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, February 12, 2019

Drama Surrounding Saratoga, Belmont and Islanders Ending

By Mark Berner

The New York Racing Association on Thursday confirmed an HRI November story that it indeed will extend the 2019 Saratoga race meet.

Last week’s announcement also confirmed the yet to be stated final decision from New York’s Empire State Development Corporation that the New York Islanders will get final approval to build its new hockey arena at Belmont Park.

NYRA denied the story at first because the New York State Gaming Commission had not approved the change in schedule.

Similarly, the Islanders have yet to confirm its new arena will be in Elmont because the ESD has thus far only given provisional approval.

The NYSGC could have approved the dates last November but the ESD still had a few dog and pony shows scheduled at the Elmont Library.

The deadline for written comments, extended to March 1, is a signal that the ESD’s announcement of final approval for the Isles is imminent.

The Belmont Park spring/summer meeting will run 48 days beginning Friday, April 26 through Sunday, July 7; Saratoga will begin Thursday, July 11 and run through Labor Day, September 2. Per usual since 2010, Saratoga will host 40 days of live racing.

Following the opening weekend, July 11 through July 14, racing at the Spa will be conducted five days a week, Wednesday through Sunday. Closing week will run Wednesday, August 28 through Labor Day.

On page seven of the ESD’s 28-page Request for Proposal it states, “The Designated Developer(s) will be expected to coordinate construction activities with NYRA.”

Though the all the i’s have not been dotted nor the t’s crossed, the arena is a done deal, confirmed by NYRA’s capitulation with wording in the RFP.

Rife with photo opportunities, local politicians, lawyers and activists took the opportunity at the Elmont Library to get some ink, a.k.a. electrons. In sum, the show was ineffective and without substance.

NYRA interim CEO David O'Rourke still equivocated in last week’s press release to avoid stepping on any toes. However, this cat has left the bag because NYRA would not make such an important schedule shift without benefit of inside information.

"Given the initial and proposed timelines for the potential construction of a new arena at Belmont Park, we believe it is the responsible action to move our racing operations to Saratoga Race Course slightly earlier than usual this summer."

Continued O'Rourke: "We appreciate the patience of our horsemen, fans and the community in awaiting this announcement. We are working diligently with our stakeholders to ensure a smooth transition to this new calendar."

National Hockey League President Gary Bettman is a lawyer, perceptive negotiator, and he never leaves himself without a Plan B. Absent that scenario, the construction of the Belmont arena is a mortal lock.

Barclays, developed by Brooklyn-based real estate developer Forest City Ratner, was the same company that put lipstick on a pig a “refurbished Nassau Coliseum.”

Ratner and Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment Global, operators of both Barclays Center and Nassau Coliseum, failed to maintain the ice-making equipment at the Coliseum, the former and now sporatic, part-time home of the hockey team.

Ratner decreased Nassau Coliseum seating capacity to below NHL standards and was so petty as to pour concrete down the toilets in executive suites, rendering them useless. Ratner did this to insure that the Isles would play in Brooklyn.

The plan, seemingly criminal in nature and most definitely a conflict of interest, did not work.

Ratner made sure the Coliseum would be suitable for minor league sports only, turning an aging facility into a barn with the charm of a subway car. The Coliseum still lacks sufficient bathrooms, offers subpar food, and very few amenities, e.g. wait service in the business suites.

New York State last year invested $6 million to bring the Coliseum up to NHL standards, specifically investing in ice plant redundancy and dehumidification and media and broadcast cabling infrastructure.

Saturday’s Islanders vs. Edmonton game is the last regular season game at Barclays this season and, hopefully, forever. The home games this season were split equally between the Brooklyn and Nassau arenas.

Non hockey fans should note that the Islanders are in first place by three points over last year's Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals in the Metropolitan Division and second in the Eastern Conference behind the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning.

It is highly likely the Isles will make the Stanley Cup playoffs. The rumor inside the league office is that the team will play at least the first playoff round at the Coliseum.

Sentiment among Islanders fans is that they should play there are far as they go in the playoffs. Nassau County Executive Laura Curran sent a letter to the league asking as much.

However, that may take another infrastructure investment because the first round is covered by local media but national coverage begins with round two. To that end, it is hoped the county will offer more than words when few dollars are needed.

