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, December 05, 2017

Belmont Park and Islanders Break New Ground

Empire State Development, New York State’s business development agency, has moved quickly and is ever closer to a decision that will award the bid of the New York Islanders hockey team and its consortium to build a new arena at Belmont Park.

The Islanders hope to break ground next spring. “We have no comment as of now,” said Kimber Auerbach, Executive Director of Communications of the Islanders.

The announcement likely will come from someone with a higher pay grade. That, or the ESD award announcement will come at an opportune time for New York’s politically ambitious Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The Islanders, along with NYCFC – The New York City Football Club, and developer Blumenfeld Development Group submitted bids on Empire State Development’s Request For Proposal by the September 28 deadline.

Ed Blumenthal recognized the warning signs and dropped out yesterday, citing extraordinary financial requirements that, according to a Newsday report, “appear to create a selection process that has been predetermined.”

A listening session scheduled by local politicians will take place on Sunday, DEC 10, at Elmont Memorial High School where the bidders will present their plans to the community.

This is unusual timing at this point in the process; a signal that the ESD is moving with speed. This meeting differs from the first listening session at the Elmont Library in July when the ESD listened to the community. This time it’s the other way around.

Following presentations by both bidders, they will answer handpicked questions previously submitted to the moderator. Written follow-up comments can be made onsite after the meeting, or by email to . The filing deadline is Monday, December 11.

The New Islanders Arena at Belmont Park
Allee, King, Rosen & Fleming (AKRF), an environmental consulting firm, has been contracted by the state to do work with the winner of the Belmont proposal. In doing so, the lengthy environmental studies needed before most projects of this nature are sidestepped.

AKRF previously consulted on the Barclays Center, Citi Field and Yankee Stadium projects.

When asked about the timeline for a decision, Amy Varghese, spokesperson for the ESD, said, “Belmont Park represents an opportunity for vibrant community and economic growth in the region and we're currently reviewing proposals for the site.”

The New York Racing Association also has big plans for Belmont Park but no one there is ready to let that horse out of the barn yet. When contacted, Patrick McKenna, NYRA’s Director of Communications & Public Affairs, declined to comment.

NYRA personnel have been muzzled for a good reason. Releasing NYRA’s plans before the ESD award would be foolish. And that’s because, as it looks now, the project is significantly different from the ESD’s Request For Proposal.

Layout of the New Belmont Complex

Most surprising is the fact that the entire proposed complex is on the north side of Hempstead Turnpike. The parking lot on the south side, expected to be the site of the arena, will remain a parking lot.

The new arena will hold 16,500 for hockey and 18,000 for stage shows, with two upper levels ringed with highly profitable executive suites. The proposal includes a hotel, a conference center, entertainment facilities, multilevel parking and retail shopping.

Additionally, there will be a new dual-purpose entrance from the adjacent Long Island Rail Road terminal to the Belmont grandstand and Islanders Arena.

If the Islanders project leaves more available land at Belmont, there still could be room for the NYCFC, making it a rare win, win, win. Some context:

Belmont Park first opened on May 4, 1905 and was demolished in 1963. The new Belmont Park reopened on May 20, 1968 and next year, its 50th anniversary, it is scheduled to get a major renovation.

Since no one at NYRA is currently willing to speak, HRI gets to propose some projects we think would make Belmont Park great again. Consider:

Will NYRA continue to conduct racing at Aqueduct while Belmont is under construction? NYRA’s construction at Belmont is currently scheduled to take two years. The Isles project is estimated to take up to five. Where will racing be conducted in the interim?

The 150th Belmont Stakes is scheduled to be run June 9, 2018 at Belmont Park. When the current Belmont Park was constructed, the Belmont was held at Aqueduct for five consecutive years, from 1963 through 67.

Will the 2018 Belmont be run in Elmont, then return to Queens the following year? Will the Belmont Park even be ready for the 2020 renewal? Will the reopening of Belmont and the permanent closing of Aqueduct both occur in 2020?

Other questions linger: Will the new Belmont Park have a dual-faced grandstand so that the back of current grandstand faces the paddock? Will NYRA enclose a reasonably sized section of Belmont’s grandstand that it will need for winter racing?

Would NYRA consider building a fourth concentric track for winter racing? In summer, would they build one or two tunnels to the infield? Originally thought to hold overflow on only one day per year, wouldn’t an infield get more use than an altered backyard?

Will NYRA install lights for night racing, requiring a change in state law to accommodate harness racing? Yonkers Raceway has made initial inquiries about Standardbred racing at Belmont. A partnership could work.

Finally, is the Belmont Park project part of NYRA’s plan to consolidate racing downstate? If Aqueduct were to close permanently in the future, would NYRA then open Saratoga on July 4, since a bad day at the Spa is better than good day at Belmont?

ELMONT, NY, December 5, 2017

Written by Mark Berner

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

NYRA Supports NY Horsemen’s Plan to Help Defray Insurance Costs

Pound for pound, jockeys are among the strongest athletes on the planet. These 110-pound riders are entrusted to control 1,000-pound racehorses, and they do so with tremendous strength and deft hands.

