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The Coupling Dilemma
Tuesday, August 19, 2014 - by Bob Marks

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Lately there’s been discussion  concerning the wisdom of uncoupling, for wagering purposes,  what clearly are common-interest stable entries. Somewhere along the line, racetracks, in their zeal for increased handle, have persuaded state racing commissions to sanction the uncoupling of entries regardless of whether or not it actually protects the betting public.

In the recently concluded Delvin Miller Memorial at the Meadowlands, there was an incident involving Jimmy Takter as to whether or not he was blocking a major contender (Designed To Be) by lingering on the outside with a 100-1 shot (Scream And Shout) while his  pace-setting stablemate (Shake It Cerry) got away to a leisurely opening half.

However, it was mentioned that the unwritten “no-hole” rule at the track may have prevented Takter from seeking or obtaining a spot along the rail. It was also mentioned that the addition of a trailer in what was an 11-horse field further compounded the traffic congestion on the first turn.

Trip handicappers have long wrestled with the disruption trailing horses provide to the normal flow to the inside after the gate departs. In fact, I can vividly remember a non-leaving Town Drunk getting parked the duration from post two in a nine-horse Realization stakes at Roosevelt as the trailer now occupied what would have been his two spot along the rail as the three horse veered inside for the three spot. This left Town Drunk with two choices: drop back to last or rough it on the outside.

This indeed could have happened to Takter’s Scream And Shout as the appearance of a trailer or trailers can indeed complicate those delicate first-turn maneuvers.

The key factor here is that if it were a coupled entry, there would be little discussion as stablemates have long been utilized to get what the stable may consider the right one home.

In the 2006 Hambletonian, trainer Trond Smedshammer, driving Here Comes Herbie, seemed to veer off the rail in the stretch, allowing uncoupled stablemate  Blue Mac Lad clearance to finish third. Could Smedshammer have sensed Here Comes Herbie was done after cutting the pace while hoping the stablemate could salvage something?  Possible!  Regardless, Smedshammer was suspended 35 days and fined $18,000 for his drive.

Were they a coupled entry as there was indeed common interest, that’s the way entries operate. The fact that they were not coupled caused the controversy.

Then we go back to one of the Levy divisions earlier this year in which Foiled Again, from an outside post, seemingly took the night off lagging in the back of the field while his stablemate, Easy Again, wired the field to win the race.

Since they were coupled, no money was lost on Foiled Again, but there were probably those bettors who gladly would have taken the 9-2 Easy Again may have been if uncoupled.

And therein is the dilemma. Of late there has been considerable groundswell among bettors to uncouple common entries and let the chips fall where they may. Of course these tend to be highly sophisticated veteran players who would prefer to pit their wiles against the house under the assumption they can prevail over what they consider “dumb money.”

But then there’s the scenario when a Foiled Again isn’t himself that night and there will be those screaming bloody murder insinuating that the mysterious “they” let the longshot win.

There’s a lot to be said for both positions. Instead of win-win, it’s actually “no win” as somebody will not be very happy. 

To further compound this situation, contemporary owners may employ multiple trainers, fostering the perception of insider entrée into different stables.  Regardless of whether this actually occurs, a substantial percentage of the outsider public will believe it does, which has to negatively affect betting handles. 

As long as trainers receive gratuities such as lifetime breedings to those horses in their care good enough to actually make it as studs, an implied vested interest in overall performance does exist.

In addition, the catch-drivers who, while ostensibly have a vested interest in only the particular race at hand, may indeed share trainer interest, especially when they regularly drive for that particular stable.  That said, while they may not intentionally assist a stablemate, chances are they won’t go out of their way to unnecessarily hurt that stablemate via excessive parking, denying a hole, or pressing a suicidal early pace.  This becomes very much a gray area, further compounded when the stable entries are uncoupled.

To couple or not to couple: where’s Solomon when we need him?

Editor's Note: The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.

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The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.