06/25/2012 10:25AM

Bergman: At Meadowlands, it's all about the drivers

Lisa Photo
Bettors want to wager on the best drivers, many of which are missing at the Meadowlands on weekends.

Adding the word new to a title usually is a sign that a revival is going on. Yet anyone who has been able to look at New Meadowlands over the last month or so has to be pained by what they see.

While the gods of racing may have been kind to the Meadowlands in January and February, they have reared an ugly head during the late spring and now early summer.

But the recent fall of the Meadowlands from grace really has nothing to do with the gods at all. It is simply the reality that you can’t trot out understudies for the main attractions and convince the betting public that the stars are in attendance.

Over the past month New Meadowlands has undergone an incredible identity crisis. While the new owners speculated that changing the schedule and just carding races on Friday and Saturdays was all that was necessary to maintain a healthy handle, the opposite has been true.

When the legion of top drivers removed themselves for weekend action out of town, the replacements were put in play. Yes, there were qualified drivers in East Rutherford each and every night that the place was open for business. But they were not the same players that gamblers had come to rely on over the course of the Big M’s glory days.

Make no mistake, betting on harness racing has become a drivers' game, and people who bet large amounts and want to bet with confidence can do so only when they have a driver who makes the right moves in the right situation.

The Meadowlands identity crisis is not driver specific. Credit racing secretary Peter Koch for putting together enough races to hold two complete weekend programs during a very competitive spring-summer season. But what Koch has been left with, no racing secretary would be eager to ask for. He has constantly had to mix and match to group two, three or four different classes into one race just to get 10 horses. While this may meet the minimal standards of competitive racing, too often the fields are unbalanced weak betting propositions.

This time of year has also forced Koch’s hand with Friday programs saturated with trotting races with many for non-winning types.

New Meadowlands management has sought to make racing more fan friendly. When camels and ostriches were paraded on a recent weekend it brought out the best attendance the place had seen in some time. Yet it’s hard to call something successful when the sideshow is more interesting than the main attraction.

And that’s the problem with New Meadowlands. The core of the place, the single entity that made Meadowlands the most exciting racing product and by far the best harness product to wager on, has all but disappeared.

This isn’t about the building or the people working at the place. This is not about the horsemen, or for that matter the drivers who take advantage of opportunities where the highest purses are available.

This is about a schedule that just doesn’t make sense any more.
The best months to wager on harness racing are January, February and March!

During that period wagering at the Meadowlands was solid primarily because the racing was good, the drivers were consistent and the horses competed at a high level.

Fast forward to the last two months and the Meadowlands has lost its regular driving colony on too many predictable occasions. The horse population has sought far better options at Pocono, Yonkers and Harrah’s Philadelphia as those three slot-infused tracks offer more classes and a higher purse structure. And the Meadowlands handle has diminished, proving that even the dumbest of gamblers knows when his favorite drivers are missing in action.

Perhaps there is no greater example to the power the sport’s top drivers are wielding these days than the switch made a few days back moving the Titan Cup from June 30 (Saturday) to June 29. The move was requested by some of the sport’s leading catch drivers who wanted to maintain the mounts behind the sports elite trotters but couldn’t be in two places at the same time. That’s right, a scheduling conflict arose because the Titan Cup at the Meadowlands was carded on the same night as Mohegan Sun at Pocono’s stakes extravaganza. Pocono will host the $500,000 Ben Franklin, the $350,000 Hempt and the $300,000 Lynch on June 30.
Fortunately for the drivers, all of the participants in the Titan Cup had to agree to the move and apparently they did so.

Harness racing is never going to be what it once was. Perhaps the Meadowlands, without the infusion of significant slot machine dollars, will also never return to its glory days. But, that doesn’t mean a true rebirth of the Meadowlands can’t take shape in a different form.

It may be a little early for date requests for 2013, but if I were calling the shots in East Rutherford, I would make every attempt to card a majority of the racing dates in January, February and March and perhaps utilize July and August only for major stakes races.

Since no slot money is forthcoming and the only way Meadowlands can make it as a racetrack is through its handle, why would anyone want to repeat what has happened this season?

What has become apparent to me and I’m guessing the others who have refused to wager on the Meadowlands when it becomes “Tioga South,” is the new face of racing in East Rutherford looks nothing at all like the old one.

I think the sport can accept a shortened Meadowlands season as long as it means the best horses and best drivers will be on display. Anything less will put an end forever to the identity of the best betting product the sport has showcased in the last 36 years.


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