Around the Tracks for Saturday

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

Two $37,500 Preferred Handicaps highlight the Saturday card this week at The Meadowlands and for the first time in quite some time, The Big M’s big races are being run for more than those at Yonkers.

Like last week, there are no $40,000 opens on the Saturday Yonkers card; there is a $35,000 Preferred Handicap for pacers which drew just six starters. Total purses for Saturday’s Yonkers card total $249,000

The Meadowlands offers both a pace and trot in their Preferreds. The trot attracted 10 and is led by the veteran JL Cruze, who has already pocketed over $25,000 in 2020 with 2-0-1 in three starts. Pappy Go Go is 2 for 2 this year and brings earnings of $31,250 into the race.

The Preferred Pace drew eight with New Zealander Franco Totem M the early 2-1 favorite.  This is a good Meadowlands card with 13 races totaling $245,375 in purse money. The Meadowlands resurgence continues and as an aside, beginning February 7, post time moves to 6:55 pm.

Buffalo Raceway has its second card of the year with 12 races. Most importantly, eight of the 12 have full fields of eight and the other four will start seven. There are no opens on the docket, but three races will run for at least $10,000 highlighted by an $11,000 Class AA pace. Seven have not raced in 2020 and the one who has, Weekend Atannies is 0-0-0 in two starts with $1,360 in earnings.

Freehold offers 11 races and like most Saturdays, the feature is the $12,000 Preferred Handicap Pace which drew seven.

Sunday is the Super Bowl of course and only one track is brave enough to take the NFL on that evening. Pompano will have a 10-race card beginning at 7:20 pm ET while the game is likely entering the second quarter. Many Sunday runners like Rosecroft and Miami Valley have decided not to challenge the NFL on a day where over 110 million Americans will be tuned into Fox to watch what some call “The Big Game.”

There are two $9,000 paces scheduled and they drew seven starters each.  When asked as to why they would run on Super Bowl Sunday, track officials stated that they wanted to go forward and the box is full meaning that each race drew the required number of entrants.

Pompano may be running, but Wally Hennessey won’t be driving. The track’s leading driver says that Super Bowl Sunday is for family and he will be home watching the Big Game with family and friends.

There might not be a better harness racing state than Ohio. Northfield Park, the Ohio track that runs 12 months each and every year has a 16-race Saturday card race with 140 of the 144 slots accounted for. The highlight is the $15,000 Filly and Mare Open Pace led by Bourbon and Bailey. She is 3 for 3 this year with $20,000 in the bank in 2020.

Not be outdone in the Buckeye State is Miami Valley which has 14 races with 135 of the 140 slots accounted for. The big race, a $25,000 Open Pace features a 10-horse field led by veteran Windsong Leo. He’s 3 for 3 with $35,000 in 2020 earnings and is the 2-1 early favorite.

Last but never least is Cal Expo. Like the Meadowlands, the state fair track has the one mile oval, but purses have always been on the small side.  Tomorrow’s card has 12 races for a total of $44,600, an average of $3,716 per race.  The good thing—the horses don’t know that. The highest purse is for $5,000 and has a field of nine pacers.




A Touch of Class for Buffalo Raceway

Class system back for 2020

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

Buffalo Raceway kicks of its 79th season on Wed. Jan 29 and I hope I’m not the only one excited for the 66-day meet that will run through July 18.

Until April 3, the track will race on Wednesdays and Saturdays and then Fridays will be added and like last year, the class system will be used. Races will be classified as Open and Class A, B, C or D, This worked well for the track last year and racing secretary Tom Agosti sees no reason to alter it for 2020.

The condition sheet for opening night is posted on the Buffalo Raceway website and while this is not official, it’s almost a certainty.

There are 12 races on tap for the 29th; the open paces and trots have purses of $13,000 and there are two scheduled—an open pace for fillies and mares and an open trot.

