10/09/2013 11:48AM

Bob Pandolfo: Time for harness racing to "kick" the habit

Fred Brown
Tim Tetrick (driving Captaintreacherous) has come under fire for failure to keep his foot in the stirrup during races.

In the past few weeks there have been two horse-kicking incidents that have made news in the sport of Harness Racing. At the Delaware State Fair in Ohio, home of the prestigious Little Brown Jug, driver Ronnie Wrenn, Jr. was fined for "taking his foot out of the stirrups." Wrenn got mad and took off the rest of his drives for the week. The judges stated that before the races they had informed the drivers that they would be fined if they took their feet out of the stirrups.

Then on Saturday, October 5 at The Red Mile, Captaintreacherous won a division of the Tattersalls by a neck over Vegas Vacation. Winning driver Tim Tetrick had his foot out of the stirrups and was clearly making contact with Captaintreacherous in the stretch. Brian Sears, who was driving Vegas Vacation, was also using his foot. In this case, there were no fines. Red Mile judge Richard Williams said that he doesn't have a problem with  kicking unless the horse is being abused. Williams also said that using the whip is more of an abuse than kicking. Additionally, he said that there is a difference between pushing your foot against a horse's hock and swinging a leg and kicking the horse.

[Editor's Note: Since this article was posted, it has been reported by www.harnessracing.com that both Tetrick and Sears were fined $500 for kicking violations.]

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This is a relatively modern problem that to my memory has developed over the past 20 years or so. Since we've let it go on too long, some drivers have gotten so used to kicking that it's become a habitual part of their repertoire. I don't remember ever seeing legends like Stanley Dancer, Bill Haughton or Joe O'Brien kicking horses; heck, they barely even used the whip.

So let's analyze this. First of all, in the Tattersalls race, Red Mile judge Richard Williams tried to differentiate between a "swinging" leg kick and pushing a foot against a horse's leg.  He created a grey area. Rules can't be ambiguous.

To my eyes, and others who saw the race, Tetrick was kicking Captaintreacherous. Sears was using his left leg so it was a bit tougher to see, but he also appeared to be kicking his horse.  To suggest that Tetrick was merely pushing his foot against the horse's hock and not kicking it is splitting hairs. I've seen many fines levied against drivers for kicking horses and they were using the exact same leg motion that Tetrick used.  So I disagree with Richard Williams on this.

Hopefully the judges at the Red Mile did the sport a favor, because this incident has received a lot of attention and maybe the sport will finally take some action. Kicking is a problem that extends far beyond Lexington. It's about time we stop this kicking nonsense once and for all. The USTA rule states that drivers should not do the following:

“Kick the horse which shall be defined as a blow or thrust with the foot against any part of the horse’s body or to impel by striking with the foot. Removal of a foot from the stirrups in and of itself shall not constitute the offense of kicking. The penalty for kicking as defined herein shall not be less than 9 days suspension.”

The rule is worded that way because sometimes drivers take their foot out to pop the earplugs, a piece of equipment that's designed to excite a horse so it accelerates. Personally, I don't think that drivers should be allowed to take their feet out of the stirrups at all. So perhaps the wording should be changed to something much more precise, like, "A driver cannot touch a horse with his foot” or “A driver cannot take his foot out of the stirrups." Let's make this clear that this is a problem and leave no gray area.

The real issue may be the fines, which aren't severe enough. Many drivers kick horses even when they know that they'll be fined because the fine is much lower than the money or prestige that they'll win from the purse. When a driver kicks his horse he is intentionally breaking the rules to give his horse an unfair advantage. There's no question in my mind that this should result in a disqualification. Some people may say that a DQ would be unfair to the horse and owners, but judges are allowed to disqualify a horse for infractions that impact the outcome of the race. In fact, last September Williams was also in the booth when Odds On Equuleus was disqualified and driver John Campbell was fined for slowing the pace down in a stakes race at The Red Mile, a disqualification that caused a lot of controversy.

And remember, not all drivers break the rules. Some drivers never kick a horse. Let's put this in perspective. A driver kicks his horse and wins a stakes race by a nose over a driver who followed the rules and didn't kick. How would you feel if you owned the horse that finished 2nd? The bottom line is that it isn't fair to the driver of the second place horse. It isn't fair to the owners, the trainer or the bettors that finished 2nd behind a horse that cheated. Drivers kick their horses because they feel it gives them an advantage, and since kicking is against the rules, it's an unfair advantage. That's called cheating. And that's why it has to be stopped. In my opinion, racing fans and bettors don’t want to see horses kicked. The fact that we're even talking about this shows the absurdity of it all. Kicking is a clear violation of the rules and the drivers shouldn’t be breaking the rules.

If you disqualify horses driven by kicking offenders, that will end the kicking problem. And while you're at it, fine the drivers $5,000 instead of $100. Believe me, that will definitely end the kicking problem. Tracks can also take matters into their own hands by informing drivers that no kicking will be allowed and if they don't follow the rules they'll be banned from the track.

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After a game win by a horse like Captaintreacherous, people should be talking about what a great horse he is, not about how he was kicked. This kicking problem has to be stopped, not just in stakes races, in all races, and it has to be stopped now.

Next week, Saturday, October 19, Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs will host the Breeders Crown. Mohegan Sun did a great job on all levels when they hosted the event in 2010. The racing was fantastic, there were plenty of seats and Pocono had a lot of people working so there were no lines.  Based on the competition this year, it should be another great night of racing. Due to these recent events on the Grand Circuit, I hope that the Pocono judges clearly state to the drivers that no kicking of any sort will be allowed on the sport's biggest night of racing. Let's not make a mockery of this great sport.

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.