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, February 21, 2017


Martin Finds Criticism Easy, Effectiveness Not So Much


Top trainers of Thoroughbred racehorses have three things in common: patience; patience, and more patience. But the use of medication allows trainers to take shortcuts by saving time for the short-term money.

And, as most reasonable people agree, this is neither good for the horse nor the bettor and the optics are magnified for the average sports fan who see racehorses break down and some even die, by euthanasia or otherwise, right there on their TVs.

Those chosen to safeguard this sport worldwide forbid race-day medication in all countries, except for the leaders in the U.S. One of the most egregious offenders is Ed Martin, president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International.

Martin, once the press secretary for Senator Alfonse D’Amato, brought to racing a background in communications and marketing. Before the ARCI, Martin was executive director of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, prior to the formation of the NYS Gaming Commission.

Martin has always had a desk job. I have no idea if he ever mucked a stall, picked a hoof, watched a live foaling, or had a horse die in his arms. The element that appears certain is his lack of proper perspective; the view from behind a desk is always the same.

Last month, Martin roused his inner attack dog and called out Joe Gorajec, the author of a well-documented two-part series for the Paulick Report on “Combating a Culture of Cheating”.

Gorajec was Commissioner of the Indiana State Racing Commission for nearly 25 years. From the beginning, he has been an outspoken critic of the overuse of medication, the use of certain drugs, and promoted out-of-competition testing during his tenure there.

Martin disparaged it as an opinion piece and created his own alternative facts to fly in the face of the truth, commenting that “frankly, this drumbeat is getting boorish.”

Frankly, Mr. Martin, your bellicose reply is officious and proves that you just don’t get it, don’t truly care about the issue, or both.

Martin never has really embraced the question; how can he possibly find the answer?

The message is clear to all individuals that have the best interests of the horse and the racing fans in their hearts and minds.

So, at the risk of being boorish myself, let me repeat the message that most people-- except for the good ‘ole boys network that pays you--want to hear: NO DRUGS.

When it comes to doping in sports, the go-to guy is Jeff Novitzky. While working for the US Food and Drug Administration, he was responsible for exposing many athletes who used drugs, most notably baseball’s Barry Bonds and cyclist Lance Armstrong.

Novitzky also happens to be a racing fan. He grew up in the 1970’s and watched the Triple exploits of Seattle Slew in 1977 followed by the Affirmed-Alydar rivalry the following year that produced back-to-back Triple Crowns. “I've been hooked ever since,” he said.

Novitzky became vice president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 2015 and last year was one of the featured speakers at the Jockey Club Round Table in Saratoga Springs, where he compared horseracing to the UFC.

“Similar to the horse racing industry, we are regulated by commissions from the various locations where we hold our events. Those regulations are similar to horse racing, including different rules and specifically different testing protocols in various degrees of seriousness and effectiveness [when] it comes to anti-doping,” he explained.

“The success of any anti-doping program, especially as it relates to the business model of a company or organization, is not positive tests on the back-end and sanctions but a deterrence on the front end of that program.”

Novitzky thinks that horseracing's out-of-competition program is a “green light” for cheaters. When asked what would happen if that program were applied to human athletics, he replied “athletes would be enhanced to the gills.”

Tom Noonan’s report for Thoroughbred Racing Commentary last week indicates that the out-of-competition testing in New York is severely lacking. Noonan filed Freedom of Information Law requests to both the New York Racing Association and NYSGC for of out-of-competition test results. Both requests were denied.

It appears quite obvious that there has been little or no testing of consequence. Otherwise, how could there be no positive test results reported for Thoroughbreds, no rulings, and no suspensions?

The only inference to be made here is that comprehensive out-of-competition testing in New York does not exist despite press releases to the contrary.

If Ed Martin were truly concerned with the welfare of the horses and all the game’s practitioners, he would concentrate on out-of-competition testing and call for the elimination of race-day medication.

Instead, he continues to tweak currently ineffective regulations and condemns anyone with a different message. Is it any wonder that well-meaning individuals inside the sport believe that outside regulation is the only answer that would bring effective change?

BITS AND BYTES...: An Inside New York report for HRI on January 10 was the first to highlight the plight of Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack and the imminent financial threat from del Lago, a full service Las Vegas style casino that opened February 1, located only 30 minutes away.

The current problem is twofold: The Seneca Nation has exclusive casino rights in its region and the Finger Lakes Horsemen Benevolent Protective Association has withheld approval of an agreement that would allow Finger Lakes to simulcast.

