Too Easy To Cancel?

The effort made by Yonkers and Monticello to race last week was “less than extraordinary.”

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

Winter is unpredictable. There are givens to be sure; most days are going to be cold and there is always a chance of snow. Last week, a major snowstorm blanketed the Northeast with some places getting a foot or more of the white stuff.

If you enjoy harness racing, anytime snow falls, you wonder what that means for a racetrack? Will they cancel racing? Will they clear the snow and get the track ready; or more importantly, will they try to get the track ready.

Yonkers and Monticello are New York’s weekday tracks. Monticello races in the afternoons Monday through Thursday while Yonkers now races in the evenings Monday through Friday.

When the storm hit, you knew that Monday racing would be cancelled, and it was, at both tracks. But then, both tracks cancelled on Tuesday and then Wednesday and yes, also on Thursday. Moreover, it didn’t look like Yonkers even tried to start clearing the snow until late Wednesday afternoon.

Both facilities make most of their monies via their casinos and there are some that believe if they had their way, they’d rid themselves of harness racing and focus solely on poker, blackjack and roulette to make their profits.

One of the worst-kept secrets is the vision for Yonkers. Owned by MGM, the facility will like to receive a full-scale casino license if and when the state of New York awards more of them. If that happens, they can have real poker, real craps, and real blackjack games played on the Empire City Casino grounds (under current law, they can’t have table games).

On paper, it seems like a slam dunk. The casino, located just north of The Bronx and right off Interstate 87 (the Major Deegan for the locals), does very well and with table games added to the mix, revenues would increase.

MGM would love to get that license, and expand the casino and the best way to do that would be to rid itself of the harness track and use that “precious space for perhaps a hotel or more gaming.

Of course, things are never easy in the state of the New York. Yonkers and MGM can’t just rid itself of harness racing unless the laws are changed. When Yonkers became a racino in the early 2000s, the stipulation was that racing had to continue. The same went for Monticello, Buffalo, Batavia, Saratoga, Vernon and Tioga—no racing, no racino.

There are lots of stories out there regarding Yonkers. One is that they would move harness racing so they could expand the casino. There was talk that MGM would build a one mile oval on the Belmont Park grounds and have what some called Yonkers Raceway at Belmont Park.

That would serve two purposes; if MGM gets a full casino license, they could expand and they could still sponsor/run harness racing at the Belmont Park venue which would keep them in good standing with New York State government.

This would free up land to expand their casino, but they would still be in the harness racing game with the sport benefitting more from it. A full-scale casino will bring in more revenue and because state law requires that a certain percentage of casino revenues must go to harness racing, purses at a one mile YR@BP could soar, as would handle.

It’s only 22 miles from Yonkers in Westchester County to Belmont Park, which sits on the Queens/Long Island border, but those of course, are “New York miles.” But most do not attend harness racing in person. It’s more important to have an HD signal so those that bet can watch from the PC or phone at home.

The big question is—how much does MGM care about harness racing? If you looked at pictures that were posted on social media this week, the conclusion of “not much,” could have been deduced.

Joe Faraldo is the president of the Standardbred Owners of New York and he didn’t hold back. He posted pictures of the untouched snow drifts and cautioned New York State government to think long and hard before granting MGM a full-scale casino license.

It is peculiar. Since casinos were adjoined to race tracks, the decision to cancel a day of racing has been quick and easy. Aqueduct used to race through “everything.” Now, if the temps dip below 20 degrees, racing is often cancelled.

The same goes true for harness racing. If Yonkers and Monticello were reliant on harness racing monies, you know plows would have been on site and racing would have resumed by Tuesday. But with casino monies rolling in (even in a pandemic), it is much easier to cancel racing and wait for the snow to stop.

The Meadowlands, which does not have a casino, had their track ready for training and for Friday night racing, as did Freehold Raceway in Central New Jersey.

