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Not Long Ago, Hernan Got the Call
Unlike sports such as baseball, football, and basketball whose announcers no longer have a career-length association with one team, race commentators often serve as a track's emcee for decades. Thoroughbred racing brings to mind Fred Caposella, Dave Johnson, and Phil Saltzman. In the harness world, there are Roger Huston, Bob Meyer, and Jack Lee.
John Hernan, the newest announcer at Yonkers Raceway, is comparably young and hasn't been calling races for very long. But in a decade of occupying the Hilltop booth, this 38-year-old New Yorker has earned high regard with his unpretentious style of narrative. While bravado and shock value are usual fare in broadcasting today, Hernan has kept a vast degree of sincerity. And like any tenured announcer, his voice has become an inherent part of the Yonkers Raceway landscape.
The most noticeable trait of Hernan is conciseness. This will take you far in New York, where no one has the time, patience, or gullibility for small talk. Hernan understands the quirks of Big Apple life, having been raised in Glendale, Queens. Like many announcers, he was exposed to racing as a fan, visiting local tracks with his family. An introduction to the sport came at no better time. Aqueduct Racetrack, Belmont Park, Yonkers, and Roosevelt Raceway were flourishing as America's equine hub. "I really don't know what happened to racing in New York," Hernan reflected in his booth one Friday afternoon. "This track died down for a while. It now seems to be coming back gradually, but racing here and at Roosevelt was very special a few years ago."
With video gaming and an enhanced harness program in the works at Yonkers, Hernan may serve as a bridge from one prosperous era to another. He first broke into announcing on the New York fair circuit, earning gigs at Malone in Franklin County and historic Goshen. "Announcers don't usually like to work Saturdays at Goshen before the Grand Circuit," Hernan admits. "So I was given the chance when I made myself available." Fair meets, rural-based and usually without parimutuel wagering, are a typical first step for aspiring race callers. After eight years of non-betting duty, Hernan was offered his first parimutuel event from announcer Howard Oil at Monticello Raceway. "Goshen led to my first parimutuel," he explains. "Howie heard my calls and asked me to serve as his backup."
Hernan's progress did not yield a steady living, however. He worked numerous jobs in the meantime, including at a Westchester law firm for six years. The legal work was not done in vain. Nearby was Yonkers Raceway, where he gained the acquaintance of long-time announcer Bob Meyer. Hernan wrote a letter to the Yonkers publicity office describing his career goals, met this senior voice, and began making "practice" calls from a vacant booth in the grandstand. "I was calling races in that booth for three years, while at the law firm," Hernan details. "I would call five or six races on a given night and go home." Bob Meyer was not just a connection; he was also a mentor who continuously helped to refine Hernan's technique. Track announcers often share advice, the partnership Meyer and Hernan kept for an extensive period. "I owe him the greatest amount of thanks," Hernan acknowledges. "He took the time to listen. He was always helping me to become better."
An endorsement from Meyer, one of the most revered names in American race commentary, is priceless. Hernan was eventually working in the Yonkers publicity department two nights per week and serving as backup to Meyer for another two evenings. By the late 1990s, after Meyer carried off his binoculars to Saratoga Raceway, Hernan was announcing full-time. "I've wanted to announce since I was 12 years old," he says. "When I was working in the law firm, all I could think of was this. To be working here, it's surreal."
When choosing role models in the announcer world, Hernan takes a sensible approach: looking to the future but never forgetting the past. "Besides Bob Meyer," he explains, "Jack Lee influenced my calls, and Marshall Cassidy when he was announcing the [NYRA] thoroughbreds." Announcing has changed drastically since the 1970s and 80s, when innovative voices such as Dave Johnson, Chick Anderson, and Tom Durkin pulled the craft away from merely a running order to an eloquent, detailed essay on what is taking place. Bob Meyer and Roosevelt Raceway announcer Jack Lee are old school, but Hernan can easily place them in a modern-day context. And every once in a while, ambition leads to memorable situations. "When the East Coast Harness League [an intertrack driving competition] was still in existence," Hernan recalls, "I got to announce at Freehold alongside Bob Meyer and Jack Lee. Bob, Jack, and I were in the booth together announcing those races. That was a great experience."
