paybacks.
rtb1003 More than 1 year ago
Slippery slope considering to the best of " my knowledge ", which I must admit at times is extremely limited, neither you or Mr. Gural , the self proclaimed SAVIOR of harness racing , have actually competed at a top level in the sulky thus could never fully testify with certainty as to one mans driving strategy . Furthermore , to go as far as to even question there motives , with less than sufficient corroboration could possibly be considered irresponsible journalism , perhaps borderline slanderous.
Jay Bergman More than 1 year ago
rtb1003, Your definition of who has the right to comment is rather narrow. Despite what you may think there are actual rules the drivers must follow. Keeping holes closed so not to allow another horse to improve position is one of them.
rtb1003 More than 1 year ago
Than may I suggest some of these antiquated rules should be revised, many times the driver is just trying to get some of the competition " out of the way " so he can clear a path, and very few do it better than Mr. Brennan . Old school logic dictated that when a horse was first over he was in a " bad spot " on the racetrack, however with newer bikes and drivers that have a knack for keeping there horse "live " first over is one of the most winningest positions on most tracks.
Jay Bergman More than 1 year ago
Mr.Brennan did not clear a path as you suggest. He let an 18-1 shot not only get in front of him but then he waited for the 18-1 shot to provide him with cover. Had he let the horse in as you suggest and then moved this wouldn't be an issue. As far as Mr. Brennan's talent I couldn't agree with you more. As for the rule as my story clearly indicates the presiding judge has in fact ignored it.
Chris More than 1 year ago
Jason Ricco More than 1 year ago
the funnyn thing is when a horse is parked you know as a driver if you pull eventually you will have to go three wide around the horse that has been parked,so not because its trainer a's horse its strategy to get that horse out of the way and then coming first up or second over the driver that left at 18-1 was in the wrong for putting his horse in that position, stop trying to look into things and stir up trouble.
The Playbook More than 1 year ago
Stir up trouble? Brennan actually wound up following that 18-1 shot instead of forcing him to go to the front. Jason, what about the 18-1 shot helping to force the pace making it much easier for the closers to sweep to the front? Jason you wouldn't happen to be a relation of George Brennan?