Big Changes Coming to the Hambletonian

by John Furgele

Once upon a time, for a trotter to become the Hambletonian champion, it had to win two races in one day. In those days, there were two eliminations and, in the final, if one of those elimination winners didn’t win, there would be a final run-off between the two elimination winners and the winner of that third race. Believe it or not, that’s only happened three times and that’s a long history with this year’s running — the 94th — scheduled for Aug. 3.

Currently, there are three races on Hambo Day — two eliminations and the final. And whoever wins that final, wins the Hambletonian. The top five finishers in each heat advance; so conceivably, a trotter who finishes fifth in its respective heat can be the champion. Still, making horses run twice in one day was a testament to the toughness, the stamina and the durability of the Standardbred.

Last year’s Hambo was extraordinary. The filly, Atlanta, went out very fast in her elimination, ran out of gas and finished second. Most of the observers thought she would be cooked for the final, but in that final, she again went out fast, but, this time, she saved something and won convincingly. I was there and the guy seated next to me said she had no shot in the final and, when she roared home to win by four lengths, this man (from Queens) stood up and bowed.

This year will be the last time that this will happen. Beginning in 2020, Hambletonian eliminations will take place the week before at the Meadowlands with a one-race final slated for the first Saturday in August. In addition, the race itself will remain at the Meadowlands through 2023. The Big M has hosted since 1981 and, in 2017 and 2018, over 18,000 were in attendance with the race being broadcast live on CBS Sports Network.

This move may anger purists, but there are some solid reasons for making the change. The three-race Hambletonian always created some logistical concerns. Because we don’t know who’s going to be in the final, there was nothing in the program. After the second elimination concluded, there was a mad scramble in the racing office to print out sheets for the final. And with 18,000 plus on the grounds and millions more wagering off-track, how many were unable to access the betting sheet? This is a no longer a concern with a one race final. The program will be printed ahead of time and will save everybody stress.

The race can also be hyped up during the week. Yonkers hosts the International Trot on the second Saturday in October; they have a press conference luncheon on the Tuesday prior where they reveal the draw, interview the connections and get some press.

The North America Cup, run at Woodbine Mohawk Park in June does the same thing. All three races have $1 million purses, so why give a race of that magnitude some much needed — and deserved — love. The Meadowlands does have a presser, but there, they draw both eliminations and if you’re trying to sell harness racing to the casual fan, that can be confusing. I have enough trouble trying to convince my friends and family that harness racing is a hidden gem; trying to explain eliminations makes it even harder.

Those that follow harness racing have always had a love/hate relationship with eliminations. The good thing about them is they offer purses, so the drivers, trainers and owners like them because they can make some money. Those that bet have more to wager on, but sometimes, how you approach them can be difficult, especially on Hambo Day where you have to run twice in less than two hours.

For a driver, if you’re sitting in third knowing you’re in the final, how hard do you push it? Having the eliminations the week before takes some of that out of the equation. If the trotter is feeling good and the purse is 100K, why not go for it. Not only do you get half the purse, but you get a week off. If you’re going to have eliminations, spreading them out makes sense. The Hambletonian Oaks does that; the elims are run one week prior with the $500,000 Oaks final the next Saturday on the Hambletonian undercard.

Safety is an obvious reason. In this day and age, where equine safety has come to the forefront, no longer can the refrain “that’s the way it’s always been done” be universally accepted.  There are those that want horse racing to go away; one way for that to happen is to keep doing things the same way. By making changes, you’re telling those people that we are, indeed, trying to make the sport safer.

Garnet Barnsdale is a veteran harness racing writer and handicapper who has been covering the sport for years. Based in Toronto, he contributes to the Daily Racing Form among other publications.

“I guess with everything that has been happening recently in all horse racing industries and considering the close eye that certain factions have on how the animals are being treated, it was inevitable from an optics standpoint that heats would go by the wayside.”

Barnsdale also sees the economic side.

“Wagering will increase for sure. Not having program pages between heats was always an issue.”

The one drawback is that it might not be as much fun. As I referenced above, last year was elimination racing at its best. When Atlanta trotted her opening quarter in 26 seconds, and then looked dog tired in the stretch, it made bettors pause. Would she be fresh in the final, or would she be dead?

As a bettor, you had about an hour to figure it out. I was in the stands debating with the guy from Queens. I thought the filly had something left; some agreed with me, others didn’t. I hemmed and hawed and decided to plunk down $5 on her in the final. I liked her, I was rooting for her and, as they say, you can’t go to the funeral if you don’t attend the wedding. Alas, I was rewarded.

The Standardbred can certainly handle the miles; they always have. We know they’re tough-as-nails athletes and, for the most part, they like running. But if we can keep them safer, hype the sport more and increase handle, then it makes sense to eliminate the (same-day) eliminations.

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