Hall of Famer, three-time Hambo winner
story by Gordon Waterstone
Hall of Fame trainer Ron Gurfein, whose horses won three Hambletonians, six Breeders Crowns and countless divisional titles, died May 5 after a short battle with a brain tumor. He was 80.
Mr. Gurfein was known to never mince his words and let his opinion be known with a voice that was brash and identifiable throughout his career. For many years, Mr. Gurfein served as a panelist for The Horseman And Fair World magazine’s annual “Top Picks” pre-season review of 3-year-olds. Mr. Gurfein was never afraid to say what he thought of the horses he reviewed.
In 2014, he offered the following as a member of the trotting panel: “There’s those two (Father Patrick and Nuncio) and then there’s the rest of the world. Those two would have to falter greatly in order for another horse to pop up and surprise. They are in a totally different ballpark; the rest are 11 lengths behind them. The only thing wrong is that they aren’t in my barn.”
Mr. Gurfein added that he trained Father Patrick’s dam, Gala Dream, and called her “one of the worst fillies I ever trained.”
Mr. Gurfein began suffering health problems late last year and became a recluse to the harness racing world as the treatment for the tumor affected his speech.
Over his career he trained the winners of 673 races and $24,372,684 in purse earnings. He retired from training in 2017 and turned to writing, becoming a popular weekly columnist for Harness Racing Update. Known as “The Guru,” a nickname bestowed on him by journalist Jay Bergman in the mid-1990s because of his success with trotters, Mr. Gurfein wrote 165 “Ask The Guru” columns, the last being on Jan. 15, 2021, before he announced he was taking a hiatus.
Born in New York City on Oct. 30, 1940, Mr. Gurfein was the son of a diamond importer. Reared on the East Side of Manhattan, Mr. Gurfein had early hopes of becoming a doctor, but instead at a young age helped in the family’s business. He soon took advantage of an opportunity to purchase Paraphernalia, a trendy woman’s clothing store, but when he was still just 25, he sold his rights and began training Standardbreds.
Mr. Gurfein began training horses in the 1960s in partnership with Ricky Kurtz, who was based at Monticello Raceway. The pair raced their stable of about 12 primarily at Monticello, also branching out to the other New York racetracks of Roosevelt and Yonkers.
Mr. Gurfein later opened up his own stable, and while he became known for his expertise with trotters, his first success that put him in the national spotlight came with the pacer Higher Power, who won the 1982 Adios at The Meadows.
Mr. Gurfein began racing his horses at The Meadowlands and his stable began to be dominated by trotters. In July 1987 he achieved the first of many world records when his 6-year-old trotter Franconia, who he also owned, set a new standard of 1:55 for older mares.
“It’s easy to prognosticate what happens with trotters; it’s not so easy to prognosticate what happens with a pacer,” Mr. Gurfein said in a 2019 interview with journalist Freddie Hudson. “Pacers may seem great all the time, and you have to get the horse racing in order to make a decision whether it is good or bad. A trotter who is great gaited and shows that explosive bit of speed any time in the mile and it feels like a brush or something like that—I’m talking about going a mile in three minutes—you can still tell. I think I can pretty much pick out an exceptional horse in the field and I don’t even need to sit behind them anymore.”
Mr. Gurfein’s success in the 1990s was unparalleled. His outstanding decade began in 1992 when he won Breeders Crown championships with Baltic Striker and Imperfection, both on the same night at Pompano Park. Other standout trotters in his barn in the 1990s included Kerry’s Crown, Cayster, MB Felty and Lady Starlet.
Mr. Gurfein won three Hambletonians in six years: Victory Dream (1994), the filly Continentalvictory (1996), and Self Possessed (1999). Fellow Hall of Famer Mike Lachance drove all three Hambletonian winners for Mr. Gurfein.
“Ronnie had a powerful stable for years and I was his main driver, so I had a chance to drive so many good horses for him,” said Lachance. “But it was not only that. For 20 years at least, when we left The Meadowlands in August after the Hambletonian, we went out to the Midwest to Du Quoin, Indiana, Chicago, Lexington; we were together for two months. We’d spend days together in the car, so we had so much great time together. He was such a big part of my life in harness racing.
