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, December 18, 2018

Let the Good Times Roll for Breeders’ Cup

Churchill Downs hosted the 35th edition of the Breeders’ Cup this year. Holding the event at the home of the Kentucky Derby highlighted the fact that the Breeders’ Cup still suffers from Derby envy. It is time for it to come of age.

The initial step for the Breeders’ Cup is to own its own day. Make it a one-day event again. The 13 Breeders’ Cup races comprise a full card unto itself.

Interest on Friday suffers for two reasons. People lack the time to devote to Friday’s races because it is a work day and the public lacks a two-day interest span.

A one-day event with 13 championship races and no other races run nationwide will own the day. Tracks that want to run against the Breeders’ Cup will offer blowback, but Breeders’ Cup Ltd. is now strong enough to flex its muscles.

Coming of age also involves owning your own house. To that end, Breeders’ Cup Ltd. should buy a permanent home for its event in a city with a warm climate and hold the event later in November, on the Saturday following Thanksgiving. HRI’s Tom Jicha has long suggested moving to this date.

New Orleans is a southern city that knows how to host a party. Its racetrack, the Fairgrounds, for many years opened its meeting on Thanksgiving, although more recently it has opened earlier. But Thanksgiving still has a special place for local racing fans. If the Breeders’ Cup chose New Orleans as its permanent home, the city would probably throw an annual parade.

Churchill Downs owns the Fairgrounds. Would it give up hosting the event at its flagship racetrack? Maybe it would for the right price. Churchill Downs Inc. has a fiduciary responsibility to its stockholders to maximize profits.

A Churchill Downs Breeders’ Cup T-shirt begat this idea. The 2018 official apparel featured the Breeders’ Cup horse head logo inside a large fleur de lis, the symbol of New Orleans.

I am not sure exactly what message was intended but it was clear to me. The Breeders’ Cup logo inside a fleur de lis says the Breeders’ Cup belongs in New Orleans.

Own the track, too

As long as we are thinking outside the oval, Breeders’ Cup Ltd. should buy the track and build a modern facility. If the Breeders’ Cup is to come of age and shake off its Derby envy it should showcase the sport’s most important day as never before at the racetrack of the future.

There needs to be feasibility and environmental studies as Fairgrounds sits within a residential neighborhood. However, in a city where everything is touched with a bit of fraud and graft, there is always a way to accomplish a goal.

The designers of the new track need to make sure the turf is wide and long and suitable to the Europeans. Build it outside a one-mile dirt surface that has a chute for ten-furlong races.

Whatever the outcome, they must avoid a design that comes up a half-furlong short as happened in Maryland. The 15/16th mile track proposed for a redesigned Pimlico was a mistake of historic proportion. The Preakness would have to start on the turn. Ridiculous!

A new viewing experience

Richie Havens was forward thinker. His future view helped him as a musical artist, a visual artist and an inventor. He thought outside the oval and inside the oval at the same time. His view of the future for horse racing was to shoot the race with cameras mounted atop towers in the infield.

I have been there. Many of the timing installations were operated from the infield tote board when I worked for Teletimer. It is quite a unique and exciting experience to watch the race unfold around you.

Havens’ idea was to watch the race from a rotating seat inside a theater for one. If the grandstand is constructed in the infield, all fans could enjoy the old experience in a new way.

Most of the time the infield is wasted with large expanses of grass and a pond or two. It is the place for overflow crowds and parties. Since the party is always in the infield, why not bring the grandstand to the party?

The Breeders’ Cup needs to capture the public’s attention year round with inventive new bets. It already supports a season-long Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series of nearly 100 stakes races that includes 20 win-and-you’re in races. It should take advantage of the newly legalized sports betting by offering cross sport wagers.

Breeders’ Cup Ltd. should offer daily double wagers with each challenge race and a game in the sport of the season. A Breeders’ Cup double combining a challenge race with the winner of a game, be it NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB, would be a good way to promote horse racing with sports gamblers.

The Breeders’ Cup has already offered a few head-to-head wagers. We need more. Proposition wagers, in-race wagering and maybe some new options like betting on the horse to run the fastest first quarter-mile would offer bets to experienced race trackers and newbies alike.

We are talking about Louisiana after all. Bring in enough tourist business and get any wagering desired.

New Jersey has already adopted some of these bets and Equibase is gearing up with the intent to offer similar wagers to the European and Far Eastern markets.