So these days, fans can listen to Hernan's well-developed commentary from a small booth in the clubhouse, adjacent to the photo finish technician and judges. He has been announcing from his current perch since the grandstand was turn down in 1997. It is a tight but adequate room just before the finish line, usually cohabited by Sports Eye chartman Ken Walters. The view, unfortunately, is far from perfect. "It's been a tough booth," Hernan concedes. "There are a lot of obstacles. When horses come to the top of the stretch, there are floodlight poles in the parking lot that obstruct your view. And also, there's someone in the booth with you."
But Hernan takes adversity in stride, thanks to his earlier gigs. During eight years of county fair work, he announced races from the track infield and looked past everything from tents to petting zoos to rides, with sometimes only the horses' heads visible. Floodlight poles aside, Hernan now has most of the race in plain view with just enough space for his tools. "The microphone used to hang from my neck, but I use a headset now," he elaborates. "I keep the program next to me with stand-out information marked. I used to arrive early and study the races three hours in advance. But after gaining so much experience, I study the races just beforehand. I memorize the drivers' colors. I might use the program to help me a little when they're on the first turn, but after that, I rely upon memory."
"I'm always looking for ways to make the calls fresh. It's a never-ending battle. Sometimes I'll borrow from other announcers. I don't want to take from them; I just want to play with a concept, to add something interesting. We've also had difficulties, like fog, where other skills need to be considered. There are announcers who will shut down their mike because they rely only on what they see. I'll try to use all of my resources, like pan camera views from the towers. I'll remember how they left the gate. I try to give whatever information I can, because that's really my job - to give information."
Hernan is still one of the youngest track announcers in America and could emerge as the best-known if Yonkers Raceway itself reemerges as a harness powerhouse. He now calls the Yonkers Trot annually and lists the George Morton Levy Pace as an outstanding moment in his career. But all races are essentially the same from his viewpoint. And self-promotion, rampant in broadcasting today, is not something he cares to do.
"A lot of announcers are on camera now," Hernan forwards. "That's not really something I'm into. But I don't want to say I'm old school. I'm somewhere in the middle. I do treat all races as equals. If new opportunities come, there may be some butterflies, but it's all the same kind of race."
"Sometimes I'll leave the track and know I've had a bad race. That makes me want to get right back into it. It just makes me more determined to do my job well. When I told my ninth grade teacher that I wanted to become a track announcer, she said it's a very tough field. She told me to put a lot of work into it. And my work comes from the love of it."
A Year Full of Raceway Standouts
YONKERS, NY -- June 9, 2004 -- With Yonkers Raceway safely nestled in Westchester County, outsiders can easily forget how much takes place at this half-mile track over 52 weeks. 2003 was a productive year for the Hilltop, welcoming champions new and old while stabling its game veterans of the conditioned ranks. As summertime approaches, we take one final look at the top ten Yonkers Raceway happenings of last season, ranked by impact:
10 - Return of Gallo Blue Chip to Yonkers, Saturday, May 17th
Harness racing’s all-time richest pacer made his first visit to Yonkers since an August 2000 New York Sire Stakes preliminary, defeating $15,000 open handicap stock under Yannick Gingras. The Mark Ford trainee edged Mick Jag N by a neck in 1:54 2/5. Gallo Blue Chip, a six-year-old Magical Mike gelding, recorded his 46th lifetime victory for owner Martin Scharf and breeder Dan Gernatt Farms of Erie County. It may be Gallo’s last New York hurrah before his retirement and eventual induction to the Hall of Fame.