Purses are subject to change but for now, they will race as follows:

Class AA: $11,000

Class A: $10,000

Class B: $8,400

Class C: $6,400

Class D: $4,400

Opens: $13,000

The premise is simple—do well, move up; struggle move down. As always discretion lies with the racing secretary, but the goal is to cash as many checks as possible. Winning is always important, but sometimes, moving up, placing and showing in a higher class might be more lucrative. In simple math, a second place in a Class A race earns $2,500, while winning a Class D race grosses $2,200. That said, the odds of a Class D horse making it to Class A is few and far between, but that’s the stuff of dreams, right?

Some racing secretaries don’t like the Class concept and there are more that dislike the Speed Rating index, which many say takes all creativity away from those who write races.

At Buffalo last year, if a horse won a Class C race, they were moved up a level for their next race. If a horse can’t crack the top three in three consecutive races, they are allowed to move down one class.

Think about that—if your horse goes fourth, fourth and fourth in three consecutive $8,400 Class B races, they’ll earn $2,016, but will be afforded the opportunity to drop to Class C, where the races are run for $6,400. It does create some angst, but that’s what actuarial science is for.

There are two Western New York harness tracks—Buffalo and Batavia—and each writes races differently. The same horses compete at both tracks, but Batavia will have opens and the old NW750L5 (non-winners of $750 over last 5 races) style while Buffalo uses the Class A-D system.

Many class races will be claiming; for example on the Sat, Feb 1 card, there is a AA claiming race with the claiming price being $25,000. If you’re looking to claim a horse, you might want to begin with those racing in Class D; they can be claimed for just $4,000. Class B horses can be claimed for $12,500, with the price for Class C set at $7,500.

Most races–but not all–will use the Class system. On that Saturday card, there is a race that reads like this.

Winners of 3 but no more than 5 (F&M 6) PM races LT AE NW $25,000, purse $6,000

What does that really mean? Well, it took me a while, but now, I understand about 94 percent of it. This is a race for horses/geldings that have won three, four or five times with fillies being allowed to have six wins. The PM stands for pari-mutuel, which means that these are races that allow betting. The LT AE simply means that if a horse has never won $25,000 in their lifetime, they can enter. In that case, you may have a horse with more than five or six wins, but not more than $25,000 in career earnings.

Now—and I’m being serious—which system do you like better? There are pros and cons to each and Buffalo seems to be leaning towards Class over earnings as they move forward.

At the end of the day, the bettor doesn’t really worry about it. They will read the form, study past performances and do their handicapping and wagering. After a few weeks, they’ll know which horses, drivers and trainers are hot and which are not.  It’s that easy—study the form, make your bets and bring home the bacon.

At Buffalo, the bacon starts sizzling this Wednesday.

Buffalo Raceway Will Not Be Whipped in 2020

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

Buffalo Raceway is in the news and not because of racing, which doesn’t begin until Wed. Jan. 29. The track has instituted a new whipping rule for its 2020 season, which runs through July 18.

Here is the statement from Buffalo Raceway.

Along with previous regulations, the track has modified the rule which states “drivers shall keep a line in each hand (except as may be necessary to adjust equipment, pulling plugs, dropping blinkers) from the start of the race until the top of the stretch and both hands shall stay in front of the body and cannot be raised above the shoulder from the start of the race until the finish. Continuous whipping is prohibited.”

The Raceway says that violators of the rule will be punished.

We all know that horse racing is under scrutiny, so it makes sense for harness tracks like Buffalo to be out in front on key issues. And, let’s be fair; “does incessant whipping really help horses—both the Standardbreds and thoroughbreds?

Once a horse is a tired, they’re done and whipping them incessantly doesn’t help. As for tapping, that’s another story.  A tap can get the horse to refocus, something Joe Bongiorno told me at the 2018 Joe Gerrity Memorial Pace when he drove Evening of Pleasure to victory in that $260,000 event.

The horse had a big lead but started to lose focus and was looking for the other horses. Bongiorno tapped him a few times, the horse refocused won the race, breaking 1:50 as well.

It’s a good thing when the tracks and the sport take the initiative rather than wait for the activists to force them. This may never quiet those groups, but it might quell them for a period of time.

With the rule out of the way, it should be a fun and exciting 79th season for Buffalo Raceway. The track has new material and most of the horses that ran at Batavia from July to December will head to Buffalo its season. Batavia had record handle and attendance numbers last year and there is optimism that Buffalo can do the same.

