Mark Berner

Mark Berner first worked with horses on a small farm in upstate New York in 1973, where he mucked stalls and cared for racehorses with infirmities that were turned out there until ready to resume training.

He joined American Teletimer as a clocker in 1976 and operated their electronic timing equipment at many east coast racetracks until 1978, when he was permanently stationed at NYRA's three tracks, Aqueduct Racetrack, Belmont Park & Saratoga Race Course.

Berner did freelance handicapping for the New York Daily News in 1982 & 1983 before joining Newsday in 1984 as a handicapper and later a sports reporter. Berner teamed up with Pricci to win the United Press International's 1985 UPI New York Newspaper Awards for Best Sports Story. In addition, Berner wrote and handicapped for several trade publications including, Daily Racing Form, Sports Eye, Racing Action, The Thoroughbred Times, Horse Player Magazine and New York Sportsnet.

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Tuesday, August 01, 2017

New Spa Dirt Surface Needs Adjustments

Images of thoroughbreds emerging from the morning mist, or standing boldly on the racetrack before an idyllic multi-hued Saratoga sunrise, permeate social media, where very little happens without public critique.

Posts and tweets from the Spa started long before the current meet began and are so voluminous now it is hard to keep pace. One important thread I do follow concerns Saratoga’s main track, as reported for HRI on July 11.


Clocking horses and tracking racetracks, veteran clocker Bruno De Julio (Racingwithbruno‏ @Racingwithbruno) tweeted: “Saratoga Main Track - added materials - clay added to main. Turf course - new sod and new irrigation system - turf looks grand.”

We thanked De Julio for the good information, noting that additional clay in the track cushion will allow it to hold more water and that the main track could play differently when wet and as it dries out. The refurbished turf course is less like to play any differently.

As it turns out, the new composition of the racing surface needs a new and a different maintenance methodology to keep it in optimal shape for racing and training.

Glen Kozak, Vice President of racing surfaces for the New York Racing Association, believes otherwise. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re doing our normal maintenance and standard procedures for what the cushion is,” Kozak told Daily Racing Form. “I’m comfortable with that.”

It is inconceivable for us to understand how Kozak, or anyone, could be “comfortable” when six horses were injured--four that required euthanasia--due to injuries suffered while racing or training on Saratoga’s main track since July 22.

Four injuries, three resulting in horses being put down, came within three days after the track had taken on a lot of water due to overnight rains on July 26 into the morning of July 27.

The chronology on the main track is as follows:

July 22: Evacuation suffered a racing injury at the mile pole.
July 22: Wanztbwicked was euthanized following a training accident that morning, the injury sustained at the mile pole.
July 28: Angels Seven was euthanized after suffering a racing injury at the eighth pole.
July 29: Positive Waves was euthanized following a training accident at the eighth pole.
July 29: Howard Beach was euthanized following a training injury sustained at the three-sixteenths pole.
July 30: Tu Exageres suffered a racing injury at the quarter pole.

Kozak said he and his staff do routine daily maintenance of the surface which includes soil analysis and measuring the moisture content, according to the DRF report. Kozak said he has not found any issues with the main track.

When four horses break down on three consecutive days within one-eighth of a mile--from the quarter pole to the eighth pole--it is easy to give Kozak a starting point as to where to look for issues.

These are not just accidents. They are accidents waiting to happen.

In recent days, De Julio’s tweets have called for a second renovation of the main track during training hours, which is a very good idea.

It appears that the main track can no longer go for an hour without watering in the morning. It even plays a bit differently in the afternoons following a couple of consecutive turf races.

On Thursday, July 27, the day following the overnight rains but before last week’s rash of breakdowns began, NYRA labeled the main track “good,” though the sealed track clearly had standing water on the surface; the standard definition of a sloppy track.

The reason for this kind of deception is greed as bettors tend to tread lightly on wet racetracks. Sadly, NYRA is not the only track guilty of misleading the betting public in this manner. But this tack is penny-wise.

Of course, handle figures are higher on tracks labeled fast or good than on tracks rated muddy or sloppy. NYRA offers a quality product that commands 20% of all US wagering. Mislabeling racetracks will only result in eroding consumer confidence.

Further, beware of speed figures earned that day as they were difficult to construct. A tweet from Craig Milkowski, chief of speed figures for TimeForm US confirmed that “the Thursday card at Saratoga was a nightmare for making speed figures.”

Another interesting tweet from Milkowski appeared July 25: “I build in an alert when I process races that are much faster than projected--at Monmouth this year 100% of the time it is a Navarro horse.”

That tweet contained an important piece of information valuable to have on Saturday July 29, when the Jorge Navarro-trained El Deal wired the field in Saratoga’s Grade 1 Vanderbilt to the tune of $7.10.

