01/09/2017 10:43AM

Bergman: Winter racing is not quite what it used to be

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Derick Giwner
The show goes on through the winter at many harness tracks in the Northeast.

It’s a new year and to many that means renewed optimism and hope that no matter what last year looked like this next 12 months is sure to be better.

In racing, whether on the bettor’s side or the horsemen’s, there’s the feeling that tickets torn will be fewer and that the horse in stall number 13 may actually have a bright future.

Racing has such a dynamic that the turn of a calendar page suddenly opens the doors to something completely different. Since all horses are afforded a uniform birth date of January 1, we now find those yearling purchases suddenly becoming full fledged 2-year-olds with an outlook pointing more directly at coming stakes payments and flawless training trips.

While many horsemen spend most of the next few months prepping for battle, others in the Northeast are left with bills to pay and conditions to deal with. Perhaps some of them long for a time when there was no winter racing. Others may reflect upon the days when all horses were pretty much stabled at the racetrack and whether the forecast was for frigid temperatures or blizzard-like conditions, they could warm up at the track cafeteria and have their horses ready to race without shipping.

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It hardly seemed a luxury back then, but today horsemen must cope with much longer days during the winter, with traveling to the track and back often more time consuming and dangerous. The proximity of our racehorses to the track has also seriously negatively impacted winter racing as tracks are at times forced to close prematurely regardless of the forecast. The uncertainty of travel conditions early in the day has led to many tracks scrapping an entire card only to find out hours later that traffic and track conditions may have in fact been good enough to run the program as scheduled.

For much of the last 30 years the winter has meant different things to different people, but in the Northeast it was generally synonymous with horses from all parts of North America descending on East Rutherford.

For many, January’s arrival meant the first real chance for horsemen far and wide to compete for the highest purses during the coldest months. The weather was no picnic but the opportunity was great and worthy of sacrifice.

For bettors, there was a unique blend of drivers and trainers and horses from all walks of life that weaved a product worthy of intense interest. There were enough horses to go around and full programs with full fields were the norm.

We all lament change to some degree and the loss of late closers during the winter may have been the final piece of the puzzle pulled from the past. At the time the move appeared short sighted, but in hindsight it was just recognition that you can’t recreate the past, you can only press forward.

Horsemen have always had a capacity to adjust. When your livelihood is dependent upon fragile four-legged animals, plans and outcomes never travel in a straight line together.

The coming months can still be a mix of competitive racing. As long as the weather is willing the fields can be complete. Though winter was at one time the season when there was limited Thoroughbred racing to wager on and standardbreds enjoyed the spotlight, those days are gone and unlikely to return.

For those hoping for a glimmer of greatness to attract their attention during the winter, there isn’t likely to be another Wiggle It Jiggleit racing in January or February at The Meadowlands. The balance of risk and reward is too tilted towards risk in these times, and horsemen sitting on potential quality horses are likely to err on the side of caution.

That The Meadowlands has embraced what it is as opposed to what it once was is actually a very positive thing. That Jeff Gural has hung on to a stakes program when others have abandoned them is critically important to the sport’s present and future.

The first months of the year are likely to move slowly as many of the sport’s stars both human and equine rest up and prepare for the meat of the racing season. What The Meadowlands does hold is the promise for a core of young and determined driving corps to battle on the track for future positions in the ranks. Who will the next stars be?

What the so-called second string offers bettors is a different look at the product. Hungry and aggressive drivers can change the inner movements in a race and alter the outcomes. This is a dynamic that at times has been missing all too much in certain areas. The Meadowlands during the winter has the potential to unearth some young talent and that’s something we can look forward to.