09/17/2013 9:44AM

Little Brown Jug Thoughts


Captaintreacherous is no doubt a potentially great horse. Although there has been plenty of talk about whether his connections should have skipped the Little Brown Jug for a potential walk-in-the-park prep at Hoosier Park, I just don’t understand why people are so upset.

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Let me rephrase. It really shouldn’t matter to Delaware County Fair officials or fans whether Captaintreacherous decided to race in the Jug. From a business standout, not one extra dollar would have been wagered on the eliminations or final of the Jug if The Captain set sail for Delaware, Ohio. And fans of the Jug, the faithful who show up year-in and year-out, will hardly stay home because Captaintreacherous did the same.

Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly horses which will lure additional people to the track. Somebeachsomewhere was that type of horse. The Captain may even turn out to be one of them. If he wins all of his races through the end of November and faces older foes in the TVG FFA Championship, that appearance will entice people to attend the Meadowlands on November 30.

The Captaintreacherous Jug issue is really more of a big picture look at harness racing in 2013 rather than just this year’s Jug. There are two issues at play: 1) Racing schedule of top horses; 2) More opportunity for big purses.

The previous 10 winners of the 3-year-old Pacer of the Year award averaged 18.4 starts in their sophomore year of racing, with a high of 22 starts made by Tell All (2007) and Timesareachangin (2004). Looking back at the decade before that (1993-2002), the average number of starts for the best second-year pacers in the land was 22.5 races. And five horses went behind the gate more than 22 times.

Narrowing the focus to the past five years, the average number of starts for such stars as Heston Blue Chip, Rock N Roll Heaven and Somebeachsomewhere was just 16.4 races (Rock N Roll Heaven was highest at 21).

Simply put, our best horses are going the way of the Thoroughbred. They are racing less frequently and choosing their spots carefully. Which leads us to the second point. The connections of top horses are able to pick and choose because there are simply more opportunities available.

Sire Stakes finals in New York and Pennsylvania go for much more than they did 10 years ago. So does the Max Hempt at Pocono Downs. You also have the Bettor’s Delight at Tioga worth about $200,000 and the Battle of the Brandywine at $500,000. Those races didn’t even exist a decade ago. There have been some defections from the calendar, like the Confederation Cup at Flamboro, and purse reductions, like the Meadowlands Pace and North America Cup. But the lower purses only serve to provide a level playing field for stakes races which force owners to pick and choose even further. The Meadowlands Pace went from a “must stop” on the 3-year-old trail to just another race this year; mainly because other options were just as palatable.

Quite honestly, you can’t blame the connections of Captaintreacherous for skipping the Jug. For a horse that has already won over $1 million and has a potentially bright future in the breeding shed, the chances of drawing the seven- or eight-hole in his elimination and adding a loss to his résumé were not worth the risk. Certainly not worth racing twice in one day with the prospect to earn, dare I say, around $300,000. And that is if everything goes smoothly. What if he has to go three heats?

I’m undecided as to whether the decision by the handlers of Captaintreachous and the similar decision from the powers-that-be behind his more famous dad, Somebeachsomewhere, equate to a required change in the logistics of the Little Brown Jug. I like the tradition of going heats, but I realize that heat racing on a half-mile track tends to turn off trainers and owners.

The two most logical solutions are raising the purse or changing the landscape of the eliminations. If the eliminations were worth $100,000 each and the second heat (and final) went for $700,000, I could see that being enough of a draw to change a few minds. That said, I’m not sure it would have made a difference in the Captaintreacherous decision. For him, it was likely as much about the possibility of drawing poorly.

For me, the best change the Little Brown Jug Society can make is reducing the size of the fields for the eliminations. I’d like to see eliminations fields get capped at six starters. That would eliminate all complaints about drawing poorly and having no shot at winning. If an odd number of entrants dropped in the box (like the 19 this year), the horse(s) with the lowest lifetime earnings would be eliminated and refunded all stakes payments. Eliminations would need to have at least five starters and no more than six.

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Of course if you combine a definite good starting spot and a higher purse structure, that would be ideal to draw the best of the best.

My guess is that if Captaintreacherous would have been guaranteed a reasonable starting post, he would have taken a shot. But what do I know?

I know that if you live in the Columbus, Ohio area and you want to see Captaintreacherous, it is only about a three to four hour drive to Hoosier Park in Indiana or The Red Mile in Kentucky. If he is truly worth seeing, than a few hours in the car would be no big deal.

It really comes down to what the show is all about. Is the Jug bigger than the horses that compete? Just like the Yankees are ultimately bigger than the players which take the field. Most people root for the team, not the players. I know I didn’t cancel my Jug reservations when The Captain failed to book his ticket.

Hopefully I’ll see you at the Jug, but if you can’t make it, you can follow me via Twitter (@drfharness) or catch pictures and more on our Facebook account.