Have No Fear, Hambletonian is Near

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

Last Sunday was July 9 and believe it or not, the days are getting shorter.  Nobody in the Northeast likes to hear this of course, but it means that time continues to march on, regardless of our begging.  This Sunday also marks four weeks until the Hambletonian takes place at Meadowlands Racetrack.  We all know that harness racing divides its horses into pacers and trotters, so to say the Hambletonian is the biggest day of the year in Harness racing is a bit unfair to the pacers (who, by the way are faster), but it is in fact, a truth.

Both Horse and Harness racing have their ebbs and flows.  One thing both suffer from is a lack of a national organization/governing body.  There is no NHL, NBA, MLB, NBA or MLS for the horses, so each state does its own thing.  That said, we have the Hambletonian Society which governs the Hambletonian and the Breeders Crown, but we also have states that make their rules as well.  This results in the best horses competing in different parts of the country.

The Hambletonian, as we mentioned, has been contested at the Meadowlands since 1981.  It’s still the best track in America and still generates the highest handle of any Standardbred racetrack.  Sure there are problems; owner Jeffrey Gural insists in lengthy stays in detention barns for horses in an attempt to keep drugs out of the sport.  He can do that for races such as the Meadowlands Pace, which they govern, but the Hambletonian is not governed by him or his racetrack. Despite the squabbles it is a fabulous day of racing with 10 stakes races carded for August 5.  In addition to the Hambo, there is the Hambletonian Oaks, the Sam McKee U.S. Pacing Championship, the Cane Pace, the Doherty, the Haughton, the Shady Daisy, the Cashman, the Fresh Yankee and Lady Liberty—all in one day; impressive to say the least.

The Meadowlands Pace is set for Saturday, July 15, but because of the track’s detention policy, Fear the Dragon, the Pepsi North America Cup winner will not be competing.  The colt’s owner, Bruce Togdan doesn’t think the policy is fair; he called Meadowlands a “B” track.  Gural responded by defending the policy and was sure to point out that the Meadowlands suffers from lack of alternative gaming at the facility.  As we all know, Meadowlands purses are down, or put another way lower because there is no alternative gaming at the facility.  Yonkers, which is just 21 miles away, offers significantly higher purses which are supplemented by revenues derived from the Empire City Casino.

It is a quagmire to be sure.  Yonkers will have a $55,000 Open Handicap Pace on a Saturday night with $35,000 in handle while the Meadowlands will feature a $16,000 Open race and handle over $200,000.  Gural is quick to point out that he needs alternative gaming at the Meadowlands; a measure that was soundly defeated by New Jersey voters in last fall’s election.  The residents felt it was more important to limit casinos to Atlantic City and the result has been tough for the Meadowlands to swallow.

Some have called the 2017 Summer meet at the Big M, “Freehold Plus,” but the track, with its one mile oval continues to be the star.  There are more sub 1:50 paces and sub 1:52 trots there than anywhere else and as we know, bettors like the track and don’t seem to mind that the purses are lower as are the quality of the horses.  They want a race to be fair; a race where all horses have a shot not just those closest to the pylons.

If you’re a fan of Harness Racing, you need the Meadowlands to not just survive, but flourish.  Comparing it to Churchill Downs might be too strong, but its impact on the sport of Harness racing should never be overlooked.  We all know that Yonkers, Pocono and the other tracks are not going to show any sympathy for the Big M, and if the situation ever arises, the Hambletonian Society can always move its signature race to another venue.  The Breeders Crown moves around so why couldn’t the Hambletonian do the same?

I am not sure what the answer is?  Could there ever be VGMs at the Meadowlands?  They are machines and are not the same as table games played at the Atlantic City casinos.  Would Gural even want that?  He owns two harness tracks in New York State; he has VGMs at Vernon Downs and a full-fledged casino at Tioga.  Would he be happy with 1,000 gaming machines at the Meadowlands, or would he want more?

Voters seem to think the Gural should make do with wagering on horses.  Last fall, the proposal to amend the state constitution and allow casinos in Northern New Jersey failed badly by a 78% to 22% margin.  It cannot be proposed until 2018 at the earliest, but with numbers that bad, which state legislator would want to bring it up again?

It’s sad to see the Meadowlands struggle. This is the track that changed the game of Harness racing.  I’m sure the financials are better than Gural is telling us, because $2 million in handle is $2 million in handle and purses used to be based on handle and handle alone.  Places like Yonkers have higher purses, but their purses are based on a proportion of revenues from the gaming machines.  Is that good or bad?  And, what happens if the New York State government alters those percentages? What if the gaming machines experience a sharp decline in revenues, or heaven forbid, what if they were taken out like they were in Canada’s Fort Erie Racetrack?

In four weeks, Harness racing will be at its best.  It will be Hambletonian Day at the Meadowlands with 10 stakes races, a huge handle and over 20,000 people in attendance.  The sport will look great, it will shine, but how many fans will make Hambletonian Day the only day that they attend or even pay attention to Harness racing?  There are many that think Harness racing needs to do a better job of marketing itself; of trying to get the 20 and 30 somethings to come back to the track more than once a year.  What can be done?  The horsemen want every available dollar spent on purses, but the only way to generate more handle is to get more people to bet on the races.  It’s a double-edged sword and is something that many tracks still haven’t figured out.

I still think the sport sells itself.  Seeing eight to ten pacers/trotters competing against each other should be enough and I think millennials should be able to relate to it.  They don’t want to watch three plus hour baseball games or basketball games.  They can go to You Tube and watch all the key plays in five to seven minutes.  A horse race should cater to their mindsets.  The time in between should cater to their anticipation, but we know that isn’t what’s happening.

The Hambletonian is a great day, but it shouldn’t be the only great day.


Contact John Furgele at harnessracing@gmx.com



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