Hambletonian 2021: A Return to Normalcy

I thought about not going. I’m glad that thought went away

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

EAST RUTHERFORD—I must admit, I debated it. In 2017, I went to my first Hambletonian and liked it so much that I made return trips in ’18 and ’19. Like most, I sat out in ’20 due to Covid and this year, I wasn’t sure if I should go.

It wasn’t because of Covid. We know the delta variant is causing another surge and to be honest, I am sick and tired of Covid and all the news it generates. On one hand we’re all going to die; on the other, all the beaches, restaurants and bars are packed once again. Is it as bad as the media says? The public thinks that Covid is over.

Getting back to the 2021 Hambletonian. I’m usually in my car for the two hour 15 minute, 140 mile drive at 9:30 AM, but this year, I stalled. I got up, drank some coffee, read some papers, and then went on a four-mile walk. During my stroll, I pondered. Part of me wanted to go, part of me wanted to stay home and catch the big races on TV. Like many, I’ve been in a bit of fog; a fog that began in the summer of 2020.

Finally, at 11:30 AM, I decided that I had to go. I didn’t want apathy to be the reason that I stayed home. I’m a big harness racing fan and this is the Super Bowl of the sport. The Meadowlands, the first Saturday in August, the best horses that the sport has. Why miss it.

I got to my seat at 2 PM. Naturally, I missed the first five races, but there were 16 on the card and the big ones were set for later in the day. Believe it or not, I was still in a fog for the first few races. I looked at my watch and actually thought about going home and missing the Hambo Oaks and the Hambo. 

I decided to go for a walk and to take some photos and then, it kicked in. The juices started flowing and I actually sauntered up to the betting windows to make some wagers.

The Maeadowlands does know how to put on a good show. The crowd was probably smaller than in past years. In ’17, ’18 and ’19, the crowds were announced anywhere from 18 to 19,000. I’m not good at estimating, but I have to believe that there were at least 15,000 in attendance this year.

The results of the labor shortage were in effect. The back food court was completely closed; my guess is because of lack of workers. The good news was that there were plenty of food trucks on site, so nobody went hungry or thirsty on this the 96th Hambletonian.

When I go, I have a plan. Everybody has to pay $5 to enter the grounds and that includes a nice Hambletonian hat. This year’s hat was really nice—solid black with no advertising at all. It’s a hat you can wear anywhere—with pride. After entering, I go and get my grandstand seat for another $10, preferably in section 105, which is right at the finish line. This year, I was able to sit in Section 105, row seven and seat seven.

I’m always surprised at how empty these grandstand seats are. I guess people prefer the picnic area, the apron and the rail. I did have some fears about getting there later in the day, but there were plenty of seats in section 105 for this year edition.

By race 10, I was locked in, studying the program, making some wagers and trying to figure out whom to pick in the Oaks and the Hambo.  I decided this year to look for an underdog who probably couldn’t win, but might be able to get a second or third at a good price.

The savvy bettor would have taken the favorites and wheeled them with longshots in the hopes of scoring a big exacta or trifecta. I’ve been following harness racing for over 40 years and I have never wheeled anything. I’ll admit that’s a bit sad, but it’s just something I’m not knowledgeable enough to do.

In the Oaks, I thought Iteration had a chance—not to win, but perhaps grab a second or third. Like the French like to do, I decided bet $5 bucks on Iteration to show and lo and behold, she ended up second and paid $9 to show. Since I had that 2.5 times, I cashed a ticket for $22.50, which covered my $15 admission and my $5 program. If I was the savvy guy, I would have bet her and winner Bella Bellini and scored more cash, but I was happy making the $17.50 profit.

In the Hambo, I liked Captain Corey—a lot. I’ll stop short of calling him a superhorse, but for some reason, I didn’t love this year’s Hambo field. Was it a bad crop of 3-year old trotters? No, but it wasn’t a great crop either.

I liked Venerate, but the guy sitting in front of me didn’t think driver Andy Miller was in the same class as the others. I also liked Ambassador Hanover, mainly because Scott Zeron was in the bike and Zeron always seems to drive well on Hambo Day. I also liked that his odds were 34-1.

That’s the other thing I don’t understand. We all know that if a horse has odds to win of 14-1, if you bet $2 for said horse to win, the payout will be about $30. But, I have no idea what a 34-1 horse will pay to show. That’s because there is less money in the show pool and the payout is determined by how people bet to show on each of the horses.

Anyway, I thought Zeron could steer Ambassador Hanover to a third place finish, so, like I did in the Oaks, I bet $5 to show.

As expected, Captain Corey did his thing. He trotted the fastest opening quarter in Hambo history in 26-seconds flat and then blitzed through the half in 54 and even though he came back in 57 seconds, he had plenty left in the tank to pull away for the win.

It’s interesting when you bet to show. Of course, it gives you three chances to win some money; so even though Captain Corey was pulling away, I had my eyes on the rest of the field. Ambassador Hanover was 10th at the quarter, 10th at the half and ninth at three-quarters, but then he kicked into overdrive. In the middle of the stretch he was fifth and at the wire, it looked like he might have ended up fourth, but a photo was needed.

They kept showing the replay and each time, I had a different opinion. It looked like he was fourth and then third, but I couldn’t tell. Finally, the result was official and my horse—the magnificent Ambassador Hanover—did in fact, finish third, paying $13.60 and because I had that 2.5 times, that paid me $34, a $29 profit on my wager.

I learned two things on Hambo Day 2021. One, never hem and haw about going. It’s the biggest day of the harness racing year, I live 140 miles away and it really is a no-brainer to go. In fact, not going would be a travesty. The other takeaway—don’t be afraid to bet a horse to show and when doing so, don’t be cheap, bet $5 or even $10.

The last two years—the Covid Fog—have been difficult for many, not just me. Attending this year’s Hambo felt like things (at least for me) were returning to normal. I will tip my new black Hambo hat to the folks at the Meadowlands and if things work out, I may just venture back there on Sat. Oct. 30 for the second night of the Breeders Crown.

