Things Are Warming Up

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

One of the joys–or pains–of harness racing is eliminations. For some, they are outright enjoyable. Bettors get a glimpse of who looks good or not so good for the upcoming final. For others, it causes confusion. If a horse looks good in his or her elimination that doesn’t always translate to success in the final. And there are also times where elimination races are run for no reason at all.

Freehold Raceway’s Dexter Cup, which like the Kentucky Derby, occupies the first Saturday in May had just eight entrants. Rather than have an elimination for post position only purposes, all eight will advance to the $150,000 final at the venerable track in The Garden State.

Five of the eight have paid their dues and are eligible for the Hambletonian this August at The Meadowlands. They include Brave By Design, Grizzly Bare, Pour Mea Double, Justice and Pretender. Whether they get there is a big if, but a victory in the Dexter Cup can only enhance.

The other three include Bar Coins, Paymaq and T Rex Blue Chip. Justice is trained by Ake Svanstedt, a man who loves driving in the Hambletonian, so we know if Justice can find a way to The Big M in late July and early August, Svanstedt will be there. The draw for Freehold’s signature race will be May 4.

Under the radar this week was a nice $100,000 stakes race at Massachusetts’ Plainridge Park on Thursday (April 28). A field of nine competed in the Grand Circuit race, the inaugural Paul Revere Stakes. In the race, Groovy Man took the lead before the quarter and was able to hold off a game and charging Layton Hanover to win in 1:52.1. Longshot Rocknroll Gold was third which helped with the trifecta payout. The $2 exacta paid $20.40 and the $2 trifecta a robust $424.00

Stakes races are important and all one has to do is look at yesterday’s handle at Plainridge Park. The Paul Revere race saw a handle of $43,101. The next biggest handle was race eight at $22k. The remaining nine saw handles ranging from $10k to $14k. Once again, a few more big dollar races and yes, better marketing, might indeed see higher wagering totals.

Last Monday, Yonkers had two showcase races; the Borgata Pacing Final and the Bluechip Matchmaker for pacing fillies and for those who lament that racing at Yonkers is too boring and too predictable, here’s hoping they caught the Borgata.

When you’re racing for a purse of $549,000, I suppose the tactics might be a bit different than one for $14,000, but this race was a dandy. Defending champ This Is The Plan tried his best to defend, but blistering fractions of 26.3 and 53.4 did him in and he ended up last of the eight starters. Jack’s Legend, who tried to keep up with The Plan also got cooked and finished seventh.

Those efforts set things up for those off the pace and Leonidas, who won all five of his preliminary legs, looked like he would take advantage of the hot pace. He gained the lead by three-quarters which went in 1:21.4, but 16 to 1 longshot Funatthebeach was ready, waiting, and raring and he took command in deep stretch to win in a sizzling 1:50.1 at Old Hilltop. He rewarded supporters with $33.20 on a $2 wager and put $274,500 in his bank account.

Funatthebeach is an 8-year old gelding by—you guessed it—Somebeachsomewhere out of Minnie Moose. We all know how great Somebeachsomewhere was as a racehorse; could he actually be better as a sire?

This group will be battling in future Yonkers Opens and any other pacing stakes races for older pacers this summer, so one thing is for sure—they’ll be beating each other up through the remainder of the year.

The Bluechip was a two-horse affair with Drama Act getting by Racine Bell in the stretch to prevail in 1:51.2. The 5-year old daughter of Well Said was driven by George Brennan and paid $8.10 to win the $381,000 stake.

The big race this Saturday is the Bobby Weiss Final for 3-year old pacers at Pocono Downs. Eight are entered with Lanjo Lee the tepid 5-2 favorite. All Or Nothing is 3-1, Letmecallyouback is 9-2 and Shake It, 4-1. Post time is scheduled for 4:12 pm ET for the $50,000 event.

Saturday’s Open Handicap Pace at The Meadowlands goes for $31,000 and features the horse that crossed the line first at last year’s Meadowlands Pace, Charlie May. Charlie was disqualified for interference, but he is back and making his first start of 2022. He’ll face five others who have combined to make 44 starts thus far this season, so it will be interesting to see how conditioned the Steve Carter trainee is. Post time for this race is scheduled for 10:05 pm ET.

Farewell Pompano Park

Track goes out on a high after 58 years of racing

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

Pompano Park raced for the final time last night with a whopping 16-race card. The first race went to post at 7:12 pm, the last 12:25 am, and by the time the beautiful tribute video concluded, it was heading towards 1 am ET.

