Zweig Memorial Could Be Epic

Ariana G, the fabulous filly set to take on the boys

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

She could have done it.   I was there and I know she could have. I am talking about the super one, Ariana G, who opted to beat up the girls in the Hambletonian Oaks. I believe had she run against the boys in the Hambo, she would have won and won easily.

The great thing about harness racing is that the horses run frequently and this Friday, we will see if Ariana G can beat those boys when she gets behind the gate in the $320,000 Harry Zweig Memorial Trot at Vernon Downs. There, she will square off against International Moni, the Hambo favorite who broke in the final, and Devious Man, the second place Hambo finisher. It certainly won’t be easy for AG, but given the so-so crop of three-year-old boys and how dominant “G” has been, I like her chances.

Vernon Downs offers a good test for this batch. At 7/8 mile, we should see a very competitve race and a fast time. There will be no gun, go and hold like we see at places like Northfield, Yonkers, Saratoga and many other half-mile tracks. Don’t get me wrong, I like half-mile tracks and because there are so many of them, drivers have really mastered the art of two lap racing. But, you can’t beat a big track for a big race and Vernon Downs is more than capable of hosting this field of nine.

Ariana G did lose the only time she faced the boys, back in July in the Beal Memorial at Pocono, but she continues to improve while the boys, in my opinion, have regressed.   The two that beat her—Long Tom and Beal winner Devious Man—are in the field, but G coasted home in the Hambo Oaks in 1:51.1 while the boys struggled home in 1:52.3. The Hambo was of course was marred by the disqualification of What the Hill, but even if the race was run clean, it was far from spectacular.   Vernon Downs officials have to be thrilled to have the flying filly in the Zweig field.

It’s been an interesting year for Vernon Downs. Owner Jeffrey Gural announced that he would close the facility unless there was a reduction in monies paid to the state by the track. Gural cited that the newly opened del Lago Casino was negatively impacting Vernon’s revenues and he pushed for a lower tax percentage; if not, he planned on closing December 15. If you live in New York State, you understand the drama of state politics and the state legislature and naturally, a last minute deal was made to keep Vernon open. There were critics who cited that if a private company can’t make it on their own, then they should close, but this is a bit different.  The New York State Gaming Commission runs harness racing in New York and the state is heavily involved with breeding incentives and the like. Closing a facility like Vernon is not like closing the neighborhood hardware store. This is an industry that employs thousands, from farms to clerks to custodians. Having a harness track shuttered in the middle of New York would not be a compelling site, and more importantly, would mean less money in state coffers. Even though Vernon itself is not run by the state, it is in bed with the state much more than a company that makes saddles for horse racing is.  The bottom line–keeping the track open is expensive, but closing it–more expensive.

The race is named after Dr. Harry Zweig.  He was a veterinarian, but his passion and dedication to harness racing is what landed him a spot in the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in Goshen.  He helped get revenues from gambling into harness racing and as a result, purses increased.  He made it advantageous to breed in New York and because of him, the New York Sire Stakes are alive and well. As we know, several other states now do the same thing. He was an owner and breeder and helped revive harness racing in New York with the Syracuse Mile which was built at the State Fairgrounds.  It’s people like Zweig who helped keep harness racing going as other entertainment options became available in the TV era.  He served as a director for the United States Trotting Association and has an equine foundation in his name at Cornell University.  He died from leukemia in 1977 at the age of 63 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010.

Zweig Day at Vernon is a good one with 12 races on the card.  In addition to the Zweig Final, there is the Zweig Memorial for fillies, two Zweig consolations, five New York Excelsior races and three New York Sire Stakes races, befitting for a man who had both a passion and vision for standardbred racing in New York State. When you total it up, it adds up to $723,118 in purses.

Friday is the big night of the year at Vernon and it will be fascinating to see if Ariana G can beat the boys.  It’s a race many wanted to see at The Meadowlands, but thankfully, we’ll get to see it in upstate New York at the venerable Vernon Downs.

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