03/02/2015 3:26PM

Bergman: Truth in advertising with trainers

Is the listed trainer always the real face behind the horse?

Dictionary.com describes a “beard” as: A person used as an agent to conceal the principal's identity.

On Saturday night at the Meadowlands it was difficult to figure out just what the beard was hiding. The victory of Somenicebeach in the Burning Point final was an upset of sorts, but the very fact that the four-year-old mare was even in the race remains somewhat of a clouded mystery.

Somenicebeach is owned by Susan Oakes, known to most as the wife of trainer Chris Oakes. The mare’s trainer is listed as Mark Capone, even though Chris Oakes, a perennial leading trainer at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, would appear to have more than a small interest in her future.

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We asked Meadowlands chairman Jeff Gural whether Chris Oakes, the trainer, is permitted to race at his tracks. More specifically, is he banned?

“Yes,” Gural said in a one-word reply.

We asked Gural a follow-up:

In as much as you have the right to prevent licensed trainers from racing at your tracks, I don't understand how or why you would want to exploit the charade of interviewing the ‘winning’ trainer after a race? Mark Capone training for Chris Oakes wife? Is the betting public supposed to believe this? Ron Pierce interviewed by your staff earlier in the evening mentioned Chris Oakes in connection with the horse. Even Capone himself seemed uncomfortable being asked questions about the future of the horse given that it's clearly not his call.

In as much as you have attempted to root out "Beards" at your tracks, I just don't understand how you can justify and even shine the light on this exception.”

Gural was nice enough to respond to the elongated questioning.

“I raised this issue but we allow Oakes to race in paid-in events and I sent Brice (Cote) on several occasions to see if Capone was training the horse. Brice confirmed that Oakes was in Florida and Capone was training. Was it smart to interview him, probably not, but agree, Oakes is calling the shots but not training, which is different than a Beard. You may disagree but I tried to be objective,” Gural said.

Which begged the question of why the Meadowlands would allow the close connections of a banned individual to pay in to any of its races? We asked Mr. Gural such a question and have yet to receive an answer.

What is puzzling about Mr. Gural’s response is not his statement of the facts discovered by Brice Cote, but his opinion of the definition of the word beard in this sport.

It is quite common in this sport for trainers who are not physically present in the stable with a horse to be “calling the shots” as Gural described it. It wasn’t that long ago that the late-Hall of Famer William R. Haughton would winter with his younger horses in Florida and leave his racing stable at Roosevelt or Yonkers under the care of his associates. To anyone reading a program then, the horses were always listed with Haughton’s name present along with his selected trainer at the particular racetrack. There was no attempt to defraud the public of the knowledge that these were “Haughton’s” horses and not those of the trainer named in his stead.

There’s another trainer that today has come as close as anyone in the sport’s history to the power of the Haughton stable. His name is Ron Burke and it’s very clear to say that with the incredible numbers he sends out on a weekly basis that he is not physically present at the locations where his horses are stabled, yet he has the ultimate power over where they race and how they are trained.

So given those two examples it is somewhat bewildering to make a case for Capone’s name appearing on the program as trainer for Somenicebeach while the track recognizes that Chris Oakes is calling the shots.

It was somewhat uncomfortable watching as Bob Heyden tried to ask Mark Capone in the post-race interview what was next for Somenicebeach and Capone politely tried to get around the question, knowing most likely that is a decision which rightfully should be made by Chris Oakes along with his wife Susan, the owner of the mare.

Whether it’s right to call Capone a Beard or not is really not the issue here. If the Meadowlands wants to make the “owners” responsible for their choice of trainers, exactly how is that being accomplished when they allow the wife of a barred horseman to enter using a substitute trainer that everyone acknowledges is not calling the shots?

While as an American I’m quite opposed when individual rights granted by government get trampled on by private enterprise, I recognize an entrepreneur’s right to grant access to those it feels best represents its ideals. If it is the intent of the Meadowlands along with Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs to complete its mission of keeping the sport clean of the alleged “bad” guys, it must first put rules in place that have no escape clauses.

While some will ask what was Rene Allard’s crime or what was Oakes’ crime, or the crimes of other names on the “barred” list from the Meadowlands, I’m not interested in those specifics. I’ll leave Mr. Gural and his investigator to that information. What is of the most concern is that in this age of information the betting public knows the right names of those responsible for preparing horses for battle. If I knew in the 70’s that a horse was representing the Haughton Stable because it said so on the program, there’s no reason those on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram can’t get as clear a picture.

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