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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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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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The More Things Change…

Thoroughbred racing in the US cannot withstand a hurricane of change. Yet if it does not occur, it will drown in a sea of drugs, deaths and litigation. Its destiny is our hands.

Exposure of extensive drug use was the nadir of the trial and conviction of trainer Murray Rojas in Pennsylvania, equine deaths have tragically been too frequent at Saratoga, and litigation opened Pandora’s Box when Kentucky judge, Thomas Wingate, struck down the absolute-insurer (trainer responsibility) rule in the case of trainer Graham Motion.

Stewart S Janney III, Chairman of the Jockey Club closed its Round Table Conference on Matters Pertaining to Racing in Saratoga Springs on August 13, with the following remarks.

“What has happened in Pennsylvania recently is disgraceful and sad, especially when you consider that the state is the sixth leading producer of foals and that it hosted approximately 4,000 races and distributed more than 100 million in purses in 2016.

Let's start by focusing on the federal trial involving trainer Murray Rojas on charges of fraud, conspiracy, and misbranding of drugs. I think it illustrates what we have to fix and how our problems interconnect.

Uncontradicted testimony described widespread, in fact, nearly universal, cheating; regulators asleep on the job; a corrupted and ineffectual testing system.

Almost as embarrassing was the unprecedented decision two months ago by the Pennsylvania State Horseracing Commission to declare two winners of the 2016 Parx Oaks after one of the fillies had tested positive for clenbuterol. Try as you might, there were no heroes to be found. And to anyone sitting comfortably in this room thinking Pennsylvania's problems are not yours, I would say: Forget it. We own this problem.”

Thoroughbred racing historically has not owned its drug problem. It now makes a second attempt in support of the Barr Tonko bill in congress. This time it calls for the end of race day medication.

Some trainers will breathe a sigh of relief when they can resume training with knowledge instead of needles. Others will continue to play the system for profit.

A YouTube video, posted August 11, is of Monster Racing owner, Randy Gindi, in the blue shirt screaming “the juice man” and claiming he “lined his pockets with the bookie with another $20,000” and trainer Jorge Navarro, purple shirt and NY cap, who said, “That’s the way we do it. We #### them.” Even if the video is some kind of charade, its optics are poor. Link to video:

Equine fatalities this year at Saratoga now total 17. Two died prior to the beginning of the meeting and 15 since the opening, eight racing, six training, and one from a non-racing illness.

"Our goal is to reduce the number of racehorse deaths and injuries to zero, and we have taken many productive steps toward reaching that goal over the past four years," said New York State Equine Medical Director Scott E. Palmer, VMD at a continuing education meeting for trainers in Saratoga on August 21.

"The Commission, as it does with every equine fatality on the grounds of a track in New York State, is actively investigating the circumstances of each incident at Saratoga Race Course. This also includes close scrutiny of the track surfaces, exercise history and past performances, individual horse risk factors, and more."

The commission has yet to issue a promised report on last year’s equine deaths in Saratoga.

"There is no issue more important to NYRA than the safety of our equine and human athletes," said NYRA Safety Steward Hugh Gallagher. "That is why NYRA has implemented extensive reforms and made significant investments since 2013 to improve track surface conditions, upgrade equipment, provide vets with more authority to monitor thoroughbred health, establish committees to oversee safety measures, and actively seek out advice and guidance from independent experts and scientists.”

Apparently, all this effort is in vain because since 2013, when there were 10 equine fatalities, the number has increased. In 2014 and 2015, 13 horses died at Saratoga and in 2016, there were 16.

Risk factors should assessed upon examination of the lifetime health record of a horse which should be recorded from birth and stored on the mandatory implanted chips required for all Thoroughbred foals.

Some risks that are currently not examined are horses that receive corrective surgery to give the illusion of good conformation, horses that test positive when entered in a public sale and two years old that run an eighth mile in nine and change at a horses in training sale.

The Kentucky Racing Commission found that trainer Graham Motion’s horse, Kitten’s Point, had a minute overage of a legal muscle relaxer detected in the post-race test sample at Keeneland in April 2015, and the case ended up in court.

Judge Wingate found that Motion’s right to due process was violated and the science behind the regulation was arbitrary and capricious.

“The methocarbamol threshold is recommended by the RMTC and included in the Controlled Therapeutic Medication list that is part of the National Uniform Medication Program,” said Dr. Dionne Benson, Executive Director of the RMTC. “These treatment protocols were set based upon a survey of AAEP practitioners, as is our standard practice.”

“The ironic thing is, this medication was prescribed to me by one of the vets on the RMTC committee, and the dosage, and the withdrawal,” said Motion.

It’s not just ironic it’s a sham. That is the major problem with RMTC. It does not do scientific peer reviews. As such, all its regulations are subject to question.

It is time to change the stewards of our sport if this is the best they can offer because the government regulates with axes and sledgehammers.

Written by Mark Berner

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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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