02/16/2014 10:39PM

Jay Bergman: Powerful stables hurting competition

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Derick Giwner
Father Patrick and trainer Jimmy Takter, who will also condition the top trotter Nuncio.

Two news items hit me last week. The first was that two of the leading cable providers—Comcast and Time Warner—had proposed a merger. The second was that Nuncio, by most accounts the second best two-year-old trotter in North America in 2013, would join Father Patrick, the most accomplished juvenile, in the Jimmy Takter stable for their three-year-old seasons.

The merger of two cable giants was big news to those in the world that still care about competition. With cable television providers now also in the Internet and phone business, as well as producing live content for television, the marriage of Comcast and Time Warner could produce a new company with extraordinary reach and power in a society dependent on all of its services.

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Unlike cable giants, the top two trotters of 2013 are not guaranteed to return in 2014 and duplicate their performances. Historically, not all horses improve with age and generally other lesser known types arrive and change the dynamics of the stakes season.

Yet I’d be remiss if I failed to point out the dangers that mergers have put this sport in over the last few years.

The emergence of the Ron Burke stable is a prime example of one trainer getting his hands on too many good horses. Burke has perhaps single-handedly pushed Yonkers Raceway to limit the number of starters in its George Morton Levy Series Final to two per trainer. He routinely starts half a dozen horses in the series and has the benefit of not having to race against his own stock. (An advantage I wish they would change.)

The fact that a wider and wider amount of formerly independent owners have seen Burke as the only alternative when looking for a new trainer, has given him an immense amount of power while at the same time watering down competition at the highest ranks.

Jimmy Takter will of course have no chance to pass up the Hambletonian with both his top colts should they return at peak form come this August. Yet in his quoted comments after Nuncio was placed under his care, he made a point of “managing” the two as best as possible.

Is what’s good for Takter good for the sport?

That’s the question that’s difficult to answer.

If Nuncio and Father Patrick are indeed the two best horses come stakes season, how much better off would the betting public be if they were entering races from different stables?

The feeling here is that whether it’s implied or not, horses racing from the same stable, even under separate ownership, somehow find a way of relaxing the competitive spirit to best serve both horses collectively as opposed to independently.

Will Nuncio shut Father Patrick out of a hole?

Will Father Patrick park Nuncio needlessly?

These are elements of racing and when horses find themselves in similar surroundings, the nature of competition changes.

It hardly seems that long ago (but it was some 30 years) that Dragons Lair upset Nihilator in the 1984 Breeders Crown for two-year-old pacing colts. Nihilator came in with the credentials of a great horse and was upset by the local upstart in a race contested on Dragons Lair’s home turf, The Meadows.

After the season there was of course plenty of talk about the two battling once again as three-year-olds. That was until Nihilator’s owner, Lou Guida, went out and purchased an interest in Dragons Lair.

The two horses would race in separate stables next year, but were never involved in anything that resembled the match that took place in the Breeders Crown.

“I don’t think Lou purchased Dragons Lair because he was afraid to race against him,” said Bob Boni, then part of the Nihilator partnership and management team. “Lou was just looking to get his hands on any quality horses that he could find.”

The racing scene has changed radically in 30 years, much to do with the fact that there are fewer top trainers devoted to a stable filled with trotters. Even Takter, who came to this country with an exclusive trotting reputation, has added pacers to his stable.

It’s hard to blame owners for going with the top trainers trying to maximize the benefits of being blessed with a potentially great horse.

Though some have asked drivers to sacrifice for the greater good, it’s a wonder why owners haven’t been asked to do the same?

There was a time, and not 30 years ago, that owners investing a significant amount of money actually wanted to be independent and not partnered with other owners or giving their horses to everyone else’s trainer. There was a time when owners believed that they were compromising their own chances by moving into a stable where other owners had a larger stake.

It’s difficult to blame any top trainer for his or her success. The fact that Burke, Takter or anyone else can produce impressive results on a regular basis is a great reason owners should flock to them in numbers. At the same time, look at any other professional sport and you can see every effort is made to provide equal footing for teams within a league. Salary caps in baseball, football and basketball are in place for that very reason.

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Harness racing has no salary cap or for that matter, no limit on the number of horses one can train or the number they can enter to race.

The lingering question about our top stakes races will be just how well this will play out at the highest level.

This isn’t just about integrity, implied or otherwise. This is about true competition with 10 or more independent horses all in search of a victory. This shouldn’t be about what trainer best manages his top horses, rather putting forth the best and most compelling races when racetracks are putting up significant money.

Is that now too much to ask for?