by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228
The holidays are officially over and that means it is time for harness racing to kick into high gear. Yonkers, Woodbine, Buffalo and many other race tracks will be kicking off their 2018 seasons and with any new year, there are some new wrinkles.
We’ll start with Woodbine. Come April, harness racing will be no more at the legendary suburban Toronto track. Beginning in April, all harness racing shifts to Mohawk on a full-time basis. Woodbine is much better known for thoroughbred racing, but the track has been good to the standardbred industry, and it’s not like they are divesting themselves of the sport. Mohawk is owned by the Woodbine Entertainment Group and will be re-branded as Woodbine at Mohawk Park, so the Woodbine name will remain in the harness racing game. Both tracks are 7/8 mile in length, which makes for good racing, especially in the big races like the Pepsi North America Cup, which will be contested in June.
Buffalo Raceway will kick off season 76 on Friday, January 12. Last year, a tornado ripped though the facility, causing the last few days of the meet to be cancelled; but despite a harsh start to the winter, the track is ready to go for 2018. Buffalo is one of those tracks where you will get to know the horses early and easily because the same ones race there each and every week. The open paces and trots will feature the same six to eight horses and you will see them beat on each other for the next six plus months. Most opens feature purses of $9,000 to $10,000.
There is a new claiming rule for Buffalo this season. If a horse is claimed out of a race it must remain and race there for the entire meet, which ends in July. With horse shortages, Buffalo is trying to protect its product and offer up to 13 races per night. The last thing a track wants is for horses to be claimed and then sent elsewhere. This deal was approved by both the raceway and the Horsemen’s association.
One thing missing from the raceway this year will be the team of Larry Stalbaum and Kim Asher. The driver/owner tandem pulled their horses from the Hamburg Fairgrounds and it looks like some will head to Monticello with others going to Hawthorne Race Course in suburban Chicago. One horse that will be missed is Quicksilvercandy A. The now 14-year old raced at both Buffalo and Batavia last year and won 20 times. She has already scored a win at Monticello in 2018.
Buffalo will race 88 times and then most of its horses will head east on the New York State Thruway and race at Batavia from July-December. Like all New York harness tracks, Buffalo will play host to several editions of the New York Sire Stakes, with the first card scheduled for June 6 when 3-year old trotters take to the track.
Yonkers kicks off its 238-day 2018 schedule on Sunday, January 7 with a “French trot,” edition. These are 1 ¼ mile races that are beamed over to France and generate some handsome handles. In addition to these, there is a $50,000 open trot, also at 1 ¼ miles. As we know, Yonkers has the best overnight purses and the best driver colony, but new Director of Racing Cammie Haughton wants to improve the product and handle at the Hilltop Oval.
Sunday will mark the first day of racing with no more passing lane. Haughton wanted it gone in an effort to make drivers move earlier and not wait—and rely—on the passing lane in deep stretch. We will see what transpires come January 7. The hope is to reduce single file that often plagues half-mile tracks.
Yonkers will also have New York Sire Stakes action with edition one taking place on Thursday, June 21 when 3-year old filly pacers hit the track. Yonkers has hosted the finals of the sire stakes for years and last year combined these finals with the International Trot, a day that featured $3.3 million in purses. Some of the other tracks complained, stating that they would like the opportunity to host the finals, so as of today, both the finals and consolations, usually run in October, have not been scheduled by the New York State Gaming Commission.
Hawthorne Race Course in Illinois kicks off its 2018 harness racing season on Friday, January 5 with 10 races and a $7,200 Open Pace as its feature. Like the Meadowlands, Cal Expo, and the Red Mile, Hawthorne features a one-mile oval. But unlike those three, Hawthorne is the home to both horse and harness racing. On December 29, the thoroughbreds completed their 2017 season. The next day, the crew went to work, removing 11,000 tons of sand, taking down the rails and setting up the pylons so harness racing can start this Friday. This is not an easy task and when you throw in sub-zero temperatures, it makes it even harder.
Dayton Raceway just concluded its 2017 season and the final numbers were impressive. There was a 52 percent increase in wagering at the 5/8 mile facility. In addition, claims were up as were purses, averaging $112,000 per day over the 76-day meet. Harness racing in Ohio appears to be healthy and with Dayton concluded, the southern Ohio action shifts to Miami Valley Raceway, which opens its 2018 campaign on Friday, January 5. In May, Scioto Downs takes over and of course, the old reliable remains Northfield Park, which runs 12 months a year and if you have been watching this week, the horses have been pacing and trotting through the snow–lots of it.
The weather outside might be frightful and cold, but the harness racing action is beginning to heat up.