03/28/2012 4:15PM

Sign that driver to a contract?


Yonkers Raceway | Photo by Derick Giwner

A couple of weeks ago I touched on which drivers would be leaving the Meadowlands to follow their stakes horses at Yonkers Raceway in the Levy and Blue Chip Matchmaker series. Brian Sears, Yannick Gingras and Tim Tetrick all went across the Hudson River for at least one additional night each week. This got me to thinking about how important drivers are and what a track can do to keep them racing at “home.”

I do not have the statistics to back this up, but something tells me that accomplished drivers drive handle. Looking back over the last 20 years of racing you can see many of these trends occurring. In the 1990’s wagering definitely picked up when Walter Case Jr was driving regularly at your track. His live hands and apparent desire to win every race left bettors happy, even if they were usually cashing small tickets on heavy favorites.

Fast forward just a few years when George Brennan elected to make the switch to Yonkers. His arrival clearly brought some bettors with him. With his “Minister of Speed” name in tow and facing perhaps a slightly easier driver colony than at the Meadowlands, Brennan began to win in bunches and the public followed him to the winner’s circle.

So, other than by offering stakes races each day or obscene purses, how do you keep a driver at your track? I have an answer. This solution is certainly not feasible for every track, but what if the track signed the driver to a contract?

How much would it cost to keep Brian Sears in East Rutherford? Let’s assume his horses annually earn $12 million. He gets five percent; or $600,000 each year. My guess is a $30,000 contract to race on 90% of the racing dates would be acceptable, especially since the Meadowlands only races 81 dates per year.  Now Sears would have to make some choices. Does he go to Yonkers for the Levy or the Matchmaker? Does he save some of his 8 days off for the North America Cup and Somebeachsomewhere up at Mohawk Racetrack in Canada?

I’m sure Meadowlands management is saying, “How do we come up with $30k times 3 or 4 to keep the best drivers on the track?” Well, it all comes down to numbers. If the drivers leave and your handle decreases by 30 percent from $2.5 million to $1.75 million, even if you assume only a 3 percent track take on the money, that’s a $22,500 loss in one night.

Now that I have gone through that whole exercise, it would be a good time to tell you that I believe the whole driver issue is complete malarkey. Yes, a few people will stop betting the Meadowlands and wager on Yonkers because they want to follow their favorite driver, but the majority of true handicappers need two things in their drivers: Competence and Familiarity. We (might as well include myself) want guys that will leave no doubt in our minds that they can steer a horse home and think on their feet (tushy) when the moment calls for such a decision. We want drivers we know so there is no guessing on what his/her usual tendencies are and how good of a driver they might be.

Give the handicapper a steady group of drivers and a consistent product and they will bet. How do you think Northfield Park has survived all these years? The quality of horses may be low, but the product is consistent and thus easier for people to embrace. Northfield has been racing the same time with a similar wagering menu for what seems like forever. This is similar to what Monticello Raceway does. Both tracks do a wonderful job of setting up post time to coordinate with other racing action to get the maximum betting dollar. Compare that to the Meadows, which seems to alter their post time on a daily basis practically every week. One week they race Wednesday at 12:55pm; next week no Wednesday; following week post on Wednesday is 6:55pm. Who can keep up with that schedule? It is too confusing.

Wrapping up this week’s ramble and rant, the bottom line is product and consistency. Put a decent number of horses on the track on a daily basis, with drivers that are proven capable and familiar to the normal betting public, and people will bet your product.

That’s my two cents for this week.



Jay More than 1 year ago
Just saw this article and I think the situation is more troubling than you do. Sears is a constant in NJ and one of the few drivers that give the races a hint of quality. Nothing but history and TVG keeping the track afloat right now with a limited schedule and no-name drivers. If Yonkers ever wakes up and improves their overall product, which i doubt, the Big M would be in Big trouble. The racino thing is here to stay and has and will continue to cause a sea change in the tracks. Sears has been upset with the racing in NJ for years and has voted with his feet because he has the ability to do so. When the other guys have choices, they will follow him and the Big M on Saturday night will look like Freehold on Tuesday afternoon. New ownership needs a Big idea to stem the flow. Slots in the Meadowlands is the answer but it does not appear to be happenning any time soon.
Blaine MacMillan More than 1 year ago
There is one thing I know. As it relates to handle, Meadowlands harness will ALWAYS have a dominant handle to all other harness tracks. Look a last week for example. Meadowlands regulars went across the river on FRI and SAT and the betting patten was like it always is. 2.5M at the Meadowlands v. 900K at the Yonkers. Last week and this coming week Sears and Tetrick on FRI and Sears and Gingras on SAT made the trek and they are the top 3 drivers in New Jersey. It's pretty simple to me. Bettors love playing betting horses on a 1-mile track as well as the depth of the quality of drivers due to the minor fall off in talent. The numbers don't lie.
Jeff B More than 1 year ago
You are so correct. Yonkers is so unplayable due to the short run to the first turn, even the Levy legs lacked very little first turn action. It is astonishing to me that they handle what they do-probably the great majority being chalk players who handicap the early speed, toss George Brennan into the mix, and pound away. But for the average bettor, AND for a race fan, the racing is disgusting. Add in permitting C. Coleman to race two horses-one of whom she conveniently "sold" her share of-and Yonkers is truly at the bottom of the industry.
Rick Hulce More than 1 year ago
Hey Brian, since we paid you $30,000 to drive here, we have a favor to ask of you. Can you stiff the 1/5 shot in this race so we can have a HUGE Pick-6 carry-over that will help drive our handle up HUGE tomorrow night. Brian, you're a house man with a contract, so get the job done!!
Allan Schott More than 1 year ago
I think if the Meadowlands can lure some more drivers from the Midwest and they get to prove their ability, it won't matter if the name drivers head out for stakes. As you said, they want competent drivers. As long as they get some drives with regularity, the gambler will be happy. The problem is when you get drivers who never race at the track or trainers who decide if a certain driver isn't around they will drive them.
Jeff B More than 1 year ago
Allan is correct. If someone like Dan Noble and a couple of others become steady participants at the Big M, handles would stabilize or improve. Hats off to the work Derick, Allan, PTP, and Bill Finley's HRU are doing to stimulate discussion and hopefully find ways to save this teetering sport.
Jeff B More than 1 year ago
My two cents is that top drivers usually get extra payments from the wealthy owners that race top tier horses and on the Grand Circuit, to supplement the 5 %. I recall winning a NJSS event in the 90's and my trainer advising us to send $ 500 cash to the winning driver-a Hall of Fame admittee in years to come- to try to ensure his loyalty in future weeks. We did so, but he picked another competitor in at least one of the following legs. And you are right-horsepower typically makes the driver, not the other way around.