By John Furgele
It’s a big week in as the Breeders Crown at Woodbine Mohawk Park on Oct. 24-25 nears with many horses making their final starts before the two-day extravaganza.
First up is the Yonkers International Trot, which may not be as exciting as the Breeders Crown, but might be just as intriguing. Any time you have horses landing at JFK and heading to a harness track in Westchester County adds some panache.
The International Trot features horses from the United States, Canada, Italy, France, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. The Trot flies under the radar in what some say is the best sports month of the year, which is unfortunate, because the concept really is made for TV.
We have tons of horse races in North America but none are like the International Trot in which Yonkers goes after horses from all over the harness racing world, brings them to New York and rather than hype the horses, they hype the country and then the horse. To me, that’s an easy sell to the casual sports fans and the hope is that someday, a sports network will jump on the bandwagon, tell the stories and televise what’s usually a pretty good race.
There’s a $1 million purse, too, and the 1 ½ mile distance requires trotters to circle Yonkers Raceway 2 ½ times, meaning lots of turns and lots of jostling for position.
The other news is the return of racing to the Meadowlands. The last time the Big M was heard from, Forbidden Trade was pulling off a 15-1 upset to win the Hambletonian on Aug. 3. This has been a good year for the East Rutherford, New Jersey track. Buoyed by a state subsidy, the track was able to increase purses and keep some of its horses from “escaping” to Chester and Pocono once the spring came. Those same subsidies enabled the track to retain some big stakes races at the end of November.
The fall season features some solid overnight action — the Kindergarten finals for 2-year old New Jersey breds; and a big Saturday, Nov. 23 card that features eight stakes races. The first four — the Goldsmith, the Three Diamonds, the Valley Victory and the Governor’s Cup feature purses of $470,000, $400,000, $400,000 and $490,000, respectively. Without that $6 million state subsidy, these races would not be on the Meadowlands calendar.
The TVG Finals will also be run Nov. 23 and, unlike the Breeders Crown and other stakes races, the brilliance of the TVG races is their simplicity. Four races — a mare trot, a mare pace, an open trot and an open pace. The only condition is that the horse has to be at least 3 years old, so it could give us a chance to see Greenshoe — the top 3-year old trotter fresh off his Kentucky Futurity victory — face older trotters for the first time.
Western Fair Raceway in London, Ontario, opened its 2019-2020 racing season last week. On Nov. 3, Pompano Park in Florida will do the same. It’s important to cite these tracks because horses need places to run in the winter and while some tracks operate year-round, these tracks have their horses. Places that run fall to spring allow for some lower class horses to have a home and a full-season of competitive racing at venues that cater to them.
Most standardbreds can race about eight months a year. After racing, they need a month to rest, another month of turning out and then a month plus of training. The star horses usually sit idle from December through February, so places like Pompano and Western Fair get the horses that took some of the summer months off. These overnighters provide consistency and value to bettors and fans because they show up week in and week out over the long winter and perform.
The highlight of the Western Fair season is the $150,000 Camluck Classic on the meet’s final night at the end of May. It may not have the biggest purse, but it comes at the right time of the year; the stakes horses that start training in March are ready to test themselves in what I call a “propeller” race; one that propels the stars into action that will see them race and race often through the end of October and quite possibly, into November.
There will be international intrigue on tap this Saturday at Yonkers for the renewal of the Yonkers International Trot. Nine nations, nine flags, all trying to win one for their homeland and get that national anthem played over the speakers at Old Hilltop. Post time is set for late Saturday afternoon.
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.