What the Conditions of Harness Races Really Mean
Tracks like Monticello are the home to conditional and claiming races. There are no track-sponsored stakes races, which require owners to nominate their horse well before the actual race takes place. For example, the Hambletonian is the premier event for 3-year old trotters. There is risk-reward at play here. When the horse is two years old, there is a nomination deadline with a nominal fee. It might cost $600 to $1,000 to nominate a horse for the Hambletonian. It works the same way for the Kentucky Derby, where the initial nomination is $600.
For most, it’s wasted money; with only 10 spots in the Hambo final, your horse better be really special just to make it. But if you don’t nominate and your horse becomes a star in its 3-year old season, a decision has to be made whether to supplement. Supplementing a horse can cost anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 depending on the particular race. In this year’s Meadowlands Pace, two horses did, in fact, pay the supplemental fee of $61,690 to get in the field and one of them — Courtly Choice — made it pay off by winning the contest and collecting the $350,000 first-place money.
In addition to condition races, stakes races and claiming affairs are the open handicaps. These are my favorites because they are for the best horses on the grounds and each week, you can count on the usual cast of characters to show up.
Yonkers features open paces and trots each week for fillies and mares and colts and geldings. The current purse for these races is $44,000 and you can count on the familiar names each and every week. Usually, the posts are assigned and drawn. Here is an example:
Open HDP; PP 1&2 Assigned; PP 3-6 Drawn; PP 7&8 Assigned
Because this is a handicap race, the racing office is trying to level the playing field. Last week’s open winner is often assigned the 7 or 8 post the next week. Why? To make it harder for the horse to win again and to make it an appealing race for bettors. As we know, the goal of any race track is to generate handle. You’ll often see a horse win one week, get post 8 the next and be unable to overcome that and win again. The result for the next week might be a better post position.
There are also preferred handicaps in which the racing secretary will invite horses that he wants in the race. This can be based on a variety of factors and, at Yonkers, these preferred events are a slight step below the opens, but like the opens, post positons are assigned and drawn to make it competitive from a betting standpoint.
Last, but not least, are invitationals where the racing office will invite horses — often from all over the country — to run in a particular race. These races are usually announced ahead of time and like stakes races, may require a nomination fee. Not all invitationals require such a fee; that varies from track to track.
Each July, Saratoga Casino Hotel hosts the Joe Gerrity Memorial Pace. The racing office will invite 15 to 20 horses and if more than eight or nine accept, the final runners are determined by total earnings.
So, which type of race captures your fancy? Each race offers something. Horses that run in the claimers and the non-winner conditional races are the true grinders of the sport.
An example of this recently occured at Northfield Park where a race was written for non-winners of $2,500 in the last four or non-winners of $30,000 in 2018. The purse was $6,500 and the nine horses entered had combined to make 199 starts in 2018 — an average of 22 per horse.
So, there it is: A guide to Standardbred conditions. Now, if you figure out how to handicap them, please let me know!
As a kid growing up in the Buffalo suburbs in the 1970s and 80s, the radio was one of John Furgele’s best friends. In the evenings, he used to listen to a show on WBEN radio called “Free Form Sports,” hosted by Buffalo broadcast legend Stan Barron. The show ran weeknights from 6 to 11 pm and featured every kind of sport you could imagine. One minute, Mr. Barron was interviewing a Buffalo Sabres player; the next, he was giving high school field hockey scores.
But there was always one thing that caught John’s ear. During those five hours, Barron would give the results from Western New York’s two harness racing tracks — Buffalo Raceway and Batavia Downs. This is where John learned what exactas, quinellas, trifectas and daily doubles were all about. From then on, he always paid attention to harness racing, and when Niatross (a legendary Western New York horse) hit the scene in 1979, his interest began to blossom.
John believes harness racing is a sport that has the potential to grow and he will explore ways to get that done via marketing, promotion and, above all, the races themselves.
When he’s not watching races, John is busy with his family and his job in sales. Like the pacers and trotters, he does a little running himself and you’ll occasionally find him “going to post” in a local 5K race.