The clubhouse has been spruced up with HD televisions and the All-You-Can eat buffet returns on Saturdays; for $19.99, you get the food, the racing program, a $5 betting voucher and $5 to use in the casino. So, for those that say that harness tracks do nothing in terms of promotion and marketing, I offer this.

The problem—how to get the message to the masses.  People like you and I—harness racing fans—know where to seek this stuff out, but what about the non-racing followers. How do we get Steve and Melissa, two 25-year olds to do a date night at a place like Buffalo Raceway?

When you think about it, it’s not a bad date.  You get dinner, some live racing and then you can head to casino for some more fun. And, if Lady Luck is in your corner, you might even make some money.

Buffalo Raceway will race on Wednesdays and Saturdays until April 3, when Fridays are added. This worked well for the track in 2019.  They tried to go three dates in January, February and March in 2018, but struggled with horse shortages, shorter fields and bad weather. Two days allows more races each day and fuller fields; something the betting public likes. The Wednesday cards have always generated decent handle because other harness tracks are dark.

Between Buffalo and Batavia, Western New York offers approximately 137 days of live racing and it all starts on Jan. 29.



Yonkers, Saratoga, Miami Valley and Farewell to the Bullet

Some highlights from the great sport

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

Yonkers Raceway is back in business for 2020. The track, which took its annual 17-day break kicked off its 2020 season on Mon. Jan. 6, its first full-season under its new owners, MGM Resorts.

MGM Resorts bought the venerable track from the Rooney family, which had owned it since 1972.  2019 was what we would call a transition year and now, things will have an MGM stamp.

One thing the track won’t do is race less. There was some speculation about that, but in 2020, Yonkers will offer 237 racing dates; comfort food for racing fans. The track will race primarily on Monday-Tuesday and then Thursday-Saturday.

The $1 million International Trot, which many thought would not be on this year’s schedule is back and will be run on Sat. Sept. 12 in conjunction with the finals of the New York State Sires Stakes, making for a huge day of racing at Old Hilltop.

One thing Yonkers would like to see is more handle. We all know that the track offers the sports’ highest overnight purses, but handle per race never reaches $100,000. Maybe that’s because of the half-mile, and those slow second quarters, but the track does have a roster of quality horses and despite the laments, the racing is fair.

There was no open on last night’s card, but there were two huge upsets. In Race 9, Uncle Leo trotted home in 1:56.1 at odds of 30-1 to pay $68 for the win; and in Race 10, The Charging Moa rallied from fifth in the stretch to pace home in 1:53.1 at odds of 60-1. He rewarded supporters with $122 for a $2 plunk down.

The Open Trot returns tonite with six contestants. The field is solid with Will Take Charge and Obrigado the headliners. The latter returned to racing in late 2019, but hasn’t had much success yet. Here’s hoping the millionaire can get things going this year as it’s always nice to see the veterans continuing to battle.

Next Friday, the fillies and mares open pace returns and on Saturday, there will be both an open pace and open trot for the boys. All the opens are currently running for $40,000.

Tonite’s Yonkers card has $271,000 in total purses for its 10 races and because we like to compare, tonite’s Meadowlands card offers 14 races and total purses of $217,875.

Saratoga Casino Hotel released its 2020 schedule and the “track up north,” will offer 168 racing days. Like last year, both Wednesday and Thursdays will be matinees with 12 Noon posts.

SCH opens its season on Sunday, Feb 16 and will run to December 12. For the most part, they will run afternoons on Sundays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The new wrinkle this year is a Saturday evening post time of 5 pm ET.

The track, as always, adjusts its schedule when the thoroughbred meet is contested across the street. The thoroughbreds begin on Thursday, July 11 and stay through Labor Day. When that happens, SCH will race Tuesday-Wednesday and Friday-Saturday and post times will be 7:05 pm. Saratoga Race Course, which altered its schedule last year will be dark on Mondays and Tuesdays again in 2020.

It hasn’t been officially announced, but the track’s signature event, the Joe Gerrity Memorial Pace should be run on Saturday, July 18. In 2019, the pace offered a purse of $260,000 and was won by the now-retired McWicked.

