A Call for Longer Distances in Harness Racing

On Monday July 1, Yonkers Raceway hosted a 12-race card. That is not news, but what did catch my eye was race 8, run for a purse of $18,500. It wasn’t because of the conditions – for non-winners of $10,000 in their last five races. In addition, any horse that earned $70,000 or more in 2019 was not eligible. That wasn’t it, either.

It was the distance.

The race was contested at 1 1/16 miles on the half-mile oval at Old Hilltop, meaning the horses would cross the finish line three times. Some of you might think that’s too much, but in truth, I wonder why there aren’t more races at that distance at harness tracks across the United States.

Yonkers has always been an enigma and for some, it has always frustrated. Like many tracks, drivers try to get out and establish position. The opening quarter might be a quick 27.  After that, the goal is to walk the dog; slow things down and get some rest. At Yonkers, that can mean a second quarter of 30 or 31 seconds. This gives the leader plenty of time to speed things up in the third quarter and then hold on for victory. The lack of movement can be frustrating and if you take to Twitter on a race night, you will hear about it.

The easy solution for the bettor would be to back off Yonkers, but with the highest overnight purses, along with top quality horses and drivers, that’s often tough to do. Scott Zeron, Brian Sears, Jason Bartlett, George Brennan, Joe Bongiorno and Austin Siegelman are just a few of the all-star lot of drivers that call Yonkers home.

In that July 1 race, there were 10 starters — two more than you usually have with standard one mile paces. That means the No. 9 horse lines up behind the No. 1 while the 10 is behind the 2. With the extra distance, that isn’t too much of a hindrance and with 10, there are more options and potentially better value for the bettor.

And unlike many races at Yonkers, there wasn’t that second quarter lull.  After a sizzling opening fraction of 26.2, the second quarter was a respectable 28.3.  And, instead of running single file, they were two wide as the last lap began. Warminster A was able to make a gradual ascent. He was sixth at the quarter and half, then fourth at three-quarters. The leaders clipped that mile in 1:51.3 and then Warminster A was able to survive a three across blanket finish to win in 1:58.3

I’m not saying that all 1 1/16 mile races will be this good, but when I do watch them there seems to be more action. We all know “getting the distance” is rarely a problem for Standardbreds, who routinely jog four to six miles per day in addition to a weekly timed workout; it seems like the horses enjoy going longer, too.

So why aren’t there more races at this distance and even longer? For starters, the racing secretary has to write the race and the corresponding class. If the race draws eight or less horses, it will likely be written at one mile. But if the class draws an overflow field of 10 or even more, they can extend the distance to give all the horses a fairer shot to compete and make some money.

Frank Drucker, the longtime manager of publicity at Yonkers said just that. And because of that, tracks couldn’t commit to longer distance races being permanent fixtures.

“I can’t swear to how often these races go,” he said. “It depends if a certain class can fill with overflow fields.”

Harness RacingWestern Fair Raceway in London, Ontario, Canada writes 1 1/16 mile races for their High Five bets. The High Five or Pentafacta requires bettors to pick the exact order of finishers from one to five and tracks prefer to send out nine or 10 rather than eight to make the bet a bit harder and conversely, increase the potential payout. The extra distance allows them to do that.

Like Yonkers, Western Fair is a half-mile track and if you’re going to run more than eight in a race, the mile often will not suffice. Tracks that are 5/8ths of a mile can get away with it, but the turns are simply too tight for a half-mile oval to fairly conduct a mile race with more than eight runners.

Yonkers has many big stakes races, the richest being the $1 million International Trot, which is held in October and contested at 1 ¼ miles.  The unique distance certainly adds some spice to the card and I wish there were more of these longer distance races at all tracks. Yonkers does have two more (at 1 1/16 miles) scheduled for later this week.

I understand that there can be too much of a good thing, but adding some longer distance races would not be a bad thing for the sport of harness racing.

 

 

John Furgele
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.

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