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.



NYRA Chooses Saratoga Over Aqueduct For Its Summer Meet

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

Special thoroughbred edition

Last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he thinks Saratoga can race this summer without fans. While not a surprise, his words hurt those that enjoy summer, enjoy horse racing and enjoy Saratoga Springs. Each summer, the track draws 1 million in attendance and as we know, there is the trickle-down effect with hotels, restaurants, bars, convenience stores etc. all benefiting from the 40 days of racing.

That said, 2020 will go down as The Lost Summer. At some point things will begin to open up, but this summer, concerts, festivals, fairs, sporting events, and patrons at Saratoga, likely will not. The hope is that this summer will be a small—and required—price to pay so the next 30 summers will be open and back to normal.

The wheels were turning in the NYRA offices last week for they had a decision to make. With no fans, do they still conduct the 40-day meet at Saratoga, or do they run the meet in New York?

The Saratoga meet is bet heavily from around the country and the world. It draws the best owners, trainers and jockeys; and its daily purses are enormous with $85,000 allowance races appealing to many. And, that was likely the deciding reason when NYRA announced Monday that they’re coming to Saratoga this summer.

Would having a fan-less meet still attract enough bettors to justify the move? My guess is yes. The bettor in Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri et al, who bets the track each summer but never visits will still want to bet. The stakes races are appealing—the Jim Dandy, the Diana, the Alabama, the Woodward, the Fourstardave—they are fixtures on the calendar and bettors gear up for them and bet them—and the meet–with both fists.

A fan-less Saratoga does present obstacles. NYRA is headquartered in Queens, minutes from Aqueduct and a few more minutes from Belmont Park. If you’re not going to have fans at Saratoga, why not cut the logistics and the associated costs and stage the Saratoga meet in New York? I’m sure this was debated on more than occasion.

That’s just one issue. Before Covid-19 hit, there was major construction going on at the Belmont grounds; mainly the building of a new arena for the NHL’s New York Islanders. If the Saratoga meet is run downstate, it will certainly be run at Aqueduct. Nothing against the Big A, but we all know in a NYRA track beauty contest, she comes in third.

An Aqueduct Travers and an Aqueduct Whitney would surely draw big pools, but they wouldn’t be as big as they are when they’re run at Saratoga and that definitely played into NYRA’s decision to go ahead with a meet at the nations’ oldest thoroughbred track; a track that first ran while the Civil War was going in back in 1864.

There is a thing called star power and Saratoga has it as well as the distinction of being the summer place to be. Americans are calendar based. For horse racing fans, summer means Saratoga, winter means Aqueduct; it’s tough to reprogram. We see that every time a spring football league tries to give it a go. As much as Americans love football, the calendar says football is a fall sport, not a spring one.

Every summer, NYRA has to move its operations from Queens to Saratoga Springs. Trainers, owners, jockeys, hot walkers, etc. all have to find places to live for 40 days. It isn’t cheap, but the revenues generated always outweighed the costs and those monies help keep NYRA in the black.

Now, NYRA will have to project. How much will they lose with no fans; how much more would they lose in handle if they ran the Saratoga meet at Aqueduct?  The NYRA accountants were working overtime the last few weeks. We know a Saratoga at Saratoga meet will have more handle than one at Aqueduct, but will it be enough to justify moving operations north for 40 plus days, knowing fans will not be permitted on the grounds?

Tracks make money from off-track betting; the number is roughly 30 cents on the dollar, so for every $10,000 bet, NYRA gets about $3,000. When that is added to on-track handle, which stays with NYRA, it’s easy to see why the Saratoga meet–with fans–lines those coffers. The hope is that with other sports out of action, more people will open up online bettering accounts and bet often this summer at the fabled track.

As good as Oaklawn Park did with $41 million wagered on the 14 race Arkansas Derby card, exactly $0 was bet at the track, so at best, Oaklawn got about $14 million.

Right now, track handle across the nation has been good because gamblers are struggling. With most sports on hiatus, horse racing is one sport that can be bet on and bet on now. The tracks that made it through the Covid-19 crisis—Oaklawn, Tampa Bay, Gulfstream and even little Fonner Park in Nebraska—have seen good handle numbers this winter, that despite many workers in the country losing their jobs.

Gamblers—from those that bet $2 to those that bet $200—want the action. They like to watch sports with some skin in the game and many have turned to horse racing to get the adrenaline going. If baseball, basketball, hockey, and gulp, football can’t get back on the field, horse racing should continue to benefit and hopefully, attract new and more importantly, permanent fans. They acquired these new fans by attrition; the key going forward—can they keep them when the team sports come back?