On the other hand, let’s defend Yonkers. After acquiring the facility from the Rooney family, some thought that MGM would scale back racing. While racing days are dictated by the New York State Gaming Commission, MGM could have easily scrapped many or all of its high stakes races. They could have used the monies to increase overnight purses and done away with events like the Borgata, the Blue Chip Matchmaker the Yonkers Trot and the Messenger Stakes.

They didn’t do that and this year, they have 234 days of racing and offer the highest overnight purses in the sport. That helps to attract the best drivers and very good horses and when I watch in the evening, I like what I see. That is why seeing racing cancelled for four consecutive nights was unsettling and I was not alone in that thinking.

There will always be the “harness racing is an afterthought” crowd. Others think that if the sport can’t succeed on its own, then why not let it fail? Look no further than Pennsylvania, where for the second straight year, Governor Wolf’s budget calls for $200 million to be taken away from horse racing and used to offset the increasing cost of attending college.

Those bullet points look good in the paper and on newsclips, but harness/horse racing is much more than 10 races on a Tuesday evening. It’s an industry with many layers, levels and employees, but that’s a story for another column.

Those that saw an empty Yonkers, with what seemed like no attempt to remove the snow to try and race were believing the afterthought idea. If racing was vital, the snow would have been removed Monday, not Wednesday and racing would not have been cancelled for four straight nights.

MGM cited Covid protocols for not tending to the track sooner and with where we’re at today, it might be a legitimate reason, but there is no doubt that tracks with casinos are much more willing to cancel racing than tracks without them and this was going on before the Covid-19 pandemic.

We want the track and racing surface to be safe. But we also want to see racing and we want to see a concerted effort to make racing happen. There were doubts about that last week in New York.  

Horsing Around: Harness Racing Observations

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Authentic, Tiz the Law Put On a Show

Special thoroughbred edition

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

2020 is the year of the asterisk and had Tiz the Law won the Kentucky Derby and come to Baltimore with a chance to win horse racing’s Triple Crown, the pundits and scribes would have their asterisks ready.

Well, they can save those asterisks for something else. On the first Saturday in September, the sport of horse racing once again proved that it will dictate the terms as to who gets the glory….and who doesn’t. 

While it’s been weird to watch horse racing with no fans and no noise, one thing is indisputable and that is that the racing has been great.  We saw Tiz the Law run a scintillating Belmont, a blazing Travers and in Friday, Shedaresthedevil ran the fastest Kentucky Oaks of all-time. 

Thankfully, through HD TV, ADWs (Advance Deposit Wagering) and the internet, we Americans have been able to watch and follow the sport, in fact, access to horse racing has never been easier. On Friday, Saratoga handled over $18 million—with nary a fan on the grounds.

That’s the good news because for the next year, two, three, four or even five, TV will rule the world when it comes to watching sports.  Given what we’ve been dealt with this year, is it fair to assume that the May 2021 Kentucky Derby will have 150,000 fans in attendance?

We are seeing kids go back to college and within a week, the number of Covid cases goes from 0 to 150. And, while these kids won’t die or require treatment, it does give pause as to how soon concerts, sports, fairs and carnivals can be attended and attended safely.

And, even if a vaccine comes out, 67 percent of Americans say they will wait before getting a shot. What does that tell us?

Sports are weird, seeing people at Churchill Downs wearing masks is odd, and to be honest unsettling.  Some are wearing them, but not wearing them properly. The trainer of Tiz the Law (Barclay Tagg) was wearing a mask that covered his mouth, but not his nose. Is that okay? I don’t even know anymore.

The NFL starts this week; some teams will allow some fans, some won’t as each state has different guidelines.  We haven’t even thought about the Super Bowl yet. Could the NFL’s big money maker be played with 50 percent (or less) capacity?

The good thing remains the TV. The games have been on, the horse racing has been on and last month, the Indy 500 was on. When you watch on TV, you can block the fans out and enjoy the event and though it took some time, many have become accepting with fake crowd noise and no fans present. Baseball is still the weirdest to watch, but come playoff time, fans will be ready.