Saratoga Takes Center Stage With Return of the Gerrity

Batavia Downs set to open Wednesday

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

The Joe Gerrity Memorial for older pacers is back on the harness racing schedule. The $150,000 event returns to Saratoga Casino Hotel with a solid field of eight entered. This will be the 12th annual running; the last being in 2019.

The eight horses have combined for 35 wins and $1,610,496 in 2021 earnings, and is led by This Is The Plan who comes in with 4-7-0 in 12 starts and over $535,000 in earnings–$257,000 of that came when he wired the field to win the $514,000 MGM Borgata at Yonkers Raceway in April. In the race, Mac N Cheese and Rockapelo were second and third and these two will challenge “The Plan,” on Saturday evening.

It won’t be easy for the Ron Burke trainee coming from the seven post, but with Hall of Famer driver Yannick Gingras in the bike, it can be done.  

Leonidas is 7-0-0 in 11 starts and if you like watching horses close, keep an eye on him. He’ll start from post one and nobody should be surprised if the Australian bred tries to wire the field. While he likes to sit back and close, he has shown in 2021 that he can win from the front as well.

Rockapelo, the Yonkers veteran comes in with 5-2-1 in 15 starts, his $222,500 in earnings ranks second to the aforementioned This Is The Plan. George Brennan will make the trip north from Yonkers to drive the colt for trainer Nik Drennan.

No horse in the field has raced more in 2021 than Western Joe. He’ll make his 18th start and will look for his sixth win to go along with four seconds and two thirds. And, he’ll have the best driver, Dexter Dunn, in the bike for trainer Christopher Choate.

The $150,000 Joe Gerrity Memorial Pace

1-Leonidas

2-Mac N Cheese

3-Backstreet Shadow

4-Rockapelo

5-Western Joe

6-Poseidon Seelster

7-This Is The Plan

8-Nicholas Beach

It’s a great night of racing at SCH. In addition to the Gerrity, the New York Sire and Excelsior Stakes will be in town featuring 2-year old colt/gelding pacers. There are five Sire Stakes races for $28,000 purses and five Excelsior races ranging from $6,700 to $15,000 in purses. There is also a $20,000 Open Pace that drew a full field of eight.

Down The I-90

With the season over at Buffalo Raceway, most of those horses will now head east to Batavia Downs for the remainder of 2021. The Downs opens its 59-day racing season Wednesday and will feature five divisions of the Excelsior Stakes and two divisions of the New York Sire Stakes for 2-year old filly trotters. There are 12 races on the card and two of the races are opens for filly and mare pacers.

The Downs will race Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sunday afternoons through August and then will switch to Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays in September and October. The season will end on Dec. 11.

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, the track set handle records in 2019 and this year officials are excited to have fans back watching races live. And to help the cause, the track will offer free full-card past performances for all 59 days of the season. All you have to do is visit Bataviabets.com to view and/or download.

“We couldn’t be more excited to be able to welcome all our longtime fans and friends back to Batavia Downs and see them watching trackside with absolutely no restrictions,” said Henry Wojtaszek, President/CEO of Western Regional Off Track Betting and Batavia Downs Gaming. “Last year was challenging for everyone, but that is in the past and we are laser-focused on the future. And the future is certainly bright for our customers and horsemen at Batavia Downs.”

This is the 74th season of racing at America’s oldest lighted harness track. The half-mile oval has hosted some of the best including WNY legend Niatross.

The fastest ever to race at Batavia Downs is pacer Aracache Hanover who toured the half-mile oval in 1:51.1 back in 2011. The fastest trotter is Winning Shadow, who stopped the clock in 1:53.4 in 2018. 

Wednesday post time is 6 pm. 

The Gerrity Is Back at Saratoga

Saratoga Casino Hotel adjust racing schedule as thoroughbred meet begins

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

Saratoga Casino Hotel has made a change—a good one. With the thoroughbred meet across the street about to start, the harness track, in its 80th year, has adjusted its schedule and will now race Monday and Tuesday afternoon and Saturday evening.  

It didn’t look like the track was going to make an adjustment. Like many businesses, SCH was deeply impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and because of it the track was racing Monday-Wednesday afternoons in 2021. Handle numbers are decent with the afternoon programs, but for those who work weekdays, getting there for live racing is improbable if not impossible.

The track is trying to take advantage of what everybody hopes will be large crowds at the thoroughbred meet. The harness track will run on Mondays and Tuesdays when the flat track is dark and hopefully will get some good crowds on Saturday evenings once the thoroughbred card is complete.

The track also announced that it’s bringing back its signature event, the Joe Gerrity Memorial for older pacers. The 12th annual pace takes place on July 24. This is a pleasant surprise. Earlier in the year, track officials told me that it was “very unlikely,” that the event would be raced in 2021. It did not take place last year.

It will be for less money. Normally a $260,000 race, this year’s edition has a purse of $150,000 and while that represents a 43 percent drop, at $150k, it will still lure a good field of the game’s older pacers. The Meadowlands Pace is this Saturday and features eight stakes races, one of which includes older pacers. Some of those may run back in the Gerrity and one that might come to the Spa is Leonidas A, last year’s winner of the $150k Potomac Pace at Rosecroft. He raced well at Yonkers this spring and has taken a liking to half-mile ovals and that could serve him well should he race at Saratoga.

Once the thoroughbred meet ends, SCH will revert back to the Monday-Wednesday 12 pm post schedule and it will be interesting to see what the 2022 schedule will look like. Matinee racing is likely to stay, but will the track add a fourth day?  The likely answer is no.

Some tracks are experiencing success by racing less. The Meadowlands is the prime example. The Big M only races Friday and Saturday evenings and handle numbers have been strong. Buffalo Raceway has raced Wednesdays and Saturdays since January and  has added Fridays as the meet nears its July 17 end.

Next week, Western New York harness racing shifts 30 miles east to Batavia Downs and that track will race Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays in July and August before switching to Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays in September, or once the Bills season begins.

