Pierce Speaks His Mind

Published: October 23, 2009 04:30 pm EDT

In early October, driver Ron Pierce declined to go on the record with Trot Insider after the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission handed him a 10-day suspension for putting both lines in one hand to use his whip on his mount, Costa Rica, in a division of the Bluegrass Stakes

at the Red Mile.

Since the ruling was under appeal, Pierce could not go on the record in regard to the incident (he ultimately received a stay). Trot Insider recently spent some time with the veteran pilot and discussed some of the new urging/whipping rules which have been implemented in various North American jurisdictions as of late.

Pierce had plenty to say.

The 53-year-old is one of the top drivers in the sport of harness racing. He has reached the winner's circle over 7,000 times and has driven some of the industry's top equine stars to over $158 million in purse earnings. He is currently in the midst of his sixth consecutive season in which he has piloted horses to over $10 million in purses.

While on the lead in the homestretch with two-year-old pacing filly Costa Rica in a division of the Bluegrass Stakes on September 29, Pierce needed to urge his mount on in the lane, as pressure was coming up behind him. In a move that has come naturally to Pierce and the rest of the North American drivers' colony for years, he put both reins in one hand and used his whip in a respectable manner in order to get his charge to the wire first.

"I was aware of the rule in Kentucky. I knew that I was supposed to keep both hands in the handholds and to keep the whip over the horse's back and don't go under the shaft. I was aware of that," Pierce told Trot Insider. "I was driving Costa Rica and she was something like 1-5. She came up a little empty, but [I thought I was] going to win the race anyway. I looked back at about the eighth pole and I saw a filly flying up on the outside. I put the lines over in one hand and I gave her two little swats. The filly on the outside ended going by us anyway. I didn't even realize that I had done it (put both lines in one hand).

"After the race, the judges called me. I thought they wanted to know why the filly raced so poorly. One of the judges said, 'Ron, when you hit that filly, you took the lines in one hand and you hit her.' I said, 'I did?' I didn't even know I did it. I really didn't have any idea that I did it," Pierce explained.

In the Bluegrass Stakes incident, Pierce did not utilize his whip in a manner which would be deemed harmful to a horse, which was conceded by the KHRC. Clear rules for excessive whipping have been on the books of North American racing jurisdictions for decades, although stringent 'urging' rules have been implemented as of late. There is a widely-publicized position which some have chosen to take within the horse racing industry that whipping is one of the main reasons why track handle and fan base have deteriorated in recent years.

"I've been driving horses for 33 going on 34 years now and it is our job to know how to make horses go fast. Now, all of a sudden, they take that away from us, and now we have to learn how to make horses go fast all over again. I feel along with all the other top drivers -- except for maybe one or two…maybe just one -- that it puts us in a dangerous situation out there. I mean, there are a lot of loose lines out there now. It is just a matter of time before a horse trips because of a loose line and a driver isn't able to pick him up in time, and I think it is going to cause a serious crash."

From what Pierce told Trot Insider, he is not the only driver against the rule -- in actuality, there may be a throng of more passionate drivers ahead of him when it comes to the topic.

"I think it's safe to say that 70 per cent of the leading drivers are against the rule more than I am. They have been doing the same thing: trying to get the most out of their horses as they possibly can, and knowing that they can get a lot more out of their horse if they could just use the whip. A lot of horses aren't as stupid as we think they are. Once they find out that they are not going to get 'licked' if they don't go, than they are not going to go. I mean you're going to have a horse that knows that he can go a lot faster, but if he knows in his own mind that he's not going to get licked, he's not going to get going."

Pierce said that in jurisdictions which have adopted stricter urging rules, drivers are forced to perform within those rules, although it makes for reinsmen learning new styles of driving on the fly within pari-mutuel races, all the while hoping to not violate rules.

"We have no choice but to change our style and try to do things that we normally wouldn't be doing because they (commission urging rules) took this away from us. A lot of us drivers feel like monkeys out there, to tell you the truth. We're not allowed to push [horses] home; we're not allowed to work on them. It's like we just have to sit there and say, 'come on little fella, you can do it.'"

