Day At The Track

Tracks not doing their homework on “bad boys”

10:25 AM 22 Dec 2013 NZDT
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Pena and Eckley situations by Steve Wolf

Recently there have been stories posted about harness racing trainer Lou Pena still being unable to race at Yonkers Raceway in New York and at the Meadowlands in NJ and he wants to know why.

Dean Eckley just received a five-year ban and $10,000 fine for a positive test on a horse he raced at Colonial Downs in Virginia three months ago and yet he has been able to race at Northfield Park in Ohio. He was kicked out of New York racing two years ago.

Why can’t Pena get an answer? Why was Eckley allowed to race in Virginia and Ohio?

Why aren’t people doing their homework?

As a former racetrack manager for a combined 23 years between Freehold Raceway and Pompano Park, I think I can shed some light on these situations.

Let’s begin with Lou Pena. Lou had a great career out in California and then he came east. He tore up Yonkers Raceway and the Meadowlands as top trainer at both tracks. But after a while he was told he was no longer welcome to race at both tracks. The New York Wagering Board went overboard and got slapped down by the NY State Supreme Court for failure to state what Pena had done wrong. One would then think that Pena would be allowed back to race at Yonkers. Nope…nada…not going to happen.

Everyone needs to understand that any private racetrack can exclude anyone from participating at their venue, plain and simple. If you look funny at a track executive they can kick you off the grounds and there is nothing you can do it about it. It actually becomes a trespassing law for the person being denied if they try and come on the grounds. If that person tries to race their horses under a “beard” or false paper trainer, they risk getting everyone else involved also kicked out.

The private tracks are exactly that, private tracks. They can allow whomever they want to compete at their venue and never have to say why they don’t want someone. If you are at your home in the USA and tell the police that someone is trespassing on your property, they will come out and escort that person off your property. It does not matter why they are on your property or what they may or may not have done. They are on your property and you don’t want them there, plain and simple. It’s the same for privately owned racetracks.

So for Lou Pena, with Pocono Downs and Harrah’s Philadelphia tracks closed for the season and he is not wanted at the Meadowlands or Yonkers. He just has to find another racetrack that will allow him to race there and move there. End of story.

Now let’s talk about the Dean Eckley situation as that applies to a lot of racetracks in our industry. And these racetracks need to really do their homework.

Dean Eckley is a harness racing trainer. Since becoming a licensed trainer in 2008 his racing record shows 230 winners from his stable and purse earnings of more than $1.5 million. More than half of those wins have come this year. In 2013 he has sent out 389 starters with 118 wins and an impressive Universal Trainer Rating (UTR) or battling average of .433. He raced primarily at Colonial Downs and at Scioto Downs and Northfield Park in Ohio.

Looking at his USTA record under fines and suspensions you will find nothing more than a bunch of failure to designate someone responsible for his racehorse in the race paddock and numerous fines for abusive language in the race paddock and to race officials. Reads like he grooms his own horses and thus leaves them unattended too much and he has a foul mouth and a temper. Nothing earth shattering. Nothing out of the norm in the horse industry.

But there is always more than what a USTA rulings report can produce. So we Google Dean Eckely and what came up?

“Dean M. Eckley, 27, of Loda, Ill., was arrested on Oct. 8, 2010 by the Mount Hope (N.Y.) Police Department in Orange County on a charge of cruelty to animals after he allegedly drove a horse into a barn door at Mount Hope Training Facility, and then whipped the horse.”

The police did a three month investigation into Eckley and had him dead to rights guilty. The New York State Wagering Board threw him out of the state. He only sent out five horses in purse races in 2011 and none in 2012.

So Dean plays it cool for two years, more than likely handling horses via friends or “beards” to do the training as he sits on the sidelines. Then he emerges back on the scene in Ohio and Virginia this year. Apparently his past caught up with him. He could not stop trying better racing through chemistry.

He was caught with a positive test on one of his horses at Colonial Downs in Virginia and two days ago it was announced he would receive a five year suspension and a $10,000 fine. But that still does not answer the question of why any racetrack would have allowed him to compete at their track after the horse abuse crime two years ago?

Do these tracks not do their homework? Do they just allow anyone with a license to come in and start racing without doing a proper background check? Or do they feel that driving a horse into barn door and then whipping said horse is ok to do?

This also happened recently at Cal Expo in California where they have allowed Marc Mosher to race. He was found guilty of abusing a horse that died at the track due to his actions in 2001. Once the press release went out some websites posted the story, then once it was pointed out who Mosher was and his past, the sites took the story down. As of this weekend Mosher is still driving and training at Cal Expo.

What does it take for racetrack management to put their foot down and say NO, we don’t want you competing at our track? Are tracks really hurting that bad for horses, trainers and drivers that they have to allow these people to race at their venues? Jeff Gural has taken a stand at his three tracks and other tracks have also denied some horsemen from competing, but cases like Eckley and Mosher are still allowed to happen.

It is simple enough to take care of. As Senior Director of Racing Operations at Pompano Park we would sit down with the race secretary and staff and a representative of the horsemen’s association before every meet and go over every single trainer and driver and horse that was seeking permission to compete at the meet. Checks would be done on their history via the USTA and if there was any questions at all, additional searches and queries would be done. And after the meet was underway anytime a new person requested stall space or wanted to race at the meet, the same was done again.

For those that did not have clean enough records, even at times nothing but the speculation of wrong doing, depending on the infractions, they were denied the right to compete. These “speculations of wrong doing” would range from needles and medical supplies found buried in horse stalls after they left for the season, evading searches, possession of illegal medications, hidden ownerships, all sorts of questionable dirty deeds that made these people undesirable to be at the racetrack. Fellow horsemen did not want to have to compete against them and it was unfair to the betting public too.

We knew at the time we were doing the right thing and the ownership of the racetrack, state racing commission and the horsemen and women supported our actions.

What did it mean in the long run? Not much. Less than a year after I left Pompano Park, most of those denied people were allowed to come back and race again. New management and new ways of doing things.

So in the long run it’s usually the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. If enough people stand up and complain about a situation it could get remedied. Then again it may not.

I think that if enough people are sick and tired of hearing about “bad boys” being allowed to compete elsewhere that each one of us needs to tell racetrack management how we feel. Racetracks need to stand a stand and stop those who cheat the system and abuse horses from competing and show the horsemen and women who play fair that improper behavior will not be tolerated. This will also instill faith back to the betting public that the tracks do care. It’s not that much to ask for.

By Steve Wolf for  

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