O Canada: Harness Racing Is Back

To be fair, it should have never been forced to shut down

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

There is good news coming from Canada as four tracks returned to racing this week. For the last two months, the Ontario government shut down harness racing due to Covid-19. Now, with numbers improving, racing will resume at The Raceway at Western District and Rideau Carlton on Tues. Feb. 16; Woodbine Mohawk Park on Thurs. Feb. 18 and Flamboro Downs on Sun. Feb. 21.

No fans will be allowed and the resumption of racing couldn’t come quick enough. Unused purse monies at Woodbine Mohawk Park were allocated to horseowners. In December, owners were paid $300 per horse and $1000 per horse in January.

While that helps, Central Ontario Standardbred Association president Bill O’Donnell says that only goes so far.

“That might take care of the bare bones, but people live week to week and that doesn’t cover everything, especially things like vet bills,” O’Donnell, said. “I think many horses got sold to the United States, which could hurt our horse population.”

The last point is a concern, particularly at Rideau Carlton, Flamboro and The Raceway where purses are smaller, so it will be important to keep an eye on field sizes over the next coming weeks.

The prevailing thought was that harness racing would be given an exemption during the most recent lockdown. Tracks were shut down from March 20 to June 5 and when racing resumed, there were no Covid outbreaks. That wasn’t enough to sway the Ontario Provincial Government, led by Premier Doug Ford to keep racing going.

Because horses need to be tended to every day, many states figured if that’s the case, then why not allow racing as long as strict protocols were adhered to.

The good news is that entries are posted on the Standardbred.ca website and so far, so good. On Tues. Feb 16, The Raceway has 11 races with 88 entries and Rideau Carlton has 13 races with 104.

New York Announces Lucrative Sire Stakes

In another sign that things are returning to normal, New York State released its 2021 Sire Stakes schedule and unlike last year when some tracks opted out, all seven tracks will be hosting action this summer.

The season kicks off when 3-year old filly pacers invade Saratoga Casino Hotel on Wed. June 2 and ends on Fri. Sept 10 with all eight finals contested at Yonkers on what is referred to as “The Night of Champions.”  On that night, the eight races will have $200,000 purses.

There are two divisions of the New York program; the top horses run in the Sire Stakes. These are the best that the state has to offer. I refer to this division as the Varsity.

There is also the “Varsity B” series, called the Excelsior. The purses are lower as are the payments, but the goal is to make sure your horse can compete in the appropriate series.

How does it work? In New York, if you want your 2-year old to compete in the Sire Stakes, you have two scheduled payments that total $550. For 3-year olds, the cost is $700.

That gets you in. From there, there are five scheduled races for each division. In those races, the purses hover around $60,000 and after the five races, the eight with the most points make the final with the next eight settling for the consolation.

On paper, if your horse wins five series races and the final, that could be $250,000 in earnings—not bad for a $700 buy-in and while that’s the best case scenario, you can see why the top trainers, drivers and owners like state sponsored racing action. Even a fifth place finish in the final nets a $10,000 payday.

The Excelsior Series races are usually in the $15,000 range during the summer with the final worth $60,000. For 2 and 3-year olds, the buy in is $450 and like the higher division, there are five to six opportunities to qualify for the finals, which takes place at the venerable 7/8 mile oval at Vernon Downs on Sat, Sept. 11.

Monticello Update

It took some time, but Monticello Raceway released its 2021 racing schedule. The track’s owners, Resorts World, gets it fair share of criticism, but it is not warranted here. The track is scheduled to race 223 times this year. That’s up from its norm of 207. The track races 52 weeks a year and to get those extra days, several Fridays were added.

The other positive about The Mighty M is that the track often tries to make up days that were lost due to weather. The track had to cancel four times the week of February 1, so don’t be surprised to see some Fridays added to get those four days back.

The track will play host to the aforementioned Sire and Excelsior Stakes four times over the summer with 2-year old filly pacers stopping first on Mon. July 19.

Bruce Aldrich is one of the stalwarts at Monticello and last week, he picked up career win 8,000; with over half of them coming at Monticello. The big win came on Mon. Feb 8 when After The Lovin sped home in 1:57 2/5 in a $5,200 pace. As the horse neared the finish, longtime track announcer Howard Oil showed class by saying, “Bruce, you’ve just gotten your 8,000th career victory, congratulations.” 

Aldrich has just under $32 million in purse winnings over his long and outstanding career.

They say that good things come in threes and that’s certainly the case here. With Canada coming back, the New York Sire Stakes announced and more action at Monticello, that’s a good week to say the least and a joyful column to write.

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