I hope I’m wrong, but…

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by Alan Leavitt

Obviously, Jeff Gural and his faithful lieutenant, Jason Settlemoir, do not believe in my thesis that “drag” is destructive to the integrity of our sport (HarnessRacingUpdate.com). I say this after reading a release from the Meadowlands stating that the track will be dragged as long as it takes to achieve a $3 million overnight drive.

Let me quickly clarify that I have known Gural for many years, and there is no question that his personal commitment to integrity is beyond reproach. The problem here is that he doesn’t see drag as an integrity issue, and I do.

The reality is that drag has become essential in the minds of harness track operators, and you don’t mess with something so essential to your bottom line. This thinking ignores the fact that intellectually and logically dragging is indefensible.

Every thoroughbred track in North America belies the belief that the handling of stakes suffers without being dragged. In the largest stakes race in North America, the Kentucky Derby, the horses are being loaded at the starting gate as the clock hits zero minutes for the set time.

But dragging presents two major threats to the well-being of harness racing. The first is its wholly negative effect on any efforts to create new bettors or new owners. Who in their right mind wants to participate in a sport where the official clock means nothing?

Any other sport is scrupulous in observing its official timekeeper. It is the source of the greatest drama of many football and basketball games, where seconds are often counted out loud on national television.

Beyond that, though, is something deadly serious. We are giving our enemies a perfect weapon to use against us. The casinos, which supply virtually all of our money, would love to get rid of us. They are much stronger politically than we will ever be, and sooner or later the tracks will wake up to the concept of decoupling. What better weapon to use against your mandatory support of our business than drag?

The same logic applies to state legislatures and the governors of harness racing states. For a man or a woman, politicians could find much better uses for the money that now supports a business that doesn’t even bother to operate honestly.

The sad aspect of all this is that tracks could and would handle so much money if they didn’t crawl. Thoroughbred tracks are proof positive of that. But logic has no weight here, so we blithely carry on, each night working our way to our own destruction.

We are now close to the midpoint of the breeding season. Between now and July 4, my arbitrary last day of the breeding season, the pressure on popular stallions will gradually increase. It is a sad but true fact that the American trotting stallion is frequently a committed breeding animal.

This has been true since my earliest days in the breeding business, probably going back much longer than many people alive today.

I syndicated Noble Victory in 1964, and he was, for the record, the first million-dollar standard.

Noble, pedigree-wise, was inbred 2 by 4 with Volomite, his paternal grandfather and his maternal great-grandfather. Volomite himself was a strong breeding horse, but Noble was not. I had what in retrospect was an interesting experience regarding his fertility, although I would have used other words to describe it at the time.

You must understand that this was before the advent of artificial insemination, so all inseminations were live matings and mares were checked for fogging at 42 days. Operating out of Hanover, Pennsylvania, there was only one other breeding farm, Hanover, so there were no equine veterinarians in the vicinity. You had to have a resident vet and by the end of March mine had gone haywire and was only appearing as an infrequent guest. And from what I could see, Noble Victory hadn’t settled her first mare yet.

Somehow he knew the name of Bill McGee, from the veterinary firm of Lexington, Hagyard, Davidson, McGee. Desperate, I called him and he agreed to rent a small plane and fly the following Sunday. For good measure, I also mentioned that he needed a resident vet, and he said that he would bring along a potential candidate for that job.

Under the direction of Dr. McGee, we bred Noble to a tease mare, with Noble using a breeding bag, a euphemism in that day for a horse-sized condom.

Dr. McGee took a drop, made a slide, and put it under our microscope.

“Take a look,” he told me. “Those salamanders aren’t very lively, are they?”

I looked and agreed, noticing at the time that the world’s foremost equine reproduction veterinarian regarded sperm as salamanders. He then added something to the slide and told me to look again.

“Those salamanders have gotten a lot more lively, don’t you think?” he said.

“What did you do to them?” I asked, and Dr. McGee said that he had added something made from milk, called a semen extender.

He then told me that things weren’t as bad as he thought, because he was sure some of our mares were pregnant, it was too early to call.

He then introduced me to his partner whom he had brought from Lexington. He took me aside and he told me that he was the best young vet he had ever worked with and that he would do a good job for me. His name was John Mark Egloff, also known as Tad.

That worked out really well, and I’m very proud of Tad’s success in our business.

One thing that sticks with me after all these years is a conversation we had shortly after Tad started on Lana Lobell. I repeated what Dr. McGee had said about him being the best young veterinary assistant he had ever had.

Tad listened and then said, “I’m not sure what it was based on, since 90 percent of the time all I did was open and close doors.”