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 05, 2019

Thoroughbred Deaths and the Enemy Within

By Mark Berner

ELMONT, MAR 5, 2019--A protest scheduled for last weekend at Santa Anita Park, where 20 horses died in racing or training related incidents since its prime meet began DEC 26, was canceled by the organization that urged this call to action--People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, aka PETA.

PETA has “no problem with the racetrack,” said Kathy Guillermo, Senior Vice President, Investigative, Legal & Corporate Cases Media Office and a 30-year veteran of the organization. “PETA’s problem is with the trainers and medication.”

Of greater significance, those tethered to the sport should know this: “The goal of abolishing racing has been removed from the organization's mission statement and website,” Guillermo indicated.

On Sunday, Santa Anita cancelled Thursday’s racing, five days in advance due to impending stormy weather. Nearly a foot of rain has fallen in SoCal over the past two months. The track plans an 11-race card when it resumes racing Friday.

With PETA watching, The Stronach Group apparently decided to err in favor of caution.

A feared protagonist, it should be noted that PETA did not even have a racing agenda until Eight Belles broke down after finishing second to Big Brown in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.

The organization’s new mission seems to be that horseracing should clean its own house. As Walt Kelly parodied Commodore Perry in Pogo, “We have met the enemy and it is us." Guillermo agrees: “Horseracing is its own worst enemy.”

Santa Anita’s one-mile main track, closed for training two days last week, has been proclaimed “one hundred percent ready,” by Mick Peterson, PhD, a soil and safety expert from the University of Kentucky’s Agricultural Equine Programs. Peterson evaluates soil samples from Santa Anita on a monthly basis.

In addition to soil sampling and a thorough examination of the track’s cushion, pad and base, Peterson employed ground-penetrating radar to ensure uniform consistency throughout the entire racing surface.

Tim Ritvo, TSG Chief Operating Officer, is focused on the issue. “We consider the safety and security of the athletes who race at our facilities, both human and equine, to be our top priority. All industry stakeholders including our company must be held accountable, and we are committed to doing just that.”

Toward that end, track representatives has been meeting with PETA, pledging to take definitive steps including extending the review of medication records to horses in training—and not just before races.

Research sponsored by the California Horse Racing Board shows why horses break down and found that the fault lies with the trainers and veterinarians who drug horses with a cocktail of anti-inflammatories, painkillers, sedatives and more to keep them running when they should be recuperating.

Since this practice masks soreness and injury, these injured horses are the most vulnerable to broken bones. Horses who require medication should not be anywhere near a racetrack.

PETA believes that horseracing has innumerable problems and, at bare minimum, all medications should be banned for at least one week before racing or serious training, effectively preventing lame horses from suffering further harm.

Meetings between PETA and Santa Anita officials are scheduled to continue in the coming days.

Rick Baedeker, Executive Director of the CHRB, told Guillermo--and also confirmed by CHRB Equine Medical Director Rick Arthur to The Jockey Club--that “90 percent of breakdowns occur with horses that have pre-existing conditions.” Drugs mask those conditions even from the expert eyes of pre-race veterinarian examination.

The Jockey Club has an Equine Injury Data Base, skewed because its statistics are based on injuries that resulted in fatalities within 72 hours from the race date. Statistics are for official Thoroughbred races but exclude steeplechase races. Apparently, The Jockey Club believes that not all Thoroughbreds are created equal.

Training injuries at Santa Anita resulting in death this season have not been included, nor have two “non-racing/non-training” mortalities. Consequently, the study does not represent complete, truthful findings, choosing instead to err on the side good public relations.

Statistics from another animal rights group,, on FEB 27 from President Patrick Battuello uncovered the fact 22 racehorses died at Santa Anita at the current meet according to the latest Stewards Minutes: 12 horses died in races, seven on dirt, five on turf, and eight died while dirt training. Two were considered non-racing/non-training events.

A small but boisterous crowd of about a dozen protestors representing, were outside Santa Anita on Sunday, chanting and carrying signs with slogans that derided racing.

