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 02, 2016

Serious Proposals for Meaningful Regulation in New York

ELMONT, NY, February 2, 2016-- The New York State Gaming Commission's monthly meeting is hardly high level entertainment, especially when compared to Sunday's Super Bowl and the Christmas day release of the football film, Concussion.

The current movie, starring Will Smith, depicts the story told by Frontline in League of Denial, a 2013 report on brain injuries in the NFL.

Frontline, the PBS documentary series, proved the NFL denied knowledge of brain injuries and that the league's head office lied about it, then denied treatment to players after they had become aware.

A payment of $765-million was the result of a settlement between the NFL and the players union, made as a direct result of concussion-related brain injuries.

Injury reports in professional sports used to be dubious but, aware that people actually bet on sports, the reports are now quite concise. A false injury report in the NFL will draw a fine from the offending team--or is supposed to, anyway.

MLB and the NBA have strict rules regarding injury reports as well. While the NHL has been an industry leader in treatment of head injuries, it continues to use the Pat Quinn methodology of reporting only upper or lower body injuries.

Quinn pioneered this type of reporting when he took over as coach of the Philadelphia Flyers for the 1979-1980 season. His reasoning was not to let the opposition know where to target his injured players. This decades old method of masking the truth has long needed an overhaul.

Just as racing’s does now.

Make no mistake. All major league sports have anti-gambling policies but they've embraced fantasy sports betting as they’ve winked at the daily publication of betting lines.

The rule changes regarding injury reports are contradictions of a similar magnitude, another nod meant to accommodate the popularity of sports betting. The reports do not benefit injured players; opponents know exactly where the bullseye is.

Far from anticipated, an interesting point was made at the January 26 meeting of the New York State Gaming Commission regarding the level of bleeding in racehorses. There are five levels of severity. At what level should this information become public knowledge?

Considering that betting was the driving force behind more accurate injury information in major league sports, horse racing, the first sport to have legalized betting, should have provided such information decades ago.

And not just for bleeders but for all equine injuries.

Information about injuries in Thoroughbred racing make Pat Quinn's deceptive reporting look detailed by comparison. Instead, the bullseye remains on the horseplayer.

It's quite obvious that allowing a horse to race on Lasix means it bled and it’s also obvious that cheaper claimers have more injuries than stakes horses do. And the devil is in those details.

I believe the following information about Thoroughbred racing in New York should be made public on a regular basis and that all information provided by all trainers and veterinarians to the New York Racing Association be submitted in kind to the NYSGC:

Trainer/Veterinarian List: Every trainer must report which veterinarians treat their horses.

Injury Report: All veterinarians must provide a dated diagnosis of every horse examined, that record to be kept by both the trainer and veterinarian and submitted to NYRA before a horse is permitted to race. NYRA veterinarians performing daily pre-race examinations of all horses should pay particular attention to reported injuries when assessing racing soundness. They should then recommend and report to NYRA whether horses are race-worthy or need to be scratched, further protecting the horse, rider and betting public.

Medication List: A dated record of all medications prescribed and administered by veterinarians to each horse should be submitted before a horse is permitted to race. The report should include the dosage and frequency of use. Horses often race or train on disparate levels of medication. (Evaluating workouts in relation to levels of medication would make an interesting study).

Bleeders: Veterinarians performing endoscopic tests and treating horses for any level of bleeding - Exercise-Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage (EIPH) - should record and report the precise severity of bleeding they determine for each horse treated.

Trace levels of blood in the lungs found through an endoscopic exam is the least severe of the five levels and epistaxis--bleeding from the nostrils--is the most severe. Shouldn’t owners, future owners, and bettors be aware of these differences?

NYRA's Veterinarian List: This list must disclose all the above information to the betting public for every horse listed to compete every racing day: The current rating methods regarding bleeding, injuries and unsoundness doesn't come close to cutting it.

Video Surveillance: Video cameras should be installed in all areas of every barn and monitored by NYRA and/or authorities sanctioned by the State of New York.

Racing already had an image problem back in the day, but it went further backward since race day medications such as Bute (phenylbutazone,) Lasix (furosemide) and anabolic steroids (stanozolol,) subsequently banned, became legal in various states.

The industry has exacerbated the situation with secrecy and a general tendency to sweep problems under the rug. The race track has become a testing lab for performance enhancing drugs and the chemists always seem to be a decade ahead of the testing labs.

