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.


Meadowlands crisis just one reason to fret

It has been a wild and woolly fortnight in racing.

In New York the Racing and Wagering Board, emboldened by the public’s revulsion at the Ernie Paragallo animal cruelty scandal and an appellate court decision denying Paragallo’s appeal, barred the trainer for life from racing in the state.

In New Orleans the Association of Racing Commissioners International’s incoming chairman, Willie Koester of Ohio, said, without citing sources, “Today over 99 percent of Thoroughbred racehorses and 70 percent of Standardbred racehorses have a needle stuck in them four hours before a race, as horsemen become more desperate to win races.” The outgoing chairman, Dan Hartman of Colorado, called for a five-year phase-out of all drugs on race day. The ARCI’s president, Ed Martin, said his members were “largely receptive” to the idea. As admirable as the proposal is, some skeptics doubted the RCI can get it done. One of them – newsletter editor Ray Paulick –wrote that he “didn’t think most state regulators have the intestinal fortitude to make the change.”

In Chicago and Los Angeles, shortages of horses forced action. Hawthorne, struggling to fill races, announced it would pay not only the first five finishers, but allocate 1 percent of the base purse to all in the race finishing from sixth on. Santa Anita, faced with a diminished horse supply, reverted to a four-day Thursday-through-Sunday racing week “in everyone’s interest.”

Pimlico, home of the Preakness, heartened by last year’s reported crowd of 33,000 young beer-swilling revelers in its infield responding to a $20 all-you-can-drink campaign, announced a new idea, called Kegasus, for this year’s orgy. The promotion features what the Associated Press called “a half-man, half-horse Preakness Stakes mascot that sports a nipple ring and a beer gut.” Maryland’s largest newspaper, the Baltimore Sun, called the campaign even more tasteless than last year, which produced “drunk people racing across the top of Porta-potties.” It described Kegasus as “having the torso of a sleazy, unshaven, beer-gutted man.” To add to this year’s frivolity, a bikini contest will be featured. Anyone want to bet on entrants being stripped? Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas, explaining what the Sun called “a giant open air frat party,” justified it bluntly: “We need people in the infield to help our bottom line.” No one ever said a racing classic had to have class.

And then there was last week’s New Jersey gaming forum, held in Newark with an all-star cast.

It was held on the same day that the state’s biggest newspaper, the Newark Star Ledger, reported that New York real estate developer and Thoroughbred owner Morris Bailey was the likely winner of the eight-horse race to lease Monmouth Park, apparently beating out Hialeah’s John Brunetti and the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association in the stretch.

It also was the day that another New York real estate magnate, Jeff Gural, was trying to put together the final piece of his quest for the Meadowlands. He said he had done what he thought would be “the hard part” – raising $100 million to rebuild the track on a smaller platform – only to discover that was not as difficult as dealing with the track’s unions. Gov. Chris Christie extended his deadline from March 31 to April 15 to help Gural get that done.

The governor didn’t appear at the forum, but two of his chief gambling advisers did. Jon Hanson was there to tell the crowd that there would be no slot machines at the Meadowlands “in the foreseeable future,” which translated most likely means as long as Christie is governor.

And Bob Mulcahy, who ran the Meadowlands in earlier days of glory, and later Rutgers university athletics, spoke ironically of political interference, most specifically by former governor James E. McGreevey’s administration a decade ago. Mulcahy said McGreevey “sent his people up there [to the Meadowlands and Sports Authority] to tear it apart.”

The irony, of course, is that Mulcahy’s close colleague, Hanson, now might finish the job. Justifying his and Christie’s determination not to allow slots at the track, Hanson told the forum, “That might take away from Atlantic City’s comeback bid. We looked at the question . . . our conclusion was “Let’s see if there is a way you can revitalize gaming in Atlantic City.” It was necessary, he said, because casino jobs there had fallen from 50,000 to 33,000 over the last five years.