After meetings with track officials and horsemen, Governor Andrew Cuomo, last week arrived at a possible solution. Cuomo announced a plan that would keep Finger Lakes operating for two years (2017-2018) with an option for a third (2019).

The Cuomo deal requires that Delaware North, which operates Finger Lakes, kick in up to $1 million, depending on video lottery performance, and for del Lago to contribute $440,000 to the racetrack.

Additionally, the New York State Thoroughbred Breeding and Development Fund agreed to contribute an unspecified amount to purses, subject to the approval of its board.

Del Lago took in $33.6 million in its first six days of operation but has not committed to the deal. Additionally, horsemen feel that the deal as structured falls short and have yet sign off. Stay tuned.

ELMONT, NY, February 21, 2017

Written by Mark Berner

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Tuesday, February 07, 2017


Of Islanders Wishes and Belmont Carnation Dreams


Chad Brown earned an Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer of 2016 and he owes a lot of that success to the late Hall of Fame trainer, Bobby Frankel. Brown was Frankel’s assistant from 2002 to 2007.

"Brooklyn Bobby" Frankel was enshrined in racing’s pantheon in 1995. He trained champions and many who worked for him went on to have their own successful careers.

Brown is just the latest example; one of the first was the late Joe Trovato.

Trovato was also a Brooklyn native. He started his career as a jockey agent and in the 1960s was successful with Avelino Gomez, Bill Boland, Manny Ycaza and Larry Adams. He became Frankel’s assistant in 1969.

Two years later, Trovato took out his trainer’s license and three years after that, in 1974, he trained the 3-year-old filly champion, Hall of Famer Chris Evert.

Owner Carl Rosen named the filly for the tennis champion that acted as a spokesperson for the sportswear line produced by his company, Puritan Fashions.

The 1970’s was a heady time for Trovato. He did well enough to get season’s tickets for the New York Islanders, then a young hockey team that was on the cusp of winning four straight Stanley Cup titles.

Trovato’s first million dollar season was in 1979, the same year the Islanders won the NHL championship for the first time, a period spanning the in the 1979-80 hockey season.

There was a strong connection among those who worked at Belmont Park and the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The two facilities are seven and a half miles apart and located on the same road, Hempstead Turnpike.

Racetrackers went to hockey games, and hockey people including current Isles’ color commentator Butch Goring, went to the races. One season the Islanders brought the Stanley Cup to visit Belmont Park.

The Islanders are not a Stanley Cup caliber team this season but should they become one in the future, they won’t have to travel very far with the Cup. Maybe just across a parking lot or a road on the expansive Belmont Park grounds.

Wonder if I can get a price on whether some future Belmont Stakes winner will get a chance to lap-up a pint of Guinness dark from Lord Stanley’s cup?

The Isles currently play home games at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, on the site rejected by baseball’s Dodgers when they moved to Los Angeles when TVs still broadcasted in black and white.

Currently, neither the team nor arena management are happy with how things have turned out.

Myriad problems include poor ice quality due to plastic pipes, limited seating, and obstructed views because when the Bruce Ratner consortium built Barclays, they didn’t have hockey in mind.

Former Isles owner and tech zillionaire Charles Wang could not make a deal to either remain, refurbish or rebuild the Nassau Coliseum, so the deal he made was for the team to play in Brooklyn, the farthest western end of the island.

The agreement was made to span 25 years. In the interim, however, Wang sold the team but it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying.

Still, the fans never forgave him. It now takes just under eight hours to get from central Long Island to Brooklyn, watch a game, and return home. That effectively has made every contest the past two seasons an away game for fans and players alike.

Bringing Hockey Back to Long Island


Billboard magazine has rated Barclays as the highest grossing venue in the U.S. for concerts and family shows, sports notwithstanding, enabling the building to surpass “the World’s Most Famous Arena,” Madison Square Garden, in 2013.

Meanwhile, the Islanders rank 28th in attendance in the 30-team NHL. It’s highly unlikely Brooklyn hockey fans will miss them at Barclays the way Long Island hockey fans miss the Islanders. The vibe is entirely different even after the puck is dropped.

The call for the Islanders to return to Long Island has piqued in recent weeks after a Bloomberg story confirmed that Barclays’ management was just as dissatisfied with the current situation as the Isles new owners, Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin, are.

This was one memo that did not elude Governor Andrew Cuomo’s attention and the message was received. If the Islanders don’t find a place to play on land for which the team was named, it’s goodbye New York and hello Kansas City.

Or would you believe Quebec City?

Cuomo called in a late scratch on a deal that has been in the works for four years. It would have placed a New York Cosmos soccer team stadium in Belmont’s south parking lot where the Isles new arena would reside.

