The Little Brown Jug is a great American event. Think about this for a second: it’s a harness race, contested on a Thursday in the middle of September in Delaware, Ohio. Yet, each year, over 40,000 people watch it in person.
On the surface, that says it all. There is no other date on the harness racing calendar that will attract 40,000 people to its venue — not the Hambletonian, not the Breeders Crown — so, why would people want to change something that has been wildly successful?
The Jug has always been different than other big harness races. Like the Hambletonian, it features same-day eliminations, meaning horses have to run at least two times. The Jug required its champions to win two races, which means the winning horse might have to run over the half-mile oval three times to get the coveted Jug title.
The Jug Society, which oversees the race, decided to make some changes this year. There would still be eliminations and, then, just one final, with the winner of the final winning the Jug. Horse safety is at the top of the list of reasons for the change, but so too was attracting more horses, as some had expressed concerns about the Jug grind.
The best 3-year-old pacer, Huntsville, was not at the Jug, his trainer Ray Schnittker citing the format change as one of the reasons. Huntsville did run — and win — at Hoosier Park the next day, capturing the $160,000 Jennas Beach Boy in 1:49.1.
This year, only eight ran in the Jug. Normally, with eight horses, there would be no elimination, but in keeping with tradition, there was still an elimination of sorts, although all runners advanced to the final. The purpose of the elim was to set the post positions for the final. The horse winning the elim got post one, second got two, three got three and so on down the line. The new format saw Fear the Dragon win the elm, with Filibuster Hanover (second in elim) win the Jug.
I was disappointed to see only eight entered, but I liked seeing an elim contested because that’s what makes the Jug — and the Hambo — different. As a fan, I would have liked to see 24 horses entered. In that case, the top three could have advanced with the next two fastest times also moving on to the final. To compare, the 2017 Hambo saw 19 enter with the top five in each heat advancing to the final. The Jug and Hambo should be harder to win than the Breeders Crown or the TVG Free For All Pace. Those are great races, but the Jug and the Hambo are part of the American fabric and should be extra special.
This will be the challenge for the Jug Society going forward. They don’t want trainers like Schnittker finding reasons for skipping an event that attracts over 40,000 to a county fairground on a Thursday. I also don’t want to see organizers cave in and take the top eight money winners either. If you want to win the Jug, you no longer have to win twice, but you have to run two times.
What could they do to get more horses?
Well, they could lower the nomination fee and they could certainly raise the purse too. This year’s Jug had a total purse of approximately $490,000; the elim totaled about $188K, with the final worth around $402K. That’s a serious payday in harness racing, but the Hambo goes for $1 million, the Yonkers Trot, $500,000 and the Messenger Stakes $500,000. With harness racing in Ohio benefiting from alternate gaming revenue, there might be some room to boost the purse.
Jug Society president Tom Wright has indicated that a $1 million purse is the goal and if that happens, I can’t see the Schnittkers of the harness racing world skipping out. If you add prize (money) to prestige, how could the best horses, drivers, and trainers stay away from Delaware, Ohio on a late summer/early fall Thursday afternoon?