Top Flight Angel Says Toiling In Obscurity Is What We Do Best

September 14, 2017

He would have told the press that, but they weren’t there

by John Furgele (The Trusted 228)

Imagine the Preakness winner coming to Finger Lakes Racetrack to run in a $100,000 Grade III stakes race in the middle of their three-year old campaign?  It’s more than improbable, in fact, it’s impossible.  But on Wednesday, September 13, 2017 that’s kind of what you saw at Batavia as the winner of the $500,000 Yonkers Trot showed up to race at 71-year old Batavia Downs.

Before we wonder why, let it be known that Top Flight Angel was participating in the lucrative New York Sire Stakes for three-year old trotters.  Wednesday’s race had a purse of $60,200, so this wasn’t your normal $10,000 open or conditioned trot.  The Sire Stakes is a series, a buildup, contested throughout the year with each race offering good purses until the big money October 14 final at Yonkers Raceway. As a New York bred, Top Flight Angel is trying to cash in.

The Trotting Triple Crown consists of the Hambletonian, Yonkers Trot and Kentucky Futurity, and last year, Marion Marauder captured all three affairs.  With Perfect Spirit prevailing in a controversial Hambletonian and then skipping the Yonkers Trot, the chance for back-to-back crowns went away faster than hot dogs at a July 4 picnic.

Be that as it may, the fans at Batavia Downs were treated to a little bit of harness racing royalty, as Top Flight Angel was made the 4/5 favorite in a solid field of seven colts and geldings. The son of Archangel did not disappoint, cutting fractions of 29, 29.2, 28 and 28.1 en route to a 1:54.3 on the half mile track, which oh-by-the-way tied the track record that was held by his father.  Finishing second was Guardian Angel As who was sired by—you guessed it—Archangel.

In thoroughbred racing, if a Triple Crown race winner was heading to the local track, there’d be some local coverage of it, but unless you’re a harness racing diehard, you’d have a better chance of getting hit by a bus than reading about “TFA’s” invasion of the little track in Genesee County.

This is the world we live in of course.  Life is not always just or fair.  But, we could be in for a sort of sports crossroads.  Opening week in the NFL saw low ratings, boring games with lots of dead time.  Baseball does well regionally, but no longer captivates nationally.

One thing that is on the uptick in America is events.  We will rally around the big events like the Super Bowl and the Kentucky Derby.  When American Pharoah runs for glory, we’ll watch the Belmont.  If there’s a Game 7 in the baseball, basketball and even hockey, the casual fan will tune in. Why can’t harness racing, with plenty of big, lucrative races each year, put forth an effort to get some exposure?

It would have been nice if the media in Buffalo and Rochester pumped up the appearance of a Triple Crown race winner in its backyard, but local coverage was nowhere to be found.  The sports pages used to be about the games and the personalities that played them, but now, it’s more about drama and psychoanalysis.  On Wednesday, a Triple Crown race winner came to town, no posse in tow.

After the race, a few gathered in the Winner’s Circle to fete Top Flight Angel.  He was asked if he was disappointed at the lack of attention by the media.  The colt responded in typical fashion.

“I race for the fans who are here and those that follow at home,” the colt said.  “I wish more people were interested because we put on a good show and many are missing it.”

The colt is right, people are missing a good show, but it’s up to those in the sport to let people know what’s happening.  Thoroughbred racing is not as popular as it once was, but they do a good job of pumping up their big events. It’s time for harness racing—both nationally and locally—to do the same.

 

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Let’s Not Dismiss Ed Cunnigham’s Actions

September 1, 2017

Cunningham’s resignation over safety concerns should be a wake-up call

by John Furgele (The Compassionate 228)

Ed Cunningham had a nice job, not a cushy job, but a nice job.  He was a college football broadcaster for ESPN.  Each week, he traveled to a school to call a game with Mike Patrick, his regular partner. But, something was eating away at Cunningham, and late Wednesday, it ate through him to the point where he quit doing something he has loved for decades.

Most of us would give up much to cover sports and make the good money that goes with it.  But the job is far from easy.  There is the travel, the time away from family and friends and lots and lots of prep work.  It looks easy, but is far from it.  Cunningham played at the University of Washington, helping the Huskies win a share of the national title in 1991.  He also played five seasons in the NFL and since, has been around football on a regular basis, mostly as a broadcaster and talker.

Like many, Cunningham was concerned about the massiveness of football.  The players are bigger, faster and stronger than they have ever been and because of it, injuries and attrition are a huge part of the game.  Head trauma has come to the forefront in recent years.  Yes, players have always suffered from head injuries, concussions, knees, you name it.  Football is not only a violent game; it’s a dangerous game.  If you’re old enough, you remember the gruesome injury suffered by Joe Theismann in 1985 on Monday Night Football.  If you recall, even the toughest of tough guys, Lawrence Taylor, was screaming at the gruesomeness of Theismann’s leg.  There was Willis MaGahee getting his knee bent backwards in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl and Marcus Lattimore’s brutal knee injury at South Carolina that prevented him from ever playing in the NFL.

Today, head injuries are getting lots of attention.  It’s not so much the concussions, it’s the repeated trauma that players suffer during the course of the careers.  There are only so many shots to the head some players can take.  The movie “Concussion,” showed that the effect it takes comes long after the careers end.  There was Andre Waters, who was in so much pain that he took his own life.  There was Dave Duerson, who was in so much pain, that he, too, took his own life; careful enough to shoot himself in the chest so his brain could be donated to science.  Hall of Famer Junior Seau also suffered, his life also ending by suicide.

I often wonder if people feel guilty when watching football.  In the past, I’m sure the number was minimal, but given the recent evidence that we have heard, seen and read, has the number increased?  Cunningham is certainly not the only one who feels this way, and his standing up and admitting the guilt should be commended.  Personally, I don’t know what to think.  I love watching football, especially college football, and my hope is that all the players finish their careers and walk away on their own terms.  It’s easier said than done. When I see Julian Edelman shred his ACL by just planting his foot, it makes me cringe.  When I see Vontaze Burfict drive his helmet into another player’s helmet, I cringe again.  Part of me wonders why players can’t just tackle with their arms and not their heads, but football is a reaction game.  You can try to legislate it, but because there is vicious contact on every play, there will be injuries—bad ones.

