It’s the date that changed the sport of harness racing: September 1, 1976.
Emerging from the swamps of Jersey was the Meadowlands Racetrack, and on that day it hosted racing for the first time. Its influence since cannot be overlooked or understated.
For fans of the old Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island (closed in 1988), the mention of the Meadowlands might not bring smiles, but there can be no doubt the impact the track has had over its 43-year existence.
Prior to the Meadowlands, most standardbred racing was contested on half-mile tracks; the horses had to circle twice and those tight turns made it tough to run fast times and extremely tough for outside horses to win at a consistent level. The Big M, with its signature one-mile oval, leveled the playing field and quickly became the marquee track in the land.
In the summer of 1977, the Meadowlands Pace was created to lure the best 3-year old pacers to the track in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The inaugural event attracted 30,943 to watch Escort bring home the bacon. Three years later, it was the superhorse Niatross, considered by many the greatest standardbred of all time. Before a record crowd of 42,612 (the record still stands), Niatross did not disappoint, romping home in 1:53 1/5. How good was Niatross? He was chosen 1980 Athlete of the Year by the New York Post, and later voted into both the U.S. and Canadian halls of fame.
On Saturday night at the Big M, the 43rd edition of the Pace will take place. The crowds these days, though, have dwindled, due in part to the advent of Off-Track Betting years ago, and if history holds, about 11,000 will show up at The Big M for the big pace.
There have been other memorable moments.
In 1981, the Meadowlands Pace made history when it became the first horse race to offer a $1 million purse. Later that year, the Big M would host the Hambletonian, the premier race for 3-year old trotters, a race that has called the Meadowlands home ever since.
In 1985, five years after daddy Niatross won, Nihalator put in a sublime performance winning by two seconds when he clocked a 1:50 1/5.
Six years later, Precious Bunny became the first pacer to break the 1:50 mark when he tripped the wire in 1:49 4/5. That seems to be a major difference between the standardbreds and thoroughbreds. Secretariat set records in 1973 that still stand in the 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby (1:59 2/5), 1 3/16th-mile Preakness (1:53) and 1 ½-mile Belmont (2:24). The slowest Meadowlands Pace winning belongs to Falcon Almahurst at 1:55 1/5 in 1978; the fastest was set by He’s Watching at 1:46 4/5 in 2014.
Legendary driver John Campbell has seven wins, two more than Tim Tetrick, who will be driving Saturday night. Brian Sears, also driving on Saturday, has two Pace victories.
This year’s Pace drew 15 entrants; that meant two eliminations were held on Saturday, July 6 to narrow the field to 10 starters — the top five finishers in each heat. Captain Crunch took the first heat in 1:48 3/5, while Bettor’s Wish won the second in 1:49 1/5.
While post positions are important, they are less so on the mile oval. And if things are anything like last week, we may see some blazing times come Saturday. Last week, Lather Up tied the fastest time ever run by a standardbred when he stopped the clock in 1:46 in winning the $250,000 Graduate Series final for 4-year old pacers. In watching the eliminations, it was clear that all are saving something for the big $682,650 final.
They say that time only matters when you’re in jail, but we all know that pace makes the race. If the opening quarter is 27 seconds or slower, it will be a mad dash to the finish line. But if the opening quarter goes in 25 and change or low 26s, then the race sets up entirely different; the beauty of racing on the one mile oval. In last week’s elims, both races saw opening quarters in 27 and change; tepid at best. That led to negative splits—where the second half was run faster than the first.
It will be interesting to see if a horse leaves from the gate and sets a blistering pace. As an example, Lather Up’s 1:46 was set up by Always a Prince, who set a torrid pace. He covered the opening quarter in a thoroughbred-like 25 2/5 and then kept going with a 26 2/5 second quarter. That gave Lather Up something to run into, and even though the second half was nearly two seconds slower than the first, the finishing time tied the world record.
Post time is 7:15 pm ET for what should be a fabulous night of racing. There are 13 races with purses totaling just under $2.6 million. Nine of the 13 have purses over $100,000 and many will be watching the $450,000 Hambletonian Maturity for 4-year old trotters. Atlanta, the 2018 Hambletonian winner, heads the field. Because it’s an 11-horse field, the distance is 1 1/8 miles and features three fillies—Atlanta, Manchego and Phaetosive.
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.