By John Furgele
For the second time in three years, a horse from Italy is the Yonkers International Trot champion. In 2017, Twister Bi was scintillating with a 2:22.1 world record performance for 1 ¼ miles on a half-mile track, and this year, Zacon Gio prevailed in 2:24.1.
It was not an easy trip for the colt based in Italy who has now won 12 straight races, but until last Saturday none away from his homeland. The horse was three-wide most of the race, but was able to get things going on the final turn to win by 3 ¼ lengths. Slide So Easy (Denmark) was second with the always tough Canadian, Marion Marauder finishing third.
Once again, the race proved that 1 ¼ mile races on a half-mile track works. Even though Atlanta (USA) set the fractions, there was plenty of movement on the Yonkers oval. Zacon Gio probably ran closer to 1 3/8 miles, but in the stretch he was full of trot and that was more than good enough to capture the $500,000 winner’s check.
There was a story circulating that the International Trot’s future could be in peril. This wouldn’t be the first time. The “original” International Trot started in 1959 and ended in 1995, and then, after a two-decade break was renewed in 2015.
The Rooney family was instrumental in bringing the Trot back, using their own money to fly horses in and promote the race. Earlier this year, the Rooneys, who bought the track in 1972, sold it to MGM Resorts for a reported $850 million.
With new ownership comes new direction. Some are worried that MGM will eventually get rid of the harness track to expand its gaming operation. That would take an act of the New York State Legislature and the Governor’s office, so it is wise to not let this story run amok.
That said, are the new owners willing to dip into their own reserves to keep the International Trot going? Harness racing fans certainly hope so, but a corporate sponsor or two would help the cause. As good as the racing day is, only $871,939 was handled over 12 races at Old Hilltop.
Harness Racing Update reported that (former owner) Tim Rooney had to convince MGM to give the race a shot this year. When there is an ownership change, the first thing they do is trim fat, and to many at MGM the International Trot was fat waiting to be trimmed.
We’ll wait for the accountants to issue their reports, but if you base success on handle, then you shouldn’t bet on a 2020 International Trot. That would be a shame, because the quirky event is something to look forward to as the leaves begin to fall. The problem is the track could generate almost as much handle with a normal 12-race card with purses ranging from $17,000 to $42,000 than it does on International Trot day with purses in the millions.
I’m not sure what that says about the betting public, but it’s the betting public that drives these decisions. You would assume that a glamorous race with a $1 million purse would generate betting interest, but for some reason, it doesn’t. Maybe it’s the unfamiliarity with the overseas horses; most likely it’s the half-mile racing surface.
The Hambletonian may be tradition-rich, but one of the reasons it’s scheduled every year is because handle triples on that day.
As for MGM’s potential razing of Yonkers Raceway—as Lee Corso says, “not so fast my friend.” Current New York State law says that any racino (these are casinos that are not allowed to have live table games), must support harness or horse racing. Yonkers, which is part of Empire City Casino, fits under that umbrella.
There are seven racinos in New York; six of them are at harness tracks (Saratoga, Buffalo, Batavia, Monticello, Vernon, Yonkers); and one is at a thoroughbred track (Finger Lakes). Tioga Downs used to be just a racino, but a few years ago, it was given a full-scale casino license. Harness racing remains at this facility located in the state’s Southern Tier.
MGM wants to be a full-scale casino. They want to expand the gaming operations, offer a sports book, and the harness track has the land to get this accomplished. There have been reports that Yonkers Raceway would be moved so that could happen, meaning that the harness racing would still be supported by MGM but not on the current grounds. There was talk of building a harness racing facility at Belmont Park, but that plan has since faded.
A moratorium on full-scale casinos in New York is in effect until 2023 and right now Gov. Andrew Cuomo doesn’t appear to be willing to visit the issue. In fact, Cuomo has never been a “casino or horse racing guy,” but he did tire of seeing New York gamblers venturing off to Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts to gamble, so he decided to join the casino building era and five licenses were granted.
Not all the casinos are thriving. Rivers in Schenectady is doing well, but two of them — Del Lago to the west, Monticello in the Hudson Valley — are struggling and not meeting projected revenues to the point where they have asked for state aid.
Empire City Resorts (Yonkers Raceway) has always generated good revenue and its location would seem to be ideal for a full-scale casino and sports book, but unless the law is changed that can’t happen unless horse racing is included in some way, shape or form.
Money will dictate what happen, as usual. Cuomo was against casinos, but eventually the money was deemed too good to turn down. If you’re reading this, you’re hoping that harness racing doesn’t get left behind; that the International Trot remains and that Empire City Resorts can find a way to have electronic blackjack, table blackjack, poker, concerts by Huey Lewis and The News, regular harness racing and special harness racing events like the Yonkers International Trot.
Traditions are important and so is history. I ’m not naïve; MGM Resorts is a public company and the stockholders want to see the company maximize profits and pay those handsome dividends.
Harness racing is important in many areas away from the track as thousands make their living supporting the game. I believe MGM Resorts will try everything they can to keep the Yonkers International Trot going, so let’s be patient and see what plan they come up with.
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.