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, June 13, 2017


Vet Record Transparency Needed Every Race Day


It was three days before the Belmont Stakes and the New York Racing Association took its show on the road, traveling 15 miles west through horrendous city traffic to Rockefeller Plaza for the post-position draw ceremonies for the Belmont Stakes, Manhattan and the Met Mile.

At the same time, the New York State Gaming Commission was releasing the veterinary reports for the horses running in those three prestigious stakes.

At the draw, Epicharis, the highly regarded and highly courted colt from Japan due to defections and the Belmont week reoccurrence of Classic Empire’s celebrated foot issues, drew post 11 for the Belmont Stakes. Less than 24 hours earlier, he was found to be lame in his right foreleg by Dr. Delott, his Belmont Park veterinarian.

Epicharis was administered a shot of Bute (phenylbutazone) intravenously the morning of the draw, would be reexamined two days later but eventually had to be scratched by Belmont’s stewards Saturday morning after his re-examination. In that case, the system worked.

But also noted in the June 7 vet report was that Gormley had received five liters of fluids having suffered mild dehydration after shipping from California to New York, and Senior Investment had acupuncture treatment and vitamin B-12 to treat muscle spasms. These are not serious issues and can be treated easily and legally, which they were.

However, a complete vet report dated June 8 for Belmont Stakes day starters included many runners with indications that inflammation was present. Twisted Tom had some, and was treated with Banamine. He also received a gastric ulcer preventative.

Tapwrit had some inflammation and was treated with a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug in an intravenous Bute treatment. J Boys Echo had mild inflammation and received Bute as well, as did Meantime. Hollywood Handsome and Patch were administered NSAID, Bute.

Lookin at Lee had a prophylactic IV with an immune stimulant. Irish War Cry had three treatments, gastric ulcer prevention, a probiotic and Bute for mild arthritis. The list did not end there. There were more treatments the following day.

And, of course, on race day, June 10, all 11 starters were administered race-day Lasix.

The list of veterinarians and the medications proscribed were abundant and the optics horrible, especially considering this was a top field of Grade 1 horses about to run in a Thoroughbred Classic.

Daily reports for the Metropolitan and Manhattan Handicaps were not dissimilar and the list of proscribed treatments plentiful. Doubtlessly, these steps were necessary for the health of animals but it does spark the imaginations of the public at large, and how can that be a good thing?

All of this appears to fly in the face of $124,740,193, the all-sources wagering totals for the three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival. Imagine what that total might be if American racing were free of drugs, legal or otherwise, so that bettors could wager with unwavering confidence?

A vast network of veterinarians hold this sport together with a web of drugs, substances that masquerade as medication and treatment. If this does not underscore the need for centralized drug regulations, it’s hard to imagine what would.

Congressman Andy Barr (R-KY) and Congressman Paul Tonko (D-NY), introduced H.R. 2651, the Horseracing Integrity Act, to the House of Representatives on May 25.

The Barr-Tonko bill of 2017 is an updated version of their 2015 legislation but with a significant new twist; elimination of raceday medication. Because Thoroughbred racing is addicted to drugs, it assures that the bill will be dead on arrival in Washington D.C. instead of being lauded.

If racing does not present a united front, it will never come to a vote--unless the legislative majority does the same thing with Barr-Tonko that it currently is trying to accomplish with a “stealth health care plan” which, of course, would eventually strip benefits currently available to at least 23 million U.S. citizens.

If Thoroughbred racing continues its present drug-addled course, then it would behoove the NYSGC to release veterinary reports for all horses on every day so that the betting public could make more informed decisions, not just in Grade 1 stakes on days when the whole world is watching.

The NYSGC has made significant strides in recent years but now it needs to go all the way. Transparency cannot do its job fully if its findings are presented in an opaque fashion.

BITS AND BYTES:

NYRA MAKES GOOD ON GUARANTEE: The NYRA put up its own money to insure that bettors had a guaranteed pool into which it could wager its money, needing special permission from the NYSGC to do so.

On Thursday, June 8, NYRA offered a guaranteed $75,000 Pick 6. The wager was not hit and the pool fell short of the guarantee by $15,579. NYRA initially based the carryover of $37,514 into Friday’s Pick6 on a pool total of $59,421.