Pierce stressed to Trot Insider that he is in no way, shape or form advocating the harming of horses. He stated that rules governing excessive whipping have been on the books for a long time to curb the act, but that he believes there is a great misconception on the physical effect when it comes to common use of the whip within horse racing.

"Another thing a lot of people don't understand is that [a horse's] hide is not like a really thin piece of skin like a human's. Their hide is about a quarter-inch thick and the whip doesn't hurt them -- it might sting them, like [a human] getting popped with a rubber band, but it doesn't hurt them.

"I think if a driver could talk to a horse after he races -- even after say the driver was licking on him pretty good in the lane -- and the driver could ask him what hurts, the horse would probably say that his feet are stinging him really badly after having raced on a hard track; or that its upper back hurts because the bike puts too much pressure on it; or that its knees are really stiff. I think the last thing that horse is going to complain about is that whip. I really don't think the horse would say, 'my side hurts from the guy hitting me,' or 'my back hurts from that guy hitting me.'"

When Trot Insider asked Pierce if the urging clampdown is going to have a positive effect on the industry going forward, it didn't take him long to come up with his answer.

"I believe that it is not going to help us one bit," Pierce said. "It's great for mommy who brings her little girls down to the grandstand to watch her horses race, but for the gamblers -- the people who are our bread and butter -- we are losing them every day. Before the slots came [the gamblers] were all we had to live on, the people who came to bet on us. They are going elsewhere. It is just going to hurt us, and hurt us, and hurt us.

"What are we going to do when we don't have slots? If we don't have the gamblers and then we don't have the slots, it will just be a matter of time before we don't have racing."

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To all the nay sayers about the economy not having an effect on the gambling world I think you are sadly mistaken (just ask the owners of the casino's in Las Vegas). Not one person in these posts has confirmed what I asked and that is to compare the reduction in handle to the reduction in handle at the slots (if a reduction in handle exists at the slots) if the handle at the slots is up then I will bow to your observations but until you can confirm that, your comments are only suppositions and I know the Vegas numbers are real.
I believe the comments from Randy McCormick are bang on that the bettors (majority) and not just a few isolated bettors, could care less about the whipping rule.
The real problem lies with the fact that the industry is not attracting new customers therefore they are relying on their existing customer base to keep them afloat along with a significant helping hand from the Slots. As we all know, the long term prospects for being a winning bettor especially with the takeouts that are in place now are virtually non existant. Eventually the capital from these customers will dry up and you are left with nothing. I know of very few successful handicappers and even fewer managers of risk. It is the latter category which ultimately leads to most handicappers demise.

