New Era of Harness Racing Begins Up North

A new era is about to begin north of the 48th — to translate, that means north of the United States, in the country called Canada.  For 24 years, venerable Woodbine Racetrack hosted both thoroughbred and Standardbred racing.  But on Monday, April 9, Woodbine will host pacers and trotters for the final time.  Beginning Thursday, April 12, all the Standardbred racing will be conducted at Mohawk Racetrack, which has been renamed Woodbine-Mohawk Park.

We all know that Mohawk has been around for years and we all know that, in the summer, Mohawk is the place to be for Canadian Standardbred racing.  The Pepsi North America Cup is, and will remain, the biggest race on the Mohawk calendar.  The 2018 edition is set for Saturday, June 16 and will have a $1 million (CDN) purse that is sure to attract the best pacers the sport can offer. Last year, in an epic three-way battle, Fear the Dragon edged Huntsville and Downbytheseaside in 1:48.4.

In addition to the North America Cup, other big races on the schedule include the Metro Pace (the richest harness race for 2-year old pacers), the Canadian Trotting Classic for 3-year old trotters, the Canadian Pacing Derby (a free-for-all), the Maple Leaf Trot (a free-for-all for any horse four and older), as well as the She’s a Great Lady for 2-year old pacing fillies.

Mohawk opened in 1963 and even though Woodbine has the brand name, those that follow harness racing will tell you that Mohawk is the better venue.

The track is conducive to fast times and evidence of that occurred last summer when Dr. J Hanover paced a 1:46.4 mile, the fastest ever on Canadian soil. Mohawk sports a 7/8-mile track just like Vernon Downs and Hoosier Park do in the United States.

With Woodbine out of the harness racing game, Mohawk looks to race on a year-round basis.  The grandstand has been winterized and the track will run a 12-month schedule.

Mohawk Park sits in Campbellville, which is about 45 miles northwest of Toronto proper.  Some fear that being that far from the “metro” could negatively impact handle.  Others say that it won’t be an issue since most wagering is done off-track.  Some think having harness racing at one facility for 12 months will create a stale product.  There is something to be said for opening and closing days, and that will be gone when harness racing comes to an end at Woodbine.

If you’re looking at racing from a vantage point, however, it is no contest.  Because it’s a thoroughbred track, Woodbine has tough site lines for harness racing.  Marc Treffi of Glens Falls, NY has seven horses that are racing at Mohawk and sees the benefits of racing there more.

“At Mohawk you’re right at the tip of the action.” he said, “and the paddock is a few steps away.  At Woodbine, you have to walk and because of the thoroughbred track, the horses are so far away. The view is no good.”

Like some, Treffi voices some concern over handle.

“Will Mohawk handle as much as Woodbine?”  Woodbine is right near the city of Toronto, Mohawk isn’t. And that could mean less on-track crowds and handle.”

Arguments can be made for having a break too.  NYRA is an example.  It splits the action between three racetracks — Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga.  As the Saratoga meet nears, there is a quite the buildup.  Since I live nearby, you can sense it and you also feel it on Labor Day when the track closes.  Because Saratoga is the summer track and attendance is high, it gets the most attention.  I’m sure there is excitement when Belmont and Aqueduct open and close, albeit a bit tempered.

Ohio utilizes three part-time tracks in Miami Valley, Scioto and Dayton and with that comes the natural crescendo/decrescendo that goes with openings and closings.  Of course, there are plenty of tracks that race all year round, like Yonkers, Monticello and Northfield Park.

Woodbine has always been good to harness racing.  It is by far the handle leader in Canada.  On Monday, April 2, the track handled over $1.5 million for 10 races.  Will that continue at Woodbine Mohawk Park?

Fans of harness racing in Canada are used to summer racing at Mohawk, so, in the short term, things should be the same old, same old.  In late fall and winter is when we will see the effect of the change.  How will the Boxing Day card go over at Mohawk after being run at Woodbine for over two decades?

The Woodbine Entertainment Group has taken a bold step.  It could have kept things the way they were, but it decided to invest over $10 million to rebrand itself — Woodbine for thoroughbred racing; Mohawk for Standardbred racing.  The future will tell if the decision was a good one. My gut says that the move will be a positive one.  Fans will have two tracks, each specializing in one type of racing.

So, on April 12, let the new era begin.

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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