It’s something of a jockey’s code, something they don’t speak about. But each time a jockey mounts a Thoroughbred in a horse race they literally hold their lives inside those hands.

Nearly 30 years have passed since Mike Venezia lost his life in a tragic accident at Belmont Park. Though improved safety equipment for jockeys is now mandatory, it is hardly life-saving. Any injury could end a career, or worse.

Because this occupation is so dangerous, insurance premiums are extremely high; indeed the equivalent of a professional football player in the National Football League.

In an attempt to assist horsemen meet a huge financial burden of skyrocketing insurance costs—especially in New York--and to help fill races, the New York Racing Association and the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association developed a symbiotic plan.

At Aqueduct’s upcoming winter meeting, December 6 through March 31, 2018, through NYRA auspices, horsemen will receive a $300 credit to help pay any outstanding balances in the New York Jockey Injury Compensation Fund for workmen’s compensation insurance to trainers whose horses race but do not gain a large slice of the purse money.

*The funding for the $300 Per Start Credit Program does not come from NYRA, it comes entirely from horsemen's purse money. The idea for the program came from NYTHA. While NYRA is in support of the program, they are neither the catalyst nor the source of the funding.

In New York, the winner currently gets 60% of the purse, with 20% for second, 10% for third, five percent for fourth and three percent for fifth.

Under this arrangement, the remainder of the field will split two percent of the purse among also-rans finishing sixth or worse. NYRA will guarantee that $300 minimum to these remaining horses.

Safety equipment and concussion protocols will be among the issues discussed at The Jockeys' Guild Annual Assembly next month in Las Vegas. Venezia was a Guild representative for many years and led many discussions on the safety issue.

Sadly, the reality is that no piece of equipment could have saved Venezia, who was killed instantly when kicked in the face by a trailing horse. His helmet remained intact.

An updated Boston University study published in July found that 110 of 111 brains of former NFL players suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative brain disease found in individuals who have been exposed to repeated head trauma.

There is no way for any external protection device to keep the brain from banging around inside the skull. Indeed, the new study could result in a challenge to the durability of the league’s $1-billion concussion settlement with former NFL players.

League executives are viewing the study with caution. They have never admitted football causes CTE and will not while litigation continues. Both sides have lawyered up and if the NFL admits that CTE causes brain damage it will have to own that finding. Even in a league with deep pockets, that cost could be unaffordable.

Thoroughbred racing is in the same position as the NFL yet leaders of the Jockeys Guild and the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund have had no problem conceding that CTE is a risk for riders.

When retired jockey Gwen Jocson was diagnosed with the brain disease superficial siderosis, due to multiple falls on the track, she was not considered totally disabled. Her doctor says she likely has CTE but current technology only can determine CTE post-mortem.

When Jocson applied to the PDJF for financial assistance in 2016, she was told she wasn’t qualified for assistance.

“In prior instances the PDJF has awarded benefits to injured jockeys for disabling medical condition such as paraplegia, quadriplegia, and brain damage associated with a single catastrophic on-track accident [where] injuries were immediately apparent,” said Nancy LaSala of the PDJF in a 2016 Lexington Herald Leader report.

Hall of Fame jockey Ramon Dominguez won his third consecutive Eclipse Award as leading rider in 2012, but missed the award ceremony in Florida the following January because he suffered brain trauma in a spill at Aqueduct. He ultimately retired later in 2013.

It is no small irony that Dominguez later received the Mike Venezia Award for extraordinary sportsmanship and citizenship. At that ceremony, NYRA CEO Christopher Kay gave a $15,000 check in Dominguez's name to the PDJF.

The National Hockey League, the leader in head injury protocol, decided not to let its players participate in the upcoming Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea because the Olympics will not pay for the insurance.

And stories keep popping up everywhere about moms who are worried about CTE and will not let their kids play high school football. That development may provide for a groundswell of bottom-up dilution in the pool but for now insurance companies have a top-down hold on the finances of all sports.

It’s incumbent upon the stewards of Thoroughbred racing to set up a fund to pay for the prohibitive cost of treating brain injuries caused by CTE.

The PDJF is a 501(c) (3) public charity and industry-based fund, independent of the Guild, that provides financial assistance to jockeys, both Guild and non-Guild members who have suffered catastrophic on-track injuries. Charity is inadequate to foot this bill.

It was good to see Jockey Club Chairman Stuart Janney stand up at this year’s Round Table and say that racing has to own its drug problems exposed in last year’s trial of trainer Murray Rojas.

The next step is a nod that racing also must own CTE head injuries. Not only must racing own that but also take on the responsibility of caring for its own.

*correction made 111517 clarifying the source of funding

Written by Mark Berner

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Sunday, October 15, 2017

For Racing, What Cost Security?

