12/17/2014 5:31PM

Pandolfo: Plenty of positives in 2014

Derick Giwner
Meadowlands, Tioga and Vernon placed a ban on drivers "kicking" horses during races starting this weekend.

With year-end honors being handed out, I thought I'd mention a few things that won't win any awards but caught my eye in 2014.

Comeback Horse of the Year

One of the biggest misconceptions is the theory that racehorses win because of their courage. It may be true that some horses try harder than others, but for the most part, horses win when they are in good form and fit one of the following criteria: A) They are the fastest horse in the race. B) They are one of the fastest horses in the race and they get a decent trip.

A good example of this is the 4-year-old pacer Wake Up Peter, who deserves an award of his own. Wake Up Peter showed promise as a 2-year-old winning 2 of 9 starts for $290,230 in earnings. But as a 3-year-old racing for trainer Tony Alagna, the son of Rocknroll Hanover raced 19 times with zero wins and only two second-place finishes. In his first start as a 4-year-old, he won for Alagna, then he was sold and moved into the Remmen barn, which features the training team of Ray and Larry Remmen. Since then he has shined, winning 13 races in 34 starts and finishing second another 6 times. This means that his win percentage went from 0 in 2013 to 38% in 2014.

When Wake Up Peter was 0-for-19 in 2013, I'm sure that there were racing fans who thought that he was a hanger, or lacked the courage to win. Neither was likely. The fact is, as a sophomore, Wake Up Peter raced against the top colts in stakes races and simply wasn't fast enough. He is a classy horse, but just a cut below the fastest pacers. This year, Wake Up Peter proved to be a consistent and game Open-caliber type of pacer who often races the tough way, first-over without cover, but still wins.

Claimer of the Year

Windsong Gorgeous started his season at the Meadowlands on January 9. Racing in a $12,500 claiming race, the gelding went wire to wire for trainer Nick Surick. That win proved to be the first of many. As of this writing, Windsong Gorgeous has 16 wins in 27 starts and $115,245 in earnings, and he may not be done yet. The 7-year-old claimer has raced for eight different trainers this year, and he recently won for a $25,000 tag. He seems to win no matter who trains or drives him, and he has won at the Meadowlands, Philadelphia, and Pocono. An anti-speed or post position bias doesn't seem to bother this speedy gelding. Windsong Gorgeous almost always tries to wire the field and he has overcome the extreme outside post several times.

In his last start, a win at Harrah's Philadelphia, Windsong Gorgeous won his 3rd straight for trainer Chris Oakes, and was claimed once again. He'll make his next start for trainer Arty Foster.

Peaking Harness Driver

Having driven horses to $7.8 million in earnings, Brett Miller had the best year of his career. Miller, who began his career in Ohio, had been driving at the Meadows in Pennsylvania. But in 2014 he also started driving at the Meadowlands, Philadelphia, and Pocono. He still won 114 races at the Meadows, but he did very well at the other tracks. Some of the top trainers in the sport noticed, and Miller now gets catch-drives on stakes horses in major races. Miller gets a lot of speed out of horses, but he also has good instincts and makes smart decisions in races. He should continue to be a force during the current Meadowlands meet.

International Flavor

As the year ends, I have to think that this was a positive year for Harness Racing. We had the new $88-million dollar grandstand at the Meadowlands. Master horseman Ake Svanstedt moved to the U.S. and brought along one of the fastest trotters we've ever seen, Older Male Trotter of the Year, Sebastian K. The great 11-year-old trotter Commander Crowe shipped in from Europe and won the Breeders Crown trot impressively despite being parked to the half from post 9. Being able to watch these two world-class European trotting stars compete locally was a big highlight of 2014.

And more international trotting races are on the horizon. Yonkers Raceway introduced Sunday matinee racing featuring mile-and-a-quarter trotting events that are being simulcast to Europe. Yonkers also announced that they will bring back the famed International Trot in 2015.

New tracks in town

Fueled by slot machine legislation approved the previous year, two new harness tracks—Dayton and Miami Valley—opened in Ohio in 2014. It was clearly a big boost to harness racing in a state with a deep tradition in the sport. And Hoosier Park in Indiana continued its emergence as a quality harness destination. They were even announced as host of the Breeders Crown in 2017.

Smart Managerial Decision

Another positive announced just this week occurred when management of the Meadowlands, Tioga Downs, and Vernon Downs, introduced a "zero tolerance" policy regarding the kicking of horses during a race. Kudos to Jeff Gural and his team for taking the initiative on this. Hopefully the rest of the industry will follow suit. Kicking is a clear violation of the rules, and it looks bad to the public.

I'm pretty sure that if the driver took a rubber ball out of his pocket and threw it at the horses head, the horse would get frightened and speed up, too. Some horses speed up when they're startled. But you have to draw the line somewhere. The drivers have a whip and the reins, and in some cases, earplugs that they can pop to surprise the horse. That's more than enough. You have to have rules, and the rules must be followed. You can't have some drivers following the rules and others breaking them.  It creates a bad situation when a driver who follows the rules gets beat by a nose by a driver who kicked his horse nearing the wire. This situation is magnified in a stakes race.  Hopefully we can finally bring an end to this infraction. It is another positive for the great sport of Harness Racing. We've made some progress this year, good things happened. Now, let's keep moving forward.

A good next step would be to ban or curtail the use of Lasix. Lasix is a drug that's being used more as a performance enhancer than what it was intended for. That's why virtually all horses are raced on Lasix, the owners feel they're at a disadvantage without it. If Lasix were being used correctly, very few horses would be using it. Again, this looks bad to the public. And, I doubt that it's good for the horses in the long run.

To find out more about Pandy’s handicapping theories check out his www.trotpicks.com or www.handicappingwinners.com websites, his free picks at handicapping.ustrotting.com/pandycapping.cfm or write to Bob Pandolfo, 3386 Creek Road, Northampton, PA 18067.