There are those who don’t understand how horse racing can operate and baseball cannot, and the answer is simple. Whether there is or isn’t racing, the horses have to be cared for each day. People have to be on the grounds daily tending to the Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds. They need to be walked, trained, bathed and yes, they need to get their workouts in.

We’re all concerned about the spread of the Coronavirus and we’ve seen the virus shut tracks down, but Wal Mart is open, as are grocery stores and collision shops. Horse racing is not “essential,” but in a way—because there are live horses on the grounds—it is. As long as precautions and safeguards can be put in place, more tracks should open as states begin to ease some restrictions. Churchill Downs is planning for a May 16 comeback and harness tracks could follow that lead.

We may not be ready for 30,000 to go through the Saratoga turnstiles this summer, but we may be ready to watch from home and plunk down a few bucks on a big race at “The Spa” in July and August. And, if all goes well, we’ll see a Kentucky Derby, a Preakness, a Belmont, a Travers and a Breeder’s Cup.

Sports fans are passionate, but most are realistic. If it’s too dangerous to play, then the sport shouldn’t be played, but Oaklawn Park, Tampa Bay Downs and Gulfstream Park showed that sports can be played, pandemic be damned.

Covid-19 has given sports fans lemons; but there is time to make some lemonade. A Saratoga summer could offer us that.

Is California Saving Horse Racing?

Last year, the tracks were under intense scrutiny; this year, they run while others shut down

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

Joe Jackson once sang, that you “can’t get what you want, until you know what you want,” and in this year of the unpredictable, that rang true when the California Horse Racing Board denied Cal Expo’s request to shift from racing Friday and Saturday to Tuesday and Wednesday. That’s what the track wanted, or so it seemed.

There are many reasons for why these things happen and why the request was denied. On paper it seemed easy:  the track races two days per week and because of these special circumstances (COVID-19) they wanted to move the two days that they race.

There is always more to the story. Perhaps the CHRB denied the request because of revenue expectations and projections. Cal Expo has raced on Fridays and Saturdays for quite some time and because of that, the state knows what the track will generate and for perhaps that reason, didn’t want to take the chance by allowing the date changes. So, this is what we call the familiarity rationale.

Another reason is that, at some point, we will get back to normal and other tracks—like Buffalo, Northfield, Yonkers—will come back and re-establish themselves on those evenings. Why interfere with that familiarity. A track like Buffalo handles more on Wednesday than it does when it races on Fridays and Saturdays. Handle could suffer if it has to now compete with Cal Expo.

The fact the Cal Expo is still racing defies the odds. The state of California has been hit hard by the Coronavirus and Gov. Gavin Newson—not a horse racing fan—has pretty much ordered Golden Staters inside as much as possible.

Let’s give Newsom some credit here. There are two things we know about him: he’s not having President Trump over for dinner and he would shed no tears if horse racing ended. Yet, at the present time, he is playing nice with both the President and the horse racing industry.

Maybe that’s because right now, Santa Anita, Los Alamitos, Golden Gate and Cal Expo are making some money and paying some taxes to California coffers. We all are praying for two things—the virus to go away and for the economy to not disappear, so maybe that’s why Newsom is allowing the horses, pacers and trotters to keep racing.

In the end, maybe this can help the struggling sport of horse racing in the Golden State. We all know what happened in the winter of 2019-2020 when it seemed like a horse was dying on a daily basis at Santa Anita. The calls for its end were loud and clear, but this year, those calls have gone away because of this pandemic and deep down, human life will always be more important than anything else.

When we do get back to normal, perhaps Newsom may develop a new found respect for the sport of horse and harness racing. He may never like it, but when most everything was shut down in the state of California, horse racing remained and because it was the only entertainment in town, wagering on it increased.

It would surprise no one if the Newsom Administration reached out to those involved in horse racing and came to some sort of quiet agreement, or at the very least, an understanding. I could see a situation where the state quietly tells the sport to get its house in order with regards to safety, whipping and drugs but won’t not publicize every bad thing that occurs; a mutual understanding, if you will.

In exchange, the sport has to put real, measurable reforms in place. Last year’s Del Mar meet was a good beginning with more vets on site along with the scratching of any horse that might not have been 100 percent sound. That didn’t stop a horse from dying during the Breeder’s Cup Classic, but that was the only death that did occur over two days and 14 races.

It’s a funny thing—we have politicians say that they’re willing to die to save the economy for their grandchildren, but these are the same people that say one equine death is one too many.  We all know that you can’t have it both ways.

