06/06/2012 8:12AM

Pandolfo: Brennan's punishment hardly fits crime

Lisa Photo
Meadowlands operator Jeff Gural.

The blogosphere has been actively opining about George Brennan being banned from the Meadowlands. And the popular sentiment seems to be that Brennan is being treated unfairly. Here is the Brennan quote as it appeared in the New York Times:

"I just know his horses look really good, and they race for a long time," Brennan said. "They're throwing this guy to the wolves when the primary objective in this game is to win races. Obviously, someone is out to get him."

When I first read Brennan’s remarks, I winced. My gut reaction was that these words could come back to haunt him. We live in a politically correct world where you have to choose your words carefully, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Personally, I’d rather be offended than lied to. I want the truth. Of course right about now Colonel Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson in the movie "A Few Good Men," would scream, “You can’t handle the truth!”

Brennan’s statement that “the primary objective in this game is to win races” can be interpreted as “to win races anyway you can,” but that’s not what he said.

The bottom line here (and, yes I am a “bottom line” kind of person), George Brennan didn’t chose his words carefully but he doesn’t deserve to be banned from any racetrack because of it.

My guess is that Meadowlands operator Jeff Gural will meet with Brennan and lift the ban. Brennan may have to do the politically correct thing and apologize, for we live in an apologetic society now and we have to constantly be kissing up to the big shots of the world.

Gural has had most of the racing fans, and racing establishment, on his side, but this time the majority is against him. We all know that Brennan, who was the leading driver at the Meadowlands, left and went to Yonkers. I don’t think I’m the only one who wonders if Gural harbors some resentment over Brennan’s decision.

Gural often comes across as a shrewd, no-nonsense businessman. But in this situation he came across as hot tempered and irrational, sort of like that other rich guy from New York who lives in a tower and has the funny hair comb. What’s next, a shouting match with Rosie O’Donnell?

The root of this situation stems from the fact that there is very little industry control or leadership. Racetracks owners and general managers often have to make decisions to protect the integrity and quality of their product.

If you look at the half-mile tracks, and most five-eighth tracks racing today, there is a serious problem that has nothing to do with Lou Pena. The races are too speed favoring and favorites win over 40% of the time. You can spin it anyway you want, but it’s bad racing. And what is being done about it? Nothing!

One Saturday night at Yonkers a few weeks ago 8 horses went wire to wire and 3 horses won out of the two-hole on a 12 race card. Only one winner rallied from off the pace. In that race, there was a speed duel which set up a 56 and change last half. In the other 11 races, the last halves were all clocked in 55 and change. Think about it. How can you expect a horse to win from off the pace when they are racing two wide (losing ground) and must outsprint horses which are coming home fast to begin with.

Most of the time a closer will also have to race three wide at some point during the last half of the race, usually through the final quarter. So, we have a last half that goes in 55. If a horse is 5 lengths behind at the half, he will need to pace a 54 last half just to dead heat for the win. But, when you take into account ground loss for racing two and three wide, the horse will actually have to produce a last half around 53 2/5. When’s the last time you saw a horse pace a 53 2/5 last half on a half mile track, around two turns? Heck, you rarely see a 53 2/5 first half, and it’s a lot tougher to go fast at the end than the beginning.

And there’s the problem. The races are too fast to be good. There’s no question in my mind, none, that the races would be much more exciting if the final times were slower. You have to have racing where the horses in the race can actually get into the race! This is not rocket science. You can’t have every race being won by a leaver or the first over horse, which is what we have on all half-mile tracks, and many five-eighth tracks. That’s why the only tracks that are able to hit a million in handle are Balmoral, Mohawk and the Meadowlands. They are two-turn tracks and the closers can make up the ground down the longer straightaways, so the racing isn’t speed or post position biased. At Balmoral you can actually bet a horse because you think he is ready to win, not because you think he’s going to leave.

The only solution is to slow the races down, and there are three ways this can be accomplished. 1). Run longer races. 2). Put in a slow surface, such as a synthetic surface. 3). Go back to the conventional wooden sulky that was used when the sport was popular.

Let’s analyze these. Yonkers and Freehold have tried longer races and they went back to the one-mile distance. Harness fans prefer one-mile races, they don’t like trying to figure out the different final times and quarter time splits. So in my opinion, running longer races is not the answer.

Slower surface: In theory, this could work. A synthetic surface is deep and slow and would definitely slow the races down and help closers. But, it would not be cost effective because synthetic surfaces are expensive to install and maintain.

The most obvious choice, go back to the conventional wooden sulky. On most half-mile tracks, this would slow the races down considerably and the cost is cheap. A racetrack could purchase its own wood bikes and not only would the racing improve dramatically, but the track would get a ton of free publicity because the press would be all over it.

The reason why I bring this up now, again, is because we see in Jeff Gural a businessman who doesn’t rest on his laurels. He makes decisions. You may not like all of his choices, but he isn’t the type that’s going to sit down and do nothing.

And quite frankly, that is harness racing’s only hope. The racetracks must take control of their own product. The racetracks control their own fate, and the future of the industry depends on the general managers and track owners to make good decisions and necessary changes.

If you look at the half-mile tracks, the racing isn’t that good, even when the horses and drivers are good. And quite frankly, some of the five-eighth tracks are in the same boat, the racing is boring. Harrah’s Philadelphia, for example, has terrific horses and drivers but it’s too speed favoring and there are too many chalk winners, so the handle is low.

But the people that run these tracks don’t seem to understand their product and they are losing ground to Balmoral, the Meadowlands, and some of the thoroughbred tracks that still have good racing. Everyone is fighting for the same fans and you have to make the changes that are necessary to get competitive racing, without a speed and post position bias, and without a bunch of chalky payoffs. It can be done and it must be done or it’ll be lights out.

Gural at least gets it. He is willing to make changes. Jeff Gural is the only track manager in the business who invites feedback from his customers, and implements changes at his tracks based on customer feedback.  He is the only approachable track manager in the business. He is active in forums. You can email him and he’ll actually email you back. Who else does that? Most of the other tracks are standing around waiting for the axe to fall, they seem afraid to make changes. How do you put out a product that is obviously not the best product you’re capable of putting out and except to stay in business? I don’t get it. Fix the problem. When I first started following harness racing there wasn’t a single half-mile track in the industry that was speed biased and the outside posts won at least twice as often as they do now. Go back to what worked. This isn’t that complicated!

One more thing, which relates to the drug problem we have in racing. Sooner or later you have to penalize the owners, especially when they have a history of success with trainers who get suspended for doping. This whole thing is getting ridiculous. Again, fix the damn problem. Baseball had a drug problem, remember? A few years ago they implemented strict penalties for steroid use, including a three-strikes-you’re out rule. Last year only two players in the major leagues hit over 40 home runs and the highest total was 43. They fixed it, problem solved.

To find out more about Pandy’s handicapping theories, check out his www.trotpicks.com or www.handicappingwinners.com websites, or write to Bob Pandolfo, 3386 Creek Rd, Northampton, PA. 18067.