Stan Bergstein's Daily Racing Form columns

With permission of Daily Racing Form,  Stan Bergstein’s bi-weekly columns for that publication will appear here every other week. 

August 1, 2002

Trotting's misguided tradition

When CBS beams Saturday's Hambletonian at The Meadowlands - the second million-dollar trotting race in seven days at the New Jersey capital of harness racing - to 187 outlets around the country, the program will have some object lessons for Thoroughbred racing.

One is the wisdom of having supplemental entries.

Another is the wisdom of not allowing Butazolidin or Lasix in classic races.

The Hambletonian Society, which controls trotting's greatest race for 3-year-olds, does not allow supplemental nominations. That stubborn stand has proved costly, last year and this, as two of the best 3-year-old trotters in the world will have missed the race.

Last year, it was a colt named S.J.'s Caviar, who never was nominated for the Hambletonian and sat it out while an American-bred 3-year-old owned in Sweden flew over and became the first foreign-owned and -trained trotter to win the race in its 75-year history.

That Hambletonian-winning colt, Scarlet Knight, had been kept eligible by his Swedish owner-trainer, a former track photographer who just three years earlier had been banned from The Meadowlands for venturing out on the track while shooting pictures of the Hambletonian. He turned to training, and wound up a wild success, with a stable of some 50 trotters. The Meadowlands welcomed him back warmly.

This year's ineligible standout is a horse named Kadabra, with another fairy tale history.

Kadabra's dam, Quillo, was a gift to Connie Hochstetler, a racing secretary at Midwest tracks, from Beulah Dygert, the 93-year-old widow of Erwin Dygert, a patriarch of Illinois harness racing. Until a few years ago, Mrs. Dygert was still working as a key employee at Hawthorne Race Course. After a fall that ended her working career, she gave the broodmare to Hochstetler.

Connie Hochstetler bred the mare to an obscure Illinois stallion named Primrose Lane and got Kadabra.

The colt hardly seemed to be Hambletonian material on the strength of his modest pedigree, and was not nominated. But he won $230,500 last year at 2 and another $312,870 this year, and remains ineligible.

The Hambletonian Society discussed supplemental entries for its namesake race as recently as last year. Although the Hambletonian Society has put supplemental entries into effect for the Breeders Crown (which it also administers), harness racing's version of the Breeders' Cup races, it has steadfastly refused to consider them for the Hambletonian. That stand now has cost it classic encounters between trotting's two top 3-year-olds for the second year in a row.

The idea of classic races is to bring the best horses in the sport together for championship competition. Anything that defeats that purpose is counterproductive to the goal. The argument that original nominees to championship races need to be protected hardly seems logical. The Breeders' Cup, and now the Breeders Crown, provide for expensive supplementary entries, and a number of top horses have reached those races because their owners made those payments. If the nominating payments are added to the purse, why penalize championship performance?

Sickness or injury or modest breeding - all familiar obstacles to success in racing - are not absolutes, but all three occur in the game with unfortunate and painful regularity, and frequently at the moment when costly nomination or sustaining payments need to be made.

The plight of the Hambletonian, bereft of a top contender two years in a row, is a convincing argument for supplemental entries in both harness and Thoroughbred racing.

If the stubborn resistance to supplemental nominations is a curse on the Hambletonian, the Society's stance on medication is a shining beacon.

The conditions of both the Hambletonian and its companion feature for fillies, the $500,000 Hambletonian Oaks, also to be contested on Saturday, are clear and unequivocal. They read simply, "No horse shall be permitted to race in the Open or the Oaks with Butazolidin or Lasix."

This, of course, is in sharp contrast to the rules of the Breeders' Cup, where whole fields of 2-year-olds and everyone else go to the starting gate with Lasix. Some apologists for this permissiveness claim that not allowing Lasix is like depriving mothers of the right to protect their children with vaccinations. This is arrant nonsense, and a new book on the use of Lasix by Eclipse award-winning racing writer Bill Heller, coming out in the next month or two, tells the other side of the story in documented detail, including testimony of reputable veterinarians who disagree sharply with Lasix lovers who benefit financially from the administration of it and much else.

The Hambletonian Society may be wrong on supplemental entries, but it is dead right on no medication in classic races.

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