Miami Valley in Ohio is open for business as well. The meet saw big crowds and opening day record handle and tonite’s open pace features eight “runners,” and a $24,000 purse. Ohio harness racing—with Northfield running all year and Miami, Scioto and Dayton splitting—continues to thrive. Tonite’s Miami Valley card features 14 races and 129 horses; that’s an average of 9.2 on the 5/8 mile track.

Finally, today’s Preferred Handicap Pace at Freehold has a full field of eight for $12,000. One of the horses is named Bullet Bob and if you’re a harness racing fan, the sport lost one of its great voices on Thursday when “Bullet” Bob Meyer passed away at the age of 80. Known for his staccato style, Meyer always announced the winner as “in front,” and on Thursday evening, Yonkers announcer John Hernan called Race 1 the same way in tribute to the man who called races at Monticello, Roosevelt, Yonkers and Saratoga for decades.

The original Bullet Bob has left us; maybe the horse version can win one today at Freehold.





Harness Racing on the Attack—In a Good Way

2019 was a very good year for the sport

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

For harness racing, 2019 was a good year. The sport saw lots of good things happen and right now, optimism is high. Many things went right for the sport in 2019, but it’s important to keep moving forward and not get complacent in 2020. There is no reason why the sport can’t keep growing for years to come.

The sport saw increases in handle, wagering and purses. When sports books started popping up, concerns grew. Would gamblers turn their attention away from harness racing and focus exclusively on the ball sports, MMA and the others?

The answer was no; the sport saw a 3.53 percent increase in total wagering with over $1.4 billion. And, that number came with 46 fewer racing days.

Purses were up as well.  In 2019, there were $439,546,019 in purses; more than last year’s $428,774,855. For bettors, purses aren’t that important, but for casual fans, I believe they get the attention of that said fan and are important for the sport going forward.

An example of this is the Potomac Pace at Rosecroft Raceway. The pace is contested on a Sunday—in November—and its $100,000 purse draws attention. It gets hyped on all the important harness racing websites and it brings more locals to the track to celebrate what is usually a good night of racing.

The return of the Meadowlands was another positive in 2019. The track is the sport’s most important and over the past few years, they were losing horses, trainers and drivers to tracks that offered higher purses. In Jan. 2019, the New Jersey State Legislature passed a $6 million purse subsidy for the Meadowlands and that money helped keep the Meadowlands going in the spring and summer, a time when in the past, it was tough to have full fields at the East Rutherford icon.

This year, fields were fuller, purses higher and handle, which has always been the sport’s best, saw increases. On Fri. Jan. 3, overall handle was over $3 million; a magic number indeed.

The track will see a change in its 2020 schedule as a result of Monmouth Park utilizing its option to conduct a fall thoroughbred meet. That means The Big M will race through August and then pick up again in late November.  The traditionalists may not prefer this, but one has to think that more summer racing at the sport’s best venue can’t hurt.

In the spring, MGM Resorts completed its purchase of Yonkers Raceway from the Rooney family. The Rooney family were always friends of harness racing; they loved the sport and when MGM took over, there were some concerns that casino giant would trim things up.

Some thought that the $1 million International Trot might be on the chopping block. The Rooneys’ brought this unique even back in 2015 with trotters from seven nations trotting 1 ¼ miles for that big purse.

The 2019 trot was a scintillating race with Italy’s Zacon Gio taking the crown, but the best news came in late December when MGM announced that the International Trot will be back for 2020, along with 237 dates of racing. That certainly sounds like MGM is all in on harness racing going forward.

Batavia Downs is located in Western New York and that track saw record handle numbers in 2019 as well as increased on-track attendance. A decade ago, it looked like “The Downs,” may close, but that’s no longer the case.

On-track handle increased by 12.2 percent in 2019; on-track attendance was up five percent; its export signal saw a 24 percent increase. All-source handle was up an astounding 19.9 percent as the track handled $1.4 million more in 2019 compared to 2018.

Todd Haight, the General Manager at Batavia Downs has been in the harness racing game for years. Naturally, he was pleased at what the track accomplished.