9 - Miss Gibbons wins Avon Farms Trot, Saturday, September 20th
Miss Gibbons brought 76-year-old Howard Gill his first New York Sire Stakes final victory, taking the New York Night of Champions three-year-old filly trotter division by 2 ¼ lengths over Giantess in 2:01 3/5. The 2003 New York Sire Stakes queen, a Giant Hit progeny, improved to 14 wins in 16 seasonal tries after going winless in five starts as a two-year-old. Pine Bush-centered Gill, who has bred, owned, trained, and driven Miss Gibbons en route to more than $191,000 lifetime, would later accept the United States Trotting Association District 8 Horse of the Year Award on her behalf.
8 - Iroquoindiangiver wins Rodney Farms Trot, Saturday, September 20th
The most talent-laden New York Night of Champions event placed Iroquoindiangiver with fellow three-year-olds Fifty Two Finn and Unserveabull after months of running in separate divisions. ‘Iroquoi’ dumbfounded fans with an early break, but soon regained his composure under Wally Hennessey. The pair overcame late traffic to best Fifty Two Finn by a neck. Iroquoindiangiver, a Giant Hit colt trained by Anthony Mondi for owner Alan Schwartz, proved his supremacy over this deep sophomore trotting crop. It was his seventh win in nine calendar outings via a mile of 2:01 2/5.
7 - L Dees Val wins La Paloma Final, Saturday, July 12th
Not often does a horse trouble and impress in back-to-back starts. Yet the gifted two-year-old pacing filly of breeder-owner Deanna Dumain spurred both feelings in the La Paloma Prep and Final. Dream Away daughter L Dees Val both times went off stride to the quarter, made a strong advance to the half-mile, and eventually caught up with Formica in the stretch. This Mark Capone trainee stayed perfect with two wins in as many races, soon advancing to bigger things at Freehold. ‘Val’ won eight of ten seasonal tries for over $164,000, including victories in the New Jersey Futurity, Molly Pitcher Stakes, and Lou Babic Memorial Final.
6 - Omega Angel breaks track record twice, September 1st and 8th
Horses have broken their own track records, but in consecutive weeks? Two-year-old Sir Taurus gelding Omega Angel was clearly on top of his game last fall. He bested the YR two-year-old gelding trotter mark (2:04 3/5, Chantitown Uzi, 1990) with an 11 ¾-length Bedford Trot runaway in 2:04 2/5. Seven days later, ‘Angel’ rallied from 18 ½ lengths behind to win a division of the Milt Taylor Trot in 2:03. The trainee of John Mongeon Jr. posted six wins in eight calendar starts for over $96,000. He was driven solely by Scott Mongeon for owners Vernon Devine and Douglas Morton.
5 - Sugar Trader wins Yonkers Trot Final, Saturday, August 23rd
Trade Balance colt Sugar Trader gets an automatic place on this list, swiping Yonkers Raceway’s marquee event by 6 ½ lengths over On Tour in 1:58 3/5. Driver Catello Manzi, owner-trainer John Brennan, and co-owner John Nordstrom earned top honors for leg two of the American trotting Triple Crown. Sugar Trader, who won five of 16 races for over $539,000 last year, represented YR trotters in the Breeders Crown Final and was sold to leading Swedish horseman Stig Johannson this winter.
4 - Happy Together N ties mile and one-sixteenth track record, Saturday, June 28th
‘Happy’ was a recent arrival from New Zealand when he upset Gallo Blue Chip in their Yonkers open handicap pace on May 31st. The Armbro Operative five-year-old looked equally at home in June, holding off handicapper Keystone Romeo by a neck. His fierce journey under Stephane Bouchard broke and tied records at once: a 2:00 1/5 extended distance clocking broke the YR aged gelding pacer mark (2:00 3/5, Darth Raider, 1996) and tied the overall mark shared by three others (Riyadh, Oye Vay, Carlspur). Happy Together N, trained by Chris Height for owner Joseph Muscara, later won over $57,000 and Horse of the Year honors at Harrington Raceway.