Whatever happened to the testing samples collected and frozen over the years, anyway?

Horse racing is losing bettors to other sports for myriad reasons, a major one being a lack of effort by the racing authorities to properly deal with drugs and injuries. Horse racing would benefit greatly from forward thinking and a transparent drug and injury policy.

Some progress has been made in the industry recently but only because of the specter of federal regulation. The one clear lesson is that the time for denial is over.


BITS AND BYTES: The NYRA stewards indefinitely suspended trainer Roy Sedlacek on November 9, 2015 after finding that two horses he raced at Belmont Park in October tested positive for a synthetic opioid, AH-7921. Both Literata, a winner on October 18, and Bossman, second on October 11, were also owned by Sedlacek.

Sedlacek admitted that he injected horses at a state hearing on December 21. On January 26, the NYSGC handed him a five-year ban from New York. The horses were disqualified and Sedlacek had to forfeit $44,600 in purse winnings...

Belmont Casino: After a January-23 blizzard forced the cancellation of a march to protest a proposed casino at Belmont Park, proponents on both sides demonstrated outside the race track on Saturday, January 30.

Community protesters successfully have fought off previous plans Nassau OTB had for casinos in Plainview, Uniondale and Westbury. Last Saturday, a large, well organized group of casino supporters stated their case at the opposition's rally. This time, both sides took their fight to the streets. Stay tuned.

Written by Mark Berner

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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Politicians, Residents Take Wrong Turn on Belmont Casino Issue

ELMONT, NY, January 19, 2016¬-With the Iowa Primary a fortnight away, some politicians are feeling the love, others the hate, but all with one goal in mind.

In one upper middle class village, passionate politicians, civic leaders and residents are driving the populace on both sides of one key issue: Should Video Lottery Terminals be allowed to turn Beautiful Belmont Park into the Casino on the Cross Island.

An overflow crowd estimated at 2,000 attended a rally at Floral Park Memorial High School in opposition of the planned casino exactly one week ago. On Saturday, protestors will march around Belmont Park to focus even more heat on the issue.

Many leaders and residents spoke out against the casino proposed by Nassau OTB on December 29, 2015. Even Father Tom, half of television’s “The Priest and the Rabbi” entry with Rabbi Marc Gellman, rallied parishioners at Our Lady of Victory RC Church seeking to defeat the proposal.

Residents are fine with having Belmont Park as its neighbor; they just don’t want a casino in their own backyard. Does politics get any more local than this?

Opponents don’t want “that kind of gambler” in their neighborhood or in the vicinity of nearby schools. They're using the same dog whistle language being used in the 2016 Presidential campaign: Classic NIMBY; fear of “the other” who brings crime and real estate devaluation to the neighborhood.

As expected, the casino has the support of Nassau County Executive, Ed Mangano. “Belmont Park is a logical selection as the existing gambling facility is underutilized,” Mangano said in a statement when the plan was first announced.

Mangano already has included $20 million in revenue from the casino in his 2016 budget.

But Floral Park Mayor Thomas Tweedy went on record, calling VLTs the crack cocaine of gambling. Sound like a familiar refrain?

Supporters of the plan recognize that gambling already occurs daily at Belmont during the racing season. But Mayor Tweedy dismissed that argument, citing the differences between betting on horses and playing slot machines.

Hempstead Town Supervisor Anthony Santino also backed the casino plan for Belmont, saying it would increase county revenue and create jobs. SOR: Same old rhetoric.

Congresswoman Kathleen Rice was invited but didn't attend the rally. She sent a statement reading in part: “This decision-making process lacks transparency and fails to include any input from residents, giving them all the more reason to feel that this facility is being forced into their backyards by people who won’t have to live with the consequences.”

The most severe solution “letting OTB's die” was called for by Joye Brown in her January 14 Newsday column. Entitled to her opinion, of course, her view lacked objectivity and veracity, the piece exposing her unfamiliarity with the subject matter.

A study led by Floral Park Police Commissioner Steven McAllister found the communities around comparable casinos “don’t see the benefits they’re promised. Statistics show they’re linked to more crime and lower property values,” he said.

He even went as far as to say that “the Belmont VLT parlor could also double the number of car accidents nearby, enlarging the burden on the village’s police force.

An overflow crowd shouts in opposition

“My primary focus the last couple of years has obviously been one of these active shooters,” he said. “I need to get there now, not deal with traffic.”