Less is more can work in harness racing. Yonkers runs five days a week, 235 days per year and its handle numbers are low for a track that attracts quality horses. I’m not sure what the right number is. As a fan, you want to see more racing, but how does the consumer feel? If you love harness racing, you know that you only have two nights to watch the Meadowlands, so you better not take it for granted. On the other hand, Yonkers goes five days per week—is it taken for granted?

A lot of course depends on horses. Because Yonkers pays high purses, horsemen want to be there and that means full fields. At Buffalo, the purses are lower and like many tracks, you always worry about a horse shortage. When they raced twice a week, Buffalo was putting together 12 and 13 race cards. Now, with an additional day, there are eight races on the cards.

That’s another debate—how many races should be on a card? I have always felt that eight races is too few, but is 12 too many? Is 10 the right number? Is it better to have four days with eight races; or three days with 12-13?

On Tues. July 13, Yonkers had a 12-race card that began at 7:16 pm and ended at 11:13 pm. In a day where the sports fan complains of the 3 ½ hour baseball game, is nearly four hours of harness racing too much?

Last night, Buffalo Raceway put together a nine race card that started at 5:04 pm and ended at 7:55 pm, well under three hours. Buffalo is very good at not having the dreaded post drag, but if you were going to venture out to watch live or bet the whole card from home, being done in under three hours is a victory in itself.

Then, there is the extreme, Northfield Park, in Ohio. The 16-race Saturday card starts at 6:10 pm and the last race has an 11:30 pm post time. On Wednesday (July 14), the last race began at 11:40 pm. In fairness the 16 races had full fields (that’s never a problem at Northfield), so what is the track supposed to do? The horsemen are there, they want to race, so why not write the races?

As always, there isn’t an easy answer to these issues. Tracks like Buffalo want you in and out—10 races, three hours—while tracks like Northfield know people will come in, leave and perhaps come back later in the evening. Those in the East are unlikely to watch Race 16 at 11:40 pm, but for the harness player in the Mountain and Pacific Time zones, that’s prime time. Again, no easy answers.

Harness racing is having a good year. Overall handle is up, as is per race betting. Last year helped harness racing. With MLB, NBA and NHL seasons suspended because of Covid, harness racing was one of the only sports being conducted. It appears that some fans have remained even with things getting back to normal.

With summer reaching its halfway point, that means its time for thoroughbred racing at the Saratoga Race Course. Let’s hope the 2021 meet sees good weather and great crowds and let’s give kudos to Saratoga Casino Hotel for making a good move and for bringing back the Gerrity.

An Evening With The Grinders

Most harness racing write-ups focus on the better horses. This one doesn’t

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

Buffalo Raceway has opted to use classifications when writing races in 2021. Rather than write a race for “Non-winners of $3,000 in Last 5,” the raceway offers Class AA, A, B, C, D as well as open paces and trots.

When you read write-ups of racing action, most tracks write about the feature race. The feature is usually the race with the highest purse—at Freehold, that’s the $12,000 Preferred Handicap; at Yonkers, it’s the 30,000 open pace, or trot. You get the picture.

So, for this column let’s pay some attention to the lowest class. At Buffalo, horses can move up or down in class based on how they do. If a horse wins a couple at the Class D level, they can be moved to Class C. If they struggle in Class C, down to Class D they go.

The Sat. March 27 card at The Buff featured three Class D races, all run for $3,800 purses. In race 6, the eight horses were a combined 0 for 29 which explains why they were all participating in a Class D affair. Fancy Colt came into the race as the highest earner, with a 0-2-2 line in seven starts to go along with $3,482 in 2021 earnings.

Smooth Mara was sent off at 4/5 and he took the field through the quarter in 28.4 and the half in 58.1 and three-quarters in 1:28.4. The final quarter was Class D at its best; horse coming from everywhere. It looked like Fancy Colt was going to get there, but American General found room in the passing lane, and although he looked like he was trying to race sideways straightened up enough to trip the wire in 1:59.1 for his first win of the year. More importantly, he adds $1,900 to the bank account.

Race 10 was the second Class D event and like Race 6, the field of seven is struggling to find itself, a combined 1 for 30 on the year. In comparison, the open trot, with six horses, had eight wins in 33 combined starts. Bj’s Guy entered the race 0 for 9 with just $415 in yearly earnings, so he was my sentimental choice by a wide margin.

Silverhill Blaze, age 9, who came to Buffalo from The Meadows in January went to the lead from the outset and cruised to victory in 1:58.2. Our guy—Bj’s Guy—was first over and got up to second at three-quarters before fading to fifth. That fifth place finish did add $190 to the bankroll. He now has $605 in 2021 earnings, but don’t feel sorry for Bj’s Guy. If he stays healthy, he’ll get his money by year’s end. That’s what these grinders do.

Race 12 was the final $3,800 Class D event of the evening’s card and all eight horses were looking for their first wins of the season as they were a combined 0 for 28.

Lucky Millionaire had the best finish with a second place showing in five starts while four others had third place finishes on their 2021 resumes.

This turned out be a battle between an old warrior, 12-year old Gallant Major, and two babies, 3-year old American Expression and 4-year old Steuben Moose, and when the smoke cleared, age beat youth as Gallant Major strode home in 1:59.3. The 3/5 favorite rewarded supporters with $3.20 for a $2 bet.

The three Class D races had winning times of 1:59.1, 1:58.2 and 1:59.3 while the Open Pace went in 1:55; the two Class B paces went in 1:54.4 and 1:57; the four Class C paces went in 1:59.3, 1:57.4, 1:57 and 1:57. Even the Open Trot was won in 1:57.

But let’s forget about time. Saturday night in Buffalo was a time to celebrate the Class D pacers, who despite their collective year-to-date struggles, put on a good show for the wagering faithful and because of that, let’s tip the hat to 11-year old American General, 9-year old Silverhill Blaze and 12-year old Gallant Major. Each picked up their first wins of the year and each pocketed $1,900.  They’ll be back soon and we’ll be waiting—and cheering—for them.

