01/05/2015 3:08PM

Bergman: Looking for a better wintery mix?

Derick Giwner
Hopefully the snow stays away as Winter Series action heats up at the Meadowlands.

The standardbred business is all about trial and error.

Horsemen are forever dabbling with equipment looking to find the right combination. Owners look for the right trainers to use and trainers look for the right drivers. Tweaking the system is human nature. Without it no business can advance.

As we enter the late closing season at The Meadowlands the numbers are in, at least the number of nominees, as Thursday kicks off the first leg of the Super Bowl series for inexperienced and non-winning types.

Over the course of the Meadowlands meet that began in November there has been more than a healthy dose of young trotters without a résumé on display. In the past when the Meadowlands kicked off a new year, it meant new blood would emerge with unproven horses getting the first chance to showcase budding talent on the mile track.

[DRF HARNESS: Sign Up for the FREE newly designed DRF Harness Newsletter!]

As Thursday’s four divisions of the Super Bowl might indicate, the table is stacked quite heavily in the trotting direction. This Meadowlands looks very little like the old one and we’re not just talking about a new grandstand.

What has become evident while analyzing the numbers in the Winter Late Closing program is a solid number of eligibles in the trotting ranks and a limited supply of young pacing stock.

The track has gone away from the old staples, meaning the Presidential Series, the Cape & Cutter, and Overbid for high-class male and female pacers is not on the 2015 menu. Mind you these three events tend to pull from a small number of stables and perhaps the top brass chose wisely to retire them otherwise risk races with limited betting potential.

Meadowlands director of racing Darin Zocalli sounded upbeat about the way the series numbers have come in. “The Winter Late Closers are actually right where I thought they would be,” Zocalli said. “The pacing fillies is the group that gives the least amount of entries, and the young trotters fills the best.  Having three separate series for horses and geldings on the pace probably watered down the numbers for each individual series.”

The success or failure of a late closer to draw entries has many components. What is concerning to the future of any of these races is whether the advertised final purses actually live up to the estimates. There’s a slippery slope where overestimating a final purse can work in reverse in years to come as horsemen question the value of their investment.

On the trotting side, Zocalli hit a homerun with his estimated numbers. January’s Super Bowl series and February’s Charles Singer Memorial will have finals nearly identical to their roughly $50,000 estimated purses. In March, the Shiaway St. Pat came in a bit shy of estimates with the final probably going for $60,000, a bit below the $70,000 estimate.

None of the six series for young pacers came that close to hitting the estimate. Only the Escort series in January for male pacers will offer a final within $10,000 of the estimated purse. The Clyde Hirt to be contested in March offered an $85,000 final, but that final is likely to go for a bit less than $60,000.

Certainly Zocalli’s suggestion that three series may have been too much on the pacing colt side is indication that he’ll be rethinking and making modifications going forward.

This is an inexact science with projections being made based on previous years. That’s not an easy thing to do considering the variables involved. Consider that fewer and fewer horses are being bred in New Jersey itself. Consider that an abundance of guaranteed racing dates in Pennsylvania and New York give horsemen the security of getting in regularly at decent purse levels. The influx of slot money into Ohio has to make some horsemen reflect on the need to ship east.

The Meadowlands during the winter was known as the center of the trotting and pacing universe, and horsemen prepped horses for the long haul. The Winter Late Closers gave quality options generally for horsemen bringing a full stable of horses to race. Those options are far different in 2015, with the Meadowlands content to race just three days a week in January and February and then two thereafter.

Essentially the late closers offered guaranteed racing opportunities for some horses that couldn’t get in otherwise. Now, given the large supply of young and inexperienced trotters and the limited supply of pacers, it would appear we are getting a continuation of the races we already have, as opposed to new blood.

Zocalli believes the shortfall in horses isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “We honestly don't need five divisions of each late closer because our entry box would get jammed up with overnight horses,” Zocalli said.

Again the question really isn’t about whether five divisions of any late closer is good or bad, but rather whether new horses are given the chance to showcase their talent and the racing audience is exposed to something different.

Zocalli indicated that he believes by tweaking the late closers and limiting the overpopulation from one or two specific stables a wider range of horsemen will enter the late closers in future editions. “I think some of the smaller stables are afraid to enter a series because they figure the bigger stables will dominate, which is why we implemented the rules we did limiting the trainer entries in the final of a series or stake.  It will probably take a year before that benefits us with more trainers willing to enter,” Zocalli said.

Much as the number of horses that nominate to a specific event, it’s hard to predict whether horsemen will respond to this change better in 2016 than they do in 2015.

Regardless of the known limitations, the Meadowlands must continue to strive to find new ways to bring horses from outside of New Jersey to compete during the winter. It’s clearly the sport’s best chance at creating handle, and new horses whether young or old help to create a better mix and a more competitive wagering product.