Gabe Prewitt’s final race call was excellent; it offered some sentiment, but wasn’t too emotional or over the top. He referenced the track’s 58-year history along with labeling The Pomp as the Winter Capital of Harness Racing.

The card was so long, that for ADW subscribers in New York, they could bet on the last race. In the Empire State, betting on horse racing is not allowed on Easter Sunday (it used to be Palm Sunday, too), and for many, you couldn’t even watch the racing. Two of my ADWs “were down for maintenance,” all day long to make sure I didn’t get a bet in by mistake.

For some reason, it is okay to visit casinos, buy lottery tickets and bet on NBA games and the like, but horse racing? No. The track handled over $1.4 million, including $247,000 on the finale and I wonder how much more those numbers might have been had New York residents been allowed to play.

The card was great—good purses, full fields with quality racing. I’ve always enjoyed the Pomp on Sunday evenings. I refer to Sunday racing there as a sort of “Sunday Cooldown,” where you can watch a few races to relax before gearing up for the workweek.

No driver has won more races at The Pomp than Wally Hennessey, so fittingly he won four; Panacchio is the track record holder and fittingly, the 12-year old won race 14 with Hennessey in the bike in 1:51.3. And fittingly, Hennessey won the last race ever—Race 16—when he guided Beach Forecast wire-to-wire in 1:50.4.

I wasn’t overcome with emotion to see a track in a sport I love cease its operations. I guess part of me sees the old track and knows that even if racing were to continue there, improvements would not be made, purses would not rise significantly, and crowds would never be big again.

I’m not a doom and gloomer that thinks harness racing is on its way out. As long as there is interest in breeding, training and racing, the sport will move forward. Do I see more tracks closing in the future, yes, but maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe there are too many tracks and the sport might and could be better off with less.

It’s unlikely that new tracks will be built. Yes, Oak Grove is relatively new, but that was built by CDI so they could make money on their gaming machines. We all know that building a new harness racing facility is not going to be a good return on investment. In a way, it would be like building a new indoor shopping mall.

The interesting thought is what will these South Florida horsemen do next winter? Will they find a new place to go in the winter, will they find a place to operate in the summer, or worse, will some retire/leave racing because of cost?

Pompano was the only harness track in Florida and in the South. The closest track that races in the winter is Rosecroft, in Maryland. Will some of the Florida breds and connections make their way to the Old Line State?

From a purse and competitive standpoint, Monticello could make sense. The Sullivan County, NY track does race 52 weeks per year, usually four days per week. Saratoga, with its February through December schedule could also fit as could Freehold in New Jersey.

If the Pompano horsemen want to wait for warmer weather, they could choose places like Tioga and Vernon in New York. Those tracks offer similar purses to that of Pompano and open in the spring and run through the summer.

But those are questions for another day. For now, The Pomp is history and its history has been good for the sport. To me, it was always a fun little track. On my grainy ADW feed, it looked smooth, the sand appeared to be white and the times—for the quality of the horses—were always fast.

Last night, the slowest time was a 1:57.0 trot by Big Sky Rocket in Race 9 with the aforementioned 1:50.4 pace by Beach Report the fastest time of the evening and early Monday morning.

Since 1964, The Pomp has been the Winter Capital of Harness Racing and it was indeed, a great 58-year run. The sun has set on the Broward County icon; before too long, cranes will be on site and in a year or two, there will be no remnants that racing ever took place there.

We’ll have the memories though and going forward, that will be good enough.

Last Call For Pompano Park

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

It’s all over. After decades of being a winter haven for harness racing, Pompano Park will race for the last time tomorrow evening. In Florida, horse racing has been decoupled from casinos and because of that and the enormous value of real estate, harness racing has reached the finish line in Broward County. Why continue to subsidize harness racing when you don’t have to and can expand the casino and make more money?

I remember when Hollywood Park raced for the last time in 2013. Vic Stauffer’s final race call was spine-tingling and it will be interesting to hear what the Voice of Pompano, Gabe Prewitt has in store. It certainly won’t be easy for Prewitt. He has worked tirelessly the past few years at the track, creating the #SenditinArmy and increasing track handle significantly. Like us, he loves harness racing and brings energy, excitement and passion each and every night.