Dr. Rick Sams, laboratory director at LGC Sports Science, the official testing laboratory for Kentucky, Virginia and Maine racing commissions based in Lexington, says that designer drugs administered to horses simply cannot be detected by laboratories.

Sams, it should be noted, also is a member of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium's Scientific Practices Committee and consultant to the Drug Testing Standards and Practices Committee of the Association of Racing Commissioners International.

On the other hand, Martin Panza, senior vice president of racing operations at the New York Racing Association, said nobody is using drugs that we don’t know about. Both cannot be correct.

“Both right, both wrong,” said Dr. Steven Barker, the veterinarian whose laboratory at Louisiana State University was the first to discover dermorphin, aka ‘frog juice’. “The answer is somewhere in the middle.”

“Testing is far superior to what it was just five years ago due to advances in analytical technology. However, the new stuff is coming through purchases on the internet,” Barker added.

The largest supply of drugs comes from China and India. Fentanyl is flooding the ‘black market’ and it contributes greatly to the opioid epidemic in the U.S. Barker is surprised that fentanyl and its derivatives are not found more often in racehorses.

These drugs have proven easy to get and easy to alter. A simple Google search for designer drugs for sale yielded 666,000 results. Another for legal research chemicals for sale in US yielded 1,580,000 results.

Barker said that altering a research chemical makes it harder to detect and does not necessarily change its effectiveness and that the altered substance could yield a weaker drug, or one that is 1,000 times stronger.

Chemicals for research escape regulations by the US Drug Enforcement Administration and the US Food and Drug Administration because they are not sold for use in food, drugs, devices, cosmetics, or dietary supplements for humans or animals.

Though not intended for sale as such, research chemicals and their derivatives are used by humans and in racehorses. If the US government cannot stop it, how can the authorities that govern racing?

Multiple layers of security, intensive backstretch investigations, better monitoring of veterinarians, and more money for testing labs is the consensus opinion of Barker and an expert in the field of racing security, who requested anonymity.

"In Louisiana, the best method was to have the state police setup backstretch stings," Barker said. When asked how far the chemists are ahead of the testing labs, Barker’s droll response was "give them a couple of miles."

When trainer Jorge Navarro, infamous for his YouTube ‘Juiceman’ video, runs horses in New York, they are under surveillance 24 hours a day for 72 hours before they race. They are tested thrice; upon arrival via out-of-competition testing, then pre- and post-race, as well.

Navarro’s reputation as such resulted in one trainer, Phil Serpe, telling Daily Racing Form that he was reluctant to enter his horse in a race in which Navarro also had an entrant. Panza said that’s a rare occurrence.

A horseman saying it out loud is, anyway.

Bettors as Monmouth Park must think Navarro’s presence matters as handle was down 10 percent there in races with Navarro starters. Navarro had about 10 percent of the horses stabled Monmouth, and they needed him to fill races.

Craig Milkowski, who clocks horses and makes speed figures for TimeformUS, said the majority of races this summer at Monmouth that were exceedingly fast [in which horses improved up to 30 points] were won by a Navarro trainee.

However, professional gambler Paul Cornman made a good point about the converse being true; that not as many horses explode with huge wins anymore and that more simply just don’t show up on race day.

Panza said all horses that perform exceptionally well are tested but did not say the same about horses that run exceptionally poor, beaten favorites notwithstanding.

Out of competition testing in New York is the job of the regulating body, the New York State Gaming Commission. However, it only performs those tests for NYRA’s biggest races.

NYRA tests all horses that run in graded stakes with monetary assistance from the Jockey Club, which has a fund that never has been exhausted for such. NYRA picks up the tab for approximately 1,000 out-of-competition tests each year.

Surveillance cameras should be made mandatory inside the barn area of racetracks. Cameras are everywhere one turns these days, but not on the backstretch of racetracks, including NYRA’s.

And, unfortunately, among the multi-million dollar projects NYRA has already completed and plans for its future, absent is one that addresses the issue of total security.

Panza believes that cameras would protect trainers. In fact, some horsemen have installed cameras at their own expense. When asked about access control via badge swipe or Radio Frequency Identification cards, Panza said that would be logistically difficult.

There are and will be logistical challenges, of course, but enhanced security is urgently needed. Thousands of people have legitimate business in the barn area but once admitted to the grounds with proper credentials, their movements go unchecked.

According to one security expert involved in horseracing, cameras at all three NYRA tracks would be a reasonably priced investment.

The cost to install high definition, all weather, activity-based intelligence cameras for each stall, shedrow and breezeway, as well as outside cameras with Wi-Fi and recording equipment is approximately $3 million. The yearly expense to monitor, maintain and upgrade the equipment would add another $1.5 million.

Integrity should be paramount not only in New York but at all venues, especially the major ones that can afford to install security equipment. In NYRA’s case, the expense associated with thorough video surveillance is a drop in bucket.

As Dr. Barker wondered: “How can they afford not to, and why haven’t they done it already?”

Written by Mark Berner

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