12/05/2012 12:15PM

Bergman: Infusion of top drivers at Yonkers fuels handle increase

The presence of Brian Sears clearly has an impact on the odds of a horse.

When Yonkers Raceway cracked a seven-figure handle on consecutive racing nights to begin this month it begged the question:

What was different?

The track has been open  for months without direct nightly competition from the Meadowlands and suddenly without warning its handle is propelled above the $1 million mark on both Saturday and Monday night.

One trend that has been picked up by most racetracks is that betting increases around the first of the month. That was certainly the case here, but there have been 11  other prior first of the months this year and none had the dramatic impact this one did.

What made the Yonkers product better to wager on, or at least more interesting for some who have neglected it in the past, was the presence of two significant catch drivers. Brian Sears and Yannick Gingras were both on the scene on Saturday and Monday cards, joining the dynamic duo of George Brennan and Jason Bartlett.

The presence of two additional drivers of the caliber of Sears and Gingras cannot be understated. Sears has been a regular at Yonkers for some time, but Gingras has regularly been out of town on Saturday nights competing on the Grand Circuit.

So with the assemblage of a top-driving quartet, suddenly eight-horse fields enjoyed a rare and positive dynamic.

You see variables are what make wagering click. Too often our sport has had a limited number of dimensions. Bob Pandolfo has spoken volumes about the speed-favoring bias we have seen at all tracks in North America. But that bias can be neutralized with a deeper and more talented driving roster.

Such was the case this past Saturday where suddenly horses with one of the top four drivers mentioned, were getting played despite drawing outside. There’s no secret that players tend to ignore the outside posts at Yonkers like the plague, especially when horses appear to have limited early speed.

In last Saturday’s eighth race, Fox Valley Tribal, a 9-year-old veteran, landed post 8 with Brian Sears in the bike. The horse had won in the same class three starts back. Following that start he drew post 8 with Larry Stalbaum in the sulky. Fox Valley Tribal was sent off at a healthy 42-1 on that night and trailed from the start,  finishing sixth. In his last start prior to Saturday, Fox Valley Tribal was second by a nose from the three-hole while unable to take advantage of a perfect trip for Sears.

This past week from post 8,  Fox Valley Tribal was sent off at odds of 13-1 with Sears in the bike.

What does that suggest?

It suggests that players don’t try to read the program much past the driver’s name. It suggests that despite the horse being stuck in post 8, players were  confident that  Sears would be able to overcome that obstacle and perhaps win the race. Clearly when Stalbaum had the outside post there was far less confidence he would overcome it.

In this case, the driver change did not move up Fox Valley Tribal. He finished fifth.

Our Cullenscrown N was another well-bet horse Sears drove on Saturday from post 8. The import was sent off at 7-2 and did not leave, but the driver was able to work his way through the inside and had he found room may have actually won the race.

Gingras did not have a banner night on Saturday, but as has been the case for the last five years or so, he gives every horse he drives a chance at victory. What separates Gingras from many drivers is his ability to react quickly to the pace and back off when there’s a crowd or forge to the front when the opportunity strikes.

Clearly both drivers have a following that extends to racetracks where they campaign.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see how this top driving talent can shift the balance and improve the number of competitive horses in a race.

Even when Gingras and Sears weren’t winning, their horses were impacting the way races were being contested and in the end some healthy priced winners emerged.

Perhaps what has become a lost art in a sport that probably has way too many races is the ability to put together races that have a maximum number of legitimate contenders.

Yet by attracting a greater supply of driving talent on a given night, Yonkers was able to make its races more competitive.

If there’s food for thought here it probably suggests that when the Meadowlands re-opens, the sport might benefit greatly if they were able to work out an arrangement with Yonkers not to compete head-to-head.

The way the schedule is currently crafted the driving talent will be watered down at both locations,  limiting a vital variable for the betting public.