3 - Stephane Bouchard wins eight consecutive races, Saturday, March 8th
Several horsemen had dominant moments, but nothing came close to Bouchard’s sweep of eight races on a normal March evening. The 36-year-old Montrealer actually got started at Freehold, winning his last three afternoon drives. Yonkers teammates also came through, as Bouchard swept the early double with Home Town Victory and In The Frame N before darting clear with Raque Balboa, Lance Raider, Mcalister Man A, Gaelic Force, Allamerican Uproar, and Kelly Mota N. This groove broke the North American record of seven, achieved seven times. Mr. ‘B’ also won nine total races on the card, equaling a Yonkers record he already shared with Walter Case Jr. and Luc Ouellette.
2 - Yannick Gingras receives Rising Star Award, Sunday, February 8th, 2004
Gingras, a 24-year-old Quebec native, followed pilots Daniel Dube, Stephane Bouchard, and Jeff Gregory as a Yonkers-based recipient of the United States Harness Writers Association Rising Star Award. This honor, given annually to “an outstanding young harness horse trainer and/or driver for exceptional early career accomplishments,” was accepted by Gingras at the USHWA Night of Champions in Atlantic City after finishing tied for 15th with 393 North American dash victories. ‘YG’ has extended a line of talented Canadian reinsmen to pass through Yonkers and now earns his living on the Freehold-Meadowlands circuit.
1 - No Pan Intended wins Art Rooney Pace Final, Saturday, July 26th
There is no telling what route No Pan Intended would have taken if not elevated to first in Yonkers Raceway’s most important pacing event. The Rooney Final was a race that Pan actually lost, outheaded by Ross Croghan-trained The Globe. After a fifteen-minute inquiry, it was found that Croghan entrymate Brooklyn Hanover impeded No Pan Intended in mid-stretch and The Globe was hence disqualified from top money. Peter Pan Stables’ three-year-old Pacific Fella colt grabbed some luck and moved on to the Cane Pace. The rest is history.
New Plateaus for Bouchard, ‘Coke’
YONKERS, NY -- May 13, 2004 -- Stephane Bouchard opened the newest phase of a short but distinguished career with his 4,000th driving victory on Monday evening, May 3rd, at Yonkers Raceway. The 37-year-old Montrealer earned his fourth millenary with pacer Brad N in an optional $7,500 claiming allowance.
Arguably the most talented half-mile driver in North America, Bouchard launched his career at Rideau Carleton (Ontario) Raceway in 1989. He permanently moved his tack to Yonkers in 1999 during a Franco-Canadian influx and has already won three Hilltop championships. 2003 was Bouchard’s most successful year, leading all North American drivers with 656 victories and Yonkers reinsmen with 436.
Bouchard has frequented the New Jersey and Midwestern circuits to gain recognition on a national level. He was selected as the United States Harness Writers Association Rising Star in 2000, preceding the Harness Tracks of America Driver of the Year Award for best statistical output in 2001. Bouchard won 754 races and just over $5 million for the coveted HTA crown.
That wet, milestone-setting Monday explained Bouchard's accomplishments at such a young age. Mr. ‘B’ was five victories short at the outset and won exactly five of eleven races. After taking the opener behind Eicarls Ruman Coke, he delivered a sweep of races seven through ten with Pansvestite, Preyingondaylite, Free Hand, and Brad N. The last two horses are trained by Tim Case, a long-time Yonkers partner.
Eicarls Ruman Coke also reached new heights, posting his 60th lifetime victory under Bouchard. The twelve-year-old Kentucky Spur stallion broke a 15-race winless streak by 3 ½ lengths over Orlando Magic for trainer Dennis Laterza and Tallman Stable of Bedford Corners, New York. ‘Coke,’ a 1995 Little Brown Jug entrant, has taken 60 of 331 lifetime starts for over $573,000.
A special note to Yonkers Raceway customers that live racing will not be held on Friday, May 14th. This change does not effect afternoon or nighttime simulcasting, which remain on a normal schedule. Full-card simulcasting from Pimlico Race Course will be offered on Preakness Day, Saturday, May 15th, post time at 10:30 A.M. Advanced Preakness Stakes wagering will begin on Friday afternoon.
