02/11/2013 10:39AM

Bergman: Elimination races and Finals on the same day should be the norm

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Derick Giwner
The Kentucky Futurity winner will only have to go behind the gate twice starting this year.

Harness racing’s oldest stakes event, the Kentucky Futurity, changed its format recently putting an end to an historic era that demanded the race winner to capture two heats in one afternoon to be declared the victor. Known as the final jewel in trotting’s Triple Crown, the event was always the most difficult race to win no matter how the racing canvas had shifted. The long racing season wound down to Lexington’s famed Red Mile and the Kentucky Futurity determined not just the best three-year-old trotter in training, but the toughest.

In 2013 that will change as the race’s proximity on the stakes schedule made it somewhat impossible to ignore the negative impact racing three heats on Sunday, October 6 would have on a horse destined to come back six days later to compete in the elimination races for the Breeders Crown at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs.

Ironically the shift in the Kentucky Futurity comes in the exact same year as the Hambletonian, the sport’s most coveted prize, moves to elimination races and final all on the same August 3rd afternoon.

The argument as to whether our horses are sturdy enough to handle three heats in a day no longer is relevant. The facts as we know them are that standardbreds can race twice within a two to three-hour span and with minimal health risks. The very fact that these two key races allow three-year-old trotters, sometimes the most difficult age group to keep sound, to race twice on the same day, suggests breeders and owners in the sport agree it is not asking too much.

Suddenly the Yonkers Trot has become the lone Triple Crown race that will hold elimination races (July 20) and the final July 27 on separate days. While Yonkers officials are to be applauded for putting a guarantee on the final purse and lowering an expensive starting fee, the placement of the event may actually take away some of its luster.

While the Hambletonian Society should be commended for improving the stature of the Yonkers Trot and finding a place for it on the stakes schedule, that in and of itself is not going to satisfy some horsemen who simply will refuse to race on two consecutive weeks over a half-mile track with the Hambletonian and hopefully two races on the same afternoon looming.

Perhaps in the future the powers that be might want to consider returning the Yonkers Trot to something it once was. It hardly seems 23 years ago that Yonkers held the Yonkers Trot with eliminations and a final on the same evening. Royal Troubador was the last horse to capture the race in this format and he did it after breaking in his elimination heat.

Despite its long history, the Yonkers Trot has always appeared to be the odd-man-out when scheduling the sport’s premier races. This year its desired position fell into conflict with both the Goodtimes and Earl Beal Memorial events. The week before the Hambletonian was in the past reserved for the Hambletonian eliminations, but this year that date was open.

What is concerning to those who watch and love this sport is that there should be active and even full participation by the top horses in all of our top races. Conflicts, much like we’ll see this year with the Yonkers Trot and Hambletonian, tend to do more harm than good for one of the two conflicting events.

A move towards more eliminations and finals on the same day would do a lot to resolve these conflicts while also assuring that more of the same players participate in all the races, not just some.

This year’s three-year-old pacing stakes calendar appears to be overloaded with consecutive weeks of eliminations and finals in many of the sports most prestigious events.

The eight-week stretch begins on June 8 with the North America Cup trials leading to the June 15 final at Mohawk.  On June 22 the Max Hempt preliminaries take place with the June 29 final at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs. The Meadowlands Pace eliminations and final follows on July 6 and July 13 then the Adios at The Meadows holds eliminations and its final on July 20 and July 27.

As I see it, all four of these pacing events carry significant enough purse structure that they demand to attract all of the best horses in training. Unfortunately the likelihood of that carrying over is minimal considering the extreme demands put on all the top three-year-old colt pacers for eight consecutive weeks.

What if we attempted to change the structure of at least two of these events and asked for eliminations and finals to take place on one day instead of two weeks?

To me it would offer our premier horses the ability to enter and race competitively with the opportunity to get a week off in between significant starts.

And isn’t that what the identity of all of our major stakes races was meant to be?

It’s clear from the significant moves made this year that the Hambletonian Society and others see the need to make changes. This year’s Hambletonian will also change the way the draw takes place for the final heat. Unlike years past where the winners of elimination races could choose their post positions for the final, current rules call for elimination winners to draw for the posts between one and five. The move gives the winners an edge but not a guaranteed one over all of their rivals. Clearly the shift is as a result of the realization that finals became much weaker betting propositions when elimination winners locked up the best posts.

Heat racing is something this sport should be proud of and embrace. We have bred our horses to compete this way and we should let the public enjoy our horses’ durability. It’s our identity and it separates our breed from all others.

From a betting standpoint, there is no clearer past performance than one that happened just an hour ago.

In the words of baseball great Ernie Banks, “Let’s Play Two!”