There is nothing good with the Coronavirus pandemic, but in some weird, twisted way, it may lead to a thawing between the California government and those that run horse racing in the Golden State.



Horse Racing Still Going? Is That Okay?

There are bigger issues in the country, but it is okay to miss sports. Could horse racing provide some relief?

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

These are unprecedented times. We have had other times where sports were on hiatus, but this many?  At once? In such quick and short order?

The date will live in infamy—Wed. March 11, 2020. Shortly after 9 pm ET, President Trump delivered an address from the Oval Office about how the government will respond to COVID-19. As his speech was ending, the NBA stunned us all by announcing that it was suspending its season as Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobare had tested positive for the virus.

That triggered a tidal wave. Within two days, just about everything sports-related had been postponed or canceled. The NCAA tournament. The Masters. The NHL, MLB as well as college sports—and seasons.

If you love sports, this is a weird time. I am one who sort of lives through sports. Like most, I have a job, kids, bills to pay and things to do, but for me, sports is my hobby, my outlet, my escape.

My routine is like most. I get up early, go to work, come home, make dinner, tend to the family and then for a few hours, sit on the recliner and watch sports until I decide to go to bed or fall asleep either on that recliner or the couch.

We know that in the grand scheme of things, sports are trivial. We may debate for hours, days and weeks where Tom Brady will play in 2020, but in reality, it’s not that important.  But for millions, sports are important; it’s how we spend our free time.

I always felt kind of sorry for people that don’t follow sports or don’t know anything about them. Think about where you work—just about every day, sports is brought up. Every office has fans, some you like, and some you loathe. Some know what they’re talking; most do not. But what about the person who doesn’t have any idea what you’re talking about?  Don’t you feel sorry for them just a little bit?

My Mom is the classic example. She knows enough about sports to not be totally bored when conversations are brought up, but at least 500 times, I have heard her tell me on Saturday that “we have all these TV channels and there is nothing on.”

Think about that from a sports perspective. She said that there was nothing on TV on a Saturday. If you love sports, you’re laughing, because with sports, there is always something on. Even Christmas Eve, the Hawaii Bowl is on and for years served as a nice backdrop so a guy like me could wrap presents for his young, Santa Claus believing children.

Now, I feel like my Mom; there really is nothing on.  Sports fans follow their own calendar and March is a crazy time of the year.  In addition to March Madness, many winter sports are concluding.

At the high school level, the state championships being played are dizzying—basketball, swimming and driving, ice hockey, track and field, bowling, wrestling and volleyball. Sports wise, March comes in like a lion and goes out like one, too.

One sport is trying to keep going and that’s horse racing. Many tracks have barred spectators, but have not canceled. Some tracks have postponed of course. In New York, both Monticello and Yonkers have canceled cards; Yonkers says through March 18 and Monticello won’t race through March 29.

But many tracks are racing. They’re not allowing fans, but as we all know, most that bet on horse racing are doing so at home or miles away from a racetrack. Some even joke that banning fans from racetracks has already occurred. And, with nothing else going one, handle is up at many of the tracks. Aqueduct handled over $6 million with no fans there and Rideau Carlton saw a huge increase from $117,197 on March 8 to $266,400  on March 15.

Is this the time for horse racing to gain some new fans? With nothing else going on, could horse racing provide a little solace, that outlet that sports has always done? The sport has garnered attention for the wrong reasons in the last year—racing deaths, the disqualification of Maximum Security at the 2019 Kentucky Derby and just last week, a major drug and doping scandal that to date, has seen 29 arrests and indictments.

The sport carries on and over this past weekend, several tracks were racing. I have to think that ESPN, a 24-hour sports network has to be wondering what they’re going to do over the next month or two. March is their time with the NCAA tournament, the NBA, MLB and NFL free agency. Now, they have nothing. Could they be interested in broadcasting some horse and harness racing?

If you’re a fan of horse and harness racing this could be “our,” chance; the chance to gain some new fans with very little else is going on. The harness racing lover is thinking about “Live from The Meadows in Washington, PA, ESPN presents Harness Racing Today.”

What about Wednesday night? Could “Live Harness Racing from Buffalo Raceway,” make its way on to one of the ESPN or Fox networks?

Could this work?  Would a network as big as ESPN or Fox be even the slightest bit interested? Probably not, but why not call them, and have them tell you no rather than just assume.

I may live in a dream world, but when I wake up and see that no team sports are scheduled, I feel like I’m living a nightmare. We all want to wish the Coronavirus away, but we know that can’t happen we know that it will take time and we hope that the damage is minimal.

