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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Solving the Elimination Dilemna

Almost everyone in harness racing knows elimination races are the bane of the sport.  You know those elimination races, those races where horses race in $25,000 eliminations to determine who qualifies for the $500,000 final the following week.  Tracks acknowledge the problem when they dangle the carrot of elimination winners getting to choose their own post positions or draw for the inside posts.  Only problem then is the tracks are in effect rigging the final by allowing elimination winners get a favored post position over their opposition in the final; after all, they don't face the possibility of drawing an outside post the following week while everyone else does.

A simple way to solve this problem would be to make the purses for eliminations more meaningful; make it hard for a horse to lay off in an elimination, saving themselves for the following week.  Make the eliminations worth 40% of a purse final.  Instead of a $1.5 million guaranteed Hambletonian, make it a $1.5 million (total purse) Hambletonian with the eliminations racing for a total of $600,000 and the final worth $900,000.  If you have three elimination races, let's see a horse lay off in a race worth $200,000 instead of the paltry $50,000 they current race in eliminations.  I would think everyone one would agree a $900,000 final is nothing to sneeze at.

However, if tracks and horsemen want to let horses earn post positions for the final, I have a better way to do it.  Let's have each horse eligible to compete in the stakes race go through an official workout the week before the stakes.  A horse who goes off stride in an official workout gets disqualified and then the fastest eight, nine, or ten finishers earn their post position in the final.  No purse money, just the right to race in the final the following week.

If we insist racing paltry eliminations, then make them non-wagering events where there is an open draw for the final.  Why are we letting horseplayers wager on races that even track operators fear horsemen may not be giving their best effort?  Sure the experienced horseplayer may factor this possibility into their wagering strategies, but novices actually are thinking everyone is giving their fullest effort in these eliminations.  The serious horseplayers have a legitimate advantage over novices in regular races, there is no reason to give them an illegitimate advantage over newcomers when it comes to elimination races. 

Why non-wagering events?  When was the last time you saw a judge give a driver of an elimination contest a fine or suspension for failure to drive a horse to the best of their ability?  Even the judges know what happens in eliminations and let it go.  I would love to see the head judge tell the drivers before elimination races begin, "Gentlemen (and Gentlewomen, if appropriate), we will be watching.  If you give your horse a less than 100% effort this week and you do real good next week, we'll be having a nice chat and you'll be getting a nice long vacation".  

Of course, there are other ways we can determine the entrants to race finals.  Here are some of them.

Each track will decide which of their events are to be considered major or minor.  Minor events will be raced in divisions with money divided.  No eliminations, no problems.  For those races considered major, the final field will be decided by one of the following methods:

  • Top money earners are seeded into the final where there is an open draw, with other horses being seeded into optional consolation races.
  • Win and you're in.  The track designates, depending on the number of positions on the starting gate, a specified number of key races.  If you are eligible to the race and you win a designated race you're in the stakes race.  If a winner of a key race is ineligible or otherwise decides to pass on the race, the remaining eligible horses will get into the race based on highest earnings, points earned based on their finish in those key races, or an elimination race.  If the designated races are selected properly there may be only two or three available entries available to the final so you know those horses will be giving their best to qualify for the final.
  • Total points earned.  The race sponsor designates qualifying races and eligible horses that earn points in these race based on their finishing position.  Come stakes time, the top eight, nine, or ten horses that have the highest number of  qualifying points draw into the stakes race.  This also ensures horses are giving their best effort on those races as anything but a best effort could have the horse on the outside looking in come stakes time.
There you have it, no horse being given preferential treatment.  No horses qualifying automatically when only eleven or twelve horses draw into a stakes race and the track wants to avoid short field eliminations.    Only horses lining up behind the starting gate because they had an equal chance to qualify.  The only thing we lose are races where drivers may not be giving their charges their best efforts in an effort to save the horse for the following week.

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