Thoroughbred racing needs to figure out a way to embrace sports betting before it is painted into a very small corner. The Kentucky Derby, steeped in history, is unlikely to make any major changes, but the Breeders’ Cup can shed its Derby envy if it can lead this sport into the future.

By Mark Berner

Written by Mark Berner

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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Tracks Need a Drug Enforcement Policy With Bite

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Dogs trained to sniff out drugs and bombs are commonplace in society, used by both law enforcement and the military. Such dogs are at train stations, airports, parades and many sporting events. Why are they not common at Thoroughbred racetracks?

At Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico, Chini, a three-year-old Belgian Malinois, guards the stable gate and patrols the track’s backstretch with her handler, searching tack rooms and stalls for illegal drugs. She was trained by K9 police to detect 12 equine drugs, as well as the plastic used in syringes.

Chini can check out a vehicle in the time it takes to verify an ID for admission. Logic dictates all racetracks should employ such dogs. Drugs are not manufactured at the track. They must enter through a guarded gate. These guards are underutilized if employed only as admission personnel.

Another effort to keep horses from racing on drugs will be instituted at Remington Park in Oklahoma. Remington and the Oklahoma Quarter Horse Racing Association, with approval of the Oklahoma Horse Racing Commission, jointly agreed to implement a “house rule” during the 2019 American Quarter Horse Mixed Meeting, requiring a clean hair test, free of any prohibited drugs, be submitted for every horse prior to entry in any race at the meeting.

The New York Racing Association could use a dog like Chini. In fact, it could employ a herd with horses stabled at three tracks, all with several points of entry. NYRA should apply to the New York State Gaming Commission to do so, along with hair testing.

However, NYRA does not seem to be seriously interested in catching cheaters doping racehorses. It would probably scare away horsemen, who are already in a financial pinch due to the extremely high cost of doing business in New York. NYRA can ill afford to cause any decrease in the local horse population.

NYRA already runs an abbreviated schedule and still has trouble filling races. In its heyday, NYRA raced 313 days per year. In 2018, only 229 live racing dates were scheduled.

To help horsemen earn more in 2019, NYRA applied to the New York State Gaming Commission to permit a greater purse-to-price ratio in claiming races. The NYSGC gave its approval at yesterday’s meeting.

NYRA is not about to chase away people and horses it needs to put on its show and local law enforcement has neither the resources nor interest to do so. This leaves the responsibility of enforcement at NYRA tracks to the New York State Legislature, in much the same way The Jockey Club is looking to the federal government to control Thoroughbred racing nationwide. A strong anti-drug policy that includes drug-sniffing dogs and hair testing is imperative, lest horseracing suffer the same fate that dog racing has in Florida.

Correction: Time is not on your side
NYRA announced Dec. 9, that a review of race timing on Dec. 1, Cigar Mile Day, resulted in the adjustment of times in three one-mile races run before the featured Cigar.

The races were originally timed from the gate, without the normal run up of 54 feet, because the auxiliary starting gate was parked along the outside rail and improperly positioned, obstructing the timing beam for the start.

The problem was eventually recognized and corrected before the Cigar Mile.
NYRA and the stewards have instituted additional protocols to prevent a similar error from occurring in the future. Some questions remain.

How can the same mistake happen three times before being corrected? When I ran the Teletimer at NYRA’s tracks, we employed a simple fail-safe system. I had a walkie-talkie to contact the stewards, judges, outriders and the starting gate. Any problems that arose were easily corrected before a race started.

NYRA employs Trakus for its graphics and as a backup timer. Why weren’t the backup times used? The races were originally timed electronically and though the fractions and final times were incorrect, the sectional times – those between each fraction should have been consistent when corrected. They are not. Again, why?

Finally, why did it take more than a week to get it wrong again?

TimeFormUS chief speed figure analyst Craig Milkowski provided his times for purposes of comparison and said, “I’m very confident in those times.” I concur with Milkowski.

Following are the fractional and final times as originally posted, the corrected times, the Trakus times and Craig Milkowski’s times.