It would be at least politically embarrassing for Cuomo if a major league sports franchise left New York. So where are the Cosmos going to play? You guessed it: Brooklyn.

Everyone on Long Island including Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano, has been appealing to the Islanders to return home. Even Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy and Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin have offered the Islanders a new home in their state.

The Islanders’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Sound Tigers, now play in Bridgeport, CT. Last week, Mangano nixed a deal that would have them play at the Nassau Coliseum in the future, paving the way for the Isles’ return.

Why would Belmont Park work out for the Islanders and not in Willets Point, Queens or the original site of the Nassau Coliseum?

Because of the NYRA franchise agreement, the land at Belmont Park is owned by the state and is controlled by the Governor and he appears to be on board with the plan.

The land around Citi Field, where the New York Mets play baseball, is owned by many small businesses. Individual owners and their civic groups vowed to tie up this matter in court when Mets owner Fred Wilpon first showed interest in the Islanders five years ago.

Willets Point may be the site of a mid-century arena but the Islanders’ needs are much more urgent. The problem with the just completed Nassau Coliseum rebuild is that it leaves Long Island with an arena that is not up to the NHL’s standards.

Why? Think Bruce Ratner.

Ratner, of Forest City Ratner Companies, built Barclays for a billion dollars. It is a first-rate modern facility and his New York Nets basketball team--currently 26th of 30 teams in attendance in the NBA--was its first permanent tenant.

Ratner lured Wang to Barclays then got the contract to rebuild the Nassau Coliseum. It certainly is no accident that the Coliseum redesign, leaving it without enough seats to satisfy the NHL, disqualifies it from being suitable to the league or any prospective new owners. That insured he had an advantage over the Islanders at Barclays.

Then, after rigging the game, things went even better than expected for Ratner’s group. They enticed Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov to buy the Nets plus the company that operates Barclays.

This is in addition to the company that rebuilt the Nassau Coliseum. Meanwhile, Ratner still retains a minor share in the Nets.

In addition to a seats shortage at the redesigned Coliseum, there is no room to add a second level of luxury boxes, which are big moneymakers for any franchise in any sport.

Indeed, NHL teams need to sell corporate boxes to make a profit, and the league will not put new owners in a bad arena where the old owners couldn’t turn a profit. Before that would happen, the NHL would rather see the Isles play in Kansas or Quebec.

Whether the Islanders, Barclays, or both, exercise the opt-out clause in the contract, the team will be done playing hockey there by the end of the 2018-2019 season. If the new arena cannot be completed in time for a new season beginning in October 2019, the Isles temporary home just might be the Coliseum.

The league will not comment on a commitment to the Coliseum as a backup plan until it inspects building. One major concern would be if Ratner left the metal pipes needed for good ice in place, or replaced them with the inferior plastic kind used in Brooklyn.

What is in this for NYRA beyond welcoming a new neighbor at Belmont Park? NYRA did not reply to repeated attempts seeking confirmation. If Cuomo wants all this to happen, it is hoped that he has something for NYRA in return.

BITS AND BYTES: Time Matters

(In the interests of full disclosure- I worked for American Teletimer for 20 years and retired in 1996. American Teletimer has not timed races at Gulfstream Park since 1989.)

The time of first running of the $12 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes, the world’s richest race, was officially changed from the original posting of 1:47.61 to 1:46.83.

Kudos to private clocker Bruno De Julio for being the first to report the error and causing Trakus, the timing company and official timer at Gulfstream Park, to retime the race with frame by frame video replay analysis.

De Julio clocked the race replay three times and came up with 1:46.90, 1:46.87 and 1:46.91. I did the same. My watch read: 1:46.90, 1:46.93 and 146.94.

The adjusted time of 1:46.87 is close enough to DeJulio’s and my hand-timed efforts to be considered accurate.

In a release, Trakus stated, "On major race days, extreme environmental conditions are not unusual, and may impact reliable tracking performance."

In my view, Trakus is the not-ready-for-prime-time timers and Gulfstream Park and the Jockey Club must share the culpability as well.

The Trakus failure is a top-down failure in the Thoroughbred industry because the timing company is endorsed and subsidized by the Jockey Club. Gulfstream Park should employ an official timer of its own, and not be the same person who operates the Trakus system.

This is not an area in which to be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Accurate race times not only is the bedrock of fundamental handicapping that supports the game, but is also a way horses from different eras can be compared in a sporting, historical context.

Elmont, NY, February 7, 2017

Written by Mark Berner

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Wednesday, January 25, 2017


In All Things, Truth Matters


People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, PETA, is an organization that claims to be something it is not. Organizations that kill four out of every five animals it takes in are not ethical.