“Our customers came out in force, both live and at simulcast and we couldn’t be more grateful to them,” Haight said. “We gave them some of the best racing in the state and they validated it by betting us the whole season.”

Batavia Downs is the oldest lighted harness track in the nation and Haight and his staff are already excited for the 2020 season, which opens on July 22. They split the season with Buffalo Raceway, another track that had a positive 2019; that track opens its 2020 season on Wed. Jan. 29

It didn’t get a lot of fanfare, but a new harness track opened in Kentucky last summer when Oak Grove Racing and Gaming conducted its first card on Friday October 18. The track raced 12 times; Fridays and Saturdays through November 23. There could be more racing dates added in future years, but boutique style meets definitely have a place in harness racing. The Grand Circuit meet at The Red Mile is the blueprint for that.

Freehold Raceway, the nation’s oldest race track added nine dates to its 2020 schedule; they’ll go to the post 85 times this year, up from 76.

Miami Valley opened its 2020 season last week with its best-ever Opening Night handle and fuller fields, continuing a surge in Ohio which continues to do well with racing and breeding.

For years, harness racing was trying to survive; now, it looks like the sport is on the attack in a positive way. While sports books may be helping, tracks are finding ways to get the word out about its product and once fans check it out, they realize quickly that when it comes to racing, harness racing is second to none.





Farewell to the Old Guys

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

He did it. One of them had to, and when the smoke cleared in Friday’s Au Revoir Pace at Monticello Raceway, Lucky Man was the one feted in the Winner’s Circle. Five 14-year olds took to the track for the last time (Christoffer Bliss scratched) and only one could go out on top.

As expected, it was a clean start as Flem N Em N took the lead through an opening quarter in 27.3, before slowing things down to 57.3 at the half. The New Zealand bred held the lead through three-quarters in 1:27.3 but by that time, Lucky Man was pressing and was able to take the lead in the turn to draw away to win in 1:57.2.

Flem N Em N held for second with Lightning Raider third, Yankee Devil fourth and Mecurio N fifth—and last. The nice thing about the race is that all five horses and their connections cashed in the $5,000 race due to the scratch.

When you look at the final time the splits tell the story—and the consistency—of the veteran group. After a quick 27.3, the horses settled in and ran 30, 30 and 29.4 over the final three-quarters of a mile on a damp, cloudy, rainy day.

The win was the ninth of the year for Lucky Man, who adds $2,500 to his earnings, allowing him to pass $30,000 for the year to finish at $31,980. Flem N Em N leaves the track with $1,250 and of the five that raced, he wins the 2019 money battle with $36,570 in earnings.

Not to be outdone was the Free-Old Pace at venerable Freehold Raceway on Saturday. It’s not easy to find ready 14-year olds, so this race was written for horses that are 11 years and up and attracted three 14-year olds in the $5,000 race. A field of seven (one horse scratched due to sickness) prepared for battle at the nation’s oldest horse racing track.

Camwiser was one of them and he raced like he knew it would be for the last time. After a slow start, he shot to the front and cut all three fractions—28.2, 57.4 and 1:27.3. By the time he reached the three-quarter mark, he had company in another 14-year old named Bobjacks Angle who went to the outside and was able to overtake Camwiser in the stretch for owner and driver Steve Smith. The final time was 1:57.4 on the fast Freehold track.

The old guys put on a good show at both tracks and kudos to Monticello and Freehold for staging these affairs. The one thing harness racing will always have over thoroughbred racing is longevity and the sport should do its best to celebrate these warriors.

Bobjacks Angle came to the United States from Australia and the win was his seventh of the year, which is quite respectable for any age horse, let alone a 14-year old. In fact, he closed with a flurry, winning four of his final six races. He leaves the sport with 35 career wins and just under $300,000 in career earnings.

Hello Hot Shot finished third in the Free-Old. The good news for him is that he’s only 11 and still three years away from retirement.

The Freehold bettors certainly put their trust in the old guys. Bobjacks Angle paid just $2.80 to win and the Bobjacks Angle-Camwiser exacta paid out a semi-paltry $17.20.