Cunningham decided that he couldn’t take it anymore, choosing to step away. It can’t be easy for him because unlike most of us, he played the game and excelled at it; it’s in his blood. Deep down, he loves the game and that 1991 Washington Huskies team that went 12-0 has to bring a smile to his face every day of his life.

As good as things can be, everybody has a breaking point.  For Cunningham, seeing players “targeted,” “concussed,” and seriously injured began eating away at his soul to the point where he had to walk away.  His decision should send some shockwaves to those who run both college and pro football.  No longer should these issues be ignored and even though it is virtually impossible to take collisions out of the game, the dialog on how to improve the game and make it safer must continue.

Football should reach out to Ed Cunningham and offer him a job as a safety consultant to see if he and a Blue Ribbon panel can make the game a little safer, a little less violent.  If this can happen, Ed Cunningham would be validated, his actions commended and a higher purpose served.

Ariana G Taking On The Boys in Zweig Memorial at Vernon Downs

August 16, 2017

Race in honor of a great friend to Harness Racing

by John Furgele (The Refreshing 228)

She could have done it.   I was there and I know she could have. I am talking about the super one, Ariana G, who opted to beat up the girls in the Hambletonian Oaks. I believe had she run against the boys in the Hambo, she would have won and won easily.

The great thing about harness racing is that the horses run frequently and this Friday, we will see if Ariana G can beat those boys when she gets behind the gate in the $320,000 Harry Zweig Memorial Trot at Vernon Downs. There, she will square off against International Moni, the Hambo favorite who broke stride in the final, and Devious Man, the second place finisher. It certainly won’t be easy for AG, but given the so-so crop of three-year-old boys and how dominant “G” has been, I like her chances.

Vernon Downs offers a good test for this batch. At 7/8 mile, we should see a very competitve race and a fast time. There will be no gun, go and hold like we see at places like Northfield, Yonkers, Saratoga and many other half-mile tracks. Don’t get me wrong, I like half-mile tracks and because there are so many of them, drivers have really mastered the art of two lap racing. But, you can’t beat a big track for a big race and Vernon Downs is more than capable of hosting this field of nine.

Ariana G did lose the only time she faced the boys; back in July in the Beal Memorial at Pocono, but she continues to improve while the boys, in my opinion, have regressed.   The two that beat her—Long Tom and Beal winner Devious Man—are in the field, but G coasted home in the Hambo Oaks in 1:51.1 while the boys struggled home in 1:52.3. The Hambo was of course was marred by the disqualification of What the Hill, but even if the race was run clean, it was far from spectacular.   Vernon Downs officials have to be thrilled to have the flying filly in the Zweig field.

It’s been an interesting year for Vernon Downs. Owner Jeffrey Gural announced that he would close the facility unless there was a reduction in monies paid to the state by the track. Gural cited that the newly opened del Lago Casino was negatively impacting Vernon’s revenues and he pushed for a lower tax percentage; if not, he planned on closing December 15. If you live in New York State, you understand the drama of state politics and the state legislature and naturally, a last minute deal was made to keep Vernon open. There were critics who believe that if a private company can’t make it on their own, then they should close, but this is a bit different.  The New York State Gaming Commission runs harness racing in New York and the state is heavily involved with breeding incentives and the like. Closing a facility like Vernon is not like closing the neighborhood hardware store. This is an industry that employs thousands, from farms to clerks to custodians. Having a harness track shuttered in the middle of New York would not be a compelling site, and more importantly, would mean less money in state coffers. Even though Vernon itself is not run by the state, it is in bed with the state much more than a company that makes saddles for horse racing is.  The bottom line–keeping the track open is expensive, but closing it–more expensive.

The race is named after Dr. Harry Zweig.  He was a veterinarian, but his passion and dedication to harness racing is what landed him a spot in the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in Goshen.  He helped get revenues from gambling into harness racing and as a result, purses increased.  He made it advantageous to breed in New York and because of him, the New York Sire Stakes are alive and well. As we know, several other states now do the same thing. He was an owner and breeder and helped revive harness racing in New York with the Syracuse Mile which was built at the State Fairgrounds.  It’s people like Zweig who helped keep harness racing going as other entertainment options became available in the TV era.  He served as a director for the United States Trotting Association and has an equine foundation in his name at Cornell University.  He died from leukemia in 1977 at the age of 63 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010.

Zweig Day at Vernon is a good one with 12 races on the card.  In addition to the Zweig Final, there is the Zweig Memorial for fillies, two Zweig consolations, five New York Excelsior races and three New York Sire Stakes races, befitting for a man who had both a passion and vision for standardbred racing in New York State. When you total it up, it adds up to $723,118 in purses.

Friday is the big night of the year at Vernon and it will be fascinating to see if Ariana G can beat the boys.  It’s a race many wanted to see at The Meadowlands, but thankfully, we’ll get to see it in upstate New York at the venerable Vernon Downs.

 

The Hambletonian is a Big American Event

August 4, 2017

I don’t care what people think, the Hambo should be treated like the big event that it is

by John Furgele (The Valued 228)

The first Saturday in May—the Kentucky Derby.  Any sports fan in America knows what that means but what about the first Saturday in August?  That, of course, doesn’t resonate as much with the average sports fan, but that day is the Super Bowl of Harness Racing; The Hambletonian.

The Hambletonian is the big day of the harness racing calendar.  The site is the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey and the day will be a festive one.  There are 16 races on the card and 14 of them (including the two Hambo eliminations) have purses over $100,000.

Harness racing is, well, no one is quite sure what to thoroughbred racing.  People who like the thoroughbreds don’t even pay attention to the “harnesses.” Those who follow harness racing probably, at the very least, pay attention to thoroughbred racing. It is a contentious relationship to be sure.

