Eight of the most important developments/occurrences in the world of harness racing in North America during 2014, in no particular order, are:
1) Sebastian K winning the $100,000 Sun Invitational at Pocono in 1:49 at the end of June represented a major breakthrough in the sport. This was the first time a horse had trotted three consecutive sub-1:51 miles; it was the first sub-1:50 mile on a legitimate track. This was the one we have speculated about year after year, always wondering which trotter might break the 1:50 barrier, someplace other than Colonial Downs. Trainer/driver Ake Svanstedt left from the seven post with the eight-year-old gelding, carrying a stingy 1-5 price. The undefeated son of Korean went the fasted four consecutive miles ever by a trotter.
2) At the end of March Premier Kathleen Wynne, confirmed a $500 million dollar investment in horse racing by the Ontario Government. This was one year to the day after Paul Godfrey and Dwight Duncan had hung a March 31, 2013 date on the termination of the fifteen-year-old SARP program which had allowed harness racing to flourish in the province. This partial about face on the part of the Liberal Government has had a soothing effect on the entire industry. Two years ago, when signals were sent that the industry was about to suffer a critical blow, it had a dramatic impact on sales in Canada and the US. This year that situation shifted nicely as Canadians spent freely at Lexington and Harrisburg. And we certainly wouldn’t be looking forward to the Breeders Crown being raced at Woodbine in 2015 without this five-year government funding guarantee.
3) Harness Racing Update built a fire under the kicking issue last year and the outcry from fans and scrutiny by racing officials seems to have accelerated during 2014. While pylon violations and half-in half-out racing maintain vocal constituencies, kicking now trumps all. Gingras, David Miller and Brett Miller were each fined $500 and suspended two days for violating the kicking rule at the Delaware, Ohio Grand Circuit meet. Gingras, Palone, Jamieson, Chris Page and Brett Miller were fined for kicking at The Red Mile. The issue took off after David Miller was fined $750 for kicking McWicked during a winning effort in the Progress Pace December 7 at Dover Downs. Miller was very upset about being sanctioned for his drive. This in turn inspired the harness press as well as fans to cry foul. The bone of contention is whether or not we’re talking about dropping the foot and allowing the horse to hit it, or actual kicking. This one is far from settled.
4) Sydney Seelster was taken from her owner, Sydney Weaver, in a low level claiming race at Flamboro Downs in early February. The chances of such a story in that place at that time of year going viral are slim and none, but that’s what happened. The fact that the tale was so hot in social media circles was amusing in that the Simon Legree figure who claimed Sydney Seelster, trainer Guy Gagnon, pointed out that he was not on Twitter or Facebook and didn’t even have a computer. He simply blundered into the claim. All was made whole when Sydney Weaver was reunited with her pacing mare two days before Valentine’s Day. This proved to be an excellent example of the power inherent in a marriage between the forces of social media and harness racing.
5) The comingling of trotters, personalities and racetrack operations in Europe and the United States seems to have taken on new life during 2014. Swedish trainer Ake Svanstedt, along with Sebastian K and the rest of his stable, and the media friendly connections who back that operation, have infused much needed new blood into racing on this side of the ocean. And while Maven and Uncle Peter were not successful in their quest to win the Elitlopp, much positive press coverage was generated. The Yonkers Raceway International Preview Trot, which drew Commander Crowe to the US, and the successful export of the tracks signal for trotting races featuring large fields and longer distances to Europe on Sunday mornings, were other positive developments.
6) Muscle Hill has emerged as a potentially great trotting stallion via his second crop. Mission Brief’s unpredictable nature notwithstanding, her speed is of the game changing variety. Hambletonion winner Trixton battled ankle problems all year, but he could be a beast when called upon. Jolene Jolene and E L Titan are a couple of others who impressed. The buyers at Lexington and Harrisburg certainly showed the Muscle Hills lots of love.
7) Ron Burke and Jimmy Takter have solidified their hold on the top tier of the sport. Together they represent 57% of the money earned by the top ten trainers this year. To look at it another way, the Grand Circuit employs a point system to measure success in those races. Burke and Takter hold 79% of the points earned by the top five trainers on the circuit this year. And as a direct result, Yannick Gingras, who has first call for both trainers, is crushing the field in the driver’s money race.
8) This year’s cancellation of the Battle Of Brandywine, Colonial and Valley Forge left quite a gap in the calendar during August. The first two were raced for $500,000 while the Valley Forge carried a $350,000 purse. And all three were accompanied by a pair of lucrative consolations. The Battle dated back to 1960 while the Colonial was first won by Nevele Pride in 1969. Both have experienced gaps before. When they were cancelled Ron Battoni, executive director of the PHHA, said he was 90% certain they’d be back in 2015. Pennsylvania is not part of the recently announced Breeders Crown rotation, let’s hope they do bring back Super Stakes Saturday/Sunday at Pocono or Harrah’s.