Buffalo Raceway returns to action on Wed. March 31 with an 11-race card that features five trots and five Class D races. Post time is 6 pm ET.

O Canada: Harness Racing Is Back

To be fair, it should have never been forced to shut down

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

There is good news coming from Canada as four tracks returned to racing this week. For the last two months, the Ontario government shut down harness racing due to Covid-19. Now, with numbers improving, racing will resume at The Raceway at Western District and Rideau Carlton on Tues. Feb. 16; Woodbine Mohawk Park on Thurs. Feb. 18 and Flamboro Downs on Sun. Feb. 21.

No fans will be allowed and the resumption of racing couldn’t come quick enough. Unused purse monies at Woodbine Mohawk Park were allocated to horseowners. In December, owners were paid $300 per horse and $1000 per horse in January.

While that helps, Central Ontario Standardbred Association president Bill O’Donnell says that only goes so far.

“That might take care of the bare bones, but people live week to week and that doesn’t cover everything, especially things like vet bills,” O’Donnell, said. “I think many horses got sold to the United States, which could hurt our horse population.”

The last point is a concern, particularly at Rideau Carlton, Flamboro and The Raceway where purses are smaller, so it will be important to keep an eye on field sizes over the next coming weeks.

The prevailing thought was that harness racing would be given an exemption during the most recent lockdown. Tracks were shut down from March 20 to June 5 and when racing resumed, there were no Covid outbreaks. That wasn’t enough to sway the Ontario Provincial Government, led by Premier Doug Ford to keep racing going.

Because horses need to be tended to every day, many states figured if that’s the case, then why not allow racing as long as strict protocols were adhered to.

The good news is that entries are posted on the Standardbred.ca website and so far, so good. On Tues. Feb 16, The Raceway has 11 races with 88 entries and Rideau Carlton has 13 races with 104.

New York Announces Lucrative Sire Stakes

In another sign that things are returning to normal, New York State released its 2021 Sire Stakes schedule and unlike last year when some tracks opted out, all seven tracks will be hosting action this summer.

The season kicks off when 3-year old filly pacers invade Saratoga Casino Hotel on Wed. June 2 and ends on Fri. Sept 10 with all eight finals contested at Yonkers on what is referred to as “The Night of Champions.”  On that night, the eight races will have $200,000 purses.

There are two divisions of the New York program; the top horses run in the Sire Stakes. These are the best that the state has to offer. I refer to this division as the Varsity.

There is also the “Varsity B” series, called the Excelsior. The purses are lower as are the payments, but the goal is to make sure your horse can compete in the appropriate series.

How does it work? In New York, if you want your 2-year old to compete in the Sire Stakes, you have two scheduled payments that total $550. For 3-year olds, the cost is $700.

That gets you in. From there, there are five scheduled races for each division. In those races, the purses hover around $60,000 and after the five races, the eight with the most points make the final with the next eight settling for the consolation.

On paper, if your horse wins five series races and the final, that could be $250,000 in earnings—not bad for a $700 buy-in and while that’s the best case scenario, you can see why the top trainers, drivers and owners like state sponsored racing action. Even a fifth place finish in the final nets a $10,000 payday.

The Excelsior Series races are usually in the $15,000 range during the summer with the final worth $60,000. For 2 and 3-year olds, the buy in is $450 and like the higher division, there are five to six opportunities to qualify for the finals, which takes place at the venerable 7/8 mile oval at Vernon Downs on Sat, Sept. 11.

Monticello Update

It took some time, but Monticello Raceway released its 2021 racing schedule. The track’s owners, Resorts World, gets it fair share of criticism, but it is not warranted here. The track is scheduled to race 223 times this year. That’s up from its norm of 207. The track races 52 weeks a year and to get those extra days, several Fridays were added.

The other positive about The Mighty M is that the track often tries to make up days that were lost due to weather. The track had to cancel four times the week of February 1, so don’t be surprised to see some Fridays added to get those four days back.

The track will play host to the aforementioned Sire and Excelsior Stakes four times over the summer with 2-year old filly pacers stopping first on Mon. July 19.

Bruce Aldrich is one of the stalwarts at Monticello and last week, he picked up career win 8,000; with over half of them coming at Monticello. The big win came on Mon. Feb 8 when After The Lovin sped home in 1:57 2/5 in a $5,200 pace. As the horse neared the finish, longtime track announcer Howard Oil showed class by saying, “Bruce, you’ve just gotten your 8,000th career victory, congratulations.” 

Aldrich has just under $32 million in purse winnings over his long and outstanding career.

They say that good things come in threes and that’s certainly the case here. With Canada coming back, the New York Sire Stakes announced and more action at Monticello, that’s a good week to say the least and a joyful column to write.

Too Easy To Cancel?

The effort made by Yonkers and Monticello to race last week was “less than extraordinary.”

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

Winter is unpredictable. There are givens to be sure; most days are going to be cold and there is always a chance of snow. Last week, a major snowstorm blanketed the Northeast with some places getting a foot or more of the white stuff.

If you enjoy harness racing, anytime snow falls, you wonder what that means for a racetrack? Will they cancel racing? Will they clear the snow and get the track ready; or more importantly, will they try to get the track ready.

Yonkers and Monticello are New York’s weekday tracks. Monticello races in the afternoons Monday through Thursday while Yonkers now races in the evenings Monday through Friday.

When the storm hit, you knew that Monday racing would be cancelled, and it was, at both tracks. But then, both tracks cancelled on Tuesday and then Wednesday and yes, also on Thursday. Moreover, it didn’t look like Yonkers even tried to start clearing the snow until late Wednesday afternoon.

Both facilities make most of their monies via their casinos and there are some that believe if they had their way, they’d rid themselves of harness racing and focus solely on poker, blackjack and roulette to make their profits.

One of the worst-kept secrets is the vision for Yonkers. Owned by MGM, the facility will like to receive a full-scale casino license if and when the state of New York awards more of them. If that happens, they can have real poker, real craps, and real blackjack games played on the Empire City Casino grounds (under current law, they can’t have table games).

