01/15/2014 4:40PM

Bob Pandolfo: Northfield Park still hitting the million mark


In recent years we've seen a gradual shift in betting habits among harness racing fans. Handle on the one mile tracks like Balmoral, Cal Expo and the Meadowlands has increased. The "New" Meadowlands is off to a rousing start with handle even exceeding last year's pace. But it’s not as if the industry is coming back. Money is essentially shifting from the less popular betting venues to the tracks that bettors prefer. Consequently, most half-mile or five-eighths tracks have not seen their handle increase and some have lost business to the one mile tracks.

But a half-mile track that's held its own during these tough economic times is Northfield Park in Ohio. So far this year, Northfield has raced five cards in January and the "Home of the Flying Turns" has gone over a million in handle every night. That's remarkable for what has been a cold winter so far. Northfield has always done a great job of getting their signal into as many betting establishments as possible.

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I spoke to Executive Vice President of Racing and Simulcasting Dave Bianconi the other day. He mentioned something that is often overlooked. "We have a good looking broadcast signal, with a clear picture and good camera angles," said Bianconi. "Bettors like full fields. We've got the horses. We're running fifteen nines (nine-horse fields) a night."

On December 18, Northfield introduced it's all new Hard Rock Rocksino. "I'm sure you've seen the photos on the website (www.hrrocksinonorthfieldpark.com)," Bianconi said. "As good as they are, those photos don't even do it justice. I think I can safely use the word ‘Spectacular’ to describe this casino."

Biaconi told me that the new restaurants have been packed. "You have to make reservations at least two weeks in advance to get into Kosar's Wood-Fired Grill," Bianconi said. The upscale steak house is named after former NFL quarterback Bernie Kosar. High School football is big in Ohio and Kosar was a high school All American in Ohio in 1982.

According To Bianconi, the new 2,000 seat concert venue has been selling out its rock concerts and they see a lot of new faces at the track; always a good sign.

Last year track President Brock Milstein announced that the track would raise its purses before the casino opened. "At one point we were actually overpaid by about a million dollars," Bianconi said, "but ownership felt that they wanted to give something back to the local horsemen who stuck with us all these years."

The purses were increased another 10% in January and a 30% increase is scheduled for February, followed by another increase in May. Southwest of Northfield, another new racino is opening. Miami Valley Gaming is centrally located between Dayton and Cincinnati and will debut a new five-eighths track later this year. Miami Valley replaces the former Lebanon Raceway, which was a half-mile track. Bianconi said he's been getting inquiries from some harness horsemen that are located in Michigan and Illinois. Michigan in particular is a beleaguered racing circuit and it makes sense that some of the top horsemen from that area will make their way to Ohio.

Another exciting addition to Northfield Park this year will be the newly added $500,000 Carl Milstein Memorial 3-year-old colt pace, which will be raced on Friday, August 15.

"We've wanted to name a race after former owner Carl Milstein, who passed away in 1999. But we didn't want it to be a mediocre stakes race with a $50,000 purse. Carl poured his heart and soul into this racetrack and he was talking about putting in slot machines back in the early eighties.  When I heard about some of the stakes races being dropped this year, such as the Battle of Brandywine, I expressed interest in picking up one of these races. We added $250,000 to make it a $500,000 purse. The timing should be good. It's after the Meadowlands closes, after the Adios and before the Jug. It should be a great race."

From a handicapping perspective, Northfield is similar to most half-mile tracks. Favorites are winning at 43% and horses that leave well off the gate tend to do well. The track is very fast, definitely one of the fastest half-mile tracks in harness racing.  If you follow Northfield, I'd recommend that you watch the early races to see if a bias exists because some nights will be much kinder to closers than others, especially during the winter. There does tend to be more movement at Northfield than most half-mile tracks. The track has always done a good job of keeping the turns banked and the outside flow tends to be livelier than many harness tracks. As a whole, the drivers at Northfield are very aggressive, which makes for a more exciting race. But there is a post position bias that benefits horses from posts 1 through 5. Personally, I'd like to see Northfield, and all half-mile tracks, adopt the early start, similar to the way Maywood Park in Chicago races. At Maywood the race starts 200 feet early. It’s an untimed start, so the timer doesn't commence until the horses hit the original one mile starting point, but it gives horses from posts 6, 7, and 8 a better chance. I'm surprised all half-mile tracks don't run their races this way.

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Bianconi expects the racing to be more competitive as the purses increase. "In the past few years we haven't had good horses. But the quality will improve with the higher purses and I also expect to see a more competitive driver colony. It's not good to have one or two drivers that can make a horse go several seconds faster than the other drivers. But now we’ve added talented young guys like Tyler Smith, Ronnie Wrenn, Jr. and Dan Noble. Having better horses and a more competitive driver colony gives you a better looking odds board," Bianconi said. "You combine that with our nine-horse fields and I think bettors are going to like it."

To find out more about Pandy’s handicapping theories check out his www.trotpicks.com or www.handicappingwinners.com websites, his free picks at handicapping.ustrotting.com/pandycapping.cfm or write to Bob Pandolfo, 3386 Creek Road, Northampton, PA 18067.