Jan 07, 2005
By: JOHN PIESEN
Bones to pick?
As a guy who worked out of the press box at the three New York
thoroughbred tracks for a quarter of century, I couldn"t help but form
some kind of attachment for New York racing.
So it"s sad to see what"s going on in the year 2005.
One stat says it all.
On Wednesday afternoon at Aqueduct, believe it or not, there were
more Pick Six consolation winners (2,500) than fannies in the seats
Then there is Morning Linegate.
For 20 years, Don LaPlace did an admirable job of making the morning
line at the New York tracks. Maybe I"m wrong, but I never heard
a single criticism about his work.
And even when I thought he made a mistake, he didn"t. I second-guessed
him for making Galloping Grocer the favorite over Rockport Harbor in
the Remsen back in November. Turned out the Grocer did go off the
favorite, and I ate crow. Although we all know the result of what to me
was the Race of the Year in New York.
But back to Don LaPlace.
During Christmas week, LaPlace, who is 74, announced his retirement.
My reaction? Surprise. Because why would he quit? He"s in good health,
and his work, as always, was infallible. Anyhow, it was reported that
he retired, and 20-something Eric Donovan, a hard-working member
of the NYRA media relations corps, would assume Don"s line-making
Then last week, there was a note in the Form.
LaPlace was quoted as saying that no, he didn"t retire. He was fired. And
on Christmas Eve no less!
"I wanted to work one more year," LaPlace said, "...so that I could work
one more Breeders" Cup."
Instead, it was so long, goodbye, and don"t let the door hit you on the
I don"t have any easy answers. Maybe there is a correlation between
LaPlace"s firing, and the fact that 2,000 is a good crowd these days
Anyway, good luck Don...a good guy who did a good job.
Joe Durso also was a good guy who did a good job. After a distinguished
half-century in sports journalism, Joe lost a four-year battle to brain
cancer last weekend. Joe was 80, which was hard to believe. Until his
health turned, Joe looked and acted like a man half his age.
Joe Durso was a giant in his profession, and no better person has walked
the face of the earth. He"ll be missed.
There was more bad news in racing this week, although not life
Gulfstream Park opened on Monday, and you knew there was trouble
in paradise when the entries came out for opening day. No stake race.
Seven cheap claimers. A $200,000 purse structure, which compares
favorably with Tampa Bay Downs.
An announced crowd of 6,000 turned out for the opening, which was
marked by the loss of two races. The first race because they couldn"t
get the tractor off the racetrack, and the final race because they
thought it might be too dark.
The jockeys were angry. The trainers were angry. Most important the
public was angry. But not to worry. The DRF reports that everything
went off perfectly on Thursday following two dark days. How nice.
Everything did not go off perfectly at Aqueduct on Thursday. The new
tote system blew a short, and the program was delayed, and the track
reacted by offering free admission and free programs to the five or
six hundred folks who figure to turn out in freezing rain Friday.
At least, it wasn"t a total loss for the folks who had the foresight to
purchase John Piesen"s telephone selections for a laughably light fee.
Piesen capped a day of winners with a $315 boxed exacta in the final race, and his three picks comprised three-fourths of the
The timing was interesting because, on the same day, my buddy Bill Finley
did a profile on Russ Harris for ESPN.com.
Russ, whose work I have always respected, was cited by Finley for a
lifetime achievement award for his work as a public handicapper, mostly
with the New York Daily News.
There was one graph in the piece that knocked my socks off. Finley said
the Daily News hired Harris in the early "80s to counter the
"beefed up" racing coverage at the New York Post.
This is something I never knew. Since Ray Kerrison and myself were
the "beefed up coverage" at the Post, I found this very interesting.
Russ and I went head to head five or six days a week for years. It was a
great rivalry. He would beat me on winners. I would beat him on prices.
It was a friendly but heated rivalry, and if Finley wants to say that Russ
is the greatest handicapper of all, that"s fine. It"s not a big deal to me.
What I did admire most about Russ was his sensitivity for the animals.
Whenever there was a spill, Russ and I would be the only guys in the
press box to show compassion toward the horses. I know it killed me
when a horse was seriously hurt (I still feel the same way), and Russ
felt the same.
The other thing that comes to mind when I think about Russ Harris is
his virtuousness. (Is there such a word?).
The prime example occurred on a winter afternoon back in the late
"70s at Aqueduct.
NYRA ran a Sunday promotion in which the spoon-bending psychic
Uri Geller would match handicapping wits against the public handicappers
from the three New York dailies that cover racing -- Russ Harris from
the News, John Pricci from Newsday, and John Piesen from the Post.
It was billed the Psychics" Challenge, and NYRA TV host Harvey Pack
was the emcee. The four contestants made a selection in each of the
nine races, and whoever had the highest pari-mutuel total at the end
of the day would be declared the winner, and receive a $500 prize.
Not taking any chances, Harris, Pricci and Piesen decided beforehand
to save. After all, $170 was big money in those days.
It turned out to be a tough day for all concerned, and Harris finished
first by picking two $5 winners.
At the post-race ceremonies, Pack announced that Harris was the
winner, and handed him the $500 check.
Russ walked up to the podium, thanked Harvey, and proceeded to
say: "...I want to thank God for giving me the wisdom and talent to
I nicknamed Russ "the Rev" on the spot, and the nickname has stuck to
this day. And, at 81, a mazeltov to Russ. He"s still picking winners for
the New York Daily News.
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