Thursday, April 17, 2014

Five Memorable Events in Harness Racing

Joe FitzPatrick has an excellent list of memorable events in harness racing; so good I won't even try to replicate it (he has a memory of a steel trap).  That being said, I have a few memorable events in harness racing which I would like to share.  Would they make your list or the top 100?  Most likely not, but they are memorable (sometimes for the wrong reason) to me, which is all that matters.

  1. Niatross Finishes Fourth in the Meadowlands Pace Elimination - The elimination was contested a week after the famous 'fall' in the Battle of Saratoga.  Niatross, to whom I still say is the greatest standardbred (not talking about breeding), got to the front only to be hooked up in a suicide speed duel by Safe Arrival, driven by Herve Filion.  While Filion may have had his reasons, the fractions were so wicked, it seemed Safe Arrival's mission was to take down the great colt.  Sure enough, Niatross went on a nasty break which relegated him to the back of the field or darn near it.  The fact he finished fourth was probably the greatest effort I have ever seen by a race horse of any type. 
  2. Le Baron Rouge Finishes in a Dead Heat to Win with Big Towner - Let me preface this by saying this was my most disappointing win.  Le Baron Rouge, driven by Robert Samson drew post 8 at Yonkers Raceway against Big Towner in the weekly Open.  Big Towner was a monster on the half mile and as far as I knew, up to that race, he never lost in downstate New York.  I was sitting in the lower left hand corner of the glass enclosed clubhouse touting Le Baron Rouge, telling people he was going to defeat Big Towner.  Needless to say the response from my fellow horseplayers ranged from telling me I was nuts, or moving a seat further away from me.  Le Baron Rouge goes off at 45-1 and at the wire, the two finish in a dead heat.  How much of a favorite was Big Towner?  45-1 Le Baron Rouge paid less than $3.00 to win.  While I felt vindicated, to say I was crushed would be an understatement.
  3. Sugarcane Hanover Wins the March of Dimes Trot - Despite funding problems, the greatest field of trotters gathered at Garden State Park to compete in the only March of Dimes Trot ever to be contested.  Sugarcane came out on top.  To see the race, click here.  
  4. Stupidest Handicapper Ever Seen Appears at Monticello Raceway - Handicapper had all three trifectas picked (first two in a box, last straight) and all were IRS numbers.  Why is this guy stupid?  It is because I decided a week earlier that I wasn't going to play triples anymore.  Not that I had a bad day; I came home $300 up but it sure felt like I lost..
  5. The Panderosa Stomp Debuted -  Highly promoted the Panderosa was the darling of  the 3yo pacing class that year but he missed a start the week before the Meadowlands Pace elims (again, if memory serves me correctly).  I decided the Panderosa was likely sick so while the bridge jumpers pounced on the Panderosa, I bet every horse to show, hoping for triple digit show prices.  Well, in the race as soon as the field straightened out in the backstretch, sure enough the Panderosa jumped off.  I began to jump up and down like a crazy person, while gyrating like an idiot in front of my friends and countless others.  While it paid well, betting all the horses to show in the race for $2 a piece didn't pay triple digit amounts as they did when CR Kay Suzie jumped in the Hambletonian which took place a year or two beforehand.  While I probably looked like a fool performing the Panderosa Stomp, the only regret I had is my back was never the same after that.  Needless to say, it was the first and only performance of the Panderosa Stomp.

Harness Tracks of America (HTA) has announced they are relocating from Phoenix, Arizona and moving their offices to Northfield Park.  What makes this newsworthy?  It shows Northfield Park, one of the latest tracks to become a racino is serious in maintaining their racing program and is not just running the horses for the sake of having slots.  Do you think a track such as Harrah's would have made space available for the HTA?  Not in a million years.

While it makes perfect sense to move the HTA to the east, poor Cal Expo must feel even further isolated from the rest of American harness racing as the closest office of any parimutuel-related harness racing in the United States is Running Aces in Minnesota.  However, California horsemen have shown, if not anything else, they are a resilient bunch.

While Illinois horsemen and tracks desperately want casino gaming, they are joint in their objection to the current bill which reduces the number of machines each track can have.  I hope I am wrong, but I fear no bill will be approved by the legislature in this term,  I am not saying horsemen should take whatever they can, but it seems amendments to keep one track from getting slots and other changse proposed may be enough tor the Governor to whip out his veto pen once again.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Memorable Moments In Harness Racing Part 1

The Harness Racing Fan Zone is running a 100 Memorable Moments promotion. Dean Hoffman penned a definitive list of the sport’s most significant moments in a recent edition of HRU, and while many of these probably wouldn’t make the cut for that list, they are still noteworthy.