A similar proposal to put a VLT casino inside an empty Fortunoff’s department store was successfully defeated last year when Westbury and Carle Place residents with political leaders united against it in court.

HRI has learned that Mayor Tweedy has hired the law firm Beveridge & Diamond to represent the village to fight the creation of a Belmont Racino.

Nassau OTB previously had failed thrice to find a suitable casino location. Before the fight came to Belmont, a VLT casino was rejected at the Race Palace in Plainview by local groups from Plainview and Bethpage.

Another group representing Uniondale, Hempstead and Hofstra University rejected it for The HUB, the area around the Nassau Coliseum.

The Westbury group has been the model for those opposing the Belmont project. The Floral Park group has a solid core numbering around 2,000. They created a Facebook page that now has almost 2,000 followers, began a GoFundMe campaign which raised $1,775 in 18 days and a started a petition that has been signed by over 2,000 supporters.

Residents will March on Belmont Park
Saturday, January 23rd

Ironically, the geography of Belmont Park is both the cause and solution to this problem.

Most of Belmont Park resides in Elmont but a miniscule part on its northern boundary is in Floral Park. The western part of Belmont, a much larger part than what lies in Floral Park, is in Queens County, a borough of New York City.

The majority of the property that comprises the grandstand, racing surfaces, barn area, parking, Long Island Rail Road platform and the casino itself is on the north side of Hempstead Turnpike; the logistical considerations of Plan A.

But the parking lot south of Hempstead Turnpike is significantly under-used by the racetrack; enacting Plan B in the proposal is the solution.

A casino could be totally contained inside that south lot, a triangular space adjacent to the Cross Island Parkway with its secondary border on Hempstead Turnpike.

An entrance on the northbound side of the parkway already exists. Additional parkway entrances and exits would make the entire casino self-contained, an island unto itself. Why hasn't anyone stressed the Plan B perspective?

Plan B eliminates concerns about the casino creating street traffic and crime in Floral Park as the south lot is entirely in Elmont and serviced by the Nassau County Police, not local law enforcement.

But just like Presidential politics, the issue has devolved into a battle of ideology vs. substantive, big picture solutions. It’s about what every campaign inevitably comes down to: the Benjamins.

Written by Mark Berner

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Wednesday, January 06, 2016

As NYRA Eras Collide, the Force Awakens

ELMONT, NY, January 5, 2016--On February 21, 2015, Harshal Kadakia, Director of Information Technologies for the New York Racing Association, registered the domain name for 10 years using the street address of Aqueduct Racetrack.

And after the events that concluded 2015 and jump-started the New Year, it has become clear how NYRA is positioning itself for the future of the association and for the fans and bettors of New York racing.

GothamBets is the name of NYRA's new betting platform. The NYRA already has its rewards program which adequately serves its customer's needs as is.

However, this is the New NYRA and this appears to be a step to boldly go where others have gone before.

How and when NYRA plans to launch a new Advance Deposit Wagering platform is questionable since it has not yet received approval from the New York State Gaming Commission. Presumably, a rubber stamp

The surmise is that this is how NYRA plans to fill the great void left five years ago when New York City OTB shuttered shops all over the city: Online betting is one thing, the socialization that accompanies the sport is another.

NYRA now might finally fulfill the destiny offered to it by Howard Samuels—later to become known as ‘the city’s bookie’ as OTB’s first President--in 1971. The track passed on its chance to conduct off-track betting after then NYRA Chairman Alfred G. Vanderbilt accepted advice he should have refused.

The association is now about to take this opportunity to significantly improve its bottom line. This time that shouldn't be as hard to accomplish as it apparently was for its bankrupt predecessor.

The climate has changed dramatically from conditions that existed in the past. Dedicated betting shops with handfuls of union employees are realities of bygone days. To wit:

My local bar became an outlet for Nassau Downs OTB just before last year's Kentucky Derby. It has a self-service betting terminal where one can place bets and make deposits and withdrawals.

The tavern is one of 17 Fast Track locations in Nassau County that augments the Race Palace, a glitzy OTB Teletheater and restaurant hard by the Long Island Expressway in Woodbury. Only six old-fashioned betting parlors remain; there's even one Fast Track terminal located inside a supermarket.

EZ-Bet is the name Albany-based Capital OTB uses for its 70 betting outlets and online operations.