Note: Paul-John Ramos is a member of the United States Harness Writers Association who is based in White Plains, NY. His Yonkers Raceway selections page Harness Weekend can be found on the Web. Those interested in receiving free e-mail Selections posted on Saturday mornings before 9:00 A.M. may join by sending a message with "subscribe" in its body to firstname.lastname@example.org . Once subscribed, you'll receive Yonkers Raceway Selections every Saturday morning.
It's the Fast Track for Gingras
In Hollywood, names are flipped, changed, and rearranged for marketability. A case could be also be made for driver Yannick Gingras, who probably holds an unofficial record for name mispronunciations at Yonkers Raceway. But the 23-year-old Gingras (pronounced "zhin-grah") has been too busy enjoying his success to feel concerned. "People around the track say my first name right and the announcer gets my full name right, so that's good enough," he happily remarks.
Announcer John Hernan already has Gingras' name down-pat and bettors should eventually twirl their tongues without a problem. Despite his limited experience, Gingras has piloted winners on a nightly basis against several of the most accomplished reinsmen in North America. Gingras precociously joins a line of French-Canadian drivers who have settled at the Raceway and piled up impressive records - Herve Filion, Rejean Daigneault, Daniel Dube, and Stephane Bouchard to name just a few. His lifetime stats are raw compared to the older Francophones, but Gingras has plenty of time to catch up. And he is clearly at the Hilltop to win, instead of merely to learn.
Gingras hails from agricultural Sorel-Tracy, Quebec. His grandfather, now retired, and his father, now working part-time, have driven extensively at the mile-long Hippodrome de Montreal. It was at age two that Yannick began spending time with his father around the barn. Horses naturally filled his world during childhood and his lone goal was to become a driver. It was at 15 that Gingras, once again thinking far in advance of his peers, noticed Quebec's thin purses. He shifted gears and earned a degree in accounting with the hope of better pay. This education has mostly gone unused. "Once I was out of school, I realized that I still wanted to drive," Gingras explains, "I realized that I'm not meant to be in an office. So I came back to driving."
Strong connections pushed Gingras forward. While at the Hippodrome in early 2001, marketing agent Jean Larouche introduced him to fellow Canadian reinsman Daniel Dube. Dube became a willing friend and urged the rookie to drive in America. Gingras lived in Dube's U.S. home for one year while seeking opportunities in the northeast. He debuted at Yonkers Raceway that June, the first local drive of many. But at one point, Gingras considered a return to his homeland. "When I was first here," Gingras elaborates, "I said 'Okay, I've won a couple of races.' But I still thought of going back to Canada, because I wasn't sure if my chance would ever come. Then Daniel Dube introduced me to Mark Ford."
Business with Mark Ford is serious business, indeed. It is a high endorsement to drive for this 32-year-old trainer who has won on all levels at Yonkers and the Meadowlands. Just as the Hilltop pairings of Tim Case-Stephane Bouchard, Melissa Beckwith-Mark Beckwith, and Carmine Fusco-Daniel Dube seem inseparable, Ford-Gingras has become a tough one-two punch. Ford's employment has been the turning point of Gingras' career ; it has led to numerous high-quality drives, from stakes winners to gritty claimers. Topping the list is Gallo Blue Chip, North America's all-time richest pacer, with over $4.1 million in earnings. The six-year-old Magical Mike gelding has visited Yonkers and it is Gingras who receives this dignified seat. Having won 47 of 96 lifetime tries, Gallo Blue Chip seems able to run forever, and Gingras would not at all mind his supporting role. Second-up is trotter Blastaway Sahbra, a five-year-old Striking Sahbra gelding who has frequented YR open handicaps after weeks at the Meadowlands. Blastaway Sahbra, although far beneath Gallo Blue Chip's wealth, ran a 1:54 3/5 mile at Northfield Park last year that broke two records : for gelded trotters of any age on a half-mile oval and for four-year-old gelded trotters on any-sized oval. The list goes on with tough campaigner Royal Art, game Als Court A, and promising Joshua. Business with leading trainers such as Michael Caruselle, Dennis Laterza, and Vicki Mosher also has room on the landscape, so it is no surprise that Gingras was YR's fourth leading driver in 2002, winning 262 times and over $1.5 million. He also tied Stephane Bouchard for the 2002 fall meet crown, both chalking up 100 victories.
