The Hambletonian is just the Hambletonian in name only.
Sure the race has a $1.5 million dollar purse; yes it is the first leg of the triple crown; it has a trophy. But don't kid yourself, this race has been so modified that the only thing this race has in common with the Hambletonian of old is the name and the fact the race is for three year old trotters.
Let's go over the changes that occurred during the years since you originally had to win two heats to win the race regardless of the number of heats required:
- The number of heats were limited so you never raced more than three heats (a good change) - 1977.
- The race was changed so you no longer had to win two races. Instead of purse money being awarded by best in summary, you were awarded money based on your performance in the elimination and then on the final. The winner of the final was the winner of the trophy - 1991.
- Heat racing stops. If there is a need for an elimination it would be held the week before. The final would be held the first afternoon in August. This for the benefit of simulcasting and television. - 1997
- To accommodate television, the Hambletonian moves to the second week of August - 2009.
With the exception of the first item which can be attributed to animal welfare, the last three changes were done for the benefit of television and publicizing the sport. I am not saying these changes are bad; while I am a traditionalist by heart I realize you need to make changes to stay relevant. If it does not work then change it (this is why the Little Brown Jug should not change; if you get 50,000 people to show up at a county fair track on a Thursday afternoon, it works; leave it alone).
The point is if the Hambletonian has been changed so much to keep up with the modern times, then let's drop the charade and make changes that matter to make the race a much better event. There are a couple of key problems with the current format of the Hambletonian.
- If only eleven horses enter the Hambletonian all the horses get to start. More than eleven horses, we divide into eliminations. However, if we go to eliminations, we need to divide the race so we never get more than ten horses in the race. Hence we can get three or four short fields in elimination races which are unbettable.
- We assign the elimination winners the inside posts in the final instead of having an open draw making it easier for them to win the final. The feeling is we need to offer them the chance to draw for the inside to ensure elimination contestants do more than just try to qualify for the final. This is because we offer only a $70,000 purse in the elimination for a $1.5 million dollar final. Every other horse in the final has to rely on the luck of the draw but one thing for sure, there is no chance they will get a prime post position. Could you imagine having an Open Handicap at your track where the best horses in the race always drew the inside post position? Not much of a race.
Here are the changes I would make to the Hambletonian at this point. Get rid of the eliminations. Let's take a page from the Kentucky Derby and the Battle of Brandywine. Limit the starters to the top ten money earners. Let's take the $1.5 million dollar purse the Hambletonian final currently goes for and divide it this way: $900,000 Hambletonian - Gold; $400,000 Hambletonian - Silver; $200,000 Hambletonian - Bronze. The Hambletonian Gold will continue to be the triple crown event. Instead of declaring for the eliminations the week before the eligible horses will enter the race. The top ten money earners in the current year will race in the gold division; the next ten will race in the silver division; the next ten will race in the bronze division. If more than thirty horses enter, the rest of the horses will not get in and their sustaining payments refunded. Depending on which division you draw into, your starting payment would be adjusted accordingly.
What happens if we do this? First of all, we get three exciting races; dashes for the cash. Instead of questions of whether horses are trying in their eliminations we eliminate the problem. Horsemen actually get to compete in races they have a realistic chance to succeed in with corresponding payments in line with the final purse structure. Instead of five horses picking up a check; you get fifteen horses picking up checks; there is a good chance you will get more nominations and sustaining payments. Our horses will have to race more to qualify for the Hambletonian. What they do as a two year old has no bearing on their eligibility for the Hambletonian final. A three year old that did not race as a two year old has just as good a chance to get in the race. The cherry picking of three or four starts before the Hambletonian goes away as horses would have to earn their way into the race. Last year as a result of these types of rules for the Battle of Brandywine, horses which normally would have skipped the Adios decided to enter the race to make sure they got into the top division of the Battle. Television coverage for this race does not change. You still have a good idea who is going to get into the Hambletonian in the weeks leading up the race; with the field being locked in a week before.
One of the goals of the Hambletonian Society is to promote the sport. Here is a chance to make one more set of changes to the Hambletonian to make the race as good an event as possible for all involved. Let's see if they rise to the occasion.