Unlike PETA, HorseRacingWrongs mission is to shutter all of horseracing. To that end, Battuello has documented thousands of Thoroughbred horse deaths dating back to 2014.

Conversely, Kathy Guillermo, nee Snow, grew up a horse lover not unlike many Midwestern girls in the 1960s. From Rolla, Missouri, she began to go racing with her uncle at River Downs in Cincinnati at the age of eight.

The youngster was much more interested seeing the horses walk around the paddock ring than watching the races. Later, she began going to the races at Cahokia Downs in St. Louis, tagging along with her hunter-jumper friends who purchased Thoroughbred horses after the races.

Guillermo rode hunter-jumpers and owned one before leaving for college in California. After graduating she worked at an animal shelter but returned to the racetrack in her late twenties when she met her husband Emil, a horseplayer and college schoolmate of Steven Crist.

The Guillermos went to Bay Meadows every weekend and occasionally to Del Mar in the summer. Guillermo began to notice that there were more breakdowns than usual and said it took a while for her to make the association between medication use and breakdowns.

Once she made the connection, Guillermo stopped going to the races in 1988.

The following year she began to work for PETA, originally hired to head-up its cosmetics-testing campaign. In 1993, she authored “Monkey Business: The Disturbing Case That Launched the Animal Rights Movement (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).”

Guillermo has been in constant contact TSG President Mike Rogers throughout this difficult time. There was an errant report regarding a formal meeting of the two groups today but Guillermo said Monday that the conversation between herself and Rogers will continue.

“I have a great deal of respect for Mike Rogers,” Guillermo told HRI. “Mostly, I want to know what is going on and what they can do about it. Either the CHRB or Santa Anita has to deal appropriately with the issue of pre-existing injuries. Specifically, they all have to look at the trainers of the horses that have died.”

Guillermo grew up a horse person and there probably is no one at PETA who has a better understanding of horseracing. At present, she is horseracing’s best and only friend at PETA.

But when horses die because U.S. horsemen and regulators steadfastly refuse to change its medication policies, even its friends will find the sport's future indefensible and unsustainable.

© Copyright 2019 Mark Berner,

Written by Mark Berner

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Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Durkin, He Wrote the Songs

By Mark Berner

In 1983, Devil's Bag was the undefeated 2-year-old champion for the Hickory Tree Stable of James and Alice Mills. Woody Stephens trained the colt. Inducted into the National Museum’s Hall of Fame in 1976, Stephens was rewriting history with five straight Belmont Stakes wins in the 1980’s.

With a run that culminated in two Grade 1 victories, Devil's Bag won Belmont Park's Champagne Stakes and The Laurel Futurity, the traditional East-coast route to the two-year-old champion. The following year the Breeders' Cup would change everything.

Bred by Canadian E. P. Taylor at his Windfield Farms in Maryland, the colt by Halo from Ballade was syndicated for a record-setting $36 million for a juvenile by Seth Hancock's Claiborne Farm. Time Magazine touted colt as the next Secretariat.

Devil's Bag had right connections and all the Triple Crown hype going into Hialeah Park's Flamingo Stakes, the first Grade 1 of the season at 9 furlongs for 3-year-olds.

However, a colt named Time for a Change upset Devil's Bag in the 1984 Flamingo for Ogden Mills Phipps and trainer Angel Penna. Stephens came back to win the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes with the ill-fated Swale.

Just as the connections of Devil's Bag eventually dealt with an unexpected result, so did I. I went to see a horse race and came home with two lifetime friends: The late Paul Moran, a multiple Eclipse winner who became a colleague at Newsday and Tom Durkin, race caller extraordinaire.

Durkin, a lifetime racetracker, eventually owned a small share in Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming, a horse whose name personifies what it means to be racetracker, always dreaming. Well done, Moran would have approved.

The Kentucky Derby of 2017 turned out to be a New York affair; Brooklyn Boyz Stable of former NYRA chairman Anthony Bonomo, Vinny and Teresa Viola, Terry Finley and West Point Thoroughbreds, MeB Racing, St Elias Stable, Siena Farm, Tom Durkin, Todd Pletcher and John Velazquez.

