It may not capture the attention of America, but The Hambletonian is a big event
by John Furgele
Harness racing used to hold an esteemed place in America. In another lifetime, it was common to see 25,000 to 50,000 people descend upon a harness venue on a Saturday night to see pacers and trotters run the mile. And with 15 minutes in between races, that usually means more races and more opportunities to bet. The crowds have dwindled, but there are still plenty of big races on the trotting and pacing calendar.
Harness racing has some things going for it. For the most part, the fields are pretty full. It is very rare to see a pace or trot with just three or four entries. On tracks that are less than one mile around, the common field size is 8, with some at 9. At places like the Red Mile in Kentucky or the Meadowlands in New Jersey, you can squeeze in a few more.
Despite yearns for yesteryear, harness racing carries on. Buoyed by video gaming machines, many harness tracks are keeping their heads above water. Lest we forget, think about all the people harness racing employs. From trainers and drivers, to those that groom, manicure, clean, and administrate, it is part of the economic engine that drives this nation.
On Saturday, the biggest day of the harness calendar took place at Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford, New Jersey as three year trotters ran in the Hambletonian. To call the Hambletonian the “Kentucky Derby,” of harness racing is unfair because the race is limited to trotters. Harness racing also features pacers, who usually go a little faster than their trotter counterparts. That said, the Hambletonian is the most famous race in harness racing and the Meadowlands is the host for it.
The Meadowlands went all out on Hambletonian Day, too. There were 13 stakes races on the card, and overall track handle was over $6.6 million. This included the two Hambletonian elimination heats, each valued at $100,000. That’s a unique feature of harness racing. In order to win the Hambletonian, a trotter has to run twice. They have to qualify for the final before they can compete for the first place prize of $600,000 and the forever glory that goes with winning.
The elimination heats went as expected. Pinkman, driven by Yannick Gingras won the first heat and then the filly, Mission Brief, driven by Yannick Gingras won the second. For the final, Gingras had a dilemma; drive the favorite, the filly, or drive Pinkman. As one could expect, he drove the filly, leaving Pinkman for Brian Sears and Pinkman pulled off the upset, winning by two lengths in 1:51 for a mile.
Gingras did drive Wild Honey to victory in the $500,000 Hambletonian Oaks, winning easily in 1:52.2. The only thing missing on this day was legendary Hall of Fame driver John Campbell, who broke his wrist on July 31 and missed the Hambletonian for the first time in 32 years. Campbell, still active at age 60 has won six Hambletonians.
A great idea was to move the Cane Pace, the first jewel of the pacing Triple Crown to Hambletonian day. While the Hambletonian has always been relatively easy to find, most know nothing about the three races that are most important to pacers, and while the Little Brown Jug will always be the most prestigious, moving the Cane Pace was nothing short of brilliant. And, the race didn’t disappoint as 26-to-1 long-shot Dealt A Winner won in a stakes record time of 1:47.3.
For the record, the second leg of the trotting Triple Crown is the Yonkers Trot on September 5 at Yonkers Raceway with the final leg being the Kentucky Futurity, which commences at The Red Mile in Lexington on October 10.
As for the pacers, up next is the Messenger States on September 5 at Yonkers Raceway, followed by the Little Brown Jug, at the Delaware (OH) Fairgrounds on September 24.
In harness racing, the horses are referred to as standardbreds, and though they are not as fast and majestic as the thoroughbreds, they are certainly more durable. Most standardbreds can race at least once a week and as we saw Saturday, the good ones can run twice in one day.
American Pharoah is America’s Horse right now, but he is certainly not America’s only horse as the standardbreds can attest to.
Until next time.