Gingras claims that he does not model himself after a particular driver. "I try to be a little of everyone and yet be my own self," he answers, "I try to be aggressive, but patient at the same time, which is a hard thing to do. I try to drive aggressively without hurting the horse for next race." While this philosophy has brought chances, a built-in trait - Gingras' age - has surprisingly worked against him. "Being my age doesn't help. The better horses aren't usually given to young drivers, plus I had no experience when I came here. I think if you're a French driver at Yonkers, the trainers will give you a chance. But when Stephane Bouchard and the other French drivers came here, they were already 34, 35 years old. They were already well-known. I had only been driving for six months when I came here and really had to work for my chances."
Yet Gingras has not only succeeded as a driver. He has also achieved a balance of roles in driving, training, and owning. Gingras could very well play second fiddle as a reinsman, but he instead trains a small group of horses and holds partial ownership in every horse he drives. "I like to train," says Gingras, "I like to keep about ten horses in the barn. And it makes sense to own shares of your horses, because the earnings can pay for trainer fees. It's money that's in my pocket." His favorite ownership is Baron Hall, a trotter supervised by Vicki Mosher. Gingras calls the five-year-old open handicap veteran a "happy horse, a good-feeling horse. He's always screaming in the barn, always happy to see you. He makes you feel good all the time."
With accounting homework a bygone memory, Gingras is satisfied with his career path. And unlike those of his age group who live only for the moment, Gingras has taken a few looks ahead. "Driving is what I want to do. But I'd like to fully own two or three horses while driving a good stakes horse. I'm hoping to drive at the Meadowlands, since it's the place to be right now. But maybe Yonkers will become the place to be after the VLT's arrive and I can stay here." Natural horsemanship has taken Gingras a long way, both monetarily and geographically. It is the mileage that comes at a price. "Canadian drivers would rather stay in Canada to earn their living," he offers, "but the French-speaking and English-speaking horsemen stay apart up there and the judges are rough. I think the judges at Yonkers are a lot more understanding and the horsemen aren't as jealous. The difficult part of working here is being away from my family, like my niece. She's growing up and I only get to see her every six months. It's a hard way to live."
Even with such flaws, Gingras seems to have reached his destination. At 23 and with nearly $3 million in career bankroll, there is no telling how far his career will progress. To sit behind pacing's richest horse for a top Meadowlands trainer is indication enough. The Quebecian has a clear view of his goals, aided by a pole-vault into the business. For these reasons, Gingras doesn't consider himself a member of the television-gazing, video game-playing, beer-slugging mainstream. "I'm probably not an average man. I grew up in the horse business. I was in the paddock from when I was two and probably grew up a little faster. I don't play video games and I don't really go out at night. I'm just working and earning a living."
Team Fusco Keeps Wind In Its Sails
Only a short van ride separates Yonkers Raceway from the New Jersey Meadowlands, but the commute remains something of a desert trek for horsemen. Hilltop trainers sometimes visit East Rutherford, but are more often deterred by the level of competition. Meadowlands trainers, on the other hand, dread leaving home and finding a missed opportunity upon their return. Yet 38-year-old Carmine Fusco has achieved a balance of the two and found ways to win at both ovals, raising him to national importance.
Fusco has been a prolific trainer at Yonkers and the Meadowlands, taking advantage of their closeness to run up big numbers - numbers especially large last year. 2002 was perhaps a career season for the young handler, as he ranked eighth in American wins with 228 ; he won a second Yonkers training title, edging 2001 champion Tim Case via 153 wins ; and his 63 Big-M victories were good enough for second place behind Brett Pelling's 78. To merely win races at either track is an accomplishment, but Fusco has accomplished much more, winning training championships locally and respect nationwide. When looking into Fusco's background, however, none of this should come as a major surprise.