Avoiding the Brooklyn option involved one move that Charles Wang, the former Islanders majority owner, was unwilling to make:

Senator Alfonse D’Amato asked Wang to hire his brother Armand as his lawyer. Known as “Uncle Al” in this area, D’Amato assured that this single hire would make for smooth sailing. But Wang hated Armand and nixed the deal. And so did Uncle Al.

Islanders’ management is committed to go 24/7/365, including all union overtime pay, to complete the arena in time for 2021-2022 NHL season. Shopping, dining and entertainment and a hotel comes later.

Addendum: Friday February 15, 2019
New York Islanders Announcement Regarding The 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs

by New York Islanders PR NYIslanders /

Following consultation with Governor Andrew Cuomo's office, the New York Islanders and BSE Global have announced that should the Islanders qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, any first round home playoff games will take place at NYCB LIVE, home of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

Should the team qualify for further rounds of the playoffs, any home Islanders games will take place at Barclays Center, reflecting that the Nassau Coliseum does not qualify as an NHL major league facility.

This agreement has been approved by the NHL, with the understanding that the scheduling of games will be in accordance with usual League practices.

© Mark Berner, 2019

Written by Mark Berner

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Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Want to Restore Fans’ Trust? Go Raise the Money

By Mark Berner

The top three trainers at Gulfstream Park through FEB 3 are Jorge Navarro (29-121 .240), Todd Pletcher (25-102 .245), and Jason Servis (20-44 .454). Which doesn’t belong and why? If you said Todd Pletcher, take another guess.

Of the three, Servis, the trainer with the highest current win percentage, is the only one never to have served a suspension for a positive drug test on one of his horses. All three have been fined but only Servis never served days, according to

Servis has four drug violations from 11 rulings, Pletcher has three drug violations from 14 rulings, and Navarro is three for 11. The remainder of the rulings are mostly clerical, and a few are Lasix violations, either overages or failure to administer same.

This is not to say that Servis, Pletcher and Navarro are all in the same boat but it does indicate that testing labs are not capable of catching anyone who may be doing any significant doping.

Drug testing in North America is based on price, not quality assurance. The Jockey Club, Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, and Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association try to create minimum standards for testing.

However, the incentive is for drug labs to work as cheaply as possible as state commission budgets for testing is of the lowest priority. Whatever the cost, racing is not getting what it pays for.

Resultantly, laboratories use the easiest method available, (mass spectrometry/ELISA) which limits detection of the more exotic performance enhancers, even though there are tests available if only they would look.

If you are a trainer wanting to cheat, go to the state with the lowest level of test funding, no out-of-competition testing, and set up shop. Unfortunately, excuses given by major racing jurisdictions for a lack test funding are not very credible.

The cost of developing scientific tests capable of standing up to legal scrutiny range from $100,000 to $200,000. Tests are not developed unless there is strong evidence that a specific performance enhancer is being used, a chicken-and-egg scenario.

Sometimes the testers get lucky and discover something in the laboratory, but most often it is deep-throated sources that are tipping off the authorities.

Micro dosing of many substances is more effective than larger injections of the same substance. The process involves taking a smaller portion of the amount required and dosing it incrementally every day.

This is in common use for many drugs such as synthetic thyroxine, which is/was routinely prescribed and administered daily in many barns. It raises a horse’s metabolism so that it eats more and can withstand more aggressive training.

Selective androgen receptor modulators (SARMs) are most effective for the micro-dosers. By employing this method, there is a shorter half-life for the drug and detection becomes even more challenging.

Now combine this with trainers who routinely take 30-45 days between starts “training up” to a major race and micro dosing starts to have significant effects. Detection of these substance becomes very difficult as the metabolic signature in plasma and urine diminishes quickly.

SARMs are the “Version 2.0” of the testosterone like substances that I covered in previous columns. SARMs provide the ability to design molecules that can be delivered orally and can selectively target receptors in disparate tissues differently.

SARMs help build lean muscle and are most effective when stacked, commonly using two or more each day. There are hundreds of SARMS. The most common stacking SARMS are Ostarine, Andarine, Cardarine and Ligandrol. A two or three stack of these SARMS is often used in cycles ranging from 30 to 90 days.

Peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor delta (PPARδ) and other modulators/angonists is a group of drugs that are somewhat similar to SARMs but target a specific nuclear hormone receptor PPARδ rather than androgen.

PPARδ changes metabolic activity. In normal exercise the expression of PPARδ is increased, resulting in increased oxidative (fat-burning) capacity and an increase in type I fibers (route/distance muscle type). Using this class of drug brings more oxygen to the muscles.

