06/02/2014 5:15PM

Bergman: Harness Racing needs more Invitational races

World Wide Racing Photos
Anndrovette won the Betsy Ross Invitational at Harrah's Philly last week.

There’s something to be said about Invitationals.

Last Friday, Western Fair hosted one of the best races of the year. The $150,000 Molson was fantastic action from start to finish with a breaker, State Treasurer, rallying from the back of the pack to soar past Foiled Again and Apprentice Hanover at the wire.

Some five days earlier, the $250,000 Betsy Ross, an Invite at Harrah’s Philadelphia, attracted a stellar group of pacing mares and they put on a great race that culminated in a victory for the ageless Anndrovette.

Both the Molson and the Betsy Ross were well-matched fields that offered interested bettors a chance to see the sport’s best and bet on it at the same time. In essence the pair perfectly crossed the paths we should be aspiring to if we’re to interest the public in the excitement of racing and gain gambler’s support for a product that is betable.

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Last week Keith Gisser authored a well-thought column for DRF.Com in which he discussed the lack of stakes races for aged pacing mares. The argument was put forth that requiring horses to come back and race past their three-year-old year is all well and good, but not offering significant money makes it a horrible bargain for owners.

The funny thing is that Yonkers Raceway, pre-slot era, actually had a plan to fill in the blanks of the stakes schedule. I can recall when horsemen and management were carving out the initial bargain that would govern how the two would run racing once slot revenue started pouring in. Not sure whether it was track management or the horsemen that asked for this part of the contract but in the agreement funding would be set aside to card $100,000 Invitationals for eight weeks. At the time it seemed as if there was an interest in not only increasing the purse structure, but in attracting the leading horses in the sport to race in features at Yonkers.

Fast forward to 2014 and there is just a faint echo of those Invitationals in years gone by. Now look to next week when Yonkers returns from its annual June hiatus and you’ll find the track is raising its purse structure by some 15 percent. Track management and the horsemen have gone through this exercise year after year. They lower purses during the winter months and then increase them during the summer. From what I can gather, the flawed reasoning for this roller coaster is that there is more competition for horses during the summer and the track wants to secure the proper number of horses to fill fields each racing day.

If you can follow that logic, what we’re being asked to accept is that a track that already boasts the highest purse structure in the sport, needs to increase it because there is competition out in the world for horses.


Are there really owners and horsemen out there that don’t already know they can race for more purse money at Yonkers?

Is Ron Burke not going to enter horses at Yonkers when they re-open if the purses remain at the current levels?

In fact, the Yonkers purse coffers have grown during the course of the year and the track needs to increase purses to adequately use the funds to complete the racing year.

But does Yonkers really need to increase purses across-the-board?

Better yet, will racing fans get to see better races because of this 15 percent increase?

They could be. That is they could if the track would return to its original concept and put on six-figure Invitationals that attract the top horses in the sport.

The difference between a condition sheet that allows horsemen to choose the classes they wish to race in and invites, where the racing secretary chooses the horses, is astronomical. The condition sheet gives the racing secretary the ability to put on theoretically competitive races, but the invites allow him to bring in the horses he wants and sort of guarantee the best possible product on the racetrack.

That’s what was done at Western Fair and Harrah’s Philadelphia over the last week and the quality of the racing was unmatched.

Yonkers of course is the home of the Levy Series and the Blue Chip Matchmaker, two impressive Spring series races that bring together a healthy supply of horse talent, but as we’ve seen year after year a limited number of betable races.

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Some may argue that the track is already doing its part for aged racing. I would counter that if you desire to race year-round there will always be opportunities to attract the top horses and certainly there is enough money to go around.

Look at what we have this year when it comes to aged pacers. There are plenty of horses in the box at this level as the full fields at Western Fair on Friday and Tioga on Sunday for the Roll With Joe would indicate.

What Yonkers racing secretary Steve Starr could do with Invitational money to dangle in front of these horsemen is create great racing of his choice with quality guaranteed to be well above the classes that are carded each week at the racetrack.

It’s at times painful to see the amount of purse money spent without so much as getting a buzz from racing fans. That’s because over time all races tend to look alike.

Not the case with Invitationals that create far more interest and when played out, show the sport as it should be.

With purse money available, Starr could call around the country to bring in the best horses of his choice for pacing and trotting races of both sexes. He could even put three-year-old invites together if he has the capacity to wave enough money at the players.

It’s not my money to spend, but if the New York horsemen really are serious about creating something special, maybe it’s time for them to shed this roller-coaster purse structure strategy and try something different.

What have they got to lose?