By John Furgele
The Rooney name has all but disappeared. It’s all MGM Resorts now, and lots of tinkering has taken place since ownership of Yonkers Raceway in Westchester County, New York, changed hands just over a year ago.
Nonetheless, despite new owners after a 47-year run by the Rooney family of Pittsburgh Steelers renown, new race names and a new post time, the venerable raceway is not much different. It remains home to the International Trot, two Triple Crown races (one for pacers, one for trotters), a bevy of top-quality stakes and, as usual, the highest overnight purses in harness racing.
Through the Rooney years, there were hard times and good times, and like many harness tracks in the 1990s, it appeared that Yonkers Raceway might go under. Thanks to the state of New York, racinos, and the determination of the Rooney family, the track survived and has at times flourished.
Even though most patrons flock to its Empire City Casino, the Rooney family always paid attention to racing. The track has played host to some of the finest races in the land — the Levy, the Petticoat, the Yonkers Trot, the Messenger Stakes and the Rooney Invitational.
In 2015, for example, they brought back the $1 million Yonkers International Trot after a 27-year hiatus. It may not be harness racing’s most prestigious race, but it may indeed be its most intriguing with 10 horses, representing anywhere from six to eight countries, trotting 1 ¼ miles for a big purse.
As soon as the MGM Resorts bought the track for $850 million (in cash) and stock, speculation began: Would the track close? Would it be moved? Would the new owners end the International Trot? Would there be less stakes races and less racing days?
MGM Resorts, after all, is not a family-run operation. It’s a corporate giant, with a bottom line of answering to stockholders. They could have easily cut major stakes races, and put some of the money into smaller events and overnights. Thankfully, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
For many who thought the expense of running the International Trot would bring an end to the race, MGM Resorts is pushing forward with it, but with its own branding – the $1 million MGM Yonkers International Trot on Sept. 12. It’s also the same day as the New York State Sires Stakes finals (eight races with $225,000 purses), as well as a pair of $250,000 invitationals, one for trotters, one for pacers.
The owners are putting their stamp on their new property, perhaps to the chagrin of traditionalists, re-naming races and canceling a few as well.
The Petticoat Pacing Series for ladies has been renamed M Life Ladies; the Sagamore Pacing Series has been changed to M Life Gents, with the finals set for March 23-24.
While the Blue Chip Matchmaker retains its name, the George Morton Levy Pacing Series for older horses has been renamed the MGM Borgata Pacing Series. The “Borgata” is a personal favorite — reliable, veteran pacers, and five events with the $200,000 final on April 18.
Two races, the Art Rooney Pace and Lismore have been canceled. While that is disappointing, they are the only two that were not renewed.
|Former Name||New Name|
|Lawrence Sheppard Pace||MGM Springfield Stakes|
|Hudson Filly Trot||New York New York Mile|
|Lady Maud||Park MGM Pace|
|Harry Harvey Invitational Trot||Bellagio Classic Invitational Trot|
|Dan Rooney Pace||Aria Invitational Pace|
The second legs of the Pacing and Trotting Triple Crowns; the Messenger Stakes and Yonkers Trot, will now officially be referred to as the MGM Grand Messenger Stakes and the MGM Yonkers Trot.
The other good news is the racing schedule itself. There are some that think companies like MGM Resorts want to reduce racing dates and run as little as
the state racing commissions require, but that isn’t the case at Yonkers. The track will race 237 times in 2020; mostly on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays with a new post time of 7:05 pm ET.
It might take some time to learn the new race names, but the news couldn’t be better — the International Trot is back, the stakes races are back and the new owners seem committed to keeping Yonkers a prevalent name in standardbred racing. And if you love harness racing that is indeed, happy news.
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.