03/09/2015 11:47AM

Bergman: Training horses is easier said than done

Derick Giwner
Trainer Ron Burke somehow manages a stable of over 300 horses.

There is an enormous amount of pressure being a trainer in the sport of standardbred racing. For two minutes or under each week the job looks easy for many that speculate on the outcome of races. Yet it’s what goes on during the other six days, 23 hours and 58 minutes that is indicative of the stress and pitfalls that must be overcome.

Ron Burke is a modern day marvel in this industry. On a brief call last week he was able to rattle off the names and races of 15 horses in the span of seconds. He knew exactly how they were training, what they had done in their last start and what level of competition they were up against. Mind you the questions came moments after races had been drawn, but Burke already seemed to know what the prospects were for his horses as well as what grade of competition his stock would be up against.

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It wasn’t an insult when Burke was mentioned in last week’s column as a person who calls all the shots behind horses that he rarely sits behind. Yet there were some in the crowd who speculated that any of Burke’s second-trainers should have no trouble going out on their own and succeeding to the same degree. If it were only that easy!

As many trainers that we have spoken with over the years have exclaimed, it’s much easier to screw up and get away with it when you have a barn full of successful horses. One or two slipups rarely gets noticed when the stable is hitting on most cylinders.

While there is always suspicion that a secret formula exists that any of the second or third trainers can simply steal and use to their advantage, the plain truth in this sport is that there are very few secrets. In order to have a successful stable it’s not just the training that matters. It’s important to know the fitness of every horse. In today’s wide expanse, it’s also important to know where you can place your horses to maximize their earning potential. Ron Burke has mastered this art and he’s done so with his money and that of a loyal group of partners.

So here’s what’s likely stopping any of Burke’s assistants from jumping ship and going into competition with their employer.


That’s right, it takes money and plenty of it to get a trainer off the ground.

It also takes more than just understanding how to train a horse properly and enter him. It takes the nuance of being able to deal with bills, owners, feed men, drivers and racing secretaries. It takes the ability to buy horses for the right price and with the right potential.

It also requires success. Sometimes success must happen quickly, for as we’ve seen more times than not in today’s market owners have little difficulty moving horses from one trainer to another. Very often it could be from an extremely well known trainer into the Burke stable.

The reality for many second trainers is that they are likely very competent horsemen that understand how to take care of a horse and maintain fitness, but they are lacking in one, two or several of the other requirements to do it alone.

That’s no disrespect to hard working individuals that help to keep the wheels of a finely run team going. Burke is not a one-man army, his results are without question part of a coordinated plan that has maintained efficiency while growing in numbers.

Could there be those within the team that eventually go out on their own and prosper?

Yes, without question.

At the same time, there is incredible risk and added pressure associated with the leap of faith. For many, a paycheck without the hassles is something to be thankful for. Let the guy at the top deal with the problems.

“Horses are not Machines”

The famous quote of Hall of Famer Herve Filion lives on each passing day as you look out on the racetrack. There were two races this past week that indicated that no matter how good a horse looks on paper, completing the race as the public expects is far from a sure thing, even for a 1-5 shot.

Take for example Lonewolf Currier. The odds-on favorite in a mini late closer at the Meadowlands this past Saturday night failed to deliver for trainer Kevin McDermott and driver Corey Callahan. The five-year-old by The Panderosa was one of the fastest three-year-olds around in 2013 and has displayed the kind of wicked speed that gets racing fans excited at times. Lonewolf Currier was so fast that he reminded me in many ways of Its Fritz, a gifted four-year-old back in 1983 that captivated the sport with his uncanny ability to circle horses.

The comparison to Its Fritz was based on the similarities in extreme speed and at the same time the questionable resolve of both horses in the late stretch with another horse bearing down on them.

Lonewolf Currier blew a similar group away two Saturdays ago with Callahan ranging up without cover and not asking his horse for speed until the stretch. This past Saturday the driver followed what the tote board told him to do and not necessarily what the horse could do. Everything appeared to be going like clockwork when Lonewolf Currier moved to the front at the half in the $25,000 event, but in the homestretch ‘Lonewolf’ waited for company to arrive and then couldn’t hold off Bullet Bob.

Perhaps had Callahan brushed to the front and attempted to throw a 26-second third quarter at his rivals the competition would have struggled to keep within hailing distance. Often drivers recognizing the limits of a horse’s courage will not want to risk a head-to-head duel.

That said, hindsight is 20-20 and there’s no way of knowing whether Lonewolf Currier would have won had Callahan’s strategy been different.

I had to feel sorry for driver Andy Miller. He did everything right on Friday night behind the 5-2 Evil Urges in one of nine trotting races at the Meadowlands. Miller put the horse in perfect position behind 18-1 shot Magnum Kosmos and then pulled the pocket early not wanting to get trapped should the longshot get leg weary. Evil Urges got right up to the leader into the stretch but then simply refused to go by. It was nearly identical to what the horse did a month earlier with Brett Miller in the bike. On that occasion he looked to be going right past Helios on his way to victory but virtually pulled himself up nearing the wire losing a nose decision.

You were right Herve, they aren’t machines.

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