New York is known for Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct, but there are seven harness tracks in the Empire State. Monticello is one of them.
There are hundreds of harness tracks across America; maybe too many. All offer something to fans, bettors, trainers, drivers and of course, horses. Last night, Hobbit Hobby won his 96thcareer race at Northfield Park, and the 13-year-old gelding proved he can still motor, stopping the clock in 1:55.2
Yonkers has the big purses, but lacks ambiance, the Meadowlands has the ambiance, but now lacks the big purses. I enjoy Buffalo Raceway with the same horses going at it, week after week from January through July. Starting tomorrow, it is New York Sire Stakes time at Buffalo with three divisions of 3-year-old pacers with a purse of $40,600 per race. Saratoga Casino Hotel sits adjacent to and is overshadowed by Saratoga Race Course, but the half-mile oval is a fun place to take in a race and enjoy some food and beverage. The track is heavily banked and has seen improved times for both the trotters and pacers.
My goal is ambitious; to visit as many tracks that I can this summer, but reality always wins. I have been to Yonkers, and of course, Saratoga, but on my list of must see venues is Monticello Raceway. On the surface, one might wonder why? The track is nestled in Sullivan County, in the middle of nowhere in a town and region that has seen better days. The purses are small and the horses are third-rate; second rate on its best day. Rarely does one see a pacer blaze home in 1:53 with most of the winning times hovering around 2:00 and often in the 1:56 to 1:58 range. But for some reason, I am hooked on Monticello. I like to watch live races on my phone and computer, and if time prevents it, I usually watch at least one replay by night’s end.
Monticello races in the afternoons; Monday through Thursday. If they miss a Monday-Thursday because of holiday, they’ll race on Friday, but there is no weekend racing to be had. That’s probably a good thing; Monticello has found its niche by running four days a week in the afternoons. And, despite races with purses of $3,500, $4,100 and features of $6,900, they often get a bigger handle on a per race basis than Yonkers does. Another positive (for me at least) is that like Yonkers, Monticello races 12 months of the year. Yonkers races five times per week, hence, more overall days, but Monticello goes every week of the year.
The racing at Monticello seems fair when I’m watching. Even though it is a half-mile track, there is room for an outside horse to get into contention, something that doesn’t happen often at Yonkers and Saratoga. The key at any track—particularly a half-mile one—is to save as much as ground as possible and the best way to do this is to get to pylons and lead. But, Monticello—like Freehold in New Jersey—does give the 5, the 6, the 7 and the 8 a chance to win and more importantly, a chance to get third or second.
Sure there are mismatches, but most of the races at Monticello are closely contested. The favorites win often, but that’s because the same horses run there each and every week and the bettors know them. The key to making money in harness racing is to wheel the right horses with the favorites in exacta, trifecta and superfecta wagering.
You will also see some shippers coming to Monticello. Many times, an owner/trainer will try their hand at Yonkers or Saratoga to race for those higher purses. If they struggle, Monticello is often a good landing spot. These Yonkers and Saratoga invaders are good for the overall racing at Monticello. They add some intrigue, some mystery and some excitement to the usual racing cards and it’s always interesting to see how the regulars bet them when they come in. Do they automatically think that the Yonkers shipper is a better horse; or do they bet the horses that have the home track advantage?
The horses always look like they’re trying; trying to give you an honest effort. Most are not young, in fact, some are closing in on the mandatory retirement age of 14. Because the purses are small, there is no use settling for fourth or fifth. A fifth place finish in a $4,100 race nets the connections $328; fourth garners $205.
There are some negatives. Many days, there are only eight races on a Monticello card. As a fan, you want more—10 seems to be a sensible number to me—but there are circumstances that likely prevent that from being the norm. I also wish that their website would do a better job of communicating; of promoting and hyping the racing that is Monticello. But, as we all know, these harness tracks exist because of gaming machines and even though we wish not to believe it, if there weren’t VGMs, there likely would be no harness racing. You and I may not like this, but we have to accept it for the good of our sport. That said, I wonder how many more people would show up if the tracks actively pursued patrons. My kids are 15, 13, 11 and 6 and have been to Saratoga several times and recently visited Yonkers for the first time. They are probably not in love with harness racing, but they have been exposed to it and my hope is that they will expose their kids to it. When I was that age, I wasn’t going to harness tracks, but I knew they existed, read the results in the paper and often saw a highlight on the 11 pm news.
When I watch racing from Monticello, I eagerly await the time when I can get down there and watch it in person. I hope to meet track announcer Howard Oil and I wonder how many fans will actually be in the stands or along the rail on a Wednesday or Thursday afternoon. It might not be many and it certainly won’t be full of youngsters, but you take what you can get. I would love to see Monticello go all in with one race, like Plainridge Park is doing with its $250,000 Spirit of Massachusetts Trot, scheduled for Friday, July 28. Why not go all-in with a $100,000 Monticello Pace? Make it an event, a happening, and see if you can bring in the casual fan/citizen.
I can only hope for that, but for now, I will appreciate the fact that Monticello is up and running, alive and well so I can get down there to see her.