by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228
They say that in spring, a “young man’s fancy turns to love.” With April gone, winter is officially over, despite what the mercury reads. May is perhaps the busiest month in the world of sports. The NBA and NHL are deep into their playoffs; baseball is off and running, Major League Soccer is now in its 23rd season and can no longer be ignored. NFL teams have just drafted and now will begin signing their picks that they made just a week ago.
Horse racing begins its Triple Crown with all eyes focused on the 20 horses that will run in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. Harness racing is also in its busy season. With winter over, more tracks are preparing to open. Places like Running Aces, Vernon, Tioga are raring to go or have just opened for the season. On the surface, it looks like grand times for the sport, but in reality, that might not be the case. Like every spring, the purses get better as does the weather, but not all share in that. There is a horse shortage and one wonders how it can be addressed.
Buffalo Raceway is one of those winter tracks that have struggled in 2018 because of the shortage. It is a track for grinders that begins in January in cold and often snowy Hamburg, NY. Most years, they run every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, but this year, they have been limited. Many cards were canceled and currently, the track is only running on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Larry Stalbaum took his horses away from Buffalo this winter which didn’t help, but that’s not the major reason for the truncated cards.
Monticello is another “grinder track.” It races four days per week for 52 weeks. But, it’s normal total of 207 days has been truncated by the horse shortage. Quietly, the track removed Wednesday from its racing schedule and has been going on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. It is easier to get information from North Korea than it is Monticello Raceway, but surely the reduced schedule is due to the horse shortage.
Purses are also down at Monticello. Races that were once run for $5,900 are now running for $5,200. Like most tracks that are tied to racinos, the purses are based on percentages of gaming revenue. Monticello has a racino on its grounds, but just six miles away is a full-fledged casino and though it is owned by the same company who knows the real impact it has had on the track and the purses that go with it.
The most affected by the shortage is the Meadowlands. The Big M is still the handle leader with most races generating over $200,000 on the Friday and Saturday cards. But, this Friday, there are only 9 races scheduled—-9! For a track that only races two times per week, that is scary. Saturday’s card features the Cutler Memorial Trot for older horses for $182,000, but even that day, there are only 11 races on the Big M card.
We know that not all tracks are suffering and we know that the higher the purses are the more interest by the horsemen. Yonkers’ Empire City Casino continues to flourish; to the point where Yonkers offers the highest purses. Open paces and trots have purses of $40,000 while preferred ones have $30,000 purses. The best drivers and trainers want to race there and who can really blame them.
Not all tracks are suffering from the shortage. Northfield Park in NE Ohio continues to run 15 races per card with eight or nine in each race. How do they do this? The purses are not much better than a Buffalo Raceway, yet each racing night, there are 14 to 16 races with up to nine horses entered in each race over the half-mile oval. Some of that has to do with state sponsored stakes races, called Sire Stakes, and Ohio seems to manage this well. Unlike New York, Ohio staggers its harness racing schedule. Northfield is the track that runs all year, but the purses are lower. Scioto, Dayton and Miami Valley spilt the calendar in thirds to avoid overlap.
New York doesn’t do this. Monticello and Yonkers are the 12-month tracks and it is overlap galore from then on. They have Buffalo/Batavia, Saratoga, Vernon and Tioga all running at the same time and with a horse shortage, how many times will Vernon have to cancel a card?
Nobody wants to see a harness track close or reduce dates, but what is the solution? Laws in New York—and other states—state that a racino has to have harness racing, and each state’s gaming commission has to delicately balance the spreadsheets. A track can’t just reduce racing dates unless the gaming commission approves. We saw this at Plainridge Park in Massachusetts. In 2017, they ran 125 cards; in 2018, they asked to run 100, in which the gaming commission said no. The sides settled on 110 dates.
There seems to be more interest in owning Standardbreds. There are more partnerships forming where one can own a horse for $250, $500 or $700. While that number seems to be on the rise, the number of horses has decreased. Incentives are nice, but they usually require some form of government subsidy; something most states have already given to harness racing. Further subsidizing will not go over well with John and Jane Taxpayer.
New Jersey is suffering the most. They have two racetracks—Freehold and the Meadowlands—but no gaming, and as a result, the incentive to breed in the Garden State has decreased. Why breed in New Jersey when you can do it in New York, Delaware and Pennsylvania, all of which have purses and sire stakes money derived from racinos and casinos. The two Jersey tracks complemented each other nicely. Freehold was for horses on the way up or down, while the Meadowlands was for the big boys and girls. It was always fun to see a horse do well at Freehold to the point where they would give Meadowlands a try. The sport needs the Big M to be healthy and despite lower purses, the bettors still like the track. But, how much longer can and will that last? Will the Meadowlands ever get a racino to help keep harness racing vibrant there?
Churchill Downs is the home of the Kentucky Derby and the Meadowlands is the home of the Hambletonian. That means something in horse and harness racing. I hope our leaders remember this and come up with a plan that works.