A Plan to Reignite Interest in Winter Harness Racing

It is February, regarded as the worst sports month of the year. The Super Bowl has been played and, this year, there is a diversion with the Olympics, but that only happens every four years.

In short, we are in the doldrums.

Harness racing is also in the doldrums. Sure, the tracks are running, but in the winter, the racing is left to the veterans, the stalwarts, the horses that have been around for many years. Buffalo Raceway is struggling to fill three days of racing cards. Thus far, at least one card has been canceled each week. Horse shortages are the main reason, but Mother Nature has done a job on the track this season.

We all know that the big horses, the regal horses will gear up their seasons soon. The horses that ran in last fall’s Breeders Crown have been resting, with most training, getting ready to make their season debuts.

What can harness racing do in the dead of winter?  In thoroughbred racing, there are winter tracks with winter meets — Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita, Fair Grounds and Sunland Park in New Mexico. Oaklawn Park, located in Hot Springs, Arkansas, offers some of the highest overnight and allowance purses in the land. These are the winter places to be for the thoroughbreds.

What does harness racing have?  Where is the winter place to be?  There is Pompano Park, but with small purses, there is no chance that this track will be the Standardbred equivalent of Gulfstream Park. That’s a shame, too, because the racing surface at Pompano Park is shiny and fast and so too, are the times. The Sunday, Feb. 11, open pace saw a winning time of 1:50.2 — in a race that had an $11,000 purse. We also have Cal Expo in Sacramento, a nice one-mile oval, but with $6,600 open paces and trots, it doesn’t seem willing to be the winter oasis either.

Harness racing is not big in the south or the west. There is one track in Florida with none in Louisiana and Arkansas, two states that offer thoroughbred racing during the winter. The same can be said for Oklahoma, Texas and even New Mexico. To compare, New York has seven tracks; Ohio, four; and Pennsylvania, three.

Think about where the Standardbreds race in the winter: Yonkers, Buffalo, Monticello. There’s also Northfield Park in Ohio, Miami Valley in Ohio, The Meadows and The Meadowlands. One word can be used to sum up these places in December, January and February:  cold.

What can harness racing do to garner some attention in the winter?  We know a 40-day Saratoga style meet at Pompano will not happen, but what about a short series or a festival with some big, attention-grabbing races?  Critics will point out that there is the Breeders Crown at the end of October, but if thoroughbred racing can create the Pegasus, why can’t there be something for harness racing at Pompano Park in the dead of winter?

Harness racing is not devoid of big-time events. Once the summer comes, the Grand Circuit races come and come often, but why not do something spectacular over the winter? Why not have a Presidents Classic, a couple of major races contested at Pompano on the Saturday prior to President’s Day?  One major race for the trotters and one for the pacers would suffice. There is no reason to go overboard as the sport has days like the Hambletonian and the Little Brown Jug to do that.   The Presidents Classic could feature two $3 million showcases (or another figure) with some smaller races with purses in the $50,000 to $150,000 range. That would be enough money to lure some horses in, but not enough to break the bank and hopefully the profit margin. Like the Pegasus, there could be a buy-in to make the field fuller and incentivized. If I were running the event, I would invite 12 horses for each race and would make them race 1 ¼ miles.

This is easier said than done. It would require the marquee trainers to get their horses going a little earlier and there would be the cost of shipping to and from. The thoroughbred industry has trouble getting on the same page, but manages to do it better than the Standardbreds, which is really saying something. Some trainers might fear burning their horse out too early and renderimg him or her useless for the big races. I don’t agree and remember, they are prepping their horse for a $3 or maybe a $4 million race. A victory here makes your year. And, more importantly, gives harness racing a needed shot in the arm.

Look, this is an idea, a concept from a hack journalist, but if I’m thinking of it, surely the brains that run harness racing and its tracks are too. We all know horse people want to make as much money as they can and do so by controlling their expenses. Why ship to Pompano in February, when they can run every week in the Yonkers or Dover Downs open paces or trots?  The reason is simple: the industry needs this, it needs events that can lure new eyes to the sport. People like me enjoy the French trots at Yonkers, but I’m not the guy they’re looking for, because I’m already there.

In order to garner attention, there has to be some creative thinking. The Presidents Classic at Pompano Park could be a start.

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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