Story and Photos by Art Petrosemolo
FREEHOLD – Vinny Ginsburg is rail slim and stands just a few inches over 5 feet.
What doesn’t show on the outside of this 25-year old harness racing driver is his passion for the sport, love of horses, competitiveness and desire to win every time he dons the silks and settles into the seat of the race bike. Ginsburg races every chance he gets and this year has finished in the money nearly 40 percent of the time.
“I’ve been around the stables since shortly after I learned to walk,” Ginsburg says. “My dad and five uncles all drove, trained and owned horses racing them at Freehold, Meadowlands and Yonkers.”
Although probably destined for a career as a driver-trainer, Ginsburg says he didn’t get serious about the sport until graduating from high school
As a 20-year old in 2009, the diminutive driver won his first professional race, driving a friend’s horse – Badlands Woman – to victory at Freehold. “Yup, it was a great way to start and it got me hooked,” Ginsburg smiles.
He is having a solid season as Freehold nears its last day – May 17 – of racing for the winter/spring season.
A 12-month-a-year, 7-day-a-week job, Ginsburg, his brother and trainer Rob and girlfriend Cori Holland, who comes from a racing family, spend their mornings tending to and training their four horses at Gaitway Farm, Manalapan, and afternoons and evenings racing their horses or the horses of other trainers at area tracks.
Ginsburg is a “catch” driver, meaning other trainers who he has developed a relationship with will tap him to drive their horses. Ginsburg can drive in multiple races each day. Freehold races three days a week – Thursdays through Saturdays – from January until late May and then opens up for a fall meet in late August through December. There was a time when the only legalized gambling was on thoroughbred or standardbred horse racing and tracks in New Jersey and neighboring states flourished.
“Horse racing in general has fallen on hard times,” says Karen Fagliarone, Freehold’s director of racing, where horses have raced for more than 150 years. “There were days decades ago, when the parking lot at Freehold was filled with cars and the grandstands overflowing.”
Atlantic City gambling, combined with the growth of casino gambling nationally with some states adding slots and gambling tables at racetracks and raceways, has taken its toll on New Jersey’s racing with a subsequent decline in venues, racing days, breeding farms and training facilities.
“Many fans hope that sports betting will become a reality in the state,” Fagliarone says, “or the addition of slots to the racing sites or some kind of sharing of gambling at other venues. Otherwise, the long slow decline of live thoroughbred and standardbred racing will continue to decline with less racing days, smaller purses and small crowds. To those of us who love the sport, it is sad.”
It is against that background that young drivers like Freehold’s Ginsburg face competing against veterans, some twice their age with more experience, in fewer races.
“We drive to surrounding tracks in Pennsylvania and New York with horses to race,” Ginsburg says, “and I’ve gone as far as Virginia. There aren’t enough racing days in New Jersey to survive.”
In the last year, Ginsburg has had more than 1,000 starts recording 120 wins. He has finished second 137 times and third 134. Freehold’s leading driver and trainer is Eric Abbatiello – who has decades more experience that young Ginsburg – who has driven 1,321 races the past year finishing first, second or third 50 percent of the time.
Ginsburg isn’t a part-time driver as his 1,000 starts indicate.
“I’ll drive any horse that wants to win,” he says.
It was that desire that brought Ginsburg and other drivers back to Freehold in January after a winter break on a bad-weather racing day. Ginsburg was in the race when, in a freak accident, the starting car slid after getting the race started and took a 180-degree turn into the oncoming field causing chaos.
“I was pitched from the race bike,” Ginsburg says, “and run over by an oncoming horse. I had a concussion and other injuries that have kept me off the track for two months but never did I think of not driving again.”
Ginsburg is back and racing every chance he can. Although he doesn’t say it, you can tell he is looking for his next “big” winner like the $60,000 horse – Ima Giggity Fool – he drove to victory for trainer Taylor Gower last summer at the Meadowlands.
Although training and driving almost exclusively at area half-mile harness ovals now, Ginsburg spent two years driving at the harness track in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
“I learned a lot in those two years,” Ginsburg says. “You develop your strategy race-to-race and hearing from vocal trainers after each ride. And,” he continues, “with video of every race, you have to sit down and analyze your performance to see what you could have done better. It’s my job!”