06/05/2016 9:39PM

Gisser: Now is a good time to be a Buckeye

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Ohio Harness Horsemen’s Association Executive Director Renée Mancino.

I have always done a lot of traveling for business –as a standup comic, as a herpetology educator, as an entertainment agent, as a Harness Horse Youth Foundation Project Manager – and I have often been let down by other supposedly great cities and states which actually pale in comparison to my home town of Cleveland, and my native State of Ohio. As a racing fan, I am proud of all the great horses and horsemen that have come out of Ohio over the years.

I also got a chance to work for many years at Northfield Park when it was, arguably, in the top echelon of tracks for horsemen and handicappers. But as other states moved into the world of alternative funding for purses, my home state got left behind. Handles went down and the tracks seemed like morgues on most weeknights. Ohio was late getting into slots, or video lottery terminals, but the results have proven that the race is not always won by the swiftest.

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A couple weeks back I witnessed Wiggle It Jiggleit’s easy win in Northfield Park’s $200,000 Battle of Lake Erie. Just as I detailed last year, the track was full of excitement and the atmosphere was electric. The Battle has become a mirror of Ohio racing. It started out in the 1980s with a $50,000 purse and drew some of the best horses and horsemen in the sport. It expanded to a $100,000 event and then to a $150,000 race, still drawing top horses from across the continent. The purse was dropped to $100,000 for several years and then the race was turned into a late-closer, rather than a Free For All. But now, it is again in that top tier of Invitational races with a purse to match

Unfortunately, I have not had much of a chance to check out the rest of Ohio’s tracks lately. I have been to Scioto Downs a couple times but have not yet seen races at Miami Valley or Dayton Raceway, although I have been to both facilities. So I called on the person in the best position to update me on the health of Ohio’s harness racing, Ohio Harness Horsemen’s Association Executive Director Renée Mancino, who has been on the job in Columbus for almost 18 months.

She started by pointing out some remarkable stats.

“OHHA membership is up 45%,” said Mancino. “Ohio is again the #1 state in the country in mares bred. So it is not just the racing that continues an upward trend.”

Mancino has been very pleased with the cooperation of the three Southern Ohio tracks, although with the racing boom, she would be okay with a bit more overlap.

“All three tracks are really committed to their racing product and they work well together,” said Mancino. “Mark Lowe at Penn National (Dayton Raceway) is a racing guy. But right now Scioto Downs is getting 250 horses in the box. They are doing a great job writing 15 races a night, but we could do so much more to get these horses raced.”

While I personally don’t understand the logic of having two brand new facilities 30 miles apart (or the logic of not putting addresses or phone numbers on their website homepages), both facilities are clearly doing well.

The renaissance of Ohio racing doesn’t just affect the raceways. Ohio has always been a haven for county fair racing and the OHHA and Mancino have been instrumental in making sure that that grassroots scene is revived. Ohio had lost some fair racing, but now, according to Mancino, funding is up.

“Each fair receives $11,000 to do with as they please,” she said. “The minimum purses are now $7,000 per division, and we support that, too. We are up to 141 fair dates this year from 119 last year. Many fairs are adding or restoring a second race day and I have meetings with several others about bringing back harness racing. We currently have five fair circuits, one of which OHHA administers, and I am hopeful that we can bring everyone under one umbrella, although it may not happen in the near future.”

The OHHA has become much more nimble in its promotions and outreach due to a $4,000,000 VLT discretionary fund. Whereas past initiatives and expenditures had to be approved in a process that could take as long as eight months, this fund has made it easier and less ponderous to add an equine emergency program, to solicit potential new owners, and to begin work on a benevolent program to make sure that horsemen who are down on their luck don’t fall through the cracks. These are just a couple of new Ohio programs that the OHHA’s expanded staff has worked on. The addition of a project coordinator, who does charity outreach and looks for new avenues of support, in addition to acting as a fair liaison, is another example of the OHHA extended commitment to the future of racing in the Buckeye State.

“The amount of work our staff gets done is amazing,” Mancino said. “We have a lot to do, on the racetrack, in the breeding farms, but the staff (and the addition of a full-time Certified Public Accountant) really help. I can’t put in 90 hours every week.”

As to the health of racing in Ohio, “I think it continues on an upward trend,” she said. “ Last year we donated $180,000 in purse support to the Little Brown Jug and this year it will be more. We have added the Sires Stakes Consolation Finals; and the Finals are up to $250,000. We are working on adding a second-tier stakes program, and we are now basing qualification for older horses on Ohio starts and earnings, which also helps our racing product. We still have work to do, but things are going well.”

Mancino strongly believes that Ohio’s commitment to its on-track product is critical to the continued resurgence and that is a lesson it has learned from other states.

And that makes this lifetime Buckeye and long-term harness fan very happy. Now go cash. See you next month.

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