Getting a ‘Handle’ on the Top Harness Racing Tracks

The Meadowlands remains the harness racing’s leader in handle.  No track handles more money than the Big M.  We all know why — the one-mile oval and, for the most part, solid and fair racing.  There is no racino at the Big M, so we all know that purses are down and certainly way down when compared to those at Yonkers Raceway.

Should we be sad that the best trotters and pacers are not at The Meadowlands because there are better purses elsewhere, or should we marvel at the fact that over $3 million was wagered there on Saturday, March 24?

The racing — no matter the class of horse — is usually pretty good.  You can win from inside, outside and middle.  Like most harness tracks, it pays to be at or near the lead, but in a 10-horse field, the 10 horse can and does win.

The Meadowlands runs on Friday and Saturday and that’s what makes me a little misty.  Granted, those are two big nights to race, but part of me wishes that the Big M would throw in at least one other day of racing.  They do include some Thursdays in December, but remember, that’s December.

Maybe less is more.  When a track has fewer dates, fans pay more attention.  It’s a reason why football is so popular.  There are only 16 games and if you miss four, you’ve missed 25 percent of the season.  Still, part of me thinks that the Big M owes fans more than two cards per week.

Fear The Dragon (photo via harnesslink.com).

Fear The Dragon (photo via harnesslink.com).

One of the reasons the Meadowlands goes with two-day weeks is field size.  We all know that there is a horse shortage and, because of it, tracks like Buffalo have only been able to run two times per week, despite the schedule calling for three.  Pompano runs four days a week, but on many days there are short fields and only eight races.  We expect eight-race cards at some thoroughbred tracks, but in harness racing?  On Friday, March 23, there were 11 races at the Big M with 92 horses behind the gate.  That’s an average of 8.4 per race, enough to keep bettors reasonably satisfied.  On Saturday, March 24, there were 97 horses over 12 races, an average of 8.1.  That’s not bad, but we know the Big M takes pride in 10-horse fields.

Purses are down, but the track still produces high quality races.  In Saturday’s (March 24) Preferred Handicap Pace, Bettor’s Edge used a 26.3 final quarter to get past Western Joe to win in 1:50.3 — yes, the big mile still yields eye-popping times even when they’re running for $20k.  What’s odd is that New Jersey’s other track, Freehold, also runs on Fridays and Saturdays; peculiar, to say the least.

The Meadowlands will be heard from before the 2018 racing season ends.  We all know about the Meadowlands Pace, Hambletonian Day (with 10 stakes races) and of course, the TVG-sponsored Free-for-All paces and trots Thanksgiving weekend.  There are many good races at the Meadowlands, just not as many as there used to be.  The first big stakes race of 2018 is the Cutler Memorial Trot, scheduled for the evening of Saturday, May 5 — Kentucky Derby evening.  You’re already running on adrenaline from the Derby, why not keep it going with the Cutler?  The last two editions were won by the now-retired Resolve.  Last year, because of an oversized field of 12, they covered 1 1/8 miles and the race will have a guaranteed $200,000 purse.

The Meadowlands is still the King of Handle and March 24 was a big night for harness racing wagering as bettors were, as they say, betting with both fists.  Yonkers handled over $1 million and the Big M, over $3 million.  For some reason, harness racing seems to be experiencing an uptick.  In addition to these numbers, Buffalo Raceway announced it will increase its purses starting April 4.  Pompano Park increased its by 10 percent in December and the Meadows, which only raced three times in February because of an Equine Herpes Virus breakout, requested to make those days up — a request that was granted.  When was the last time a harness racing track sought additional/make-up dates? Call me an eternal optimist, but that’s good news for those who love the sport.

The Meadowlands is a proud track with great history.  In some ways it reminds me of Churchill Downs.  Both have the history, the nostalgia and of course, the grandest of races.  There is no race in the world that rivals the Kentucky Derby.  It’s a race that George Steinbrenner never won as an owner; a race that many inside his circle say he would have traded a World Series ring for.  And, the grandest race in harness racing is the first Saturday in August at the Meadowlands with the Hambletonian.  The best racing may no longer be at the either of these tracks, but both still demand and receive our collective attention.

Without gaming, the perception is that the Meadowlands may have lost a step.  Because the purses are relatively small, the best horses, drivers and trainers go elsewhere, or send their “B” horses there.  That doesn’t seem to bother the bettors, but there is a tinge of sadness that goes with that.  In some ways, it’s depressing to acknowledge that harness racing needs gaming to stay afloat; on the other hand, harness racing is gambling and why not have all the gambling in one area? Most think that eventually, there will be some other form of gambling at the Big M, but no one is quite sure what it will be.  Fifteen years ago, it looked like Yonkers was on life support, but the racino saved the track and now, the purses are the best in the game.

Yonkers has the bigger purses, but does the Big M still have the better racing?  The bettors still say yes and the margin is still wide.  But, Yonkers seems to be on to something and if they can ever convince bettors that half-mile tracks are viable, who knows what could happen?  Could Yonkers and the Big M take in $2.5 million each on a Saturday night?  Or will the Big M, with that big mile track, hold off Yonkers as the King of Handle.

Time will tell.  It always does.

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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