It’s easy to put an asterisk after every major sporting event this year. The NHL and NBA champs will likely have an asterisk attached as a designation, not a degradation. Here is how it might read:

NHL Champions

2018-2019:      St. Louis Blues

2019-2020:      New York Islanders*

*the 2020 playoffs were played after a four month break and all games were played in a bubble.

That won’t happen in horse racing now that Authentic held off Tiz the Law in the Kentucky Derby. If you watched the race, you didn’t think that would happen. Tiz the Law got a good trip and right before the three-quarter mark, he went to the outside, which he likes to do. There, he hooked Authentic and for a brief second, took the lead.

Authentic, like he did in the Haskell, would not yield. He dug in gamely and thwarted Tiz the Law’s shot at Triple Crown glory. The final time, 2:00.61 was the fastest since 2001 when Monarchos toured Churchill Downs in 1:59.97. So for those looking to make excuses for Tiz the Law, please don’t. Authentic’s win was legitimate and the winning time only adds to the legitimacy.

All the headlines sound the same, they all reference that Authentic pulled the upset over Tiz the Law in the Kentucky Derby, and while that’s technically true, let’s look at what Authentic has done in 2020.

He’s made five starts this year and now has four wins. He won the Sham Stakes in January, the San Felipe in March and then finished second to Honor A.P. in the Santa Anita Derby.  After racing resumed, he went to Jersey and held off Ny Traffic by a nose in the Haskell. It was that race that showed us that this horse doesn’t like to give up the lead and in the Derby that played out.

As for Tiz the Law, his four race winning streak—Holy Bull, Florida Derby, Belmont, Travers—is over and it is now decision time. The colt is owned by the delightful group called Sackatoga Stables. The managing partner is Jack Knowlton, an old-school, let’s see them race type of guy. The trainer is Barclay Tagg. He’s old, too, age 82, but not old-school. Knowlton wants to see the colt run in the Oct. 3 Preakness at Pimlico because the race is an American classic and winning the Preakness is prestigious.

Tagg prefers to skip the race and train the colt for the Breeder’s Cup, which takes place on Nov. 7 at Keeneland. Had Tiz won the Derby, there would be no discussion; the colt would be headed to Baltimore and Barn 40 for a shot at the Triple Crown and that asterisk. 

Conventional wisdom says that you can get the colt ready for one more big effort, but not two. Tiz the Law has been running all year. He began his 3-year old campaign in February and yesterday’s showing might be an indication that he’s at the end of his rope for 2020.

If you skip the Preakness, you should be fresh and ready for one more big effort in the Breeder’s Cup Classic. Tagg prefers to do that, but he’s not the owner, Knowlton and Sackatoga are and if they want to race in the Preakness, that’s going to happen.

Like many owners, Knowlton is greedy and I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way. You have the horse of a lifetime, he’s at the top of his game, why not keep entering these classic races and try to win as many as you can?

The problem is that horses aren’t robots. Tagg and Knowlton will have to sit down and it will have to be Tagg who tries to convince Knowlton that the horse has one, but not two, races in him for 2020. If the horse goes to Baltimore and wins on Oct. 3, my gut tells me he gets beat badly in the Breeder’s Cup Classic. If he skips the Preakness, I think he could run a big one in the BC Classic. 

In truth, I like the Preakness better than the BC Classic, but that’s because the Preakness has been around longer and has more tradition, but if I owned the colt, I’d skip the Preakness. I’ve won the Belmont, I’ve won the Travers and I’ve won the Florida Derby and finished a no shame second in the Kentucky Derby. I’ve already proved myself against the 3-year olds, so for that reason, I’ll take the break and look to show everybody how great I am in Lexington on Nov. 7.

And, if Tiz the Law wins there, no asterisk will be needed. 

