For the track and the sport, the timing couldn't have been worse. Meadowlands officials and New Jersey regulators ought to be mortified this week after allowing Saturday night's feature race-the much-heralded, eagerly-watched, North American debut of Down Under superstar Auckland Reactor-to degenerate into what one long-time horseman called "one of the most blatant and extreme examples" of suspicious racing seen on the Big Stage in quite some time.
With the whole Standardbred world watching the Open, a horse named Real Joke dominated the field, winning the contest in 1.47.3, a mark tied for the fourth fastest mile in the history of the track. Only two weeks earlier, the 4-year-oldgelding had been claimed out of trainer Julie Miller's barn for $50,000 (with allowances) by Lou Pena, a trainer with a long, USTA-documented history of racing-related suspensions. Pena came back out of obscurity (and Sacramento) last fall to dominate trainer statistics at the Big M. He is reportedly on pace to break the dash record for a single meet at the Meadowlands, dominates as well at Mohegan Sun at Pocono, and is near the top at Freehold Raceway and Harrah's Chester in Pennsylvania.
In just his brief time back on the East Coast after a major suspension in 1991 and a blemished run in California, Pena has raised eyebrows both for his off-track behavior and his almost surreal (one source called it "brazen") on-track success. "Every time he wins an [honest] owner wants to leave the sport," one industry source told me over the weekend. And, sure enough, less than 24 hours after Real Joke crossed the wire, a prominent owner of stakes horses was earnestly pledging to his friends on Facebook that he was going to get out of harness racing because of what he had seen in the Open. Pena, another harness insider wrote, "is stealing from everyone who competes with him and one would hope someone would spill the beans."
Not surprisingly, Pena sees it differently. In an exclusive interview with Harnesslink for this article, he offered a scathing rebuttal to his critics and a strident defense of his gelding. He accused the harness racing community of a form of discrimination, saying industry insiders are "critical of me because I am Mexican. They hate to see that. They don't realize I won as many driving titles as anyone out here. I had some really good horses. People think I fell out of a tree. I pay attention to what I am doing every day. I am a little more meticulous at what I do" than other trainers, he said.
Pena went on to say he "resented" the stereotyping and suspicion he feels he receives from industry insiders for his ethnicity and his astounding success. "What do you want me to say?" he asked me over the phone, "that I have secret magic heroin? That's what they want me to say." He did not, however, deny telling some industry veterans that he currently has "an edge" on his competitors. Pena said: "If I have said that before, I probably said that being facetious. English is not my first language." For the record, Pena spoke to me with barely any accent at all; more California than New Jersey, but certainly more English than Spanish.
Of the gelding in question, Pena said that Real Joke's condition when claimed from the Millers was "very good." But when asked about lameness, Pena said: "Supposedly that's his history. His issues were minor. He walks funny. He just walks funny" because he is so big. Pena also disclosed that he had coveted the horse for a while before the claim and even attempted to buy Real Joke from the Millers earlier in the year for $150,000--$180,000 but was rebuffed. He said he was pleased to get the horse at a fraction of that price.
Julie Miller refused to comment for this article. But I was told by two sources that the Millers were indeed gratified to have Real Joke claimed from them given the condition he was in at the time. Yet sure enough, two weeks ago, in Real Joke's first race for Pena, the pacer romped in a $50,000 claimer in a sparkling 1.48.4-nearly two full seconds off his lifetime mark and nearly four seconds faster than he had gone just the week before. And on Saturday, with an international audience, he reportedly limped around and out of the paddock before equaling the great's Big M mark. (Full disclosure: I own a small part of one of the other horses in the Open Saturday. Our horse finished a well-beaten fourth.)
Brian Sears, who drove the heraldedto a sixth-place finish, called the race "ridiculously fast." A prominent owner wrote me Sunday morning to call the race "a disgrace." For his part, Pena told me that he merely "shortened up" Real Joke's hopples and changed his shoes following the claim. He said he was swimming the horse instead of pounding him on the track while jogging. When I asked Pena specifically to explain the gelding's phenomenal improvement after the claim, and specifically about pacing in 1.47.3, he said: "He's a good horse. The horse has got personal ability. People don't want to come and look at this horse go."
Real Joke's racing line is available for all to see-- as are his recent race videos.
You may judge for yourselves whether these answers satisfy you. On Sunday, one day after the race, I learned a lot more about the story just by asking. One industry source told me the gelding was essentially "lame when claimed" from the Miller barn. Another industry watcher said as much about the horse's condition a few weeks ago-using more colorful language-- and mocked racing officials and track veterinarians for not scratching the horse before the Open race last Saturday when he looked to some to be lame in the paddock. Other harness veterans I spoke with criticized trainers and drivers for not saying something about Real Joke's condition before Saturday's race.
