04/23/2012 2:15PM

Bergman: Short Levy prices lead to long faces

Tom Berg
Anndrovette disappointed her backers with a lackluster effort in leg five of the Blue Chip Matchmaker at Yonkers Raceway

Last Saturday, April 14 should be a day of reckoning for the sport of harness racing.

It should be a date that all remember as one that finally woke up those still asleep at the wheel.

On April 14 something happened that was so profound, yet it didn’t even draw a “self service” announcement from the Standardbred Owners Association of New York.

That something wasn’t the presence of pacing stars Real Nice or Foiled Again on the Yonkers Raceway program, although those two figured prominently in the event.

That something was the masterwork of longtime race secretary Steve Starr. Who else, but a race program creator like Starr could have assembled such a poor quartet of races?

Races seven through ten are considered the Late Pick Four at Yonkers. As we all know, a Pick Four is designed to offer gamblers a betting option where they can receive a significant payout for selecting four consecutive winners. It’s racing’s version of the jackpot enjoyed by those other casino games. You know, like the 5,300 slots sharing the facility in Westchester County.

In this case they were nothing like the slot machines. The four races Starr carded in consecutive order that night included mortal locks Blatantly Good ($2.20), Real Nice ($2.60) and Foiled Again ($2.10) in races seven, eight and nine.

So it was hardly a surprise when Samandar won the tenth race as the 9-5 favorite that the Pick Four was going to be short-priced.

The payoff, for a full $2 wager mind you, was a shocking $9.90!

If you give the teller a dime they’ll give you $10.

The SOA of NY recently suggested that Yonkers had “Hit a Home Run” because it had aired a commercial during a baseball game. Just six days later, the track exhibited the theoretically best product available in the Levy series while at the same time the worst imaginable betting result.

While it’s easy to point fingers at Starr as the lone culprit, that’s not the intention here. The Levy Series as a whole has proven to be the best and worst the sport can offer all at once. Those $2.10 winners are the creation of a series that offers too many horses without credentials the chance to share in the $1.9 million event.

When leading trainer Mark Ford proclaimed it the “best deal” in all of racing, he hit the nail on the head. Ford perhaps went too far nominating horses that really didn’t belong, but it’s the imbalance of horseflesh that doomed this series.

The Levy works on a point system that credits points based on finish position. Finish first and you get 50 points; second 25 points; third 12 points; fourth 8 points; fifth 5 points. Since the Levy also rewards horsemen with 25 points (the same as a second place finish) just for entering, it sets up a system that essentially rewards mediocrity. Thus, the mediocre race against the superior to create the $2.10 model.

From the horseman’s side and certainly from an owners side, the weekly draw offers the hope that the second-level horses will draw in with each other while the stars will meet their equals. Since each division is guaranteed to race for a $50,000 purse and no more than eight horses are permitted in each field, it’s easy for anyone making it through the series to profit nicely from the marginal $5,000 nominating fee.

Too many second and third level horses nominated to and raced in the Levy series this year making its five preliminary legs a grueling experience to watch. It was even more difficult to wager on with appalling multi-race payouts.

Its companion series, the Blue Chip Matchmaker, hardly fared better with too many short fields accompanied by short-priced winners.

In Pennsylvania and Ontario horsemen are coming to the realization that money from slot machines is not a lifetime guarantee. You would think the message should be crossing state lines and getting to those in New York who may have a limited window before things change.

New York’s horsemen, led by Joe Faraldo, have conveniently patted themselves on the back for having the “best racing” in North America. Of course if you mean the highest purses that statement would be accurate. But please, don’t try to explain to the harness community, or baseball fans, that Yonkers racing is the best of anything. That $9.90 payoff would confirm that betting on these horse races is not exciting or profitable.

We often try to compare the racing gambler with the slot player. It’s been heard way too often that slots are “mindless” games while racing challenges those to handicap with the chance at the big prize, as if our waning audience is somehow smarter.

Those programmers who have choreographed current slot machines know exactly how to evoke a positive response from players regardless of whether they win or lose. Basically the slots put a spell over all of those people by infusing a rush every 10 seconds.  That’s entertainment! In the course of one hour (races 7-10) how much of a buzz could have been created with three horses paying under $2.60 and a $9.90 Pick Four?

Then we have the case of Anndrovette, one of the logical favorites for this Saturday’s $297,000 Blue Chip Matchmaker Final. Here we are speaking of the 2011 Dan Patch award winner as best aged mare in the sport. Somehow horsemen and track management have been able to give the mare and her connections a pass for non-performance. You put her name on the marquee and you expect her to play a starring role. If that’s the case, we have to wonder who the “stand-in” was when Anndrovette disappeared last Friday in leg five of the Matchmaker and earlier in leg two of the Overbid at the Meadowlands?

The sport has conveniently turned its head when its stars “prepped” in front of what used to be a packed grandstand. Is it really different now with less people watching?

The answer is a resounding YES. Competition from other forms of entertainment should have awakened us; instead it has paralyzed us.

In the end everyone must be accountable for the product drawn, carded and raced on a nightly basis. It may start with the race secretary, but it ends with the horses and the drivers at least “acting” with interest and concern for the public during every race.

The slot machines do their job 100 percent of the time.


Jay More than 1 year ago
I thought Yonkers with its high purses would lure better drivers and better horses, particularly with the Meadowlands in disarray. Well, they did lure Sears and Tetrick on occasion, but the quality of horses is still lame, unwatchable and unbettable. There is a reason short priced horses win all the time: no competition. I can't watch/bet Yonkers and I don't like the state of affairs in Jersey. The effect of Yonkers is to dilute the Meadowlands without adding any quality on the other side. I blame NYRA and the politicians in NJ. If you had slots at the Meadowlands, the big purses would be there and so would the good competition. It's just a matter of time before Jersey loses its reputation as the home of US harness racing. My bet is that Chester steals the show from both just as Parx is now in the consciousness of NY area betters.
Jeff B More than 1 year ago
You had me till the last sentence. With Chester management so averse to racing, and with Pa. take-outs so high on exotic wagers, it is difficult to see quality racing continue there, esp. with possible funding cuts if the Governor's threats come true. The sad fact is that harness racing has fallen so far below the public's consciousness, that only a concerted industry effort will save it-and as a fan for almost 50 years, and a small owner for 24, I am rooting for it, but am skeptical of its chances.
Jeff B More than 1 year ago
As long as Yonkers is configured as a half-mile track with a ridiculously short run to the first turn, inside posts and low payoffs will dominate. Management made the mistake of thinking that a long homestretch would encourage closers. To the contrary, an adequate run to the first turn, encourages more leavers, which in turn creates more of a contested pace. And THAT is what makes for more closers, even in this sport dominated by revolutionary bikes and speed rats. Jay, keep up the great work.