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Nov 17, 2006

Through The Binoculars


Although thoroughbred racing always has been my first love sports-wise, I've always had a soft spot for harness racing.

My first job after the army was as a sports writer for the Yonkers Herald Statesman, and, as such, I managed to find a way to utilize the Yonkers Raceway press box as my office. The nightly press box occupants included such sports journalism giants as Lou Effrat, Lou Miller and Jerry DeNonno. Occasionally they would glance up from their gin rummy game to look at me in amusement as I wrote bowling copy.

In those days, the Yonkers crowds - especially on weekends - reached 30,000. Bettors had to park up to two miles from the track, and hoof it over.

Stanley Dancer and Bill Haughton dominated the racing in those days, and I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to interview them on a regular basis. Haughton, especially, became a friend, and his death on the Yonkers track haunts me to this day.

Later on, as the racing writer for the New York Post, I managed to cover all the major harness races at The Meadowlands. And, best of all, I got to drive in celebrity races at The Big M, Yonkers, Saratoga, Freehold and Goshen against the likes of George Steinbrenner, Oleg Cassini, George Plimpton, Rick Barry and Ken Stabler.

One quick story -

On a July evening in the late '80s, with 20,000-plus in the Meadowlands stands, I drove a $25,000 claimer named MacNamara Hanover against, among others, Cassini and the Boss.

Mac's trainer told me my horse was the speed of the race, and to send him.

"Whatever happens," he said, "don't give up the lead."

That said, I shook off a horse driven by Paul Maguire at the first turn, and took MacNamara Hanover down to the half in :57.

I remember at the time thinking that Stanley Dancers (whose silks I wore) probably never got a half in :57.

But, alas, that was too fast.

Mac still led by open lengths turning for home, but he started to tire, and Rick Barry, who was taught to drive by the Haughtons the day before, blew by, and beat me by a length.

Hey, I was happy to get second.

But when I got up to the press box to write a first-person piece for the Post, my colleagues ripped me.

"You went too damn fast Piesen. What were you doing?"

Now I was ticked.

The nerve.

The media criticizing an athlete after a loss.

I learned a valuable lesson there.

I bring up this history because I thought for years that harness racing was dead in the water. Even at the Meadowlands, the No. 1 harness track in the land, I've seen crowds and interest diminish.

Roosevelt Raceway was long since dead. And Yonkers Raceway might as well have been dead.

Now suddenly, out of nowhere, harness racing has a pulse.

The reason is slot machines.

The slots have been a huge success since installed a month back at Yonkers Raceway, and, on Friday night, harness racing will return to the Westchester facility after a 15-month absence. No doubt this will be a  major event on the New York sports scene.

And, Tuesday night, Pennsylvania's first "racino" will open at Pocono Downs. And, it too, will be a major event.

It won't be long before "racinos" will be up and running across Pennsylvania, and harness - as well as thoroughbred - racing will be the beneficiaries. They already are talking about Philadelphia Park becoming the most successful thoroughbred racetrack in the northeast.

Personally, I don't understand the allure of slot machines. But if slots are what it takes to save racing, then so be it.

Hey, if there's another MacNamara Hanover out there, let me know.

I'm game.

Speaking of games, I have to wonder why folks want to lay double-digits on basketball and football.

Perhaps you remember old buddy John Bothe. He was the race-caller for years at The Meadowlands - until his gambling addiction sent him spinning out of control. John recently re-surfaced as the track announcer at the Indiana Downs harness track, and we wish him the best of luck. He never stopped being a good announcer.

I bring John's name up because he loved nothing more than to lay the wood on basketball and football. As we sat together primping for a racing telecast, he would call his man.

"Give me the Bulls (-17) and Boston (-15)" was a typical call.

No doubt John would have had the Houston Rockets (-10) last Friday. And, on Saturday,  Phoenix (-10), and the Spurs (-13). .

Houston, up nine on the Knicks with two seconds to go...and McGrady bricks two free throws.

Phoenix, up 31 after three quarters, was outscored by Memphis (29-7) in the fourth quarter.

San Antonio, up 14 on the Knicks with two minutes left, emptied its bench, and the Knick starters scored the last six points.

Hopefully, Mr. Bothe wasn't involved.

Finally, some thoroughbred notes.

The Meadowlands concluded its star-crossed meeting on Saturday evening with nine winning favorites.

On the other hand, all nine favorites went down Sunday afternoon at Aqueduct, causing much angst among public handicappers. For example, the five-man consensus box in Daily Racing Form went a combined 1-for-45.

Just to prove trainer Pletcher doesn't win 'em all, he was 0-for-33 at Churchill (including his Breeders' Cup 17-oh-fer) before winning a race there Saturday.

Sweetnorthernsaint (remember him?, the beaten favorite in the Kentucky Derby) needed to beat only two horses in the Odessa Stakes on Saturday at Delaware Park, but he looked awfully good doing so. Don't be surprised if he has a huge 4-year-old campaign.

And say farewell to Giacomo. The '05 Derby winner was retired to stud last week, and will stand for $12,500 - or about one-eighth Bernardini's price.

I'll get to my Eclipse selections in a later column, but I would like to pass on a letter to the editor -from Mike Tsung of Oradell, N.J. - in Sunday's editions of DRF.

Says Mr. Tsung:

"It would be fitting for the Eclipse Award voters to recognize Barbaro as Horse of the Year, Bernardini as 3-year-old champion, and Invasor as champion older horse.

"Although such a result may defy logic and conventional wisdom, Barbaro's contributions, off the track, to the horse racing industry are far greater than had he gone on to win the Triple Crown.

"(Barbaro's connections) should be honored as ambassadors of the thoroughbred industry through their courage, love, generosity, and unwavering determination."

Well said.


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