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Jay Bergman: A conversation with veteran horseman Ray Schnittker
By Jay Bergman
Trainer Ray Schnittker has emerged as a powerful presence on the Grand Circuit over the last few years. The New York-based conditioner has sent out a Hambletonian winner, a Meadowlands Pace winner and most recently this year a Yonkers Trot champion. Looking at the stakes schedule this Saturday’s Metro elimination figured to give Schnittker his first real chance to win the richest race for two-year-old colt pacers at Mohawk.
So Surreal, a $125,000 purchase last fall, hasn’t made headlines to date but following his first baby race at the Meadowlands he had captured the fancy of more than one expert. The son of Somebeachsomewhere, a half-brother to champion Well Said, had recently captured two lower-leveled Pennsylvania Sired events and seemed perfectly set up to tackle the many of the best colts in North America.
“He’s not going,” said Schnittker flatly when contacted on Saturday. “His leg filled the other day. I don’t know how it happened. Maybe he kicked the stall.”
The setback didn’t seem to alter Schnittker’s belief in the colt or his outlook going forward. “Hopefully we’ll be able to get him back going in a couple of weeks,” Schnittker said.
While the Schnittker stable has branched out to be a force nationwide it has remained constant on the Yonkers Raceway circuit for years. His stable consistently sends out sharp trotters on Friday nights with a pair of stalwarts Grain Of Truth and Neighsay Hanover doing it week after week and year after year.
“They are just solid. When they get in the right level they know how to win,” said Schnittker.
While the trainer has made a name for himself at the Westchester County half-miler, he is not all that happy with the way some races have been run. He’s also not happy at all with the way the condition sheet has been drafted. “I think a lot of the races are boring,” said Schnittker about Yonkers’ nightly fare.
“Just look at the other night. One driver leaves from the two hole and gives a tuck to another horse immediately. Then as they move towards the quarter he allows another horse from the outside in front of him. It’s just ridiculous how it’s allowed to happen,” said Schnittker, obviously perplexed by a situation that happens too often.
The race in question involved a Schnittker trotter, but it’s easy to see why he or someone betting on his horse might be frustrated by one driver not keeping a hole closed. It’s the chain reaction of no movement that compromises the chances of those interested in betting closers over the speed favoring half-mile track. If a driver keeps a horse parked it has a means of accelerating the pace and at the same time makes the race a lot more interesting.
“Look at Larry Stalbaum,” Schnittker said. “When he’s driving a horse you don’t see him give away any advantage.”
One need look no further of what heated competition looks like than to study the tapes from this past Saturday night’s prime colt contests in the Colonial and Battle of the Brandywine at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs.
There were two vivid examples of the price a driver and horse must pay for the privilege of improving position. In the Colonial driver Tim Tetrick, behind Smilin Eli, didn’t look at the odds-board when favored Royalty For Life presented himself before the half. Tetrick just turned the corner and raced.
The shoe was on the other foot when driver Brian Sears, behind Sunshine Beach, would not grab leather to let the previously unbeaten sophomore Captaintreacherous (Tetrick) around him without a fight. The result was perhaps one of the best races of the year.
Clearly it is far more aesthetically pleasing to the eye to watch horses battle on a regular basis, as opposed to just rare occasions.
At Yonkers, where the purse money is extremely generous, it has been believed that the value of the races would naturally produce the best product to bet on. However, popular opinion (at least from gamblers) has not borne out this theory.
Schnittker has some idea why gamblers have not flocked to the Yonkers scene. “When you win a low or mid-level conditioned race you wind up in the Open. At that point you’re driving a 40-1 shot. Worse than that you get to stay there for four weeks,” Schnittker said. “They you wind up dropping four classes and go off at 1-5.”
The imbalance comes into play when conditions on the condition sheet remain the same even though purses rise considerably.
“What would be wrong with having a non-winners of $40,000 class? At least that way it would match horses of equal ability rather than forcing them into a non-competitive handicap situation,” said Schnittker.
Yet what Yonkers hasn’t done yet is put enough of a restriction on horses making deep drops in company. At Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs the race office has tried to counter the potential for mismatches by not allowing horses that have been entered in a race for a high purse to enter at a significantly lower conditioned level.
“I’m not so sure I agree with the policy at Pocono,” said Schnittker, “because the purse level is so much higher at Yonkers you’re not really racing that much higher.”
Schnittker did cast a positive light on some of the recent changes at Yonkers. “I really like the return to the mile and one-sixteenth races. I think it gives the outside horses a little more of a shot,” Schnittker said.
Following his victory in the Yonkers Trot behind Dewycolorintheline, Schnittker was only happy long enough to proclaim that the victory should have been his second in this particular Triple Crown event even though it was his first officially. “That was a terrible call,” Schnittker said in a post race interview, drifting from what should have been a moment of euphoria back in time to a bitter memory of a judge’s decision.
Ray Schnittker isn’t always right, or timely, but he’s dedicated and passionate about a sport he takes with great seriousness. That always makes him worth listening to.
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