Saluting the Warriors of Harness Racing Tracks

Unlike most, Northfield Park and Monticello Raceway race year-round

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

As December approaches, it is time to take notice and pay respects. Harness racing is a year-round sport. There are 12 months in a year and harness racing races in all 12 of them. But, not every track races each and every month. Let’s pay homage to those that do.

Northfield Park sits in NE Ohio. It is a half-mile track that handles a decent amount of money on a nightly basis. It is not uncommon for NP to see $80,000 plus for a claiming race on a Monday night. Like many tracks, there is a casino attached to it, which brings in people and drives up revenues and purses. For the most part I enjoy Northfield even though the track certainly caters to frontrunners.

They race all year, usually five nights per week, and often, there are 14 to 15 races on the card. For all the talk of a horse shortage, that doesn’t appear to be the case here.   There are four major stakes races each year, highlighted by the Carl Millstein for pacers and the Cleveland Trotting Classic for the trotters.

There is an annoying part of Northfield and that is how long they hold horses past the scheduled post time.   All harness tracks do this, and we all know why. Because races are simulcast, the tracks get together to maximize betting. Why have Yonkers and Northfield races go off at the same time when you can hold one five or six minutes to increase betting. If you’re at the track, you know better.   One sign says 0 MTP, while the clock on the track usually reads 5 or 6, but if you’re at home, the 0 flashes for what seems to be an eternity. On Sunday, a race at Pompano that was scheduled for 9:44 pm went off at 10:33. Northfield, in my opinion, is the worst at holding horses, but because their handle is solid, it won’t be changing anytime soon. But, kudos must be given to Northfield Park for their January-December racing schedule.

Monticello is next.   The track in Sullivan County, NY also run from January to December and unlike most, they race Monday-Thursday in the afternoon. You’ll never find weekend or evening racing at Monticello and you won’t find any stakes races there other than state sponsored Sire Stakes action. They race every week, on average 208 days per year.   The track does a decent handle mainly because the same horses race each and every week and of course because they are often the only afternoon harness option. One wonders if Pine Bush Missy and Bullville Bren know each other, because they may race each other 15 to 20 times per year if both are healthy. Purses are small with every race (other than Sire Stakes) carrying purses well under $10,000. In fact, the highest I saw in 2017 was $6,400. Bettors don’t really care about purses; they care about making money and getting value and at Monticello, the takeout rate is lower and that encourages more wagering and thus, increases handle, too.

The racing at Monticello, for a half-mile track is good. Drivers are not afraid to race two-wide and the outside bias that hurts horses at Yonkers, Northfield and other half-mile tracks is not as bad at Monticello. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a disadvantage, but not as severe as Yonkers, which has to be worst in the sport.

There are some flaws.   The upper level clubhouse, which protects fans from the elements, and will likely remain that way.   There is a metal “grandstand” outside, but that will make for tough sledding in the middle of winter. That said, harness racing is more about the television signal than ever before. If a track has a choice of building a new grandstand or installing a HD signal, they will choose the latter.

Most tracks are seasonal—some run in the winter, some in the summer, and some in the spring. There are tracks that run all year, but not in the quantity that Northfield and Monticello do. Saratoga comes close with a February to December calendar, but they end in the middle of December and do not resume until mid-February—too long of a break to be considered a year-rounder.

Next time, we will examine two other 12-month tracks—Yonkers and The Meadows and do some pros and cons with them.

Today, we will salute the horses, drivers, trainers, and all associated with putting together a 12 month racing product at both Northfield and Monticello. It is not easy to do, but these two places get it done.

 

 

 

 

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