On paper, it seems like a slam dunk. The casino, located just north of The Bronx and right off Interstate 87 (the Major Deegan for the locals), does very well and with table games added to the mix, revenues would increase.

MGM would love to get that license, and expand the casino and the best way to do that would be to rid itself of the harness track and use that “precious space for perhaps a hotel or more gaming.

Of course, things are never easy in the state of the New York. Yonkers and MGM can’t just rid itself of harness racing unless the laws are changed. When Yonkers became a racino in the early 2000s, the stipulation was that racing had to continue. The same went for Monticello, Buffalo, Batavia, Saratoga, Vernon and Tioga—no racing, no racino.

There are lots of stories out there regarding Yonkers. One is that they would move harness racing so they could expand the casino. There was talk that MGM would build a one mile oval on the Belmont Park grounds and have what some called Yonkers Raceway at Belmont Park.

That would serve two purposes; if MGM gets a full casino license, they could expand and they could still sponsor/run harness racing at the Belmont Park venue which would keep them in good standing with New York State government.

This would free up land to expand their casino, but they would still be in the harness racing game with the sport benefitting more from it. A full-scale casino will bring in more revenue and because state law requires that a certain percentage of casino revenues must go to harness racing, purses at a one mile YR@BP could soar, as would handle.

It’s only 22 miles from Yonkers in Westchester County to Belmont Park, which sits on the Queens/Long Island border, but those of course, are “New York miles.” But most do not attend harness racing in person. It’s more important to have an HD signal so those that bet can watch from the PC or phone at home.

The big question is—how much does MGM care about harness racing? If you looked at pictures that were posted on social media this week, the conclusion of “not much,” could have been deduced.

Joe Faraldo is the president of the Standardbred Owners of New York and he didn’t hold back. He posted pictures of the untouched snow drifts and cautioned New York State government to think long and hard before granting MGM a full-scale casino license.

It is peculiar. Since casinos were adjoined to race tracks, the decision to cancel a day of racing has been quick and easy. Aqueduct used to race through “everything.” Now, if the temps dip below 20 degrees, racing is often cancelled.

The same goes true for harness racing. If Yonkers and Monticello were reliant on harness racing monies, you know plows would have been on site and racing would have resumed by Tuesday. But with casino monies rolling in (even in a pandemic), it is much easier to cancel racing and wait for the snow to stop.

The Meadowlands, which does not have a casino, had their track ready for training and for Friday night racing, as did Freehold Raceway in Central New Jersey.

On the other hand, let’s defend Yonkers. After acquiring the facility from the Rooney family, some thought that MGM would scale back racing. While racing days are dictated by the New York State Gaming Commission, MGM could have easily scrapped many or all of its high stakes races. They could have used the monies to increase overnight purses and done away with events like the Borgata, the Blue Chip Matchmaker the Yonkers Trot and the Messenger Stakes.

They didn’t do that and this year, they have 234 days of racing and offer the highest overnight purses in the sport. That helps to attract the best drivers and very good horses and when I watch in the evening, I like what I see. That is why seeing racing cancelled for four consecutive nights was unsettling and I was not alone in that thinking.

There will always be the “harness racing is an afterthought” crowd. Others think that if the sport can’t succeed on its own, then why not let it fail? Look no further than Pennsylvania, where for the second straight year, Governor Wolf’s budget calls for $200 million to be taken away from horse racing and used to offset the increasing cost of attending college.

Those bullet points look good in the paper and on newsclips, but harness/horse racing is much more than 10 races on a Tuesday evening. It’s an industry with many layers, levels and employees, but that’s a story for another column.

Those that saw an empty Yonkers, with what seemed like no attempt to remove the snow to try and race were believing the afterthought idea. If racing was vital, the snow would have been removed Monday, not Wednesday and racing would not have been cancelled for four straight nights.

MGM cited Covid protocols for not tending to the track sooner and with where we’re at today, it might be a legitimate reason, but there is no doubt that tracks with casinos are much more willing to cancel racing than tracks without them and this was going on before the Covid-19 pandemic.

We want the track and racing surface to be safe. But we also want to see racing and we want to see a concerted effort to make racing happen. There were doubts about that last week in New York.  

Horsing Around: Harness Racing Observations

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

A Nor’easter snow storm hit the Northeast Wednesday evening and into Thursday. When the snow relented, some places saw 30 inches of the white stuff. As a result, Yonkers Raceway and Monticello cancelled their Thursday race cards.

On Friday, Yonkers tried to get back at it. They ran one race. On TV, the track didn’t look good and soon after that race, the drivers expressed concern and the rest of racing was cancelled. Track officials made the decision early Saturday to cancel that evening’s card and the critics immediately took to social media with concerns.

The critics had a point. The snow ended by noon on Thursday, that gave the raceway plenty of time to get the track ready for Friday and Saturday, but for some reason, the Yonkers surface wasn’t ready, while the Meadowlands—20 miles away—was.

I guess it depends on how you look at things. Could they have raced? Perhaps, but Yonkers races 235 times per year and erring on the side of caution (especially in 2020) was probably not a bad idea. I understand those that were upset, but it’s two days of racing and if the drivers (who don’t make money when cards are cancelled) say it’s unsafe, why question that?

The good news is that Yonkers will race Monday and Tuesday before taking their normal holiday break, but next year, things might look a bit different at Old Hilltop.

The track has requested to race Monday thru Friday in 2021; normally, they follow a Monday, Tuesday, Thursday thru Saturday schedule. The New York State Gaming Commission has to approve this which should be a formality unless the other New York tracks put up a fight. Buffalo/Batavia races Wednesdays and it’s usually their best handle night. Would they be upset if Yonkers races on Wednesday? Will those that turn to Buffalo/Batavia move to Yonkers?

If the move is approved, Yonkers can avoid facing off against the Meadowlands on Saturday evenings. And, those that drive at Yonkers could drive the 20 miles to make some extra money at the Big M on the last day of the week.

