Thursday, April 19, 2012

Harness Horsemen Versus Thoroughbred Horsemen and Bad Raps

I read with interest the section of HRU, "2 minutes with" where thoroughbred trainer Barry Abrams was interviewed. Barry, as you all know, was a top trainer in harness racing in the 1980's with horses like the venerable Guts.

When asked what was harder to train a thoroughbred or standardbred Barry said this:

It’s much easier to train thoroughbreds. It helps to be a horseman to train thoroughbreds but you don’t have to be a horseman. That’s because you can hire people to do everything for you. In standardbreds, you have to know how to sit behind them, shoe them, train them yourself; you need to know about the sulky and all the other equipment. With thoroughbreds you just need to throw a saddle on them. If a thoroughbred trainer switched to standardbreds they wouldn’t do any good because they wouldn’t know what to look for.

This is something that always amazed me, and amazes people like Beyer. Let me ask you, if Joe Blow gets a problem trotter and puts him back in after 2 weeks and he does alright, he is a "juicer". If a thoroughbred trainer does it, he's a decent horsemen. Does this make sense, on the surface?

The harness guy could've added toe weights, trotting hopples, trained the horse in a pack to settle him down, schooled him twice, changed racebikes, changed to a Kant See Back, adjusted the shoeing three degrees or changed them to about 100 different kinds, and numerous other things.

What's the thoroughbred guy do to get the horse to improve 20 Beyer points in 14 days? Of course there are a few things, but in general, I'm with Beyer: It's the vets that are improving these horses in some stables en masse. It's the only thing that makes rational sense.

Before you jump on me with anecdotal stuff, I, like Beyer, am talking about the guys who do it with virtually every horse who enters the barn, not one or two diamonds in the rough, nursed back to race well by real horsepeople.

Standardbreds are there for the picking, mainly because they're "standard" - they race only one mile. If a horse improves ten lengths it's immediately noticed and there are very few excuses the public buys. In the thoroughbreds, a guy can pop a new horse in a 7f race, instead of a six, and use the extra furlong as the reason, along with all the other excuses like the jockey change or feed change.

It's like Ben Johnson circa 1987. He's running the 100m in 10.20, and eight months later he's running it in 9.90. It's noticeable and people questioned it. If he switched to the 200m and ran a world record, he could easily say "it's my distance" and people wouldn't suspect a thing.

Harness racing is not clean and neither is the thoroughbreds. But I'd like to see harness horsemen labelled "horsemen" not chemists more often. There are chemists in both sports, not only one. It's time world class harness horsemen got a fair shake.

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