One night during Flamingo week in 1984, John and Toni Pricci, my late wife Karen, and I were dinner guests of Joe Hirsch, Daily Racing Form executive columnist, at Joe's Stone Crab in South Beach, long before the area became gentrified.

At an adjacent table was Angel and Elinor Penna and their party. With deference to Dr. John, I was in the right place at the right time. Everything was perfect, formal and proper. Jacket and tie, valet parking, good food, good friends and single-malt scotch.

In contrast, my first time out to dinner with Durkin, also that week with the same crew minus Joe Hirsch, was at the Fish Shack in Pompano; a lot of beer and the best conch fritters ever were consumed. Louder than the crowd at Joe's; right place right time, Act 2.

Top class racing no longer happens at Hialeah but the big gigs for 3-year-olds in Florida do, beginning with this weekend’s Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream. This year there is no Devi’s Bag and you probably can find a few horses unique to everyone’s Derby Top Ten.

Hidden Scroll is very likely to be the favorite following his impressive wet-track debut victory at Gulfstream, but remember, Devil’s Bag…

Durkin left Hialeah for The Meadowlands in 1984, the year he began calling the Breeders' Cup. In 1990, he landed the NYRA job where he set the standard for all the race callers to come as the voice of Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga.

Honing his skills for the initial Breeders’ Cup, Durkin drove to Belmont and used my office to practice by day and returned to New Jersey to call the Meadowlands races by night. He did this for several weeks, right up to show time at Hollywood Park.

Durkin came equipped with binoculars, a tape recorder, and his book of words, a loose-leaf binder that contained the language and phrasing he would use to describe the races. It was a unique opportunity to get a preview into the future of race calling.

I might be one of the rare few who has heard Durkin experiment with his art. Sometimes I would just listen. Other times we would analyze his calls, discuss the phrasing and, most of all, had a very good time doing it.

Tom Durkin was born in Chicago November 30, 1950 and grew up listening to Phil Georgeff, the legendary voice of Chicago racing.

Durkin studied drama at St. Norbert College in De Pere Wisconsin and called his first race at a Wisconsin fair in 1971. He did that through 1975 and a year later was taking the chart call for Daily Racing Form at Cahokia Downs and Thistledown.

Durkin resumed his race calling career at Florida Downs In Oldsmar--the present Tampa Bay Downs--Miles Park in Louisville, Quad City Downs in East Moline, Illinois and Balmoral Park in Crete, Illinois, After that he hit the big time, calling races at both Hialeah and Gulfstream.

Durkin not only was creative but he had fun doing it at every level. Each race day, or should we say sound check, began with “Anthony Cantore, please call your office.”

Cantore was a boyhood friend, had no office, but the announcement surely beat ‘testing one, two, and three’. On the day Durkin gave up his mic, August 31, 2014, a Saratoga race was named the Anthony Cantore.

Aside from racing, Durkin is in love with Italy and has vacationed there for many years. He also has an affinity for food, wine, architecture, language and classical music.

Durkin called the Breeders' Cup for NBC from 1984 through 2005 along with 81 Triple Crown races through 2010 and, by NYRA's count, over 80,000 races. Not quite that of his mentor Georgeff, credited by the Guinness Book of Records as having called 96,131 races.

NYRA's past President and CEO Chris Kay gave Durkin an open offer to call the races at Saratoga in 2015, but we have probably heard him call his last race.

Durkin was not perfect--no race caller can be--but he accurately described almost instantly anything and everything that could happen, like that! His great sense of humor not only recognizes Murphy's Law but also O'Toole's postulate; Murphy is an optimist.

I grew up listening to Fred Capossela and started working at the racetrack when Dave Johnson and Chic Anderson were at the top of the game. Durkin has surpassed them all, and all who have come along since owe him a debt for his legacy of words and phrases that have become the stock and trade of the modern race caller.

His body of work should land him a spot as the first announcer to enter The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. For now, Durkin conducts personalized tours at the museum during the Saratoga racing season. He belongs there and not simply as a tour guide. He needs to be listed in the Joe Hirsch Media Roll of Honor.

