It’s Time for Harness Racing to Change Things Up

When you visit a thoroughbred racetrack, there is a lot of variety.  There are turf races, inner turf races and dirt races that can range from 5 furlongs to 1 ½ miles or longer.  There truly is something for everyone — most importantly, the bettor.

When you visit a harness track, this is not the case.  For the most part, every race is one mile.  The only question is if the race is a pace or a trot. There are some that lament this fact. They believe that 12 one-mile paces or trots is boring and even more so on a half-mile track.  I have heard countless times that every race seems the same.

Why can’t harness racing take a page from its thoroughbred cousin?  Why can’t there be more variety in harness racing and races?  At Saratoga, every Sunday is “Trotters Day”.  There are 12 races, all trots,  contested at one mile? Is this a good thing?

Trainer Jerry Riordan with Twister Bi, winner of the International Trot at Yonkers Raceway (photo by John Furgele).

Twister Bi, winner of the International Trot at Yonkers Raceway, one of the innovative events carded at that track (photo by John Furgele).

Why not vary the distances to inject some variety?  We have seen it before.  On Sunday, Yonkers runs what they call “French trots” — races that have up to 10-12 starters and that are 1 ¼ miles in length on a half-mile track.  Believe it or not, despite the longer distance, there is often more action. And the added distance doesn’t seem to hurt the horses.  I rarely see horses running out of gas because they are trotting an extra quarter-mile.

I have seen 1 1/8-mile races at the Meadowlands and, when Western Fair in London, Ontario offers its super high-five races, they make the horses pace 1 1/16 miles.  They do this to get more movement and, of course, to encourage more wagering.

Harness racing has always been slow to take the initiative.  Like many sports, industry leaders don’t want to anger the traditionalists.  These old-timers are still the main source of handle for many tracks.  When they die, some tracks fear that they won’t be replaced by younger fans and bettors.

Many love tradition, but sometimes tradition can stunt growth.  Everybody loves the mile in harness racing.  The mile makes it easier to compare times, to track records and to judge the all-time greats.

People who watch races know how to interpret the splits.  In a mile pace, they know that a :26.2 quarter is fast and :30.3 is slow.  They know that 1:58.4 is tepid and 1:49.4 is blazing, but what’s a fast time for a 1 1/16-, 1 1/8- or 1 ¼-mile race?

Can those who follow harness adjust to “weirder” times?

Like anything new, it will take some time, but it shouldn’t take too long to realize winning a 1 1/16-mile race in 2:00 is pretty quick, but 2:11.4, not so much.

It should also be realized that the three thoroughbred classics are contested at different distances.  The Kentucky Derby is 1 ¼ miles, the Preakness 1 3/16 miles and the Belmont is run at 1 ½ miles. Yet, in harness racing, all the major races are a mile long.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t mean the sport shouldn’t experiment with longer races for its pacers and trotters.  If the Derby can be one distance and the Preakness another, why can’t the Hambletonian and Yonkers Trot be 1 and 1 1/8 miles respectively?

Yonkers Raceway just hired Cammie Haughton as its Director of Racing.  His main mission:  to increase handle.  We all know that Yonkers has a great driver’s colony and great purses, but tracks like Northfield Park and Monticello Raceway handle more money.  Haughton’s job is to get Yonkers players to wager more and get those that don’t play Yonkers to start.

The “French trots” have been shown to increase handle.  The signal reaches France (and other parts of Europe) and per race handle is nearly double what it normally is. So, why not do this more or come up with other ways to encourage more betting?

Haughton and his team have been given this task and it will be exciting to see what they come up with.  Will we see some variety in distances?  Why not try the letting the 7 and 8 posts sit behind the 1 and 2 in 1- and 1 1/8-mile races?  Why not 10 pacers going 1 1/16 and 1 1/8 miles?

I love the mile and would never ask for the sport to do away with it.  In big races, that won’t happen, but harness racing really is for the day-to-day fillies, mares, colts, horses and geldings.  They’re the ones racing each day and each week and spicing things up could add more money to the betting pot.

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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