Sports has always helped us cope through tough times. In 1980, a group of college kids lifted the nation by winning the Gold medal at the Winter Olympics at a time when the country was struggling politically, economically and socially.

After Sept. 11, 2001, sports helped us heal and the 2001 World Series was emotional as it was riveting.

During World War II, it was President Franklin Roosevelt who encouraged baseball to keep playing and even though many stars were in the service, the seasons continued.

This is different as this pandemic has taken team sports away from us, which is contradictory to those above-mentioned moments.

Could horse racing provide a little relief?  I think so, but I’m probably a one-man gang here.

But I’ll always be a dreamer.




Time for Action in Pennsylvania

Harness racing has always been a reactive industry, maybe it’s time for it to take some initiative

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

There is panic in Pennsylvania and who is causing it? Governor Tom Wolf. In his proposed FY 2021 budget, Wolf is calling for $204 million to be taken from horse racing tracks and used to help offset the high cost of attending college and university in the Keystone State.

What exactly does this mean and how exactly does this work. In PA, every race track has a casino. Patrons come in and they have choices. They can play the casino games or they can bet on the horses. For every dollar that is bet at the casino, a small portion of it goes to horse racing. The horse racing tracks use those monies to increase purses so those that make their living in horse racing can make their living in horse racing.

The figure comes out to about $250 million per year and those monies help everybody involved in the sport. Drivers make more, as do trainers, breeders, farmers and so on down the road. Economists state that horse racing in PA employs 20,000 people and generates $1.6 billion to the state’s economy.

The harness racing is pretty good in Pennsylvania. The Meadows, located on the Western side of the state races all year and daily purses are solid. The Friday, March 6 card features 13 races and $138,800 in total purses.  The two other tracks—Harrah’s in Chester and Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs in Wilkes-Barre race from roughly February or March to November or December; so for the most part, if you wish to wager and follow harness racing in the Commonwealth, you can do just about every day.

Nobody wants to see that money disappear and it must be noted that all the casinos were built at horse racing facilities. If not for racetracks would the racino/casino explosion have taken place?

Of course, we all know what happens. $250 million is a lot of money and the politicians know it. In some ways they probably can’t believe that there is $250 million “extra” to give back to horse racing, so they now believe that it may be too much; that horse racing is just sitting back and waiting for that money and frankly, not doing enough to earn it.

Next to Pennsylvania is New Jersey and for years, the horse racing tracks wanted to build casinos so they, like the other states, could reap the benefits. But New Jersey is the home of Atlantic City and the politicians always voted against it. We know why. The Atlantic City lobby was begging, pressuring and most importantly donating campaign monies to candidates who, in turn, would vote no.

And for years, the politicians who were opposed to casinos at the Meadowlands got their way. A few years ago, they asked the citizens of New Jersey to vote and 84 percent of them voted against a Meadowlands/North Jersey casino.

Things were looking bleak in the Garden State until the end of 2018 when the new governor and the state legislature agreed to provide a $20 million subsidy to horse and harness racing. Of the $20 million, $10 million went to Monmouth, $6 million to the Meadowlands, $1.6 million to Freehold with the remaining $2.4 million going to breeding, sire states and other areas to help foster the growth of horse racing.

All three tracks did well in 2019 and as a result, there are more racing dates on this year’s calendar, which includes 19 thoroughbred dates at the Meadowlands.

Let’s think about this. Pennsylvania, buoyed by casinos at its racetracks, gets roughly $250 million for horse racing, while New Jersey, with no racetrack casinos relies on a $20 million state subsidy. Is there a happy medium here?

There is a big difference here. In New Jersey, the taxpayers are subsidizing horse racing as that $20 million check is written by the state government. Taxpayers may bemoan that, but they are getting a decent ROI on it. Those that make their living in horse racing in New Jersey are paying taxes, buying supplies and supporting farms in the Garden State. It’s the old spend money to make money adage.

In Pennsylvania, the taxpayers are not writing a check. What they do is spend their money at the casino and for every $100 dollar they lose, the sport of horse racing gets a percentage of that. So, for Governor Wolf to come out and say that he wants to take $204 million away from horse racing to give to college students—well, that may not be his money to transfer over.

Horse racing needs to learn to be self-sustaining. They feel entitled and as a result, very little marketing is done to get people interested in horse and harness racing. I’m sure there is a compromise and to be honest, the chance of Wolf’s idea becoming state law is minuscule at best. That said, maybe the horse racing industry should agree to give some of that $250 million to help offset the skyrocketing cost of attending college.

