07/23/2014 3:16PM

Gisser: Modern Family is No. 1 in my book

Lisa Photo
Modern Family passed away after his fourth-place finish at Mohawk on July 19.

It was just a footnote to Harness Racing Communication’s release of this week’s Top Ten Standardbred Poll. Perhaps you saw it, maybe you didn’t. It read, “Note: Modern Family received 1 first-place vote.” That was me. While some of you may consider it a wasted vote and others may consider it an empty gesture, I don’t. I consider it a fitting tribute to a great horse that hovered around the Top 10 all season in a division that is arguably the toughest we have. He exemplified everything that our sport should be about and for that, he deserves one last shout out.

Here is what driver Chris Christoforou had to say about Modern Family’s last race: “Half way down the stretch in the Maple Leaf Trot, I (driving Flanagan Memory) was in a duel for 4th with Modern Family. At that point I was in front of him by about a head. I was confident I had 4th until he rallied late to beat me at the wire. We all know what happened just minutes later, but I thought it should be mentioned that just before he passed away he gave another great performance and battled his way to get his nose in front of the horse beside him. So sorry to all his connections; a tremendous loss to harness racing.”

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So in his last conscious act, Modern Family did something that few horses can do in the best of times, coming back to beat another horse. Yeah, it was for fourth. But it was significant. And the public realized it. In the wake of his death, dozens of tributes were made online. The vast majority of people sending wishes have no idea what his connections are going through.  I do. The first racehorse I owned died in a race, at the top of the stretch, just as he looked like he was going to go by the leader and get his first career victory. I’ve been there and I am pretty sure the feeling is just as bad with a cheap horse as with a champion like Modern Family.

In 1978 Jef’s Rusty Ricky was the first racehorse I owned.  I owned him in partnership with trainer Keith Harran. Keith had been training the horse for Jeanette and Edward Freidberg, and he was supposed to be a good one – he had a full brother who was winning A2 races at Yonkers and had a mark there of 1:57 2/5 in 1978 that was a pretty decent mile on a half. But this son of Miracle Knight wanted to trot rather than pace, so early in his 4-year-old season, we bought him. Other than being blind in one eye, he was an easy horse to work around and since I was trying to learn the business, it made perfect sense (or at least better sense than the $700 green horse I had bought at Delaware, Ohio in February).

When we got “Jef” he had a couple of second-place finishes and appeared poised to break his maiden. And he had a couple of breaks. And when he went on a break, he would hold his breath and choke down. So, after a couple of months we put the hobbles back on him, qualified him and raced him on the pace. Surely now he would show his true potential. After a pair of on-the-board finishes in his first two pacing starts, he got worse and worse and soured on the pacing straps, so it was back to a pair of half-rounds up front and racing as a trotter.

One early fall night, Jef got away from the rail second and Keith had him in perfect position to win his first race. As he pulled the pocket, he made a break and in a split second he was on the ground. I jumped the fence and ran out to help get the bike and harness off, but Harran just looked at me and said, “He’s not getting up this time.” And that ended the career, and life, of Jef’s Rusty Ricky.  That night I stayed late – later than I should have – at the Sagamore Lounge, where people insisted on buying me drinks. And the next morning, I headed to the barn through fog and haze, literally and figuratively (fall in Cleveland can be that way), but there was no horse for me to take care of.  I stripped his stall and began planning a comeback. But I knew owning horses would never be the same.

That was over 35 years ago and I still have the press clippings and a cracked Polaroid of Jef. He never took a mark and made just about $1800 on the trot and $800 on the pace. But he was mine. Modern Family made a few bucks more and he wasn’t mine. But they both leave a hole in my love for the sport. RIP Jef’s Rusty Ricky. RIP Modern Famly.

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