Unlike thoroughbred racing, harness racing — with the exception of Cal Expo — is generally limited to the Northeast, East Coast and Midwest. We have lots of tracks in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, a few in New England and one each in Florida and Kentucky, but none in states like Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana, states that take to the thoroughbreds. I say this because I write often about Yonkers Raceway and, today, it is more of the same.
Many tracks struggle to find ways to increase handle and many half-mile tracks struggle even more, but there has been a resurgence in handle and racing quality at the Hilltop Oval, located right off Interstate 87. Cammie Haughton was appointed racing director in December and he has made some serious changes that have greatly improved both the racing product and, more importantly, handle.
Gone is the passing lane.
This is a topic that could take up several articles and columns and you will get many different opinions as to whether it helps or hurts harness racing. The knock on the “lane” is simple — it results in stale racing. It’s too easy for a driver and horse to sit in the pocket and then, when they turn for home, the track widens allowing the driver/horse to skim the pylons to victory.
With no passing lane, that horse is pretty much cooked. Unless other horses drift to the right, there is no way for that parked horse to get through. But, as Haughton says, that’s a good thing. Bettors can take note and if they see that “Harness Hanover” was boxed in on a Thursday night, they figure that, next time out, the driver will make sure that the horse will try a different tactic. As we know, harness racing bettors tend to study more and bet the same track each day and each week — and these are patterns that they will take note of.
Yonkers still struggles from horses taking a breather — you know, the 31-second second panel, but the one thing I have noticed is that there has been much more action on the backsides. There is still plenty of single file racing, but there has been much more two-, three- and even four-wide racing as drivers are engaging earlier. That’s what a bettor wants to see; they want to see all horses trying to win, place or show. It became too easy for drivers to settle for fifth and cash a check, especially at Yonkers where overnight purses can be $20 to $40,000 — where a fifth-place checks earns more than winning a race at Freehold does.
The most important thing is that bettors have acknowledged Yonkers and the changes made. There are many who would never bet half-mile tracks and even though Yonkers has some great races like the International Trot, the Levy, Rooney and both the Yonkers Trot and Messenger Stakes, handle has never been great; in fact, some have called it embarrassingly low. The Meadowlands, with its one-mile oval has always been the King of Handle and even with low purses, dwarfs Yonkers on a regular basis.
But the bettors have changed their minds.
Handle is up significantly at Yonkers. Mondays have been the best night for the track. Offering free programs has helped and handle on Mondays is usually over $900,000. On Monday, March 5, handle was $938,819 and the next day, $932,180. On Friday, March 9, when Yonkers went up against the still-mighty Meadowlands, the handle was a respectable $737,614.
The track has hosted the French trots on Sunday with larger fields trotting 1 ¼ miles and those days have seen handle top $1 million. The Sunday, Feb. 25, card saw an all-source handle of $1,048,814. Bettors have taken notice and because Yonkers is not afraid to race (five days per week), those who love harness racing know that they can rely on the track and its 238-days of yearly racing.
If you have ever been to Yonkers, you know it will never win a beauty contest, but if you go online and check out the Empire City racing site you will not see a better picture. Unlike the grainy images that most of us deal with when streaming, Yonkers Raceway offers a HD picture that is appealing to eye. The days where 20,000 people flocked to the track on a regular basis are over and it surprises me that more tracks don’t follow Yonkers’ lead by improving their simulcast signal and picture. Haughton does have on-site improvements in store, which is important, particularly for events like the International Trot, Messenger Stakes and Yonkers Trot. On Saturdays, Publicity Director Frank Drucker hosts live racing, which further enhances the product. We all know the Meadowlands has done a great job with race-day production. Why shouldn’t Yonkers — and others — do the same?
Yonkers purses have been buoyed by racino monies, but now it appears that handle is matching the purses. Tracks like Monticello, with average purses of $4,000 were handling more than Yonkers and its $20,000 average, but Yonkers has now surged ahead.
Will this last? Will Yonkers cut in on the Meadowlands?
Those are questions that will be answered down the road, but, right now, things are going the right way on a track that has been around since 1899. Haughton knows he can’t stand pat; he has to do more than eliminate the passing lane to attract and keep bettors and fans. I have a hunch he has more in store and will eagerly wait to see what comes next.
In fact, I have some suggestions for him that I will probably share in a future column. Let’s hope that he’s reading.
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.