By John Furgele
Mention the Bluegrass State to a sports fan, and he or she will usually,think of great college basketball and thoroughbred racing. It could be time to include harness racing.
The Red Mile has long called Lexington its old Kentucky home, and in 2019, it was joined by Churchill Downs Incorporated’s Oak Grove, which will host its third standardbred meet this fall.
Yet another harness track is currently under construction in the southeastern part of Kentucky, and while that’s taking place, The Red Mile was granted its racing dates beginning on Independence Day, featuring 12 days of live racing through July 27.
The new track is being built in partnership with Keeneland and is owned by Kentucky Racing Acquisition (Ron Winchell and Marc Falcone), which owns Kentucky Downs.
It seems there is room for both styles of racing to flourish in Kentucky.
“We didn’t want to sit out a year waiting for the track to be completed at Corbin,” Winchell said, “I can’t say enough about The Red Mile working with us and granting us the dates until we can be up and running at Corbin.”
As soon as word got out that Kentucky was hosting another harness meet, Red Mile racing secretary Kevin Mack was overwhelmed with inquiries and is scrambling to find stables for owners and trainers.” I couldn’t be more pleased with the response,” Mack said, “right now we have more horses than stalls, but we’re delighted with the response and we’re looking forward to getting things going on July 4.”
In addition to regular races, the Corbin meet will feature prep races for the Kentucky Sire Stakes and the Commonwealth Series and will also host the Mercer County Fair program on July 13 with those finals slated for July 20.
“When you think about it, a few years ago, things weren’t looking great for harness racing in Kentucky,” Mack said. “We only had the Red Mile, but two years ago, Oak Grove opened and now we have Corbin. This helps the standardbred industry in our state. It’s giving Kentucky sired-horses better money to go for and it’s going to provide more days of racing, which was desperately needed.”
Sire stakes are important to states that offer harness racing. We saw breeding decline in New Jersey as horsemen went to states that offered more lucrative purses. As a result, breeding in New Jersey was down, but thanks to a state subsidy, purses have increased and more foals are being dropped in the Garden State.
With three harness racing tracks in Kentucky, the hope is that the same thing can happen; that more foals will be born in Kentucky and will compete for richer sire stakes purses at all three tracks. Harness racing may never be as famous as its thoroughbred counterpart but it is making some inroads. From one track to three in just four years, things are looking better for pacers and trotters in My Old Kentucky Home.
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.