For so many industries, when activity returned post-shutdown this year, the e look was different. This was the case here in harness racing and certainly here at Saratoga Casino Hotel. The obvious changes include smaller purses, while casinos remain closed, and no fans at the races. But a set of changes that is more specific to Saratoga than other tracks has come as a result of a new regime in the judge’s stand. After well over a decade as the Presiding Judge at the Spa, Ritch Gregory retired from his position this spring. One of his associates was ready to step in and had the credentials to do so.
Shane Bacon has been involved in harness racing for over thirty years. Born in Oneonta, NY, Bacon moved to Maine as a kid and as a teenager he began going to Bangor Raceway. When he heard the announcer, he said “I want to do that when I grow up.” He wound up going to work at the racetrack, punching tickets and followed the horses around the Fair Circuit in Maine. He enjoyed betting the horses when he was younger but knew he wanted to have more of an impact on the sport than that. Bacon practiced announcing and wound up making a career of it, calling races in Maine, New York and Pennsylvania at different points, most regularly as the voice of Pocono Downs. Back in the late 80’s when he was getting his start in the business, he passed his judging test. He didn’t use his judging license at that point as he had focused on announcing. After leaving Pocono, Shane still called some races, filling in for announcers here and there, but knowing there was a shortage of judges, went back to judging school to be recertified. He worked as a judge in Maine starting in 2013 and by 2015 was hired in New York. He ran the gamut as far as tracks worked at becoming an associate at Monticello and Yonkers before taking over as presiding judge at Vernon Downs for the last two summers. All the while, Bacon would be here at Saratoga working as an associate at times and upon Gregory’s retirement this spring was named Presiding Judge at Saratoga.
What does having a different Presiding Judge at a track look like? How does it impact the drivers and the fans/bettors of the sport? The answer in short is pretty significantly. People watching our racing simulcast have probably noticed one of the changes and that is the viewing of the judge’s cameras and angles during an inquiry. Bacon told me he thinks this is something that was very important to implement. “Transparency is the key,” the new Presiding Judge explained. “Everyone should see what we see. The owners, trainers, drivers and especially the bettors. These are people who are financially impacted by the decision we are going to make. They should see what we’re looking at. Imagine watching a football game and not seeing the instant replay that the referees are seeing? This is 2020. If we have the technology, there’s no reason people shouldn’t see what we’re watching.” The system we now use when the judges post the inquiry sign and are looking at the different angles on replays is they have the announcer explain what they are watching. I try to give the overview of what the judges are looking at and if there is no disqualification, I will give a brief summary as to why. When there is a DQ, a more thorough explanation follows in conjunction with the view of the replay going over the TV’s to those watching. “Let’s face it,” Bacon admitted, “those watching a sporting game or a horse race all have some kind of vested interest. We as judges don’t. So we look at things not through the lens of bias but with the facts of what we see. As it is in sports officiating, ultimately it is a judgment call and some situations are much more black and white than others,” the longtime basketball referee told me. “Somebody will always be unhappy. That’s just the nature of it.”
Some others changes that have been implemented since the judging switch may not be as apparent to bettors and fans but certainly have had an impact on the drivers on the track. Being able to view things from the perspective of a former bettor, Bacon stresses the need for particular aspects of fairness to be displayed in racing. “I don’t think it’s right for drivers to be giving holes up. We want to have guys race their horses, not just give up seats out there. It makes for better racing and quite frankly is more fair to the bettors. We understand that the job of a driver is difficult and I respect that profession immensely. I don’t want to tell them how to drive their horse in a race. But it has to be fair and it has to look good. Our job is to protect the bettor as much as anything,” Bacon said. Before a racing meet begins, it is in the rules that the Presiding Judge has a meeting with drivers to explain anything that may be new or enforced a bit differently. Shane said when he had this meeting he stressed the need for reduction of whip usage. “This is important to me. First of all, it is for the safety and protection of the animal. There’s no need to swing a whip continuously. Some guys can probably use the whip half as many times as they do and get the same result. We don’t think that continually whipping is doing any good. Use it and wait to see if the animal responds before going to it again. Whipping is part of the game but it needs to be reduced.” As far as the change in adjudication of the rules, Bacon says the drivers will adjust and that they have.
As far as the job, Bacon tells me this really is his dream job. “I love it. I love the game. I’ve been an official most of my life between basketball and this so I’m used to making tough calls. It’s not about just collecting a paycheck for me. I want to do something positive for the sport,” Shane explained. When I asked him the toughest part of the job he told me “having to be the one to talk to drivers all the time and repeat the same things. You don’t want to be the bad guy so that can wear on you but my job is to enforce the rules for the betterment of the sport. The goal is to be fair, treat everyone the same and apply the rules properly.” Bacon is joined these days in the judge’s stand by associates Lisa Crawford and Eric Marecki. It is a new crew to Saratoga so the changes have certainly been glaring since the return from the pandemic shutdown. As far as his future as a judge, Bacon told me “I’ll be here as long as they’ll have me. I really love harness racing and have since I was a teenager. I want it not just to survive but to thrive.”
Live racing takes place on just two days this week. Monday and Tuesday afternoon racing with start at 12 Noon. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!