01/16/2015 1:12AM

Giwner: Gingras stirring memories of Case

Geri Schwarz
Driver Yannick Gingras moved his game to a new level in 2014.

More than 20 years ago I read a handicapping piece authored by Bob Pandolfo which mostly centered on Walter Case, Jr., but if memory serves also included fellow former Yonkers Raceway driving kingpin Luc Ouellette. The premise of this opinion article was that certain drivers move horses up or make them better.

Although Pandy doesn’t even remember writing the piece for Sports Eye back in the early 1990s, it has stuck in my mind for years. Case was a rare talent. The now forced-into-retirement driver was once the best half-mile track driver I ever saw. He dominated Yonkers to the point where in some races he would be listed to drive at least half the field and would get his choice of the lot.

While having the ability to choose the best horse certainly contributed to his gaudy win percentage (he routinely hovered around a 30% win rate and even recorded a .506 Universal Driver Rating one year), it was a special talent which made Case so larger than life on the track. Case simply made horses go faster and it really didn’t matter how bad the horse looked on paper.

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I saw Case win with horses that hadn’t seen the winner’s circle in years. He would take horses that hadn’t seen better than sixth in months and win with them in the same class. You threw out one of his horses, who were almost always odds-on, at your own risk.

While it is always nice to reminisce about the past, the real reason for this column is for the first time in nearly a generation I think we are seeing that special driver that can “move horses up”. His name is Yannick Gingras.

We all watched as Gingras dominated the sport in 2014. He won a Case-like 25% of his races and his horses earned more than $5 million more than the next closest driver. Some people will say that driving for top barns like Ron Burke and Jimmy Takter have simply catapulted Gingras to his current lofty status. But that is only half true. Gingras makes horses better!

   Walter Case Jr.

Just look at Brookroaddonnie. The 5-year-old won on Thursday (1-15) at the Meadowlands for the first time since September 2013. He lost all of his 16 starts in 2014 and hadn’t raced since December 12 at the Meadowlands. Enter Gingras. He sent the Bruce Borden trainee down the road to the tune of a new lifetime mark of 1:54 1/5, two seconds faster than his previous mark.

One week prior, Gingras steered a similarly dull Chocoholic down the road to score his first win at the Meadowlands since 2013. Let’s keep in mind that he wasn’t doing this for a top-10 barn. Chocoholic is conditioned by Donald Maiorano.

From the handicapper’s perspective, probably the best thing about Gingras is that he always seems to give your horse a chance. Whether you wagered on a favorite (somewhat likely if you are playing Gingras) or a longshot, Gingras typically puts the horse in play at some point in the mile.

At only 35 years of age, Gingras is at the top of his game. And we are talking about a sport where some of the top drivers (Ron Pierce, David Miller, Brian Sears) are in their late 40s or 50s. So there is still plenty to look forward to.

Case is still one of the best drivers I’ve ever seen and certainly my top choice on a smaller oval. His prowess on the track may be far in the rearview mirror, but Gingras is stirring those memories once again.   

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Joel Schiff More than 1 year ago
What about John Campbell? I thought he was the best driver of the the last 30 years or so. Before that: Stanley Dancer, Billy Haughton, Herve Filion, George Sholty, and John Chapman
Jeff Blair More than 1 year ago
Walter was and is by far the best driver to ever hit a half mile track.
spanky More than 1 year ago
Yannick is great but he doesn't excite me as much as a first time Walter Case driver change used to. You could subtract 4 seconds off a horses time. Back then you had more bad drivers with old bikes. Then you put Walter on the horse with a single hitch sulky (the one that drifted all over the track) and the horse would fly out of his shoes! Yannick definitely has it tougher with better competition.
Dusty Nathan More than 1 year ago
You nailed it, Derick. Case was the most monumental presence in the sulky of any teamster in history, or a "rare talent," as you so aptly phrased it. As an aside, he was repeatedly prevented from driving in New Jersey by the inside clique, and surely would have led all drivers on the bigger oval as he did everywhere else. Even as a very young intruder at the Big M he was always one of the top five. If one didn't know the intricacies of the "business" one might wonder aloud after serving his time for a non-racing incident why he was not licensed to return to the racetrack. Every track Case raced at showed a spike in handle, and unlike most other top drivers (and trainers) he was never sanctioned for doing anything that would hurt the game, other horsemen, or most importantly the public. Ironically it is his unique driving style that is the norm today of the top drivers, and has been further perfected by gents like Gingras. Gingras could break all the records if he, too, drives for another 25-30 years like some of the dead weight in the industry have done. UNLESS the plug gets pulled on slot revenues, I see no reason why Yannick cannot win $20 million annually consistently.
Jeff Biever More than 1 year ago
I appreciate your analysis, and would like to add a few comments (and I do agree that Case should have been re-licensed by more states, rather than having to stage a comeback at Plainridge). On the negative side, let us not forget his numerous kicking offenses, despite repeated warnings and fines. My fading memory also makes me question whether he was in the top 5 in his initial appearances at the Meadowlands-but there is no doubt he belonged there as a top driver, as he matured. I would have liked to see Derick cite Herve Filion as the best hmt driver, or certainly the equal of Walter-and over the years he did it with so many horses who were foul-gaited, half-lame, and the like. And I agree with you that $ 20 million is achievable if this industry finds some way to survive.
Dusty Nathan More than 1 year ago
Jeff, he never had a comeback. He was going to drive at Plainridge, and that never happened. He (through his wife) trains a stable that races mostly at YR and PcD. I do recall a number of kicking offenses, however I have no problem with a driver dropping a boot. Compare that to stiffing a heavy chalk or to pre-racing a a billygoat into improving five seconds, and I'll take the guy kicking every time. Case was a go-go boy and good for the sport. Period. Yes he was top five at M1 in the mid-80s. In fact, I believe he was third in the driver standings behind O'Donnell and JC in his first year there. He never dropped below fifth at any track. He may have been the leading driver in 1985 at Garden State Park, too. Filion was an amazing horsemen. He won - and lost - more money than the other top 10 combined. How? Because Filion didn't race for 5 percent. Many of his wins were at 100 percent.
Blaine MacMillan More than 1 year ago
YG drove against the best from a young age and what we're seeing now is history being re-written....He definitely moves horses forward....At every level too...
Jeff Blair More than 1 year ago
Not real hard to move them forward when you are driving the best or favorites all the time. These days it's hard to say the driver makes the horse when the whole field is going in 49- 50 at that point its all about the horse making the driver.
BornFunny More than 1 year ago
Nice piece Derick. As we have shared numerous times I share your enthusiasm for Case and I agree that Yannick is skilled in similar fashion. He is in a much harder colony to dominate the way "Wally" did. I'm not sure we will ever see that type of domination ever again...having said that Wrenn Jr. and Merriman are putting on a show for the Northfield contingent...AND Luke Plano out west drives with golden hands...great to see so much talent behind the bike in the sport...