Oct 4, 1960: Adios Butler went the fastest mile ever with a 1:54.3 TT for owner Paige West at the Red Mile.

Dec 10, 1983: Cam Fella passed Rambling Willie as the sport’s all-time money leader, winning his final start—number 28 in a row—at Greenwood Raceway.

Nov 10, 1958: Dancer Hanover, by Adios out of The Old Maid, sold to Stanley Dancer for a record $105,000 at Harrisburg. It was the highest price ever paid for a yearling—standardbred or thoroughbred—in the United States.  

Aug 26, 1973: Armbro Nadir paced the fastest mile ever in Canada in the richest race ever held in that country when he won the $130,000 Prix d’Ete in 1:56.1 at Blue Bonnets. He topped the 1:56.3 mile Albatross recorded at Windsor.

Aug 4, 2012: Check Me Out and Maven both jumped on the last turn leaving 55/1 shot Personal Style to win the Oaks in 1:53.1 for David Miller.

Dec 1, 1978: Savoir retired as the richest standardbred ever.

Sept 18, 1971: Roger White was killed in a plane crash in Pennsylvania while traveling to Harrisburg for a yearling sale.

June 17, 1972: Romalie Hanover became the first filly or mare to break 2:00 at Pocono Downs—1:59.4.

Aug 31, 1985: Prakas became the fastest trotter ever when he won the World Trotting Derby for 24-year-old Per Eriksson in 1:53.2.

Sept 27, 1985: Glen Garnsey died in an automobile crash after leaving a horse sale in Lexington with his wife.

Aug 16, 1984: Nihilator won the two million dollar Wilson—richest purse ever—in a world record 1:52.4 for Bill O’Donnell, who drove him for the first time. O’Donnell earned a record 1.4 million in purse money that day.

Sept 18, 1974 Handle With Care equaled the world record of 1:57.4 in the first heat of the Jugette.

June 27, 2009: Well Said crushed the opposition in the North American Cup, setting a Canadian, stakes and track record of 1:48.1 for Ron Pierce.

June 6, 1941: The Daily Double was introduced at Roosevelt Raceway.

Sept 1, 2007: SBSW became the fastest 2-year-old ever with a 1:49.3 win in the Metro.

Oct 10, 1969: Lindy’s Pride completed a sweep of the “Big Five” as he won the $173,000 Dexter Cup at Roosevelt Raceway.

Oct 7, 1964: 2-year-old Noble Victory matched Scott Frost’s 2:00 trot mark at the Red Mile for Stanley Dancer. That record had been set ten years earlier.

May 14, 1960: Countess Adios won the Messenger for Del Miller.

Sept 23, 1988: Matt’s Scooter became the fastest standardbred ever when he TT in 1:48.2 at the Red Mile.

Aug 21, 2009: Lucky Jim made it 14 in a row with a comfortable win over Arch Madness in the BC Open at the Meadowlands. The 1/9 favorite completed the mile in 1:52.1 for Andy Miller.

Sept 26, 1970: The single shaft sulky made its debut at Monticello.

Nov 16, 1987: Mack Lobell became the first horse to hold world records on all three size tracks when he won the $442,000 Breeders Crown Trot at Pompano Park by 13 lengths over Napolitano for John Campbell. The 1:54.1 mile was the fastest ever on a 5/8 track, eclipsing Express Ride’s 1:55 standard.

July 16, 1955: Adios Harry matched Billy Direct’s 1:55 world record at Vernon Downs.

Oct 2, 1982: Fan Hanover TT in 1:50.4 at the Red Mile—fastest ever by a mare and second only to Niatross.

Nov 6, 1963: A bartender from Connecticut won a record $79,660.30 Twin Double payoff at Roosevelt Raceway.

Aug 10, 1973: Sir Dalrae matched the Roosevelt track record of 1:57.4 (BBB & Adios Butler) when he won a leg of the HTA USPC for Jim Dennis.

Oct 1, 1994: Pine Chip became the fastest trotter ever with a 1:51 TT at the Red Mile.

Nov 16, 1968: Nighttime harness racing made its California debut at Hollywood Park.

Sept 8, 2005: Stanley Dancer died.

Sept 19, 1996: Stand Forever set an all-age record of 1:49.2 at Delaware, Ohio for John Campbell.

July 22, 1972: Four-year-old Albatross failed to make the board for the first time in his career as he was upset by Nansemond in the Adios Harry at Brandywine. Track Record 1:56.1.

Oct 3, 2003: Silk Stockings died in New Jersey at 31.

Nov 19, 1971: More than $165,000 was bet on the first televised superfecta race from Monticello Raceway. The payoff for a $3.00 wager was a modest $1,097.