What if the horse racing industry agreed to give $60 million or $75 million of its $250 million to Wolf’s college idea? Is that a good thing? Would the governor be willing to accept this and sign a long-term agreement in return for not making this threat again?

Wolf made his statement. Now it’s time for the horse racing industry to do more than protest, panic and act scared. It’s time for them to look themselves in the mirror, appreciate what they’ve been given and make a counterproposal in the event that a state legislator does bring this bill onto the assembly floor.

All good things come to an end and one of these days, casino subsidies for harness racing will end.

Will the industry be prepared for it?




Around the Tracks for Saturday

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

Two $37,500 Preferred Handicaps highlight the Saturday card this week at The Meadowlands and for the first time in quite some time, The Big M’s big races are being run for more than those at Yonkers.

Like last week, there are no $40,000 opens on the Saturday Yonkers card; there is a $35,000 Preferred Handicap for pacers which drew just six starters. Total purses for Saturday’s Yonkers card total $249,000

The Meadowlands offers both a pace and trot in their Preferreds. The trot attracted 10 and is led by the veteran JL Cruze, who has already pocketed over $25,000 in 2020 with 2-0-1 in three starts. Pappy Go Go is 2 for 2 this year and brings earnings of $31,250 into the race.

The Preferred Pace drew eight with New Zealander Franco Totem M the early 2-1 favorite.  This is a good Meadowlands card with 13 races totaling $245,375 in purse money. The Meadowlands resurgence continues and as an aside, beginning February 7, post time moves to 6:55 pm.

Buffalo Raceway has its second card of the year with 12 races. Most importantly, eight of the 12 have full fields of eight and the other four will start seven. There are no opens on the docket, but three races will run for at least $10,000 highlighted by an $11,000 Class AA pace. Seven have not raced in 2020 and the one who has, Weekend Atannies is 0-0-0 in two starts with $1,360 in earnings.

Freehold offers 11 races and like most Saturdays, the feature is the $12,000 Preferred Handicap Pace which drew seven.

Sunday is the Super Bowl of course and only one track is brave enough to take the NFL on that evening. Pompano will have a 10-race card beginning at 7:20 pm ET while the game is likely entering the second quarter. Many Sunday runners like Rosecroft and Miami Valley have decided not to challenge the NFL on a day where over 110 million Americans will be tuned into Fox to watch what some call “The Big Game.”

There are two $9,000 paces scheduled and they drew seven starters each.  When asked as to why they would run on Super Bowl Sunday, track officials stated that they wanted to go forward and the box is full meaning that each race drew the required number of entrants.

Pompano may be running, but Wally Hennessey won’t be driving. The track’s leading driver says that Super Bowl Sunday is for family and he will be home watching the Big Game with family and friends.

There might not be a better harness racing state than Ohio. Northfield Park, the Ohio track that runs 12 months each and every year has a 16-race Saturday card race with 140 of the 144 slots accounted for. The highlight is the $15,000 Filly and Mare Open Pace led by Bourbon and Bailey. She is 3 for 3 this year with $20,000 in the bank in 2020.

Not be outdone in the Buckeye State is Miami Valley which has 14 races with 135 of the 140 slots accounted for. The big race, a $25,000 Open Pace features a 10-horse field led by veteran Windsong Leo. He’s 3 for 3 with $35,000 in 2020 earnings and is the 2-1 early favorite.

Last but never least is Cal Expo. Like the Meadowlands, the state fair track has the one mile oval, but purses have always been on the small side.  Tomorrow’s card has 12 races for a total of $44,600, an average of $3,716 per race.  The good thing—the horses don’t know that. The highest purse is for $5,000 and has a field of nine pacers.

Contact:  harnessracing@gmx.com



A Touch of Class for Buffalo Raceway

Class system back for 2020

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

Buffalo Raceway kicks of its 79th season on Wed. Jan 29 and I hope I’m not the only one excited for the 66-day meet that will run through July 18.

Until April 3, the track will race on Wednesdays and Saturdays and then Fridays will be added and like last year, the class system will be used. Races will be classified as Open and Class A, B, C or D, This worked well for the track last year and racing secretary Tom Agosti sees no reason to alter it for 2020.

The condition sheet for opening night is posted on the Buffalo Raceway website and while this is not official, it’s almost a certainty.

There are 12 races on tap for the 29th; the open paces and trots have purses of $13,000 and there are two scheduled—an open pace for fillies and mares and an open trot.