We live in a world of supply and demand and right now, the demand for harness racing is stagnant at best. The owners of Pompano Park know they can make more money by demolishing the track and expanding the casino and while that’s sad, economically, it’s understandable.

I understand and don’t understand the gambling business. We know that it preys on the elderly, the uneducated, the financially challenged. There is no doubt that most of the people in a gambling hall probably shouldn’t be in there. “Rich people” also go there, dressing up for an evening of fun and hijinks, but go to a casino on a Tuesday at 1 pm and tell me who’s there.

Harness racing is gambling, so it can attract the same clientele as the casino does, but betting on harness racing usually requires some thought. Certainly not a ton, but much more than pushing a slot button or holding on 14. There is a little investigative prowess that goes into harness race wagering, but then again, I guess you could just look at the field of eight, put $20 on number four and see what happens.

Harness racing is also an athletic competition, and the stars of course are the beautiful equines. Trust me, the horses know what they’re doing out there and contrary to what the anti-racing people say, most enjoy both training and racing. Like any athlete, when you train each day, you want to compete and means winning.

There was some optimism that a group would form and apply for a racing license in Florida, but that time has come and gone and after Sunday, that will be that. It is a shame because come next winter, there will be no warm weather winter racing on the East coast of the United States. Perhaps Cal Expo will pick up the Pompano customers and maybe the track will reach out to Prewitt to see if he can bring the #SenditArmy to Sacramento.

Harness racing is not going away. There are still plenty of tracks left—maybe even too many—so reports of the sport’s demise may be exaggerated. Oak Grove in Kentucky is relatively new to harness racing and recently added a 30-day spring-summer meet to go with its 16-day fall meet.

That said, the one thing that sport is worried about is future decoupling. What would happen in Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania if legislators decided that casinos no longer have to subsidize harness racing?

Yonkers would most likely level the track and expand the casino to include more games (maybe even poker and live blackjack) and perhaps a small arena for concerts and comedians. In New York, casinos saved harness racing. When the law went into effect, racinos had to be built on the grounds of a horse or harness racing track; or they had to support racing to get a gaming license (see Monticello). In New York, changing an existing law is hard, but certainly not impossible.

Florida decoupled and now, harness racing goes away. In Ontario (Canada), decoupling also occurred, but for now tracks like Woodbine Mohawk Park and smaller ones like Flamboro Downs are still racing. New Jersey has also survived without a casino, but the Garden State benefitted from a $20 million annual state subsidy and all three tracks have sports books which has generated billions in revenue since opening a few years ago.

The one thing we do know is that people love to gamble and it’s the way you can bet that is at times, maddening. In a basketball game, the score could Houston 95, Portland 91 with six minutes left and you can still get odds to make an in-game bet. I’ll argue that harness racing needs to get creative and higher a company that would allow bettors to bet on fractional times, who will lead at the quarter, the half and three-quarters—in race betting!

Offering more options is the way to lure new bettors into your sport. And these new bettors are not necessarily interested in the sport. They’re interested in the adrenaline that wagering gives them, the chance to make some extra money and as long as the options are viable, they’ll invest. If you can bet on how long it will take to sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl, then betting for a 27.3 opening quarter at Hoosier Park should be both available and easy to do.

The Pomp will put on its Sunday best for one final curtain call. I don’t think it will be as sad as some think; as they say, all good things must end. You and I won’t live forever, why should Pompano Park? We used to use typewriters, but no more.

Americans are nostalgic. For years, on track attendance at Pompano has been sparse, but you know the crowd will be big come Sunday. Some will say “Where were these people a few years ago when talk of ending racing was taking place.” That’s not how Americans operate. When the Soft Ice Cream place opens up for the first time each spring, the lines are usually long. The next day, no line at all. When we’re done, we’re done and for most Americans, spending a Saturday evening at the harness track no longer fits into their routines.

There are 16 races scheduled and each race has at least 10 starters, with 11 entered in the finale. The card starts at 7 PM ET and race 16 is slated for midnight which we know won’t happen. The track is going out big and will take it’s time with a card that could stretch to six hours. I’m sure the crowd will be big at the beginning, maybe bigger from 8 to 10 pm and by the end, sparse like it is at most tracks most days.

That’s probably the way it should be as it will give us the full gamut of 58 years of Pompano racing. In the beginning, the crowds were robust. Then, they began to dwindle once off track betting and other diversions took over, and now, you have a better chance of seeing pigeons over people at the tracks. In that way, the end could be a fitting one.

