by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228
Happy New Year to all and may you all stop writing 2018 when you fill out forms, checks, etc. Now that 2018 is over, we head to the dog days of winter. Winter is grinder time and while there are many good horses pacing and trotting, many of the stars are resting up for the spring, summer and fall campaigns.
Let’s start the year by saluting the tracks that run all year—Monticello, Northfield Park, The Meadows, Yonkers, Woodbine Mohawk Park and many others. Monticello is the one that impresses me. I visited there in 2016 and trust me, the scene is well….a scene. In fact, it’s a scene for only the true diehards. The people are great, but when you’re there, you feel as if you’re in a time warp. It just feels as if nobody cares about racing, but in reality they do. The track runs from January to December 31; 4 days a week, 52 weeks per year. The word resilient gets overused today, but not so in the case of Monticello Raceway.
Yonkers will open up its 2019 season on Monday, January 7. Unlike Monticello, the Hilltop Oval does take a slight break from mid-December through New Year’s, but come Monday, school is back in session.
Last year Yonkers removed the passing lane and for a bit, handle increased. By the end of the year handle was back to its “normal level,” despite having the highest overnight purses in the sport. Yonkers also is a “league leader,” in post drags, which to me, continue to hurt the sport. There is nothing worse than seeing “0 MTP,” for eight minutes. Everybody wants to see post drags end—except those that operate the tracks.
Last winter Yonkers was making lots of noise, but has been quiet the last few months. Things will get interesting once MGM Resorts assumes control from the Rooney family. What changes will be in store remains to be seen.
The biggest intrigue in 2019 will be what happens at The Meadowlands. The New Jersey government is set to pass a bill that will provide purse subsidies to The Big M and Freehold, which will be a much needed shot in the arm. The Meadowlands is slated to receive $6 million, plus another $1 million from the FanDuel sports book and that money could help retain horses when tracks like Chester, and Pocono open.
We all know in harness racing, there are racetracks and then there is The Meadowlands. The sport needs the Big M to be solvent. The big one mile oval is a track that all the trainers and drivers like and even though Yonkers has the money, the racing there can be a bit stale. I don’t think increased purses will cause huge friction between the New York based tracks, because Yonkers will race more. As mentioned above, the big test will be in the spring when other tracks open. When that happens, the lower purses contribute to horse shortages; does that go away this year?
Meadowlands has a partial schedule out that goes from January to August 3, Hambletonian Day. Once the subsidy passes, they will add a fall schedule that usually runs through December. It looks like they will stick to a Friday-Saturday schedule and that’s probably a wise move—for now. If purses increase, there could be more interest and that could result in a third day (likely Thursday) added to the schedule.
Woodbine Mohawk Park will get its first full year of Standardbred racing. Last year, Woodbine hosted in the winter while Woodbine Mohawk Park (yes confusing) was winterized. The 7/8 mile track is liked by many and in October 25-26, will host the Breeders Crown
Some say less is more and Buffalo Raceway will try that in 2019. Last year, the Hamburg Oval was plagued by some bad weather and more importantly horse shortages and this year, the meet is sleeker, with 66 days slated. Racing will commence twice a week (Wednesdays and Saturdays) through the dead of winter with Fridays being added in April. But just because they have cut days doesn’t mean they are cutting back. Improvements have been made and that includes a new racing surface. Opening day is Wednesday, January 30. And no track is better than running its races on time than Buffalo Raceway. The 5 pm card is over by 8:30 pm, so don’t just assume that its Northfield Park where the 8:30 pm race goes off close to 9:15 pm.
Like each year, 2019 promises to be interesting. There are many critics of harness racing with the common theme being what can be done to grow the sport, to get younger people involved and to perhaps use some gaming monies for marketing. I hear that often, but at the end of the day, the horsemen want gaming monies to be spent on purses and that’s the way it continues to roll.
The sport is lucky, however. As much as the humans try to mess it up, the horses are still the stars.
Happy New Year!