Archive for August, 2017

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.