Horse Racing at the Downs

Categories:  Sports    Features
Wednesday, May 25th, 2011 at 12:00 AM
Horse Racing at the Downs by Rebecca Styn

While I know most of us have a bucket list of sorts, mine doesn’t really fit the mold. In addition to the things I’d like to do before the end of my time, there are things I also want.  And to save from boring you with the full list of them, the top two includes owning a race horse.

Now, you may think I have this passion for these beautiful creatures. And while I have a love for all animals, I am by far a more sincere fan of the actual sport – and truth be told, I really only got into them through a little thing I like to call gambling—OK, everyone else calls it this too.

And I thank my family for this (this is a shout out to some of my mother’s side). As I write this, my uncle is texting me what horse to bet on in the Breeder’s Cup this afternoon.  And when I go up to the track later today, I will call my grandmother to see what horse she wants me to bet on for her – on the off chance she’s not going to the casino herself.

Yes, it’s that time of year, friends. And while the “fastest two minutes in sports” recently passed with the Derby, rest assured, Erieites—you can still have that experience as many times as you want from now until October 1.

The tension that builds when the horses enter the starting gate, those few moments you wait patiently (or impatiently) before the gates open and then the faint sound of hooves as they crescendo  into what sounds like ten thousand drums, up until the last eighth of a mile when you see your horse come from behind to win. It is one of the most exciting and instantly gratifying sports experiences from a viewer’s perspective. And there’s no other moment quite like it.

For the Love of the Game
After baseball, horse racing is the second most widely attended U.S. spectator sport. At the Presque Isle Downs, post time is 5:30 p.m. during the week, but the races start earlier on Saturdays. According to Jennifer See, the marketing director at the Downs,  the 3p.m.-Saturday post time, “allows for families to come in from all over and take advantage of what we have to offer – and we start a little earlier, allowing them to have their evenings open if they so choose. Those under 21 are able to be outside to watch the live races– we just wanted to offer families a fun way to spend the day – or night. We have also added a picnic area on the north side of the track and benches have also been restored in front of the covered patio area, to make it more accessible for everyone.”

One of Presque Isle Down's crowning achievements this year is their Master Stakes earning a Grade II status. The Master Stakes is the biggest race that the Downs hosts annually. Presque Isle Mile, set for September 9, and the Masters Stakes, set for the next day, highlight a stakes schedule of 16 races over the course of their season. To explain this better, stakes races are the major leagues of horse racing – where the top horses race. There are three different classes: Grade I, Grade II and Grade III. The difference between Grade I and Grade III is night and day. A true Grade I horse is far superior to a Grade III horse. Grade I races include the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes, and all eight Breeders' Cup races. So becoming a Grade II race is truly a feather in the cap for the Downs.

“It took only four seasons for the Stakes to reach Grade II status,” See says. “This speaks volumes about the quality of our racing. There’s not that many around in the U.S.”

Jim Cornes, stakes coordinator and paddock judge, also sat down with me for a few minutes to talk about his role at the Downs and to explain the stakes races better. With a down-to-Earth and welcoming spirit, I immediately understood why he works so well with all the different personalities—ponies included—that are involved in the sport.  “We’re only starting our fifth year - actually our full fourth year,” says Cornes, while keeping a watchful eye on the races simulcast on the televisions in his office. “And we are recognized nationally. The American Graded Stakes Committee meets in the fall to determine the grades – and each year we come under review. Actually, there are hundreds of different races that come under review. We’re beyond fortunate - this is something we’re very proud of because it doesn’t normally happen this fast. And to have this success is amazing - horses that pass through here are going on to bigger and better things – so we’re doing it right.”

And Corne’s is right. The past two Masters Stakes at the Downs were won by Informed Decision with Eclipse Award-winning jockey Julien Leparoux aboard. Informed Decision went on to compete in the Breeder’s Cup. And for those of you that don’t know (and I sure didn’t), receiving an Eclipse Award is like getting the Heisman Trophy.

Fractions of a second can determine a horse race, and Corne’s blood pressure is put to the test by some of the thoroughbreds. “We’ve had some great horses come through here. Noble’s Promise raced here and then took his chances at the Kentucky Derby, where he finished fifth – that really got my heart pounding. I love them all of course, but that race was one for the books.”

