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, January 30, 2018

For Racing, Correct Time for a Wakeup Call

The National Hockey League returns to regular season play tonight after the this weekend’s All Star Game in Tampa, where fans were given a preview of Ice Vision, its new multi-camera, 3-D 360 degree tracking system. It is light years ahead of the NHL’s old tracking system.

So, how exactly is this all relevant to Thoroughbred racing? Well, most horseplayers are very familiar with the NHL’s old technology which, in horseracing circles, is known as Trakus.

Though Ice Vision still needs fine tuning, it makes Trakus look like Pong, the rudimentary video game released in 1972. There is no reason horseracing in 2018 should be using a castoff technology from another sports league.

Horseracing is already a data-rich with the kind of information that makes racing a participatory sport, yet it has no graphic user interface in its digital footprint, a necessary link to lure youthful gamers to horse racing as sport.

Major sports leagues in the US already are gearing up for nation-wide sports betting and will have a huge advantage with computer aided graphical representations of each sport.

Racetracks and horseracing bet-takers want to be a hub for that action, but they will be woefully under-prepared when sports betting is legalized.

And there’s a better chance than ever before that today’s Supreme Court won’t stand in the way of states in which sanctioned legal gambling already exists at its racetracks and racinos.

Last year, Major League Baseball phased out PITCHf/x, introduced in 2006, in favor of Statcast, a newer and more advanced system that tracks the ball and players by using a combination of radar and cameras.

The National Football League has used Zebra Technologies’ MotionWorks as its official on-field player-tracking system since 2014.

MotionWorks uses radio frequency identification (RFID) to capture high-speed player data and convert it into real-time, usable statistics. This season the NFL inserted RFID tags into footballs.

The National Basketball Association has a new distributor for its statistical information and its player tracking data this season. Sportradar also uses a multi-camera system, replacing STATS SportsVu’s roof-mounted cameras.

Of course, STATS already has broken into racing with its Race Lens past performance product.

Horseracing in France is about to move into the future with Epiqe Tracking, an immersive land-based GPS system with only a 300 millisecond delay from transmitter to screen. Epiqe has achieved what it considers a required level of accuracy equaling 25 centimeters, slightly less than 10 inches.

Epiqe Tracking, used for harness racing as well as Thoroughbreds, has had successful trials at Chantilly and it will debut this year at the reopening of Longchamps in April.

Not only has tracking technology advanced, equipment has vaulted ahead with the advent of the smart whip. Based in Turkey, ESIT Elektronik has created a product called WhipChip, which counts the number of times a jockey employs the whip and measures the force of each stroke.

While other sports are using or developing second-generation tracking systems, horseracing on this continent has based its future on a previously discarded first generation tracker.

As a handicapper, I would like to know information that’s not yet available, such as how fast a horse accelerates from the gate, getting an instant assessment of a track’s bias in miles per hour.

I also want to know the speed necessary to keep up while racing wide, and more, I want it in real time. It would be a great advantage in judging race-time conditions and adjusting the handicapping process accordingly.

It would be easy enough to download an app onto a phone or computer, which will assist modern day handicappers and perhaps attract a new and wider audience.

It won’t be long before graphics can be viewed on virtual reality headsets that would provide a 3-D image in 360 degrees.

Richie Havens, legendary singer-songwriter who opened the Woodstock Music Festival, was also an artist, inventor and racing fan. Havens shared a similar vision with me at a Belmont Stakes press party 30-plus years ago.

Somewhere in my attic is a copy of his presentation in which he envisioned a race fan watching races in 360 degrees on a swivel chair while enclosed in a circular booth, with all the racing footage shot from infield.

Years later, I asked him whatever became of that model and, flashing his large signature smile, said, “I sold it to Viacom.”

Two major racetracks in North America--Gulfstream Park in Florida and Woodbine Race Course in Toronto--have used Trakus but both are looking to go back to hard-wired timing systems until a consistently accurate wireless system is developed for racing.

Why racing is saddled with Trakus and its old technology is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. In brief, the Trakus system, which is endorsed by The Jockey Club, is more economically friendly.

Trakus tracks are subsidized financially by The Jockey Club. Many horseplayers would argue that the TJC is getting exactly what they are paying for while the customer is paying a steeper price by using inconsistent data.

If horseracing is to survive in a marketplace replete with stiff competition from sports betting franchises that provide a better experience via the latest technology, it will have to join the 21st century.

