10/09/2013 12:48PM

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.


Jay More than 1 year ago
With all the kicking going on in Breeders Crown elims last night, it would appear $500 fines aren't that effective. Giving drivers the full 9 days-- meaning they would miss all their BC Final drives would be effective. As would setting the horse itself down.
David Siegel More than 1 year ago
The USTA does have a rule (see blow) which prohibits feet from leaving the stirrups for any reason (other than popping ear plugs). Bob, perhaps you should submit a rule change which combines the essence of the "foot out of stirrup" rule below with the "no kicking" rule you cited. There are other pieces of equipment including pull down blinds and pull off hoods that work similarly to ear plugs. There really does need to be an exception for these devices as while one could use their hand, it is more dangerous to do so than using a foot. That said, it is easy to see if a foot is used for contact with the horse or out for any other reason than pulling a cord attached to the race bike. § 18 .08 Improper Conduct/Foot Out of Stirrup.—Loud shouting or other improper conduct is forbidden in a race . After the starting gate is in motion, both feet must be kept in the stirrups until after the finish of the race, except that a driver shall be allowed to remove a foot from the stirrups temporarily for the purpose of pulling earplugs .
Robert Pandolfo More than 1 year ago
I'm not on the board of directors but I agree, David, it would be good to make the rule as clear as possible. Thanks for commenting.
Jeff Biever More than 1 year ago
I first remember seeing one of the Swedish trainer/drivers-I think Berndt Lindstedt-do it at the Meadowlands about 30 years ago-and he kicked the horse high, well above the hock-I couldn;t believe it. I am glad to see the $ 500 fines implemented, though it is still a pittance to these top drivers. In the DRF photo, I wonder if Tetrick's whip is in a permissible area? Bob, could you comment on this? Finally, I think most would agree that Brian Sears is a finesse driver almost in the style of Joe O'Brien and John Campbell-he seems to resort to the whip only when really necessary. This makes his kicking offenses all the more curious, as it contrast with his driving style.
Robert Pandolfo More than 1 year ago
Hard to tell from the photo if the whip is on the shaft or under it. They are not allowed to whip between the legs. If I were a judge and a driver whipped between the legs he would be warned and if he did it again he would never drive at my track again. Sears is definitely a finesse driver, I agree.
Amy Hurley More than 1 year ago
I'm not a fan of harness racing, but I do know who Captaintreacherous and Tim Tetrick are, and I was appalled at the headline, since I did not realize this was a fairly common practice in harness racing. This should be clearly prohibited. It's bad enough that whipping is permitted in all horse racing, but to allow kicking will perpetuate a public relations nightmare, not to mention the cruelty suffered by the poor horses victimized by this act.
Lynne Magee More than 1 year ago
I agree wholeheartedly. Get this stupidity out of horse racing! And by the way, yes, it does hurt the horse - as if that is a concern to these drivers, owners and trainers. The hocks are like your own joints (elbows, knees, ankles, etc.) without any padding to absorb the impact. It can cause a lot of irreparable damage to the joint. No hock---no racehorse! In fact, it can take a horse's leg right out from under it possibly causing a fall which can result in injury and even death. Enforce the damn rule judges ---that's your job!
Greg Peck More than 1 year ago
Bob, With respect, watch Dancer, Haughton and others. They "one handed horses" a way more than these guys. Watch some of the old USTA footage. If you can't see what I'm talking about, please let me know.
Robert Pandolfo More than 1 year ago
Kind of a moot point. The point of my column is that kicking is against the rules and should not be allowed.
Walter More than 1 year ago
It seems the feet leave the stirrups quite often. I always thought this kicking triggered the earplugs being pulled. I didn't realize they were actually kicking the horse. Can you please clear this up?
Robert Pandolfo More than 1 year ago
Walter, some drivers do use their legs to pop the earplugs, but this is a different thing entirely.
Jason Kassa More than 1 year ago
Nice article. I agree 100%. Things like "the kick" are not a good look for the sport. Clear, Enforced rules can level the playing field and make such tactics unnecessary (because no one will be doing it). These drivers are great, and you can see their timing and vision on display to allow these great horses to give 100%.
Robert Pandolfo More than 1 year ago
Thanks. You and The Big B both had very smart replies.
The Big B More than 1 year ago
Good points, absolutely agree. Rules need to be clear and consistent from track to track and then enforced consistently. The most inconsistent ongoing problem I see is the one where a driver makes a hole to let another horse tuck in (and then that horse sometimes goes on to beat him). Sometimes so obvious, rarely penalized. Some tracks have started watching it more closely, others still let it run rampant. Fans want consistent controls insuring the integrity of the sport and their wagers.
Robert Pandolfo More than 1 year ago
Thank you.