By John Furgele
It took Plainridge Park some time to get back to racing. The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on all sports and it wasn’t until mid-July when the only harness track in Massachusetts began its season.
On July 26, the track had its signature day as the $250,000 Spirit of Massachusetts Trot was run along with the $100,000 Clara Barton Pace.
These two races are situated nicely on the harness racing calendar; two weeks before Hambletonian Day. In four years, some of the top trotters and pacers have come to Plainville, Massachusetts, to take part in the track’s signature events.
This year was no exception as the best two older trotting mares, Atlanta and Manchego, were in the seven-horse field for the Massachusetts Trot. When these two race, Atlanta tries to get the early lead and then waits for Manchego to make her move in the stretch, but sometimes strategies change.
This time, an alert Manchego broke sharply and went right to the lead. She meant business, too, indicated by a bruising opening quarter of 25.2. But in harness racing, the key is often the second quarter; if the leader can slow things down, that can mean the difference and Manchego, with Dexter Dunn driving, executed perfectly, slowing things down with a 28.1
When Atlanta came up to challenge in mid-stretch, Manchego had plenty left and pulled away for the win. Her time of 1:49.3 was a world-record for an older mare totter on a 5/8 mile track. Atlanta (Yannick Gingras) settled for second with a hard-charging Run Director (David Miller) third.
The 5-year old Manchego now has 31 career wins and the $125,000 first-place check pushed her career earnings to $2,342,705. Her next start could be the JR Steele at the Meadowlands on Hambo Day. Hopefully, Atlanta will be waiting.
The Clara Barton saw a track record, set by the fabulous Shartin N when she wired the field, blazing home in 1:48.1 to break her own record set in this race last year by a full second. Soho Burning Love came up for second, with Philly Hanover third.
Kudos should be given to Plainridge Park; with all that has happened regarding the coronavirus pandemic, it would have been easy to postpone the races until 2021. But the track went forward and was rewarded with two excellent performances by two of the sport’s leading ladies.
As we look ahead, the big race this weekend is the $375,000 Adios Pace for the Orchids at The Meadows in Washington, Pennsylvania. Saturday’s race is for 3-year old pacers and Papi Rob Hanover would have been the morning-line choice after setting two records in his elimination when he blazed home in 1:47.1 That time set a world-record for 3-year old colts on a 5/8 mile track and is the fastest mile ever paced at The Meadows.
Unfortunately, the son of Somebeachsomewhere suffered a broken coffin bone. The injury is not life threatening and there is a chance he could return to racing in 2021, according to owner David McDuffee.
“It will heal in time,” McDuffee said. “There could be a lot of records he could set at 4. He’s also generating some interest stallion-wise. He’s a very special, smart horse. Papi Rob will be heard from again.”
While that’s a big loss, the field for the Adios is strong. The other two elim winners, The Greek Freak and Catch The Fire, get to pick their post positions.
|1||Later Dudes||Brian Brown||David Miller|
|2||Capt Midnight||Tony Alagna||Andrew McCarthy|
|3||Catch The Fire||John Ackley||Mike Wilder|
|4||The Greek Freak||Ron Burke||Matt Kakaley|
|5||No Lou Zing||Nancy Takter||Josert Fonseca|
|6||Sweet Truth||Ron Burke||Yannick Gingras|
|7||Chief Mate||Tony Alagna||Scott Zeron|
|8||Captain Barbossa||Tony Alagna||Brian Sears|
|9||Elver Hanover||Ron Burke||Chris Page|
Nine 3-year old fillies will contest the $107,320 Adioo Volo, with Lyons Sentinel coming in as the most accomplished. She is 1-2-0 in three starts with $107,744 in earnings. The primary challenge should come from Party Girl Hill who is a perfect 4-for-4 this year with a bankroll of $89,950.
The 16-race card totals $899,680 in purses, the biggest day on The Meadows calendar. Post time is 11:25 a.m. ET.
It doesn’t look there will be racing anytime soon at Monticello Raceway. Last week, Joe Faraldo, the president of the Standardbred Owners of New York, took the casino to court asking for racing to resume at the Sullivan County (New York) facility. The court ruled that if a casino can’t open, they don’t have to open for racing. Monticello is the only New York harness track that has not opened this year, and under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s reopening plan, casinos are still waiting to be given the green light.
Yonkers Raceway has been running eight race cards since its reopening and if progress continues, the cards could expand to nine next Monday.
“We needed to see if we could do eight safely,” said Yonkers racing secretary Bob Miecuna. “As you know, Yonkers Raceway was a hot spot for COVID-19. I had it in March as did all by two here in our office. I’m feeling better, but am not 100 percent. You don’t want it.
“Everybody has been behaving well. We’re all wearing masks and each day, temperatures are taken and questionnaires are filled out. We’re trying to keep everybody happy.”
Yonkers has 220 horses ready to run and with those eight races over five days, the days of horse shortages are over.
“What horse shortage?” Miecuna quipped. “We have too many horses and not enough races, at least for now.”
Batavia Downs opens its 74th season July 29. The oldest lighted harness track in the United States will run 43 days this year, starting with Wednesday and Friday cards before switching to Wednesdays and Saturdays for most of the meet.
There will be no fans in the stands and the $50,000 Robert Kane Memorial Pace will not be run this fall, but the New York Sire Stakes will come to town twice this summer in early August.
Last year, the track had excellent handle figures and on-track attendance was up. Things will be different this year.
“This is going to be a different year for us,” said director/general manager of live racing Todd Haight. “Without fans, promotions like our traditional dollar hot dog and draft nights; Family Fun Days and nightly giveaways will not take place this year.”
Haight still remains optimistic.
“Right now, we’re happy that the horsemen can continue to work (most raced at Buffalo from January-March and then June and July) and if COVID-19 numbers in New York state continue to improve, we may be able to welcome our guests back at some point before the meet ends.”
Billy Davis returns to defend his driving title and Jim Clouser, Jr is back to defend his training title.
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.