There will be 20,000 plus in attendance at the track affectionately known as The Big M and most will have a good time.  The Star Ledger, Bergen Record and other news outlets will send reporters to the track to cover the day’s events.  There will be the story where the reporter cruises the backyard and asks why the Jenkins family comes.  The family will say that they have been coming for 25 years and for them, the Hambo is a yearly tradition.  Matt and Ashley, the 28-year-olds who have been married for three years with no children (yet) will tell you that they came to have some fun with their friends.  The reporter will keep cruising.  She will find the 73-year-old that has been a harness racing fan since 1954. He will recite how great the 1989 race was and his recall will be spot on. He will tell the reporter that he has seen 30 Hambletonians and if the Lord is willing to let him keep coming, he will do so.

Most that come have some type of interest in the sport of harness racing.  There are hundreds of other festivals, picnics, sporting events, bars, boats, etc. to do on a Saturday in August in New Jersey, but something has drawn them to East Rutherford.  There has to be a little bit of interest in the sport, right.  Does anybody blindly see the Hambletonian online, in a paper or magazine and say, “let’s go?”  Doubt it.

That’s where I get confused.  There are many that say harness racing is a dying sport and to be sure, the media treats it as such.  ESPN won’t be there and I’m pretty sure the New York Times won’t be either.  Ditto for the new hip websites like the SB Nation, Bleacher Report and Barstool Sports.  But, 20,000 plus will be there; betting, drinking, eating and in general, having a good old American time at a good old American event.  Most won’t know any of the horses, but they will look at the program, pick out some cool names and make some wagers with the hopes of scoring the big score.

Americans like big events, in fact, they like them more and more in these, the modern times.  With instant gratification so easy to attain, events become more and more popular because most of us can take the one-off.  It’s the 162 game baseball schedule and the 82 NBA/NHL schedules that we can no longer devote our time to. The one-off is easy because you only have to do it/see it…..once.  The Super Bowl gets great ratings every year because we can handle one four-hour event.  We can handle the Oscars, too; it’s the Golden Globes and Divisional Playoff games that we struggle with. Look at golf and tennis–they have majors for a reason; because they can market them and best of all, they have made people care.  They have convinced the American that one Wimbledon is better than 10 ATP titles and that one Masters is better than 20 PGA tour wins. Bjorn Borg won 11 Grand Slam titles, but never won the United States Open.  Arnold Palmer never won the PGA Championship.  We judge athletes and teams by how many big events they have won. Borg won 64 titles, Guillermo Vilas, 62, but outslammed him, 11 to 4.  Case closed.

My hope is for harness racing to try and cash in on this big event.  Most of the 20,000 that attend will not go to a harness racing track until next August when the 2018 Hambletonian is run.  There has to be a way to get these people back to a track more than one time per year.  Unlike the Super Bowl and the Kentucky Derby and Game 7 of a World Series or NBA Finals, you have to find the Hambletonian; it doesn’t find you.  These people have found it, so let’s use them to recruit new people to the tracks. They go, they like it, how can the sport get THEM to spread the word?

To me, it seems like harness racing should be able to build on this.  I’m a realist, I don’t expect 5,000 fans to come out to watch harness racing on a Friday evening on October, but these 20,000 have come for a reason and there is a good chance to get them to come again, and perhaps bring some friends with them. Get their names, offer them some perks, but most importantly, get them to spread the word. People buy from people they like. If Bob loves the Hambletonian and his best buddy is Jim, why can’t get Bob get Jim to come to the event?

I could be wrong.  We only have one Independence Day, one Thanksgiving and one Christmas (one too many!) and if we had more, they would lose their luster, so maybe I should be pleased that the sport of harness racing has one day to celebrate and be happy with that and those that come. But I’m a fan of the sport and I would like to see more people enjoying it, because I feel if we can expose people to it, it can grow, not by leaps and bounds, but enough to keep going and most importantly, to get more attention and to sustain a fan base.

 

The Obscure Guy is Me

July 27, 2017

by John Furgele (Your Trusted 228)

I’ve been an avid sports fan since 1976.  I don’t proclaim to be great at anything, but as far as knowledge of sports goes, I would rate myself better than excellent.  I remember specific moments from specific games; often obscure games.  In fact, when I was cutting the lawn the other afternoon, I realized that I am a man of the obscure; a man that likes the obscure. Let’s check it out.

I liked the USFL.  I actually thought the quality of play was good, and to this day, I still struggle to understand why spring football can’t work in the United States. Of course, that was the problem with the USFL.  For three seasons (1983 thru 1985) they played in the spring and then, the owners, led by Donald Trump decided that it was best to move to the fall, a move that never happened as the league folded before that came to fruition.  They did sue—successfully—but received only $3.87 for their pain and suffering.  I’m not good with money, but that probably wasn’t enough to reunite.  We all know that the league had solid players with many of them going on to successful NFL careers.

I thought the XFL could have made it.  Yes, that’s right.  The league got off to a rough start.  The play was bad, the founder was loud and the product was too over the top.  But, by the end of the season, the play was better but the problem was that the fans had already checked out.  I always wonder what would have happened of the league lost their shock value and tried to cultivate both its product and its play. They told us the league would be a game-changer before they played games.  That is usually a recipe for disaster.

I like the Canadian Football League, aka the CFL.  There is a spring-summer football league up north.  It features nine teams, three downs, 12 players a side and a 110-yard field.  At first, it sounds strange to hear 3rd and 5 from the 52, but if you give the league a chance, you’ll get used to it.  I grew up in the Buffalo, NY suburbs and there, we could watch CFL games on CBC and CTV as they provided a nice summer diversion during the baseball season.  Their big game is the Grey Cup which is usually contested on the last Sunday in November.  I will likely never attend a Super Bowl, but at least I can say I saw a Grey Cup Game live and in person, back in 2001, when Calgary upset Winnipeg, 27-19.

