06/23/2014 11:46AM

Bergman: Time for a schedule change

Derick Giwner
Meadowlands is currently racing on Fridays and Saturdays in June.

Historians could have predicted some seven years ago when Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs’ slot machines began churning that a ripple effect would ensue. In close proximity to the Meadowlands and not that far away from another harness-slot property in Chester, the lure of solid purse money was bound to attract horses and horsemen to cross state lines to participate.

Now as horsemen have moved and taken horses with them, the Meadowlands, once the drawing card for every horse, trainer and owner, tries to put together just two days of racing a week.

Historians wouldn’t be surprised that the track is hardly struggling to find top echelon drivers, but instead is at a loss to put on weekend cards that fit the rich history of the premier property in the standardbred sport.

The overpopulation of C-2 events on weekends with a boatload of Freehold-style horses and drivers has been the single biggest change that the New Meadowlands has had to deal with in its short history, and clearly the options are becoming even more limited.

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Though this past weekend saw more than its share of longshots prevail in these bottom-basement races, as a whole there have been too many half-mile track Freehold types mixed in with mile track specialists. The results have meant many imbalanced fields more befitting the old Sunday afternoon programs at East Rutherford than the stellar cards that once attracted the cream of the crop to the Garden State.

The argument has been made by some, and certainly from this point of view, that the Meadowlands would be much better served to card these June dates throughout the winter as opposed to battle four weeks of stakes action at Pocono and Mohawk with regular drivers out of town on assignment and the Meadowlands a shell of its old self.

The counter to that recommendation has always been that “we can’t do the same kind of business on a Wednesday or Thursday in January as we do on a Friday or Saturday in June.”

While the direct comparison appears to make perfect sense, it comes via a narrow focus on the short-run handle and not necessarily on the overall product year-round the Meadowlands is capable of producing.

But first let’s at least look at some facts and ask the questions that need to be asked.

Why can’t the Meadowlands race more dates in January and fewer in June?

“We don’t have the purse money,” is the first answer received whenever this subject is broached.

That’s right. Purse money continues to be overpaid in June for C-2 events that really don’t pass muster as Meadowlands-quality races. Why not allow a wider range of bottom feeders the opportunity to race on Wednesdays and Thursday in the winter while paying them appropriately? While not producing the same handles as June, the track would be conserving purse money and putting on a more continuous program over the winter.

Rescheduling to January and February will increase the horse supply, offering racing secretary Peter Koch the actual chance to put together fields that he could be proud of, as opposed to piecing non-Meadowlands horses into the kind of races we’ve seen over the last month. Koch needs to be given a raise just for the sheer bravery in facing such difficult times with his head on straight and the fortitude to create something respectable.

At the same time, Meadowlands upper management may be wise or at least wiser than they’ve been in understanding and finally accepting the facts that became apparent seven years ago. Fewer and fewer quality horses are available and will be available to complete fields at the Meadowlands this summer and the next summers. That’s true as well because fewer horses are now being bred.

It’s painful to witness a brand new beautiful building next to a racetrack that routinely put out the best product this industry has ever seen. The weekend cards showcased over the last month pale in comparison to even a Tuesday or Wednesday card from 1976.

It’s easy to understand Jeff Gural’s utter frustration and his feeling of abandonment, yet at the same time it’s hard to see how Mr. Gural himself or any of those sharp and talented young minds underneath him refuse to accept what history has been pointing to without making any adjustments to the schedule.

To me it’s extremely short sighted to continue this racing schedule into 2015 without major changes. Even Mr. Gural appears to have accepted that the winter brings out more gambling on this sport. With a modified purse structure on the lower end during the winter, it would be far easier to fill Wednesday and Thursday cards with solid racing. There would be enough classes for Mr. Koch to open up his playbook and bring in classes that routinely don’t fill ever at this time of year.

Final word on Sears

It is not often I sympathize with athletes that make a lot of money, but you have to credit driver Brian Sears for acting with dignity during some very uncomfortable times over the past week. To say he was virtually kicked in the teeth when asked not to participate this past Friday morning in baby races at the Meadowlands would be an understatement. Sears had begged off his drives in some lucrative Sire Stakes races at Yonkers the night before further cutting into his own bottom line. While others were standing in long lines to defend his character, Sears acted the part of someone unwilling to get into the type of name calling the original incident evoked.

In a sport that has had more than its share of a checkered past concerning the effort, or lack thereof of some drivers, Sears and the elite company he keeps nightly in driver colonies throughout the Northeast is indeed a prime example of the best the sport has to offer.

On behalf of all harness fans I’d like to apologize to Brian.