“I know one thing—Ronnie had what I called a big mouth sometimes. Sometimes he would talk when he should have kept his mouth shut. He had a very, very strong personality. But inside, he had a heart of gold. He was such a generous person; he was always ready to help somebody.
“Ronnie was a very, very bright guy. He was very smart. He could have been anything he wanted to be. He became a good trainer not because he was a natural horseman; it was because he was smart. He easily could see the difference of what was working and what was not.”
It was in 1993 while winter training in Florida that Mr. Gurfein met Brittany Farms’ owner George Segal and farm manager Art Zubrod. That partnership brought Mr. Gurfein to the pinnacle of racing as he trained several Brittany Farms-owned champions over the ensuing years.
“George and I were in Florida watching horses train and Ronnie was training Victory Dream when he was 2,” remembered Zubrod. “It looked like he was going in 2:05 and he went in 2:00, so I said to George, ‘Let’s see if we can buy him.’
“We went through the process of getting the horse vetted and when the vet report came back it was more like a book. I told George that the vet report said two things: we can’t buy into this horse and we had to give horses to the guy to train. For him to have this horse looking that good with that many ailments, it was amazing.
“From that point on, Ronnie and I became very good friends. We also had a lot in common outside the horse business. When we got together it’d be 10 minutes of harness talk and two hours of talking about life.”
In 1994, Mr. Gurfein’s 4-year-old mare trotter Beat The Wheel made history when she won in 1:51.4 at The Meadowlands—the fastest trotting mile ever. That mark stood until five years later when Self Possessed captured the final heat of the Hambletonian in 1:51.3.
Mr. Gurfein always considered his filly Continentalvictory the finest he ever trained and her record as a 2- and 3-year-old in 1995 and 1996 supported his argument. In 1995, she won 10 of 17 starts, including stringing together a nine-race winning streak, that led to divisional honors. In 1996, she bested her male peers in the Yonkers Trot and Hambletonian, but she was unable to complete Triple Crown dreams when she was a late scratch from the Kentucky Futurity due to a sore ankle.
Continentalvictory swept all awards that year, being voted divisional champion, Trotter of the Year and Horse of the Year.
Lachance remembered the days leading up to the 1996 Hambletonian when at first he had decided to drive likely favorite Lindy Lane, not Continentalvictory. But he said Gurfein’s disappointment led to a change in mounts and subsequently a victory.
“In all the time we were together, I never had a cross word with him, but one time he was very disappointed when I picked against Continentalvictory in the Hambletonian,” Lachance remembered. “It was affecting him so much, and I thought it wasn’t the end of the world, not winning the Hambletonian. I thought Lindy Lane was going to win the Hambo, but instead I stayed with Continentalvictory and she won.”
Brittany Farms shared ownership of 1999 Hambo champ Self Possessed, a son of Victory Dream. After a modest freshman campaign, Self Possessed’s victories in addition to the Hambletonian included the Kentucky Futurity and American-National. Self Possessed was voted the 3-Year-Old Colt Trotter of the Year and Mr. Gurfein earned accolades as the winner of the Glen Garnsey Trainer of the Year award.
Mr. Gurfein didn’t miss a beat as the calendar turned to the 2000s, and in 2003 he trained Cantab Hall to a 10-for-10 campaign, which led to the 2-year-old trotter being named Trotter of the Year, the first freshman trotter to ever be so honored.
In 2006, Mr. Gurfein was inducted into harness racing’s Hall of Fame in Goshen, N.Y.
Mr. Gurfein is survived by two children, Lauren Ferreira (Cauam) Cardoso and Blake Gurfein.
Private family funeral services were held, but a public celebration of Mr. Gurfein’s life will take place at a later date. Memorial contributions may be made to Caring Across Generations, an organization dedicated to care and caregivers, at https://go.caringacross.org/a/give.
Gordon Waterstone is a freelance editorial specialist for the USTA living in Kentucky. To comment on this story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.