What these drugs do is target and enhance this response resulting in both a ‘cut’ phenotype [fit looking horses] and significantly improve performance in distance races by converting fast-twitch muscle fibers to the more energy-efficient, fat-burning, slow-twitch type.

Cardarine is what is being used most recently. A positive test for this drug was found in Minnesota in August, 2018. Both the Association of Racing Commissioners International and RMTC placed it on the banned substance list following the finding.

Other similar modulators are Acadesine/AICAR, commonly given in the stack of AICAR and Stenabolic. Meldonium, the drug that exposed Maria Sharapova, has a similar effect. It was tried a few years ago but a test for it has been developed only recently.

Growth hormone secretagogues and Hypoxia-inducible factors (HIF) agents is groups of drugs that target the regulation of energy homeostasis and body weight. The most used is Ghrelin, a peptide hormone that regulates appetite and the distribution rate of energy use.

Targeting this hormone makes horses eat and helps with recovery from exertion. Macimorelin is one such drug that targets this response. Growth hormone-releasing hexapeptide, a small molecular-weight peptide, is effective when administered orally. Stable, it is more economically priced than other peptides seeking a similar effect.

HIFs are transcription factors in the body that respond to decreases in available oxygen in the cellular environment, a.k.a. hypoxia. There are a set of peptides that have been developed for anemia, kidney disease and cancer applications. Because of their ability to stimulate red blood cell production they are attractive performance enhancers.

Four such HIF agents in Daprodustat, Vadadustat, Molidustat and Roxadustat have been developed in the past few years. And they have been found in human athletes despite not being available for general medical use.

WADA has only just developed tests for these substances. They each have varying structure are an “area of active interest” with racehorses according to Dr. Rick Arthur, world renowned DVM and advisor to the California Horse Racing Board.

Doping horses is race fixing, yet the penalties for doping are not strong enough. Offenders must be charged with attempting to affect the outcome of a sporting event, which requires legal proof.

There also needs to be an owner responsibility rule that mimics the trainer ultimate responsibility rule. Suspend a few owners and they likely will chose trainers with less glitzy win percentages.

If a few owners and/or trainers are found guilty of tampering with a sporting event beyond the shadow of a doubt, off to jail they should go. If the cheaters don’t quickly shape up, they need to be shipped out.

Defending our sport gets harder each day. If we do not take care of racing’s problems, we will have problems if we want to continue racing.

© Mark Berner 2019

Written by Mark Berner

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Wednesday, January 16, 2019

What Cheaters Use and How to Avoid Detection

Part II of Mark Berner's report on how betting and cheating issues threaten the future of Thoroughbred racing

JAN. 16, 2019--According to research found at the website, here are some of the known methods that cheaters use, and the ways they can game the system:

BIOSIMILARS: A growing problem is the rise of copycat versions of Erythropoietin (EPO). Because it has been so successful financially, companies in India, China and Cuba have developed drugs that do a similar job in the body, but have a slightly different molecular fingerprint.

These cheap versions of EPO, Biosimilars, are easily bought on the Internet. Some scientists who track and monitor the development of copycat EPO drugs say there could be hundreds of different versions from different parts of the world.

Blood transfusions have long been used to enhance athletic performance. Transfusions are an extremely straightforward, simple, and effective method of increasing the blood's oxygen carrying capacity. Recombinant equine erythropoietin, EPO, has been the drug of choice.

With the advent of more effective and inclusive testing, the use of EPO has become more difficult and complex. Because of the increased risk of detection, horse dopers may turn to an older form of blood doping that, until recently, has been virtually undetectable.

BLOOD DOPING: There are two methods of doping through blood transfusions: autologous and homologous. With an autologous transfusion, a horse receives its own blood. The donated blood is stored and then the horse receives that blood at a later point in time. In a homologous transfusion, the blood comes from another horse.

The benefit of homologous transfusion is there is no decrease in performance during the donation period.

DIURETICS and PERMA CLEANSE: Horses are often administered diuretics in an effort to cleanse its system before having to provide a sample. These work tremendously well. One mail-order system, supposedly undetectable as a diuretic or in any lab test, uses the same means to evade a positive test - detoxification - is Perma Cleanse.

A classic method of evading positive drug tests is to couple the use of natural herb diuretics such as dandelion root, uva ursi, and caffeine with fasting. Both EPO and diuretics thicken the blood.