George Brennan, one of the top drivers at Yonkers says he would gladly pick up some drives at the one mile oval in East Rutherford. He wouldn’t be the only one.

There is a part of me that would like to see Yonkers bring back Sunday afternoon cards. That way, they could race Sunday-Thursday and leave both Friday and Saturday to the Meadowlands. A Sunday noon card would be over by 5 pm and there wouldn’t be any racing until 7 pm on Monday and after Thursday’s card, those that make their living at the track wouldn’t have to race again until Sunday.

This won’t happen; the track has submitted their dates and is waiting for approval from the state. Why not try the Monday-Friday schedule and see what happens. I will admit, after my five-day work week ends, I do enjoy watching racing on Friday nights and would probably miss Yonkers if they weren’t racing.

Speaking of the Meadowlands, the 2021 schedule is out and there are 90 racing dates on the calendar. The track will continue to race primarily on Friday and Saturday nights and that formula has worked very well for them. There are some Thursdays sprinkled in along the way, but the Friday-Saturday schedule suits the track well.

When you look at the schedule, and you see just two days of racing, you wonder if they should race more, but before you blink your eyes, it’s Friday once again. Some tracks—Monticello and Yonkers—prefer to race five days per week, while some believe less is more. In 2020, Buffalo and Batavia raced just two times per week (Wednesday and Saturday) and that didn’t hurt them at all. In fact, handle was up at Batavia by a whopping 151 percent.

In 2021, both of those tracks will get back to adding Fridays, but Buffalo, which begins its 2021 season on Jan. 27, is racing “just” 66 times and won’t add a third day of racing until the weather warms.

The Meadowlands should have a banner year. In addition to the Hambletonian, the Meadowlands Pace and the TVG Finals, the tack will host the 2021 Breeders Crown races on October 29 and 30, and while I’m a big proponent of moving the event around, you’re never going to beat having the sport’s best horses racing on a one-mile oval. It’s still the best track, the fairest and the most wagered on track in the sport.

Freehold Raceway, New Jersey’s afternoon harness racing track, will race 82 times in 2021 and like The Big M will do so primarily on Friday and Saturdays. The state legislature restored $15 million in purses subsidies that were originally not part of the state budget, so that comes as a relief for horsemen in the Garden State. Last year, the subsidy was $20 million, but nobody should be complaining about a $5 million cut in what has been a terrible year in many, many ways.

The sport weathered quite the storm in 2020. Many tracks rely on casino revenue and with Covid, many casinos were closed. But fortunately, the tracks were able to persevere and get back to racing. Yonkers came back, but was going to close on Sept. 12, but once the casinos reopened, they decided to move forward and will conclude its season on its regularly scheduled date of December 22. The same can be said for Saratoga Casino Hotel, which was able to race two times per week through November.

2021 will see a gradual return to normal. Contrary to what many believe, the vaccines are not going to magically snap things back to 2019. Many venues will still have limited or no fans allowed and protocols that were put in place during the pandemic might be the new norm going forward.

The great thing is that the sport got through what we all think is the worst of this pandemic. If they can get through this, what can’t they get through? Many tracks saw record handle numbers and the challenge is simple—how do they keep that going.

The pandemic brought new followers, followers who were looking for action. Obviously, many stuck around even when the NBA, NHL, NFL and MLB came back. The sport needs to work hard to keep them and attract new fans. Fixed odds wagering might one of the ways, but we’ll save that for another day. 

The sport did well in 2020 despite the hardships. Let’s hope 2021 is better for all of us. 

Authentic, Tiz the Law Put On a Show

Special thoroughbred edition

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

2020 is the year of the asterisk and had Tiz the Law won the Kentucky Derby and come to Baltimore with a chance to win horse racing’s Triple Crown, the pundits and scribes would have their asterisks ready.

Well, they can save those asterisks for something else. On the first Saturday in September, the sport of horse racing once again proved that it will dictate the terms as to who gets the glory….and who doesn’t. 

While it’s been weird to watch horse racing with no fans and no noise, one thing is indisputable and that is that the racing has been great.  We saw Tiz the Law run a scintillating Belmont, a blazing Travers and in Friday, Shedaresthedevil ran the fastest Kentucky Oaks of all-time. 

Thankfully, through HD TV, ADWs (Advance Deposit Wagering) and the internet, we Americans have been able to watch and follow the sport, in fact, access to horse racing has never been easier. On Friday, Saratoga handled over $18 million—with nary a fan on the grounds.

That’s the good news because for the next year, two, three, four or even five, TV will rule the world when it comes to watching sports.  Given what we’ve been dealt with this year, is it fair to assume that the May 2021 Kentucky Derby will have 150,000 fans in attendance?

We are seeing kids go back to college and within a week, the number of Covid cases goes from 0 to 150. And, while these kids won’t die or require treatment, it does give pause as to how soon concerts, sports, fairs and carnivals can be attended and attended safely.

And, even if a vaccine comes out, 67 percent of Americans say they will wait before getting a shot. What does that tell us?

Sports are weird, seeing people at Churchill Downs wearing masks is odd, and to be honest unsettling.  Some are wearing them, but not wearing them properly. The trainer of Tiz the Law (Barclay Tagg) was wearing a mask that covered his mouth, but not his nose. Is that okay? I don’t even know anymore.

The NFL starts this week; some teams will allow some fans, some won’t as each state has different guidelines.  We haven’t even thought about the Super Bowl yet. Could the NFL’s big money maker be played with 50 percent (or less) capacity?

The good thing remains the TV. The games have been on, the horse racing has been on and last month, the Indy 500 was on. When you watch on TV, you can block the fans out and enjoy the event and though it took some time, many have become accepting with fake crowd noise and no fans present. Baseball is still the weirdest to watch, but come playoff time, fans will be ready.

It’s easy to put an asterisk after every major sporting event this year. The NHL and NBA champs will likely have an asterisk attached as a designation, not a degradation. Here is how it might read:

NHL Champions

2018-2019:      St. Louis Blues

2019-2020:      New York Islanders*

*the 2020 playoffs were played after a four month break and all games were played in a bubble.