I like MLS—Major League Soccer.  For the most part, there are two kinds of sports people:  those who like soccer and believe non-likers are not intelligent enough to appreciate it; and those who think soccer is boring, for wimps and a game for other countries to play.  I do believe that over the last 15 years, both sides have softened and MLS is gaining more and more respect across the sports landscape.

Most Americans like the World Cup; when the United States plays, it garners attention from all sports fans, not just the soccer purists.  But, that’s part of the problem, too.  For soccer to really gain a foothold, MLS needs to get more play in the USA sports landscape.  When you tune in to sports talk radio, it’s the same stuff every day to the point of boredom.  If you turn on ESPN, Fox, Sirius XM, you are bound to hear talk about the NBA, Lebron, football, Colin Kapernick and anything steamy like the recent Hugh Freeze saga.  The networks and hosts refuse to educate themselves on MLS; refuse to categorize it as the fifth major sport despite the continued growth of the league that debuted in 1996.  Do we need to spend hours talking about DC United and NYCFC?  No, but a few minutes per week?  Will that “kill” the ratings?

ESPN Radio used to be “all-sports radio,” before they spent billions on the NBA and the NFL.  They have Barry Melrose to analyze hockey and there was a time where he could be heard on their radio programs, but those days are long gone and since ESPN no longer broadcasts NHL games, it won’t be returning anytime soon.  But, they do broadcast MLS games, as does Fox, but it would be beneath Colin Cowherd to mention anything MLS.  He prefers to talk about Russell Westbrook’s fake triple-doubles. Why not bring your soccer expert for a few minutes to talk soccer both here and for that sake, around the globe.

I like harness racing.  When I tell people that, I usually get two responses.  The first is that it’s a sport for old people and even though I am nearing 50, they say I’m too young to follow a sport where horses pull chubby guys in a bike or sulky.  The second is that they tell me the sport is rigged because they see guys pulling back in the stretch, allowing them to get passed at the wire.  They fail to realize that when a driver pulls back, he is lightening the load that the horse has to carry; in essence, making it things easier for the trotter/pacer to run.  For some reason, harness racing gets mocked even though the horses race much more frequently than their thoroughbred counterparts.  Don’t get me wrong, I like thoroughbred racing too, but that sport is not as obscure as harness racing and this list is centered on the obscure.

There was a time where harness racing drew crowds of 40,000 and up to their tracks, but things like off track betting, cable TV and now the Smartphone took them away with the sport now relying heavily on casinos and slots to help it move forward.  There was also a time where ESPN—The Worldwide Leader—showed harness racing on its airwaves, back when ESPN only cared about sports. Those were the good old days of ESPN before Stephen A. Smith, before covering politics and before not only covering O.J. Simpson’s Nevada parole hearing, but bringing in a panel of experts to analyze what’s next for the man acquitted of double murder back in 1995.  I honestly wonder if sports fans would watch harness racing over stuff like O.J, Kapernick and Stephen A. Smith.  I believe they would and if you go to You Tube and search under Harness racing, you’ll see ESPN covering the big events and covering them well. ESPN certainly knows how to cover sports/games—it’s the non-sports stuff that makes many pause.

I like AAA baseball and even independent league baseball games.  I would love to see a Buffalo Bisons-Rochester Red Wings game on TV as well as seeing the Omaha Storm Chasers take on the New Orleans Baby Cakes.  I would also like to watch the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League; the Rockland Boulders of the Can-Am League and the Sioux Falls Canaries of the American Association.  I often wonder why the MSG Network can’t strike a deal with the Ducks and Boulders to show some of their games.  Instead, we get “The Best of the NY Islanders, the Devils and the Knicks;” three teams that didn’t sniff the playoffs in 2016-17.  We also get movies, old-timers tennis and replays from tennis exhibitions from 2014.  That’s what happens when you have all your hands in the winter sports basket.  I know it’s expensive to produce games, but why show “Rudy,” when Boulders-Ottawa Champions is available?

I like FCS football.  It can be very tough explaining college football divisions (ask my girlfriend) to people.  In basketball and other sports, it’s easy.  We have Division I, II and III, but in football, we have four divisions; the Football Bowl Subdivision, the Football Championship Subdivision, Division II and Division III.  In the old days, it was 1-A, 1-AA, II and III, a classification system that I still believe is easier. That said, why are there four football divisions and only three basketball divisions even though there are three times the basketball teams as there are football teams?  Villanova plays FCS football in a stadium that seats 10,000 people while Michigan plays FBS football in an 113,000 seat stadium.  In basketball, they are equals, but in football, it’s not even close and when a FCS team beats a FBS like Appalachian State did to Michigan in 2007, it is big, big news.

But FCS football has a grassroots feel to it; the way football used to be before superconferences, outrageous TV fees and corruption took over.  When football went big time, the Ohio States moved forward while schools like Colgate, Holy Cross, Delaware, Villanova and a Youngstown State decided to stay where they were at.  Did they miss out?  Perhaps, but to me, if you don’t watch a few FCS games in the fall, you’re missing out because, like AAA baseball, it’s simply good.

Is this list too obscure or not obscure enough?  That’s for you to decide.  But, I know who I am, a man that prefers a Marist-Stetson football game over Syracuse-Boston College, so don’t even bother telling me I need help; I already know.  I don’t think I’m alone here, but then again, I’m not sure either.

 

Bit of a Legend N Blazes Home in Gerrity

July 23, 2017

by John Furgele

SARATOGA SPRINGS—Every track has it signature day and Saratoga Hotel Casino is no exception as all eyes were on a stellar field of eight that gathered for the $260,000 Joe Gerrity Memorial Pace.  This was the ninth edition and this collection of eight older horses could have been the best the event has seen.

Sintra came in as the favorite.  The 4-year-old was coming off a blistering effort at the Meadowlands and with the comfortable four post, things—on paper—made the race his for the taking.  But, as we know, this is harness racing and things can and do happen.

It was a good start for all; Keystone Velocity, breaking from the eight post, tried to leave, but was thwarted by Boston Red Rocks who broke from the one post, but it was a contentious start and quickly turned into an early speed duel.  All Bets Off put immediate pressure on Boston Red Rocks but was turned away as they hit the quarter in a blazing 26.4.