Race 2
Maiden Special Weight for two year olds.
Original.......:25.85, :49.82, 1:15.30, 1:41.41
Corrected....:24.68, :49.14, 1:14.01, 1:40.17
Trakus.........:24.13, :47.85, 1:13.39, 1:39.42
Milkowski.... :23.77, :47.74, 1:13.22, 1:39.33

Race 3
Non Winners of two races/$25k claiming for three year olds and up
Original.......:26.08, :50.55, 1:16.62, 1:42.92
Corrected....:25.13, :49.78, 1:15.37, 1:41.77
Trakus.........:24.47, :48.71, 1:14.94, 1:41.11
Milkowski....:24.43, :48.90, 1:14.97, 1:41.27

Race 6
Go For Wand Stakes (Grade 3) Fillies and Mares three years old and up
Original.......:25.27, :48.56, 1:13.34, 1:38.35
Corrected....:24.52, :48.14, 1:12.14, 1:37.50
Trakus.........:23.49, :46.64, 1:11.51, 1:36.42
Milkowski....:23.55, :46.84, 1:11.62, 1:36.63

Belmont arena update
The latest news about the New York Islanders future arena, scheduled for construction in the vast unused parking lots of Belmont Park, were revealed at a New York State Empire Development meeting on Dec. 6.

The Draft Environmental Impact Statement was released on schedule and there are no significant hurdles in the path of the development. The ESD will hold meetings for public comment at the Elmont Public Library on Jan. 8, at 6-9 p.m., on Jan. 9, at 4-8;30 p.m. and on Jan. 10, at 6-9 p.m. The period to comment in writing will extend into February.

A couple of politicians and lawyers took the opportunity to showboat. They represent approximately 100 protesting NIMBYs, while 50,000 other local residents voiced no objections.

New York State officials are not likely to blink for a few dissenters when a $40 million payment for land use from New York Arena Partners is soon due.

The Isles brass have been meeting with local groups, politicians and NYRA. Pat McKenna, Communications Director for NYRA, read a letter from NYRA CEO and president, Chris Kay, at the ESD meeting.

“NYRA has had a productive series of meetings and dialogue with both NYAP and ESD in an effort to insure that our separate venues and separate plans can be implemented in a way that is mutually beneficial. As a result of these meetings, a number of issues have been resolved.

NYRA and NYAP have agreed that they will not schedule large-scale events at the same time in our separate venues. For example, NYAP will not have a hockey game on the day of the Belmont Stakes.”

The RFP calls for NYAP to accommodate NYRA’s renovation and racing schedule.

Islanders’ owner Jon Ledecky said NYAP expects to break ground in May 2019, and work 24/7/365, including paying union overtime rates, to get arena built for the 2021-22 hockey season. The arena’s projected opening is September 2021, with shopping, dining and entertainment and a hotel to come later.

Written by Mark Berner

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Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Racing Must Turn Talk Into Action Sooner, Not Later

The University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program hosts the 45th Annual Global Symposium on Racing from December 3-5. Several pressing issues are on the agenda and several are not.

Integrity is on the agenda. Twice. First in the keynote address by Jack Anderson, Professor of Sports Law and Melbourne Law School, and again in a panel discussion that includes Jennifer Durenberger, New York Racing Association Regulatory Veterinarian and Racing Officials Accreditation Program board member.

Integrity begins with ridding the sport of drugs. If that is not the top priority, then they will just be flapping their lips. No other sport in the world allows athletes to receive injectable drugs on the day of an event. Both the practice and optics are terrible.

Whip use is another topic that needs immediate attention. Europe has regulated whip use but that has yet to happen here. Jockey Christophe Soumillon’s excessive use of the whip on Thunder Snow in the Breeders’ Cup Classic would have earned the rider a severe penalty in Europe--a three to four weeks suspension--but the stewards at Churchill Downs in Kentucky did not register even a whisper of complaint.

The two greatest queries from people not associated with the sport ask why drugs and whipping are allowed. This has not escaped the eyes of those supporting animal rights activists and will have a long-term negative effect if not reeled in. Human-animal bonds get stronger by the day.

The Trifecta for a Successful Content Marketing Strategy is another category, one including a presentation and discussion of video, mobile content, and personalized digital marketing. America’s Best Racing, a subsidiary of The Jockey Club, is currently working on a deal to produce personalized digital marketing.

The latter represents an important tool for racing to utilize in the future. It currently works extremely well for Google.

Another subject on the agenda twice is sports betting. One panel will address Sports Betting: Coming to a Jurisdiction Near You. The other ponders: Sports Betting: A Friend or Foe in the New Era of Sports and Gaming Competition?

Sports betting already has, and will continue to take betting dollars away from horseracing. Our industry has to figure a way to dovetail racing wagers with other sports bets by offering unique cross-sports wagers and racing promotions on sports betting sites such as FanDuel.

