by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228
There are plenty of harness tracks out there, and truth be told, I love them all because each offers something different. Monticello gives us the grinders, small purses and two abreast racing. Buffalo Raceway gets me through the winter and features the unique style of track announcer Wayne Teaven and a colony of steady, durable and tough horses. The Meadowlands is….the Meadowlands. It has to be watched, it has to be followed and now that the purses have increased, even more so. And, not to be confused with the Meadowlands is the Meadows, another track that runs all 12 months.
But for some reason, Yonkers Raceway remains my favorite. I’m not sure why, because many harness racing fans don’t like it. For one, it’s a half-mile track; two, the racing, in particular, the dawdling second quarters can be frustrating, and three, overall handle is middling.
On Saturday nights, both The Meadowlands and Yonkers are running. While the Big M will handle about $2 million, Yonkers struggles to get $600,000. On Saturday, December 7, Yonkers handled just $531,498 over 11 races, an average of $48,318. On the same night, the Meadowlands handled $2,218,523, an average of $170,619 per race.
I know harness racing is driven by gambling, so to dismiss that and say that it’s all about the racing would be naïve. And even though Yonkers handled roughly 25 percent of what the Meadowlands did, $531, 498 is not chump change.
Yonkers Raceway is what it is. I like the colony of horses. They’re good, they run well and they run often. The open paces and trots are run for $42,000 each Friday and Saturday and feature the same crew of wily veterans; horses you can hang your hat on and get behind.
I must confess, I rarely wager, so seeing 30-second quarters doesn’t rankle me like it would if I had a few sheckles on the race. I look for horses that I like and follow and if the urge hits, I’ll plunk down $2.
Take tonight’s open trot. Assigned post 1 is the legendary Obrigado. I’ll root for him, but this is just his second race of the year. He’s going up against five other horses that have made 137 starts, with 37 wins, 27 seconds and 14 wins. I can’t bet him, but I’ll be rooting for him, so that makes a wager impossible—for me. Thank goodness the sport doesn’t rely on fans like me to sustain it.
The other thing I like about Old Hilltop is its race schedule. They race a lot. The 2020 schedule was just released and it has 237 racing dates. For the most part, they will race on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. I like that it’s dark on Wednesday because it allows for tracks like Buffalo Raceway to get some attention. The same goes for Sunday with tracks like Saratoga and Pompano getting that same shot.
The best news of all is that the Yonkers International Trot is on the 2020 schedule. There was some doubt because last year, MGM Resorts completed its purchase of the track from the Rooney family. I’m sure the Trot doesn’t make money, but Tim Rooney believed in it and was willing to take the loss to have it on the schedule.
MGM Resorts is a huge company with stockholders and that means the bottom line matters. So far, it looks like MGM is willing to give harness racing at Yonkers a legitimate shot. We know that harness racing (in New York) is required at racinos; that said; they could cut events like the International Trot and use a more minimalist approach. Right now, MGM is not doing that.
And, like they did in 2017, the finals of the New York State Sire Stakes will be on the International Trot card on Saturday, Sept. 12. I also expect the track to offer both an invitational pace and trot, meaning total purses should exceed $3 million.
It may not be the prettiest, smoothest of racing and we all know that trying to win from posts 7 and 8 is very difficult to do, but count me in as a fan. I’ll keep watching and with its smooth HD signal, it’s an easy, enjoyable experience.
Old Hilltop has been going at it since 1899; in 2020, they’ll do it 237 times.