10/30/2013 5:43PM

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.