There is no doubt that harness racing continues to evolve... speed records are lowered as breeding and technology get better and better. And driving styles have evolved too as drivers continue to try and find an edge. But recently North America’s leading money-winning driver and leading dash-winning driver were fined for their ‘laid-back’ styles... Trot takes a look at the latest in this, and another, growing controversy.
Story by Debbie Little
With fans and horsemen alike taking to social media sites to vent on topics that vary from Horse of the Year to where to eat in Lexington, it’s no surprise that driving styles, and, more specifically, driving posture, would come up. Especially when you consider that North America’s current dash-leading driver and money-leading driver have been fined recently for their ‘laid back’ styles.
Trot spoke with a Hall of Fame writer, a presiding judge and a cross section of drivers to find out what’s driving this trend and if it has the legs to last.
Aerodynamics, comfort, intimidation, wind-resistance, showboating, lift, design. Emulation are just a few reasons given for laying back in the bike. Safety, interference and unfair advantage are also words associated with laying back, followed by warnings, fines and days.
Laying back in the bike is nothing new but back in the days of Carmine Abbatiello, David Smith or even Walter Case, Twitter and Facebook weren’t around. Nowadays, far more drivers indulge, far more fans see races and express opinions and far more judges take notice.
“Obviously, guys lay back further than they did 30 or 40 years ago but the bikes are set up that way. Some guys lean back further than others, but I don’t see where the problem is. I’ve never come off the track and said, ‘That driver leans too far back, he’s gonna get killed.’ I’ve never said that and it’s never been an issue,” said George Brennan.
David Smith, who hasn’t driven in a pari-mutuel race now since 2006, is viewed by many as the Canadian driver most associated with leaning far back in the bike years ago. Smith says the aerodynamics was an important component, but certainly not the only one.
“I liked to spend a lot of time on the front end with my horses and down the backside by leaning back, it kinda looked like I had a lot of horse. Meanwhile, I would have just enough of a touch of the horse to make it look like I had lots of horse. So when people came up beside me first over, they would look over and think instead of challenging me, it looked like maybe I had a lot of horse so it was intimidating,” he said.
“I was showboating a little bit, too. It looked different. It looked cool. It felt cool and through the stretch if I was on top by four or five lengths and I knew I had it all wrapped up, I’d get way back in that bike and just kind of show off a little bit,” he added.
Smith’s U.S. equivalent would definitely have been Walter Case. But Case points out that in the 80s, when he drove in Maine and at the Meadowlands, his style was much more upright and it wasn’t until he started driving in a Cheetah sulky that he started leaning back.
“When the Cheetah bike came out in the early 90s, the guy that made that, Craig Stein from Ohio, told me you’ve kind of got to lean back and aerodynamically get yourself out of the wind and you’d make more speed. I started doing that and I loved it and I had a lot of success. So the bike started me doing that. And a lot of people copied my style,” said Case.
In 2008, when Case raced at Plainridge in Massachusetts, he was told that leaning way back in the bike was frowned on and if he did it, he would be fined.
“I didn’t lean back and I still had success. I didn’t sit straight up but I didn’t lean back, either. It was maybe in between and they were happy with that. I admit it was only 25 drives, but I did it and I had 10 wins and a bunch of seconds.”
Though slightly off topic, fines for kicking were recently levied against Tim Tetrick and Brian Sears. What makes these fines different, according to Hall of Fame writer Dean Hoffman, is that they may have happened as a result of how on a specific afternoon Twitter and Facebook blew up.
“I think that’s what kind of led to the penalties after the fact in Kentucky against Tetrick and Sears for the Tattersalls Pace with Captaintreacherous and Vegas Vacation. There were no penalties issued after the race but kind of after the fact they were I think, after the push back and pressure from social media,” Hoffman said.
Whether posts and tweets played a part is not nearly as important as the fact that rules were broken. No one questions that racing would be much easier if there was uniformity in rules or in judge’s rulings, for that matter, but until that magic day arrives, what remains are fines with penalties not severe enough to deter them.
“I’ve had drivers tell me about whipping. They said if the fine is inconsequential and the race is big enough, they say we just do the math and we’ll take the $50 or $100 or $500 or whatever it is penalty to win the race,” said Hoffman.
