02/01/2016 2:12PM

Bergman: January hibernation for our harness stars

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Last January JL Cruze was making a name for himself in the Super Bowl series at the Meadowlands.

Last week we read that “Business is Booming” at the Meadowlands and it was great to hear. January, which concluded for the track on Saturday night, proved itself to be a solid month with handles in the $3 million range with regularity.

February too looks as if it will get off to a hot start considering there is an $18K plus carryover in the popular Pick-5 wager, which no doubt will bring in players from far and wide looking for their share of the “free money” on Friday.

What’s interesting about this year’s January cards and those from the past was the loss of late closers. The Presidential series had a history of bringing in some quality stock to the Meadowlands in January along with the Cape & Cutter series for quality mares.

Nothing has replaced the lost late closers and considering the handle figures, one has to wonder what impact if any at all better racing has on handle?

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Of course there is virtually no way to compare handle based on the caliber of the competition, but let’s just say this January offered programs with a much reduced level of class on all fronts. Few if any real Open trotting or pacing races have filled to any degree. There is no high quality mares pace or trot and the Saturday night fare more closely resembles what once passed for Thursday cards.

Nevertheless, handle figures have been substantial.

So by the Meadowlands essentially saving added money from these events, the cost of producing the handle has gone down.

The question is whether this says more about the dominance of the Meadowlands as the lone front for serious horseplayers or that said players really don’t give a damn about quality as long as there are 10 horses in each race?

Then again, since it’s impossible to actually compare last year’s figures to this year’s figures with no Thursday cards and one additional race on Fridays and Saturdays, is it actually possible that handle would be markedly increased if the quality of horses was at least equal to 2015?

It’s a difficult balancing act and it was hard not to notice some extremely talented horses that qualified this past Friday at The Meadowlands from Steve Elliott’s stable. Elliott enjoyed a banner year in 2015 and much of that had to do with the fact that he had a string of 4-year-olds that returned eligible to late closing events. They had ample opportunity to grow and there were enough races where they could showcase their talents while learning the trade.

Now a year later,Art History, Rock Out and Rockeyed Optimist all qualified impressively for Elliott. Confounding as it may seem, while the Meadowlands is the best place to qualify a top horse it may prove to be the hardest place to get one raced during the evening hours.

The three 5-year-olds will need more than a sprinkle of Peter Koch’s magic “conditions dust” in order to find placement in any Saturday night event. True, as 5-year-olds they weren’t going to get the benefit of lucrative late closers in 2016, but at the same time we have to wonder whether the Meadowlands and the harness audience is worse off because there’s no place for 4-year-olds like Elliott’s trio from 2015 to make their way onto the Big M stage this year.

As a fan of the sport you always want to have something to look forward to and it’s hard to imagine that the Meadowlands couldn’t maintain its edge as the bona fide handle leader while racing just two nights a week during the winter and at the same time give racing fans something to get excited about?

There were no horses racing in January that hinted to be future players in the sport once the weather gets a bit warmer.

By this time last year, JL Cruze had won four races including the Super Bowl final beating some good horses that included Opulent Yankee. While Opulent Yankee has returned to the Meadowlands to race this year, it’s rather clear there are few other trotters of his caliber to race against.

It was a stroke of luck that future Horse of the Year Wiggle It Jiggleit showed up at the Meadowlands last winter and even with late closers for sophomores,its doubtful another horse of that magnitude would have been in a 2016 late closer.

However, just given the names of the 4-year-olds we have mentioned, it seems highly unlikely Meadowlands faithful will get to glimpse any 4-year-old with high class potential this winter season.

JAYWALKING: I’m not sure whether all “positive” news is actually positive. When it was announced by The Meadowlands on Saturday night that an Out of Competition testing of a trotter trained by Robert Bresnahan Jr. had returned positive for EPO, it offered some proof that the work done by racing commissions is clearly not enough to curtail the use of alternative substances.

At the same time, it’s hard to gauge the overall gain of announcing these results to the general public. While Jeff Gural has the absolute right to ban any horsemen from racing at his three tracks, he doesn’t have legal authority to tell racing commissions what they can and can’t do. Since this isn’t a racing commission positive, Mr. Bresnahan may retain his license and be permitted to race at non-Gural tracks in the future.

Ultimately if this happens, the betting public will become even more confused at what constitutes an actual offense and what doesn’t in this sport.

Perhaps a better way to broaden the impactof any future out-of-competition testing violations would be to quietly ask the offending party to leave and then privately share with other racetrack owners the results of said tests. In following that line of thinking other privately held tracks could bar these individuals without going public. Something many already do.