O Canada! A Huge Saturday Of Racing at Woodbine Mohawk Park

The Maple Leaf Trot and Canadian Pacing Derby highlight impressive card

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

The Kentucky Derby is the biggest race on the calendar tomorrow—and rightly so—but you will not find a better race than Saturday night’s Maple Leaf Trot at Woodbine Mohawk Park. In short, it’s a who’s who of trotting greatness and that deserves the attention of all sports fans. 

Okay, I might have gotten carried away with the last sentence, but this is a spectacular race that highlights an impressive card at the track. You can say what you want about harness racing, but the way racing has been handled during a pandemic has been remarkable.

The Maple Leaf is Gimpanzee’s race to lose.  Simply stated, he is the best trotter in training right now and though he hiccupped in his last start that actually helps here.  In harness racing, because the horses race so often, it is impossible to get through a season undefeated, so a loss here and there is not always a bad thing.  In comparison, if Tiz the Law loses tomorrow, there will be complete panic that the colt has passed his peak. 

With Standardbreds, a loss can fire them up and set them up for another winning streak. Gimpanzee is certainly good enough to get another streak going. He will be challenged by stellar horses. The defending champion is Guardian Angel As at 4-1. He hasn’t been as good this year as last, but nobody would be surprised to see him defend the title, and drawing the 3 post only helps. 

Atlanta is the filly, the 2018 Hambletonian champion. She too, hasn’t been as sharp this year, but she seems to run her best when there are boys in the race. I’m not sure what that means, but I like her more here than if she ran in a filly and mare race. She is 9-2 and will come out of the 4 post which can only help. 

The other filly is Manchego. She has been better than Atlanta, hence the 3-1 line, but she is starting from the 11.  At WMP that’s not bad, though.  The track is 7/8 miles long, meaning the horses get a nice run-up before making a turn and we’ve seen Manchego leave before.  I could see her getting out, ripping off a 25.4 or 26 and then trying to dial it down to the half.

Marion Marauder is 10-1. All he did in 2016 was win the Trotting Triple Crown and I fully expect to him to cash a check here with a top five finish.  I’m not sure he can win, but he’ll compete. They have tried the breeding shed with him and he hasn’t taken to it yet, so the connections have decided to keep racing him and he continues to make money.

The field:

1-Soul Strong 15-1

2-Marion Marauder 10-1

3-Guardian Angel As 4-1

4-Atlanta 9-2

5-Lindy The Great 8-1

6-Run Director 10-1

7-Marseille 20-1

8-Crystal Fashion 12-1

9-Gimpanzee 5-2

10-Manchego 3-1

The co-feature is the $540,000 Canadian Pacing Derby and like the MLT, the field is excellent.  The oddsmaker is telling us that Bettor’s Wish at 5-2 is the one to beat with Backstreet Shadow (3-1), Dancin Lou (7-2) and Century Farroh (4-1) your second, third and fourth choices. 

There is nothing better than older pacers.  They race all year, they beat each other up and they take turns visiting the Winner’s Circle. Unlike trotters, there are many better than average pacers racing today and races like the CPD will prove this. Who would be surprised if American History, at 8-1, trips the wire first? He’s won enough big races, he knows the feeling, and it will be interesting to see what the bettors do with him. Will he end up 4-1, or will he be dismissed and go off at 12, 15 or even 20-1?

The field: 

1-Bettor’s Wish 5-2                              

2-Dancin Lou 7-2

3-Backstreet Shadow 3-1

4-Sintra 9-2

5-American History 8-1

6-Shake That House 15-1

7-Century Farroh 4-1

8-Dorsoduro Hanover 12-1

9-Filibuster Hanover 15-1

10-This Is The Plan 15-1

Harness racing always caters to the trotters. Trotting was the original gait (pacing developed over time) and trotters are regaled more than pacers are. It’s like comparing a violin to a guitar. The violin is the classier instrument; it  sounds better, needs to handled with care and has a high level or performance. The guitar can be played daily. It’s a little rougher, it’s more utilitarian, but it too, when played right, gives off a fine sound of its own. The great thing about harness racing——you can love both. 