Aug 17, 2008: SBSW set a world record of 1:49.2 for a sophomore on a half when he won the Confederation Cup.

Nov 22, 1974: Delmonica Hanover, who ranked seventh all-time in wins with 46, was sold at Tattersalls in Lexington for $300,000, more than three times the record auction price for a trotting broodmare. She went on to produce Park Avenue Joe and Delmegan.

Aug 26, 1972: Albatross broke Bret Hanover’s two minute mile record as he notched his 32nd in the Canadian Pacing Derby at Greenwood—1:58.4.

Sept 16, 1978: Try Scotch paced the second fastest mile ever at Hollywood Park when he won the Nansemond Pace in 1:55 for Joe Lighthill.

Nov 29, 2007: Delinquent Account was euthanized when unable to adapt to the loss of her sight.

Aug 19, 1998: Albatross died at 30.

Aug 19, 1996: Delvin Miller died at 83.

May 8, 2008: Cat Manzi became the all-time leader in races driven—82,182.

Nov 22, 1961: There was a retirement ceremony at Roosevelt Raceway for the world’s greatest pacer, Adios Butler. Eddie Cobb drove the world record holder on one mile and half mile tracks to the finish line where groom Sylvanus Henry stripped his gear off, all but his shoes which he refused to give up.

Oct 1, 1980: Niatross eclipsed Steady Star’s nine-year-old 1:52 world record with a 1:49.1 TT.

July 27, 1975: Silk Stockings set an all-age world record of 1:57.3 on a half in the OTB Classic at Monticello for Preston Burris Jr. It was the richest stakes race ever.

Sept 30, 1995: Jenna’s Beach Boy won in a world record 1:48.4 at the Red Mile.

March 25, 1972: Isle Of Wight beat Albatross for the third time in three weeks as he won the Clark at Liberty Bell.

Oct 29, 1966: Romeo Hanover completed the Triple Crown as he won the richest harness race ever—Messenger—in 2:01 for George Sholty.

March 5, 1965: Stanley Dancer declared Speedy Scot to be the greatest trotter that ever lived.

Oct 25, 1967: After winning the Westbury Futurity with his prize two-year-old trotter, Nevele Pride, Stanley Dancer declared him to be the greatest trotter he’d ever seen.

Nov 30, 1985: Nihilator ended his racing career on a winning note by capturing the Breeders Crown for Bill O’Donnell in 1:53, paying $2.20 and $2.10. Of the $391,136 in the place pool, $386, 117 was bet on the winner. The Niatross colt retired as the richest pacer in the history of the sport, having earned $3,225,653, easily surpassing the $2.8 million earned by On The Road Again. Nihilator won 35 of 38 starts and was syndicated for $19.2 million, the highest syndication price in the history of the sport.
Aug 24, 1980: Niatross went the fastest mile ever in Canada when he won the Prix d’Ete at Blue Bonnets.
Joe FitzGerald

A Back Handed Story

An article in the Rome Observer about opening night at Vernon Downs indicates "Hundreds turn out to celebrate Vernon Downs opening night".  Hundreds?  If nothing shows you how poorly racing is doing to attract on-track customers, this headline should say it all.  Granted, this is not a major metropolitan area, but to attract attendance in the hundreds for opening night in the old days would have been cause to close up shop and go home.  After all, how many people do they draw on a regular night if opening night was in the hundreds?  Of course, slot machines support the track so racing continues.

Look, racing has allowed the on-track customer to disappear and it will take a long time and a new way of doing things to get them back so I don't expect to see "Thousands turn out to celebrate Vernon Downs...", next year.  This is not a Vernon Downs problem, I dare say most tracks could have similar headlines written about their opening nights; that is if you could even get the interest of a local news outlet to cover the opening.  However, with tracks having ceded ADW wagering to third parties, it is essential they get a core group of horseplayers to show up at the track as they are more lucrative to the track than the ADWs are.  Headlines like the one in the Observer show the right mix has yet to be found.

Reading about the impasse between the Virginia HBPA and Colonial Downs had me wondering, besides the recent problems in Chicago, when was the last time a standardbred track was hit by a boycott at the entry box?  You have the current dispute between the ill-advised MHHA and Raceway management, but that is not stopping racing; just simulcasting wagering.

Then it hit me.  At most racinos, purses have never been better so as long as the purses stay where they are, it would take a real effort for management to tick off the horsemen.  At non-racino tracks, a horsemen boycott could very well be all it takes for management to throw the towel in on racing so horsemen are very cautious to use the weapon of boycotting the entry box.  It's like a tale of two cities; the horsemen at racinos enjoying the 'good' life while those at the non-racino tracks living in fear of sneezing the wrong way.