To its credit, NYRA paid Thursday’s Pick 6 consolation of $1,914 for five correct winners based on a pool total of $75,000, not the actual amount wagered. Because of the way current law is written, NYRA needed permission to base the carryover on a $75,000 guaranteed pool and increased the amount accordingly.

WATCH OUT: It seems that everyone who criticized the timing of the Jaipur Invitational Stakes did so without benefit of a stopwatch. Disco Partner ran six furlongs on turf in an amazingly fast 1:05.67. I confirmed the time twice via video replay, coming up with clockings of 1:05.79 and 1:05.76.

Reminder for next time: Smartphones come equipped with stopwatches.

NO CUOMO: Governor Andrew Cuomo was reportedly in the New York City vicinity Saturday but continued to show his disdain for racing by failing to show up at Belmont Park on Thoroughbred racing’s biggest day. He’s likely to complete the parlay on Travers Day.

Cuomo did “honor” the Belmont by lighting the new Kosciusko Bridge, a glorified canal crossing on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, in green and white lights, a tribute equivalent to an underhanded salute.

Written by Mark Berner

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Tuesday, April 25, 2017


When It Comes to Drug Enforcement, Politics Prevail


Ed Martin, president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, told horseracing regulators at the recent 2017 ARCI Conference on Integrity and Equine Welfare that the United States Anti-Doping Agency should bid on future drug-testing contracts.

In other words, if the Thoroughbred industry wants to get serious about getting a trusted, outside agency to monitor the use of medication, legal and otherwise, and to what extent violations exist, that agency--in this case the USADA--must pay for the privilege?

In many of the 38 states where parimutuel wagering on horses is sanctioned, the answer to testing has been to opt for the lowest cost. In the majority of cases, the industry has gotten what it paid for.

But is this the approach racing really wants to take, hire testing labs based on the lowest-cost bids? If the industry insists on that, how seriously can we believe their goal is a truly level playing field for all?

Not only do the leaders of ARCI and racing commissions throughout the US permit drug use, the penalties it enacts against violators often are far too lenient. Unless, of course, it has political points to score or agendas to fill.

In Martin’s case there is documentation via an email trail from him to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission whereby he insinuated himself into the Rick Dutrow case, resulting in a politically motivated 10-year suspension based on false testimony from a New York State investigator. But that’s a story for another day.

When it comes to drug use, it matters which organization would perform testing, at least and until there is sufficient industry demand to eliminate the use of race-day medication in the sport, period.

It has been well documented that the USADA has been successful in sports where its leaders were serious about ending drug violations. But horseracing not only embraces the use of permitted medication, it allows it on raceday.

Legal medication is a necessary good. What is not good are conflicting withdrawal thresholds that too often has resulted in accidental, unintended overages because horses, like people, react to medication differently based on their own body chemistry.

“I don’t believe USADA has bid on any drug-testing contract from any commission. I do know, when I read about them doing boxing or mixed martial arts, that they apparently have done work for other state agencies that regulate professional sports,” Martin said, ignoring the fact that those sports welcomed USADA oversight on testing.

Before making statements, Martin should know what is going on and state the facts, not under-researched beliefs about the USADA and drug testing in Thoroughbred racing, even in today’s “post-facts” environment.

Martin clearly missed the point that other sports wished to eliminate all drug use. The USADA uses out-of-competition testing extensively while horseracing does not. Out-of-competition testing is the best way to catch cheaters; unawares.

It is the nature of things that research and development people will always stay ahead of the drug-testing curve; it’s the character of progress. But one must start somewhere. At the least, out-of-competition testing and frozen samples is a deterrent with high potential.

The point of freezing samples was to allow technology to catch up with creative pharmacology. Though science has made tremendous advances in the last five decades since blood samples were first frozen, never has a positive finding been made public.

Instead, the ARCI’s leader can only suggest to what he thinks will improve internal testing procedures; progress marked in inches, not yards--and then his organization has the temerity to congratulate itself for the all-too-slow progress that’s been made.

The ARCI’s recent shuffling of the points system for repeat offenders is sophomoric. It does little to deter drug use and allows offenders and repeat offenders to get off with small fines and short suspensions, except when message-sending is politically expedient.

