12/15/2014 12:08PM

Bergman: No welfare for 4-year-olds

Derick Giwner
Father Patrick may not return to the track in time to benefit from exclusive 4-year-old races in 2015.

Moving into 2015, is the sport of harness racing still looking for a needle in a haystack?

For the first time next year, the Meadowlands will unveil a new $1 million series designed to give extra opportunity to the owners of 4-year-old trotters and pacers. The Graduate, with three legs and a final, appears to be an answer to some minor complaints by trainers and owners during 2014 that suggested the 4-year-olds couldn’t transition into aged pacers or trotters and needed to build themselves up first before tackling tougher foes.

When Jeff Gural led the forces in the sport to stop the retirement of 4-year-olds to the breeding shed, his heart seemed to be in the right place. He was asking top horses to return and he appeared to be wishing that the next Niatross or Somebeachsomewhere would prove marketable enough to encourage the next generation of race fans to this sport.

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“We feel these races as well as The Hambletonian Maturity will serve as a great target and stepping stone for all the 4-year-olds coming back as they move into the Free For All ranks,” said Darin Zoccali Meadowlands Director of Racing. “Mr. Gural implemented a rule with the purpose of keeping our stars on the racetrack at age four.  We believe that in addition to implementing that rule, it is necessary for us to provide a championship platform for these 4-year-olds to race on, while giving them quality races against their own age group.”


Over the course of two years most of the same horses have battled endlessly for some impressive prize money. Two and three-year-olds have an extensive stakes schedule as well as many lucrative sire stakes programs that benefit owners and breeders. The sacrifice being asked of a very limited number of owners shouldn’t compel the industry to redirect purse money this way.

What’s at risk is the potential for races that may do little to excite any group of people. Here’s what may be ahead just in the 4-year-old trotting division. Should Father Patrick be successful as a stallion this winter, it’s unlikely he’ll be ready to race in the Graduate. Essentially that could mean $500,000 being spent on horses with significantly less star power draw.

“We are not focused on specific horses coming back in specific years, but rather what is in the best interest of harness racing going forward,” said Zoccali in regards to Father Patrick’s potential stance.

Which begs the question: What is the best interest of harness racing?

If it’s to bring back the best horses as 4-year-olds and attract new fans because of it, what purpose will a series like this serve?

Here’s a potential problem both Graduates may have. Zoccali openly admits that much of the purse money will be drawn from nominating payments made by owners. With the open knowledge that Father Patrick will be absent, the nominees could be a long list of less accomplished horses looking to cash in on a lucrative payday.

“We believe this move will be well received by the owners of all these 4-year-olds coming back and I imagine many of them will circle May 31st at Tioga Downs, which is the first leg of this new Graduate Series for 4-year-olds, as their target date for their horses’ return,” Zoccali said.

Without question owners will flock to a series that includes preliminary legs worth $50,000, $75,000 and $100,000 leading to a guaranteed $250,000 final. Purse money like that for 4-year-olds doesn’t grow on trees and even asking a significant entry fee is not a deterrent when you may be lucky enough to never race for that kind of money again.

What strikes me with the new Graduate is just how much it appears to resemble the old Levy series. That meaning, a series of races that at times appears to be rewarding mediocrity. The Levy, with its extended preliminary legs and guaranteed $50,000 purses, has seen a host of typically less than Invitational stock nominate and race as often as possible. Some of those legs have been unbettable events.

Thankfully in 2015 Yonkers Raceway has amended its past list of rules and will eliminate trainer entries in each of its preliminary legs and will look for eight betting interests in its rich final.

On the trotting side, there will be two significant aged trotting races added to the schedule in 2015. Primarily the International Trot at Yonkers, which will carry a purse likely in excess of $500,000. Northfield Park, a track that recently lacked enough entries to put on a three-year-old stakes race, will offer a $200,000 trotting race for aged horses to replace the Cleveland Classic.

What’s interesting here is that for years Mr. Gural has protested that he is hamstrung by a lack of purse money at The Meadowlands without slot machine revenue. Yet considering that slot-rich tracks like Yonkers and Northfield Park have stepped up to the plate in 2015 to add support to the aged division, couldn’t the Meadowlands make better use of its limited resources?

True, neither Yonkers nor Northfield will make its races exclusively for 4-year-olds, but that doesn’t mean that 4-year-olds, the good ones, won’t get a chance to race for the big money.

The reality is that after two years of racing exclusively against a given class, 4-year-olds shouldn’t be given easier races when they become aged horses, things should get tougher. There are countless overnights and late closers already available to many of these horses. If they can’t cut it against aged horses then they can be “overnight horses” period.

The 4-year-olds finished first, second and third in the $238,500 Centaur Trot at Hoosier Park this past September defeating Sebastian K.

Could Master Of Law, Creatine and Natural Herbie have beaten Sebastian K in June?

No, but neither could any of the aged trotters at that time of the year. There wasn’t a bias against 4-year-olds-no one could compete with Sebastian K.

On the pacing side, Captaintreacherous only started seven times with his lone stakes win a victory against 4-year-olds in the Meadowlands Maturity.

Would the sport have been better off if Captaintreacherous were given four more chances to pad his scorecard against Odds On Equuleus and company?

With the Cane Pace moving to Hambletonian Day in 2015 and the Graduate Series, the Meadowlands management has made changes it feels will help to better market the sport.

“I think there needs to be a marketing plan built in and I also believe that we are among the very best of marketing our product and specifically, event marketing,” Zoccali said.

There will certainly be more to market in 2015.