A tweet worth noting going forward is one from De Julio: “Late opening of main [track] has given top barns here during spring and summer a challenge to get young horses fit over a deeper sandier surface [Oklahoma].”

BITS AND BYTES: There has been much banter about the New York Islanders since HRI broke the news on February 7 that the Isles would leave Brooklyn to play hockey at a new Arena constructed at Belmont Park.

Empire State Development of New York yesterday issued a Request for Proposals on that project. The details were made public last Friday when the Franchise Oversight Board gave permission to proceed at its meeting.

The request asked for proposals to develop up to 43 acres at Belmont Park with retail, entertainment, sports and hospitality options on 28 acres of land south of Hempstead Turnpike, and eight-to-15 acres on the north side, adjacent to Belmont’s grandstand.

The Islanders consortium is expected to make a significant bid.

This group consists of Islanders’ majority owners Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin, Sterling Project Development controlled by New York Mets majority owner Fred Wilpon, and Oak View Group representing James Dolan, Executive Chairman of Madison Square Garden and owner of the New York Rangers and Knicks.

Architectural plans for the new arena exist but have not yet been made public. Bids on the RFP are due by 2pm, September 28.

NYRA plans to begin a two-year renovation of Belmont following the 2018 spring meeting and all developers would be expected to coordinate construction activities with NYRA, according to the RFP.

Legislators of both Nassau and Suffolk counties presented a great deal of political theater in a feigned attempt to get the Islanders to return to its former home, the Nassau Coliseum.

The National Hockey league stated long ago that the refurbished Coliseum was not suitable for major league hockey. However, legislators never seem to run out of dogs and ponies.

The legislators offered no plan, no incentives, and no financing, just a hollow commitment from Nassau Events Center to re-renovate the Coliseum to meet NHL standards.

Bruce Ratner, whose Forest City Enterprises built Barclays and refurbished the Coliseum, admitted before the renovation that the Coliseum would need to be demolished and totally rebuilt in order to be eligible to host NHL games.

Mikhail Prokhorov owns NEC, the operating company at the Coliseum, and he recently received permission from the National Basketball Association to uncouple the New York Nets from Barclays Center, the arena he owns in Brooklyn where the Nets and Isles now play.

Prokhorov is finally showing a profit with the Nets, but not Barclays. He is now looking to find a partner for the Nets and unload Barclays and NEC. Barclays is currently losing more than six million dollars per year, mostly due to poorly attended Islanders games.

Prokhorov’s current position is most certainly not one that would allow NEC to shut down the Coliseum and finance another refurbishment: He wasn’t buying any of the absurd theater produced by Long Island politicians.

Written by Mark Berner

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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

NYRA On a Roll as Saratoga Approaches

The economic numbers for the first half of the 2017 U.S. racing year are in and the results are a mixed bag. Wagering, the monetary force that drives the game, was up for the entire year, the most recent in June in line with that. This is the good news.

The bad is that the rest of the economic indicators, those for purses, number of races, race days, number of starters and average field size were down across the board for the same periods; purses for the year being the lone positive.

All indicators are especially significant for the New York Racing Association because it handles 20 percent of all U.S. wagers. Some credit must be due NYRA for generating positive news because of the added visibility it provides via greater national exposure of its quality racing product.

The Stars & Stripes Festival at Belmont Park Saturday is the most recent example of the kind of “big-day” marketing philosophy NYRA employs to drive handle. Big NYRA races on live TV via the NBC and NBC Sports Networks lends heft to New York racing across the country.

Additionally, NYRA’s high quality house-produced “Belmont Live” and “Saratoga Live,” programs that can be seen on various FOX Sports networks, MSG+ and Altitude is the kind of video that the industry badly needs.

Further, NYRA Bets, NYRA Now, NYRA-HD and NYRA-XP are helping fill the betting shelves with content in the manner that Disney fills the shelves at Toys R’ Us.

NYRA latest big day, including five graded stakes, was scheduled in close proximity to Independence Day, normally viewed as racing’s dog days of summer but it also signals that destination venues such as Saratoga and Del Mar will soon open their gates.

One can gamble anywhere and on anything. To be appreciated and grow the fan base, racing must first be experienced live.

As for the numbers, Saturday’s live gate of 12,667 was excellent, up from last year’s 7,753 patrons. Total handle dipped slightly to $22,341,422, compared to 2016’s $22,980,823 but on-track handle of $3,084,823 was up a few ticks from 2016’s $2,898,825.

Regardless of the marginal differences year over year, these figures are two to three times greater than routine Saturday programs. Top class racing sells. The numbers clearly indicate that NYRA’s big-event approach is popular both locally and nationally.