Generally speaking, tracks run from ¾ of a mile up to two miles long. They can  be artificial or dirt surfaces. The one mile track at the Downs has a Tapeta (artificial) surface. There are many reasons why a track would install a synthetic surface over a traditional dirt surface. First, there are consistent racing conditions in inclement weather. Horses that race on dirt tracks are known as “mudder” horses because they are used to the condition-- something to take into account when betting on a horse. Although statistics on this are not definitive, synthetic surfaces may help in the reduction of injuries and possible deaths to horses because of less wear and tear on their legs.

Behind the Scenes
Recruiting for horses is a lot like recruiting an athlete for college. “I’m given a template of a list of stakes that are planned out through the whole year,” Cornes explains. “My job is like a recruiter or a scout. I go and watch other races and performances and approach the owners and/or trainers to come here. We have a competitive business – at one time or another we’re all fighting over the same horses – and there’s only so many -  and yet only so many good ones.  And of course we want to put on the best show that we can. You need to know the people involved. It’s a bit easier here. Presque Isle is very forward thinking as we have free nominations – other states it’s a money stage to remain eligible to play – but not here which is a great thing.”

Technology also plays a vital role in recruitment. “Thank God for the Internet. As you can see, I have two televisions in my office and I leave the races on all the time,” Cornes says as he glances over to the screens. “You might see a horse develop, and we want to be the first to see him. And if I see them do well, I approach them. The earlier that happens, the more bridges we build. Sometimes it takes awhile, but other times it happens instantly.”

Debbie Howells, race director and overseer of racing at the Downs, informed me that owners and trainers can actually enter their own horses in the races. “We have what is called a ‘condition’ book,” she says. “If you’re an owner/trainer and if your horse fits the conditions that we list, you call the race office. We do recruit for the stakes races though.” Howells was a no-nonsense, direct woman. When See brought me to her office and asked her if she had a few moments to speak with me, she said “No, I don’t actually. Then again, I never have any time – so have a seat.” I liked her honesty.

Bend it like Beckner
“You know how you fillies are,” Beckner openly says to me, laughing. “With the horses though, there are some fillies if they get a little cranky, you have to finesse them because if they don’t want to deal with you - they’ll literally go in the other direction. Unlike if you have a big colt - you kind of let him know gently - hey I’m here - and he’ll respect it.”

Dale Beckner is a jockey with the Presque Isle Downs. I had just finished asking (semi-jokingly) if there were personality differences between fillies and colts - the female and male, respectively, horses under four years old. I wanted to know since men and women clearly have some difference. I figured it must move down the line. Seeing as fillies and colts are under four years old and most of our distinct personality traits don’t develop until into adulthood, the better question to pose may have been about mares and stallions, seeing as they are the “adults” of the breed.

Beckner’s been riding for 18 years. “I went to college in Washington state - where I’m originally from – and my neighbor at that time was a horse trainer,” he says. “I was 21 years old when I started. Once I was introduced to it, I knew right then and there this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

As for what brought him literally across the entire nation – “After Washington, I went out to California. I was advised to go to New York because that’s where the big races are,” he says as he speaks of his travels. “I rode at Saratoga, the Belmont, etc. … and then went on to New Jersey.  I had an opportunity to move here to ride when they opened. So, now many of us – myself included, ride here during their season and then go to Tampa in the winter – December through April.”

 These guys race five days/nights a week, anywhere from two to seven races a day and the horses only come around every two weeks to once a month. So, how do they have time to recruit more business? To Beckner, it’s a lot of PR work. “There’s obviously a lot of business we have to drum up – while we are constantly riding, we still have to find time to build relationships with owners, trainers, etc… We also have agents that help pair us up. ”

As for the placement of the ponies at the starting gate? Beckner explains, “Let’s say there’s 10 horses in a race. Trainers will enter their horses and then the racing secretary will put 10 numbered pills in a bottle. He or she will shake a pill out with a number on it and then draw a horse name from another box and pair it up. It’s like a lottery pick. And they do this pretty much everywhere. “

As for whether he’ll ride in the big races like the Derby. “That’s why we ride and take the risks we do – to ride the big horses. You will sustain injuries. I’ve sustained many of my own. I love it though – the challenges and the energy behind it all. Most people don’t realize what it takes to prepare these creatures. It’s a great business, and you have to have a passion to be in it. There’s a lot of behind the scenes work. Many hours. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

According to Beckner, “It’s a great business, but you have to have a passion to be in it. Countless hours of behind the scenes work. And so many people involved - grooms, hot-walkers, exercise riders, vets, trainers and blacksmiths –and so many more.”

