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Jan 07, 2005

RACING TODAY

By: JOHN PIESEN


Bones to pick?

You betcha.

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
(1,800).

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

 duties post-haste.

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

 way out.

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

 at Aqueduct.

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

and death.

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
$3,500 superfecta.

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

pick winners."

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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