Let me start by saying I understand fully why everyone wants to see this rule changed. From the drivers and trainers perspective it is affecting their livelyhood. In the case of both Trevor Richie and Ron Pierce it took money out of their pocket. As it did for the trainers and owners of the horses they were driving. There are other trainers owners and drivers in the same boat because of this rule but these two cases are the most poular. From a betting standpoint the rule sucks because when a horse is taken down because a whipping infraction, it is money out of the bettors pocket as well.
But to state that this is the reason that handles are down at WEG is ridiculous. Don't look at last Tuesday Wednesday or any other day of the week for a comparison. The handles have been steadily decreasing on harness racing for some time now. Look at the wagering block on the SC home page from last year(prior to the whipping rule). Handles were down millions last year and continue to be down millions this tear. Not because of whipping new rules or because of the latest economic downturn. As far as the whipping rule is concerned, most of the hard core gamblers and or bettors I know would bet on harness races if the drivers had feather dusters to urge their horses. Before the economic downturn and whipping rules there were arguments about boring races where the horses stayed in single file and that is the reason handles are down. The experiment there was 7/8ths of a mile races. That was not the solution.
The reason hard core gamblers and big bettors go to the track is because they want to win $$. Boring races or whipping rules don't have a lot to do with it. Most would be extremely happy to be bored but a cuople hundred richer at the end of the night. Yes many do enjoy the sport for what it is. Those people get a kick out of staying home on breeders crown night and watching great harness racing in the comfort of their own home without ever betting a nickle on any of the races.
What this sport needs to attract are the hard core gamblers and bettors that I previously refferred to. The reason I separate the two is because one will bet big dollars trying to cash every race (gambler) while the other picks his or her spot and wagers a considerable amount on one or two races. Both pump big dollars into the mutuals. It wasn't five hundred thousand two dollar harness enthusiasts that gave you your million dollar handle. It was a combination of harness enthusiasts, gamblers and bettors. Unfortunately this sport is losing the gamblers and bettors. For the wise bettor it might be the percentage of take-out. When horse racing was the only game(legal)in town the bettor had less choice. Although illegal betting schemes have been around for some time as well. I am fairly certain that most hard core gamblers don't think about the take, they just want to bet.
So why the exodus? Most of the people I know have left because they don't feel they have a chance to win at the track any more. As stated earlier driving styles have changed. Comparing Keith or Ronnie Waples to todays drivers is not fair. Tracks and horses were different. Don't know how many times I watched Ronnie keep the horse he had to beat boxed in on the rail behind him. He wouldn't always have the best horse but had the best strategy. You had to build that into your handicapping. With passing lanes and 7/8ths mile tracks the strategy has changed. Woodbine you go as fast as you can for as far as you can and at Mohawk you pull and hope to get covered up so you have something left in the lane. Might make for interesting races or fast times but both are difficult from a handicapping standpoint.
It is preety sad many people believe that they have a better chance of winning by putting their hard earned cash into a slot machine than they do of picking a winner at the track.
Your job in the harness racing industry is not to worry about whipping rules or boring races. It is to figure out how to get confidence back in the bettor (who is now playing cards at the table) or the gambler (who is playing slots) so that they return to the track. Does that mean less take-out on exotics, more stringent enforcement fof the rules or he implementation of new rules.....I don't know. What I do know is that someone in the industry better figure it out quick before that number on the SC home page explaining handles on last nights races is showing $0,00.

Mr. Wood i totally agree with you and your numbers as i have looked into this myself and have come up with similar results.When will the bleeding stop?When the same thing that happened at the OLG happens at the ORC and WEG entire boards get dismissed and replaced with outside the box progressive thinkers who have a real passion for the sport!

To Steve Blake it’s really disingenuous and dishonest of you to suggest that Quebec handle is responsible for the free fall in handle at WEG. Lets look at the numbers you quote on you’re piece of fiction. Taking your own numbers at face value we both know that out of the 77 million bet on harness racing out of the province of Quebec there are over 30 harness tracks that feed into that number. That of course includes Meadowlands, Yonkers, Freehold, Pocono Downs, Chester, Meadows, Rideau Carlton, etc. Moreover, one would be generous to attribute 10 per cent of that to the yearly Quebec handle to the WEG product, which works out to 7 million. If you were to divide the 7 million Quebec handle by 250 race days in a year that handle works out to roughly $25,000 a night betting handle.

Horseplayer’s are a very resilient and resourceful bunch. In the age live race-streaming video on the Internet, home satellite dishes, and numerous telephone accounts wagering platforms most of the $25,000 gets recycled back into the Woodbine handle. Quebec residents can open up a telephone account with various OTB that feed into the Woodbine pools. That includes Philly OTB, Autotote, Erie OTB, NY OTB, Youbet, etc. You’re assumption that Quebec harness players just stop betting and don’t have other avenues to bet on the WEG product is extremely naïve and self-serving.

Nick Eaves President and COO at WEG has stated in print on stadarbredcanada that he has no interest whatsoever to go after the lost Quebec betting handle. That’s because the Quebec betting handle its obviously very insignificant to WEG’ bottom line. Ultimately, when you consider all the wagering platforms that carry the Woodbine harness product available to Quebec residents you would be generous to attribute a $10,000 daily loss in the WEG betting harness handle. To attribute hundreds of thousands of lost handle out of Quebec like you do is PURE FICTION.

The sad thing about the whipping rule saga like I have stated before things are only going to get worse as the ORC and WEG management are in complete denial about the free fall on the betting handle and refuse to act. They are masters of self-serving excuses as they blame the free fall in handle at WEG on the economy, offshore betting shops and the loss of Quebec wagering which we know is pure fiction. It’s undeniable that the cause of the drop in betting handle started with The Angostura disqualification at Mohawk on September 14th. The question before us when will the bleeding stop at Woodbine?