And don’t forget the executive folks. Howells, See, Beckner, and Cornes all have a sincere dedication to racing. Before coming to Erie, both See and Howells spent several years at Mountaineer Casino and Racing and Howells even spent a previous stint at the Meadows Casino, a place where she first developed her passion for the industry.

“I had started working for them (Meadows) as an admin - though - it wasn’t what I wanted to do in the long run. I approached the president and explained I no longer wanted that role. He told me he had a human resources and a racing position open. I said I’d rather take the racing position. Although he tried to talk me out of it explaining to me that I was great with people and everyone loved me.” Howells laughs and adds jokingly, “I told him, I have enough troubles of my own and I don’t need to hear everyone else’s. So, I took the job and one day I was watching a race and they showed the instant replay where they slowed down the finish. The finish was remarkable and from that day on, I knew this is where I wanted to be.”

Animal Rights
Many individuals and groups argue that horse racing is a cruel sport. While I obviously have my own personal opinion on the matter, there are always two sides to every story. And one thing is for certain – there are injuries and fatalities. And we have all seen them, as it is a highly publicized sport. But over the last couple of years there have been significant strides to improve the health and safety of horses and riders. The Jockey Club is the breed registry for all thoroughbred horses in North America. This group alone has developed several initiatives, including the Thoroughbred Safety Committee, the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit, and an Equine Injury Database.

The Thoroughbred Safety Committee was created in 2008 to review every facet of equestrian health and to recommend actions the industry can take to improve the health and safety of Thoroughbreds.  They have convened several times over the years to discuss a number of safety issues and implement various recommendations. The group also brings in a cross section of industry representatives, including jockeys, trainers, veterinarians, owners, breeders, racing commissioners, racetrack executives, among others.

The Welfare and Safety summit creates objectives to improve the overall safety and welfare of horses and riders. Key individuals meet annually in attempts to meet this purpose.

According to their website, the Equine Injury database identifies the frequency, types, and outcome of racing injuries to help create valid statistics to work from. The database also provide the markers for horses at increased risk of injury and serves as a data source for research directed at improving safety and preventing injuries. The Presque Isle Downs is one of the racetracks that willingly participates in this database. Through their website, statistics show the presence of fatalities continually decrease each year. One of the factors taken into account, though not yet determined, is what surface the horse is riding on. Dirt tracks average 2.14 per 1,000 horse-fatality rate compared to the artificial tracks, such as the one Presque Isle has, to 1.55-1.74 per 1,000.

In addition, there are several organizations around the country that rescue retired racehorses and either adopt them out or provide lifetime sanctuary and care for them. Two of the largest are the Thoroughbred Retirement Fund (TRF) and the New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program.

The Future
As for the future of racing? Cornes puts is best. “Erie is recapturing the sport,” he says proudly. “We used to have the old Commodore Downs that generations before would go to bet at. But now there’s a whole new generation that didn’t have that opportunity, and this time we’re playing the game at a very high level. It’s like a major league sport –and we have lots of talent. We could see someone that’s already run the Kentucky derby three times, hall of fame trainers, etc… and then we could see them on their way up. All of them are priceless experiences.”

Betting Basics 101

Horse racing is inextricably associated with betting—at least in my book. For those that like the ‘instant gratification’ component, this sport is for you. A better can place a wager and within minutes know if they’ve won. But, one needs to know how to bet – which is easy if you follow this method: place your bet by the dollar amount, the type of bet you want, and the horse’s number. For example: "$10 to show on Number 7."

As for types of bets, below are some of the basics:

WIN: Bet a horse to win, and if he finishes first, you collect.

PLACE: Bet a horse to place, and if he finishes first or second, you collect.

SHOW: Bet a horse to show, and if he finishes first or second, or third, you collect.

ACROSS THE BOARD: Betting to win, place, and show (three separate bets) $2 across the board on Number 1 is the same as $2 to win, $2 to place, and $2 to show.

DAILY DOUBLE: Pick the winner of both the first and second races, and you collect.

PERFECTA/EXACTA: You win by picking the first two horses to cross the finish line in exact—or perfect—order.

TRIFECTA: You win by picking the first three horses to cross the finish line in exact order.

SUPERPERFECTA: You win by picking the first four horses to cross the finish line in exact order.

BOXED: In perfecta, trifecta, superfecta, you can ‘box’ your bet. This means that the horses you choose can come in any order. This bet costs more than a straight bet.

When all else fails – do what I do, and go with the grey horse – in as long as you like patterns that have nothing to do with performance or pedigree – it’s been a sound bet time and time again.

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