Fusco began work under his father, an Italian immigrant who tended horses at Roosevelt Raceway and Yonkers. Carmine became a groom at age five before entering the public eye as a driver, obtaining his provisional license at age 16 and becoming a non-provisional, or "A" licensee, at 18. Fusco was able to drive in one race during Roosevelt's final year of operation, coming second. But most of his drives were at Freehold, where he assisted Hall of Fame trainer Del Insko. He later moved base to Yonkers, where he has remained for the past ten years and is now a trainer of distinction. For Fusco, training was the next logical step in his career. "I didn't want to become a catch driver," the Brooklyn-born horseman explains, "I would only drive horses I was working with. And driving wasn't as aggressive then. Drivers were getting very aggressive at the time I gave it up."
Fusco claims business has "snowballed" over the past five years, but that is very much an understatement. After training just five horses initially, his stable has grown to 65. 50 of the 65 are claimers running week to week. Fusco keeps his students happy at Tullo Training Center in Howell, New Jersey, five minutes from Belmar Marina. For a horseman vanning to Yonkers, the Meadowlands, and occasionally Freehold, it is a convenient spot. The Tullo staff may raise eyebrows, as 10 of its 15 members are women. "I just think that women are better with horses," Fusco opines, "Around the barns, women seem to deal with horses a lot better than men."
If help is needed in running things, Fusco can always depend on his brother Paul, whom bettors keep in mind as a driver. Carmine regards Paul Fusco as "a great number-two guy," having worked side by side in the business for nearly twenty years. When Carmine needs to supervise work elsewhere, it is Paul who supervises at Yonkers, driving their charges if needed. "Having Paul is a big advantage," Carmine remarks, "I can give him 100% trust. When I ask him to do something, I know it'll be done, and when I'm not around, I always know that Paul will keep things in order." And Paul's driving skills have been put to good use for the stable. "There are times when drivers can't drive our horses - I get phone calls telling us that a guy is committed to another track or hurt - so when I have the chance, I give drives to Paul. Paul is always around the barns and familiar with each horse, so it's very rare that his drives struggle. And he has a good relationship with the owners, who all know him well." There are two other Fusco brothers in the harness industry. The four could be working together, but Carmine half-jokingly feels that "sibling issues" would hound an all-brother team.
When asked about last year's success, in which he set career highs for wins (228), money won ($1,606,286), and starts (1,319), Fusco owes it to having better horses and more horses. "Quality and quantity," he says, "It's not that my horses have been in better shape ; my conditioning program hasn't really deviated over the years. It's that you get better horses as you go along and I've been racing more horses on the upper levels." Fusco uses an important word when explaining how his horses are run : classification. "I can't emphasize that word enough," he details, "Horses stay sounder and horses stay stronger when put on the right level, and I'd rather have a healthy horse than an overworked horse. When you put horses where they belong, the purse money will come. In this game, there's always the fear factor ; a trainer shouldn't drop a horse down with the fear of losing him in a claim. He should take that risk and give his horse a chance to win races. There are owners who like to just keep the money coming in, just keep finishing in the money and getting that check. But I, personally, want to win races. I don't want myself in a position where I can win thirty percent of my horses' starts. I want to be in a position where I can win fifty percent of them. That's why I'm here."
Fusco's two largest clients, Howard Jacobs and D'Elegance Stable, are of the win-hungry character. Jacobs and D'Elegance, who account for 30 of his runners in sole ownership or partnership, are highly respected in the northeast and take winning very seriously. Example number one is Company Stock, a three-year-old colt by Pacific Fella whom Jacobs and D'Elegance bosses Joseph and Victor Leonardis purchased at the New Jersey Sire Sales for $80,000. He has won three of seven career races, including a division of the Meadowlands Junior Trendsetter, for some $23,000 in earnings. Also noteworthy is St George Island, a four-year-old stallion pacer by Dragon's Lair who has chased top Big-M purses for D'Elegance Stable and co-owner Adam Victor. In 35 lifetime races, St George has won nine times for earnings of more than $234,000 and a mile best of 1:51 1/5.