It will be a night filled with emotion. Some will be there for the first time ever, wanting to see history. Others will venture out for the 1,000th time. Some will make tons of bets, others none. Some will know what they’re doing, others not a clue. And, that’s the way it should be because this is America.

We’ll miss Pompano Park, but we’ll also be grateful for all the years she gave us. 

Making Harness Racing Better For The Bettor

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

It’s been a tough start to the 2022 harness racing year. Funky weather—where it freezes, thaws, freezes and thaws—has resulted in many cancelled race cards. Mother Nature, especially in winter, has and will continue to call the shots.

We also saw the conviction of Dr. Seth Fishman for supplying PEDS to tracks across the country and, when sentenced, faces up to 20 years in prison. Fishman’s list includes trainers in both thoroughbred and standardbred racing.

They say bad things come in threes; the third blow being that handle is down at most harness tracks. The latest USTA statistics show a 17.74 decrease compared to the same time last year despite 16 more days of racing.

The sport’s signature track, The Meadowlands is down 22 percent. In fact, The Big M, which tried to eliminate post drag scrapped the idea in an effort to counter for the decrease. As much as we the fan dislike post drag, it’s there for a reason and for now, this column will have to back off from complaining.

The obvious reason for the decrease would be mobile sports betting. More than 20 states now allow us to bet through apps and that includes mighty New York as well as Pennsylvania. New Yorkers are betting like their lives depend on it. There was more betting in New York in February than there was in Las Vegas.

Betting has come a long way and no longer requires watching entire games to see if you can cash a winning ticket. In football, you can bet if Odell Beckham scores a touchdown; in baseball, you can bet if a batter will swing at the first pitch. The instant gratification society is drawn to this, much like those who prefer scratch-off lottery tickets instead of waiting for the PowerBall drawing.

That was always horse racing’s appeal. You could bet a race and in 30 minutes (or less), bet another. In four hours, you had “ten” chances to cash in.  The mobile app and the “prop” bet has neutralized this advantage.

I saw it first hand at The Meadowlands a few years ago. Bryce Harper was batting for the Washington Nationals and the guy next to me bet $50 that he would strike out. After fouling off several pitches, Harper flew out to right. The guy was not happy, but that’s today’s wagering.

The positive: Horse racing can join the fray. If they’re creative, they can make their betting menu more attractive. As much as people complain about takeouts and low pools, the sport has several built in advantages. Few sports reward a bettor for finishing third, but horse racing does.

The sport has options it could utilize. In harness racing, bettors loathe it when a good horse draws post position eight on a half-mile track. If the horse sprints to the front, it’s tough to hold on; if it sits back, it’s tough to make a big move. But what if you bet the eight horse to finish eighth, or sixth based on your “natural betting instincts?”

Split times could also be factored in. What if a track set the opening quarter mile split at Yonkers at 28.1. The bettor could bet over or under and make a score, or the bettor could bet that the opening quarter will be 29.1.

Imagine the possibilities. The bettor could have several little side bets going on for just one race and it wouldn’t matter which horse wins the race. It would be like the guy who bet on Harper to go down swinging. I’m sure he didn’t watch the rest of the game.

Chris Bevilacqua, a respected sports media consultant is working on Simplebet, a platform that allows bettors to bet whether the next pitch is a ball or strike; the next football play a run or pass. These “microbets” are simple and more importantly, allow younger generations to make bets and then move on. Why not take that and apply it to horse racing? Let people bet the opening quarter, and then move on to another track and do the same thing. Keeping bettors involved with instant gratification is going to be important moving forward. The sports that do it best will flourish. Attendance at sporting events is down; so too, are TV ratings and while the live sporting event will always have a place, times are changing.

“The generation of fans that aren’t really watching TV, they’re on mobile devices,
 Bevilacqua said.  “You’ve got to market a whole new fan base that isn’t watching their televisions.

Horse racing was ahead of the curve with ADWs (Advanced Deposit Wagering), so this would be the perfect time to enhance that product. Microbets would be a step in that direction. If a fan could bet 28.2 for the opening quarter, the six to win the race and the eight horse to finish sixth, the chance for new bettors increases.

In the past, this would be too challenging for racetracks to do, but with the professionals involved—Caesars, DraftKings, FanDuel—the labor is there to make it to happen. In fact, the concern would be integrity, but as long as the owners, drivers and trainers are shielded from this action, it shouldn’t be a huge issue.