There are several more panel discussions scheduled and the final important discussion asks; Is it Possible That Horse Racing is One Referendum Away From Disappearing in Your Jurisdiction?

The recent passage of such a referendum in Florida will eliminate dog racing in the state that once was the home of the greatest number of dog tracks in the nation. It is a valid question to ask at this time and the slippery slope from dogs to horses must addressed and avoided, of course.

Here are some important matters not on the agenda:

The Racing Medication and Testing Consortium last month announced that The Jockey Club gave it millions more for drug research. On the surface that seems like a win-win, but diving deeper actually indicates that it might be throwing good money after bad.

A comprehensive out of competition [OOCT] testing program with severe penalties is paramount. The current OOCT is a patchwork of ineffective measures that has failed to catch anyone doing any significant doping: Trainers do not naturally win at a 40-to-50 percent clip.

The Breeders’ Cup used OOCT on 94% (180/191) of the horses entered for the 2018 Breeders’ Cup weekend. Sampling occurred in three European and ten North American jurisdictions a minimum of one time, with some runners subjected to multiple sampling.

Through pre-race testing, 85 of 90 individual Breeders’ Cup trainers had at least one horse sampled. All results were clean. It seems counterintuitive that everyone played fairly with 30 million dollars up for grabs. It is more likely that chemists are still a decade ahead of the testing laboratories.

In New York, according to NYRA vice president Martin Panza, trainers have 24 hours to bring in a horse for OOCT. In sports that are serious about OOCT, it occurs via random, surprise testing.

Noted veterinarian Rick Arthur recently called for a serious change in the methodology of OOCT because races are won when horses train on drugs that cannot detected on race day.

With respect to racing disqualifications, a recent suggestion by the newly formed Thoroughbred Idea Foundation [TIF] called for the standard used by stewards to adjudicate fouls in the US be switched from category two from category one.

The International Federation of Horseracing Authorities definition of the two categories follow:

Category 1: “If, in the opinion of the staging authority’s relevant judicial body, a horse or its rider causes interference and finishes in front of the horse interfered with but irrespective of the incident(s) the sufferer would not have finished ahead of the horse causing the interference, the judge’s placings will remain unaltered.”

Category 2: “Countries whose rules provide that, if the interferer is guilty of causing interference and such interference has affected the result of the race, the interferer is placed behind the sufferer irrespective of whether the sufferer would have finished in front of the interferer had the incident(s) not occurred.”

The TIF cited three decisions by the stewards at the Saratoga meeting, all of which I agreed with, but other handicappers, bettors and journalists had decidedly split opinions. The stewards at Saratoga decided all on the grounds of a cost placing, the criteria for category one.

Clearly, the criteria used is not nearly as important as transparency. A change to live on-camera adjudications is necessary to insure integrity. Racing’s image issues and poor optics have been documented and unfortunately well earned.

Outsider’s view racing is as industry where people make a lot of money by doping and otherwise abusing horses in order to race then uncaringly discard them when economics dictate. The current and projected economics of U.S. thoroughbred horseracing, while a tad better than flat this year, nonetheless shows an industry in decline.

We must face these facts: Handle has dropped precipitously in a short time, the foal crop is down, tracks are closing, the consumer base is aging, public interest is low, and we present a mediocre product save for a few select meetings and major events. Some ideas worth consideration:

The industry needs to change the narrative in order to improve its image: Drug use must end; cradle to grave care must be standardized; data needs to be on par with major sports leagues; the tote system must be brought up to speed and the betting product could use a boost from popular new trends: Head to head betting, in-race wagering, fixed odds, and penny breakage.

We need to correct course-condition labeling by determining the amount of moisture present with the use of a moister meter. Posting the actual percentage of moisture in the surface should update the time-dated designations such as fast, good, sloppy, firm, soft, etc., etc.

We need a thorough cleanup from top to bottom and front to back, starting with the breeders and horse sales through the racing side of the business and culminating with retirement and aftercare.

Historically, racing has swept bad news under the rug. However, a few exposed cheaters—and not just sacrificial lambs--would show the industry is truly interested in fair play and in keeping an exciting sport and viable wagering activity alive.

The industry must deal with its issues now. If it does not, racing’s fate will be determined by outsiders not the least interested in our welfare. Some interests will call for our elimination entirely. And underestimating and ignoring that consensus would be a dangerous miscalculation.

Written by Mark Berner

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