12/29/2014 12:06PM

Bergman: Exciting times ahead at Yonkers

Mike Lizzi
Full fields and longer distances can add to the drama.

As the calendar puts a close on another year it’s hard not to get excited about the near future for the sport of harness racing. If anything was learned in 2014 it was that change is not only necessary but it’s something every business needs to address sooner rather than later.

Fortunately the powers behind the movements at Yonkers Raceway have taken one giant step in 2014 and now look forward to expanding business and more importantly interest in the breed in 2015.

More money is always good to have if you’re looking to market any business. But money alone won’t get the job done. Good ideas are the foundation for any business growth and hard work in executing those concepts is essential for any plan to reach fruition.

Joe Faraldo, the head of the Standardbred Owners Association of New York, may have taken the long road to come up with a workable concept, but thankfully he and his able associates have forged an impressive agreement that should help build International racing in 2015 and hopefully well beyond.

The lesson of the Yonkers-to-France simulcasting experiment is more about those in charge having a vision and those putting on the show willing to change from the humdrum to something far more interesting. Adding an extra quarter-mile to each race has been done before for sure. The key to Yonkers experiment is putting 10 and 12 horses in fields and seeing what develops.

For anyone who witnessed the Prix de Bourgogne from Vincennes on Sunday morning it was far removed from any harness race seen in North America. Not only was it a distance race with an overflow field but there were horses stacked around the course two and three deep through most of the distance. The fact that the U.S. entry Maven was in tight quarters and then trapped behind breakers could be confounding to those wagering. Yet on the other hand those looking to find more variables while betting on standardbreds have a lot to choose from.

Line-up numbers once served a purpose as they brought large wagers from big players to the half-mile tracks. Many of those still wagering on the sport today whether handicapping the half-milers or the milers favor the angle when they can find limited speed horses in a given race. Yet at the same time what’s become troubling on this side of the Atlantic is that we’ve accepted the way races have been contested.

In looking across the water on Sunday morning the disappointment of Maven should light a fire under those looking for change in 2015. Large fields with variable distanced races will have to become more commonplace in North America if there’s ever going to be a chance to build an audience.

This really isn’t about marketing but restructuring a product in a way to increase the number of variables and make wagering on the sport more acceptable to the masses.

What’s interesting about Yonkers and what they plan to do going forward is a willingness to continue the added distance races and perhaps sprinkle them in more often when not simulcasting to France. Faraldo indicated that he has the support of horsemen and he hopes by saving some of the 2014 purse account and carrying it forward to 2015 that he’ll be able to lure more horses to race at Yonkers not just for higher purses, but for races with substantially larger fields.

It’s been said that putting on big events is necessary to attract a new audience and the Yonkers International Trot, a race likely to be held on an afternoon in the fall, should provide all of the drama once associated with this great event when it originated and made its mark at Roosevelt Raceway. Faraldo expects this to be a joint effort between his horsemen and track officials to lure the best possible horses from Europe and North America to compete in a field likely to be between 10 and 12 horses depending on the quality available.

It would be foolish to believe that the International Trot at Yonkers in 2015 could have the same kind of mystery once associated with the original. Times have changed dramatically as the “Tweets” from Sunday’s race in France and the immediate Youtube video have proven. Those entering to race in the 2015 International will be known well before they arrive in New York. At the same time there is a tremendous positive in that the Yonkers International will truly be an international betting event if the details can be worked out and the pools can be co-mingled.

Combine that with the power of the Internet and one can see enormous prospect for growth.

No matter how successful the Yonkers International proves to be as a betting venture every effort must be made to make this a big New York City event. Publicity and promotion must be in play at an early stage to get the word out as often as possible of the date and time of the International Trot. Every effort should be made to bring as many different cultures to the racetrack to witness the race. New York is in fact an international city. Linking food from all nations to Yonkers may be a good first step towards creating a world-wide atmosphere that enhances the event.

Sure the fact that there are 5,000 slot machines already in attendance at the Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway is a good first step towards finding an audience. But those machines have been there for some time now and an audience has yet to develop.

As we turn the corner into a new era for harness racing it will be interesting to see how the events unfold. We must start with optimism and follow it up with enthusiasm. Those who grouch about what’s wrong with the sport and can only find doom in the future, need to silence themselves or better yet volunteer to make big events bigger and better.

Looking forward to a New Year and a new era for our sport.

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