Horsing Around: Harness Racing Observations

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

A Nor’easter snow storm hit the Northeast Wednesday evening and into Thursday. When the snow relented, some places saw 30 inches of the white stuff. As a result, Yonkers Raceway and Monticello cancelled their Thursday race cards.

On Friday, Yonkers tried to get back at it. They ran one race. On TV, the track didn’t look good and soon after that race, the drivers expressed concern and the rest of racing was cancelled. Track officials made the decision early Saturday to cancel that evening’s card and the critics immediately took to social media with concerns.

The critics had a point. The snow ended by noon on Thursday, that gave the raceway plenty of time to get the track ready for Friday and Saturday, but for some reason, the Yonkers surface wasn’t ready, while the Meadowlands—20 miles away—was.

I guess it depends on how you look at things. Could they have raced? Perhaps, but Yonkers races 235 times per year and erring on the side of caution (especially in 2020) was probably not a bad idea. I understand those that were upset, but it’s two days of racing and if the drivers (who don’t make money when cards are cancelled) say it’s unsafe, why question that?

The good news is that Yonkers will race Monday and Tuesday before taking their normal holiday break, but next year, things might look a bit different at Old Hilltop.

The track has requested to race Monday thru Friday in 2021; normally, they follow a Monday, Tuesday, Thursday thru Saturday schedule. The New York State Gaming Commission has to approve this which should be a formality unless the other New York tracks put up a fight. Buffalo/Batavia races Wednesdays and it’s usually their best handle night. Would they be upset if Yonkers races on Wednesday? Will those that turn to Buffalo/Batavia move to Yonkers?

If the move is approved, Yonkers can avoid facing off against the Meadowlands on Saturday evenings. And, those that drive at Yonkers could drive the 20 miles to make some extra money at the Big M on the last day of the week.

George Brennan, one of the top drivers at Yonkers says he would gladly pick up some drives at the one mile oval in East Rutherford. He wouldn’t be the only one.

There is a part of me that would like to see Yonkers bring back Sunday afternoon cards. That way, they could race Sunday-Thursday and leave both Friday and Saturday to the Meadowlands. A Sunday noon card would be over by 5 pm and there wouldn’t be any racing until 7 pm on Monday and after Thursday’s card, those that make their living at the track wouldn’t have to race again until Sunday.

This won’t happen; the track has submitted their dates and is waiting for approval from the state. Why not try the Monday-Friday schedule and see what happens. I will admit, after my five-day work week ends, I do enjoy watching racing on Friday nights and would probably miss Yonkers if they weren’t racing.

Speaking of the Meadowlands, the 2021 schedule is out and there are 90 racing dates on the calendar. The track will continue to race primarily on Friday and Saturday nights and that formula has worked very well for them. There are some Thursdays sprinkled in along the way, but the Friday-Saturday schedule suits the track well.

When you look at the schedule, and you see just two days of racing, you wonder if they should race more, but before you blink your eyes, it’s Friday once again. Some tracks—Monticello and Yonkers—prefer to race five days per week, while some believe less is more. In 2020, Buffalo and Batavia raced just two times per week (Wednesday and Saturday) and that didn’t hurt them at all. In fact, handle was up at Batavia by a whopping 151 percent.

In 2021, both of those tracks will get back to adding Fridays, but Buffalo, which begins its 2021 season on Jan. 27, is racing “just” 66 times and won’t add a third day of racing until the weather warms.

The Meadowlands should have a banner year. In addition to the Hambletonian, the Meadowlands Pace and the TVG Finals, the tack will host the 2021 Breeders Crown races on October 29 and 30, and while I’m a big proponent of moving the event around, you’re never going to beat having the sport’s best horses racing on a one-mile oval. It’s still the best track, the fairest and the most wagered on track in the sport.

Freehold Raceway, New Jersey’s afternoon harness racing track, will race 82 times in 2021 and like The Big M will do so primarily on Friday and Saturdays. The state legislature restored $15 million in purses subsidies that were originally not part of the state budget, so that comes as a relief for horsemen in the Garden State. Last year, the subsidy was $20 million, but nobody should be complaining about a $5 million cut in what has been a terrible year in many, many ways.

The sport weathered quite the storm in 2020. Many tracks rely on casino revenue and with Covid, many casinos were closed. But fortunately, the tracks were able to persevere and get back to racing. Yonkers came back, but was going to close on Sept. 12, but once the casinos reopened, they decided to move forward and will conclude its season on its regularly scheduled date of December 22. The same can be said for Saratoga Casino Hotel, which was able to race two times per week through November.

2021 will see a gradual return to normal. Contrary to what many believe, the vaccines are not going to magically snap things back to 2019. Many venues will still have limited or no fans allowed and protocols that were put in place during the pandemic might be the new norm going forward.

The great thing is that the sport got through what we all think is the worst of this pandemic. If they can get through this, what can’t they get through? Many tracks saw record handle numbers and the challenge is simple—how do they keep that going.

The pandemic brought new followers, followers who were looking for action. Obviously, many stuck around even when the NBA, NHL, NFL and MLB came back. The sport needs to work hard to keep them and attract new fans. Fixed odds wagering might one of the ways, but we’ll save that for another day. 

The sport did well in 2020 despite the hardships. Let’s hope 2021 is better for all of us. 

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