01/16/2017 9:46AM

Giwner: Stakes calendar takes a $3 million hit in 2017


There are changes coming to the harness racing stakes calendar in 2017 and most of them are far from positive. Quite frankly, if you own a 3-year-old pacer or trotter, especially a Pennsylvania-bred, you’ll be racing for substantially less money this year.

United States purses, which remained relatively flat from 2015 to 2016 at $423,067,643, should dip by approximately $3 million, primarily due to the elimination of Super Stakes Saturday, a $2 million stakes extravaganza held at Pocono Downs last year. Originally launched as Super Stakes Sunday at Chester Downs, the rich events remained there from 2008 to 2012 before moving to Pocono, which has hosted the races three times (2013, 2015 & 2016).

Eliminated from the 2017 stakes schedule from the Super Stakes Saturday card were the Colonial for 3-year-old trotters, the Battle of the Brandywine for 3-year-old pacers and the Valley Forge for 3-year-old pacing fillies. The Colonial and Battle of the Brandywine each included $800,000 worth of purses including consolation races while the Valley Forge offered just under $600,000 for horses.

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“We tried it up at Pocono and decided not to continue it,” said Pennsylvania Harness Horsemen Association Executive Director Peter Marinari, who would not comment on whether the races would ever return to the Keystone state.

Another cut to the stakes landscape came in the form of the $561,500 Pennsylvania Classic for PA-bred sophomore pacing colts and the $313,800 Miss Pennsylvania for same aged filly pacers. Both races made their debuts in 2016 and proved short-lived.

Despite the bad news on the stakes front in Pennsylvania, Marinari said the health of the sport in the state remains strong.

“Racing in general continues to prosper,” said Marinari. “With the creation of the new Harness Racing Commission, which fully seeded a few months ago, we continue to improve and add to the success of Pennsylvania racing.”

Back on the stakes front, the only other prominent race that seems to have been discontinued is the $150,000 Elitlopp Playoff at The Meadowlands. The race for older trotters raced for the first and only time in 2016.

The news isn’t all negative. One race is seemingly in line for a purse bump. The Jenna’s Beach Boy, scheduled to be contested at Hoosier Park on September 23 went for $100,000 in 2016 but is listed as a $200,000 race this year. The race for 3-year-old colt pacers is part of a strong lineup that night which also features the best free-for-all pacers and trotters in the Hoosier Park Pacing Derby and Centaur Trot.

The $150,000 (estimated) Jug Preview for 3-year-old colt pacers will return after a long hiatus from the Scioto Downs stakes schedule. Unfortunately its return comes at a price, with the $100,000 Chip Noble Memorial for older trotters getting the ax, but that still represents a $50,000 net gain on the purse end. The Jug Preview should fit nicely on the card with the Jim Ewart Memorial for older pacers on the second Saturday in September and give Little Brown Jug hopefuls a nice springboard to the race without having to leave Ohio.

As we wait for tracks to officially report their stakes races, the big story remains the loss of Super Stakes Saturday which likely would have occurred on August 19. Vernon Downs smartly moved the Zweig Trot for 3-year-old colts to August 18 to fill one hole, but the absence of the Battle of the Brandywine and Valley Forge could certain change the game plan for trainers and owners.

Looking at the colts first, the grueling nine straight weeks of major stakes still exists from June 10 with the North America Cup to the August 12 Carl Milstein at Northfield Park. Typically connections of top 3-year-olds would skip the Meadowlands Pace or Adios and aim for the Battle of the Brandywine. With that race now on the sidelines, will that mean a greater turnout for the Meadowlands Pace, which has suffered greatly in numbers in recent years?

After the Milstein, the next non-statebred option for the division is the $500,000 Messenger at Yonkers Raceway, which is typically (and expected again) to be contested on the first Saturday in September. After that the class will get a steady diet of Midwest cuisine with the Little Brown Jug (Ohio), Tattersalls (Red Mile), Breeders Crown (Hoosier Park) and Monument Circle (Hoosier) from September 21 to November 4.

The 3-year-old filly pacers have a bigger problem. Without the Valley Forge, the only $100K-plus race on the agenda from August 5 (Shady Daisy, Meadowlands) to September 9 (Simcoe, Mohawk) is the Lady Maud at Yonkers Raceway on August 26. That race typically does poorly in attendance but could see a nice bump this year.

Overall the North American stakes calendar is solid, with major races commencing at the end of April with the George Morton Levy series for older pacers at Yonkers and concluding during the last week of November with the Hap Hansen Progress Pace at Dover. That’s over seven months of top quality racing. Too bad we are still 14 weeks away from the first rich event.