Purses are subject to change but for now, they will race as follows:

Class AA: $11,000

Class A: $10,000

Class B: $8,400

Class C: $6,400

Class D: $4,400

Opens: $13,000

The premise is simple—do well, move up; struggle move down. As always discretion lies with the racing secretary, but the goal is to cash as many checks as possible. Winning is always important, but sometimes, moving up, placing and showing in a higher class might be more lucrative. In simple math, a second place in a Class A race earns $2,500, while winning a Class D race grosses $2,200. That said, the odds of a Class D horse making it to Class A is few and far between, but that’s the stuff of dreams, right?

Some racing secretaries don’t like the Class concept and there are more that dislike the Speed Rating index, which many say takes all creativity away from those who write races.

At Buffalo last year, if a horse won a Class C race, they were moved up a level for their next race. If a horse can’t crack the top three in three consecutive races, they are allowed to move down one class.

Think about that—if your horse goes fourth, fourth and fourth in three consecutive $8,400 Class B races, they’ll earn $2,016, but will be afforded the opportunity to drop to Class C, where the races are run for $6,400. It does create some angst, but that’s what actuarial science is for.

There are two Western New York harness tracks—Buffalo and Batavia—and each writes races differently. The same horses compete at both tracks, but Batavia will have opens and the old NW750L5 (non-winners of $750 over last 5 races) style while Buffalo uses the Class A-D system.

Many class races will be claiming; for example on the Sat, Feb 1 card, there is a AA claiming race with the claiming price being $25,000. If you’re looking to claim a horse, you might want to begin with those racing in Class D; they can be claimed for just $4,000. Class B horses can be claimed for $12,500, with the price for Class C set at $7,500.

Most races–but not all–will use the Class system. On that Saturday card, there is a race that reads like this.

Winners of 3 but no more than 5 (F&M 6) PM races LT AE NW $25,000, purse $6,000

What does that really mean? Well, it took me a while, but now, I understand about 94 percent of it. This is a race for horses/geldings that have won three, four or five times with fillies being allowed to have six wins. The PM stands for pari-mutuel, which means that these are races that allow betting. The LT AE simply means that if a horse has never won $25,000 in their lifetime, they can enter. In that case, you may have a horse with more than five or six wins, but not more than $25,000 in career earnings.

Now—and I’m being serious—which system do you like better? There are pros and cons to each and Buffalo seems to be leaning towards Class over earnings as they move forward.

At the end of the day, the bettor doesn’t really worry about it. They will read the form, study past performances and do their handicapping and wagering. After a few weeks, they’ll know which horses, drivers and trainers are hot and which are not.  It’s that easy—study the form, make your bets and bring home the bacon.

At Buffalo, the bacon starts sizzling this Wednesday.

Buffalo Raceway Will Not Be Whipped in 2020

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

Buffalo Raceway is in the news and not because of racing, which doesn’t begin until Wed. Jan. 29. The track has instituted a new whipping rule for its 2020 season, which runs through July 18.

Here is the statement from Buffalo Raceway.

Along with previous regulations, the track has modified the rule which states “drivers shall keep a line in each hand (except as may be necessary to adjust equipment, pulling plugs, dropping blinkers) from the start of the race until the top of the stretch and both hands shall stay in front of the body and cannot be raised above the shoulder from the start of the race until the finish. Continuous whipping is prohibited.”

The Raceway says that violators of the rule will be punished.

We all know that horse racing is under scrutiny, so it makes sense for harness tracks like Buffalo to be out in front on key issues. And, let’s be fair; “does incessant whipping really help horses—both the Standardbreds and thoroughbreds?

Once a horse is a tired, they’re done and whipping them incessantly doesn’t help. As for tapping, that’s another story.  A tap can get the horse to refocus, something Joe Bongiorno told me at the 2018 Joe Gerrity Memorial Pace when he drove Evening of Pleasure to victory in that $260,000 event.

The horse had a big lead but started to lose focus and was looking for the other horses. Bongiorno tapped him a few times, the horse refocused won the race, breaking 1:50 as well.

It’s a good thing when the tracks and the sport take the initiative rather than wait for the activists to force them. This may never quiet those groups, but it might quell them for a period of time.

With the rule out of the way, it should be a fun and exciting 79th season for Buffalo Raceway. The track has new material and most of the horses that ran at Batavia from July to December will head to Buffalo its season. Batavia had record handle and attendance numbers last year and there is optimism that Buffalo can do the same.

The clubhouse has been spruced up with HD televisions and the All-You-Can eat buffet returns on Saturdays; for $19.99, you get the food, the racing program, a $5 betting voucher and $5 to use in the casino. So, for those that say that harness tracks do nothing in terms of promotion and marketing, I offer this.