The 12-horse card is a Canadian Blockbuster. In addition to those two biggies, there are…..

-4 divisions of the Ontario Sire Stakes for 2-year old colt/gelding pacers

-2 divisions of the Simcoe, at $113 and $114k each

-The $215,000 Good Times Trot, featuring two Hambletonian runners in Ready for Moni and Hollywood Story. 

Even though the Maple Leaf Trot is the most important race of the day, the organizers at Woodbine Mohawk Park have acknowledged the greatness of the Kentucky Derby. They moved their post time back to 7:20 pm ET so we can all watch the Run for Roses at 7:02 pm ET.

Cutler Memorial Headlines Fun Weekend in Harness Racing

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

A big night awaits as the annual Arthur Cutler Memorial Trot takes place at The Big M. Normally held on the first Saturday evening in May (there is a famous thoroughbred race that day, too), the Cutler has always featured some of the best veteran trotters at the famed Meadowlands oval. Like many events, the pandemic has pushed things back and in this case cut the purse to $170,900, but postponing beats cancelling any day of the week.

This year’s field is headlined by two superfillies—2018 Hambletonian winner Atlanta and rival Manchego, who on that same day captured the Hambletonian Oaks. Atlanta is 0-1-0 in her only start this year while Manchego has two wins in two starts this year.

This year’s race was limited to 11 and thus, will run at the conventional one-mile distance. In the past, the race allowed for 12 starters and because of that was contested at 1 1/8 miles, but Meadowlands track owner Jeff Gural vowed to get away from longer distance races and try to keep the classic mile distance intact.

The field is solid. Another filly, Plunge Blue Chip is making her 2020 debut and back in 2018, she, along with Manchego and Atlanta were the top fillies. In fact, pundits joked that Atlanta ran in the Hambletonian to avoid matching up with Plunge Blue Chip and Manchego, the latter who blazed home in 1:50 to win the Oaks.

Atlanta is trained by Ron Burke and will be driven by Yannick Gingras, with Dexter Dunn driving Manchego for Nancy Takter.

Southwind Chrome is 2-1-0 in three starts his $28,937 in earnings this year is second only to Manchego. Scott Zeron is in the bike for Jeff Cullipher.

The full field with driver/trainer:

  1. Mission Accepted Kakaley/Burke
  2. Chin Chin Hall Sears/Norman
  3. Southwind Chrome Zeron/Cullipher
  4. Joey Bats McCarthy/Harris
  5. Atlanta Gingras/Burke
  6. Manchego Dunn/Takter
  7. Crystal Fashion Miller/Campbell
  8. Lindy the Great Miller/J. Miller
  9. Plunge Blue Chip Svanstedt/Svanstedt
  10. Rich and Miserable Tyler Buter/Todd Buter
  11. Guardian Angel As Tim Tetrick/Lorentzon

The top three in the morning betting line are Manchego at 7/2, Atlanta at 3/1 and Guardian Angel As at 4/1. Post time is scheduled for 9:35 pm ET.

The undercard features three divisions of the Graduate Series for 4-year old pacers with each racing for $50,000. They’ll be races four, six and ten. Race four is headlined by Warrawee Ubeat who will be driven by Gingras. Century Farroh is morning-line favorite in race 6 while Bettor’s Wish will be the one to beat in race 10.

The $22,500 Preferred Open features Caviart Ally who last year thrilled all with her duels with Shartin N. In fact, last week, Shartin N beat Caviart Ally in the Filly and Mare Open at Yonkers and tonight she’ll have to deal with seven others including the always tough Kissin In The Sand.

As for Shartin N, she’ll run on Sunday at Harrah’s Philadelphia in a condition race for $20,000. She will come out of the eight hole on the 5/8 mile track which shouldn’t be a problem. Last week at Yonkers—a half-mile track—she overcame post eight to win.  She’s the 6-5 heavy favorite who should get a test from JKs American Beauty.