After sitting coolly in third Yonkers invader Somewhere in LA decided he needed the lead and took it briefly only to yield it to the favorite, Sintra, who led the field through the half in a fast and furious 54.4.  Many, including track announcer Mike Sardella were thinking that Sintra might take control, but the other horses would not let him breathe with Somewhere in LA recapturing the lead with a 26.4 third panel and a three-quarters split of 1:21.2, which for a half-mile track is something rarely seen.

That time might have taken the starch out of both Sintra and Somewhere in LA and in some ways, Boston Red Rocks who was always close to lead and would finish a game third.  On that final turn was Bit of a Legend N, who, in May won the $150,000 Molson Pace at Western Fair Raceway in London, Ontario.  Content to let the others blaze away, “The Legend,” decided to make his move, going four-wide in the final turn.  The extra distance didn’t bother him as he roared down the stretch much the fresher—and best—to win in a more than impressive time of 1:50.3.  Mach It So also finished strongly picking up a second place check ($65,000) while Boston Red Rocks held on for third ($31,200).  Despite being winless in 2017, Boston Red Rocks continues to cash checks; a hard luck horse to say the least.  Somewhere in LA was fourth and Sintra tired, finishing last.

Bit of Legend (15-1) rewarded his supporters, paying $32.20, $14.20 and $7.90.  Mach it So paid $13.20 and $10.00 and Boston Red Rocks returned $3.20 to show.  The exacta paid $1,037.00 and the trifecta a nice $5,295.00

It will be interesting to see where these horses race next.  Hambletonian Day is in less than two weeks and there are some excellent pacing races on the mega card August 5.  But, the Gerrity certainly was a race that lived up to its billing.

There were also two open races; one pace and one trot and they didn’t disappoint either.  In the $25,000 open pace, all eyes were on Dr. J Hanover, who despite his Canadian soil of record of 1:46.4 did not have enough in earnings to make the Gerrity field.  But, he was outdone by Luck Be Withyou who went to the front and romped home in the fastest time of the year at Saratoga, a head shaking 1:49.2.

In the open trot, Gural Hanover also turned in the fastest trot of the Saratoga season, winning in 1:54.  The 14 race card handled over $423,000 and a nice crowd was on hand to see it.

With the flat track in session, there are some changes at Saratoga Hotel Casino.  Thursday afternoon racing has been replaced by Tuesday night racing and through September 2, the track will race on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings.  Thursday afternoon racing will return on September 7.

 

A Tale of One City, Two Tracks

July 20, 2017

Thoroughbreds off at The Spa, Big Day at The Harness

by John Furgele (The Reliable 228)

Tis the season, everybody.  On Friday, July 21 the 149th season of racing will begin at Saratoga Race Course.  And, for the 149th time, there will be no shortage of quality at the 40-day meet.  Unlike other race courses, there is no buildup to the big races.  On Saturday, the $500,000 Diana Stakes comes right up and hits you in the face.  The race features Lady Eli, who made a remarkable recovery from laminitis to continue her racing career.  Sunday features the $300,000 Coaching Club American Oaks.  Other tracks, like Del Mar, will pretend to have more stakes races, but no track features more races with purses over $100,000 than the place that opened in 1864; the place they call the Saratoga Race Course.

The highlights are plentiful.  The Whitney, Alabama, Jim Dandy, Woodward, the newly renamed Allen Jerkens (formerly the King’s Bishop), and of course the signature race of the meet, The Travers; a race that could feature the three winners of the Triple Crown races.  If all things go well, we could see Always Dreaming (Kentucky Derby), Cloud Computing (Preakness) and Tapwrit (Belmont Stakes) go at it in the Midsummer Derby.  The chance of that happening will depend on which prep races are chosen and of course, the health of the horses.

Saratoga is unique in many ways with one being a six-day racing week.  While many tracks look for days to cut races, the Spa goes to the post six times and in all honesty if they could run seven times per week, they likely would.  It’s a 40-day meet that ends on Labor Day and it goes fast.  Don’t be one of those that think you have plenty of time to get there because before you can blink, the meet ends and the horses head back to Belmont.

You see it all at Saratoga; diehard racing fans, people who know nothing about racing, pretty girls and pretty dresses, handsome guys with handsome suits and everything else in between.  There truly is something for everybody.

But, Saratoga is not a one trick pony—pun intended.  Literally across the street on Nelson Avenue sits Saratoga Hotel Casino, which is home to a harness track.  The “half-mile,” is in its 76th year and gets very little attention during its season and even less during the “Flat Track” meet. To that point, the Albany Times Union no longer prints entries and results, but the track, buoyed by video gaming machines fights on with a schedule that runs from February to December.  When a few co-workers asked me if I was excited for the upcoming track season, I coyly replied that “the track’s been open since February.”

Saturday is perhaps the biggest racing day of the year at “Saratoga Harness,” featuring the $260,000 Joe Gerrity Memorial Pace.  The race features eight pacers, all accomplished and all taking aim at the $130,000 first place prize.  Last year, 2015 Horse of the Year Wiggleit Jiggle It won it and this year, the favorite is likely to be Sintra, but he will be joined by Yonkers star Somewhere in LA, Boston Red Rocks, Mach It So, the Levy winner Keystone Velocity, Molson Pace winner Bit of a Legend N, as well as All Bets Off and Clear Vision.  All eight have great resumes and this should not only be a good race, but a good betting race as well.

The card also features four divisions of the New York Sires Stakes, four divisions of the New York Excelsior series, and two $25,000 Open Handicaps.  The Open Pace features Dr. J Hanover.  All he did was pace the fastest mile ever on Canadian soil when he stopped the clock in 1:46.4 at Mohawk in June.  He will face stiff competition from Western Fame (1:51.0) and Luck Be Withyou (1:49.3).

