02/22/2012 8:06PM

Time for Harness Racing to Make the Grade


I was recently involved in a conversation about stakes races. The debate was over classification of major races. Thoroughbreds, of course, use a Graded system with three grades (I, II, III) to denote the most important events of the year. In the harness world, we leave fans and newcomers the exciting freedom of choice – have fun and guess which races are the most important.

It seems that the industry has dropped the ball and may have missed out on some Marketing 101 classes; explain the product and keep it simple. Your average Joe does not know what the $100k-plus Somebeachsomewhere at Mohawk Racetrack is and whether it is better than the $300k-plus Art Rooney at Yonkers Raceway. But he knows that 1 is better than 2, no?

Wouldn’t it be easier for the USTA or a harness writer to explain to outside news sources the value of a race if it came down to a single number or Roman numeral?

Yes, a $300,000 purse has value, but it is surface deep. Perhaps years ago when all tracks were playing on a more-even field, the purse of a race was a fair guide in calculating the true value of the participants. In 2012, we have these pretty little machines with blinking lights at many facilities. These miracle-working video lottery terminals and slots fund the purse accounts and inflate the current value system of our stakes across North America. Big purses do not always mean important races.

Let’s go back to the Somebeachsomewhere and the Art Rooney. Granted it is tough to compare a split-division race like the Burlington to an elimination and final event like the Rooney, but by all rights the Burlington and its smaller purse is a more important race.

I’ve been reading lots of blogs and articles lately about how to fix the harness Triple Crowns. Truth be told, that ship has sailed. The Kentucky Derby and the Thoroughbred Triple Crown was not born overnight. You can’t just swap out the Messenger stakes at Yonkers for the North America Cup at Mohawk and expect instant success. It takes years of cultivating a message to the public and horsemen that the series means something. Though, it would be nice if the Crown could take the Jeremy Lin route and just become an overnight success.

I bring up the Triple Crown because both the Pacing and Trotting versions possess races that I would be hard pressed to call Grade I events. Could you imagine the Belmont Stakes being a Grade III? Well, going by recent history, the Yonkers Trot is a clear Grade III race. The Cane Pace, another often questioned Triple Crown race which is no better than a Grade II at best, has been contested at Yonkers, Freehold Raceway, and Pocono Downs over the last 20 years. Imagine the Kentucky Derby being contested at Keenland this year!

One argument I heard against the Graded Stakes System was that tracks would be unhappy with their marquee events getting a lower grade or not being graded at all. Quite frankly, I don’t really care if a track like Yonkers is unhappy with my Grade III ranking for the Rooney, because they do virtually nothing to improve the race. Paltry promotion, placing barely any thought into carding the race at a better point on the stakes schedule as other tracks have added stakes races, and a racing-comes-second attitude has made what was once a top event, which attracted star horses, into a second-rate affair. 

I only speak this passionately about Yonkers because it is the track where I fell in love with the sport. I spent many a Friday night in the early 1990’s hanging out at Yonkers and watching my favorite Open trotters like Dr Trotta, Magna Hawk, and Scenic Regal. I only wish track management felt the way I do about my favorite track.

If your track is left in the cold when it comes to graded races, you have an option. Find some money, call some horsemen with stakes horses and beg and plead for them to showcase their horse on your oval. And I don’t want to hear about how the handle and purse account will not support a graded stakes race. Look at Northfield Park and its miniscule purse structure. Somehow track management finds money to card a few Grade IV  (in my opinion, of course) contests each year.  

Let’s make it easier for the general public to understand our races. Let’s create something that works best for our sport. We do not have to use the three-grade system that the Thoroughbreds use, but something would be nice. After pondering the issues for a few days, I believe four grades would work nicely.

Grade I – Top-tier races which attract the best horses for the highest purses

Grade II - Races which attract the best horses for medium-high purses

Grade III – Races which attract one or two top horses for good purses

Grade IV – Sire Stakes finals in states with a strong breeding program and off-season or low-level stakes

I won’t just leave you with a general outline. I’m prepared with my own list of grades below. Feel free to critique my grades or chime in with your thoughts. Please excuse me if I left a race off the list . . . there are a lot of stakes races.


Grade I

Grade II

Grade III

Grade IV

North America Cup

Levy Final

Bluechip Matchmaker


Meadowlands Pace


Molson Pace


Maple Leaf Trot

AJ Cutler Memorial

Betsy Ross

Four Leaf Clover



Casual Breeze

Battle Of Lake Erie

Hambletonian Oaks


Emp. Breeders Classic

Adio Volo

W. Haughton Mem.

Titan Cup

Art Rooney

Shady Daisy

Metro Pace

Stanley Dancer



Canadian Pacing Derby

Del Miller

Confederation Cup

Kentuckiana Stallion

Canadian Trotting Classic


Eternal Camnation

Miss Versatility

Breeders Crown (All Div.)

NJ Classic

Maxie Lee

NYSS Finals

Armbro Flight

Lady Liberty


PASS Finals

Fan Hanover

Golden Girls


NJSS Finals



Cane Pace

OSS Super Finals

Ben Franklin

Btl of the Brandywine


Cleveland Classic

Roses Are Red


Muscle Hill

Courageous Lady

Nat Ray


Credit Winner

Dexter Cup

US Pacing Championship

Bluegrass (All Div.)

Quillen Mem

Zweig Filly

Woodrow Wilson



Monument Circle

Merrie Annabelle


Indiana Pacing Derby



Max Hempt

Lady Maud


Peter Haughton

Earl Beal

American National


Shes A Great Lady

James Lynch

Matron (All Div.)


Peaceful Way

Nadia Lobell

Progress Pace


Wellwood Mem.

Valley Forge

Yonkers Trot


Little Brown Jug


Hudson Filly Trot


Kentucky Futurity


Miss NJ


Ken. Filly Futurity


Glen Garnsey




Moni Maker




Windy City Pace


Int. Stallion Stakes



Last chance for free Meadowlands Past Performances

Friday marks the last week of our free Harness Eye PP promotion. Check them out now and be sure to come back for all your favorite tracks. Our new Extended PP plans are now available in the store.

0224_Meadowlands PPs.PDF885.1 KB