The Hanson-Christie solution is that if Jeff Gural can’t convince the labor unions to go along with his takeover plans, then shut down an entire industry supporting tens of thousands in New Jersey, as many acres of green space, and destroy what Bob Mulcahy proudly and correctly called “a harness industry that was the best in the world.” Hanson called it “a necessary trade-off.”

The thousands who may lose their livelihood might call it an avoidable economic disaster, and they would be right.

Meadowlands has a potential angel

Few in Thoroughbred racing know the man who is trying to save New Jersey’s Meadowlands by spending $100 million to privatize the track and take it off the hands of Gov. Chris Christie, who otherwise wants to close it.

It’s time for an introduction.

His name is Jeff Gural, and everyone in Manhattan real estate knows him. His company – Newmark Knight Frank – bought the famed Flatiron building, a New York City landmark, 14 years ago, and it also owns some 40 other properties, and manages 150, encompassing 50 million square feet of office space, and employing 7,000 people worldwide. Gural is chairman of the company, but he also is far more.

He is a philanthropist, serving as president, for the last 20 years or so, of the Starlight Foundation, which helps sick children, and playing a role in 20 others, including the I Have A Dream Foundation, where he sponsor two separate groups of underprivileged kids from elementary school through college. He pursues educational interests as a member of the governor’s board at the famed New School.

He is a hands-on owner and breeder, and horsemen have learned to respect him.

He is skilled mover and shaker in politics, lunching with Nancy Pelosi and having a rare and prized picture of himself sitting in Bill Clinton’s chair in the oval office. He also has one of himself and Barack Obama, and another with New York’s new governor, Andrew Cuomo. Did I mention he was a Democrat?

Despite those connections, Chris Christie apparently did not know who he was when he called and asked for a chance to talk with him about leasing the Meadowlands. As David Briggs, the bright young editor of Canadian Sportsman tells the story in a long and detailed article titled “The Accidental Savior” in his magazine, Gural was told that “he could indeed talk about a possible deal, so long as he could get to Trenton [the state capital] immediately with a check for $3 million to cover potential losses at the track until March 31. Otherwise, he was told, the closure of the track would be announced that night. A short time later, an embarrassed staffer who obviously checked into Gural’s background called back to apologize and tell Gural that Gov. Christie would be delighted to meet with him the next morning.”

Gural is 68, but neither looks nor acts it. He enjoys young people, and five years ago he hired, as his track general manager and all-around strong right racing arm, a bright and aggressive young harness racing publicist named Jason Settlemoir, who was in his twenties at the time. Settlemoir asked Gural for a contract, and Gural refused, promising Jason that “if you come to work for me and things work out, you’ll never have to worry about anything.” So far he’s made good on the promise, and he and Settlemoir have made Tioga Downs in upstate New York the talk of harness racing and its horsemen.

Whether he makes good on his Meadowlands deal is highly problematic. He has until the 31st of this month to pull it off, and has no illusions about succeeding, calling the project “a real challenge, the first time I’ve ever tackled something where I didn’t know what the end result was going to be.”

Two years ago he proposed forcing potential sires to race until they were 5, or not have their get eligible for the sport’s major races. The idea was to prevent racing’s stars from entering the breeding shed after their 3-year-old seasons. “I had the Meadowlands on board,” he says, “but Woodbine‘s board wouldn’t do it.” So instead Gural sponsored stakes for older horses at his track and elsewhere.

I asked him to speak at the last joint annual meeting of Harness Tracks of America and the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, and Woodbine president Nick Eaves introduced him “as somebody who likes to tell it as it is.”

Gural didn’t disappoint, starting with “It’s all been said, and truthfully the people that you really would want to be speaking aren’t here. They are the leaders of the horsemen’s associations and the breeders who have put their own interests first above that of the sport of racing . . . . We have no leadership in racing because no one is obligated to follow the leaders of anybody.”

