Day At The Track

Cohen: The Real Joke era: More Pena facts

01:15 AM 10 Jun 2010 NZST
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Andrew Cohen
Andrew Cohen

Thanks to Lightning Lou Pena, we suddenly have two horses at the top of harness racing's speed-record pyramid. We have the great Somebeachsomewhere and now we have a 4-year-old claimer named Real Joke. We have, in other words, a new co-record that speaks eloquently and accurately for the dubious era in which we race; brazen, ridiculous, uncertain, cynical, and loaded with doubt.

This past weekend, Pena took his newfound miracle gelding to a place where only the great ‘Beach had been before. For only the second time in history, a harness horse has won two sub-1.48 races in a row. The Mach Three Miracle did it at the Red Mile in 2008-I saw both races with my own eyes. And Real Joke has done it now. Art Official never did it. Lis Mara never did it and neither did Holborn Hanover or American Ideal or Well Said or Jennas Beach Boy or Mister Big or Shadow Play or Four Starzzz Shark or Won The West or any other horse that torched its way under 1.48.

Yet Real Joke did. Just one month after being left available in a $40,000 claimer ($50,000 with allowances) by superstar trainer Julie Miller, just two weeks after shocking the sport with his first 1.47.3, and only one week after his trainer conceded the horse has "lameness issues," Real Joke dominated again in the Open at the Meadowlands Saturday night. In different circumstances, the sport's leading tribunes might have rushed to heap praise on the winning connections. In the current circumstances, the public reaction to Real Joke's repeat was strangely muted. For example, the many legitimate publicity tribunes in our sport didn't do features on Pena, or his owners, or the record.

Actually, Real Joke's ersatz coronation was part of a surreal four-race Pena sweep at the start of the Big M card (he also won the first two races at Pocono that night, which meant he was for a time that evening 6-for-6 as a trainer). And, sadly, some harness watchers didn't even think Real Joke's repeat performance was the most outlandish of the evening. Several pointed to a Pena-trainee, 4-year-old The Panderosa gelding named Mega Lightning, who won a low condition race in 1.48.2 off fractions of 25.2 and 52.3. "I have never seen anything like it," one veteran horseman said this week-and he wasn't being complimentary.

If he is going to go down, Pena evidently is not going to go down quietly. In the winner's circle a few weeks ago, or at least at some point after the race in which Real Joke had won for the first time in 1.47.3, sources tell me they believe they heard Pena bragging that he could make the horse go in 1.44 if he wanted to. Uttered in humor or not, evidently such boasts have been pronounced enough, and in the current circumstances unsettling enough, that the horsemen's association asked Pena for a sit-down. Accounts differ as to what happened in the meeting(s). I'll try to learn more for next week.

In the meantime, we are still awaiting word from the New Jersey Racing Commission about the results of the out-of-competition testing completed last week on Pena's horses-and it may be some time before we hear. Racing officials are able to hold the samples for a while pending the development of new testing protocols. While we wait, and as more owners and trainers trend toward incredulous about Pena's remarkable run, let's offer a few more facts which ought to make even the most intransigent Pena defenders understand how and where and why the legitimate alarm has sounded.

Respected owner, trainer, breeder and attorney Peter Kleinhans took the time last week to acquire some statistical knowledge about the matter. He studied the results of the 27 horses Pena acquired in 2009 (Kleinhans says he'll have 2010 statistics available shortly) and then sent me his spread-sheet conclusions. For each horse, Kleinhans measured the last three races before Pena took over and then the first three races afterward. The results are just astounding.

On average, horses more than doubled their earnings in the first few starts after Pena took over their training. The average was a 104 percent increase in earnings. Moreover, the average horse improved over five lengths in those starts. And many of these former trainers are well known and respected horsemen. This is not "speculation" or a "rush to judgment." These are facts. They represent circumstantial evidence. They add to our growing body of objective information about this entire affair. Here's Kleinhans' chart.

27 horses

22 made more money in first 3 starts for Pena than for final 3 for previous trainer. (81%)

22 had faster best time in first 3 starts for Pena than best time in final 3 for previous trainer (81%)

12 won first start for Pena. (44%)

8 won first start for Pena by more than 3 lengths. (30%)

Earnings per start for previous trainers in horses' last 3 starts: $2,432

Earnings per start for Pena in horses' first 3 starts: $4,970 (104% higher- more than double- than earnings per start for previous trainers.)

Want more? Okay. Here is a chart from RaceTrackDaddy measuring Lou Pena against Ron Burke, the leading trainer in the country. Even when compared to Burke, who has developed his own reputation for aggressive training, Pena completely dominates the scene. What accounts for Pena being twice as successful as Burke? And why wasn’t Pena dominating like this out in California before he came back East? These are questions that no Pena defenders seem willing to address. In the real world, if someone has nine USTA-reported positives in about 10 years time—as Pena did in California—he’d be called a recidivist. Pena’s camp followers instead call him a hero.

Pena VS Burke

There are two ways you can look at these charts. You can believe, as some blithely do, that Lou Pena is the second coming of Billy Haughton, a trainer savant who can charm a mediocre horse under 1.48 just by swimming him and changing the hopples. You can believe this if you are Pena's friend, or if you make money off him, or if are otherwise dependent upon his success. You can believe this if you are invested in a status quo in harness racing that is eating away at the integrity and credibility of the sport. You can believe this if you are a most trusting person in an untrustworthy world.

The other way to look at the Real Joke Era is to believe that Pena is the second coming of Eric and Seldon Ledford, or worse, and that these studies, and what we see with our own eyes and hear from horseman all over the East Coast, reveal more accurately the scope and impact of Pena's run. You can believe this if you believe that the figures above are suspicious and that it's well-nigh impossible to drop mediocre horses down below 1.48 or 1.49 without the wrong sort of help. You can believe this if you are a skeptical person who looks at all those Pena positives in California and sees something just doesn't add up.

That 104 percent increase in purse money that Pena has somehow achieved? That's money out of the pockets of fellow trainers and fellow owners and fellow caretakers. It is money out of the pockets of casual bettors who don't know what is happening. It is money out of the pockets of breeders whose stallions' lifetime speed marks are being obliterated. That's the reality here. That's a fact. The rest-the anonymous outrage at any "victimization" of Pena, the convenient disregard of stubborn facts, the feigned and sudden obeisance to due process, the finger pointing at other trainers- is just a lazy distraction. And harness racing can no longer afford a distraction.

Andrew Cohen is a Standardbred owner, breeder and writer

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