To John Wood and anyone else using this week's WEG handle to scare people - you are not being fair.

The recent drop in handle can be credited to shutting down all wagering in Quebec (including account betting, teletheatre betting and racetrack wagering).

The most recent CPMA document available on their website shows that Quebec bet more than $142 million in 2007 including $77.68 million on harness racing (second most in Canada behind Ontario). The '08 and '09 numbers are not available but surely similar.

The drop in handle is because of the hundreds of thousands lost nightly in the WEG pool from that province. Using those numbers to make a point is just bad math.

Mr. Glatt i can provide you with a list of at least half a dozen bettor's who have reduced or stopped betting on ontario racing since the new rule. And thats only from my small neck of the woods;the economic situation has nothing to do with it!

To Mike Glatt and all the other excuse makers of the whipping rule who still have their heads in the sand lets look at the facts one more time.

October 22 $842,030
October 25 $674,649
October 26 $953,579

If you compare year over year comparisons for the same time period you will see the track handle at WEG being off 20 to 25 per cent from the previous year.

As for the soft economy being the cause of the free fall in betting handle last time I checked real estate in Toronto is booming and setting records in terms of house inventory sold and the stock market on the TSX was up 60 per cent. That is proof that money is circulating in the economy.

If you want to make apple-to-apple comparisons ask yourself why hasn't YONKERS Raceway handle that allows unrestricted use of the whip, gone down 25 per cent. Furthermore, the New York economy unlike ours has been devastated with the sub prime real estate mess and job layoffs. Any rational person who has an ounce of integrity would have to conclude when comparing the Yonkers handle to the Woodbine handle the new whipping rule is the major cause of the free fall in handle. If the soft economy was the cause of the free fall in handle at WEG then the Yonkers Raceway handle would be down 25 per cent also.

As I stated before the sad thing about the new whipping rule is we are losing our hardcore fan base that doesn't want any part of the new whipping rules to other forms of gambling entertainment permanently. Once fans break their old gambling habits they are never coming back to betting harness horses again.

The Meadowlands opens up in late December and the track handle at WEG is only going to get worse. Hardcore racing fans will see head to head TV screen comparisons with the Meadowlands and Woodbine harness product. Moreover, fans will see our PATHETIC product at WEG that resembles a schooling race with tentative drivers handcuffed hand urging horses down the lane and racing product at the Meadowlands with its multiple lead changes and a stretch drive that is full of excitement with a traditional use of the whip.

There is old fable that goes as Rome burns Nero played the fiddle. In our modern day situation Woodbine burns and the ORC and Woodbine management does nothing. We have to wait six months before this nightmare new whipping rule is revisited. Are you there Rod Seiling and John Blakney?

Mr. Glatt:

with respect,

Most research indicates that during times of poor economic performance; activities such as gambling (entertainment) actually increase. People experiencing "tough times" search for an outlet from reality. There will always be entertainment dollars available no matter what the ecomomy, we just have to figure out how to get more of them.

I don't think the betting handle has anything to do with the whipping rule implementation. The economy is very soft right now and the reduction in handle is just a reflection of that and nothing else. A good source to confirm this would be to look at the take for the slots at OLG over the last year. I am not sure if that number is available but if it is that would be a good comparison point. To John Wood, I would be careful not to read to much into the handle numbers you quoted. The two low numbers both happen to be Sunday nights which are typically not as busy and the first one was the Sunday of the Thanksgiving weekend.

It would be interesting to hear Ron Pierce comment after that brilliant stretch duel between All Speed Hanover and Sportswriter on Saturday night. Both he and Mcdonald fully within the rules, both drivers using every ounce of skill they had without one handers and it my mind it was one of the most stirring stretch battles I've ever seen. And remember these are two year olds, inexperienced at racing, and there didn't appear to be any control issues. It appears to me this duel was a great advertisement for the new rules. Interesting then that Ron Pierce was front and centre in it.

Anyone notice the feet out of the stirrups fines in several of the Breeders Crown races.Kudos to all those drivers for trying to get the best effort from their horses and not get the bettor disqualified.Thanks for giving your best effort!

