The Best Race of the Year—Thus Far

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

We are still early into the 2018 racing season, but I have a nominee for race of the year.  It took place on Sunday night, March 11 at Pompano Park in the $30,000 Fred Monteleone Memorial, a 1¼ mile pace that featured eight veterans who call the Pompano track home.

There were several things to like about this race.  First, was the distance; for some reason, when horses are asked to race 1¼ miles, there seems to be more action.  You would think the opposite would be true with drivers’ sitting back, cutting soft fractions and conserving for the stretch run, but that usually isn’t the case.  Yonkers runs its Sunday French trots at 1 ¼ miles and there is lots of early action with horses mixing it up.

But this was a field of pacers so I wasn’t sure what tactics would be taken.  Sunday night is usually open pace night at Pompano and this field had some of its open stars entered.  Panocchio was the favorite.  The 8-year old gelding by No Pan Intended holds the track record and usually reigns supreme in the Sunday features.  It doesn’t hurt that he has Hall of Fame driver Wally Hennessey in the bike.  He also has the life that many of us adore.  He spends his winters in Florida and then he—and Hennessey—come north to Saratoga for the summer.  I haven’t seen him partaking at Siro’s or the Horseshoe, but I have seen him win a few times at Saratoga Casino Hotel (Saratoga Raceway).

At the start of the race, Hollywood Sign A bolted to the league and the cut the quarter in a fast 27.2. But, there would be no second panel breather as Pannocchio moved up quickly on the backstretch as they passed the half in 57.1.  At the point, seemingly every horse entered the fray—Uncompromising Z Tam, then back to Hollywood Sign A and then Doo Wop Hanover all grabbed the lead through three-quarters in 1:24.4 and then the mile in 1:52.2.  As the horses turned for home, Dee’s Rocketman took to the far outside to grab the lead, pulling away impressively to win in 2:21.3 over the always fast 5/8 mile track.

First, the distance, second the effort by the entire field and lastly, a long shot prevails and as they say, the race had something for everyone.  Dee’s Rocketman, at 13-1, paid $29.40 to win.  The favorite, Panocchio had a troubled trip but managed to claim second with Doo Hop Hanover taking third.

After the race, I reached out to track announcer Gabe Prewitt via social media (is there another way?) and asked how the race was received.  Prewitt was encouraged by the reaction and we both agreed that it was a great race; something we all wish we could see more of in harness racing.  The race reminded me of last summer’s Gerrity Memorial at Saratoga, when all eight horses tried to win, before Bit of a Legend N was able to outlast and in some ways, outwit the other seven.  Like the Gerrity, the Monteleone was devoid of single file racing.  When you have horses gunning for it, they will race two and even three-wide.  Did the best horse win?  Probably not, but when everybody is engaged, upsets can and should happen.  Too often, harness racing sees the favorite grab the lead early, take a breather and then hold off all challenges in the stretch.  This race had none of that and the winner was not only Dee’s Rocketman, but the sport of harness racing itself.

The only negative of course, is time and place.  It was a Sunday night in southern Florida and unless you love harness racing, you had no idea what you missed.   I’m a realist and I know we will not see any harness racing on the sports networks sans the Hambletonian, but when I see what is on the sports networks, I shake my head and wonder why harness racing can’t find a network to air some of its events.  No offense to any sport, but when I see bowling, drag and motorcycle racing, beach volleyball and yes, even curling, I scratch my head and think, “if curling can draw an audience, why can’t harness racing?”

This brings us back to the centuries-old question, “which comes first, the chicken or the egg?”  If this particular race was on Fox Sports 2, it would have made an impression, but if Pannochio wired the field, people might have turned it off—forever.

As a rule of thumb, I always encourage readers and fans to check out and look for the races with the highest purses at each track.  Check out the fields and then check out the race.  These races give you the best horses and usually see the fastest times.  The bonus is these feature races, from start to finish, only require about 10 minutes of time.  If you like what you see, come back and try again, perhaps at a different track; if you weren’t impressed, you only “wasted” 10 minutes of your time—time you would have spent looking at your phone anyway.

My guess is that those who watched the Monteleone would be left wanting and that’s a good thing.  It is only March, but this might have been the race of the year.

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