Stars & Stripes Day happened to mark the final appearance of the popular former jockey and racing analyst Richard Migliore on “Belmont Live.” Migliore announced his intentions to leave NYRA weeks ago.

Migliore’s absence figured to leave a huge hole in the NYRA broadcast team but the vacancy was quickly filled when it contracted Paul Lo Duca, who announced publicly last week that he was ending his nine-year association at the TVG network.

Tony Allevato, President of NYRA Bets and Executive Producer for NYRA TV, also a former TVG executive, tapped Lo Duca to fill the vacancy, which completes a TVG-to-NYRA trifecta. Lo Duca joins a team hosted by Greg Wolf, a former TVG host.

When Lo Duca is coupled with the irascible Andy Serling, it should provide the kind of drama that drives today’s TV. Tom Amoss is also due back in 2017 for more of the popular and lively Amoss and Andy segments.

Once again, Gabby Gaudet returns to the Spa this season, joining regular paddock analyst Maggie Wolfendale and track announcer Larry Colmus.

Migliore’s popularity is such that it came as no surprise when racing television social media trolls panned the Lo Duca hiring with critics erring on the side of unfavorable. This is unfair, of course. Lo Duca has earned better than that.

NYRA has been good at creating recent marketing opportunities. In May, it announced that an agreement was reached with FOX Sports Prime Ticket and FOX Sports San Diego to broadcast “Saratoga Live” throughout the meeting, virtually in Del Mar’s backyard.

"Fox Sports Prime Ticket and Fox Sports San Diego have long served as the Southern California home of Thoroughbred racing," said Allevato. Now it will serve NYRA, too.

NYRA’s move gives its ADW, NYRA Bets, exposure to a new market. California players could benefit by having a NYRA Bets option, opposed to the one they presently have with restricted in-state ADW’s.

Clearly, this is a shot across the bow of California racing, already in disarray. Those events have been well chronicled in both mainstream and social media.

Governor Andrew Cuomo dubbed this summer “The Summer of Hell” because of the mass transit nightmare caused by current track repairs at Penn Station. For NYRA, however, it’s more like “The Summer of Swell.”

The Spa is where the goose lays its golden eggs. Time will tell whether NYRA’s big-event strategy will produce more successful results with its incursion into California. This year, Del Mel will not be the only turf that meets the surf.



NEW NYRA LOGO UNIFIES BRAND: NYRA introduced its new logo on Stars & Stripes Day and it complements the NYRA Bets logo, neatly integrating and unifying its brand. The reaction on social media, as anticipated, was decidedly against the change.

LASIX OR NO LASIX, THAT IS THE QUESTION: A resolution was passed at the June 26 meeting of the New York State Gaming Commission requiring third party administration of race day Lasix, as was previously adopted at NYRA tracks.

The declaration resulted in a serious and lively discussion concerning the possibility of limiting or completely eliminating race day Lasix in New York.

Ultimately, the commissioners decided the topic merits further review and punted. Expect it to be on the agenda as new business in Saratoga, either during July 24 or August 28 NYSGC meetings, or both.

Martin Panza, NYRA’s Senior Vice President of Racing Operations and architect of the successful Stars & Stripes concept, will be invited to participate.

SARATOGA INSIDE INFO: Clocking horses and tracking racetracks, veteran clocker Bruno De Julio (Racingwithbruno‏ @Racingwithbruno) recently tweeted: “Saratoga Main Track - added materials - clay added to main. Turf course - new sod and new irrigation system - turf looks grand.”

Props to De Julio for the good information. Additional clay in the track cushion allows it to hold more water, therefore the main track could play a little differently when wet and as it dries out; it will bear watching. The refurbished turf course is less likely to play differently but keep a watchful eye.

ELMONT, NY, July 11, 2017

Written by Mark Berner

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Friday, July 07, 2017

HRI Exclusive: Paul Lo Duca to NYRA

Paul Lo Duca, who recently announced that he was leaving the Television Games Network after nine years as a racing analyst and studio host, will sign with the New York Racing Association to serve in a similar capacity on "Saratoga Live," NYRA's cable broadcast in support of its Advance Deposit Wagering platform, NYRABets.

Lo Duca will debut when the storied Saratoga race meet opens on Friday, July 21.

Lo Duca will fill a role recently vacated by popular retired New York jockey and racing analyst, Richard Migliore, who announced he was leaving the NYRA several weeks ago.

The four-time Major League Baseball All-Star will replace another accomplished athlete.

Migliore, rode over 4,450 winners during his career and won an Eclipse Award at 17 as the nation's leading apprentice in 1981.

We'll have more on Lo Duca, this weekend's Stars & Stripes Racing Festival, and NYRA's new Pick 5 wager, in this space in our usual slot on Tuesday..

Written by Mark Berner

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