Are the racinos starting to realize that they need harness racing?
by John Furgele Harness Racing 228
Harness racing never dies in fact, most news of late has been positive. The Meadows, which raced only three times in February because of an Equine Herpes Virus outbreak, petitioned to add more days to its calendar and their requested was granted. I don’t have scientific proof, but I no longer believe that racinos are all about the gaming machines anymore. In fact, with more casinos popping up, the racinos need harness racing as an alternative gambling option. Is harness racing no longer the ugly stepchild?
We have heard that Hoosier Park does a great job balancing harness racing and gaming and the vibes I get continue to be good ones. Yonkers hired Cammie Haughton as its Director of Racing; that is something you don’t do if you don’t care. Race tracks know that they have to put in effort if they want to grow, and like any organization that relies on consumption, if you get stale, or worse, take customers for granted, you go out of business.
There was more good news coming out of Pennsylvania when both Harrah’s and Pocono Downs agreed to offer a new series for open pacers and trotters as well as mare pacers. The series will begin in May and each leg will carry purses of at least $30,000. For the horsemen, no nominations or fees and the series will continue through the summer. As mentioned, most races will have $30,000 purses but there are some notable exceptions—the $50,000 Van Rose Memorial (at Pocono on Kentucky Derby day), and the yet-to-be-determined invitational events that will be contested at Harrah’s on May 27 (Memorial Day weekend). Horses will receive points for entering with the finals being contested on Sunday, September 2. These Open Finals will have $100,000 purses and will be run at 1 ¼ miles.
I have two thoughts here. One, is that this further shows that race tracks care about the racing product. We all know that bettors like $5,000-purse races as much as $100,000 ones, but big races mean more attention for the tracks. A $100,000 final has a chance to make the paper or a website; the $10,000 Open Pace does not.
The second thought is the 1 ¼ mile distance. As we know, 99.7 percent of harness races are one mile, but we are starting to see some variation. Yonkers has its Sunday 1 ¼ mile trots; Pompano’s Monteleone Memorial was run at 1 ¼ miles and Western Fair has used 1 1/16 miles for some of its races. Pompano has also run a few open dashes at 5/8 miles.
The sport is trying to do better; better for the horsemen and better for those that watch. I am not a handicapper or a person that wagers on many races. Laugh if you must but I enjoy the sport of harness racing. I don’t like 30-second second quarter breathers; I don’t like single file racing; I don’t like horses that wire the field with no threats. I watch and watch with intrigue and the bigger the purses, the more I watch. Races and series like the Levy, Matchmaker and now this in Pennsylvania only helps the sport increase its profile.
The sport survives on the grinders and the overnights, but it can flourish when you offer bigger and better races and this is a great addition to the harness racing calendar. There are setbacks of course. Last year, Plainridge Park played host to the $250,000 Spirit of Massachusetts Trot. The crowd was big as was the handle, but the horsemen and the track couldn’t get on the same page and thus, there will be no 2018 edition. But, right after the cancellation, there was talk of creating some other stakes races for the only racetrack in the Bay State. A negative yes, but followed by a positive.
The one thing harness racing has over the thoroughbreds is the careers of the horses. On Saturday, there are four divisions of the Levy at Yonkers. In race 7, the amount of experience is staggering. Dr. J Hanover will be making his 56th career start; Chumlee A, 84; Bakersfield, 115; Always at My Place, 105; Art Magic, 45; Keystone Velocity, 112; and my personal favorite, Bit of a Legend N will be making start number 121. The 9-year old has earned $1.935 million so reaching $2 million is a matter of when not if. And, he has done it the hard way, grinding it out year after year.
As experienced as Bit of a Legend is, Orillia Joe will make start number 161 in the eighth race. In race 9, the venerable Somewhere in LA will be behind the gate for the 116th time and will be looking to add to his $1,356,406 in earnings. The final Levy race of the night will see the 157th start for Long Live Rock.
The durability of these horses is incredible. In the Levy, they race each and every week and on April 21, the top eight will square off in what will be, at the very least, a $500,000 final.
If you follow the sport and read the letters, you will read all the negatives and there are plenty of them—post drags, 31 second second quarters, trainers who cheat—and so on. But, when you read about Pompano raising purses, when you see two tracks in Pennsylvania team up to offer some lucrative races, when you see Yonkers running four racing series at once and when you see the Meadows fighting to get missed racing days back, that’s all good for the sport, and should be touted and applauded.