The problem—how to get the message to the masses.  People like you and I—harness racing fans—know where to seek this stuff out, but what about the non-racing followers. How do we get Steve and Melissa, two 25-year olds to do a date night at a place like Buffalo Raceway?

When you think about it, it’s not a bad date.  You get dinner, some live racing and then you can head to casino for some more fun. And, if Lady Luck is in your corner, you might even make some money.

Buffalo Raceway will race on Wednesdays and Saturdays until April 3, when Fridays are added. This worked well for the track in 2019.  They tried to go three dates in January, February and March in 2018, but struggled with horse shortages, shorter fields and bad weather. Two days allows more races each day and fuller fields; something the betting public likes. The Wednesday cards have always generated decent handle because other harness tracks are dark.

Between Buffalo and Batavia, Western New York offers approximately 137 days of live racing and it all starts on Jan. 29.



Yonkers, Saratoga, Miami Valley and Farewell to the Bullet

Some highlights from the great sport

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

Yonkers Raceway is back in business for 2020. The track, which took its annual 17-day break kicked off its 2020 season on Mon. Jan. 6, its first full-season under its new owners, MGM Resorts.

MGM Resorts bought the venerable track from the Rooney family, which had owned it since 1972.  2019 was what we would call a transition year and now, things will have an MGM stamp.

One thing the track won’t do is race less. There was some speculation about that, but in 2020, Yonkers will offer 237 racing dates; comfort food for racing fans. The track will race primarily on Monday-Tuesday and then Thursday-Saturday.

The $1 million International Trot, which many thought would not be on this year’s schedule is back and will be run on Sat. Sept. 12 in conjunction with the finals of the New York State Sires Stakes, making for a huge day of racing at Old Hilltop.

One thing Yonkers would like to see is more handle. We all know that the track offers the sports’ highest overnight purses, but handle per race never reaches $100,000. Maybe that’s because of the half-mile, and those slow second quarters, but the track does have a roster of quality horses and despite the laments, the racing is fair.

There was no open on last night’s card, but there were two huge upsets. In Race 9, Uncle Leo trotted home in 1:56.1 at odds of 30-1 to pay $68 for the win; and in Race 10, The Charging Moa rallied from fifth in the stretch to pace home in 1:53.1 at odds of 60-1. He rewarded supporters with $122 for a $2 plunk down.

The Open Trot returns tonite with six contestants. The field is solid with Will Take Charge and Obrigado the headliners. The latter returned to racing in late 2019, but hasn’t had much success yet. Here’s hoping the millionaire can get things going this year as it’s always nice to see the veterans continuing to battle.

Next Friday, the fillies and mares open pace returns and on Saturday, there will be both an open pace and open trot for the boys. All the opens are currently running for $40,000.

Tonite’s Yonkers card has $271,000 in total purses for its 10 races and because we like to compare, tonite’s Meadowlands card offers 14 races and total purses of $217,875.

Saratoga Casino Hotel released its 2020 schedule and the “track up north,” will offer 168 racing days. Like last year, both Wednesday and Thursdays will be matinees with 12 Noon posts.

SCH opens its season on Sunday, Feb 16 and will run to December 12. For the most part, they will run afternoons on Sundays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The new wrinkle this year is a Saturday evening post time of 5 pm ET.

The track, as always, adjusts its schedule when the thoroughbred meet is contested across the street. The thoroughbreds begin on Thursday, July 11 and stay through Labor Day. When that happens, SCH will race Tuesday-Wednesday and Friday-Saturday and post times will be 7:05 pm. Saratoga Race Course, which altered its schedule last year will be dark on Mondays and Tuesdays again in 2020.

It hasn’t been officially announced, but the track’s signature event, the Joe Gerrity Memorial Pace should be run on Saturday, July 18. In 2019, the pace offered a purse of $260,000 and was won by the now-retired McWicked.

Miami Valley in Ohio is open for business as well. The meet saw big crowds and opening day record handle and tonite’s open pace features eight “runners,” and a $24,000 purse. Ohio harness racing—with Northfield running all year and Miami, Scioto and Dayton splitting—continues to thrive. Tonite’s Miami Valley card features 14 races and 129 horses; that’s an average of 9.2 on the 5/8 mile track.

Finally, today’s Preferred Handicap Pace at Freehold has a full field of eight for $12,000. One of the horses is named Bullet Bob and if you’re a harness racing fan, the sport lost one of its great voices on Thursday when “Bullet” Bob Meyer passed away at the age of 80. Known for his staccato style, Meyer always announced the winner as “in front,” and on Thursday evening, Yonkers announcer John Hernan called Race 1 the same way in tribute to the man who called races at Monticello, Roosevelt, Yonkers and Saratoga for decades.

