10/30/2013 6:43PM

Harness Racing: More action, less complacency


It has been occurring for a long time and has been a problem that plagues half-mile tracks more than any other (though bigger tracks are not off the hook, either). I am talking about slow fractions, specifically the second quarter of races. 

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Race after race at tracks like Freehold, Yonkers and Monticello to name a few, we watch as the fastest horse off the gate posts a reasonable first quarter on the tote board only to go two, and way too often, three seconds slower for the next quarter. 

Back when I was a chart-caller, I remember the Judges giving out fines for a slow quarter. At Yonkers it used to be anything slower than 32 seconds (hey, it's been a while since I've charted a race). On Monday (Oct. 28) at Yonkers, only four races were contested where the first and second quarters were timed within one second of each other. On the same day at Monticello Raceway, only one of the 13 races produced a second quarter that was within one second of the first quarter.

The word racing implies that a competition is taking place. Obviously in any race there is strategy involved. One horse may be better at finishing strongly and another at starting well. But for a race to be interesting there has to be action. Horses in the middle of the pack must contest the leader. If the driver who took the lead in the Indianapolis 500 was allowed to cruise along without any serious bids from the competition, the races would be boring and lose popularity. 

An inquiry to the New York Racing Commission on whether rules existed for track officials (Judges) to enforce more evenly-flowing races, where drivers would have to maintain a certain speed once on the lead, revealed that rules mostly exist to prevent incident on the track. For example, the following restrictions on drivers apply to this conversation:

“Taking back quickly in front of a horse or a field of horses so as to cause confusion or interference among the trailing horses.”

“Causing any horse or a field of horses to excessively slow down.”

“Driving with indifference or lack of effort.”

Only the last rule could pertain to the issue at hand. But it is a fine line between whether a driver sitting third or fourth on the inside and not pulling to challenge early is indifference or simply good strategy for that horse.

Asking drivers to change strategy and be more aggressive is a solution that was used at the Meadowlands to make the racing more interesting. Did it work? At the start of the 2013 meet there seemed to be a clear impact, but it did not last as drivers did what they felt was necessary to win, and rightfully so. 

I'm not in favor of asking drivers to completely overhaul their styles by mandate. There is a better way to change the dynamics of racing and make the sport more interesting on a day-in, day-out basis. 

While the problems of slow quarters have been around for ages, the increased purse structure at many tracks over the last five years has played a large role in less aggressive driving and racing for checks. Let’s face it, there are horses saving ground and finishing fourth that are making a healthy living for their owners. That has to end (it sounds harsh to owners but really isn’t).

I would like to see the purse structure revamped at all tracks. The current recognized percentage payouts for the top five finishers are 50, 25, 12, 8 and 5. What if those percentages were altered to 60, 30, 6, 2 and 2?

It is said that, “winning isn’t everything, it is the only thing.” That is theory behind my plan. Let’s make winning more important. Make settling for a check non-existent. The more emphasis we place on winning, the better chance that drivers will be more aggressive. It also forces trainers and owners to place their horses in more realistic spots, which in turn creates races with more competitive fields.

I’m not married to the percentages above, but any formula where you get no more than about a cost-of-shipping payment for finishing worse than third is perfect. I’d even be fine with paying any horse that finishes fifth or worse $250 and splitting the remainder of the prize fund at 60%, 32%, 6%, 2%. For illustrative purposes, if the purse was $20,000 for an 8-horse field:

  Current System Modified System # 1 Modified System #2
1st place $10,000 $12,000 $12,000
2nd place $5,000 $6,000 $5,400
3rd place $2,400 $1,200 $1,200
4th place $1,600 $400 $400
5th place $1,000 $400 $250
6th & worse $0 $0 $250

The goal is simply to stop horses from sucking along and making a good living while outclassed in overnight races, and thus make races more competitive. A horse that is classified properly will be able to win races and money for their owners.

Breeders Crown thoughts

With the Breeders Crown coming to the Meadowlands in 2014 and slated for late November when the weather will no doubt be cold, wouldn’t an afternoon post time be an interesting idea? The weather will be warmer and the races will likely go faster during the daylight hours.

I know there is more competition during the afternoon from Thoroughbred racing, but the Hambletonian goes head-to-head with Saratoga and comes out smelling like roses. Maybe having the championships during the day would lure some of the TB players to “the dark side” so to speak. It would also open up the European market for some races, as they would go off during their evening hours and not in the middle of the night.

I read on http:\\Viewfromthegrandstand.blogspot.com about having “win and you’re in” races for the Breeders Crown similar to the Thoroughbred model. Basically if you won the Hambletonian you would automatically be eligible to the Crown final for that division. I like the idea, with some twists.