Hard-knocking veterans lead the way at Yonkers, so a cozy spot is reserved for Mr Casino. The seven-year-old Cam Fella stallion keeps pacing along for D'Elegance Stable and Adam Victor, having won 24 of 107 lifetime starts and over $208,000 in bankroll. The Ontario-bred could have been running elsewhere or at stud by now, for he was sent to auction but repurchased when the asking price was judged too low. Auction matters behind him, Mr Casino overcame an injury early last year and now battles popular open handicappers such as Glen Mark Lucky, Art Attack, and Royal Art.
Besides having a reliable training staff and credible owners, Fusco has dealt with some of the world's leading drivers. In the past, he has teamed up with Walter Case Jr. ; Luc Ouellette and Daniel Dube still guide his entrants at the Meadowlands ; and at Yonkers, his horses are divided between Stephane Bouchard, Ross Wolfenden, and Paul Fusco. But unlike what many believe, driver assignments are seldom Fusco's choice. "When owners consider buying a horse, they look in the program and ask themselves 'Who are the leading trainers?' and 'Who are the leading drivers?' It's those trainers that are wanted by the owners and it's those drivers that get the drives. So those decisions aren't really up to me. But as long as you're picking the best for my horses, I have no problem with it." The employment of Stephane Bouchard has actually paid off, as he drove most of the Hilltop winners in Fusco's championship season.
The choice of which owners to represent is a different matter. Fusco can set his own guidelines with no such overhead. For a man who leaves track issues at the track, sociability and a willingness to be friends come into play. But while the sociology between trainers and owners hasn't changed much over the years, the expectations of an owner have changed greatly. "I've kept horses for a lot of different people, and I've sorted out the people I like to do business with. I like owners who are all business in the paddock and sociable afterwards. Once out of the paddock, we'll have dinner, we'll have a drink together, we'll see a show, we're just regular friends."
"Owners, though, aren't running horses for fun anymore. This has become a big business, big money. Owners are putting up a lot of money at auction for horses, sometimes one or two million dollars, and looking to win a lot of money from racing them. I've had owners in the past who bought a horse just for the fun of racing it, but it's not that way nowadays."
While consistent training helps to bring in the cash, horses still need an effective drive. Nowhere is this need greater than at Yonkers Raceway, where Walter Case Jr. compares winning from last at the half-mile to winning the lottery ; the odds are "slim and none." A past reinsman himself, Fusco understands how four-turn races are decided. "A half-mile specialist will get the horse out quickly and get him loose turning for home - start fast and finish fast. I'd say that 75% of my winners at Yonkers have been on the lead or from the two hole. The longer stretch has helped closers a little, but the majority has still been horses up front. To win from behind, you need a lot of confusion, horses bumping, horses tripping. And it's not much different at the Meadowlands. By the time you're back to fifth, sixth, seventh, there are too many lengths separating those horses from the leader." And what is the difference between a good driver and a merely average one? "What makes a driver very good or plain average is how well he does with catch drives, how well he handles a drive given at the last minute. A top driver will sit behind the horse and know how to guide it after a couple of minutes."
There is no reason these days for Fusco to change tracks. He is getting the right horses to train, they are being well-cared for, and they are being steered by the right drivers. It has added up to Fusco becoming the head trainer at Yonkers while making noise at the prestigious Meadowlands. "The Meadowlands is the biggest track going," he reasons, "and with the VLT hype at Yonkers now, it would be stupid to move. Plus I got married a year and a half ago, so I've settled down." Fusco is hoping to retire by age 60, but this would be a retirement on his 26-foot boat now sitting in Belmar Marina, not with the small group of horses many retirees keep in training. "I've been working with horses since I was five," Fusco responds, "I see myself in a warm climate, maybe Florida or the West Coast, spending time on my boat and relaxing. Other trainers want to keep things open and train a few horses after retirement, but I don't see myself doing that."
For many horsemen, the idea of sitting in retirement, reflecting on winners trained at Yonkers and the Meadowlands, is purely a dream. When this training talent later gazes upon the ocean, the idea will have become a reality.