By John Furgele
Two weeks ago, Captain Corey romped home to win the Hambletonian. Afterwards, the next question was obvious — where will the talented colt race next?
The answer came last Saturday at the Sun Stakes meet at Pocono Downs in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where the champ faced off and defeated eight others in 1:51.0 in the $300,000 Earl Beal Memorial Trot.
Driven and trained by Ake Svanstedt, the son of Googoo Gaagaa took command early and made short work of the field. Yonkers Trot champion Johan Palema rebounded nicely from a poor showing in the Hambo to get second with Take All Comers finishing third.
Svanstedt was delighted with the performance.
“It’s easy to drive when you have a horse like him,” he said. “He’s a really smart horse, I think that’s the reason good horses are good—they’re smart. And they like to race.”
The Captain is now 4-for-6 this year and 9-for-13 in his career. He is also a newly minted millionaire with $1.06 million in career earnings.
The filly trot, the $250,000 Delmonica Hanover, was missing Hambletonian Oaks champ Bella Bellini. That gave Darlene Hanover an opportunity and she took advantage, rallying from fifth at three-quarters to edge Flawless Country and You Ato Dream to win in 1:51.4.
Trained and co-owned by Brett Bittle, Todd McCarthy was in the bike for Darlene Hanover and guided her to her second win in seven starts this year and six of 15 for her career.
“Brett is super to drive for,” McCarthy said. Full credit to him, he had the horse spot on today and made my job real easy.”
Harness racing has a lot of tracks. Some do better than others. Those who follow the sport know there are issues that must be addressed if the sport is going to succeed.
Take Florida for example. It looks like 2022 will be the last season at Pompano Park and while there is talk of building a new harness track in the Sunshine State, nothing has been announced.
The reason “The Pomp” is on its final legs is because in Florida, casinos no longer have to sponsor harness racing and that leads to the second issue: How can tracks survive if (and perhaps when) casino money is taken away? Some states like New Jersey (which allocates $20 million to two harness track and one thoroughbred track) budget money for horse racing, but many partner with casinos to do so. What happens if other states follow Florida’s lead?
Yonkers has the best overnight purses in the sport, but what would happen if New York no longer required a percentage of casino money to go to harness racing? Would Yonkers rid itself of it, or would they keep it with lower purses? It’s a loaded question for sure, and most don’t want to ponder it right now.
That’s why Northfield Park is a treasure. Yes, the track is aligned with a casino which helps with purses, but there is a strong commitment between the two.
The track races 220 plus days a year, is active in hosting Ohio Sire Stakes races and has several big stakes races that include the Battle of Lake Erie and the Carl Milstein Memorial.
But what separates the place referred to as” The Home of the Flying Turns,” is volume. I continue to be impressed by the number of races that are run at the Northeast Ohio facility.
Carding races is not easy. Monticello races four times per week and often, to get those four days in, you’ll see seven race cards. That’s not the case at Northfield Park. Most days, there are 16 races with nine horses per race — that’s 144 horses for one night of racing. That can make the card drag — and Northfield is one of the worst with post time drag — but most nights, there is no shortage of variety and betting options.
The Aug. 25 card exemplifies this. There are three divisions of the Buckeye Stallion Series, races that must be paid for a year in advance. Those races drew eight, seven and seven starters respectively. The other 13 races have full fields of nine. That’s the norm at the track and for that, they should be commended.
Let’s give some love to those that race up north and this week, we will honor Smooth Lou for winning the 62nd Gold Cup and Saucer at Charlottetown Driving Park in Prince Edward Island. He sat patiently in the five-hole before making his definitive move to win in 1:51.1 in the $60,000 race before a packed house at the track.
The 5-year old son of Sweet Lou never saw the pylons, but despite racing the entire mile in the two-path had plenty left, so much that driver Robert Shepard raised his fist in triumph 25 yards from the wire.
The gelding was purchased by Robert and Ronald Woodburn from the Ron Burke stable, and the brother team of Robert and Patrick do the driving and training.
“My legs were shaking,” said driver Robert Shepard. “All I could think is that I’m going to win the race I’ve always wanted to win. It’s something else.”
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.