The Enigma That Is Yonkers Raceway

Trainer Jerry Riordan with Twister Bi, winner of the International Trot at Yonkers Raceway (photo by John Furgele).

Twister Bi, winner of the International Trot at Yonkers Raceway (photo by John Furgele).

Yonkers Raceway.

Those two words elicit many responses from many people. Some like it, some hate it. Some enjoy betting there, others don’t even try. Why is this the case? Why is Yonkers treated differently than other half-mile tracks?

If you do enough reading on harness racing, you will read many negative opinions about the Hilltop Oval. There are plenty of half-mile ovals that do not generate this type of disdain. For every person I hear complaining about Saratoga, Monticello, Northfield, Batavia, Buffalo, Western Fair Raceway or Flamboro Downs in Canada, I hear five grumbling about Yonkers.

My friend’s father is what I call the consummate horseplayer. He loves Aqueduct, Saratoga Race Course and, at night, he used to bet big on the Meadowlands. When asked if he prefers thoroughbreds or Standardbreds, he will coyly answer, “wherever I can make money.”

When I ask him about half-mile tracks, he says he rarely bets them. When I mention Yonkers, he says “never.”

So, let’s see if we can get to the bottom of the anger so often directed Yonkers Raceway.

Yonkers offers great purses and, because of that, harness fans have to pay attention to it. And, of course, horseplayers have to bet it. I don’t have enough evidence to say that the best horses race at Yonkers, but one can surmise that the higher the purses, the better the athlete, which, in this case, are the horses. The drivers love Yonkers, as do the trainers and the owners. Why? Because good money can be made there.

We know that veteran horseplayers seldom care about purses and stakes races, but because Yonkers has open paces and trots with $40,000 and $50,000 purses, the same horses will race there and, at the very least, demand a peek at the past performances.

Another Yonkers complaint is that the track is biased. Critics cite statistics that horses starting from the seven or eight gate never — or rarely — win. We all know that starting from the outside is very hard. You need some luck and, often, the driver just tries to get a piece, or an “envelope,” as the insiders say. In a $40,000 race, fifth place means $2,000, which is better than sixth place, which is $0.

I decided to take a look at both Northfield and Yonkers to see how the number 8 horse did in each race. I used Saturday, Dec. 9 for Northfield Park and Friday, Dec. 8 for Yonkers (racing was canceled on Dec. 9). Both are half-mile circuits. These are the finishes of the 8-horse in each race. Unless noted, each race had 8-horse fields. NA means not applicable because the race lacked eight entries.

Race 1:  Yonkers 8th; Northfield 4th
Race 2:  Yonkers 8th; Northfield, 6th
Race 3:  Yonkers 2nd; Northfield NA
Race 4:  Yonkers 7th, Northfield 6th
Race 5:  Yonkers 8th; Northfield 7th
Race 6:  Yonkers 5th; Northfield 8th of 9
Race 7:  Yonkers 6th; Northfield, 7th
Race 8:  Yonkers 5th; Northfield NA
Race 9:  Yonkers 6th; Northfield 7th
Race 10:  Yonkers NA; Northfield 7th
Race 11:  Yonkers 4th; Northfield 9th of 9
Race 12:  Yonkers 8th; Northfield, 4th
Race 13:  No race at Yonkers; Northfield 6th of 9
Race 14:  No race at Yonkers; Northfield, 8th of 9
Race 15:  No race at Yonkers; Northfield 9th of 9

My math skills have never been good, but the 8-horse made money (fifth-place or higher) in four of the 12 races at Yonkers — that’s 33 percent, while at Northfield, the 8-horse collected an envelope in three of the 15 races — 20 percent.

For the bettor, none of the 8s at Northfield paid out and just one at Yonkers (Race 3) did so, with American Island returning $6.00 to place and $3.40 to show.

