11/26/2014 12:51PM

Gisser: The Gural trainer rule

Meadowlands operator Jeff Gural continues to introduce new ideas to improve the on-track product.

As regular readers know, I am a pretty opinionated guy. And I usually have no problem expressing that opinion even if it rocks the boat a bit. But Jeff Gural’s recent proclamation limiting entries has me at a loss. He is obviously absolutely right or he is obviously absolutely wrong.  And the more I read, the less sure I am about how I feel about his new rule.

Gural could not have been happy when he saw the entries for the $178,000 Artiscape earlier this month. The eight-horse field consisted of just four wagering interests. A three-horse Ron Burke-trained entry and a three-horse PJ Fraley entry caused that ruckus.

So, Gural has implemented the following at his three tracks: The Meadowlands, Vernon Downs and Tioga Downs. All Late Closer and Early Closer finals will carry the following clause: "No trainer may race more than two horses in this race. This does not apply to any horses raced in a trainer's stable from the first charted race of the horse’s career.”

[MEADOWLANDS: Watch the $500k TVG Trot & Pace Finals live on DRF!]

Who or what defines a trainer’s stable? Will Gural be subpoenaing W2s? Who is a 2nd trainer? Who is an assistant trainer? Who is just a good friend whose base of operations makes sense to send the horse to? If Jimmy Takter had a really good Ohio-bred, would he keep it in Jersey or would he send it to an Ohio trainer?

On the one hand, I salute Gural for trying this. There is nothing worse for the public than four-horse 1-9 entries in stakes races, and this gives him a weapon to make racing fairer for more people; though less fair for the most successful. In order to maximize handle he needs competitive racing. But he also needs full fields. And this is the kind of move that may backfire. The Meadowlands has had issues filling some major races in the past year, and alienating trainers with large stables like Ron Burke, PJ Fraley, and others might not be the best way to go.  They may walk away. So this rule could end up having the opposite of its intended effect. We could end up with short fields and totally defeat the purpose of the rule.

Other than, perhaps in the open mare pacing ranks, there is more racing opportunity than ever before.  A trainer could still earn millions of dollars and win hundreds of races and never step foot on any of the three Gural tracks.

But here is why I cannot endorse the rule 100%. It’s a socialist solution. It’s redistribution of wealth. And that is patently unfair.  It is particularly surprising that the idea is coming from Gural, a successful and avowed capitalist. And capitalist is not a dirty word.

Ron Burke, who the rule will strongly affect (in fact some online wags are calling it the Burke Rule), agrees.  He told Harness Racing Update a few weeks back, "I think I'm losing one of my top three year olds . . . I know that one is going to be taken away from me but I don't want to say which one yet. I know I am going to lose horses because the owners have already talked about it. I heard from owners all day yesterday who want to sell their horses and get rid of their top horses. There are definitely owners who will take horses away from me."

So on that count, this is a horrible idea. It takes away the incentive to excel and redistributes assets (horses and purse money) to individuals who may be less deserving. How would Mr. Gural feel if the state of New Jersey said, “Your track is more successful than Freehold Raceway, so we are taking away some of your race dates to give to them in order to balance the playing field?” I can’t imagine he would go down without a fight.

The rule is a bit confusing, with its exemption for horses who begin their career in a barn. If I understand correctly, as one example, Jimmy Takter’s 2014 Hambletonian trio would have been fine. He is listed as the trainer on Father Patrick and Trixton from their very first starts in baby races at two, so they are exempt from the rule. Nuncio started out in the Jim Oscarrsson barn and when he returned to Sweden, owner Stpehanelander turned the horse over to Takter. That is one of his two “allowed” horses that would be affected by the rule. He could add one more, if he chose to.

But what if Takter had not begun with Father Patrick and Trixton in his barn and added them later. Jeff Gural is (arguably) telling Oscarrsson and Melander that they cannot use Jimmy as a trainer if he wants to race in the Hambletonian. Is that restraint of trade? I am not an attorney, so I am not sure, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

This loading of races by one entity, whether owner or trainer, has gone on for years. Old-timers would not call this the Burke Rule, but the Guida rule.  So what’s the better answer?

It’s already in place; at least in most jurisdictions. New Jersey allows tracks to separate entries in races with purses of $100,000 or more and often in eliminations for those races. It needs commission approval for the elims, but it should be automatic.

Those of some age may remember the Gamma Ray-Fake Left-Crouch-Western Hanover Little Brown Jug race-off of 1992. A clear gang-up and rule violation. Except Fake Left won anyhow; so no placing. How about the three-horse entry that played shuffleboard attempting to beat BJ Scoot in the 1988 Jug? Again, they failed, so no ruling. Would the judges have had the guts to call drivers and horses on the mat for their behavior had the outcome been different?

New York seems stuck in the Twilight Zone. They require coupled entries regardless of the kind of race or the purse. Fix that and the problem (at least at Tioga and Vernon) is taken care of.

Jeff Gural has come up with another interesting idea to help business and he should be applauded for it. It’s confusing, but he feels it’s needed. I don’t. New York simply needs to fix its rule – allowing uncoupled entries in races (and their eliminations) with purses of over $100,000.Then it needs to make sure the judges watch carefully that there are no shenanigans and penalize violators severely. Then we would have a workable situation that doesn’t feel like restraint of trade. Now go cash (hopefully not on a 1-9 three-horse entry). See you next month.

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