Traditionalists rejoice. Jeff Gural has signed a contract with the Hambletonian Society to continue to host the race at the Meadowlands for an additional thirty years. While the race will not be going back to its winning of two heats in a single day to be declared Hambletonian Champion, starting in 2013, heat racing returns to the Hambletonian. That's right, if more than 13 horses enter the Hambletonian, the race will be split into eliminations to be contested not the week before, but the same day and then the top finishers will return for a final heat with the winner considered the Hambletonian Champion. The Hambletonian Oaks, has the option of racing the elimination the week before or the same day as the final.
This year, the purse will remain a guaranteed $1.5 million, but starting in 2013, the Hambletonian will be reduced to a $1 million purse with fees reduced and all horses that start in the final will earn purse money.
In 2014, the Hambletonian Society will introduce the Hambletonian Maturity which will be open to eligible four year olds, helping meet Jeff Gural's idea of making it profitable for 4 year olds to keep racing. The race will be at a distance of 1 1/8 miles and limited to a field of 16 starters with all horses earning purse money. The Maturity will have a purse of $400,000.
This makes sense. First of all, in the stated goal of making a day of racing exciting for those in attendance, nothing like a two heat race to make the day special. As far as I was concerned, the Hambletonian in the current format was basically just a race with a large purse; the heats should make the race something special. Going back to winning two heats in one day may be too much, so this is a good compromise.
Then for the Maturity, those attending the races get to see sixteen horses racing a longer distance; again something different; making the event something special to win.
Yes, the Hambletonian purse will be reduced to pay for the Hambletonian Maturity, but $1 million will still get the attention of the press. Wagering on a multi-heat Hambletonian is bound to do well in Europe and their appreciation of older trotters racing a further distance is sure to keep their wagering interest; and sixteen starters is normal in Europe. Foreign simulcasting-wise, this is a winner.
As far as I am concerned, these changes can't come soon enough. This homogenized type of racing we have needs to change. Even better, it probably saves multi-heats for the LBJ and Kentucky Futurity that had been talking about going to single heats.