The Open Trot is just as solid with Red Hot Herbie, Cash Me Out and Gural Hanover leading the way.  In all, 14 races, all solid and all important as Harness racing inches closer to its biggest day, the Hambletonian on Saturday, August 5.

Is Saturday a day to do the double dip?  How many will head to the Race Course in the afternoon and then saunter over to the Harness Track at night?  There will be some, but not that many.  There are very few that follow both Horse and Harness racing.  As chronicled in the past, those that follow the thoroughbreds take pride in ignoring standardbreds with the feeling being mutual.  For some reason, a line is drawn in the sand.  If you like one, you can’t like the other.  In some ways, it’s like the fan who says that they root for the Yankees and the Mets.

I can see the respective points.  I am a fan of both, but it’s tough to follow both.  As my interest in Harness racing has grown, I find it tough to watch both styles.  The case in point are the Saturday features.  In the Diana, the only horse I really have a bead on is Lady Eli.  I can pretend to know the others but the truth of the matter is I haven’t seen any of the others race.  On the other hand, for the Gerrity, I have seen all eight race more than once and feel that I could give an honest account from both a preview and handicap perspective.  As we know, the Harness horse races more often.  We’re almost seven months into 2017 and the Gerrity will be the 23rd race of the year for Somewhere in LA; the 19th for Clear Vision and the 15th for Bit of a Legend N.  If you like seeing horses run then Harness racing may suit your palate.  If you like seeing the sheer power, beauty, speed and grace then Thoroughbred racing will best suit your palate.

I still believe that you don’t have to choose; that you can like both. We know that this weekend Saratoga Race Course will demand and command the spotlight, but the track on Nelson Avenue offers a very strong and powerful counterpunch.  If the local media was truly dedicated to covering big events then all would send crews to the Harness track for the Gerrity.  That won’t happen, but that won’t take away from a very good race on a very good card of races at “Saratoga Harness.”  In sum, it’s a big day—a big day for both tracks.

The Meadowlands Pace is Here

July 15, 2017

The Hambletonian may be bigger, but this day ain’t too shabby

by John Furgele (The Trusted 228)

In my last column, I spoke of how the sport of Harness racing needs the Meadowlands to continue its relevance going forward.  This Saturday provides the evidence as to why this is so.  With the Hambletonian about three weeks away, The Big M is getting ready with an outstanding night of races.  In all, there are 13 races on the card; nine of which have purses of over $100,000.  Some of the Saturday races serve as preps for the Hambo and Hambo Oaks while others are just big-money races designed to attract the best trotters and pacers in North America.

Last year, Marion Marauder won the Trotting Triple Crown and unlike many great horses and for other reasons too, his Canadian owners did not retire him.  He will race in the $458,750 Hambletonian Maturity.  He showed his class last week in a win at The Big M and will be the betting favorite in the Maturity.  With more than 10 in the race, the distance will be 1 1/8 miles, which only adds to the intrigue.  MM won the Graduate last week in 1:51.2 and won easily, so he looks ready and raring to go Saturday.  The field is solid but not spectacular; could Trolley be a threat?  Other than him, I don’t see anybody stopping Marion Marauder in this one.  And, the best thing is that we as fans get to see a champion horse race past the age of three and thus far, Marion Marauder has not disappointed.

The other $400,000 plus race is the William Haughton Memorial, also at 1 1/8 miles.  This race lacks a superstar, but from top to bottom provides a very solid field.  If you’re a fan of horses that always try but don’t win, you have to root for Boston Red Rocks.  He finishes second all the time, including last week at the Meadowlands.  Earlier this year he finished second at Mohawk to Dr. J Hanover and all the “Doctor” did was race the fastest mile on Canadian soil in 1:46.4.  And, it wasn’t easy as Boston Red Rocks was right there on his heels.  “Rocks” has earned over $156,000 this year in his nine starts which show zero wins, five places and two shows.  Saturday could be his night to finally get into the win column, but he will have formidable foes for sure.

All Bets Off, Lyons Snyder, Rock N Roll World, Bettor’s Edge, Clear Vision, Dealt A Winner, Rockeyed Optimist, Check Six and Mel Mara have all paced sub 1:50 miles this year; if the track is right, look out as the winning time could dip under 1:48.

The Meadowlands Pace is the feature.  It is the scheduled for a 9:40 pm start time and will be broadcast live on SNY, the home for New York sports.  Huntsville is the morning line favorite and he will be the one that the wise guys will try to beat.  Who can beat him?  For starters, Talent Soup could; last week he romped in 1:48.4 over the Big M track and looked like he had plenty left in the tank.  The rest of the field is very good and features Downbytheseaside, which to me is the only other threat if everybody brings their A game.  The pace is not really a prep for the Pacing Triple Crown, but it is restricted for three-year-olds.  The Pacing Triple Crown is comprised of the Cane Pace, the Messenger Stakes and the Little Brown Jug with the Cane Pace kicking things off on Hambletionian Day.

Last year, Pace Day drew over 10,000 to the Big M and handled (all sources) over $4.2 million.  The attendance record of $42,612 will not be threatened, but today, the handle is bigger because of the easy access people have to wagering.  In today’s Harness racing world it is better to have an HD stream than it is to have freshly painted seats in the grandstand. Most people watch Harness racing to make some money and the better the online product is, the more they will watch and wager.  While tracks often lament over ways to get people to come to the track, they should be grateful that we—and they—live in an era that we do.  In the old days, you had to go to the track or go to a simulcast center; now, you watch and bet on your phone.  I don’t know what’s more frustrating to the modern Harness racing fan—lack of live tellers at the track or a grainy picture on your computer or phone?

Tracks like Yonkers and the Meadowlands have stellar online production with HD and clear views of the track.  On the other hand, the grain can still be seen by Saratoga Casino Hotel’s production.  In today’s world, that really is unacceptable.  Most tracks have a variety of ways to view their product.  At places like Yonkers and the Meadowlands, you can watch off of their website; for the others you go through your betting portal like Twin Spires, Capital OTB, Interbets or TVG.  I subscribe to a bunch just in case one is on the fritz.  For tracks like Freehold, which offer simulcasting when there is no live racing, one wonders how much longer that can last.  We know that Harness Racing skews to older men and we all assume that these guys never touch a computer, but eventually they will or sadly, will die.  When this happens, will anybody drive to Freehold in July to watch and bet on races when they can do it from the Smartphone?