I am new to racing but if this new rule is unsafe due to loose and flapping reins maybe the whips should just be taken away from drivers? That would solve the problem wouldn't it!

What's the fine for booking off all your drives for one night? Maybe all the drivers slated to drive in the B.C. races tonight should just stay home tonight! I think it might be a fitting protest to wake up governing bodies like ORC to see that what they are doing isn't working. They think that the horses are the bread and butter of racing and they are to a large part but the drivers factor into the equation as well, some maybe upto 50%. Just thinking outside the box..............

My hat is off to Ron Pierce for telling it like it is. He's not afraid to put in print what the vast majority of horsemen really think about this issue. All you have to do is look at the trend of the parimutuel handle!

Its funny how the few die hard supporters of the new harness whipping rule experiment have their heads in the sand are in such denial they like to blame the track takeout, offshore betting shops or the economy for the 25 per cent free fall in handle that has taken place over the last 2 months. NEWSFLASH the track takeout hasn't changed in 50 years, offshore betting shops have been around for 10 years. The only thing that has changed the last 2 months is the new restrictive harness whipping rules, which explains the 25 per cent free fall in the harness betting handle at WEG.

Its clear as night and day that the free fall in handle that has taken place over the last 2 months is direct result of the new restrictive harness whipping rules which the majority of the betting public, and driver colony doesn't support. Ultimately, the permanent damage that this whipping rule has done to the harness betting handle at WEG can not be understated. Once a player gets involved with other forms of gambling entertainment he is not likely to come back to bet harness horses again.

Meanwhile we are suppose to wait for the ORC 6 months after the fact to undue the permanent damage this whipping rule has done to the betting handle. Talk about falling asleep on the wheel.
Are you there Rod Seiling and John Blakney?

I have a very large concern as to the state of harness racing in this part of the world.
I no longer wager on canadian races due to this idiotic rule concerning the use of the
whip. I bet only at yonkers(large enough pool) as this appears to be a place where you can still see racing the way it was meant to be. The last 5 times that I have attended the races
I have not even bothered to waste the $2.50 to buy a Woodbine program.(unheard of before).
I believe that Mr. Wood said it best in his post of October 23/09.
As I am a fan of harness racing I will go and watch the Breeders Crown racing. The key
word in that last sentence is watch. Tell the powers to be that they need to wake up
and get things back to normal(in regards to use of the whip) before it is to late. The O.R.C.
needs to to look at this whipping rule in about 6 minutes and not 6 months.

Paul Linck

Based on my avg. weekly handle on WEG harness races over the last 2 years, they have lost $82,000 in handle from me since taking me down in the Trevor Ritchie DQ race.

I'm not coming back even if they change the fact that a horse automatically is placed last even if the spirit of the rule is not violated.

There are too many other options out there right now. I've replaced the Ontario harness product with Mountaineer and am very happy with my results. Thank you WEG for making me change to a venue with a lower takeout, a bigger rebate and larger pools in which I can actually bet more money.

In reply to by hrnsshrsmn

Pierce said "We have no choice but to change our style and try to do things that we normally wouldn't be doing"

That pretty much sums up the decline of harness racing in one line. 'We've been doing it this way for 100 years. Why would we want to change anything?"
Maybe, just maybe if all of the drivers are subject to the new whipping rules one of the talented ones will figure out a better way to get his horse home safely without using a whip or a kick and without having to flail around. Up until now, no one has had to think of a new way.
Mr Gemmill is right. Gamblers are still betting on horse racing. They are just taking their action to offshore internet betting sites that don't contribute to the pools at the track so they are able to run cheaply.
Reduce the cost of betting on the races,card full and competitive fields and deal harshly and consistently with the cheaters and the betting handle will take care of itself.
The new whipping rules leading to a decline in betting is a red herring. Wagering is down in many countries :
Tough times for Irish racing
French betting resilient while US betting drops ....do they still use whips in France??

brad mcninch...I'M not 100% wrong ...the difference is that you rarely if ever saw Joe Obrien or Keith Waples hit one more than three times. Period.
and all the years i watched Kieth drive I can't recall him EVER kicking one in the hocks....can you say the same thing aboUt WEG's leading driver today?

