08/14/2016 10:59PM

Zoccali: Small owners are priced out of the game

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Question: “Are you a horse owner right now?”

My Answer: “Not at this moment.”

Response: “Then shut up.”

That was the end of what, until then, was a productive conversation with a prominent horse owner one year ago in the week leading up to The Hambletonian.  I got emotional, as I was already contemplating the idea of moving on from harness racing and that moment gave me the last nudge I needed.  His obnoxious comment was in response to my trying to explain the impact on a racetrack of certain occurrences in harness racing and the needs of a racetrack versus the needs of the horsemen, with the hopes of forming a stronger synergy between the two.

The above exchange is an example of everything that is wrong with this industry.  It is the sense of entitlement because “I am a horse owner and you aren’t.”

Ironically, the fact is I was a horse owner.  For the better part of a decade I owned horses with my father in a partnership.  None of them were world champions, but we were at least able to be competitive in the spots we picked out for our horses.  We were able to do so using “smaller” trainers with affordable rates.  Eventually, that was no longer possible.  The emergence of giant stables dominating the sport made it impossible for the small owner, who didn’t have the money to lose, to be a part of this game any longer.  That tied into the fact that I was getting married and starting a family forced me out of ownership and the conversation I quoted at the start of this column was the moment that I decided to look for a way out of the industry all together.

I want to be clear, I don’t blame Ron Burke or Jimmy Takter for their success.  It’s not their fault that the “mega-stables” that have emerged in the last five years make it unaffordable for people like myself to be a standardbred horse owner.  But there is no question that the emergence of these monstrously successful stables has hurt the sport, whether they want to recognize it or not.  Simply put, they limit ownership potential in the game.

A response to this column could be, “just buy cheaper horses and you won’t have to compete with those trainers.”  While that is true (although it is hard to find a condition at a major racetrack that Ron Burke doesn’t have a horse for), you can’t really make it as an owner racing cheaper horses in the Northeast.  It’s just not financially feasible and simply put, I cannot afford the costs associated with having a Burke, Takter, Alagna, etc. training my horses.  Their rates are too high for me.  Again, no fault of their own, it’s just how it is.

It’s interesting and quite frankly it’s sad that the reason I am no longer a horse owner is also one of the reasons I am no longer working exclusively in the harness racing industry.  Not only do big owners and trainers control the sport, but when trying to speak to one of them about the health of the industry, you are told to shut up because you are not one of them.  In that moment, I told that owner that it was statements like the one he just made that is pushing me out the door of the industry.  Maybe he didn’t believe me, but interestingly enough I haven’t heard from him since I left.

If I can’t afford to be a standardbred owner, I certainly cannot afford to be a thoroughbred owner.  But ironically, it would be more feasible for me right now to be a thoroughbred owner.  Sure, you have to compete with Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert and Chad Brown on the biggest stages.  But they don’t own or train seven of the nine horses in a stakes race like Burke and Alagna did in The Adios Final.  You have a fighting chance.  In harness racing now, you have virtually no chance.  With all the talk being centered around getting new owners into the game, I stand as one of the many former owners who are saying the big stables have made it impossible.

I would love to be a horse owner again.  I would love to be able to take my son and daughter to the farm and watch our horses train and bring them in a jog cart with me.  Winning races at The Meadowlands were always some of the most exciting moments of my life.  I used to sit in front of my computer, refreshing the page, waiting for the entries to be posted to see if our horse got in.  More than that, it was a way that my father and I bonded and it led to the career path I have chosen.

Unfortunately, I can’t give that to my son and daughter right now.  I can’t pay my mortgage, put money away for my children’s future and afford to lose $1,000 or more each month because my horse or horses cannot compete with the big stables.  I also cannot afford to pay the daily rate and all the modern items at a mega-trainers disposal, like a hyperbaric chamber.  So what choice do I have?  I have been priced out of the game.

I don’t expect anyone to feel bad for me.  I’m sure if a big-name trainer is reading this he is yelling for me to get off my soapbox.  But this game was at its best when the guy like me had a shot.  There are times big trainers dominate, after all, from 1972 through 1983 Bill Haughton and Stanley Dancer combined to win eight of 12 Hambletonians.  Perhaps this is just another one of those streaks, but to me it’s more.  The bottom line is, if you want to compete on a Championship level, you have to send your horse to Burke, Takter, Alagna, etc.  I don’t see that changing any time in the near future.

Don’t get me wrong, if I had the means, I would be at a yearling sale, buying well-bred yearlings with aspirations of winning a Hambletonian, Meadowlands Pace or Little Brown Jug, just so I could look that owner in the face and smile.  But I can’t, so I guess until that time, I’ll just shut up.