That won’t happen in horse racing now that Authentic held off Tiz the Law in the Kentucky Derby. If you watched the race, you didn’t think that would happen. Tiz the Law got a good trip and right before the three-quarter mark, he went to the outside, which he likes to do. There, he hooked Authentic and for a brief second, took the lead.

Authentic, like he did in the Haskell, would not yield. He dug in gamely and thwarted Tiz the Law’s shot at Triple Crown glory. The final time, 2:00.61 was the fastest since 2001 when Monarchos toured Churchill Downs in 1:59.97. So for those looking to make excuses for Tiz the Law, please don’t. Authentic’s win was legitimate and the winning time only adds to the legitimacy.

All the headlines sound the same, they all reference that Authentic pulled the upset over Tiz the Law in the Kentucky Derby, and while that’s technically true, let’s look at what Authentic has done in 2020.

He’s made five starts this year and now has four wins. He won the Sham Stakes in January, the San Felipe in March and then finished second to Honor A.P. in the Santa Anita Derby.  After racing resumed, he went to Jersey and held off Ny Traffic by a nose in the Haskell. It was that race that showed us that this horse doesn’t like to give up the lead and in the Derby that played out.

As for Tiz the Law, his four race winning streak—Holy Bull, Florida Derby, Belmont, Travers—is over and it is now decision time. The colt is owned by the delightful group called Sackatoga Stables. The managing partner is Jack Knowlton, an old-school, let’s see them race type of guy. The trainer is Barclay Tagg. He’s old, too, age 82, but not old-school. Knowlton wants to see the colt run in the Oct. 3 Preakness at Pimlico because the race is an American classic and winning the Preakness is prestigious.

Tagg prefers to skip the race and train the colt for the Breeder’s Cup, which takes place on Nov. 7 at Keeneland. Had Tiz won the Derby, there would be no discussion; the colt would be headed to Baltimore and Barn 40 for a shot at the Triple Crown and that asterisk. 

Conventional wisdom says that you can get the colt ready for one more big effort, but not two. Tiz the Law has been running all year. He began his 3-year old campaign in February and yesterday’s showing might be an indication that he’s at the end of his rope for 2020.

If you skip the Preakness, you should be fresh and ready for one more big effort in the Breeder’s Cup Classic. Tagg prefers to do that, but he’s not the owner, Knowlton and Sackatoga are and if they want to race in the Preakness, that’s going to happen.

Like many owners, Knowlton is greedy and I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way. You have the horse of a lifetime, he’s at the top of his game, why not keep entering these classic races and try to win as many as you can?

The problem is that horses aren’t robots. Tagg and Knowlton will have to sit down and it will have to be Tagg who tries to convince Knowlton that the horse has one, but not two, races in him for 2020. If the horse goes to Baltimore and wins on Oct. 3, my gut tells me he gets beat badly in the Breeder’s Cup Classic. If he skips the Preakness, I think he could run a big one in the BC Classic. 

In truth, I like the Preakness better than the BC Classic, but that’s because the Preakness has been around longer and has more tradition, but if I owned the colt, I’d skip the Preakness. I’ve won the Belmont, I’ve won the Travers and I’ve won the Florida Derby and finished a no shame second in the Kentucky Derby. I’ve already proved myself against the 3-year olds, so for that reason, I’ll take the break and look to show everybody how great I am in Lexington on Nov. 7.

And, if Tiz the Law wins there, no asterisk will be needed. 

O Canada! A Huge Saturday Of Racing at Woodbine Mohawk Park

The Maple Leaf Trot and Canadian Pacing Derby highlight impressive card

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

The Kentucky Derby is the biggest race on the calendar tomorrow—and rightly so—but you will not find a better race than Saturday night’s Maple Leaf Trot at Woodbine Mohawk Park. In short, it’s a who’s who of trotting greatness and that deserves the attention of all sports fans. 

Okay, I might have gotten carried away with the last sentence, but this is a spectacular race that highlights an impressive card at the track. You can say what you want about harness racing, but the way racing has been handled during a pandemic has been remarkable.

The Maple Leaf is Gimpanzee’s race to lose.  Simply stated, he is the best trotter in training right now and though he hiccupped in his last start that actually helps here.  In harness racing, because the horses race so often, it is impossible to get through a season undefeated, so a loss here and there is not always a bad thing.  In comparison, if Tiz the Law loses tomorrow, there will be complete panic that the colt has passed his peak. 

With Standardbreds, a loss can fire them up and set them up for another winning streak. Gimpanzee is certainly good enough to get another streak going. He will be challenged by stellar horses. The defending champion is Guardian Angel As at 4-1. He hasn’t been as good this year as last, but nobody would be surprised to see him defend the title, and drawing the 3 post only helps. 

Atlanta is the filly, the 2018 Hambletonian champion. She too, hasn’t been as sharp this year, but she seems to run her best when there are boys in the race. I’m not sure what that means, but I like her more here than if she ran in a filly and mare race. She is 9-2 and will come out of the 4 post which can only help. 

The other filly is Manchego. She has been better than Atlanta, hence the 3-1 line, but she is starting from the 11.  At WMP that’s not bad, though.  The track is 7/8 miles long, meaning the horses get a nice run-up before making a turn and we’ve seen Manchego leave before.  I could see her getting out, ripping off a 25.4 or 26 and then trying to dial it down to the half.

Marion Marauder is 10-1. All he did in 2016 was win the Trotting Triple Crown and I fully expect to him to cash a check here with a top five finish.  I’m not sure he can win, but he’ll compete. They have tried the breeding shed with him and he hasn’t taken to it yet, so the connections have decided to keep racing him and he continues to make money.

