02/28/2013 8:01AM

Meadowlands Pace lures only 30 possible contestants


The racing at the Meadowlands has been spectacular this year. Drivers are keeping the holes closed and handling their horses more aggressively than I have seen in many years. Handle is through the roof. Each racing day seems to set a year-over-year record for handle as the track reported a 33% increase from 2012.

While all seems hunky-dory, one negative number slipped through the cracks – 30. That is the number of horses which nominated for the 2013 edition of the Meadowlands Pace. Despite an additional $100,000 available for the final this year in added money, the historic event which has been one of the marquee races for 3-year-old pacers for more than 35 years saw a decrease in nominations from 42 the previous year.

Doing some quick math, if the sustaining payments are made on March 15, April 15 and May 15, and the declaration fee is paid on July 6 for all of the 30 nominated as of February 15, the purse for the final would be $712,500. Logic would dictate that a small drop-off will occur during each of those periods. If 30 stay around for the March payment, 5 bow out for the following two payments and a reasonable amount of 20 enter the eliminations, the purse for the final will be $627,500 (this is assuming I added correctly; fingers crossed).

Does this mean that the Meadowlands Pace has lost its luster?

Well, obviously a $1 million purse is psychologically much better than anything even one dollar below that amount. But the Pace is still the same great event it has always been. The problem, similar to the issue the Meadowlands has when the surrounding slot-rich tracks around them open their doors each March, is the number of big money races available for 3-year-old pacers.

The Meadowlands Pace is no longer the “must start” event that it was 5 or 10 years ago because there are too many other options. In the months surrounding the Pace (June to August), a star sophomore can race in the $1 million North America Cup at Mohawk, $500,000 Max Hempt at Mohegan Sun Pocono, $500,000 Adios at The Meadows and $500,000 Battle Of The Brandywine. And those are just the races with purses of at least $500k. There are another handful of races over the $200k plateau during those months.

It cost just shy of $14,000 to enter the Meadowlands Pace eliminations. If I read the conditions of the Hempt correctly, the cost is only $3,260 to get to the same point. The Adios is a bit more costly at $5,600. The Battle of the Brandywine comes in at $8,750. The North America Cup stands at $12,000. Plus with the exception of the Adios, all of the above purses are guaranteed. Unless you are one of the top 5 colts in North America, it would appear to be a better investment to put up $3,260 to race for $500,000 rather than put up $13,750 to race for somewhere between $600,000 and $800,000.

In total, 5 of the 11 stakes at the Meadowlands which closed for nominations on February 15 showed a decrease. The Golden Girls for older mares went from 31 in 2012 to 21 this year. Also for older females, the Lady Liberty saw a decline from 29 to 24. While the 2-year-old races were nicely nominated, both the Peter Haughton (137 to 97) and Merrie Annabelle (123 to 107) resulted in a dip in possible entrants for the finals.

The news wasn’t all bad. Some nominations were way up for 2013.

Likely spurred on by the influx of 4-year-olds trying their luck against the older ranks this year and the Meadowlands’ new Free For All Championship races at the end of the rainbow, the William Haughton (28 to 42), U.S. Pacing Championship (32 to 45) and A.J. Cutler Memorial (32 to 35) all saw increases. The Nat Ray, formerly an Invitational race which typically contained only a few strong players and was sometimes a tough race to fill, drew an impressive 39 potential players for the Hambletonian Day event.

The Del Miller (41 to 50) and Stanley Dancer (45 to 52) trots for 3-year-olds both showed modest gains. As did the Mistletoe Shalee (25 to 29) for second-year pacing fillies.

The new Free For All series for older horses which features multiple legs and two $500,000 finals for both gaits on November 30 each drew 36 nominations.

It is also worth noting that the Overbid series was cancelled due to lack of entries. With only 11 nominated, the track elected to refund the entry fees rather than card possible short fields.