Traditionalists will always prefer the old fashioned way, but the traditionalists are aging and as they say won’t be around forever. If horse racing wants a younger fan base, the best way to draw them in is with quick hits. Let them bet more money on one race in a variety of ways and see if they can get that quick score. Traditionalists might know who the leading driver at Hoosier Park is, but the younger bettor doesn’t. They want to be able to make a quick bet and move on to the next one.

I’m sure harness racing is already thinking of ways to drive people to the sport to increase handle. Many lament that at many tracks, there is a division; the casino and the track. How many times have I seen on social media that “This casino could care less about racing”, or “The only reason that Yonkers has racing is because New York State requires it.”

Innovation and being able to change with the times is the answer and the sport of harness racing is in position to get it done. And the stars of the sport—the horses—will never know what’s going on which is the best part of it all.

Handle may be down right now, but it doesn’t have to stay down.

Protection for Harness Racing

Some states are working to keep Harness Racing alive. When will the sport do its part?

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

It looks like harness racing is here to stay in the Garden State for the time being. Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill into law that requires any sports book to offer harness racing. Translation: if the Meadowlands and Freehold want to offer sports betting, they have to offer at least 151 live harness racing dates (between the two of them).

This is good news for those that make their living in harness racing, and coupled with subsidies that the state pays to both thoroughbred and harness racing, things are going the right way in New Jersey.

That said, just because harness racing appears guaranteed for the foreseeable doesn’t mean everything is fine and dandy. The sports books at Freehold and the Meadowlands are doing great, but do the patrons notice that each place offers live harness racing every Friday and Saturday?

That’s the problem. Advertising focuses on free parlays and sports apps, but no attention is paid to the live event at each venue. For some reason, advertising monies will tell us about point spreads, NFL playoff action, but the sport that is contested live is ignored.

Marketing is tricky because it costs money. The dentist wants new patients and wants to increase the number of dental implant procedures he or she performs each year. Word of mouth is free, but the message doesn’t travel far. Advertising can get the message out, but it needs to be paid for, and thus, cuts into the bottom line.

That’s the conundrum in harness racing. The horsemen want all the dollars to go to purses; at Freehold, they’ll want to see the Preferred Handicap purse go from $12,000 to $15,000 or somewhere in between. Truth be told, the horsemen really don’t care what track handle is. The secretary writes the races, and when that’s done, the purses are set. If the purse is $11,000, it doesn’t matter if $5,000 or $100,000 was bet on the race; the top five finishers are getting a check and the track either makes a tiny profit or it doesn’t.

Mobile sports betting just became legal in New York State. There are commercials all day and all night. Mobile betting on harness racing has been around for years, yet nary a mention. I feel like I’m beating my head against the wall, but why can’t some money be spent on the promotion of harness racing at places that have sports books?

Other sports have caught on. In the 1970s and early 1980s, minor league baseball (and hockey, too) relied on word of mouth and newspaper coverage to get people to attend games. When I was kid, Buffalo had a Double A team from 1979-1984 and became a Triple A team in 1985 (they still are). They played their games at old War Memorial Stadium where about 3,000 on a given day or night was a “ggod” crowd. 

Then, the light went off.  Teams began marketing their product, luring families with fireworks, $1 dollar hot dogs and sodas and doing crazy  promotions in between innings that got people talking.  People actually predicted who would win the seventh-inning stretch race between Blue Cheese, Celery and Chicken Wing. As corny as that sounds those in attendance liked it.

At the old harness track, there is nothing in between races. One race finishes at 7:07 and it is dead until the next race at 7:33. That’s a great way to introduce your game to young audiences. The tracks just can’t imagine having some fun things in between races to attract young families to the track.

What kid doesn’t like horses? They’re beautiful and the Standardbred is not only that, it is also fit, strong, powerful, and athletic. If you could entertain the kids and then have Mom or Dad read the names from the program and ask the kids to pick a winner, it could be the best $2 ever spent. If the horse wins, the kids are happy, if not, there’s another race coming up and there is some entertainment in between.

When my kids were youngans, we did this.  They picked their favorite and I sauntered up to the betting window to make three $2 bets. The clerk knew what Dad was doing, said some nice things to the youngans and away we went. If we won, back to the same clerk we’d go for the next race.

