We’re Coming Back

After being idle for over two months, harness racing is ready to get back at it

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

The horses are behind the gate. This field is in motion. And, they’re off. Does it really matter how your favorite track announcer describes the beginning of a race?

For more than two months, harness racing has sat idle, like many facets of society, a victim to Covid-19. But today, that all changes as Ohio’s Scioto Downs becomes the first harness track to race since Cal Expo in late March.

The track will go to the post at 6:30 pm ET on Friday and Saturday and both days feature 12-race cards with decent purses. That should not be lost on those that watch the sport. Casino revenues are used to bolster purses at harness tracks and with all of them still closed, race purses will have to be lower. That is not lost on the horsemen, but for two months, the purses have been consistent—$0

This is welcome news. Even if you never watch harness racing, the fact that this sport is coming back gives hope for the others. If harness racing can get back at it, why can’t MLB, NBA, NHL and MLS. Here’s hoping that sooner than later that will happen.

The new order dictates precautions. Tracks that race will have restrictions in place, with no fans being one of them. That’s tough, because it will exclude owners from seeing their prized possessions pacing and trotting, but the hope is that this is a temporary thing and someday soon, fans and owners will be allowed to visit tracks. While there remains hope that this could happen in 2020; 2021 seems more realistic.

Scioto Downs has reduced purses by 25 percent and until the casino on the grounds gets up and running, that’s the foreseeable. Still, most 12-race cards will dole out $140,000 in purses, so it’s not as dire as many thought. The Friday opens are each racing for $18,000, which is far from shabby.

In Northeast Ohio, Northfield Park is set to resume racing on Tues. May 26. Anybody who watches races there know that 15 and 16-race cards are commonplace and thanks to a sound breeding and sire stakes program, that should continue when Ohio’s 12-month a year track gets back to it next week.

In Minnesota, the state legislature is offering some relief to help Running Aces get back to racing and the track is planning to run a 50-day meet that they hope to start on June 20. It’s a sneaky good little race track with quality horses and some fast times over the 5/8 mile oval and perhaps deserves some of your attention when it opens for business.

In New York, many were surprised when Gov. Andrew Cuomo said horse racing tracks can open without spectators on June 1. Cuomo has been an important mouthpiece since the Covid crisis hit and has been cautious to reopen too soon. He is not known to be a big horse racing fan, but even he knows that reopening means something to our psyche and as soon as the announcement was made, NYRA wasted no time in announcing that the Belmont meet would begin on June 3 with the Belmont Stakes being contested on Sat. June 20 at the shorter 1 1/8 mile distance.

The harness tracks haven’t come out with dates yet, but Saratoga Casino Hotel is aiming for a Sun. June 7 opening and Buffalo Raceway stated on their website that they are working out details to open in “early June.”

The Jeff Gural owned tracks, Vernon and Tioga, are aiming for early June openings. Vernon would like to go on Sun. June 7 on its nice 7/8 mile racing surface. Tioga, located in New York’s Southern Tier, has a 5/8 mile track.

The New York Sire Stakes are expected to be run this year, although Buffalo Raceway informed the New York State Gaming Commission that they wish to not play host this year. Gural said he would take those Buffalo dates and run the races at Vernon and Tioga.

The Buffalo meet is scheduled to end in mid-July and per custom, the Western New York circuit shifts to Batavia Downs from July through December. Perhaps that’s a reason for Buffalo opting out of NYSS action; the thinking might be to take care of their own rather than have horses, trainers and drivers coming from the outside to race at Buffalo.

There are signs that things are somewhat coming back to normal and even though the return of harness racing doesn’t help those who still can’t go back to work, it suggests that the end will eventually come and life, albeit altered, will see some normalcy.



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