Next week, it will be 2020 and I wonder what horses like Bobjacks Angle A, Camwiser and Lucky Man will be thinking when they no longer will head to the track to workout and race. I guess we all retire at some point, so let’s wish all 14-year old Standardbreds all the best in their retirement.


Bidding Adieu

Eight 14-year olds racing for the final time at Monticello and Freehold

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

On Dec. 27, they will race for the last time. At roughly 2:45 pm ET, they will get behind the gate like they have done for years and in two laps, their racing careers will be over.

Monticello Raceway is hosting the Au Revoir Pace and six pacers have answered the call. That alone tells you how hard it is to find 14-year olds who can fit that last race into their respective schedules.

How hard is it? Monticello officials were hoping to have an Au Revoir for trotters, but like last year, only pacers will be on hand. Sadly, there won’t be a big crowd to cheer them on for the final time, but these horses have never raced before big and adoring crowds anyways.

In harness racing, horses can run through age 14. On Jan. 1, every horse celebrates their birthday and for the 15-year olds that means retirement. For some 14-year olds, they have been racing since age 2, making start after start year after year. For many, that means 13 years of racing on all types of tracks, surfaces and venues. Half-mile tracks, 5/8 mile tracks, 7/8 mile tracks, mile tracks, in the daylight, under the lights, at county fairs; you name it, they’ve raced them.

The field of six have combined to make 207 starts in 2019 and assuming they all go to the post, the final number will rest at 213. Leading the way is the favorite, Lucky Man, who is 8-9-5 in 43 starts to go along with $29,480 in earnings.

The one horse is the hard luck entry, but let’s give kudos to Christoffer Bliss, who is 0-0-1 in 20 starts with just $610 in earnings. But, hey, a win in this his final race with a $2,500 pay check would boost season earnings to $3,110.

Two horses are New Zealand breds and the most accomplished is Flem N Em N. The Kiwi is 5-13-4 in 42 starts with $35,320 in earnings. Most of his winnings have come internationally, so don’t expect the Monticello bettors to make him the favorite come post time.

The other Kiwi is the two, Mecurio N. He’s made 39 starts and sports a record of 3-3-8 and $8,710 in earnings.  Yankee Devil will leave from gate three with 3-3-2 in 22 starts and $9,410.

Lightning Raider comes in with $33,402 and in 41 starts sports a 7-6-8 record and a win could get him over $35,000 for 2019.

And, just because these horses are old, doesn’t mean they’re slow. All six have run 1:58.2 or faster for their miles this year. The fastest (time wise) of the bunch is Lucky Man who ran 1:52.2 on a 7/8 mile track this year. Flem N Em N has run 1:52.4 on a 5/8 mile track. This race will be contested on Monticello’s half-mile and Lightning Raider has clocked a 1:55.2 on a half-mile this year.

This is where I wish marketing would come into play. It is the holidays, people are home and wouldn’t it be great for SportsCenter to show a clip or have a newspaper put in a blurb for its Saturday’s morning editions. That won’t happen, but here’s hoping that Monticello’s Au Revoir Pace is a dandy.

Freehold Raceway is taking a page from the Monticello playbook by staging a farewell race of their own. The Free-Old Pace will be run on Sat. Dec. 28 for pacers aged 11 and up with two 14-year olds in the invitation only race.

Bobjacks Angel A is going out with a bang, having won three of his last five starts. He didn’t begin racing until 2012 and in those eight years has made with 283 starts with 34 wins. This year, he is 6-6-5 in 27 starts with just under $25,000 in the bank.

Camwiser is the other 14-year old and he comes in with 4-5-4 in 41 starts and $24,175 in earnings. In 386 career starts, he has 56 wins and over $224,000 in earnings. He will start from post seven on Freehold’s half-mile track.

The race attracted one 13-year old, three 12-year olds and two 11-year olds and is scheduled to go to the post at 1:50 pm ET. The eight-horse field has combined to make 279 starts this season with total earnings of $161,267.

There are no millionaires racing at either track. These are the grinders, the warriors, the lunch-pailers who are going to the post for the final time. It’s good to see these 14-year olds get some special treatment.

They deserve it.