He said harness racing would disappear in 10 years if things didn’t change, and said the runners would do the same 10 years later. “The tracks that don’t have slots are not here because they can’t afford to send anybody, and the tracks that do have slots are not here because they don’t really care about racing. I really got into this not to make money, and I’ve succeeded in not making money, but I felt it was a challenge to find out if you could get people to come to a racetrack. Because over the 40 years I’ve been going to racetracks, pretty much every one I went to I thought was very poorly run. The same complaints that you hear . . . the food is terrible, it’s overpriced, the bathrooms aren’t clean, all of that stuff. So I thought, gee, I can’t believe that you can’t get people to come to a racetrack if you changed all of the things that people think wrong.”

He did at Tioga, which he built from scratch. If he gets the Meadowlands he plans to build a new, smaller grandstand on what is now the backstretch, and do away with the stable area.

Now you know the man. He is impressive, and one of the most interesting and unique figures in American racing, regardless of breed.

Santa Anita Handicap a shot heard round the world

The earthquake in New Zealand that wrecked Addington Raceway in Christchurch and forced transfer of Australasia’s $800,000 Interdominion championships to Alexandra Park in Auckland was more severe, but did not generate as many tremors here as the ones that shook Santa Anita last Saturday.

Chantal Sutherland, Canada’s 35-year-old riding gift to Thoroughbred racing, shook up everything but the San Gabriel mountains in Arcadia with her winning ride in the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap, one of the track’s major attractions. It marked the first time in the storied Big Cap’s history that a woman jock won.

By the time the shaking was over but before the ink had dried, everyone except the jockeys’ valets and concession-stand servers had been jolted into racing to their laptops to appraise the damage and accuse or defend the lady, with some bizarre results.

This newspaper’s columnist Jay Hovdey, usually far above the fray, traded verbal fisticuffs with newsletter editor Ray Paulick. Jay brought his wife, the sport’s best-known and most successful woman jockey, Julie Krone, into the fight, citing her as an irrefutable expert witness.

In the furor that followed the race, it took the three stewards 12 minutes to make a decision, and then it was a split vote, 2-1, that Sutherland had not sinned.

During their deliberations, trainer Bob Baffert, who conditioned the ultimate winner, longshot Game on Dude, took the highly unusual step of calling the stewards, one of whom said later if he had known it was Baffert he would not have taken the call. Do unidentified callers get put through to stewards while they are deliberating inquiries?

The earth began shaking in the Big Cap, as everyone now knows, turning for home, something that Hovdey pointed out his wife had done thousands of times in her illustrious career. “I live with someone who glanced at the pan shot once and said, ‘There’s where it started,’ he wrote to Paulick, “pointing to Game on Dude being whipped twice left-handed, while trying to turn left.”

The story as it appeared in the Paulick Report also read, “I would rather rely on the actual replay, and an explanation of it by an experienced journalist and a champion rider, not Sutherland’s word for it.” It was not clear, since the incoming messages were coded by e-mail addresses, whether that was Jay talking or one of the dozens of others who filled eight single-spaced pages in the Report with their irate letters, either indicting Sutherland or defending her, one calling her “a shameless liar” for her explanation.

That was triggered by her recollection of what happened.

“All I know is that in the race, it felt that I got bumped from behind. My horse went off balance, and I hadn’t drifted in or anything.”

The disputants, who included other top writers and angry bettors who watched the favorite finish fourth, said the video patrol showed otherwise, but the shots as seen in the judges’ stand did not convince two of the three deciders that was so.

It’s all over now, and Ms. Sutherland has her unique honors.She told Steve Andersen of this paper she was having a wonderful time, having been interviewed on a Los Angeles television show and basking in the warm glow of her historic first.

Racing a go-go

Elsewhere, The Fair Grounds in New Orleans has been doing a bit of shaking itself, using go-go dancers dressed like jockeys – but far more attractive – to shake things up on what the track calls Starlight Racing. It says it is attracting a younger crowd, which it hopes will learn to bet as well as greet and meet and google the girls.

One New Orleans-area columnist, who gave rave notices to the introduction of sex with the daily double, wrote a highly complimentary piece with the headline, “In Which I Lose Money at the Track but Don’t Care.”

He also called the innovation “an entirely new form of decadent nighttime entertainment in a city that seemed to have already invented them all.”

I think I’ll take my racing straight. Attribute it to old age.