The original Bullet Bob has left us; maybe the horse version can win one today at Freehold.





Harness Racing on the Attack—In a Good Way

2019 was a very good year for the sport

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

For harness racing, 2019 was a good year. The sport saw lots of good things happen and right now, optimism is high. Many things went right for the sport in 2019, but it’s important to keep moving forward and not get complacent in 2020. There is no reason why the sport can’t keep growing for years to come.

The sport saw increases in handle, wagering and purses. When sports books started popping up, concerns grew. Would gamblers turn their attention away from harness racing and focus exclusively on the ball sports, MMA and the others?

The answer was no; the sport saw a 3.53 percent increase in total wagering with over $1.4 billion. And, that number came with 46 fewer racing days.

Purses were up as well.  In 2019, there were $439,546,019 in purses; more than last year’s $428,774,855. For bettors, purses aren’t that important, but for casual fans, I believe they get the attention of that said fan and are important for the sport going forward.

An example of this is the Potomac Pace at Rosecroft Raceway. The pace is contested on a Sunday—in November—and its $100,000 purse draws attention. It gets hyped on all the important harness racing websites and it brings more locals to the track to celebrate what is usually a good night of racing.

The return of the Meadowlands was another positive in 2019. The track is the sport’s most important and over the past few years, they were losing horses, trainers and drivers to tracks that offered higher purses. In Jan. 2019, the New Jersey State Legislature passed a $6 million purse subsidy for the Meadowlands and that money helped keep the Meadowlands going in the spring and summer, a time when in the past, it was tough to have full fields at the East Rutherford icon.

This year, fields were fuller, purses higher and handle, which has always been the sport’s best, saw increases. On Fri. Jan. 3, overall handle was over $3 million; a magic number indeed.

The track will see a change in its 2020 schedule as a result of Monmouth Park utilizing its option to conduct a fall thoroughbred meet. That means The Big M will race through August and then pick up again in late November.  The traditionalists may not prefer this, but one has to think that more summer racing at the sport’s best venue can’t hurt.

In the spring, MGM Resorts completed its purchase of Yonkers Raceway from the Rooney family. The Rooney family were always friends of harness racing; they loved the sport and when MGM took over, there were some concerns that casino giant would trim things up.

Some thought that the $1 million International Trot might be on the chopping block. The Rooneys’ brought this unique even back in 2015 with trotters from seven nations trotting 1 ¼ miles for that big purse.

The 2019 trot was a scintillating race with Italy’s Zacon Gio taking the crown, but the best news came in late December when MGM announced that the International Trot will be back for 2020, along with 237 dates of racing. That certainly sounds like MGM is all in on harness racing going forward.

Batavia Downs is located in Western New York and that track saw record handle numbers in 2019 as well as increased on-track attendance. A decade ago, it looked like “The Downs,” may close, but that’s no longer the case.

On-track handle increased by 12.2 percent in 2019; on-track attendance was up five percent; its export signal saw a 24 percent increase. All-source handle was up an astounding 19.9 percent as the track handled $1.4 million more in 2019 compared to 2018.

Todd Haight, the General Manager at Batavia Downs has been in the harness racing game for years. Naturally, he was pleased at what the track accomplished.

“Our customers came out in force, both live and at simulcast and we couldn’t be more grateful to them,” Haight said. “We gave them some of the best racing in the state and they validated it by betting us the whole season.”

Batavia Downs is the oldest lighted harness track in the nation and Haight and his staff are already excited for the 2020 season, which opens on July 22. They split the season with Buffalo Raceway, another track that had a positive 2019; that track opens its 2020 season on Wed. Jan. 29

It didn’t get a lot of fanfare, but a new harness track opened in Kentucky last summer when Oak Grove Racing and Gaming conducted its first card on Friday October 18. The track raced 12 times; Fridays and Saturdays through November 23. There could be more racing dates added in future years, but boutique style meets definitely have a place in harness racing. The Grand Circuit meet at The Red Mile is the blueprint for that.

Freehold Raceway, the nation’s oldest race track added nine dates to its 2020 schedule; they’ll go to the post 85 times this year, up from 76.

Miami Valley opened its 2020 season last week with its best-ever Opening Night handle and fuller fields, continuing a surge in Ohio which continues to do well with racing and breeding.

For years, harness racing was trying to survive; now, it looks like the sport is on the attack in a positive way. While sports books may be helping, tracks are finding ways to get the word out about its product and once fans check it out, they realize quickly that when it comes to racing, harness racing is second to none.