09/03/2014 2:29PM

Giwner: The extinction of elimination races


It appears that Harness Racing is evolving for the better with very little work or thought from the powers that be. The frequency of one of the more undesirable features of the sport—elimination races—from a betting and spectator standpoint is clearly on a downturn.

In what seems like “survival of the fittest”, only the best of the standardbred world have been showing up for the biggest dances. The Hambletonian drew only 11 horses; the Canadian Pacing Derby also had 11 starters; the Canadian Trotting Classic has just seven entered for Saturday; and on and on.

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I have been saying for years that we need to eliminate elimination races from the calendar. For the most part they bring nothing to the table and only cause problems. Tracks do not want short fields that are associated with many elimination races and bettors certainly don’t want to wager on races in which five of the six entrants make the final and there is little incentive for horses to want to win.

In most elimination/final formats, the purse for the elimination race is less than 10 percent of the final purse. If you are racing for $35,000 in the elimination and $400,000 in the final, why go all out in the elimination? Of course the “pick your post” option has been adopted by a few tracks to provide that “carrot” to race hard in the preliminary races, but that also allows the best horse in many cases to draw well in the final and offer short odds. And for those tracks that don’t offer the option of picking posts, that upsets owners, trainers and drivers, because they have to race twice with little reward for success in the first race.

With rich Sire Stakes programs in multiple states and the addition of some new stakes options (Ohio getting a slot infusion for purses), it seems as though trainers are picking their spots more than ever and automatically correcting the elimination issue. That is probably one of the reasons we are seeing a lack of entries and fewer elimination races.

The main argument for why eliminations are needed revolves around the payment schedule. Owners put up in some cases thousands of dollars to make their horses eligible to stakes. If a system existed where only the top money-earners raced for the total purse, a few owners would certainly complain that their late-blooming horse was unable to compete. And if we want the best of the best competing in the elite races, how do we provide the opportunity for the “now” horse that was injured early in the year and couldn’t earn enough to qualify a chance to race for serious cash?

Originally I came up with a grand plan for removing elimination races from the harness world. But who am I kidding? Change, especially on a large national scale, is simply not going to happen. So here it is, basic and simple way to stomach elimination races: offer 20% of the total purse money available to the stake in the elimination races and change the payout schedule on the elimination to 60%, 30%, 5%, 5%.

What does this accomplish?

It removes the boring races where the majority of horses make the final and a horse can sit last knowing they will qualify. How many times have we seen a field where they were racing for $30,000 to decide which 9 of the 10 horses were advancing to a $300,000 final the following week? With my system, the same 10 horses would race in the elimination for $66,000 and the winner would get $39,600, as opposed to $15,000 for winning. If a horse won the elimination and final they would win more money than in the current system, BUT they have to win twice. And if you take it easy in the elimination race, you race for less money in the final since it will only go for $264,000 instead of $300,000.

The thought is simply to create incentive. Give connections a better reason to send out their horse for two peak efforts instead of just one. Maybe 20% isn’t even enough and it should be 25%, but we have to start somewhere.

Is this the most pressing issue in the sport? No. But sometimes you have to take baby steps.

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