Like last week’s weather, things in harness racing are really heating up. Next Saturday —Aug. 3 — is Hambletonian Day at The Meadowlands. The noon ET post features 10 stakes races including the $500,000 Hambletonian Oaks and the $1 million Hambletonian and will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network, about the only time harness racing gets coverage on a major sports network.
But there is some business prior to and let’s not overlook what’s going on this weekend. Two tracks are hosting significant races for both the trotters and pacers. First up is the Adios Run for the Orchids, contested at The Meadows for 3-year old pacers on Saturday afternoon. The $400,000 pace is part of a 16-race card that boasts over $848,000 in purses. This year, 26 were entered and last Saturday, there were three $50,000 eliminations with the top three from each advancing to the final over the 5/8 mile Meadows track.
The field, from the rail out (with driver, odds)
1-Prince of Tides (Dave Palone, 4-1)
2-Stag Party (Dexter Dunn, 6-1)
3-Captain Victorious (Yannick Gingras, 3-1)
4-Southwind Ozzi (Brian Sears, 2-1)
5-Wild Wild Western (Mike Wilder, 20-1)
6-Escapetothebeach (Tim Tetrick, 10-1)
7-Reigning Deo (Andrew McCarthy, 12-1)
8-Branquinho (Tyler Buter, 12-1)
9-Quatrain Blue Chip (David Miller, 20-1)
If you put stock in winning eliminations — and I do — the three were won by Captain Victorious (1:50.4), Prince of Tides (1:49.4) and Southwind Ozzi (1:49.3). There is something to be said for crossing the line first and it’s no surprise that these three are the betting favorites for the final.
It’s an eclectic field for sure. Nobody knows the track better than Meadows-based Dave Palone, the all-time winningest driver in harness racing history with over 18,400 wins. You also have the lethal team of Yannick Gingras and Ron Burke; Hall of Fame drivers Brian Sears and the Buckeye David Miller and oh by the way, Brett Pelling is back training in North America after doing the same in his native Australia from 2005-2016.
The underdog to root for is Bill MacKenzie. This is a guy that has spent most of his career training and racing overnighters at Freehold Raceway (New Jersey). After years of racing for purses that range from $3,000 to $12,000, MacKenzie has the favorite in Southwind Ozzi. A win here would be one for a true grinder in the sport.
The race is named after Adios, who, after an excellent racing career became what many say was the greatest sire of them all in harness racing. His offspring have won eight Little Brown Jugs, two Pacing Triple Crowns and countless stakes races. In 1962, Sports Illustrated dubbed him “the biggest daddy of them all,” and in 1977, a book titled Adios: The Big Daddy of Harness Racing was written and published by Marie Hill.
Not only is there a race named after him, but a statue of him sits near the entrance of The Meadows Racetrack—well sort of. This is where things get interesting.
That statue sat on land that the track’s owner sold to Forest Properties who are in the process of constructing a Sheetz convenience store. If you’ve been to the Keystone State chances are good that you have stopped in a Sheetz for various items. The food is good; as an aside, each August, I travel to central Pennsylvania for a family reunion and on that Friday night, my three kids insist we eat dinner at Sheetz. I’d take them anywhere — within reason — but their preference … Sheetz!
Anyway, since the land was sold to Forest that also included the Adios statue, which was likely forgotten about in the transaction. When word got out that the statue was in peril, the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association stepped in. They went to Penn Gaming, the owners of The Meadows, but were told that budgets were in place and nothing could be done on their end. The MSOA then took control of matters and convinced their board to buy the statue from Forest for a reportedly $30,000. Penn Gaming said that they would secure a spot on the racetrack grounds for Adios, and today, he stands at the entrance to the backstretch.
It appears as if everybody is happy. Those that stop at Sheetz can get gas, gum, beverages and made-to-order food while those at The Meadows can rest assured that Adios — the statue at least — is safe and secure on the grounds.
The other big race this weekend takes place in the Bay State at Plainridge Park, the return of the $250,000 Spirit of Massachusetts Trot. The inaugural race was run in 2017, when 60-1 shot JL Cruze won in 1:51.2, but was canceled last year when the track and horsemen could not agree on the financials.
In addition to the Spirit, there is the $100,000 Clara Barton Pace for mares. The race will feature the red-hot Shartin N, who may be the best horse in the land. The track, which never races on weekends, is opening its doors for a special Sunday of racing with a 2 p.m. post.
The field for the Spirit, from the rail out:
1-Weslynn Dancer (David Miller)
2-La Grange A (Andy Miller)
3-Trolley (Marcus Miller)
4-Mambo Lindy (Drew Monti)
5-The Veteran (Yannick Gingras)
6-Guardian Angel As (Tim Tetrick)
7-Fiftydallarbill (Corey Callahan)
The Clara Barton Pace features several accomplished pacers but they will be in for quite the challenge in trying to defeat the talented Shartin N. Also entered are Kimberlee, Apple Bottom Jeans, Don’t Think Twice A, Bettor Joy N, Baron Remy, Kaitlyn N, and Reclamation.
The 10-race Plainridge card features several smaller stakes races for Massachusetts and New England breds and totals just over $465,000 in purses. The Barton and Spirit are carded as races seven and nine with post times of 4:15 and 5:05 p.m., respectively.
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.