I am getting off point here; the point is Saturday will be a great day for Harness racing.  We all know that Thoroughbred racing gets more attention, but how many cards at thoroughbred tracks are this good on a big day?  We know that Churchill Downs will load up stakes races on Derby Day, but what about Stephen Foster Handicap day?  Theirs is no way those cards are better than what you will get this Saturday or on August 5 on Hambletonian Day—not in any way, shape or form.

Saturday is one of racing’s big days—Meadowlands Pace Day and here’s hoping that the races live up to the hype.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We Need the Meadowlands!

July 12, 2017

Most harness tracks are buoyed by slots, the Meadowlands is not, but it remains the sport’s most important venue.

by John Furgele (The Objective 228)

Last Sunday was July 9 and believe it or not, the days are getting shorter.  Nobody in the Northeast likes to hear this of course, but it means that time continues to march on, regardless of our begging.  This Sunday also marks four weeks until the Hambletonian takes place at Meadowlands Racetrack.  We all know that harness racing divides its horses into pacers and trotters, so to say the Hambletonian is the biggest day of the year in Harness racing is a bit unfair to the pacers (who, by the way are faster), but it is in fact, a truth.

Both Horse and Harness racing have their ebbs and flows.  One thing both suffer from is a lack of a national organization/governing body.  There is no NHL, NBA, MLB, NBA or MLS for the horses, so each state does its own thing.  That said, we have the Hambletonian Society which governs the Hambletonian and the Breeders Crown, but we also have states that make their rules as well.  This results in the best horses competing in different parts of the country.

The Hambletonian, as we mentioned, has been contested at the Meadowlands since 1981.  It’s still the best track in America and still generates the highest handle of any Standardbred racetrack.  Sure there are problems; owner Jeffrey Gural insists in lengthy stays in detention barns for horses in an attempt to keep drugs out of the sport.  He can do that for races such as the Meadowlands Pace, which they govern, but the Hambletonian is not governed by him or his racetrack. Despite the squabbles it is a fabulous day of racing with 10 stakes races carded for August 5.  In addition to the Hambo, there is the Hambletonian Oaks, the Sam McKee U.S. Pacing Championship, the Cane Pace, the Doherty, the Haughton, the Shady Daisy, the Cashman, the Fresh Yankee and Lady Liberty—all in one day; impressive to say the least.

The Meadowlands Pace is set for Saturday, July 15, but because of the track’s detention policy, Fear the Dragon, the Pepsi North America Cup winner will not be competing.  The colt’s owner, Bruce Togdan doesn’t think the policy is fair; he called Meadowlands a “B” track.  Gural responded by defending the policy and was sure to point out that the Meadowlands suffers from lack of alternative gaming at the facility.  As we all know, Meadowlands purses are down, or put another way lower because there is no alternative gaming at the facility.  Yonkers, which is just 21 miles away, offers significantly higher purses which are supplemented by revenues derived from the Empire City Casino.

It is a quagmire to be sure.  Yonkers will have a $55,000 Open Handicap Pace on a Saturday night with $35,000 in handle while the Meadowlands will feature a $16,000 Open race and handle over $200,000.  Gural is quick to point out that he needs alternative gaming at the Meadowlands; a measure that was soundly defeated by New Jersey voters in last fall’s election.  The residents felt it was more important to limit casinos to Atlantic City and the result has been tough for the Meadowlands to swallow.

Some have called the 2017 Summer meet at the Big M, “Freehold Plus,” but the track, with its one mile oval continues to be the star.  There are more sub 1:50 paces and sub 1:52 trots there than anywhere else and as we know, bettors like the track and don’t seem to mind that the purses are lower as are the quality of the horses.  They want a race to be fair; a race where all horses have a shot not just those closest to the pylons.

If you’re a fan of Harness Racing, you need the Meadowlands to not just survive, but flourish.  Comparing it to Churchill Downs might be too strong, but its impact on the sport of Harness racing should never be overlooked.  We all know that Yonkers, Pocono and the other tracks are not going to show any sympathy for the Big M, and if the situation ever arises, the Hambletonian Society can always move its signature race to another venue.  The Breeders Crown moves around so why couldn’t the Hambletonian do the same?

I am not sure what the answer is?  Could there ever be VGMs at the Meadowlands?  They are machines and are not the same as table games played at the Atlantic City casinos.  Would Gural even want that?  He owns two harness tracks in New York State; he has VGMs at Vernon Downs and a full-fledged casino at Tioga.  Would he be happy with 1,000 gaming machines at the Meadowlands, or would he want more?

Voters seem to think the Gural should make do with wagering on horses.  Last fall, the proposal to amend the state constitution and allow casinos in Northern New Jersey failed badly by a 78% to 22% margin.  It cannot be proposed until 2018 at the earliest, but with numbers that bad, which state legislator would want to bring it up again?

It’s sad to see the Meadowlands struggle. This is the track that changed the game of Harness racing.  I’m sure the financials are better than Gural is telling us, because $2 million in handle is $2 million in handle and purses used to be based on handle and handle alone.  Places like Yonkers have higher purses, but their purses are based on a proportion of revenues from the gaming machines.  Is that good or bad?  And, what happens if the New York State government alters those percentages? What if the gaming machines experience a sharp decline in revenues, or heaven forbid, what if they were taken out like they were in Canada’s Fort Erie Racetrack?

In four weeks, Harness racing will be at its best.  It will be Hambletonian Day at the Meadowlands with 10 stakes races, a huge handle and over 20,000 people in attendance.  The sport will look great, it will shine, but how many fans will make Hambletonian Day the only day that they attend or even pay attention to Harness racing?  There are many that think Harness racing needs to do a better job of marketing itself; of trying to get the 20 and 30 somethings to come back to the track more than once a year.  What can be done?  The horsemen want every available dollar spent on purses, but the only way to generate more handle is to get more people to bet on the races.  It’s a double-edged sword and is something that many tracks still haven’t figured out.