The big gamblers have found better plays. When 10% or more of your bet is gone before the race even starts why would anyone without any inside knowledge continue to gamble when there are other games with less takeout to play.

The major tracks have so little faith in their product they don't even charge a dollar admission to get in and watch the show!!!!!!

Someone said that "racetracks once ended up growing grass and they could end up there again".....for all who thought the slots were a savior think again....they have the slots, they don't need the racing.

Unless a huge change is made in the way the show is presented and taxed (TAKEOUT) the show is over

I do belive,John Campbell (the winning-est driver in history )said it best.. The old rules were fine , if the Raceing Commisions,(all of them )Enforced the rules consistently !!The operative word being. CONSISTENT.....

mr gemmill ur 100% wrong the old time drivers that i grew up watching were as tough with the whip as any of todays drivers. Dancer, Haughton, Gilmour, even Joe Obrien some of the most respected horseman of our time would use the whip hard, but when only necessary. The style of driving is different these days. If the judges would enforce the rules it never would have come to this but for some reason they are scared of the drivers or want to be friends with them. Most of the top drivers today are not abusive to the horse.

Just in case anyone is denial about the effects of the new whipping rule experiment on the betting handle At WEG here are some nightly track handles over the last 2 weeks of racing:

Oct 11 ---$607,146
Oct 12 ---$835,275
Oct 18 ---$732,729
Oct 19 ---$975,581
Oct 22 ---$842,030

It's plain as night and day that the handle is off 20 to 25 per cent from previous years for the same time period. It’s crazy to think that we can’t break a million dollars in handle anymore when the Meadowlands are closed for racing.

The ORC is supposed to revisit the whipping rule in 6 months. By that time its scary to think about what kind of damage this whipping rule will do to the betting handle. The sad thing is the bettors who have been turned off by the whipping rule are never coming back to racetrack as they have found other forms of gambling entertainment.

As Ron Pierce correctly states what we have done is alienated our hardcore betting fan base to cater to the once a month family crowd who doesn't bet a dime. What industry runs their business that way and alienates its best customers and hopes to survive? The numbers don’t lie as the harness betting handle at WEG is in a free fall because of the new whipping rule. The nightmare continues until the ORC does something about the whipping rule and stops the free fall in betting handle.
Are you there Rod Seiling and John Blakney?

got to choose my words carefully here.
Pierce was/is one of the biggest offenders of the old rules.
when his drive beat Somebeachsomewhere every shot he gave down the lane tecHnically was below the shaft....yeah I know .....the handle of the whip was above but the snapper was connecting right on the stifle.
Bill O'Donnell talks in another thread but he and others of his ilk were the primary reason that so many restrictive rules were created....who can forget some of his more memorable drives where his foot was out of the stirrups kicking his horses and his overhead slashing was urging his drives on.
The sad fact is that many younger drivers grew up watching the kickers and the slashers and not enough saw the greats like Keith Waples and Joe Obrien who drove a horse and rarely used the whiP.
Right now when we watch we see them coming down the lane at WEG with the lines around the hocks and all flailing away....not a nice spectacle but give 'em time. Some have already figured out (remembered maybe?)that if you keep them on the bit you go further.
Maybe a rated mile will be back in vogue instead of the go down the highway go as fast as you can mentality that has pervaded this sport for too long.
I for one look forward to the day when a light touch on the lines wins out over the hock kicking whip slashers that have predominated in this sport for too long

Did the impossible happen? Can pigs finally fly? Because I finally agree with something Ron Pierce has said. I can now say I disagree with only 99% of what comes out of his mouth. We need more people to stand up like Ron!!! I feel weird saying this but thanks Ron.

Woah... pretty stern words from Ronnie... If as many drivers as Ron claims are dead against the rules then I don't see how the new rules can survive.

I must say, I don't like how the drivers have been 'adjusting' to the new rule by flailing about in the cart. It can look very unprofessional.

Ron Pierce is not only one of the best drivers, he is one of the smartest.
Nobody is going to bet more money because the drivers aren't whipping, it is exactly the opposite!
There are less and less people in the stands because they figure they get a bigger bang for their buck elseware. Trevor Ritchie's disqualification was the most unfair
decision to the bettor ever and I'm sure it cost us many fans.