02/09/2014 6:09PM

Jay Bergman: Pierce throws a curveball into regular Yonkers routine

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Mayra Escamilla
Ron Pierce won the $33,000 Open Handicap with Domethatagain on Saturday night at Yonkers Raceway.

Free agency in pro sports paved the way for athletes to have a say in who employs them during their careers. Prior to that barrier being broken, athletes in all pro sports were considered the property of the team that signed them.

Listening to the scuttlebutt surrounding a harness driver electing to move from one track to another, you’d think we’d gone back prior to 1975, the year Major League Baseball players earned the right to free agency.

Yet Ron Pierce was not breaking new ground when he publicly decided to race at Yonkers on Fridays and Saturdays. That ground had already been broken by other drivers seeking to make the most of their talents and maximize their earning potential in a career that could be cut short at a moments notice.

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As we discussed last week, the career-span of a harness driver is limited by many factors. Health is primary to longevity but talent and timing as well as location is key to prosperity.

Ron Pierce now, or Brian Sears and George Brennan, who made the moves to Yonkers before him, are exceptional at what they do. They are highly skilled and well conditioned athletes that have a limited opportunity to earn a living in their field. As we’ve all too painfully seen in the last few months, accidents can take our drivers out of action, and what becomes of them if or when they return is anybody’s guess.

Look at Cat Manzi or Jeff Gregory, two involved in accidents over the last year. Manzi returned all-too-briefly and then again was the victim of a horrible spill. Gregory is still on the mend from a wreck.

If Manzi comes back or when Gregory comes back, there is no certainty that their prior jobs will be waiting for them. Actually it’s pretty safe to say that neither will be able to return and command the same place at the table they enjoyed before.

Competition has a way of setting the score in this field and Pierce’s move to Yonkers may prove great for him, but likely it will mean that other drivers will be making less money and perhaps looking for new locations to earn their pay.

There are those of us who invest their money and those of us who must earn their money. The investor is generally in a much better situation because he can probably afford to make or lose money on his investments and still eat and feed his family.

The workers make up a majority of the population and when the shop is closed for a week or two there is no way for most to make up for the loss of income. The investor can write off a bad deal, but the employee cannot write off two weeks of income that never came in.

Ron Pierce’s move from the Meadowlands may have had a lot to do with the fact that the track was closed for racing on nights when it was opened for simulcasting during the lead-up to the Super Bowl. The closure meant that horsemen would have to go an extra week without the opportunity for income.

No matter how much money has been invested in the Meadowlands, those who rely on income derive no benefit when the opportunity to earn money is denied or delayed.

It’s hard to believe that one man could make such a difference, but that seems to be the case with Ron Pierce now driving full time on weekends at Yonkers. The results don’t lie, as again Pierce claimed four victories in the 12-races this past Saturday and perhaps made an even bigger splash in the races he didn’t win.

To quote an OTB regular, “Pierce is a go in every race.”

Nothing was more obvious on Saturday night, when Pierce flipped the switch on the humdrum and mundane racing scene at Yonkers by putting his horses in play and giving the impression that he was trying to win every race.

It should come as no surprise that between races Pierce sat with his wife and was away from other drivers.

One Yonkers regular driver was heard saying after Saturday’s card, “With Pierce here we’re going to have to work for our money.”

Now that’s the kind of quote you rarely hear but it represents a change in the way racing will be conducted at least on weekends at Yonkers. It suggests that the days of sitting third on the rail in search of a check are numbered.

That’s what Pierce brought to the table on Saturday at least. Instead of sitting third on the rail and waiting for the passing lane to open in the stretch, Pierce tried to move quickly and overtake the leader. Even though he wasn’t successful a number of times, this activity put the leader under pressure and ultimately set the race up for a closer, or better yet, a longshot to emerge and win a race or two.

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In a sense Pierce has single-handedly changed the landscape at Yonkers for the drivers and most definitely for the wagering public.

What’s interesting about the current renewal at Yonkers is that in some ways it reminds me a lot of what took place in 1976 when the Meadowlands first opened for business. Driver and trainers came from New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Ontario and Quebec. They were all the best drivers and trainers from those parts and they all came as independent contractors in search of a better life.

While some may suggest that it was the mile track in East Rutherford that changed the game, my thinking is it was the variety of drivers and trainers who didn’t have any ties to each other. They all wanted to make a living and were racing “against” one another and not “with” one another.

Prior to 1976 at the Meadowlands, racing at Roosevelt and Yonkers Raceway had become stale, with the same core of drivers and trainers essentially going through the motions in races that too many in the betting public would not mistake as being competitive.

My guess is that wagering will return to Yonkers as more and more players become aware of a landscape that is getting better for the bettor.