Archive for August, 2015

Big Day for Harness Racing at the Meadowlands

August 12, 2015

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.

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Bob Baffert Coy, But Not That Coy

August 3, 2015

Pennsylvania Derby will be American Pharoah’s next race

by John Furgele

Bob Baffert is the essence of cool. The great white hair, the designer shades, the younger wife. He appears to be a man that has it all. I recently attended, for lack of a better word, a symposium on the eve of the Saratoga meet, and trainer Gary Contessa said that if you like old school, you have to like Baffert. He trains like legendary old school guy Woody Stephens who believed that horses are better off racing, not sitting and waiting for weeks and months.

Baffert’s prize is the Triple Crown champion American Pharoah. We all know how great the three-year-old son of PioneeroftheNile is. On Sunday, Baffert went back to a place that he knows and loves and that is Monmouth and the Haskell. He has been the winning trainer of this race eight times, including last year with Bayern. Bayern would go on to win the Breeder’s Cup Classic albeit in controversial manner.

The Pharoah toyed with the other six horses. I’ve seen some great horses but no horse can change speeds as good as this one can. He can go out and rate. He can speed up and then after he gets what he wants, can slow the pace down and keep the others at bay. In the Haskell, he stayed right near Competitive Edge through good fractions of 23.00, 46.14 and 1:09.60. He then swept to the lead, opened an eight length lead and then shut it down. His final time was 1:47.95, but it could have been 1:46 flat had he actually run the last 220 yards.

After the race, speculation ran rampant as to where American Pharoah will run next. Baffert won’t tell us, but he knows. In fact, he tells us by what he says and doesn’t say. Those that live on the West Coast think Baffert should run American Pharoah in his home state of California at Del Mar. Saratoga is the oldest race course in America with the most prestigious race of the summer, the Travers. Many think that an appearance at the Spa is a must for a great horse.

The key to all this is to listen to what Baffert says. He says that right now, it doesn’t make sense to run against older horses. That means the Pacific Classic, slated for August 22 at Del Mar is out. The same goes for the Woodward Stakes on September 5 at Saratoga.

Baffert says that Saratoga’s track is gimmicky and that it’s important for a horse to run there before a big race. That means the Travers is out. Baffert hasn’t had much luck in the Travers, although he won it impressively with Point Given in 2001. And, as everybody knows, Point Given suffered an injury in that race and was retired. Last year, Baffert won the Haskell with Bayern, then sent the colt to the Travers where he finished 10th. Bottom line–he is not coming to Saratoga to run in the Midsummer Derby.

So, where are we? No need to run against older horses. No love for the gimmicky track at Saratoga. I would like to see American Pharoah run against older horses now. The Woodward would be a perfect race for him. It’s a month away and it’s a quality race. But, it’s at that gimmicky track, thus it’s a no.

Monmouth Park had a record crowd of 61,000 plus to see Pharoah jog to victory and track organizers have said that they will put together another $1 million race in September to lure him back for an encore. Nothing wrong with Monmouth Park doing that. They are a running a business and they know that there is a thing called star power. The country waited 37 years for a Triple Crown winner, so capitalize now or be damned.

This conjures up memories of what New Jersey racing did in 1985 when they created the Jersey Derby to lure Kentucky Derby winner Spend a Buck. It worked as the handlers of the colt skipped the Preakness to run at Garden State Park in the aforementioned Jersey Derby. That didn’t go over well with the purists and it resulted in Visa coming up with a $5 million bonus if a horse won the Triple Crown. They had a consolation prize of $1 million for a horse that ran in all three races and had the best average finish. So, you see, New Jersey, a state that likes to gamble, has done this kind of stuff before.

Money is money, but does it make sense for Pharoah to come back to Monmouth and run again? Would the crowd exceed 61,000 in September with football in full swing? What would the race be called, and would it be a one-and-done affair?

I expect the next race for the future Horse of the Year will be in Bensalem, Pennsylvania at the Pennsylvania Derby on September 19. It fits Baffert’s hinted criteria. It’s not against older horses. It’s not at a gimmicky track. It allows him to stay in class against 3 year old horses, giving him the opportunity to beat up on them some more. And, yes, there is financial incentive for the connections.

Parx Racing offers $50,000 for winning a Triple Crown race, and as we know, Pharoah won three of them, meaning the connections get $150,000 just for entering. Parx also stated that it would pay out another $50,000 for a horse that wins the Travers or the Haskell. That gives Team American Pharoah $200,000 for coming to Parx on the third Saturday in September. And, it’s perfect for the colt. He’ll have seven weeks off between the Haskell and Pennsylvania Derby and another six before the Breeder’s Cup Classic.

And, let’s not forget what happened last year. Baffert won the Haskell with Bayern, then took him to Parx, won the Derby, beating California Chrome in the process. Chrome, because he won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness collected $100,000 for coming to Parx and Bayern picked up 50k for his Haskell win in addition to the $600,000 for winning the PA Derby. The formula worked for Baffert last year, why wouldn’t it in 2015? And, there are rumors that Parx may throw in an extra bonus for a “horse that wins the Triple Crown.”

My math skills have never been good, but American Pharoah might receive $300,000 for just showing up to Parx. The purse, currently $1 million could be increased to not only lure Baffert and Pharoah, but other horses, too. Second place is worth 20 percent of the overall purse. Think about Keen Ice in the Haskell. He was second best, but his connections pocketed $350,000, which is $150,000 more than a $1 million purse and just slightly less than what Texas Red ($360,000) received for winning the $600,000 Jim Dandy at Saratoga on Saturday, August 1.

Baffert has said that he doesn’t want his colt to lose before the Breeder’s Cup Classic and as much as he wants to protect him, if the goal is the Breeder’s Cup Classic, then he needs another race. There are good races in California; there are some pre-Breeder’s Cup stakes races at Keeneland, the site of the BC and there is tradition at Saratoga and Del Mar. A case can be made for each track and each race. But, to me, there isn’t much doubt. The colt and his connections will take seven weeks off and then head to Parx for the (I’ll predict) $1.5 million Pennsylvania Derby. If all goes well there, a six week break, the Breeder’s Cup Classic and then off to the stud farm.

Last year, Parx had over 16,000 on its Derby Day (there is also the $1 million Cotillion for 3 year old fillies and the $300,000 Gallant Bob Stakes). The track handle was over $10 million and there is the Parx Casino right across the street. Imagine what would happen if American Pharoah showed up? The crowd would surely increase, the handle could double to the delight of all. And, Baffert left Parx last year smiling so why wouldn’t he come back there for an encore.