11/11/2013 12:59PM

Jay Bergman: Horses are not machines, or are they?

Derick Giwner
Herve Filion still looks comfortable in the bike.

The great harness driver Herve Filion during his prime had a knack for coining a phrase. Often surrounded by racing fans, Filion was put in the position of defending some of his decisions on the racetrack. Perhaps one of his best lines about horses, one that managed to remain in my head for nearly 40 years, was “They’re not machines.”

Filion wanted everyone to know that despite all of his worldly talent that the horse was an animal and because of that could not and would not work as efficiently and reliably as a machine might when put to a task.

Following Saturday’s star-studded racing program at Balmoral Park it was impossible for me not to conclude that in fact Herve Filion was wrong. The celebrities on this night, both drivers and horses acted every bit as efficiently as the finest-tuned machine would.

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Yannick Gingras, Tim Tetrick and Brian Sears are as fluid and consistent as any machine would be when asked to perform a job. Though obviously human, our top drivers today are more mentally fit and focused for a sub-1:50 journey than any of their predecessors have ever been. They are acutely aware of their surroundings and make precise and accurate moves with minimal noticeable effort on their part.

It’s impossible for me to look at the races and past performances of Bee A Magician, Captaintreacherous, Pet Rock, Foiled Again and I Luv The Nitelife and not conclude that these equine athletes work as efficiently and effectively as any machine that’s been created by man.

Science has a lot to do with the progress made in this sport. Perhaps in Filion’s day weeks would go by before a veterinarian would locate the physical ailment a horse was experiencing and attempt to remedy it. In today’s world managing blood work has turned the focus of each horse’s sub-par performance into an equation that can be dissected, inspected and reflected upon.

Take for example Captaintreacherous. An effort like his start at Hoosier Park on November 2 might have sent his connections into hiding with nary a clue of why a horse so spectacular could somehow be beaten by an also-ran in a major stakes race. The fact that trainer Tony Alagna was able to pinpoint the problem in less than 48 hours and have the horse race to his full potential just a few days later, suggests that our equine athletes are indeed working marvelous machines. Not unlike today’s modern automobile where a computer chip sits inside and tells the mechanics what the problem is --before they have to search, today’s trainers understand rather quickly why horses perform below par. Perhaps that is how so many of today’s superstars can perform at the highest level with incredible consistency of effort.

Though I Luv The Nitelife did not win on Saturday night, it’s impossible for me to say that the horse didn’t race up to and perhaps even above expectations. The mark of a professional racehorse is one that doesn’t need a particular trip to race at his/her best. I Luv The Nitelife had routinely been on or near the lead in most every start this year but that wasn’t to be the case in the American National. Not only did she race on the outside most of the way, but I Luv The Nitelife wasn’t given a free pass to take control of the race despite one thinking that driver Ron Pierce may have been better off yielding the lead so his mount Authorize could follow the favorite.

Still, despite the rude treatment I Luv The Nitelife and Tetrick didn’t get flustered or for that matter go away. Instead both would persevere and eventually take control of the race.

Give Charisma Hanover and driver Yannick Gingras credit for consistency, position and response on command. The filly followed her driver’s cue and was only asked for top speed in the late stages after getting a perfect cover draft. It shouldn’t go without notice that it was the Gingras mount Dedi’s Dragon a week earlier that defeated Captaintreacherous.

It would be hard to find any machine that could be relied upon for performance that is the equal of Foiled Again. While unlikely to be Horse of the Year in 2013 perhaps an award can be created to honor the Horse of the Decade. Certainly that would be a more apt description for the brilliance he’s shown over time.

Here is a horse many have counted out routinely that simply knows exactly what to do when he sets foot on the racetrack. Foiled Again knows it’s a mile race and knows it’s his job to overcome any and all obstacles to reach the wire first. Again on Saturday he was foiled by Pet Rock, a performer once considered a trip horse but now as the season has wound down can make his trip. Driver David Miller clearly knows what makes this horse tick and he showed that on Saturday by not pushing the panic button or calling on the four-year-old prematurely. While his timing may have given bettors cause for concern, it was clear as the horses were nearing the wire that Miller knew Pet Rock and Pet Rock knew how to turn it on when it mattered most.

Both Bee A Magician and Brian Sears are well-oiled in the art of winning races. Horse and driver let longshots around them early and even elected not to cut the pace sitting a pocket trip that bottled them up through much of the stretch. The veteran driver took a calculated risk, but only one that can be taken when there is the utmost confidence that the horse will respond quickly and powerfully when needed. Bee A Magician’s undefeated streak continued and the best part for her connections is that she didn’t have to work up a sweat to capture the American National.

It seems care and training has changed dramatically over the years producing animals that act more like machines---and that’s a good thing.

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