The field:

1-Soul Strong 15-1

2-Marion Marauder 10-1

3-Guardian Angel As 4-1

4-Atlanta 9-2

5-Lindy The Great 8-1

6-Run Director 10-1

7-Marseille 20-1

8-Crystal Fashion 12-1

9-Gimpanzee 5-2

10-Manchego 3-1

The co-feature is the $540,000 Canadian Pacing Derby and like the MLT, the field is excellent.  The oddsmaker is telling us that Bettor’s Wish at 5-2 is the one to beat with Backstreet Shadow (3-1), Dancin Lou (7-2) and Century Farroh (4-1) your second, third and fourth choices. 

There is nothing better than older pacers.  They race all year, they beat each other up and they take turns visiting the Winner’s Circle. Unlike trotters, there are many better than average pacers racing today and races like the CPD will prove this. Who would be surprised if American History, at 8-1, trips the wire first? He’s won enough big races, he knows the feeling, and it will be interesting to see what the bettors do with him. Will he end up 4-1, or will he be dismissed and go off at 12, 15 or even 20-1?

The field: 

1-Bettor’s Wish 5-2                              

2-Dancin Lou 7-2

3-Backstreet Shadow 3-1

4-Sintra 9-2

5-American History 8-1

6-Shake That House 15-1

7-Century Farroh 4-1

8-Dorsoduro Hanover 12-1

9-Filibuster Hanover 15-1

10-This Is The Plan 15-1

Harness racing always caters to the trotters. Trotting was the original gait (pacing developed over time) and trotters are regaled more than pacers are. It’s like comparing a violin to a guitar. The violin is the classier instrument; it  sounds better, needs to handled with care and has a high level or performance. The guitar can be played daily. It’s a little rougher, it’s more utilitarian, but it too, when played right, gives off a fine sound of its own. The great thing about harness racing——you can love both. 

The 12-horse card is a Canadian Blockbuster. In addition to those two biggies, there are…..

-4 divisions of the Ontario Sire Stakes for 2-year old colt/gelding pacers

-2 divisions of the Simcoe, at $113 and $114k each

-The $215,000 Good Times Trot, featuring two Hambletonian runners in Ready for Moni and Hollywood Story. 

Even though the Maple Leaf Trot is the most important race of the day, the organizers at Woodbine Mohawk Park have acknowledged the greatness of the Kentucky Derby. They moved their post time back to 7:20 pm ET so we can all watch the Run for Roses at 7:02 pm ET.

Cutler Memorial Headlines Fun Weekend in Harness Racing

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

A big night awaits as the annual Arthur Cutler Memorial Trot takes place at The Big M. Normally held on the first Saturday evening in May (there is a famous thoroughbred race that day, too), the Cutler has always featured some of the best veteran trotters at the famed Meadowlands oval. Like many events, the pandemic has pushed things back and in this case cut the purse to $170,900, but postponing beats cancelling any day of the week.

This year’s field is headlined by two superfillies—2018 Hambletonian winner Atlanta and rival Manchego, who on that same day captured the Hambletonian Oaks. Atlanta is 0-1-0 in her only start this year while Manchego has two wins in two starts this year.

This year’s race was limited to 11 and thus, will run at the conventional one-mile distance. In the past, the race allowed for 12 starters and because of that was contested at 1 1/8 miles, but Meadowlands track owner Jeff Gural vowed to get away from longer distance races and try to keep the classic mile distance intact.

The field is solid. Another filly, Plunge Blue Chip is making her 2020 debut and back in 2018, she, along with Manchego and Atlanta were the top fillies. In fact, pundits joked that Atlanta ran in the Hambletonian to avoid matching up with Plunge Blue Chip and Manchego, the latter who blazed home in 1:50 to win the Oaks.

Atlanta is trained by Ron Burke and will be driven by Yannick Gingras, with Dexter Dunn driving Manchego for Nancy Takter.

Southwind Chrome is 2-1-0 in three starts his $28,937 in earnings this year is second only to Manchego. Scott Zeron is in the bike for Jeff Cullipher.

The full field with driver/trainer:

  1. Mission Accepted Kakaley/Burke
  2. Chin Chin Hall Sears/Norman
  3. Southwind Chrome Zeron/Cullipher
  4. Joey Bats McCarthy/Harris
  5. Atlanta Gingras/Burke
  6. Manchego Dunn/Takter
  7. Crystal Fashion Miller/Campbell
  8. Lindy the Great Miller/J. Miller
  9. Plunge Blue Chip Svanstedt/Svanstedt
  10. Rich and Miserable Tyler Buter/Todd Buter
  11. Guardian Angel As Tim Tetrick/Lorentzon

The top three in the morning betting line are Manchego at 7/2, Atlanta at 3/1 and Guardian Angel As at 4/1. Post time is scheduled for 9:35 pm ET.

The undercard features three divisions of the Graduate Series for 4-year old pacers with each racing for $50,000. They’ll be races four, six and ten. Race four is headlined by Warrawee Ubeat who will be driven by Gingras. Century Farroh is morning-line favorite in race 6 while Bettor’s Wish will be the one to beat in race 10.

The $22,500 Preferred Open features Caviart Ally who last year thrilled all with her duels with Shartin N. In fact, last week, Shartin N beat Caviart Ally in the Filly and Mare Open at Yonkers and tonight she’ll have to deal with seven others including the always tough Kissin In The Sand.

As for Shartin N, she’ll run on Sunday at Harrah’s Philadelphia in a condition race for $20,000. She will come out of the eight hole on the 5/8 mile track which shouldn’t be a problem. Last week at Yonkers—a half-mile track—she overcame post eight to win.  She’s the 6-5 heavy favorite who should get a test from JKs American Beauty.

One of Vernon’s Downs’s big races is set for Saturday as the $207,250 Empire Breeders Classic takes center stage on the 7/8 mile surface in New York’s Mohawk Valley.

The race drew 11 3-year old fillies and your morning-line favorite is Love A Good Story. She’s 3/1 for the Millers—driver Andy and trainer Julie. Senorita Rita makes her debut for Hall of Fame trainer Linda Toscano and driver Scott Zeron and is the second choice at 5/1. Post time is scheduled for 4:10 pm ET.

The stakes season is just getting started and will continue through to November, so prepare accordingly.