Martin concludes that “collectively we take a tremendous amount of heat and usually take heat from people who have absolutely no idea of some of the challenges and obstacles that stand in the way of running a government agency, to try to police a sport with tremendous moving parts.”

Thoroughbred racing has traditionally downplayed drug violations to avoid embarrassment, but the USADA is not concerned with the optics. If the USADA takes over drug testing, the embarrassment will be profound. That may be the real deterrent to independent oversight.

There’s no question that this task is very difficult, as the past two decades have shown. And it’s exacerbated by the fact there are 38 state-houses to deal with.

The problem is that Mr. Martin’s political machinations serve two masters when it comes to drug regulation: The regulators, and the regulated.

I shudder to think that this might have been the intent all along.

BITS AND BYTES


Belmont Park Opens Friday: The New York Racing Association has a long list of promotions to bring in customers to the cavernous facility. But until NYRA uses sanity in pricing, fans will stay home.

Sports fans in New York support a number of stadiums, arenas and racetracks. With the exception of the racetracks, other sports are seasonal and have limited opportunities to cash in.

Resultantly, prices are high for parking, admission, seating and concessions. It can easily cost a couple $500 to go to a live sporting event. However, those opportunities are limited by the number of games played. Conversely, racetrack are open nearly 300 days per year.

Fans can expect to spend over $30 for a burger, fries and a beer at sporting events in New York. That may be OK for fans that go to a couple of games each season, but not racing fans that may go to the track 50 times or more each year.

NYRA cannot afford to price itself out of sports market and expect racing fans to come out on a regular basis. These days it is too easy, and much cheaper, to play the races from home. NYRA should use pricing as a weapon vs. competition, not customers.

Islanders Arena:
The National Hockey League announced last week that the New York Islanders are indeed looking to leave Barclays Center in Brooklyn and move back to Long Island.

The Islanders will play in a new arena to be built at Belmont Park, as reported by HRI exclusively on February 7.

Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment is the company that runs Barclays and recently refurbished the Nassau Coliseum where the Islanders played from 1972 to 2105.

BSE has been under fire from Long Island residents and politicians for refurbishing the coliseum and not rebuilding it. BSE merely put lipstick on a pig and graded it a 10.

In actuality, BSE made a concerted effort to turn the Coliseum into a minor league arena that would keep the Isles locked into Barclays for 25 years. That tack backfired.

The Islanders will leave Brooklyn and will not be permitted by the NHL to return to the Coliseum because the league will not allow the Islanders’ new owners to be put in the same bad financial position as the old owners.

New York State is currently finalizing a Request for Proposal, according to Amy Varghese, spokesperson for the Empire State Development Corp. The RFP could include as much as 36 acres for the arena, a hotel, a full-time, year-round Long Island Rail Road terminal and plans for a winterized racetrack at Belmont Park.

ELMONT, NY, April 25, 2017

Written by Mark Berner

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Tuesday, April 11, 2017


Grade 2 Wood Puts On a Grade 1 Show


Just when you think you have this game figured out, it throws something at you that you least expect.

As all know by now, the American Graded Stakes Committee last year downgraded Aqueduct’s premier race for three-year-olds, the Wood Memorial, from Grade 1 to Grade 2.

Since grading stakes began in 1974, the Wood has been a Grade 1 and the Grade 2 designation does not sit well with the majority of racetrack lifers.

Eleven Wood winners have won the Derby and four have won the Triple Crown. However, what have you done for me lately was the logic demanded by the AGSC logarithm.

Since Fusaichi Pegasus won the Wood and Kentucky Derby in 2000, Wood winners went 0-for-30 in Kentucky. Fourteen years have passed since Funny Cide finished second in the Wood and won in Louisville.

The Wood Memorial did not appear to be the strongest of three stakes for three-year-old run Saturday but Wood winning Irish War Cry demonstrated he was by far the strongest victor on Super Saturday.

When the AGSC announced the downgrade last year, the New York Racing Association responded in kind and lowered the purse by $250,000, which seemed like a sure way to secure Grade 2 status for the Wood in the future.

Though NYRA seemed to abet the Wood’s fall from grace, Irish War Cry may be able to restore some luster to the historic stakes. The Wood will celebrate its centennial in 2025 and maybe it can regain Grade 1 status by that time. Maybe it will not take that long.