After six or seven races, some food and drink, we headed home and trust me, they knew the score. My youngest still talks about her 40 to 1 score on a May Sunday at Yonkers and she doesn’t even watch the Super Bowl.

I can’t say my kids are huge harness racing fans, but they’ve been exposed and my feeling is that someday, they’ll expose their kids to it.  The more that are exposed, the better the chance to get long time fans. Offering some entertainment serves as that important take-away.

So, while the news coming from New Jersey is a relief, I wish they would do more. At some point, one of these days, that law won’t be passed and then what happens? What will the horsemen do then? If they have no interest in growing the game that they depend on, why would a corporate giant like MGM or Resorts World do it if they aren’t forced (by law) to have harness racing?  If the day comes where this protection isn’t there, you’ll see harness tracks go the way of the landline. A few will exist, but not enough to sustain the industry.

The New Jersey law is good for the sport. It should also serve as a wake-up call.

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.

Saratoga Takes Center Stage With Return of the Gerrity

Batavia Downs set to open Wednesday

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

The Joe Gerrity Memorial for older pacers is back on the harness racing schedule. The $150,000 event returns to Saratoga Casino Hotel with a solid field of eight entered. This will be the 12th annual running; the last being in 2019.

The eight horses have combined for 35 wins and $1,610,496 in 2021 earnings, and is led by This Is The Plan who comes in with 4-7-0 in 12 starts and over $535,000 in earnings–$257,000 of that came when he wired the field to win the $514,000 MGM Borgata at Yonkers Raceway in April. In the race, Mac N Cheese and Rockapelo were second and third and these two will challenge “The Plan,” on Saturday evening.

It won’t be easy for the Ron Burke trainee coming from the seven post, but with Hall of Famer driver Yannick Gingras in the bike, it can be done.  

Leonidas is 7-0-0 in 11 starts and if you like watching horses close, keep an eye on him. He’ll start from post one and nobody should be surprised if the Australian bred tries to wire the field. While he likes to sit back and close, he has shown in 2021 that he can win from the front as well.

Rockapelo, the Yonkers veteran comes in with 5-2-1 in 15 starts, his $222,500 in earnings ranks second to the aforementioned This Is The Plan. George Brennan will make the trip north from Yonkers to drive the colt for trainer Nik Drennan.

No horse in the field has raced more in 2021 than Western Joe. He’ll make his 18th start and will look for his sixth win to go along with four seconds and two thirds. And, he’ll have the best driver, Dexter Dunn, in the bike for trainer Christopher Choate.

The $150,000 Joe Gerrity Memorial Pace

1-Leonidas

2-Mac N Cheese

3-Backstreet Shadow

4-Rockapelo

5-Western Joe

6-Poseidon Seelster

7-This Is The Plan

8-Nicholas Beach

It’s a great night of racing at SCH. In addition to the Gerrity, the New York Sire and Excelsior Stakes will be in town featuring 2-year old colt/gelding pacers. There are five Sire Stakes races for $28,000 purses and five Excelsior races ranging from $6,700 to $15,000 in purses. There is also a $20,000 Open Pace that drew a full field of eight.

Down The I-90

With the season over at Buffalo Raceway, most of those horses will now head east to Batavia Downs for the remainder of 2021. The Downs opens its 59-day racing season Wednesday and will feature five divisions of the Excelsior Stakes and two divisions of the New York Sire Stakes for 2-year old filly trotters. There are 12 races on the card and two of the races are opens for filly and mare pacers.

The Downs will race Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sunday afternoons through August and then will switch to Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays in September and October. The season will end on Dec. 11.

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, the track set handle records in 2019 and this year officials are excited to have fans back watching races live. And to help the cause, the track will offer free full-card past performances for all 59 days of the season. All you have to do is visit Bataviabets.com to view and/or download.

“We couldn’t be more excited to be able to welcome all our longtime fans and friends back to Batavia Downs and see them watching trackside with absolutely no restrictions,” said Henry Wojtaszek, President/CEO of Western Regional Off Track Betting and Batavia Downs Gaming. “Last year was challenging for everyone, but that is in the past and we are laser-focused on the future. And the future is certainly bright for our customers and horsemen at Batavia Downs.”

This is the 74th season of racing at America’s oldest lighted harness track. The half-mile oval has hosted some of the best including WNY legend Niatross.

