The year in horse racing is coming to an end and what a year it was. Last year we saw American Pharoah capture the Triple Crown and for a few moments the sport of horse racing captured the fancy of America. This year there was another Triple Crown winner in harness racing as Marion Marauder captured the three legs–Hambletonian, Yonkers Trot and Kentucky Futurity– to become the ninth trotter to achieve this and first since Glidemaster in 2006.
Marion Marauder did not get the attention that Pharoah did as harness racing will always be a distant second in the sport of horse racing. When I bring up harness racing, the most common–and immediate–comeback is that it is fixed/rigged. Some even bring up the movie Uncle Buck where Buck and his buddy fix races so Buck can “make his living.”
Those days are over and with the advent of casinos/video gaming machines many harness racing tracks are on solid ground. The Meadowlands remains the most well known of tracks, but it suffered a blow when voters in New Jersey voted against the building of two “Atlantic City” style casinos in Northern New Jersey. Had they been built, harness racing would have received some of the revenues to further secure the long-term health of the sport. Jeffrey Gural owns The Big M and was understandably disappointed with the vote. Casino operators in New York and Pennsylvania who rely on New Jersey residents to patronize their facilities largely funded the “vote no” campaign. And, Gural himself owns casinos in New York and Pennsylvania, including Toga Downs, which recently added table games to its video gaming machines.
Even though things seem to be going well, it remains an uneasy marriage, horse racing and casinos. In a perfect world, horse racing wouldn’t need revenues from machines, table games and video slots, but the reality is, they do. Plainridge Park in Massachusetts is the perfect example. When the state granted a gaming license, both a casino and a harness track were built, and if not for casinos, Yonkers and Monticello raceways might be apartment buildings or commercial plazas.
Casinos have also “saved” thoroughbred racing at Parx (PA) and in Maryland (Pimlico and Laurel) and as long as both horse racing and casinos can co-exist, things should be okay going forward. As a fan of the sport, I do realize that people like to gamble and many prefer the short term fix that blackjack and roulette can provide as compared to studying a racing form, picking several options to win $4 back on a $2 bet.
Many states think building casinos is the panacea; that it will provide states with endless revenue for now and the future. In addition to four thoroughbred tracks, New York State has seven harness tracks and will have four full-fledged casinos in addition to lottery, scratch offs and Quick Draw. How much is too much? Are there that many gamblers in New York to sustain all of this? Apparently there is, but one wonders how long can the train ride last?
Thoroughbred racing remains the focal point of this column and if you love the sport, 2016 did not disappoint. We saw three competitive Triple Crown races with three different winners; we saw Arrogate break the Travers record with a 1:59.36 clocking and then we saw him run down crowd favorite California Chrome in a scintillating Breeders Cup Classic. And, in perhaps the best single race performance, Frosted blew away all-comers in the Met Mile, winning by 14 lengths. He then came back to take the Whitney in early August.
I did take the time to write a bit about harness racing in 2016. As a kid, harness racing was always around. In the Buffalo area, we had Buffalo Raceway and 45 miles east, Batavia Downs. When I moved here in 2001, there was Saratoga Raceway. I always paid brief attention to it, tried to watch and read about the big races like the Hambletonian and Little Brown Jug. I took my young kids there a few times and we had fun. Unlike thoroughbred tracks, there is less time between races and for young kids, that’s a good thing. I would give each kid $2, read the names from the program and let them pick one. It was fun for a bit, but like most kids, they got bored and decided that watching “vines,” was a better way to spend a Saturday night.
For some reason, I decided to give harness racing a legitimate try in 2016, and to my surprise, I liked it. It will never supplant the thoroughbreds, but is a nice diversion. The horses are the stars and unlike the thoroughbreds, they race much more often. Horse of the Year Always Be Miki won 12 of 18 starts with his main nemesis, Wiggle it Jiggle It running 24 times and over 50 the past two. Fans of the sport tend to root for the favorites almost in a cult-like way.
The 2016 Hambletonian, contested on the first Saturday in August drew over 20,000 to the Meadowlands and featured 10 stakes races, and the Breeders Crown at the end of October featured eight more high stakes races.
The tough part is trying to keep track and follow both sports. I think there is room for both and my goal for 2017 is to follow them as closely as I can. Check out ustrotting.com to learn more about harness racing. The site has daily updates, entries, results and stakes information. As they say, there is something for everyone.
The road to the Kentucky Derby will commence in January as will the inaugural Pegasus World Cup, which will be contested January 28 at Gulfstream Park. The $12 million race is the brainchild of Frank Stronach and will have 12 entrants each paying $1 million to secure a sport in the 1 1/8 mile race.
Buying a spot gives the connections a chance to secure the $7.2 million prize for winning, but it also guarantees those connections a percentage of the handle, media rights and sponsorships. The Pegasus World Cup will not supplant the major races, but it might entice horses like American Pharoah, Frosted and others to delay their retirements for one big, last pay day. The January race date leaves plenty of time to run the race and then get ready for stud duty. There is no doubt that California Chrome would be done racing, but the Pegasus World Cup is keeping him around for one more race and anytime that happens, it is good for the sport.
Until next time.