I still think the sport sells itself.  Seeing eight to ten pacers/trotters competing against each other should be enough and I think millennials should be able to relate to it.  They don’t want to watch three plus hour baseball games or basketball games.  They can go to You Tube and watch all the key plays in five to seven minutes.  A horse race should cater to their mindsets.  The time in between should cater to their anticipation, but we know that isn’t what’s happening.

The Hambletonian is a great day, but it shouldn’t be the only great day.

Just The Beginning

May 24, 2017

Horse Racing Heating Up Now

by John Furgele (The Fairest 228 of All)

If you love horse racing, this is the best time of the year, and that excludes Saratoga, which opens July 21.  Let’s review some exciting things that we have seen and hope to see going forward.

We’ll start with the Kentucky Derby.  It wasn’t a great race as Always Dreaming cruised to victory over a game Lookin at Lee.  Those two were the only horses moving forward at the wire; the others struggling to get there.   Trainer Todd Pletcher picked up his second win and jockey John Velazquez also picked up his second.  As we know, it was the first time that this long-time tandem won the Derby together.

Two weeks later, we had the Preakness at aging Pimlico in Northwest Baltimore and again saw how tough it is to win a Triple Crown in this great sport.  As expected, Always Dreaming and Classic Empire dueled from the start.  They cut sensible fractions and it looked like a thrilling stretch run was in the forecast.  But, sitting chilly and in a great stalking position was Cloud Computing, ridden by Javier Castellano.  As Always Dreaming faded, perhaps Classic Empire let down his guard and in the end, we got a great stretch run with the Chad Brown trained “CC” picking up the win.  If it’s a big race, I like having Castellano in the saddle.  He kept his cool and when it was time to make his move, he did so effortlessly and graciously.

Cloud Computing had enough points to run in the Kentucky Derby and credit must be given to Brown here.  I don’t know too many owners that would skip the Kentucky Derby for the Preakness.  For most owners, the dream is to have a horse that qualifies for the most prestigious race in the world, but Brown knew something.  The easy call would be to enter the Derby, but Brown was able to tell the right story to the two owners of CC,  “Hey, it would be great to run the Derby, but I think we can win the Preakness.”  It certainly helped that one of the owners grew up going to Pimlico and the thrill for him to win a race in his backyard helped Brown make his case.  Classic races are classic races just like majors are majors in golf and tennis, but winning the PGA Championship and the French Open compared to The Masters and Wimbledon are different.  Brown was able to convince his clients that a PGA Championship is a major, just like The Masters is and the owners bought in and the result was garnering the Black Eyed Susans that go to the Preakness winner.

There are easy stories to do and then there are stories that are even easier.  An example would be when news stations cover the soup kitchen dishing out 400 turkey dinners on Thanksgiving; the first day of school; and the mall on Black Friday.  Every Preakness week, we get the old “Is this the last Preakness to be contested at Pimlico?”  Some phrase it differently of course, but it seems inevitable that the day will come when the Preakness moves to Laurel Park, 30 miles southwest of Baltimore.  There is a state law that says if the Preakness is run in Maryland; it must be run in Baltimore.  But, the law has a natural loophole in it.  The race could be moved out of state—to Gulfstream—or it could be moved out of the country—to Woodbine—two tracks that are owned by the Stronach Group.  When push comes to shove, the Maryland General Assembly will amend its law to keep the race in the Old Line State.

Pimlico is the second oldest thoroughbred track in the United States, but a study conducted by the Maryland Stadium Authority estimates that Old Hilltop needs up to $500 million in refurbishments to remain viable.  The Stronach Group has stated that they will not pay a cent for this, so where is the money going to come from?  Can we expect the taxpayers to contribute to a facility that is in a bad, crime-infested section of Baltimore and only races 12 days per year?  The Stronach Group has already done major refurbishments to Laurel Park and truth-be-told, that’s where they want the race to be.  But, like everything, there are political ramifications to consider going forward.  I predict that a phase out plan will be implemented to give all those involved a time to mourn and a time to celebrate Pimlico’s greatness.  Laurel has already secured a Breeder’s Cup, and if an owner wants to close a business, shouldn’t they be allowed to?  The answer is not that simple because horse racing is heavily regulated by the government, but it appears that the future of the Preakness is at Laurel.

Americans tuned in for both races.  The Derby scored a 10.5 rating and 23 share while the Preakness did a 4.9/11.  There’s always a drop off but still, the Preakness was the highest rated sporting event of Saturday, May 20.

Next up is the Belmont Stakes, the grueling 1.5 mile trek around cavernous Belmont Park, better known as Big Sandy.  The ratings will likely drop off with no Triple Crown on the line and moreover, no rematch between the Derby and Preakness winners as Cloud Computing is an almost certainty to miss the race.  Still, it is a classic American race and if you call yourself a sports fan, you’ll be watching.

The Pimlico Special was contested on Black Eyed Susan Day and the venerable Shaman Ghost powered home to win the 1 3/16 mile race, which is the same distance as the Preakness.  Shaman Ghost continues to add impressive stakes wins to his already nice racing resume.

The Black Eyed Susan Stakes was won by the Jason Servis trained Actress and while the BES doesn’t measure up to the Kentucky Oaks, it’s a nice win nonetheless.

The Preakness continues to draw fans to Pimlico and in recent years, the marketing of Black Eyed Susan Day is beginning to pay off.  There were over 50,000 fans in attendance to go along with a record crowd of 150,000 plus on Saturday.  When and if the Preakness leaves Baltimore for Laurel, it will be sad because the Preakness event is something to behold.  Once the race gets to Laurel, it will undoubtedly be more of a corporate affair with higher priced tickets, luxury boxes and no infield admissions.  But, I suppose that’s the modern evolution of sports; draw less, charge more and ultimately, make more money.