Human athletes on an EPO/Lasix program do not sleep normally because if they do not continually awaken to exercise, the blood can thicken so much that it ceases to flow. This may be the link to what has been termed sudden equine-death syndrome.

THE CREAM, a testosterone-based ointment distributed by BALCO, was designed to mask the use of other steroids [recall baseball scandals]. It was a mixture of synthetic testosterone and epitestosterone. EPI, as it is known in the drug-testing culture, is present in the body but has no known function.

The Cream helps the horse maintain a normal ratio and conceals what otherwise would be a telltale sign of the use of an undetectable steroid: an abnormally low testosterone level.

When a horse is given steroids, the body stops producing testosterone to the point that it can bottom out at zero. A zero level would set off red flags for drug testers, the Cream elevates testosterone enough to avoid suspicion.

EPITESTOSTERONE: Testosterone, once tested at a ratio of 6:1, has been reduced to 4:1 by the International Olympic Committee. The ratio compares levels of testosterone to epistosterone, or the T/E ratio.

The normal testosterone-epitestosterone ratio is 1:1 but because top horses are often genetically advanced, their ratios may differ compared to those of the average horse. The 4:1 ratio is, for most, a large variance in their natural levels.

This leaves open the possibility for a certain amount of exogenous testosterone if one is careful enough to make sure the hormone stays within accepted limits. For those animals already producing more hormone [testosterone] than their competition, or for those who want to use more than they can sneak in under the radar, epitestosterone is employed.

When used, it increases the variable testosterone is compared to, thus allowing for increased amounts. Scientists made the discovery after a former Tour de France cyclist said he was given an unidentified powder to sabotage surprise tests.

Anti-doping authorities need to start checking for protease, a class of enzymes that destroys EPO can be found in soap powder, dishwashing solution and contact-lens cleaner.

There is no reference to protease on the World Anti-Doping Agency's list of banned substances. Using soap powder would destroy all EPO in urine, both synthetic and what is produced naturally by kidney cells.

GENE DOPING: A sophisticated method of cheating, many experts believe this is already happening and warn that tinkering with equine DNA to boost performance could seriously injure or even kill. A test to detect it is years away - perhaps as much as a decade.

The gene that governs a certain desirable function is isolated - the source is usually another horse. Then a laboratory amplifies it, making more powerful. That gene is inserted into a viral vector, a virus that has had the harmful part of its structure deactivated, but which retains the ability to penetrate and colonize human cells.

The gene is a sort of biological Trojan horse. Adenovirus - a common cause of respiratory problems - is most often used, but other viruses such as herpes simplex or even HIV are now in use. The vector is injected into the horse and begins to take over the cells.

Once inside, an altered gene becomes part of the cell's DNA and recodes it to behave differently - producing, for example, more and stronger muscle or creating EPO, which in turn creates more red blood cells. The virus colonizes cells at the same rate as if carrying disease. Once the gene is embedded there is no turning back; it will be expressed.

MICRODOSING of drugs and hormones, chemically altered molecules of steroids, testosterone patches and the old doping chestnut, equine growth hormone, are the recent trends with drug cheaters.

EGH, despite being used for decades, is still being abused, especially in combination with steroids. Despite recent research, showing that EGH is ineffective on its own, it is used in horses to boost the effect of other performance-enhancing drugs.

Horses can be given regular low doses of the blood-boosting hormone erythropoietin (EPO) in combination with insulin growth factor or EGH. The combination accelerates the impact of EPO but enables the user to escape detection for the smaller dose of EPO.

TATTOOS: Olympic cheats are taking performance-enhancing drugs via tattoos. Inserting drugs through tattoo needles increases the effect of drugs, meaning athletes can take smaller doses and 'fly under the radar' in dope tests.

Research in Germany has shown that delivering DNA vaccines via tattoo is 16 times more effective than injecting through the muscles or veins as the vibrating tattoo needle prepares the body's immune system and increases the body's response to the drug.

Some of the technologies are so new, the concept so bizarre, that there would only be a handful of well-tapped-in veterinarians using it. The problem is that some of the drugs now fly under the radar with the tattoo technique because horses would receive a much smaller dose.

Barr-Tonko was dead on arrival, but the death certificate is unsigned as of yet. Does this complex drug issue along with the challenges faced by bettors indicate that our sport in jeopardy? You bet it is. And then there would be no image left for McKinsey to polish.

Written by Mark Berner

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