Churchill Downs awarded 100 Kentucky Derby qualifying points to Irish War Cry for his win but the question remains; will Churchill reduce the downgraded Wood to 50 points next year or does its placement on the prep calendar demand otherwise? We shall see.

Keeneland’s Blue Grass Stakes, also downgraded to Grade 2 this year, looked strongest of the sophomore races on paper but maiden winner Irap held on to win in 1:50.39, getting the last three-eighths in :38.03, his final sixteenth in :13.04.

Santa Anita Park topped the three racetracks in attendance and total handle. Figures for the three tracks follow.

Aqueduct: Handle $2,152,102 on track; $13,689,894 Interstate; Total Handle (all sources) - $15,841,996. Attendance – not reported
Keeneland: Handle $2,387,633 on track; $20,586,859 Total Handle (all sources). Attendance - 32,610
Santa Anita: Handle $3,254,000 on track; $3,869,395 Intrastate; $13,731,610 Interstate; Total Handle (all sources) – 20,855, 005. Attendance - 36,155

Beyer Speed Figures:

Irish War Cry – 101
Irap – 93
Gormley - 88

NYRA NOW-AQUEDUCT LIVE A GOOD PARLAY:
Unfortunately, a bout with sciatica kept me home on Wood Day, but the new “NYRA Now” app made the off-track experience much better for viewers and bettors.

NYRA Now provides high definition video on android and iPhones and can stream to large screen TV’s via Google Chromecast. Other streaming platforms to be added this spring include Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Roku TV, Xbox one and PS4.

NYRA Now offers several different camera angles to watch live races and replays and a split-screen option to view two camera angles simultaneously.

Race calls and race analysis are offered in both English and Spanish. Andy Serling and Richard Migliore host the race analysis in English; Luis Grandison and Darwin Vizcaya provide the Spanish language version.

NYRA Now provides all the betting information currently available on track and is integrated with NYRABets to make wagering easy. The NYRA Now app will also integrate with NYRA’s Venue Next app when it debuts later this spring.

Aqueduct Live debuted on Wood Day, offering a kickoff to Spring and national coverage of NYRA racing on Fox Sports 2 for the second consecutive year. Greg Wolf replaced Jason Blewitt as host, as foretold by HRI last winter.

Wolf is personable and has boned-up on New York factoids but he lacks the New York moxie Blewitt absorbed from watching Harvey Pack, who pioneered racing replay shows in this industry. New York’s loss turned out to be South Florida’s gain.

NYRA Now has a few glitches, as any live programming has early on. The stream is about five seconds behind the live show and the results aren’t posted quickly--but you can watch the same live feed on NYRA Now that is shown on FS2 without commercials.

NYRA offered an additional Pick4 wager on races six through nine Saturday for NYRABets customers and, according to Pat McKenna, NYRA Director of Communications, the association was satisfied with the promotion.

The Pick 4 pool was $35,608 and the payoff of $5,610 for a $2 wager was about $800 more than the parlay. The NYRA bonus offered provided winners with a payoff over $6,400, which was good for the few players who dove into that pool.

PRIVATIZATION FINALLY LOOMING?
On the eve of the Wood, the New York State legislature gave preliminary approval to Governor Cuomo’s budget for this year—including a provision to reprivatize NYRA.

The NYS Legislature voted to pass the Fiscal Year 2018 NYS Budget Sunday night. All that remains is for Gov. Cuomo to sign off on it.

The legislature made several changes to Cuomo’s plan, specifically weakening the power of the Franchise Oversight Board, and he also has the power of line veto.

There is no indication that Cuomo will object to the legislative changes, but his past performances show he has changed his mind before. If that occurs, the legislature can override the veto by a two-thirds majority vote.

In response, NYRA President and CEO Chris Kay issued the following statement: “We thank the governor and legislature for their support in returning the New York Racing Association to private control.

“NYRA is the cornerstone of an industry responsible for more than 17,000 jobs and $2 billion in annual economic impact across our state. As a private entity, we look forward to continue to grow interest in our racing, expand our fan base, and promote New York’s important tourism and agriculture sectors.”

Saving New York racing would certainly fit in to Cuomo’s political narrative going forward. We will see how sincere he is when he indicates that he truly cares about the future of world class Thoroughbred racing in his state.

ELMONT, NY, April 11, 2017

Written by Mark Berner

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