For photos from the Meadowlands contact

Thursday, November 4, 2010

California Dreaming

Years ago, California was a major stop for harness racing's elite horses.  Niatross set a world record in winning the American Pacing Classic at Hollywood in 1980.  Horsemen winter trained at Del Mar.  In 1980, not only was Hollywood Park hosting harness racing, Los Alamitos also had a standardbred meet.  Then, racing in California went into decline, with racing occurring only at Los Alamitos, sharing the facility with the quarterhorses.  With the decision to race only quarterhorses at Los Al, the standardbreds became nomads, racing first at Fairplex Park before moving to their current home at Cal Expo.  In the meanwhile, while the California standardbreds were beginning to decline, the top horses stopped shipping to California as purses declined and shipping expenses became prohibitive.  Harness racing in California was on its way to extinction.

A funny thing happened on the way to extinction.  The harness racing situation has stabilized thanks to the horsemen of California who were determined not to let racing die.  Where the horsemen were racing short seasons each year, there is now standardbred racing at Cal Expo ten months a year.  No, the racing is not near the caliber of many racetracks, but racing they are.

A main reason why the caliber of racing is wanting is the fact California horsemen are basically all alone.  Unless you are a horsemen from one of the other three Diamond Horse Alliance states (Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin); states with the caliber of horses that accompanies limited racing opportunities, it is a rare horse that travels from the east to race in California.  You will get an occasional horse from British Columbia and Alberta racing at Cal Expo, but for the most part California is an island; it may as well be 10,000 miles away. 

As a result of being for all practical purposes isolated,  Cal Expo's cards feature an abundance of $2,500 and $4,000 claimers, short fields, a need to uncouple horses in order to get enough horses to fill their race cards, and being forced to race only three nights a week to manage the shortage of horses.  In addition, being a de-facto closed shop, there is no need to improve the racing stock to compete in California.  Yet, despite this, the Cal Expo still handles a decent amount of money all things considered with handles of $650,000 not being uncommon; no doubt being helped by being the last harness track racing each night in the United States when they are racing.  

If Cal Expo is handling $650,000 with the racing stock they currently have, imagine what they can handle if they were able to upgrade their racing stock.  The question is how, do you upgrade the racing stock if horsemen from the east are unwilling to ship west?  You take advantage of the situation in British Columbia by working with their horsemen's association in conjunction with the other members of the Diamond Horse Alliance.

Horsemen in British Columbia are suffering from limited racing opportunities.  The owners of Fraser Downs is considering cutting back racing dates and moving their standardbred meet to Hastings Park.  Horsemen in  Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have limited racing opportunities as well.  Create a new series of races; call them the Western Pacing/Trotting Series.  The WPS and WTS would be a series of overnight races, early closers, late closers, and stakes races which for the first three years will be open to British Columbia, California, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin owned horses after which time the races would be restricted to horses sired in these states.  These races will be for three year olds and up and would be in addition to the regular sires stakes events each state holds.  By having these events, horsemen will have the incentive to upgrade their racing and breeding stock as there would be lucrative racing events available to them.  During the first three years, the horsemen will be able to earn the money necessary to upgrade their stock and in the fourth year, the series for three year olds would transition to state sired and in the fifth year, the aged events would transition.  So not to weaken the existing purse structure, initially there would be little added money for these events and as the horse population improves, additional added money can be added.

Events would be contested in each state that is a member of this alliance with British Columbia, and the DHA states required to have WTS and WPS events during the time Cal Expo is down in addition to having some overnight events for WTS and WPS-eligible horses giving California horsemen places to race during their down time.  Cal Expo would schedule the series and stakes races during the other tracks down times as well as some overnight events for eligible horses, giving horsemen from the other jurisdictions a place to race when they are closed.  The net result is the racing programs in British Columbia and the other DHA states will be improved making their product more desirable to horseplayers.  As for Cal Expo, having WTS and WPS events would allow them to upgrade their racing population immediately as well in addition to improving their breeding program which would make their racing program stronger and more desirable to those gamblers looking for a harness racing action once the racing action on the East Coast and Midwest is done.  Then, in a few years, the purses may become high enough that we can see some of the top national horses making a foray west.

This is a win-win situation.  Each province and states' breeding programs get better, improving the quality of their racing product and increasing wagering interest in their product.  The horsemen get more racing opportunities once their local season is over.  California horsemen and British Columbia horsemen, having the West Coast advantage have the opportunity to take advantage of the western time zone to get significantly higher handles via simulcasting and ADW wagering.  In addition, with a strong racing product in California, more interest in harness racing from surrounding states can be anticipated, improving the overall health of industry nationally.

Now, it is easy to propose something; the devil is in the details and implementation.  But it's worth considering.  Who knows?  One day we may see the top horses in the nation once again racing in California.        

Here is a video of the 1956 American Pacing Classic at Hollywood Park in 1956, won by Dottie's Pick.  Note how they raced back then.  It is more like the style of racing used now overseas. 

In addition, Niatross winning the Final of the American Pacing Championship at Hollywood Park in 2:07.3 ( 1 1/8 mile).

No comments: