Meadowlands Pace: Too Big or Perfect?

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

Dean Towers brings up a good point in his latest Brush and Crush (Harness Racing Update, July 17) regarding the Meadowlands Pace.  It was a stacked card with 9 of the 13 races classified as stakes with purses that ranged from $125,000 to $738,550.

On one hand, Towers praises the crowd of 10,000 plus and the overall handle of $3.8 million.  On the other, he laments the facts that there were perhaps too many stakes races, which, because of some heavy favorites, offered little value to the bettors. There is validity in both of those statements.

It is an interesting dilemma for sure.  Towers states that The Big M might have been better off with a few less stakes races and more overnighters and smaller purse races; suggesting that card was “too stacked,” which may have caused some veteran horseplayers to shy away from the big races.

He asks if major stakes cards have jumped the shark.  How do we answer that?  We know that the Meadowlands doesn’t offer alternative gaming, so, in order for the track to get people to come in person it has to offer big events.  I believe that it’s better to get 25 new people out to the track once, than one person 25 times.  That person is already accounted for, but the newbies are the ones that are needed going forward.  The Meadowlands knows that they have to cash in with their two mighty events—the Hambletonian and the Pace.  They do this by offering “millions” in purses, and, if judged by the attendance and handle spike, it worked.

I bring up a different view.  As a fan of harness racing that rarely bets on races, I love it.  To see all those races with all the great pacers and trotters was exciting.  To me, there is nothing like the big event.  The reason the Kentucky Derby gets great TV ratings is for that very same reason.  But, if tracks relied on me, they would go belly-up yesterday; they need bettors and they need bettors who believe they can make some money.  When a Walner is entered, if you bet against him, you’re probably going to lose your money.  When you don’t bet on a race, you can appreciate the greatness of Walner, Huntsville, Downbytheseaside and Ariana G—when you’re trying to wager and make money, perhaps not so much.

Most harness racing players like their tracks because they know their horses and like their $14,000 Open Pace or Trots, their non-winners of $6,500 in their last five and so on.  A nine to 11-race stakes cards with shippers coming in to compete can be unsettling to those who study and play the track on a regular basis.  I was always told that it’s best—when wagering—to pick one track and stick with it to learn the biases, the drivers, the trainers and most importantly, the horses.  When the big races come, the vets might lose the interest that the non-fan might love. Most of the people that came to The Big M Saturday were looking to have fun more than they were looking to wheel four horses with Huntsville to make a big score.  They made their bets, but they were betting names, hunches and looking over the programs and newspapers for guidance.  Of course, that used to be easier when all the Times, Post, Newsday and Daily News used to care and write about harness racing.  But, the one who prepares knows where to find the proper guidance.

And, a card with less stakes races might bring fewer to the track, meaning fewer hot dogs, beers, sodas, waters and pretzels consumed.  Most of the wagering today is done online, so again, not an easy task for the racetracks to be in.  They need their online presence, but they also want people to come out and enjoy live harness racing because if my kids aren’t exposed to it, you can bet that their kids won’t be either.

It’s tough.  Load up the card, get 10,111 people who buy beers, hot dogs, pretzels and sodas or balance the card and get more in overall handle?  I’m not privy to know which makes more money for Jeffrey Gural, the Meadowlands owner.  Is the $5 hot dog more valuable than betting $5 on the favorite to win?

There probably is a happy medium.  With 13 races, could you have three to four biggies and nine “regulars” and still have that big event feel and, at the same time, placate your bettors? There would be that natural buildup to the Pace, just like there is to the Kentucky Derby and the Travers.

It appears that marketing is leaning towards stacking.  The Belmont Stakes card is loaded with stakes races; in fact, only the Breeder’s Cup offers more stakes races than Big Sandy does on Belmont Day.  The same goes for the Preakness.  These tracks plan these mini-festivals to lure in the big crowd for one or two days per year and afterwards, it’s back to overnights and online wagering–and small crowds. Most harness tracks market their casinos and racinos with little time or money spent on hyping the actual racing.  As long as people are coming in to gamble, the Monticellos, Saratoga and Tioga Downs of the world don’t mind as long as the patrons are spending their hard earned cash.  For the Meadowlands, all they have is the racing and though they could do more, they have likely budgeted accordingly.

The Hambletonian is the next big event in harness racing and it too, is at the Meadowlands.  There will be 10 stakes races and over 20,000 people in attendance.  They will bet, buy food and drink and hopefully have a great time.  The sport is trying to find the right balance and because harness racing is not rising, it’s a tough balance to find, something that Mr. Towers accurately addresses.

One wonders if the advice suggested by Towers—and others—is being heard.  After a card like Saturday is the Meadowlands brain trust honestly evaluating how well their product went off?  Are they looking for ways to improve it for 2018?  Or, were they satisfied with what transpired on a beautiful evening in East Rutherford, NJ?  There isn’t a wrong answer to this question; the only wrong thing would not to be thinking ahead, for the future.



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