2019 a good year for harness racing in the Garden State. 2020 promises more of the same.
by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228
‘Twas the Saturday before Christmas and all across the tracks….well, truth be told, it was a light day of racing across the American harness racing landscape with many tracks either closed for the season or taking a holiday break. But there was one state that had a full slate of racing, that being New Jersey.
Freehold featured three solid races on its December 21 card. The big race was an Invitational Pace that featured a spike in purse to $15,000 and attracted eight characters led by one of the sport’s greatest names in Clint Westwood. The pacer came in with 6-3-7 in 26 starts, and $41,000 plus in earnings.
The leader of the pack was Gokudo Hanover, who in 28 starts posted a 3-7-5 record with $106,960 in earnings. He was followed closely by Rock The Nite with 6-1-9 and $106,605 in 38 starts.
These are not the sport’s best horses—we all know that—but look at the number of starts each horse has made. The field of eight has combined to make 216, a per horse average of 27 per and collectively has earned $559,593 in 2019. If that doesn’t spell grinder, than nothing else will.
In addition to the special invitational pace, the card included the normal Open Pace and its $12,000 purse. Two of the entries have done most of their 2019 racing internationally and of the six “American” based horses; they have combined to make 179 starts. Spirit of Truth is the warrior. He came in with 47 starts, with a record of 4-10-9 and $53,819 in earnings. That explains why he is 15-1 on the morning line.
The other “over $10,000,” race is one for non-winners of $8,000 along with one other condition. That race featured eight pacers and these guys have made 244 starts this year. There are some fast ones, too. Egomania has paced a 1:49.4 mile this year and not far behind is Bilbo Hanover and his 1:50.2. That’s not too shabby in a race offering a $5,000 winner’s check.
As for the races, there was very little drama. In the Invitational, Sunfire Blue Chip cut all the fractions—27.4, 57.2, 1:26.1 before cruising home in 1:55.1. The 9-year old pockets $7,500 for his work. The legendary Clint Westwood rallied from fifth at three-quarters to get second ($3,750) while Bullet Bob picked up show money–$1,800 to round out the top three finishers.
In the Open Pace, age was served as 10-year old The Onlyest One outdueled Ideal One in the stretch to prevail in 1:55.2. Western Bayama finished third.
The third five-figure race saw Soho Lennon lead at every fraction, winning in a quick 1:54.4.
It was a day of chalk and if you were looking to make money by betting on a longshot, for the most part, you were out of luck. The biggest surprise came in race 10 when Drinkin Again paid $15.60 for his victory over Canbec Kingkazimir.
Freehold is not done for 2019; there will be two more cards taking place next Friday and Saturday and in more good news, the track released its 2020 racing schedule and it includes 85 days of racing, up nine from this year’s total of 76.
A little to the north of Freehold sits the mighty Meadowlands and Saturday’s feature was a $30,000 Preferred Handicap featuring nine pacers. Nine horses, 183 starts, led by Lyons Steel who comes in with 10-5-3 in 41 starts. Endeavor comes in with the best resume; he has earned $259,695 with a 6-2-3 record in 27 starts. He has also clocked a 1:48.2 mile this season.
San Domino rallied from sixth at three-quarters to win the Preferred in 1:51.3, with Endeavor second. Lyons Steel was eighth at three-quarters and came from seventh in the stretch to get third. The winner needed a 26.2 final quarter to reward supporters with $16.80 for a $2 bet.
The Meadowlands will race 92 times in 2020 and will offer over $14 million in stakes purses. There is a big change as Monmouth Park will exercise its right to hold a thoroughbred meet at the Big M beginning October 2 and ending November 21. In recent years, Monmouth passed on racing on the dirt and stuck to the turf, but with $10 million in purse subsidies, they are going ahead with a full fall meet in 2020.
The Meadowlands will now race through September 19. In past years, the summer meet ended on Hambletonian Day, but that won’t be the case next year. Speaking of the Hambo, that race is set for Saturday, Aug. 8 along with the Hambletonian Oaks and eight other stakes races.
Gone are same-day eliminations; those will be contested on Saturday, Aug. 1 and the final will consist of the 10 horses who get through those elims.
David Bowie sang about changes and in New Jersey, there certainly have been more than a few. On the surface, it appears that the changes have been for the good and that’s welcome news for harness racing. Things looked bleak in 2017 and 2018, but things have definitely taken a turn for the better.
The 2020 racing calendars are proof of this.