03/21/2017 8:12AM

Zoccali: Of court rulings, ‘beards’ and a final goodbye to Sam


In what was a very difficult week for the harness racing community, to be honest, I am not really in the mental place to go in-depth on industry issues.  Instead, I will just share a few thoughts on some of the matters in racing this week.

A week ago on Monday, the New Jersey Superior Court in Monmouth County rejected an effort by an owner of a New Jersey-bred horse to force The Meadowlands to contest the New Jersey Classic and Miss New Jersey this year.  I have been on the record as opposing the view of the owners in this matter.  The racetrack is a business and like any business, it should be allowed to make operational decisions that are in the best interest of their business. Similarly, owning a racehorse is a business and like any business, it comes with risk.  When you purchase a horse, nothing is guaranteed and risk is involved.  In addition, stakes races are added and/or cancelled all over the country on a yearly basis, usually with little opposition.  It’s just a part of the business and when you purchase a horse based upon the idea of him competing in one specific race, you are taking a lot of risk.  Especially when you consider the fact that for the better part of three years, it has been widely known within New Jersey harness racing that the number of horses eligible for the New Jersey Classic were being carefully examined each year.  This was not only being done by The Meadowlands, but by the Standardbred Owners Association of New Jersey as well.  While I can’t say that everyone was aware of this fact, it was the kind of thing that was spoken about enough that many people were aware that the year was coming when these races would not be able to be contested due to an insufficient horse population in New Jersey.  I am glad the Superior Court made this ruling, as the alternative result would have been a very bad precedent moving forward.

I have a great deal of optimism for what is to come in Pennsylvania with Brett Revington assuming the role of Director of Standardbred Racing for the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission.  In a recently published column in Harness Racing Update, Revington cited integrity in the racing product as “the most critical issue that we need to address going forward.”  He is completely correct.  People in Pennsylvania may not want to hear it, but much of the Pennsylvania Harness Racing product is viewed as unappealing by bettors.  I can’t count the number of times I have been told by a bettor, “I can’t bet Pocono” or “I can’t bet Harrah’s Philadelphia,” with the bettor citing that the presence of “beards” for trainers on the racing program and exorbitant takeout rates being out of control.  Those that support the product in Pennsylvania as it stands today refer to the fact that a trainer being viewed as a “beard” is merely speculation and is unfounded.  This speaks to the lack of understanding that perception is indeed reality and when one trainer is suspended and all his/her horses are moved to a husband, wife, sister, brother, etc. and those horses continue to perform at the same level, it simply looks very bad and it’s hard to believe that person isn’t anything more than a “paper trainer.”  Given his track record at Pompano Park, which is exemplary, I believe Revington is exactly what the harness racing industry in Pennsylvania needs.

Last, but certainly not least, I would be remised to not bid a final farewell to my friend and mentor, Sam Mckee.  I suppose there isn’t much more I can say after the column I wrote a few weeks back regarding Sam.  On the contrary, a lifetime of words wouldn’t do Sam justice.  Outside of my parents, there isn’t a grown adult that I was around more often in my teenage years than Sam Mckee and because of that, Sam had a tremendous influence on me.  His presence far exceeded just instilling a work ethic in me.  He helped mold how I conducted myself in life as I grew up.  It goes without saying that your parents play the biggest role in molding character, but I got an added bonus because I had Sam.  Sure, I didn’t always say the right thing, and at times I was too hot-headed for my own good.  I’ll be the first person to admit that the filter that connects my brain to my mouth isn’t always operational and Sam would call me on that when he needed to.  But more importantly than that, I grew up never wanting to disappoint Sam and I don’t mean by saying the wrong thing.  He warned me of all the pitfalls and traps in life, especially for a teenager growing up in New York City, and implored me to stay away from “the bad things.”  He saw potential in me and wanted to make sure that I fulfilled that potential and didn’t get sidetracked by anything that could harm me because of the choices I made.  I’m sure many people have opinions of me based on views I have expressed, but I can look back and know that Sam drew the straight line for me and I stayed on it.  It’s how I made it through high school, college and law school.  It’s how I was able to put my head down and work, wherever the work was, and always give 110-percent.  Sam was always in my ear, pushing me, even when he was hundreds of miles away.  The one thing I can do to honor Sam’s legacy as I move forward in life, is to live my life as he lived his.  Always honor my family and make sure they always come first.  Respect everyone, even when I disagree.  Lastly, be courteous, respectful and nice to everyone I meet, because there just isn’t a good reason not to, and because that’s how Sam lived his life.  Sam’s voice may have been silenced, but it will be in my ear, pushing me, supporting me and guiding me, always.