With this week's announcements by the Meadowlands of their new FFA stakes debuting in 2013, it shows how the New Meadowlands name means more than a new grandstand; it means new thinking. The introduction of these two "Super" stakes deserves a lot of praise by the industry for these races may be shaping the way harness racing looks at their stakes races.
The first plus of these new Super Stakes is the lack of elimination races, something which is a blight on harness racing's integrity from a perception view. By using a points system, not only do the best horses get into these races, it also encourages owners to dance the dances, so fans get to see the best horses more often. Of course, including the Meadowlands early season stakes for aged horses in the mix and selected Opens as point earning races should help the Meadowlands attract the better horses who may race otherwise in Pennsylvania and New York. However, by including the Allerage series and Breeders Crown races in the qualifying mix not only extends a benefit to those host tracks, it makes these Super Stakes instant classics for harness racing.
As for giving automatic invites to three year olds that win their Breeders Crown races and/or the Hambletonian and Meadowlands Pace to a race which will likely be the last race of the year for these horses, it does add a little more interest to the races but I am not sure how many owners will avail themselves of the opportunity to take on the FFA ranks as many owners/trainers will likely want another winter under their charge's belt before taking on the best in the sport.
Of course, if there is a down side, it does have the potential to reduce the level of prestige for the Breeders Crown races in the aged divisions as these races may be looked at as qualifying races for the Meadowlands' FFA finals, but in a way perhaps this is what should be happening. After all, any horse that happens to peak at the right time may win a Breeders Crown race but with the points format, the horses which get into the Super Stakes will have proven themselves all year so the winner of these races will truly be champions.
But perhaps these new Super Stakes are the vehicle the Grand Circuit needs. Grand Circuit President John Campbell has mentioned the Roarin' Grand needs updating. Many of the top horses dance only certain dances on the Grand Circuit, leaving the other races significantly weaker as there are more lucrative events to compete in. If the Grand Circuit adopted the Super Stakes format and assigned points based on how horses raced in Grand Circuit events to qualify for season ending finals, there would be more top horses competing on the Circuit with regularity to the betterment of the sport on the whole. It is an idea worth considering.
Of course, the Meadowlands announcement of the two new FFA stakes races also has some other news worth discussing.
The introduction of the Meadowlands Maturity for pacers and trotters fulfills a commitment Jeff Gural made when he spearheaded the movement to force three year olds to return for at least another year before heading to the breeding shed. Granted one $100,000 race alone doesn't provide enough lucrative events for those who would have preferred the breeding shed for their horses, but it is a start.
The Hudson River series for four and five year olds who participated in the sires stakes programs of New Jersey, New York, or Pennsylvania that didn't have much success against open company (non-winners of four pari-mutual races or $150,000 excluding state-restricted events) not only provides additional racing opportuities for second-tier level horses from these states, it shows cooperation between the three states in developing this event. There will be qualifying rounds in each state before the $75,000 finals take place at the Meadowlands..
The announcement of the Reynolds and Tompkin-Geers two year old races returning to Tioga and Vernon Downs in 2013 is a move which needed to happen. While these races provide an essential opportunity for late blooming two year olds, the races didn't develop the desired interest in East Rutherford which isn't surprising as these races would likely be Grade Three events if harness racing had graded stakes. These races simply are a better fit for the other Gural properties.