PETA’s dirty little secret is that no matter how many animals it claims to save, it kills many times more. PETA’s website claims it to be the most compassionate way to deal with stray animals. If this is PETA being compassionate, I can’t imagine what their bad side is like.

According to Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services data obtained via public records request—get your facts now before they are wiped—PETA took in 6,480 animals in 2013-2015. In those three years, 1009 were transferred, 145 were adopted (2.20%) but 5,562 were killed (85.8%).

Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen knows all about PETA as he was one that came into contact with the organization’s dark side. A failed sting operation, set up by PETA in Asmussen’s barn in 2013, exposed the depths PETA employs to create alternative facts.

At least, thankfully, it exposed the problems involved with the use of Thyroxine. “Gets them hyped up,” one of his assistants told a PETA spy. (The use of Thyroxine was not limited to Asmussen’s operation, of course).

PETA’s main goal is to raise money and it’s good at doing so, taking in hundreds of millions of dollars in donations from people who expect it not to do some of the things it does. The money is needed to run their self-perpetuating operation.

Yes, PETA is a business, and it has a yearly operating budget that approaches $50 million. But when PETA spends money to create alt-facts, it crosses the line.

PETA needs sensational press stories to get donations. It is easy to prey on emotions because people humanize their pets, consider them “family,” consequently the public is easily outraged when animals are mistreated.

But the Asmussen affair was not only about money. It was a sordid business in which PETA had a woman sleep with one of Asmussen’s employees to get some dirty inside information, the kind of below-board move that puts into question its own morality.

Ultimately, the New York State Gaming Commission cleared Asmussen of all animal cruelty charges and fined him $10,000 for four overages of Thyroxine, a thyroid medication when used therapeutically regulates metabolism.

Something good did come from the undercover operation. The commission produced a 176-page report on November 23, 2015, the “Asmussen Report.” In it, the commission vowed to be industry leaders on drug control and enforcement--more of a commitment than the usual lipstick-on-pig approach.

PROGRESS, SORT OF


On February 2, 2016, I wrote a column for HRI outlining a number of concerns about the drug situation I believed worthy of consideration by the NYSGC. http://tinyurl.com/jpgt8j3

Several of my proposals included the reporting of severe bleeders and more comprehensive medication logging. Indeed, those suggestions ultimately were approved for consideration by the NYSGC at its Jan. 23, 2017 meeting.

The New York State Register lists five proposed rules that passed by unanimous vote at that NYSGC session. Following the completion of a 45-day comment period, the commission can vote on them.

The proposals included changes regarding the status of bleeders, prohibited substances, drug penalties, out-of-competition testing, and medication-data logging.

The commission meets the fourth Monday of every month and as such cannot act on these issues until March 27, earliest.

The rub is that these proposals are not those of the NYSGC itself, but the model rules suggested by the Association of Racing Commissioners International on December 9 last year.

Sadly, the disappointment is in discovering yet another organization that is not really what it purports to be. The NYSGC does some good but seldom if ever performs proactively. It is a follower, not the leader it said it to be.

Underscoring this point, an interpreter from ARCI was present at the NYSGC meeting to explain the rules that contained language so obtuse that certain mandates are not yet finalized.

Further, it is unclear if it is legally or ethically acceptable to propose a rule that calls for public comment without clear language in the document. NYSGC legal counsel Rick Goodell said that New York’s proposal can be modified if the language approved by a national group differs markedly from the state’s interpretation.

The question is whether that would require another 45-day comment period, a.k.a legislating on the fly, these days the current rage.

Meanwhile, the NYSGC must know and care that the ARCI is a group that also does not act in the way it presents itself.

ARCI-approved medications listed in their December missive still includes opioid narcotics, steroids, drugs not approved by the [soon-to-be-toothless] United States Food and Drug Administration, as well as drugs forbidden by the British Horseracing Authority, the World Anti-Doping Agency and the International Olympic Committee.

There have been clear indications that the ARCI is not trying to rid the game of drugs but rather finding a chemical alchemy that will satisfy industry practitioners as it placates the public’s concerns.

BITS AND BYTES

The NYSGC issued a final ruling concerning jockey agent and former jockey Mike A. Gonzalez. Gonzalez was fined $25,000, had his license revoked, and will not be able to reapply for a license for 10 years.

Gonzalez was convicted after a plea bargain concerning the bribing of a NYRA official and for committing computer trespass. He may also pay a criminal penalty, yet to be determined in court.

ELMONT, NY, January 25, 2017

Written by Mark Berner

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