This just proves how tough it is for the 8-horse to win on any half-mile track, yet for some reason, Northfield Park is never the subject of the bellyaching that Yonkers is. And, even though Yonkers percentages were better, Northfield Park usually has a better handle than Yonkers does.

It’s not Yonkers fault, of course. The Meadowlands used to have better purses, but that changed when the Empire City Casino came to Yonkers (there is no casino came to the Big M). Yonkers had to increase purses and that resulted in many drivers, trainers and owners taking their talents to Westchester County.

And because Yonkers has more zeroes in its purses these days, it has gotten more attention from those who watch, love and bet on harness racing. In sum, people care, and when they care, they complain. Yonkers simply cannot be ignored. When a track hosts races like the International Trot, the Messenger, Yonkers Trot and the Rooney, people have to care — writers and media, too. And the more you care, the more you scrutinize.

Yonkers has the best overnight horses and some great stakes races, yet fails to generate a substantial handle. A $3,500 race at Northfield Park handles $65,000, while a $25,000 race at Yonkers handles $38,000. But, as I outlined, the track bias that exists at Yonkers also exists at Northfield.

Yonkers is trying to make things better. Racing officials moved the finish line back 100 feet to encourage drivers (and horses) to “go” earlier. This has resulted in better racing, but still has not helped the 8-horse or overall handle. The reality is that there is only so much that can be done on a half-mile track. The track recently hired Cammie Haughton to be its director of racing and his primary goal is to find ways to increase handle.

Haughton just announced that the passing lane would be eliminated to encourage more movement, more action and better racing. Some will applaud this, others won’t. The passing lane has helped the inside horse, the horse that gets boxed in, but it can, at times, lead to sitting and waiting, which can be maddening. When new fans see this, they bring up the old refrain that harness racing is rigged. I don’t think anybody likes to see horses running in single file, particularly on a half-mile track.

Haughton should be applauded for trying to shake things up; if his changes lead to better racing, great. My hope is that, if they don’t, he will be sensible enough to say they didn’t work and change things back. This is not the time to be stubborn and excessively prideful. Innovation is needed and welcomed, but the main objective is to make the product — which is great, in my opinion — better and, and more importantly, appealing to those who haven’t given the sport a look.

International-Trot-Trophy

International Trot trophy (photo by John Furgele).

Yonkers is not the only track that offers — or offered — a passing lane, but, as we know, because of those purses, it gets criticized for it more than the others. Let’s see horses make moves and run two-wide and mix it up a bit more than they currently do.

Perhaps paying all starters something will lead to more drivers trying to win the race. Now, the scale is 50 percent for the win, 25 percent for second, 12 percent for third, 8 percent for fourth and five percent for fifth. Why not reward all horses for being healthy enough to run? Why not change the scale — 50 percent for first, 22 percent for second, 11 percent for third, 7 percent for fourth and 5 percent for fifth. The other runners would split the remaining five percent of the purse.

Let’s take an $18,000 race as an example. Under the all-get-a-piece scenario, the winner gets $9,000; second, $3,960; third, $1,980; fourth $1,260; and fifth, $900. The remaining $900 would be divided up equally among the remaining entrants. Sure, you could pay more or less for each place, but paying equally encourages the field to take shots at moving up and not worry about fading badly in the stretch.

Going from a 50-25-12-8-5 division to a 50-22-11-7-5 division is subtle — subtle enough to improve racing which is what Haughton wants and, moreover, what harness racing fans want.

Yonkers frustrates because no matter how hard fans try, they cannot ignore it. Racing at Yonkers will never be as good as the racing around the one-mile oval of the Big M has, but, again, those purses require one’s attention.

Haughton has his work cut out for him. Yes, he has to increase handle, but first, he has to change perceptions to get people like my friend’s father to look at the past performances, see a $30,000 race and do some studying and, of course, some wagering.

Changing things won’t be easy, but it can and, I think, will be done. Yonkers isn’t Northfield or Batavia. It’s a place where there are exceptionally good horses and good races.

John Furgele
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.

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