There's more. When asked about Real Joke's Open Win at the Big M, several industry watchers I spoke with immediately began telling me about a race last Friday at Harrah's Chester. In that race, a Pena-trained horse named Lightning Elvis uncorked a 1.50 mile in a low-level condition race on a five-eighths track. Even the track announcer seemed stunned at the ferocity of the mile offered by the horse, who won by 10 lengths. That's two races in two days involving two horses with blowout miles that would have beggared belief a few weeks ago. Big M race watchers tell me this is nothing new for Pena this winter and spring.
The Standardbred Breeders & Owners Association of New Jersey announced Monday that it had "been in touch with the New Jersey Racing Commission to relay the concerns that we have received from numerous horsemen" about Real Joke's race and Pena's work. However, neither the Commission nor track officials at Chester would comment for this story. Peter Koch, racing secretary at the Big M, did respond. He wrote me a very nice email note which says absolutely nothing at all about what happened Saturday night. In it, Koch wrote:
"Whenever any trainer has done well it seems they are instantly accused of using something to enhance their horses' performance. Many times, the accusations have proved true and many times false. Lou Pena has done extremely well here at The Meadowlands and every other place he races on the east coast. Every track is aware of this as well as the racing commissions in the various states. Mr Pena has raced 275 horses here at The Meadowlands and none have come up positive. With Mr. Pena winning more and more higher-profile races I can assure you he will be under more and more scrutiny."
Can't someone in a position of knowledge and/or authority publicly explain, at least to's many fans around the world if not to the Big M's regular customers, how it could come to pass that such an important and symbolic race could be so susceptible to such suspicions? As an owner of a horse competing with Pena, do I not deserve that much? How could these suspicions, growing all spring in East Rutherford, have been allowed to thrive unchecked into full bloom right before the eyes of the racing world? Sure, the presumption of innocence is important. So is the notion of believing what you see with your own eyes.
Koch and Company have no one to blame but themselves for the lingering uproar caused by the results of the race. And now, because the international spotlight shines directly on one of the most disconcerting components of New Jersey racing, these officials are caught between hammer and anvil. So many important people in the world of harness racing were tuned in to the Open, spanning two Hemispheres and thousands and thousands of miles; so many saw with their own eyes what happened. How can officials now sweep it all back under the rug?
Despite Koch's current straight face, they can't. It's like what the late United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once famously said about pornography: "I know it when I see it." People know what they saw on Saturday night in the 10th. And officials are going to have to respond. Because if enough good people believe a race is a charade it becomes one. So it no longer only matters whether or not Pena is cheating, or whether that can be proven or not at this time, or whether he is, as he says, a victim of institutional racism. The appearance of impropriety surrounding this Pena-trained horse (and others) has become so great in the wake of Real Joke's 47.3 in the Open that the industry cannot continue to ignore the problem.
Real Joke's mile Saturday night was faster than either of the marks posted byand last year during their 4-year-old campaigns. It was faster than the lifetime mark taken by , the Big M master if there ever was one, who is widely perceived to be the best harness horse racing in North America today. This helps explains why so many people within the industry were openly mocking the accuracy and reliability and integrity of the result as soon as the race was over. You simply cannot tolerate among the betting public and harness insiders such flagrant and open disrespect for the legitimacy and enforceability of the industry's racing rules-and such a mocking lack of confidence in the validity of the product. It's poison.
Can the United States Trotting Association invoke Article I, Section 3 of its bylaws and refuse to renew Pena's trainer's license-it expires June 30, 2010-- until he answers questions from the Big M and the racing commission? Are trainers and/or owners really going to take a cue from what happened a few months ago at Penn National and band together and refuse to race against Pena horses until they are satisfied that the racing is legitimate? Is a courageous driver going to stand up and do something before a horse breaks down on the track? Will track veterinarians get closer involved on race days?
I don't have any answers. I just have questions--and an awful pit in my stomach when I ask myself the following question: is this the sort of crap we all are fighting so nobly to save in harness racing?
Good friend Gordon Waterstone, the veteran reporter/editor at the Horseman And Fair World magazine, wrote after my last column to tell me that he and his colleagues had contacted and received a quote from Tracy Brainard about the end of her tenure with the Bulletproof Enterprises ownership group. "It was amicable," Brainard told the magazine. "It was nice to travel all over the world and have a great year, but we've bought a farm in New York and my daughter is turning eight in June. It's time to focus on other things." Unfortunately, that quote tells us little about what happened between the top owner and top trainer in the sport last year....
.... I omitted an important side-note in my piece a few weeks ago about incoming Standardbred Canada chief John Gallinger. As I mentioned in my first piece on the subject, I expressed interest in that position when a vacancy for it was first announced and went a short bit of the way down the road before my "application" was politely and reasonably declined. I am a huge supporter of Standardbred Canada and may even become a supporter of Gallinger, too, once we all learn a little bit more about how he found his way to the top of Canadian harness racing.
*** Ed Note: Andrew Cohen has an updated piece on the reaction to this story here ***
Andrew Cohen is a Standardbred owner, breeder and writer.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the author and not necessarily Harnesslink.
$32,000 Invitational Pace at The Meadowlands
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