03/12/2014 5:00PM

Bob Pandolfo: David Siegel shares his thoughts on harness racing

David Siegel has 338 career wins as an amateur driver.

David Siegel has a busy schedule. Since 1996, Siegel has been the President of Trackmaster—an Equibase Company that provides data and past performance information. But Siegel is also a regular catch-driver at Cal Expo, a harness track in Sacramento, California. Siegel, who started driving in 2004, is technically still an amateur harness driver. This means that when he wins a race, he doesn't make any money. His 5% commission for winning or the standard $20 fee per drive goes to the owner of the horse.

"There are reasons why I've kept my amateur status," Siegel explained. "I've always enjoyed participating in the various competitions and it's allowed me to combine two things I enjoy, travel and driving horses.  I've competed in several international events, including a series in New Zealand and Germany. I've driven in three Pro Am events, the World Cup in 2007 and other specialty amateur events.

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"But, I may apply for a regular driver license this fall. Cal Expo doesn't have any Pro Am events anymore and I may finally get my license."

It doesn't appear that the United States Trotting Association (USTA) keeps records set by amateur drivers, but there's a good chance that Siegel owns a few. In 2013, Siegel won 85 races, good for a 17% win rate. And Siegel often does it the hard way. He doesn't get all the primo catch-drives that are normally associated with a driver winning at 17%. In fact, last year Siegel's drives produced an astounding positive ROI of 24%. That's an indication that he was winning with horses that didn't look that good on paper, no easy task. In his career, Siegel's winning drives have earned over a million in purses.

Siegel became a harness driver even though he was not a long time fan of harness racing. In fact, his interest only developed after getting involved through his job.

"When I first started working for Trackmaster in 1993, we just sold thoroughbred information,” said Siegel. “But I thought it would be beneficial to add harness racing, so I approached the USTA and made a deal. Then in 2002, I met Ed Hensley (trainer/driver) and he got me interested. I bought a couple of horses down at Pompano. Then I signed up with the USTA harness driving school. I'm probably the most successful harness driver that's ever graduated from their program. Once I started competing, I enjoyed it and stayed with it."

Siegel has a hectic schedule. He lives in Palo Alto, California, which is a 120 miles from Cal Expo. He works at the Trackmaster offices during the week and then takes the long journey to compete on Friday and Saturday at Cal Expo before driving back home on Sunday.

Along with Hensley, Siegel credits some of his success to a familiar name on the national scene.

"When I first went to Cal Expo, I have to give credit to trainer Lou Pena,” said Siegel. “Louie was the first guy who took a chance on me and gave me drives and I really appreciated it."

As an owner, harness driver, racing executive and a member of the USTA’s Board of Directors, David Siegel has a unique perspective on the industry. With plenty of talk in recent years about a “Racing Czar”, he was willing to give his thoughts on needed changes for the industry.

"The first thing I'd do is change the scheduling, in two ways,” said Siegel. “First, I think that some tracks should be racing fewer days. In some areas the sport is over saturated. I'd also try to coordinate the post times better. When I was in Australia, I noticed that they do a very good job of scheduling the starting times so the races aren't going off at the same times at different tracks. Of course, this will probably never happen here, but if you could get the tracks to work together it would be great for the sport. If you're at a simulcast center and several tracks have races going off at the same time, that's not good business.

"Another thing I'd try to do is change the public perception. I think a lot of people perceive harness racing as less honest than thoroughbred racing. That can be changed through tougher penalties and better rules. I'd also like to see more uniform rules regarding the treatment of horses. I don't think the public likes seeing a driver flail away at a horse with a whip. A whip is needed for control. But, if drivers have to keep both hands in the reins, then there's no one-armed whipping and it looks better to the public. So what if a race goes a fraction of a second slower, as long as everyone is playing by the same rules, it doesn't matter."

With his mind fresh on violations, we quickly switched to the hot topic of kicking horses.

"The rule should be worded more precisely,” said Siegel. “No part of the driver besides his hands should be used (when driving) and the penalties for kicking should be much tougher.

"Obviously more investment in the sport helps," Siegel said, moving back to the topic of improving the sport. "For instance, some of the tracks don't have good video quality on their simulcasts. Racinos have been a good Band-Aid for the sport, but I doubt that they're the long term answer. I know that states have provisions that prohibit the casinos to operate without a racetrack, but laws can be changed and probably will.

"I really think the sport should do more to attract ownership. The USTA does offer membership seminars, and that's great. But more needs to be done in this area. Owning harness horses is more of a personal and unique experience than owning thoroughbreds. It’s fun. You can go into the barn and feed your horse. You can jog your horse. And you get a lot more chances to experience watching your horse race when you own a pacer or trotter. Since many horses race 30 or more times a year, you have more fun and a better chance of earning purse money. There's less risk.

"But, you have to have nice facilities,” Siegel continued. “Owners like to take their family and friends to the track to watch their horses’ race. Years ago at Pompano, I wanted to take my wife to dinner on a night when my horse was racing. I called to make dinner reservations and they said that the trackside restaurant was closed; permanently. You couldn't sit down and eat dinner and watch the races!"

Siegel agreed that the Meadowlands hit the nail on the head with Trotters, an exclusive members-only club with a touch of class for owners, trainers and drivers that are licensed in the state of New Jersey.

Siegel only owns or co-owns four horses that are racing and he does not have a trainer license. But he also owns two retired standardbreds, including the first horse he ever bought, Wastin Time, a 15-year-old gelding.

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Siegel regularly takes his harness horses riding on the grounds at Stanford University. Apparently, Stanford founder Leland Stanford owned a major Standardbred breeding operation in the late 1800's. Stanford, who had an amazing career as a business tycoon and two-term Governor of California, bred and raced trotters and had hundreds of broodmares. Part of the property at Stanford is a public park and Stanford U. has an equestrian program and barns.

"I don't know if people realize it, but harness horses can make awesome riding horses. They're docile and they can do just about anything. I've jumped with them, ridden them on the beach, in a ring, on trails. They're also sturdy. I ride them almost every day and they've never gone lame."

To find out more about Pandy’s handicapping theories check out his www.trotpicks.com or www.handicappingwinners.com websites, his free picks at handicapping.ustrotting.com/pandycapping.cfm or write to Bob Pandolfo, 3386 Creek Road, Northampton, PA 18067.