12/07/2017 3:32PM

Giwner: Welcome to the new world of Harness racing

Derick Giwner
Filibuster Hanover was second in the Little Brown Jug elimination but was crowned champion after winning the second heat.

The stakes season is over. My mind is now left to wander, recalling many passing thoughts which could have become a column during the year if more time was available.

Admittedly one of the crazier ideas evolved from conversation during the Little Brown Jug. In case you weren’t aware, the Jug winner is no longer required to win two heats to be crowned champion. The conditions now call for eliminations and a final only contested on the same day.

Gone are the thoughts from those in the crowd and press box of a potential match race between two to four horses for the title. While the race still remains a classic where fortitude and endurance is tested twice in one day, we’ve lost that added lure of a special treat, like extra innings in baseball or maybe two fortunes in our fortune cookie. We’ve conformed to the norm, which is no doubt in the best interests of the horses but not necessarily the nostalgia of the race itself.

While I began following Harness Racing in 1990, I really didn’t start paying attention to the national stakes scene until the early 2000’s. Year after year I would watch the Jug either via simulcast or in person waiting for the one time where I could witness a race-off between heat winners. While I could go back and watch the replays, sadly I don’t have a lasting memory of any because there hasn’t been one since Astreos won the Jug in three heats back in 2000. That’s right, I said 2000! Tradition was killed off for something that hadn’t occurred in over 15 years.

Why is any of this relevant? Well, there would have been a race-off in 2017 between first heat winner Fear The Dragon and second heat winner Filibuster Hanover if the conditions weren’t changed. I was there and I missed my chance at a memory. And I’m pissed . . . or maybe slightly saddened . . . lol.

Rather than rant on about what is already in the history books, I’d like to look ahead to the future and how to make not just the Little Brown Jug but other elimination/final style races better for the overall health of the sport.

Starting with the Jug, and as I admitted this is outside the box thinking, if a different horse wins each of the heats there is no Little Brown Jug champion that year. So in 2017 Filibuster Hanover would not be recognized as the winner of the Jug. Wait for it . . .

Both Filibuster Hanover and Fear The Dragon would return in 2018 for a race-off to determine the champion with a winner-take-all pot of $1,000,000. Now there is drama. A year of anticipation for owners, trainers, drivers, fans as we await this showdown. And we are creating a reason for star 3-year-olds to bypass retirement for one more year of racing. Plus the regular Jug Day card is supplemented with this wondrously promotable event.

Here are the details as I see them:

► Elimination purses are reduced to $25,000 each.

► Second heat purse is now guaranteed at $500,000.

► If a horse wins both heats they are the champion

► If only one heat winner shows up the following year they must compete against a track-selected competitor. The Jug heat winner will be eligible for $1,000,000 if they win. The competitor will be guaranteed $250,000 with a win.

Before proceeding, let’s address where the extra money is coming from to pay for the purses. The Jug paid out just shy of $600,000 in 2017 so the elimination and second heats are accounted for already. I say this without any direct knowledge of cost, but it seems reasonable that the purse for a potential final the following year can be insured with a smaller payment amount. We went 16 years without a race-off being necessary. I’m sure some company would take a chance with a $100,000 payment every year in exchange for guaranteeing $1,000,000 if a final heat was required.

My second thought for coming up with the money is that the track has discussed having a $1,000,000 purse for the Jug recently. If that extra $400,000 exists, let’s put it aside and delay my new conditions for two years. By that time the track will have $1.2 million on hand to fund the large prize. If the slush fund reaches more than $2,000,000 (no race-off for 5 consecutive years), the extra $400,000 each year moves into the second heat, making it worth $900,000.

It’s that easy. We’ve restored that tradition of a race-off. We’ve potentially created another reason for people to watch and attend the Little Brown Jug. We’ve found a way to entice the stars of our sport to stick around. Best of all, we’ve created a once or twice-in-a-lifetime race that will be a must-see event.

Moving away from the Jug, why can’t this concept be adopted at other tracks? How about the Meadowlands Pace since owner/operator Jeff Gural loves the idea of horses returning for their 4-year-old campaigns? Even though the eliminations and finals are a week apart, why not make it mandatory that a horse win two heats to be crowned champion? Elimination races are instantly vital because if you don’t win, you can’t be named champion until the following year. So we immediately remove any thoughts of taking it easy to “make the final”.

Think of the rivalries that can be created if a handful of the top races which use the elimination/final format where altered. Imagine Fear The Dragon, Miso Fast and Downbytheseaside all having to return in 2018 to become the Hempt champion on Sun Stakes night at the Downs at Pocono while the current year’s 3-year-olds try to secure the same title without a race-off.

There is no doubt it is an unorthodox idea to have stakes races where horses can’t be declared the champion. Maybe winning an elimination just makes you eligible to a “bonus” race for next year? Eliminations are contested, let’s say for the Meadowlands Pace, and horses advance to the final as normal. The winner of the final is crowned champion but that horse along with any elimination winners are automatically eligible for a race-off the following year worth $250,000, with a portion of that prize money coming out of the purse of the final.

If we could get the North America Cup, Hempt, Meadowlands Pace, Adios and Little Brown Jug on board, 4-year-olds would have the chance to compete against their peers in small fields for a good purse five times. And remember, these are winner-take-all races, so they should be fun to watch and give an exceptional horse an opportunity to win plenty of money outside of whatever regular stakes schedule they may keep versus older foes.

I’m enough of a realist to know this idea will likely fade away into the sunset. All I ask is to spend 15 minutes contemplating what I wrote; even if you don’t like the idea. Maybe there is something buried inside my words that will spur you a fresh concept of your own. There is a game-changing idea out there somewhere. We just need to extract it from our minds.