Hambletonian 2021: A Return to Normalcy

I thought about not going. I’m glad that thought went away

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

EAST RUTHERFORD—I must admit, I debated it. In 2017, I went to my first Hambletonian and liked it so much that I made return trips in ’18 and ’19. Like most, I sat out in ’20 due to Covid and this year, I wasn’t sure if I should go.

It wasn’t because of Covid. We know the delta variant is causing another surge and to be honest, I am sick and tired of Covid and all the news it generates. On one hand we’re all going to die; on the other, all the beaches, restaurants and bars are packed once again. Is it as bad as the media says? The public thinks that Covid is over.

Getting back to the 2021 Hambletonian. I’m usually in my car for the two hour 15 minute, 140 mile drive at 9:30 AM, but this year, I stalled. I got up, drank some coffee, read some papers, and then went on a four-mile walk. During my stroll, I pondered. Part of me wanted to go, part of me wanted to stay home and catch the big races on TV. Like many, I’ve been in a bit of fog; a fog that began in the summer of 2020.

Finally, at 11:30 AM, I decided that I had to go. I didn’t want apathy to be the reason that I stayed home. I’m a big harness racing fan and this is the Super Bowl of the sport. The Meadowlands, the first Saturday in August, the best horses that the sport has. Why miss it.

I got to my seat at 2 PM. Naturally, I missed the first five races, but there were 16 on the card and the big ones were set for later in the day. Believe it or not, I was still in a fog for the first few races. I looked at my watch and actually thought about going home and missing the Hambo Oaks and the Hambo. 

I decided to go for a walk and to take some photos and then, it kicked in. The juices started flowing and I actually sauntered up to the betting windows to make some wagers.

The Maeadowlands does know how to put on a good show. The crowd was probably smaller than in past years. In ’17, ’18 and ’19, the crowds were announced anywhere from 18 to 19,000. I’m not good at estimating, but I have to believe that there were at least 15,000 in attendance this year.

The results of the labor shortage were in effect. The back food court was completely closed; my guess is because of lack of workers. The good news was that there were plenty of food trucks on site, so nobody went hungry or thirsty on this the 96th Hambletonian.

When I go, I have a plan. Everybody has to pay $5 to enter the grounds and that includes a nice Hambletonian hat. This year’s hat was really nice—solid black with no advertising at all. It’s a hat you can wear anywhere—with pride. After entering, I go and get my grandstand seat for another $10, preferably in section 105, which is right at the finish line. This year, I was able to sit in Section 105, row seven and seat seven.

I’m always surprised at how empty these grandstand seats are. I guess people prefer the picnic area, the apron and the rail. I did have some fears about getting there later in the day, but there were plenty of seats in section 105 for this year edition.

By race 10, I was locked in, studying the program, making some wagers and trying to figure out whom to pick in the Oaks and the Hambo.  I decided this year to look for an underdog who probably couldn’t win, but might be able to get a second or third at a good price.

The savvy bettor would have taken the favorites and wheeled them with longshots in the hopes of scoring a big exacta or trifecta. I’ve been following harness racing for over 40 years and I have never wheeled anything. I’ll admit that’s a bit sad, but it’s just something I’m not knowledgeable enough to do.

In the Oaks, I thought Iteration had a chance—not to win, but perhaps grab a second or third. Like the French like to do, I decided bet $5 bucks on Iteration to show and lo and behold, she ended up second and paid $9 to show. Since I had that 2.5 times, I cashed a ticket for $22.50, which covered my $15 admission and my $5 program. If I was the savvy guy, I would have bet her and winner Bella Bellini and scored more cash, but I was happy making the $17.50 profit.

In the Hambo, I liked Captain Corey—a lot. I’ll stop short of calling him a superhorse, but for some reason, I didn’t love this year’s Hambo field. Was it a bad crop of 3-year old trotters? No, but it wasn’t a great crop either.

I liked Venerate, but the guy sitting in front of me didn’t think driver Andy Miller was in the same class as the others. I also liked Ambassador Hanover, mainly because Scott Zeron was in the bike and Zeron always seems to drive well on Hambo Day. I also liked that his odds were 34-1.

That’s the other thing I don’t understand. We all know that if a horse has odds to win of 14-1, if you bet $2 for said horse to win, the payout will be about $30. But, I have no idea what a 34-1 horse will pay to show. That’s because there is less money in the show pool and the payout is determined by how people bet to show on each of the horses.

Anyway, I thought Zeron could steer Ambassador Hanover to a third place finish, so, like I did in the Oaks, I bet $5 to show.

As expected, Captain Corey did his thing. He trotted the fastest opening quarter in Hambo history in 26-seconds flat and then blitzed through the half in 54 and even though he came back in 57 seconds, he had plenty left in the tank to pull away for the win.

It’s interesting when you bet to show. Of course, it gives you three chances to win some money; so even though Captain Corey was pulling away, I had my eyes on the rest of the field. Ambassador Hanover was 10th at the quarter, 10th at the half and ninth at three-quarters, but then he kicked into overdrive. In the middle of the stretch he was fifth and at the wire, it looked like he might have ended up fourth, but a photo was needed.

They kept showing the replay and each time, I had a different opinion. It looked like he was fourth and then third, but I couldn’t tell. Finally, the result was official and my horse—the magnificent Ambassador Hanover—did in fact, finish third, paying $13.60 and because I had that 2.5 times, that paid me $34, a $29 profit on my wager.

I learned two things on Hambo Day 2021. One, never hem and haw about going. It’s the biggest day of the harness racing year, I live 140 miles away and it really is a no-brainer to go. In fact, not going would be a travesty. The other takeaway—don’t be afraid to bet a horse to show and when doing so, don’t be cheap, bet $5 or even $10.

The last two years—the Covid Fog—have been difficult for many, not just me. Attending this year’s Hambo felt like things (at least for me) were returning to normal. I will tip my new black Hambo hat to the folks at the Meadowlands and if things work out, I may just venture back there on Sat. Oct. 30 for the second night of the Breeders Crown.

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