While not impacting standardbred racing directly, the latest amendment to a proposed Illinois Gaming Bill would allow slots at all racetracks but one, Fairmount Park.  At one point Fairmount Park held standardbred racing but it has been quite a while since the trotters and pacers graced the track there.

To be perfectly honest, other than an issue of fairness, I don't overly get concerned about the demise of a thoroughbred track.  Competition with a casino nearby claims their business will be cannibalized.  Well, truth be told everyime a casino is opened, business is cannibalized.  However, a casino at Maywood Park would cannibalize another casino as well, the same way a casino at Arlington Park would.  You can't single out one racetrack from offering machines if you allow the rest to do it without compensating it.   It would be one thing if a percentage of slot revenue was redirected to Fairmount by the tracks to compensate them for skipping the one-armed (In the old days) bandits.  But to just say, you are cut out is plain wrong.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tuesday Briefs

Hot Shot Blue Chip has been retired.  This 8 year old trotter was certainly well known during his racing career for his inconsistency.  As  a youngster, racing could have made a fortune accepting bets as to whether or not this speedy youngster was going to stay flat or jump off-stride.  Everyone knew he had the ability; he just seemed to have a mind of his own and he would do what he would do.  Despite all this, HSBC managed to earn over $1 million in his career.  

HSBC is heading for retirement at trainer Jonas Czerynson's farm. I wish HSBC the best in retirement. 

Plainridge Racecourse opens their 2014 meet tomorrow and I must admit, I will be passing for a week or two until sometime of form develops.  Talking about a local circuit, 28 horses in the 10 races on tap are making their first pari-mutuel start.  Maybe these races provide good value opportunities, but it is not my cup of tea.  That being said, one good sign is out of the ten races, seven have full fields; a change from last year where short fields was the order of business.

Kentucky has decided starting August 1 to tax winnings through ADWs at a rate of 1/2%   Really?  While not particularly onerous, what's the sense.of taxing those betting off-track versus those wagering on-track.  Rather than use the stick, why not use the carrot and pay a bonus to those who wager on-track?

Meanwhile, Churchill Downs is in a battle with horsemen at the Fairgrounds in Louisiana, regarding the condition of the facility.  Horsemen feel CDI has done little capital spending there, allowing the backstretch and video screen fall into disrepair.  CDI's response, horsemen need to understand the shift in wagering to off-track with declining attendance.  Perhaps that is the case, but if you are still allowing customers to come to the track, shouldn't the video screen be working?

The importance of the Fairgrounds story?  This is a story you are going to hear at harness tracks all around the country.  Why fix customer sections of the plant up if so few people are going to show up>

Monday, April 14, 2014

Turf Racing

Where do some of France's trotters who can't compete at the top levels go?  Some hit the grass, but not in retirement.  There is a circuit of grass tracks which continue to race in France and they have developed a circuit in order to preserve racing on the grass in the country.

Many of you remember the race at the Meadowlands a few years back where the starting car was bouncing up and down as it was clear the track was not fit for harness racing.  However, in the following video, see how a properly laid out turf track can be used successfully for racing.

I am not suggesting we start racing over grass with any regularity; just to show it can be done.  However, what is interesting to note is how minimalist this track is; nothing fancy and a low cost facility.  Could tracks like this (even with a regular track) be the key to racing's growth?  After all with many fans betting off-track, this may be the way many tracks will survive.

Wagering is down 5.32% on a per race level thus far this year nationwide on harness races.  However, one track which seems to be doing better is Saratoga Raceway where the average handle thus far this year is $325,000, not significant when compared to the metropolitan tracks, but when you consider for the past few years, average handle was $200,000 you have to wonder what has happened?  The answer is Saratoga Bets, Saratoga's own ADW system.  Like ofther ADW systems, Saratoga Bets takes wagers on other harness and thoroughbred tracks but naturally encourages wagering on the local product.  Saratoga Bets is operated by a third party on behalf of the raceway.  Any track which doesn't have their own wagering system should be looking to do so lest they allow handle flow away from their handle.

Foiled Again has been tearing up the track at Yonkers in the Levy, but he has yet to be challenged by the real competition he will face during the main point of the season.  It may be controversial, but if I had to pick older geldings, I would pick Rambling Willie as the top aged pacer.  That being said I would be happy to own Foiled Again.

Where about 10 days away from HANA's latest harness racing handicapping challenge.  Some new additions to the handicapper roster has been made and the format has changed.  Handicappers will be able to bet $150 to $250 a day on Grand Circuit races.  By being able to select which races to play, their selections should have more meaning to the casual handicapper.  Visit the contest website and see whose handicapping and the rules.