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, 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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Tuesday, March 28, 2017


Arrogate in Dubai, a True Global View


Wow!

It is three days later and I still get the chills when I watch the replay of Arrogate’s win in the Dubai World Cup.

But in the context of the modern world, what did you think about Mike Smith cloaking himself with the Saudi Arabian flag as he was led back to the winners’ circle?

The Saudi Royal family reigns over one of the Arab nations that’s friendly to the US except, of course, when 19 radicalized Saudi Arabian-born terrorists took down our tallest buildings.

And what about the host country, Dubai? It has risen out of the sand with oil money and on the backs of immigrants from the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

It is only a matter of semantics whether these immigrants are more rightfully considered indentured servants or slaves, given the working and living conditions provided them.

Thoroughbred horse racing worldwide, and most Americans, do not care about such things as long as money from the Middle East bolsters the sport. Consider what the current state of racing would be without it.
Some on the Arabian side say that the US is a terrorist state, too, killing innocent men, women and children with unmanned drone strikes. Let’s be honest here; there are two sides to every conflict.

image
How many words is this picture worth?
Horseracing is not some mystical middle ground where the two coexist in peace. It is an endeavor that has given human dignity second call since the days when it was a hobby of the aristocracy that once controlled the game here.

I cite the deplorable backstretch living quarters that still exist on the backside of too many racetracks and a pay scale rivaling that of a Wal-Mart and other workers who earn McPaychecks.

This is no way takes away from an Arrogate performance that rendered seeing disbelieving; I’m just trying to loan racing’s Arabian narrative some perspective.

Arrogate’s race was a once-in-a-lifetime event for some. In my lifetime I have seen Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Dr. Fager and I am willing to rate Arrogate in the same category.

Great race from a great racehorse. In fact, if you go back five generations, you will find Dr. Fager in Arrogate’s pedigree.

Khalid bin Abdullah Al Saud, owner of Juddmonte Farms and Arrogate, is a member of the House of Saud. His principal business vehicle is Mawarid Holding, one of Saudi Arabia's largest and most diversified private businesses.

Hanbali Islamic religious laws are the basis for human rights in Saudi Arabia and are under absolute control of the Saudi Royals.

Saudi Arabia has consistently been listed among the worst of the worst in Freedom House’s annual survey of political and civil rights, but may have turned a corner in 2015 when it allowed women the right to vote.

There is no evidence of Khalid Abdullah’s participation in any violations whatsoever but he has never denounced them, either. Prince Khalid is a half first cousin of the late King Abdulaziz. His wife is the King’s daughter and a full sister to the current monarch, King Salman.

The Saudis are our ally in our economic/oil war with Russia, but clearly we’re not always on the same side.

Dissecting a map to figure out which country is on what side in a particular conflict is an exercise that reveals allies as enemies; enemies as allies. In the current parlance of the day, it’s complicated.

Sadly, however, if we left those conflicts and the remaining countries were left to their own devices, it’s odds-on they would be fighting amongst themselves.

After the death of Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the vice president of the UAE and the Emir of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed succeeded his older brother as leader of Dubai and Prime Minister of the UAE.

Sheikhs Mohammed and Hamdan, the middle brother, greatly expanded Godolphin Stable and Darley Stud into true worldwide operations, with several outposts in the US, most notably in New York.

Darley, on the old Greentree property adjacent to Saratoga Race Course, is a point at which new elites intersect with the old via Thoroughbred racing. Darley has stud farms in several states, of course, including six in Kentucky.

Sheikh Mohammed said he was going to increase the purse of the Dubai World Cup next year so it once again will be the world’s richest race. However, what if, should current political relationships deteriorate, US horses are not invited? Consider:

The current administration in Washington is unfriendly to Muslims, last week issuing an indefinite ban on laptops, iPads, cameras and most other electronics in carry-on luggage for passengers from eight countries.

A US official told The Associated Press the ban applies to nonstop flights to the U.S. from 10 international airports, including Riyadh and Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, and Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

What would happen if the US government makes some new enemies in the Muslim world? What would happen if some terrorist event occurs? Would our allies remain so? Could it have a significant effect on Thoroughbred horseracing in America?

Whether they are the worst or simply bad in terms of human rights, our allies and enemies are, at once, the same.

Two things are clear: Wealthy Arab horse owners will not lose anything if they do not support US racing, and racing in America would suffer considerable damage if they cease becoming players.

ELMONT, NY--March 28, 2017

Addendum--March 29, 2017

BITS AND BYTES
: Andy Asaro‏ @racetrackandy is a long-time advocate of gamblers rights and he organized a successful boycott at Santa Anita Park re the Pick 6, which has unfair rules regarding payoffs. A scheduled four-day boycott ran from March 23 through March 26.

“Boycott Working,” tweeted Asaro on Thursday. The first three days showed a decline in handle and it was down $2,672,866.94 overall. Figures below show corresponding days from 2016 and 2017.

Thursday March 24, 2016, $5,679,368.77; Thursday March 23, 2017, $5,141,602.47
Friday March 25, 2016, $ 6,826,793.87; Friday March 24, 2017, $ 5,638,970.60
Saturday March 26, 2016, $ 10,841,079.54; Saturday March 25, 2017, $ 9,467,229.66
Sunday March 27, 2016, $ 7,215,978.80; Sunday March 26, 2017, $ 7,652,651.27

“The story is how the Horseplayer Association appeared to take a dive,” said Asaro. HANA officials did not support the boycott and tried to work within the political system this time. Neither tactic has yet yielded any rule changes.

Props to Asaro and those who participated in a boycott that, by calling attention to an issue, hopes to benefit the plight of all horseplayers.

Photo by GULF NEWS


Written by Mark Berner

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