With miniscule overhead being a feature of this new GothamBets paradigm, NYRA is betting it will become the biggest player in the metropolitan area and beyond. It could eventually compete very effectively with existing national ADWs.

If it hasn't been locked up already, NYRA should acquire New York City's seemingly unwanted betting franchise before someone else figures out it can become a profit center.

Bettors can wager online world-wide but New Yorkers can be a provincial lot. Here bettors can fund their present NYRA Rewards accounts at 7-Elevens throughout the state. It may not be long before it begins placing its betting terminals all around Gotham itself.


In the 1970s, if you couldn't make it out to Aqueduct or Belmont, you made a bet at OTB and listened to “Pack at the Track” on the radio.

Harvey Pack brought result charts to life with race-call recreations in a uniquely Runyonesque style that served as a good racing introduction to mainstream sports fans. And horseplayers all over the city loved it.

Pack made Thoroughbred racing a popular segment on WNBC-AM radio and the show later became the impetus for the first major show featuring daily race replays and analysis on a relatively new medium, cable TV.

The New York Racing Association hired Pack to host “Thoroughbred Action” which debuted on SportsChannel in May, 1981. The 89-year-old Pack now has outlived the show he pioneered. On New Year's Eve, NYRA pulled the plug on the nightly replay show.

“I'm not surprised it was canceled,” said Pack via telephone. “The races are on all day [now]. Who needs it?”

Still witty and self-deprecating, Pack admitted “I was in the right place at the right time, when the races weren't available anywhere else. I couldn't sell that show today.”

Pack's show had celebrity guests, horseplayers such as Cab Calloway, Jack Klugman and Mickey Rooney; legendary trainers such as John Nerud, Woody Stephens, Walter Kelley and P.G. Johnson.

Of course, the staples of the show were writers and handicappers; Pete Axthelm, Andy Beyer, Paul Cornman, Steve Crist, Russ Harris and John Pricci. Foreseeing the future, the guest he later nicknamed Little Andy is NYRA’s current on-air handicapper Andy Serling.

Pack ended every show with his signature sign-off, throwing that day’s track program toward the camera wishing good fortune to all horseplayers with the popular refrain, “May the Horse be with you.”


Ironically, NYRA has only recently adopted a digitized promotional logo featuring a horse's head wrapped inside a Luke Skywalker-type hood looking out-ward and carrying a Jedi sword.

Harvey couldn't believe he was being paid to go to the track on a daily basis and he put in a full day. He hosted the Paddock Club before the races began, then came pre-race analysis—‘the prattle’ he called it--on NYRA's closed-circuit TV system.

When racing ended, he went to the on-track television studio and taped “Thoroughbred Action” so that regulars and weekend players alike could check out the racing action. It was All-Harvey-All-the-Time.

One day as I left Belmont Park I ran into Harvey and his wife, Joy, on the way to the parking lot. Harvey and I began talking about the races and Joy walked silently behind, carrying a dead potted plant.

When Joy managed to squeeze a word in, she asked if I knew why the plant was dead. “No,” I said. Joy explained “it was in Harvey's office and it died because it couldn't stand the sound of his voice.”

My Newsday colleague, HRI executive editor John Pricci, did the pilot program with Pack. “I picked Pricci to do the pilot,” said Pack. “He was smart and recognizable. He was on a lot of memorable shows.”

Pack and Pricci also teamed up on dark day spinoff “Inside Racing,” a weekly magazine featuring stakes racing from around the country, a novelty back in the day.

They did the first “Road to the Kentucky Derby” series ever shown on cable television with Pricci analyzing the Triple Crown contenders following significant prep races.


On the day the old show ended, NYRA announced the extension of a 30-plus-year relationship with the MSG network.

A new show is scheduled to debut in mid-May at Belmont Park, presenting live race programming. It will air on MSG+ from 4-6 p.m. at Belmont Park and 4-to-6:30 p.m. from Saratoga.

The new program will feature NYRA host Jason Blewitt and analysts Richard Migliore, Serling, Sean Morris and Maggie Wolfendale.

In addition, NYRA has hired former TVG executive vice-president for television Tony Allevato in a consultant capacity. It will have several soft launches during the present winter and spring meets.

Video replays are available on NYRA's website.

Thoroughbred Action August 10, 1994

See Champion Flanders win her debut in the 5th race.

[See if you can spot then Lukas assistant Todd Pletcher with brown hair helping to guide Flanders into the Winner's Circle.]

Written by Mark Berner

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