Half-Empty or Half-Full? I Say Half-Full

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

As a harness racing fan, it comes with the territory–complaining.  A track could do nine things well, but it’s the one thing they don’t that draws the ire of its fans.  The most recent example came when I read a complaint about half-mile racing, and in particular, racing at Yonkers Raceway.

We know it’s tough to race and wager on half-mile tracks, as most prefer one-mile tracks. That said, how many are there?  The answer–not many, with the Meadowlands, Red Mile, Cal Expo and Hawthorne being the only four.  Vernon, Mohawk, Hoosier and Woodbine offer 7/8 mile ovals, but if you want one mile tracks, your choices are limited.

The Meadowlands is the “King of Handle.”  Despite lower purses and lower quality horses, the Big M will still handle close over $2 million on a Saturday night. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from bettors that they never bet half-mile tracks or that they will only bet on Meadowlands races.  We all know the problems that Meadowlands owner Jeffrey Gural claims he has.  He says he can’t compete without a casino, so, as a result there are only 91 days of racing (primarily Friday and Saturday nights) in 2017.  Is this good or bad?  There’s demand to wager there, but with only 91 days, the hard-core bettor has to look for other venues.  I certainly don’t have access to his books, but if the track is handling $2 million (all-sources) on Fridays and Saturdays, $4 million on Meadowlands Pace night and over $7 million on Hambletonian Day, how bad is it? We all know what casinos add to the purses, but if Yonkers is handling $450,000 on Saturday and the Meadowlands $2 million, which track is struggling more?

Half-mile tracks do have some disadvantages.  It’s tough for the outside horses to win races, but even the average bettor knows that.  On the plus side, because the horses travel the oval twice, the sight lines are pretty nice.  I would like to see more “halves,” line the seven behind the one and eight behind the two in the gate to give the outside horses a better chance to compete.  We know the drivers of the seven or eight are often trying to get third, fourth or fifth just to collect an envelope and make some money. Bettors know this, too, but I understand their frustrations.

Others say that the racing on half-mile track is not good.  They will cite instances when a horse leaves, gets to the lead with a 27 opening quarter and then takes a second-quarter breather of 30 seconds.  This does happens, but it happens at the Meadowlands, too.  For those who say the racing isn’t good on a half-mile, I say nonsense and offer the Gerrity Memorial Pace from Saratoga Casino Hotel back on Saturday, July 22 as my case study. In that race, all eight horses tried to win.  They all took a run at it, setting very fast fractions in the process.  The winner, Bit of a Legend N stalked and stalked and off the final turn was able to blaze home in an impressive time of 1:50.3.  I was there, and the buzz from the crowd was palpable.

Half mile tracks have been around; it’s not like they’re new creations.  We have Yonkers, Monticello, Saratoga, Buffalo, Batavia, Bangor, Scarborough and Freehold, and these tracks are just in the Northeast. And, as mentioned, some are long in the tooth–Buffalo has been racing for 76 years, the same as Saratoga.  Batavia is in its 71st year, with Freehold and Yonkers beginning in 1853 and 1899 respectively.

At the end of the day, it’s up to those who watch and wager.  They will decide where to spend their money.  We can complain or embrace the half-mile tracks. The racing may not be as good as the mile tracks, but to me, it’s still very good.  You might get more chalk, but you’ll get the upsets and longshots, too.

In a world of constant complaint, I’ll take the high road and embrace what the half-mile track offers to the sport of harness racing.




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