Current N.A. dash-leader Ronnie Wrenn Jr. (who had 625 wins through November 22) was one-and-done after being fined for leaning too far back at Delaware, Ohio, on the Sunday of Jug week. Wrenn chose not only to take off his drives for the rest of the day, but the rest of the week and according to sources, packed up and left.
After being fined for the same infraction in the Jugette, current money-leading driver Tim Tetrick spoke out on Jug Day during a session of the USTA Speaker Series. When asked about making changes to the format of the Jug his response was, “The only thing I’d like to change is the judges. They always want to torture us for leaning back in the racebikes...I don’t drive dangerous and I try to put on a good show for the fans that support me. Like yesterday, I got fined $500 for leaning back in the bike and that’s not right…I don’t tell you how to sit in your office chair, don’t tell me how to sit in my office chair,” Tetrick said.
Other drivers competing at Delaware, such as Scott Zeron, felt well informed of the rules and had no issues following them.
“On Jug Day and that whole week, we were all told there’s no leaning back in the bike, even if you have a strong hold on your horse and you might be leaning back, that might be subjective to getting fined. And they had said that in the races, I want to say, with over $15,000 purses, that the fines would be doubled, so it’s a $500 fine... so it’s quite serious. I mean, I was sitting straight up,” said Zeron.
“If somebody’s sitting straight up and you lay your horse’s nose right up on that person’s helmet, they know how to follow it and they won’t go through it. If someone’s leaning too far back you might have to stay slightly off of them because most of today’s bikes have drivers lower to the ground, so occasionally you’ll have the horse’s knee hit the driver in the back if they’re leaning that far back,” he added.
Although not involved with the decisions made at Delaware, Ohio, presiding judge Dan Kazmaier had some things to say about the fines he’s imposed in the state of Delaware.
“Many drivers in the state of Delaware are against drivers leaning back, including leading drivers like George Dennis, Ross Wolfenden and Jim Morand, among others. They don’t think it’s the right thing to do. Leaning straight back in the bike basically gives the lead horse an advantage because he’s pushing the rest of the horses behind him further back than he should be. And with the longer bikes that you have today, the trailing horses are back even further than they used to be,” Kazmaier said.
And for the drivers that complain that the judges can’t relate, Kazmaier was a driver, has trained a horse in a modern bike and even competed against Walter Case.
“I drove against Walter Case and he did have his helmet back in my horse’s chest several times. If I had drove up a little further – because he’s taking my space away – he probably would have been out of the bike. I didn’t agree with it then and I don’t agree with it now,” Kazmaier said.
Mark MacDonald thinks there is a safety issue that needs to be addressed, but it has nothing to do with leaning back in the bike.
“Never one time have I ever thought, ‘Look at the way that guy’s sitting in the bike, it’s really unsafe’, but I guarantee you probably 2,000 times since they’ve put whipping rules in at different tracks, I’ve thought, ‘Oh my god, look at the way this guy’s driving this horse, he’s gonna kill someone. He’s throwing the lines around, doing everything he can to get the horse to go because he can’t take the lines in one hand’ that, to me, is much more dangerous than the way a guy sits in a bike,” he said.
Hall of Famer Mike Lachance totally agrees with MacDonald.
“I was watching one replay [at Lexington] when I wasn’t in the race and two drivers had their lines so loose they were flapping all over the place. What do you think would have happened if one of their horses would have made a bad step? Do you think they would have a chance to pick him up. No way. They were going down. You can’t have control of your horse all the time and have a loose line. When a horse is in the home stretch and he’s tired, he needs somebody to make him feel he’s still alive and with loose lines anything could happen and you have no chance to grab him. If both of your hands are in the handholds and you want to whip the horse, I don’t know any other way than loose lines,” he said.
At the end of the day whether it’s leaning in the bike, foot out of the stirrup, whipping or loose lining, there are rules in place and as long as judges enforce them, drivers should obey them whether they agree with them or not.
“That’s like me trying to tell a cop that pulls me over in a 70 mile-an-hour zone and I’m going 80, I don’t tell the cop, ‘Hey, there was nobody else on the highway. I was posing no danger. This is a wide open flat road. What the hell are you doing pulling me over for going 80?’ The fact is I would clearly be wrong. The drivers of a car or a horse don’t make the rules. As drivers of an automobile, we have to abide by the rules of the highway and they have to abide by rules of racing,” Hoffman said.