With no central authority and 38 states each having different racing rules, horseracing has neither the leadership nor funds to move forward effectively yet, as Walter Kelly’s Pogo counsels: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Racing will need to embrace technology whatever the high cost. Pay now or there may be no later. At risk is racing’s loss of its long and storied past to other forms of sports entertainment that knew enough to keep up with the times.

ELMONT, NY, January 30, 2018

Written by Mark Berner

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Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Belmont Park: It’s Two, Two Venues in One

The New York Islanders and its consortium, New York Arena Partners, is about to put $1 billion into a sports, entertainment and retail complex at Belmont Park, and the New York Racing Association is simultaneously planning to spend hundreds of millions of its own to renovate the property.

And to assure anyone who might harbor doubts that the new NYRA is not in it for the long term, the association will be asking the State of New York to extend its Belmont Park lease. New York racing is on solid ground once again and NYRA’s current vision now appears limitless.

“Belmont will be Gulfstream Park on steroids,” said NYRA board member Michael Dubb at a press conference last month to announce the selection of the Islanders as the winning bidder for the New York Empire State Development’s Request for Proposal.

The Islanders put together a team of A-list partners to help get this job done, including Oak View Group which on its website states: “We are here to be a positive disruption to business as usual in the sports and live entertainment industry.”

Added Oak View CEO Tim Leiweke: “You guys are going to be really happy with this.”

Leiweke should know. He and Oak View board member Irving Azoff, manager of more music stars than an American flag has stripes, formed the Arena Alliance. The alliance has collaborated with 26 world-class arenas to share music and sports content.

The NYRA is sure to benefit from synergy with the Islanders: Hockey can be to Belmont Park what the racino has been to Aqueduct specifically, and to the NYRA in general. Who knows, sports might become a viable business model for America’s struggling racetracks?

At this juncture, NYRA is farther away from a new beginning than the Islanders. The team wants to put shovels in the ground by spring. NYRA is still finalizing plans. It needs the blessing of its Board of Directors and the Franchise Oversight Board before applying for needed local permits.

NYRA President and CEO Chris Kay said the renovation of Belmont would take place in stages. The Belmont spring meetings will be conducted throughout the construction period. If all goes smoothly, that project could be completed by 2021.

The Belmont Stakes will not be run at Aqueduct, as is it was when Belmont was reconstructed in the 1960s. Belmont’s fall meetings are not as secure. Kay said he is trying to balance simultaneous racing and construction.

Kay told HRI that the entire clubhouse will be enclosed, winterized, and that corporate/luxury boxes will be constructed. The clubhouse will be dual faced with a view of the track facing north and a view of the paddock to the south.

Night racing is high on NYRA’s wish list. A bill permitting night Thoroughbred racing was passed by the New York State Senate last year and NYRA hopes to get it through the State Assembly this year.

The cost of lighting the track has decreased dramatically with the advent of LED lighting, which would allow NYRA to dim the lights between races, a nod to local resident groups that might object.

Current law states that Thoroughbreds own the day and harness racing owns the night. Kay said NYRA would work with Yonkers to stagger the harness schedule so that post times would not be in conflict, adding that NYRA has no interest in conducting harness racing at Belmont.

NYRA wants to build a fourth concentric track inside the three that already exist at Belmont, thereby avoiding shadows cast on the main track during the low sun of winter.

This is news, as it is the first time Kay or anyone at the NYRA has talked about winter racing at Belmont, a seeming confirmation that Aqueduct eventually will cease to conduct racing as the two downstate racetracks would be consolidated into one.

The backyard area at Belmont Park is safe said Kay, who added that most of the entertainment and retail shops would be built on land currently used for parking. Further, NYRA is considering building a tunnel to open up the infield to patrons for the first time.

Kay hopes that the backyard will be a draw to Isles fans that want to bring their families to the races, just as they do with hockey games. He likened the concept to the alcohol and nicotine free zone NYRA built for children at Saratoga.

It’s no secret that NYRA, and horseracing in general, needs a booster shot. The sport has not really created a vast number of new fans in recent decades. Hockey games and concerts can introduce new fans to racing that otherwise would not be exposed to a racing venue.

Kay hopes that dinner and the races will be like dinner and a hockey game, or dinner and a concert. He sees the creation of two venues in one place as a true destination for sports fans, thinking that more choices would give the sports crowd greater incentive to visit.

Gulfstream on steroids, indeed.

Written by Mark Berner

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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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