Harness Racing on the Attack—In a Good Way

2019 was a very good year for the sport

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

For harness racing, 2019 was a good year. The sport saw lots of good things happen and right now, optimism is high. Many things went right for the sport in 2019, but it’s important to keep moving forward and not get complacent in 2020. There is no reason why the sport can’t keep growing for years to come.

The sport saw increases in handle, wagering and purses. When sports books started popping up, concerns grew. Would gamblers turn their attention away from harness racing and focus exclusively on the ball sports, MMA and the others?

The answer was no; the sport saw a 3.53 percent increase in total wagering with over $1.4 billion. And, that number came with 46 fewer racing days.

Purses were up as well.  In 2019, there were $439,546,019 in purses; more than last year’s $428,774,855. For bettors, purses aren’t that important, but for casual fans, I believe they get the attention of that said fan and are important for the sport going forward.

An example of this is the Potomac Pace at Rosecroft Raceway. The pace is contested on a Sunday—in November—and its $100,000 purse draws attention. It gets hyped on all the important harness racing websites and it brings more locals to the track to celebrate what is usually a good night of racing.

The return of the Meadowlands was another positive in 2019. The track is the sport’s most important and over the past few years, they were losing horses, trainers and drivers to tracks that offered higher purses. In Jan. 2019, the New Jersey State Legislature passed a $6 million purse subsidy for the Meadowlands and that money helped keep the Meadowlands going in the spring and summer, a time when in the past, it was tough to have full fields at the East Rutherford icon.

This year, fields were fuller, purses higher and handle, which has always been the sport’s best, saw increases. On Fri. Jan. 3, overall handle was over $3 million; a magic number indeed.

The track will see a change in its 2020 schedule as a result of Monmouth Park utilizing its option to conduct a fall thoroughbred meet. That means The Big M will race through August and then pick up again in late November.  The traditionalists may not prefer this, but one has to think that more summer racing at the sport’s best venue can’t hurt.

In the spring, MGM Resorts completed its purchase of Yonkers Raceway from the Rooney family. The Rooney family were always friends of harness racing; they loved the sport and when MGM took over, there were some concerns that casino giant would trim things up.

Some thought that the $1 million International Trot might be on the chopping block. The Rooneys’ brought this unique even back in 2015 with trotters from seven nations trotting 1 ¼ miles for that big purse.

The 2019 trot was a scintillating race with Italy’s Zacon Gio taking the crown, but the best news came in late December when MGM announced that the International Trot will be back for 2020, along with 237 dates of racing. That certainly sounds like MGM is all in on harness racing going forward.

Batavia Downs is located in Western New York and that track saw record handle numbers in 2019 as well as increased on-track attendance. A decade ago, it looked like “The Downs,” may close, but that’s no longer the case.

On-track handle increased by 12.2 percent in 2019; on-track attendance was up five percent; its export signal saw a 24 percent increase. All-source handle was up an astounding 19.9 percent as the track handled $1.4 million more in 2019 compared to 2018.

Todd Haight, the General Manager at Batavia Downs has been in the harness racing game for years. Naturally, he was pleased at what the track accomplished.

“Our customers came out in force, both live and at simulcast and we couldn’t be more grateful to them,” Haight said. “We gave them some of the best racing in the state and they validated it by betting us the whole season.”

Batavia Downs is the oldest lighted harness track in the nation and Haight and his staff are already excited for the 2020 season, which opens on July 22. They split the season with Buffalo Raceway, another track that had a positive 2019; that track opens its 2020 season on Wed. Jan. 29

It didn’t get a lot of fanfare, but a new harness track opened in Kentucky last summer when Oak Grove Racing and Gaming conducted its first card on Friday October 18. The track raced 12 times; Fridays and Saturdays through November 23. There could be more racing dates added in future years, but boutique style meets definitely have a place in harness racing. The Grand Circuit meet at The Red Mile is the blueprint for that.

Freehold Raceway, the nation’s oldest race track added nine dates to its 2020 schedule; they’ll go to the post 85 times this year, up from 76.

Miami Valley opened its 2020 season last week with its best-ever Opening Night handle and fuller fields, continuing a surge in Ohio which continues to do well with racing and breeding.

For years, harness racing was trying to survive; now, it looks like the sport is on the attack in a positive way. While sports books may be helping, tracks are finding ways to get the word out about its product and once fans check it out, they realize quickly that when it comes to racing, harness racing is second to none.





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