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In my continuing quest to remove elimination races altogether or at least make them viable, how about each division has seven “win and you’re in” races sprinkled throughout the year. The final two or three spots in the final would be determined by one or two eliminations (depending on the number of entrants). This setup would allow for luck to be removed from the equation, as a good horse could earn his way into the final without risking a bad trip in the eliminations. It also allows for the Cinderella horse to get into the final since most of the top horses will not be racing in the eliminations.

Tossing a final wrinkle into the equation . . . what if the 2-year-old Sire Stakes Champion from each state would automatically be eligible to the Breeders Crown elimination race for their division? For a state’s finalist to be eligible, the Sire Stakes association from that state would have to pay a small fee which would be added to the final purse of that division. This would promote each individual Sire Stakes program and also allow horses that “came out of nowhere” to race in the Crown. Think rookie standout and NY Sire Stakes champion He’s Watching.



Michael Lawson More than 1 year ago
My view. The best drivers are strategists. If they let you steal a 32 second qtr so be it. Let someone pull and push the pace. I am going to jump in a time machine for a sec. I had a horse in the 1980's. At the time in MD on of the fastest off the gate. Typical fractions 28 then a 32 second qtr for a half in a min. Last half typically in 56 flat. Won a lot of races that way. Why is the strategy of my driver to be frowned upon? He was there to make us all money.
Ben More than 1 year ago
Derick, the main problem with harness racing is that horses race every week. If a horse gets a bad draw, then wait til next week for a better draw and try for fifth place this week. Pat Lachance is the best example of this, everybody knows he does not try with his horse from an outside post and he goes off 50-1, but hen his horse draws the rail he is 4-5. I don't blame him for doing this it is just a fact of life. I don't know how you fix it.
Ben More than 1 year ago
Roger Wiskavitch More than 1 year ago
Simple solution to Harness Racing............make bigger fields. Ever watch racing in France where 18-28 horse go to post? You cannot sit and you have to ALWAYS be on the move.
Karen Usuriello Kovzelove More than 1 year ago
I will never forget the night that I bet a horse at cal-expo at the first quarter of the race(this is a mile track) my horse pulled to the lead backed the field down and won by a half-lenth after 5 minutes a inqury was posted and my horse taken down for what rule you just explained netherless to say no one of the judges watched Yonkers or Roosevelt during the 70s anyway I took the high road I just do not bet cal-expo I say once shame shame on you twice its on ME
Jay Bergman More than 1 year ago
Great column Derick. One nit-no matter how you structure the purses or order the drivers to take action, there has to be conditions set into place that doesn't reward horses favorably for not trying. Some of these non-competitive events have nothing to do with purse structure or driver strategy but more to do with the horses jumping two classes or dropping two classes. How can you ask 40-1 shots to be more aggressive when they are by definition overmatched?
Derick More than 1 year ago
Jay - Trainers would have to classify better for their horses to make money with the revised structure. That said, with the current system, revamping the condition sheet at certain tracks would help as well.
phil bailey More than 1 year ago
Mohawk is a great track to bet on. It has an extremely long gentle last turn that is generously banked. Reminds me of Belmont. A very fair track for all types of styles. You can go 1st up and still win. Then when they go to Woodbine...Bet it like a half mile track.
ML NJ More than 1 year ago
Lap money! A portion of the purse to the leader(s) at the half; and (maybe?) betting on the race within the race. Who knows? It might work, and it would be interesting at least for a while.
Edgar A. More than 1 year ago
The solution to harness racings problem is simple. It's why I've lost complete interest in harness racing when at one time I owned several horses. Racetrack surfaces are too speed favoring and fast. They need to add dirt and slow races down. The horse sitting last at the half-mile pole should have a decent chance of winning unless the pace is unreasonably slow. There was a time when this was the way things were. Horses sweeping 3 & 4 wide at the 3/4 pole. Now if you tip 3 wide after a half in :54 and change it looks like your running into gale force winds. Harness racing needs to de-emphasize final times (which is a large part of why these track surfaces are kept so lightning fast) and concentrate on making races more competitive. I've never seen a sadder state of affairs for harness racing then what exists now.
phil bailey More than 1 year ago
That would never happen as harness racing is all about how fast was the mile..BUT... That is a really amazing idea. That would bring the same concept of thoroughbred handicapping into focus. I love thoroughbred handicapping because of all the variables. Now if you can add in more variables to SB races...hmmmmm. I think more handicap races where the best horses get the worst posts.
Robert Pandolfo More than 1 year ago
You are correct sir.
Vince Lentini More than 1 year ago
I would get rid of the open rail ( lightning lane) ..that would force drivers to go