by John Furgele (The Original 228)
As the Saratoga meet is more than underway, let’s not neglect or sleep on harness racing. Recently, I was explaining the difference between harness and horse racing to my girlfriend’s mother. I compared it to eating filet of sole versus mussels. That might not be fair, but I will preface by saying that I enjoy eating mussels, particularly if they are swimming in marinara. That said, there are some that would never eat mussels, just like there are some that will never indulge in harness racing. My angle is try it, you might like it.
Harness racing is on a slight rise. That might be because the whole VLT and casino movement began at many harness racing tracks. Places like Buffalo Raceway, Saratoga Casino/Hotel and Batavia Downs were the first to couple racing and video gaming machines. For every quarter dumped in to a video gaming machine, a portion went to harness racing.
Buffalo Raceway just concluded its 2016 meet with handle up over 3 percent. That may not seem like much, but consider all the betting options for those with discretionary incomes? In Buffalo alone, there are two casinos operated by the Seneca Indian Nation as well as Finger Lakes Race Track, which offers both horse racing and video gaming machines. And, because of New York State government’s recent fascination with opening as many casinos as they can, more options are on the way. Saratoga Casino and Hotel has always done well and this year, opened up a hotel as well as a Morton’s Steakhouse. In 2017, Schenectady’s Rivers Casino will open on the banks of the Mohawk River, a full-scale casino that is less than 20 miles from Saratoga. More places, more options to take your money.
There might not be decided advantages in harness racing over horse racing, but there are some things that harness racing has over horse racing. One is that the animals—the pacers and trotters—are more durable. The standardbred can simply race more than the thoroughbred. Most standardbreds can race at least once a week, and sometimes they will race twice on one day. Consider the plight of Mohaymen, the fourth place finisher in this year’s Kentucky Derby. He hasn’t raced since and his entry in to this Saturday’s Jim Dandy will mark 83 days between races. In that time, a standardbred might have raced at least 6 to 10 times. Compare that to the Hambletonian, which requires horses to run an elimination heat and then come back a few hours later for the final.
Let’s give the sport of harness racing some love here. Last Saturday, the reigning horse of the year, Wiggle It Jiggleit came to Saratoga Casino and Raceway to run in the $260,000 Jim Gerrity Memorial. He certainly didn’t disappoint, winning in 1:51. The 2015 Little Brown Jug winner was pressed and pushed, but in the end, he came through with flying colors.
Harness racing is doing a much better job of having what I deem significant races. For years, as the sport struggled, race cards were littered with 13 races and $2,500 purses. That has changed, mainly because of VLT and casinos, but also because gambling has become much more mainstream than ever before. In the old days, one had to sneak out to the betting parlor to wager and people who often gambled daily scorned upon. Now, sports shows talk openly of betting lines for NFL games, and casinos seem to be within 150 miles of everybody and online wagering is easier than online grocery shopping. As more people wager, the better the purses, plain and simple.
When I study racing cards, I look for big races/stakes races and races with purses that catch your attention. In horse racing, a race with over $100,000 is an eye-catcher and in harness racing, I look for $40,000 and over and this weekend, there are a few that caught my eye.
On Saturday, The Meadows (Washington County, PA, near Pittsburgh) offers two races for pacers: the $110,950 Adios Volo for three-year-old fillies and the $400,000 Adios Final for males. In the Volo, Dismissal is the morning line favorite. In 2016, she has nine starts, with seven firsts and a third. In the Final, Racing Hill is the early favorite. He has three wins, four seconds and a third in eight starts and just finished second in the $750,000 Meadowlands Pace on July 16.
Speaking of the Meadowlands, the $150,000 Anthony Abbatiello Classic is Saturday with Boston Red Rocks, the early 3-5 favorite. He owns the fastest time in the field with a 1:50.35 for a mile and will face four others.
Yonkers Raceway has two races on its Saturday card, each with $45,000 purses, so if you’re looking to plunk down a few dollars on harness racing, there are five options here for you. There are plenty of websites to gather information and I would suggest www.ustrotting.com as well as www.harnessracing.com. Never go in blind before making a bet and these sites will give you enough information to make at the very least, a half-baked educated guess.
The big day in harness racing is Saturday, August 5; Hambletonian Day at Meadowlands Racetrack. The Hambletonian (for trotters) is the most prestigious and well-known standardbred race in the world and it will be featured with nine other stakes races on the final Meadowlands card of the summer. In addition to the $1 million Hambletonian, the $500,000 Hambletonian Oaks will be run as well as the Cane Pace, part of the Triple Crown for pacers. The cheapest purse of the day is $110,000, so it behooves you to get a program before heading down or making bets online. And, like they have done in recent years, CBS Sports Network will cover the Hambletonian live next Saturday.
So, while we enjoy the sites and the quality thoroughbred racing that is Saratoga and Del Mar, it certainly is not a bad thing to pay some attention and throw some love to the world of harness racing. It may not be as glamorous, but there is something for everybody. And, if you can one watch one harness race this year, check out the Hambletonian next Saturday between 5 and 6 pm on CBS Sports Network.