The words he used to describe horseracing action were words he himself wrote. His voice is his instrument and his mind the lyrics. For horseplayers, he wrote the songs.

© Mark Berner, 2019

Written by Mark Berner

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Friday, February 22, 2019

Islanders Arena at Belmont Still On Track

By Mark Berner

It is unusual for New York’s Empire State Development Corporation to act before the end of a period of public comment, but the ESD had already extended the period for written comments on the Islanders arena at Belmont Park from February 11, to March 1.

Also unusual was that the ESD scheduled three public meetings after issuing the Environmental Impact Study instead of the customary one. Completing the trifecta of unusual events was the volume of written comments received by ESD.

Local NIMBY groups orchestrated letter-writing campaigns. Anyone who wishes to comment can still do so for another week by writing to

ESD’s timeline for the project essentially remains unchanged, contrary to a recent report, and the Final EIS is still due in the second quarter of this year. New York Arena Partners hoped it would be complete by the end of April, which would still allow over 60 days to achieve that goal, but the amended contract could double that timeframe, concluding June 30.

In 2017, ESD hired Allen King Rosen and Fleming, Inc. to provide environmental consulting services in connection with the EIS for the Belmont arena project until September 2019. Yesterday, it extended the contract with AKRF for another year into 2020.

Normal growth of a $1+ billion project such as changes to the site plan is what necessitated the extension. There are no deficiencies in the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) nor major hurdles to clear.

A local business group, Long Island Business News, yesterday created a lot of buzz with a heavily slanted “fake news” story and, along with and local activists, claimed victory. However, only minor amendments were made to the contract and there was no victory to undermine the project.

The ESD requires the vendor, NYAP, to kick in another $1.2 million to pay for the additional work that the ESD asked AKRF to do.

There was one interesting item pertaining the New York Racing Association stated in the Need for Amendment, Price and Funding: “Removal of night racing from the no-build.”

It sounds like contractual doublespeak, but it means that night racing is no longer a concern to the traffic study, therefore assisting NYRA in its quest to race at night.

Not only is night racing in NYRA’s plan, it is the key for the association to apply for a future Breeders’ Cup to be held at Belmont Park.

The amended contract with AKRF that was approved at Thursday’s meeting calls for five specific items.
1- Changes to the site plan and project area, including parking locations.
2- Additional traffic analysis to account for later game start time, removal of night racing from the no-build, and additional analysis locations and shared parking demands.
3- Natural resource assessment.
4- Preparation of fiscal impact analysis.
5- Additional construction analysis and additional alternative scenarios.

In addition to the items above, ESD awarded APFK with the extension to document the additional meetings and comments and to pay for the preparation of such. ESD also tasked AKRF with another year of environmental commitment monitoring and preparation of technical memoranda or support needed to produce the FEIS.

The ESD reported that no further environmental review is required in connection with the contract amendment.

The Nassau County Village Officials Association passed a nonbinding resolution that any approval of the Belmont project must be conditioned on the requirement of a full-time Long Island Rail Road terminal at Belmont. It further stated that the developer be required to bear and pay all costs associated with the upgrade, without the expenditure of public resources.

The resolution is not part of the Request for Proposal and ESD is not bound to it. MTA officials estimate full-time east-west service to the LIRR terminal at Belmont would cost $300 million. The great expense is because there are no tracks to the east on the Belmont spur. Service to the west will cost almost nothing, because the tracks exist.

AKRF has plenty of experience with the procedure as the firm that successfully completed the same tasks for all recent sports builds in and around New York City: Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, Citifield (NY Mets) and the USTA National Tennis Center in Queens, and Barclays Center (NY Nets and Islanders) in Brooklyn.

Shovels could still hit the ground in May as originally stated by NYAP but the amended contract may delay it until June or July. NYAP is committed to go 24/7/365 to have the arena built by October 2021 for the start 2021-2022 NHL season.

© Mark Berner, 2019

Written by Mark Berner

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