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, March 14, 2017

It’s Horse Racing But It’s Still Rock ‘n Roll to Me

United States Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke posted a press release on his department website March 6 which announcing a lease-sale of 73-million acres of federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico, scheduled for August 16, 2017.

April 20th will mark the seventh anniversary of the tragic explosion and sinking of the BP Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers and spewed oil into the Gulf until it was capped nearly three months later, July 15, 2010.

The operation was declared officially or “effectively dead” two months after that on September 19.

For those interested, the lease sale will be livestreamed from New Orleans and it will be the first installment of a five-year program called the Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2017-2022.

On a related note, oil will soon flow through the Dakota Access Pipeline just 150 miles from where the failed protests to stop it took place. Recall that in December, authorities discovered that 176,000 gallons of crude leaked from the Belle Fourche Pipeline into Ash Coulee Creek in North Dakota.

The lease sale in the Gulf is an invitation for both profit and potential disaster. I spoke with musician and environmental activist Tab Benoit, as far back at June 3, 2010. Benoit was in New York for a show and we talked about the BP debacle after the gig.

So, what’s all this have to do with horse racing?

Well, it was Benoit who inspired the name of a four-time Louisiana Horse of the Year champion, Star Guitar. The Star Guitar Stakes is now the lynchpin for Louisiana Champions Day for state-bred horses at the Fair Grounds each year.

The multiple champion was bred and raced by Benoit’s mother, Evelyn, who raced under the name Brittlyn Stable. The family was so devoted to racing that when Tab was too young to get into the track, his parents dropped him off at a bowling alley on their way to Fair Grounds.

Even for New Orleans, a bowling alley is an odd place for childcare. (While discouraging a heckler on the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise seven years ago, Benoit tells the hilarious R-rated bowling alley tale:

Benoit is a multiple award-winning artist from Houma, Louisiana where he holds a festival each year to benefit the wetlands. In 2004 he established The Voice of the Wetlands, a cultural preservation and wetlands restoration organization that continually battles the sea from claiming the land.

Standing beside his tour bus on the Hudson River dock at 42nd Street, Benoit took a sip a Courvoisier and cited a US Geological Survey stating the wetlands have lost ground to the sea at a rate of 16.57 square miles each year for a quarter-century, or about a football field of coast every 60 minutes. “An acre an hour,” he said.

Benoit knows this from first-hand experience. Before he entered the music business, he piloted crews to the oil rigs in the Gulf by plane and has witnessed the encroachment of the wetlands from the air.

Benoit, a master blues guitarist, gathered the “crème de la crème” of New Orleans musicians and formed the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars. The group includes Dr. John, George Porter, Jr. of The Meters, Cyril Neville of the Neville Brothers, and prolific songwriter/guitar monster Anders Osborne.

Not long after the band was formed, Benoit came to the aid of his beloved Louisiana after the disaster left by Hurricane Katrina and the federal flood that followed on August 29, 2005.

How events transpired from there was documented in John Swenson’s 2010 book “New Atlantis: Musicians Battle for the Survival of New Orleans.”

Swenson was a former music critic for Rolling Stone magazine and local horseplayers remember him as a turf writer for the New York Post and later was a Fair Grounds correspondent for Daily Racing Form.

Following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Star Guitar man again came to the rescue again. In between he testified before Congress in 2008. But he has no faith in politicians and pulls no punches when saying so:

"We're sitting here trying to fix the tail while the head is making decisions," Benoit said after his Congressional appearance. "If we don't fix the priorities of the nation we're not going to fix the coast of Louisiana. If taking care of people and our infrastructure was a priority, the coast of Louisiana would be high on their list."

Benoit used his first-hand knowledge of the issue and tried his best when, taking no sides in 2008, he brought a troupe of 50 musicians to play at both the Democratic and Republican national conventions.

Dan Rather later interviewed him on his HDnet show “Dan Rather Reports ‘Mudflap’.” Said Benoit: “You look at [Rather] and you just can’t lie. When he asks you a question you have to answer.” Here’s a press conference with Benoit speaking about Rather on the Deepwater Horizon disaster:

Rather got a first-hand tour down on the bayou on Benoit’s speedboat. The boat was moving so fast that their cheeks rippled in the wind.

But Rather’s hair was so secured with hairspray that not a single strand was out of place. Indeed, they should use it to secure the wetlands. The episode is available on iTunes:

Star Guitar gave Louisiana-bred racing a shot in the arm the way Fio Rito did for New York when he won the 1981 Whitney Handicap at Saratoga, the only time--Rachel Alexandra’s Woodward notwithstanding--the old Spa building literally shook with cheers

BITS AND BYTES: On March 2, the New York Racing Association announced a three-year partnership with Hoppegarten Racecourse in Berlin for a unique series of inter-continental stakes beginning later this year.

The New York State breeding program has come a long way since Fio Rito, with many notable Grade 1 winners including, of course, Funny Cide, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2003.

NYRA and the New York breeders should attempt to expand the synergy of this new partnership by attracting some of the noted raceday-medication-free German bloodstock to New York.

Sires that have raced on drugs are forbidden to stand in Germany and that would bring back stallions of known quality to New York…

“Belmont Live” and “Saratoga Live” broadcasts, the best things that NYRA did last year, will resume and be expanded this year, it was announced yesterday in an agreement with Fox Sports which present 46 live shows on Fox Sports-2.

The entire 36-day meeting at Saratoga Race Course is on the Fox schedule along with 10 dates this spring; three from Aqueduct Racetrack and seven from Belmont Park…

The horseplayer boycott at Santa Anita is on. West Coast-based horseplayer advocate Andy Asaro has organized a boycott of Santa Anita from March 23-to-26 to protest the jackpot provision of the Pick 6, the results from which on March 5 caused quite a stir. An open letter to Frank Stronach is to come. Stay tuned.

Written by Mark Berner

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Saturday, February 25, 2017

Bloomberg Report Confirms Islanders-at-Belmont Exclusive

A Bloomberg News report on February 24 confirmed that the New York Islanders will play in a new arena at Belmont Park.

HorseRaceInsider’s Mark Berner reported exclusively in his “Inside New York” column of February 7 that the grounds adjacent to the racetrack would be used to build a new arena hard by the Cross Island Parkway on the Queens/Nassau County line.

Islanders' owners Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin, along with NY Knicks-Rangers owner James Dolan and NY Mets owner Fred Wilpon will also provide funding to build the new arena.

New York City-based hockey fans will also be able to access the new facility via an existing Long Island Railroad station.

The Wilpons will be represented through their firm, Sterling Project Development. Dolan and Madison Square Garden are investors in Oak View Group, a joint venture of sports executives Tim Leiweke and Irving Azoff, who also manage numerous recording artists. Plans for the arena already have been drawn up.

The Twitter world was abuzz on Friday with the news, as were metropolitan area television newscasts and daily New York newspapers.

Long Island's cable news channel, News 12, also aired a report with an interview from Newsday's Arthur Staple.

“Belmont Park always seemed to be the most logical choice,” said Staple. “If the Islanders are going to leave Barclays Center, this is the one [area] that makes the most sense. They can come back to Long Island.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo is also on board with the plan as New York State owns the property on which New York’s racetrack’s rest. Cuomo has committed money for transportation infrastructure.

The Long Island Rail Road spur line terminates at Belmont Park. Speculation is that the rails could be extended or a covered moving walkway could be constructed to connect the current train platform with the arena.

Current plans for the edifice call for the building to be constructed in the parking lot south of Hempstead Turnpike (marked B in the following picture).


ELMONT, NY, February 25, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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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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