One of Vernon’s Downs’s big races is set for Saturday as the $207,250 Empire Breeders Classic takes center stage on the 7/8 mile surface in New York’s Mohawk Valley.

The race drew 11 3-year old fillies and your morning-line favorite is Love A Good Story. She’s 3/1 for the Millers—driver Andy and trainer Julie. Senorita Rita makes her debut for Hall of Fame trainer Linda Toscano and driver Scott Zeron and is the second choice at 5/1. Post time is scheduled for 4:10 pm ET.

The stakes season is just getting started and will continue through to November, so prepare accordingly.

The’re Back and They’re Blazing

Scioto, Northfield, Buffalo, Meadowlands, Woodbine Mohawk back racing!

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

While MLB, NBA and the NHL continue to struggle getting back on the field, court and ice, harness racing is back and back with bite.  We live in amazing times; while sports have been greenlighted to resume, our big three—and MLS—is still trying to figure out proper protocol. Even though barbers are back cutting hair and places like Wal-Mart never closed, the big sports remain idle.

Harness racing was shut down in mid-March, but as soon as states lifted restrictions, many tracks quickly returned. Ohio got back first with Scioto and Northfield opening things back up right before (Scioto) and right after (Northfield) Memorial Day.

In New York, it looked like harness tracks were going to have to wait until Phase 4, but believe it or not, somebody convinced Gov. Andrew Cuomo that harness racing should be labeled as agriculture and thus be allowed to open in Phase 1. Cuomo agreed and right before Memorial Day, he announced that horse racing could resume June 1.

It didn’t take too long for two tracks—Buffalo Raceway and Belmont Park to resume. Both began racing on Wed. June 3 and so far, the action at Buffalo has been better than expected.

The one thing we know about the Standardbreds is that they have been training and training hard. There were two opens at Buffalo Saturday evening and in the first, a $10,000 pace, China Dream broke alertly from the five-hole and wired the field. He had to hold off a game Brookdale Fletcher, and did so in 1:55.2, cutting fractions of 29.0, 58.1 and 1:27.3 along the way. Even more impressive is the negative splits—out in 58.1 and back in 57.1.

The other feature was the $11,000 Open Pace and this one had lots of drama for the half-mile track. When the car sped away, Mr. Euroman and Andy’s Ideal fought hard to get the lead with the latter gaining control while setting fractions of 28.3 and 57.2. When hit three-quarters was reached in 1:26, both had given way to Percy Z Tam, but coming five wide for Ray Fisher was Iluvtomakemoney who used a 28 second final quarter to prevail in 1:54.

The times are impressive; let’s remember these horses haven’t raced since before St. Patrick’s Day. Yes, they have been jogging and training, but one might expect some slower race times at least for the first couple of weeks.

Even the $4,400 Class D races saw winning times well under the 2-minute mark. In the finale, Shadow Moon led from start to finish and stopped the clock in 1:56.3

Of course, if you thought times would be slow, just look at what Kissin In The Sand did at the Meadowlands on Friday evening. She beat a quality field that featured Caviart Ally and did so in 1:47.4. That’s a spectacular time and even more so considering that’s her first race back.

Buffalo Raceway races again on Wednesday evening and Tioga Downs kicks off its 2020 season with a 12-race card on Sunday beginning at 4 pm ET. The feature is a $10,000 Open Pace for Fillies and Mares that drew seven starters.

With the Tioga casino closed for now, purses are down, but still, $67,000 is on the line over at the 5/8 mile facility in Nichols, NY. Once the casinos open, the purses should gradually rise, but the good news is that harness racing continues to see more tracks getting back at it.

The bettors have noticed, too. Buffalo handled over $617,000 on Wed. June 3 and considering the track seldom touches $300,000, I’d say they had a pretty good re-opening night.

Let’s hope it continues.

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.