The fastest ever to race at Batavia Downs is pacer Aracache Hanover who toured the half-mile oval in 1:51.1 back in 2011. The fastest trotter is Winning Shadow, who stopped the clock in 1:53.4 in 2018. 

Wednesday post time is 6 pm. 

The Gerrity Is Back at Saratoga

Saratoga Casino Hotel adjust racing schedule as thoroughbred meet begins

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

Saratoga Casino Hotel has made a change—a good one. With the thoroughbred meet across the street about to start, the harness track, in its 80th year, has adjusted its schedule and will now race Monday and Tuesday afternoon and Saturday evening.  

It didn’t look like the track was going to make an adjustment. Like many businesses, SCH was deeply impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and because of it the track was racing Monday-Wednesday afternoons in 2021. Handle numbers are decent with the afternoon programs, but for those who work weekdays, getting there for live racing is improbable if not impossible.

The track is trying to take advantage of what everybody hopes will be large crowds at the thoroughbred meet. The harness track will run on Mondays and Tuesdays when the flat track is dark and hopefully will get some good crowds on Saturday evenings once the thoroughbred card is complete.

The track also announced that it’s bringing back its signature event, the Joe Gerrity Memorial for older pacers. The 12th annual pace takes place on July 24. This is a pleasant surprise. Earlier in the year, track officials told me that it was “very unlikely,” that the event would be raced in 2021. It did not take place last year.

It will be for less money. Normally a $260,000 race, this year’s edition has a purse of $150,000 and while that represents a 43 percent drop, at $150k, it will still lure a good field of the game’s older pacers. The Meadowlands Pace is this Saturday and features eight stakes races, one of which includes older pacers. Some of those may run back in the Gerrity and one that might come to the Spa is Leonidas A, last year’s winner of the $150k Potomac Pace at Rosecroft. He raced well at Yonkers this spring and has taken a liking to half-mile ovals and that could serve him well should he race at Saratoga.

Once the thoroughbred meet ends, SCH will revert back to the Monday-Wednesday 12 pm post schedule and it will be interesting to see what the 2022 schedule will look like. Matinee racing is likely to stay, but will the track add a fourth day?  The likely answer is no.

Some tracks are experiencing success by racing less. The Meadowlands is the prime example. The Big M only races Friday and Saturday evenings and handle numbers have been strong. Buffalo Raceway has raced Wednesdays and Saturdays since January and  has added Fridays as the meet nears its July 17 end.

Next week, Western New York harness racing shifts 30 miles east to Batavia Downs and that track will race Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays in July and August before switching to Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays in September, or once the Bills season begins.

Less is more can work in harness racing. Yonkers runs five days a week, 235 days per year and its handle numbers are low for a track that attracts quality horses. I’m not sure what the right number is. As a fan, you want to see more racing, but how does the consumer feel? If you love harness racing, you know that you only have two nights to watch the Meadowlands, so you better not take it for granted. On the other hand, Yonkers goes five days per week—is it taken for granted?

A lot of course depends on horses. Because Yonkers pays high purses, horsemen want to be there and that means full fields. At Buffalo, the purses are lower and like many tracks, you always worry about a horse shortage. When they raced twice a week, Buffalo was putting together 12 and 13 race cards. Now, with an additional day, there are eight races on the cards.

That’s another debate—how many races should be on a card? I have always felt that eight races is too few, but is 12 too many? Is 10 the right number? Is it better to have four days with eight races; or three days with 12-13?

On Tues. July 13, Yonkers had a 12-race card that began at 7:16 pm and ended at 11:13 pm. In a day where the sports fan complains of the 3 ½ hour baseball game, is nearly four hours of harness racing too much?

Last night, Buffalo Raceway put together a nine race card that started at 5:04 pm and ended at 7:55 pm, well under three hours. Buffalo is very good at not having the dreaded post drag, but if you were going to venture out to watch live or bet the whole card from home, being done in under three hours is a victory in itself.

Then, there is the extreme, Northfield Park, in Ohio. The 16-race Saturday card starts at 6:10 pm and the last race has an 11:30 pm post time. On Wednesday (July 14), the last race began at 11:40 pm. In fairness the 16 races had full fields (that’s never a problem at Northfield), so what is the track supposed to do? The horsemen are there, they want to race, so why not write the races?

