Like Monticello and Northfield, The Meadows and Yonkers go at it all-year.
by John Furgele (Harness Racing 228)
A few weeks ago, we profiled Northfield Park and Monticello Raceway, two tracks that brave the elements to race 12 months per year. Now, there are many tracks that race during the winter, and some in harsher elements than the two referenced above. Woodbine runs through the winter and the last time I checked, metro Toronto is closer to the Arctic Circle than both Ohio and New York State are. This is the last winter of racing at Woodbine as the entire harness operation shifts to Mohawk Park full-time starting in April, 2018. Western Fair Raceway in London, Ontario also races during the winter, but come May, their season is over. Those tracks deserve credit, but not as much as the following two do.
The Meadows is located in Washington, Pennsylvania, 28 miles southwest of Pittsburgh. Like most harness tracks, The Meadows is buoyed by a casino/racino which supplements the purses that the track can offer. The Meadows, like Monticello runs in the afternoons, usually with a 1:05 pm post time. The typical schedule is four days per week, mostly Monday-Wednesday and then Saturday. In 2018, The Meadows will offer 195 racing dates. The big day of the racing year is the Adios Pace, which is contested on the last Saturday in July. The $500,000 event draws a big crowd and in 2017, Fear the Dragon outdueled Downbytheseaside in a thriller. The two best pacers went at it and definitely lived up to both the hype and expectation.
The purses at The Meadows are decent; the opens and preferreds usually are at or slightly over $20,000. The December 23 card offered $122,600 in total purses over 12 races, an average of $10,217 per race. In the warmer months, that number increases. To compare, the December 23 Meadowlands card offered $178,000 in total purses over 14 races, an average of $12,714 per race.
The Meadows has a 5/8 mile track that includes the passing lane and unlike other tracks, offers the slanted starting gate to give the outside horses a better chance of winning and competing. There is talk of more tracks incorporating the slanted gate, so wewill see what happens moving forward.
The other year-rounder is Yonkers Raceway, a track that continues to make news. The half-mile oval has been around since 1899 and is owned by the Rooney family—yes the family that owns the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yonkers offers between 235 and 240 race days each year which makes it the busiest of all harness tracks. When in high gear, the track offers races Monday-Wednesday and Friday-Saturday. They have been running the “French trots,” on Sundays, 1 ¼ mile large field races designed to lure the French and European audiences. These races usually have an 11:25 am post time and have seen increased handle when they are on the Yonkers schedule. Hence, there are weeks when Yonkers races six days.
The track wants to further develop these trots by going to France and buying trotters to bring over and race at what they call the Hilltop Oval. Yonkers has an excellent HD signal and in Europe on Sunday afternoons, Yonkers is being watched and most importantly, wagered on. Some Sundays have seen over a $1 million in handle, rarified air for the raceway.
Yonkers offers many high stakes races. The International Trot is contested on the second Saturday in October. The $1 million race is run at 1 ¼ miles and in 2017 saw 10 horses representing seven countries compete. Italian Twister Bi romped home in a world-record time (2:22.1) to win. His performance was breath-taking; one of the many reasons why many of us like sports. Sometimes, you see performances for the ages and Twister Bi provided that in the International Trot.
The Rooney and Levy are also on the Yonkers calendar and for years, the finals of the New York Sire Stakes have been, too. Last year, the Sire Stakes finals were contested on International Trot day with $3.3 million in purses given out on that October Saturday.
The Messenger Stakes and Yonkers Trot are legs of the pacing and trotting Triple Crowns respectively and are usually run on Labor Day weekend. Yonkers has the highest overnight purses with open paces and trots ranging anywhere from $40,000 to $55,000. Because of that, Yonkers is loved by drivers, trainers and owners, but not so much by the bettors.
The knock on Yonkers is its track length. Despite high purses, Yonkers handle is minimal compared to The Meadowlands, which has the mighty mile. Cammie Haughton was recently named Director of Racing and he has stated that his number one goal is to find ways to increase handle. He wants to remove the passing lane to eliminate the sit-and-wait approach that many drivers employ. The finish line was moved back 100 feet back in July to encourage more movement and Haughton has met with Yonkers drivers to impress what he wants to see in 2018.
There has also been talk of actually moving Yonkers Raceway to Belmont Park. The goal would be to build a one-mile track inside Belmont’s thoroughbred training track. If Yonkers could combine its good purses with good drivers, good trainers and a one-mile track, the sky could be the limit. Of course, there are many hurdles to clear before this happens, but give the track credit for its forward thinking.
Yonkers and the Meadowlands are separated by 22 “New York miles,” which means it will take longer than 22 minutes to get from one track to the other. If both tracks had one-mile ovals, it would be interesting to see which track handles more money on a nightly basis. As mentioned, Yonkers purses are aided by racino revenues; the Meadowlands are not. Would loyal Meadowlands fans switch over to Yonkers? This isn’t happening tomorrow, but the fact is that there is talk taking place, so stay tuned.
If Yonkers did move, part of me would be sad. The half-mile tracks don’t bother me like they bother others but we all know that bettors prefer the one-mile. On Friday, December 22, over $2.4 million was wagered on races at The Meadowlands, a number that right now, Yonkers can only dream about.
Northfield, Monticello, The Meadows and Yonkers; the true warriors of harness racing. Twelve months of racing through rain, snow, heat and humidity. These tracks, along with the horses and horsemen grind it out 48 to 52 weeks a year, just like the average American worker does. Two by day; two by night and for the harness racing fan, a little something for everybody.