02/16/2014 11:39PM

Jay Bergman: Powerful stables hurting competition

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?


Kevin More than 1 year ago
Just look at any PPs for Delta Downs and a couple names come up every race with a 30-40% drugging, ah, I mean "win rate"... It is almost hilarious. Racing has become a sick farce, whether it's chariot racing or a horse kwith a midget on its back. When the 20-1 horse wins occasionally it means the low percentage trainer was either selected to win by the crooked racing secretary or a cabal of pinheads or it was that trainer's "turn" mutually agreed to by the mobbed-up "trainers" ("juicers" would be a more appropriate term). The most perverse and sociopathic aspect to it is how seriously the Form, TVG, and other sources of "information" make this sick farce out to be. The only ones who really benefit are the few million dollar churners who use the small bettor as a reliable source of easy money. For them, a 1-2% ROI makes a difference, whereas to the $10 bettor it is less than chump change. Anybody who bets a 30% takeout exotic is brain damaged, which means there are a lot of escaped mental patients playing the "races" at Parx. Remember that a definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That's what I think when I see an OTB facility or track simulcast area filled with half-dead emphysemic old guys drooling on their Forms and wheezing and drunken guidos wearing too much bling yelling at the TVs. They ought to just send money orders to the whales. Why isn't racing policed aggressively? One thorough drug sweep at any track and the business would collapse overnight. What a twisted anachronism.
TEDK215 More than 1 year ago
who gives a s**t about sulkies? isn't this a tb paper?
nick More than 1 year ago
Pretty much the same thing can be said about the thoroughbred industry. Super trainers who don't race horses against each other are ruining the competitive nature of the sport. But is there anything to do except watch the decline in progress?
johnd More than 1 year ago
Just another nail in the coffin of a dead sport. These folks don't have the decency to let harrness racing die with what little grace and dignity it might still possess. But then again, could one expect anything different?
Hail No More than 1 year ago
"Nihilator" wow, haven't heard his name for awhile! LOVED that horse, I took groups of friends to see him, they were ALL in awe of this wonderful pacer, also, too, we went on a "give away" night, we all got a nice print of "Niles" and a cassette tape, with a pretty damn good song, aptly called, "Nihilator" Ah, such great memories!
Bill Kaup More than 1 year ago
I also have a tape of the song that I got at now defunct Garden State Park. Great pacer indeed.
Ray Sousa More than 1 year ago
the too big to fail stable is here.like a monster devouring everything in its wake it overpowers the smaller stables with multiple entries monopolizes the top jockeys.but the worst is that tracks are so afraid they might move to another track that they let them get away with doping .i would bet the industry would if they haven't already sweep a positive for doping under the rug or simply not adequately test horses from the top stable. look at nyra for example they tried a few smoke and mirrors tactics like going after oneil during the belmont stakes because he was not a local trainer same with mullins during the wood at aqueduct .they then were forced to ban duthrow after multiple infractions and years of breaking every rule.after that they allowed rudy rodrigues and jacobson to do miracles on every horse they claimed until there was a public outcry they then caught and fined rodrigues and anouced they were going to watch jacobson and rodrigues every move(smoke) their winning percentages went down from around 40% to around 10%.problem solved right(mirrors) not quite after a few months rodrigues and jacobson are back to their old tricks and their win% are through the roof again.and who is watching them?. nobody.pletcher does magic at nyra tracks and gulfstream.others do their miracles at other tracks and nobody is watching.period.
Miss p More than 1 year ago
Illegal drugging of horses is the main problem. I hope the Government shuts race tracks down.
Bugsy Anderson More than 1 year ago
Casual fans cant tell the difference with juiced horses or know who the cheating trainers are. They just want entertainment. That lacks whenever stars avoid each other.
johnd More than 1 year ago
First, let's be honest about the state of harness racing. For the most part, the only reason most harness tracks are open is because of casino dollars, and, as such it's fair to say they exist in a world of casino welfare. They are the ward of the casinos and the moment the government gives the casinos the ok to be open without live racing harness racing will be history in ninety days. Let's face it, because of decades of race fixing, doping of horses and fan abuse, harness racing has no fan base and for the most part the general public looks at harness racing the same way it looks at wrestling and roller derby--with bemused disdain. All these huge trainer operations are doing is sealing the fate of harness racing from the inside faster than it would otherwise happen. We should have the common decency to let it die with at least a bit of dignity.
Matt Zebriski More than 1 year ago
Mark, your analysis of the thoroughbred industry is way off-base. In fact, the arrival of the super trainer is often cited as a very disrupted force for the game for many of the competitive disadvantages it creates (see DRF Letters to the Editor written by Anthony I? Perrotta, Jr. In 2013). Todd Pletcher is hugely successful, but his personal success has compromised the business as he has essentially monopolized significant amounts of top quality stock. Even worse, the media fails to criticize his results because of the quality of stock, but if having all the best bred horses led to winning everything, Godolphin would win every Classic race and graded stakes race in sight. Truth is, horse racing is no longer "clean" and the public is being fleeced. Billions of dollars are at stake between sales, purses, and wagering yet the Feds fail to initiate extensive and comprehensive investigations. David Jacobson leaves training for twenty five years, yet bursts onto the scene and wins everything in sight in the most competitive venue, NYRA...if this were baseball, ESPN and other media outlets would be doing Outside the Lines reports, instead we hVe the DRF praising these guys for their accomplishments. In the meantime, my grandfather loses his hard earned retirement money, small trainers go broke after a lifetime commitment to the business, and chemists and cheaters become Hall of Famers.
Ray Sousa More than 1 year ago
Could not have put it better.perfect analysis of the state of racing.perfect on pletcher.i have often wondered how the government and the feds allow trainers and jockey to fleece the bettors and do nothing.if a casino game was rigged they would arrest somebody but in racing its business as usual.
Richard Young More than 1 year ago
I have become a relatively high profile owner not by owning many horses but luckily by having a couple of champions. It's hard enough winning stakes races on an even playing field then to have to compete with multi owner partnerships and high profile trainers with multiple horses in the same race. The advantages of multiple entries are obvious. I like competition and in a way relish playing the underdog, but I have to admit,the numbers say I am playing a losing game.I certainly understand why owners flock to the large winning stable but they just keep making the problem bigger. They also lose the individuality that is part of the fun of ownership.They become just one of many in a large stable.The headlines become more about the trainer instead of the horse and owner. Owners should realize why they are in this game .The game does not benefit from a dominant trainer and now it's almost as if they become too big to fail.