As always, there isn’t an easy answer to these issues. Tracks like Buffalo want you in and out—10 races, three hours—while tracks like Northfield know people will come in, leave and perhaps come back later in the evening. Those in the East are unlikely to watch Race 16 at 11:40 pm, but for the harness player in the Mountain and Pacific Time zones, that’s prime time. Again, no easy answers.

Harness racing is having a good year. Overall handle is up, as is per race betting. Last year helped harness racing. With MLB, NBA and NHL seasons suspended because of Covid, harness racing was one of the only sports being conducted. It appears that some fans have remained even with things getting back to normal.

With summer reaching its halfway point, that means its time for thoroughbred racing at the Saratoga Race Course. Let’s hope the 2021 meet sees good weather and great crowds and let’s give kudos to Saratoga Casino Hotel for making a good move and for bringing back the Gerrity.

An Evening With The Grinders

Most harness racing write-ups focus on the better horses. This one doesn’t

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

Buffalo Raceway has opted to use classifications when writing races in 2021. Rather than write a race for “Non-winners of $3,000 in Last 5,” the raceway offers Class AA, A, B, C, D as well as open paces and trots.

When you read write-ups of racing action, most tracks write about the feature race. The feature is usually the race with the highest purse—at Freehold, that’s the $12,000 Preferred Handicap; at Yonkers, it’s the 30,000 open pace, or trot. You get the picture.

So, for this column let’s pay some attention to the lowest class. At Buffalo, horses can move up or down in class based on how they do. If a horse wins a couple at the Class D level, they can be moved to Class C. If they struggle in Class C, down to Class D they go.

The Sat. March 27 card at The Buff featured three Class D races, all run for $3,800 purses. In race 6, the eight horses were a combined 0 for 29 which explains why they were all participating in a Class D affair. Fancy Colt came into the race as the highest earner, with a 0-2-2 line in seven starts to go along with $3,482 in 2021 earnings.

Smooth Mara was sent off at 4/5 and he took the field through the quarter in 28.4 and the half in 58.1 and three-quarters in 1:28.4. The final quarter was Class D at its best; horse coming from everywhere. It looked like Fancy Colt was going to get there, but American General found room in the passing lane, and although he looked like he was trying to race sideways straightened up enough to trip the wire in 1:59.1 for his first win of the year. More importantly, he adds $1,900 to the bank account.

Race 10 was the second Class D event and like Race 6, the field of seven is struggling to find itself, a combined 1 for 30 on the year. In comparison, the open trot, with six horses, had eight wins in 33 combined starts. Bj’s Guy entered the race 0 for 9 with just $415 in yearly earnings, so he was my sentimental choice by a wide margin.

Silverhill Blaze, age 9, who came to Buffalo from The Meadows in January went to the lead from the outset and cruised to victory in 1:58.2. Our guy—Bj’s Guy—was first over and got up to second at three-quarters before fading to fifth. That fifth place finish did add $190 to the bankroll. He now has $605 in 2021 earnings, but don’t feel sorry for Bj’s Guy. If he stays healthy, he’ll get his money by year’s end. That’s what these grinders do.

Race 12 was the final $3,800 Class D event of the evening’s card and all eight horses were looking for their first wins of the season as they were a combined 0 for 28.

Lucky Millionaire had the best finish with a second place showing in five starts while four others had third place finishes on their 2021 resumes.

This turned out be a battle between an old warrior, 12-year old Gallant Major, and two babies, 3-year old American Expression and 4-year old Steuben Moose, and when the smoke cleared, age beat youth as Gallant Major strode home in 1:59.3. The 3/5 favorite rewarded supporters with $3.20 for a $2 bet.

The three Class D races had winning times of 1:59.1, 1:58.2 and 1:59.3 while the Open Pace went in 1:55; the two Class B paces went in 1:54.4 and 1:57; the four Class C paces went in 1:59.3, 1:57.4, 1:57 and 1:57. Even the Open Trot was won in 1:57.

But let’s forget about time. Saturday night in Buffalo was a time to celebrate the Class D pacers, who despite their collective year-to-date struggles, put on a good show for the wagering faithful and because of that, let’s tip the hat to 11-year old American General, 9-year old Silverhill Blaze and 12-year old Gallant Major. Each picked up their first wins of the year and each pocketed $1,900.  They’ll be back soon and we’ll be waiting—and cheering—for them.

Buffalo Raceway returns to action on Wed. March 31 with an 11-race card that features five trots and five Class D races. Post time is 6 pm ET.

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.