09/12/2016 12:04PM

Zoccali: A closer look at tag-team racing

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To couple or not to couple? That is the question.

One thing that horse racing is full of are issues that can be argued equally well on both sides.  The coupling of entries is one of those issues.

However, like many other issues, there are times where situations present themselves taking the issue to an extreme and therefore looking ridiculous.

The issue of coupling horses as a betting entry was a tool implemented into racing decades ago.  The thought process was, if a trainer or owner is entering more than one horse in the same race, he knows which one of the two is better and may exploit that fact by using the other horse tactically as a pawn to help the chances of his “better” horse.  The purpose of coupling the horses into one betting entry is to protect those betting on the “other horse,” so that even if he isn’t given a chance to win and the star horse does win, the bettor is protected and rewarded.

In thoroughbred racing the terminology used for this is “rabbit.”  It is something that we have seen in racing in Europe for generations.  A trainer has an excellent horse who’s preferred racing style is to close from well off the pace, so the trainer enters a less accomplished horse to show speed and ensure that his better horse has a fast pace to rally into.  In essence, the rabbit is sacrificed so the better horse has an even better chance of winning.

Sadly this is done at the expense of the other horse the trainer entered.  Often a quality horse by himself, this horse is used merely to ensure speed and is never really given a chance to win.  In the United States, there was a Breeders Cup winning turf horse named Better Talk Now, who was almost always entered with his rabbit, Shake The Bank. There are times when the rabbit worked and times that it didn’t.  There were also times where it failed so badly that Shake The Bank actually finished in front of Better Talk Now.  Sadly, Shake The Bank was a talented horse that would have been a consistent grade three competitor if allowed to run in the races that suited his ability.  He rarely got that chance.

A couple of week ago at Saratoga, in the Sword Dancer Invitational, a grade one turf race, Chad Brown had the favorite and the best turf horse in the United States, Flintshire.  He entered a far less-accomplished allowance runner in the race as well as a rapidly improving horse trying grade one company for the first time.  None of the horses were coupled.  The least accomplished of the three horses was used as a rabbit, while the other two benefited from the fast pace and finished first and second.  In addition, it seemed as though the jockey of the rabbit angled off the rail to allow his stablemate to pass him without having to wheel around horses and therefore won the race.  Yes, he may have won anyway, but that’s not the point.  The point is the betting public was never protected and those who wagered on the “rabbit,” who didn’t know the horse was being used that way, lost their money the moment the gates opened.

Interestingly, there is far less coupling in thoroughbred racing than standardbred racing.  But there are far more examples of “tag-team tactics” in the thoroughbred game.  You can vividly recall each time a Standardbred race appeared to contain horses from the same stable working together.  This issue came up in 2014 when Jimmy Takter’s fillies appeared to be, let’s say, not racing against each other in the two starts prior to the Hambletonian Oaks.  It caused a bit of an uproar in the industry and social media, and the subject of coupling horses was raised.

But harness racing often falls on the other side of the spectrum, in that at times harness racing is protecting it’s bettors to a fault.  On a recent Sunday at Tioga Downs, an eight-horse field in a $55,000 stakes race was limited to three betting interests when six of the horses were coupled due to common ownership.  The result was an un-bettable race with win wagering and horizontal exotics only.  This is the other extreme.  The rule in New York states that a stakes race must carry a purse of $100,000 for horses to be uncoupled, which begs the question, doesn’t that imply that the higher the purse of a stakes race, the less-likely there will be tag-team tactics used?  I would think just the opposite.  I would think that a trainer would be far more likely to try to improve his best horse’s chances of winning a race for $1 Million rather than $50,000.

So once again we have rules that are not uniform in every state. They are trying to serve a righteous purpose, but are being implemented in completely the wrong way.

There are two things that racing can do without having to couple the entries and therefore improve the wagering appeal of the race.  Simply put, if the judges determine that a horse was used in a way that was not in the true spirit of trying to win the race, but rather to enhance the chances of another horse, not only is he disqualified and un-placed, but so is the horse that benefited from those tactics.  Or, the judges can levy such stern penalties in the form of fines and suspensions that no driver would risk accepting a mount on a horse in which the trainer instructed the driver (or jockey) that he is not trying to win, but rather trying to help his other horse win.

Beyond that, an idea was presented where the horse who will be used as a rabbit can be declared that when entered.  While that idea has merit, what happens when the horse entered as the rabbit wins?  You can’t disqualify a horse for trying to win the race and if you do, then the horse can’t be wagered on and must be barred from the pools, which defeats the purpose.

If a rule were implemented and the judges were vigilant in disqualifying the beneficiaries of tag-team tactics, it is something that would never have to be debated again.