03/10/2014 12:42PM

Jay Bergman: Has the passing lane become passé?

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Derick Giwner
The Delaware County Fairgrounds is one of the few half-mile tracks to host major races without the use of a passing lane.

There must be those in the administration of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie that just can’t believe what kind of damage could come from closing off a few lanes of traffic at the George Washington Bridge.

The same could be said of the opposite tact taken in harness racing.

To those forward-minded people that wanted to rid the sport of “boxed-in” horses, the “passing lane” or open stretch as some have referred to it, was a blessing.

Yet looking back to the future one has to question whether the racing game has shifted so dramatically as to actually make the “passing lane” more likely to stifle movement than create it.

The sport has evolved dramatically since the first implementation of a passing lane over 22 years ago. The style of racing with the evolution in equipment, the removal of the hub rail and advancements in training (we’ll include medicine in this category) have changed the way races are contested. When the passing lane concept was introduced, races were being run with fast first and last quarters and slow middle halves. On smaller tracks (where passing lanes were introduced first), horses in control of the pace generally used to be able to keep the competition sitting directly behind them from getting out. Cagey drivers would allow the first-over horse to get close enough to protect the pocket horse from ever finding room.

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This of course was a nightmare to those bettors that would throw away perfectly good win wagers just because their horse never had a chance to win.

So in the name of those players, the game was changed and I guess it was thought that everyone would have a better chance at success and wouldn’t be able to curse (then in person, now to a television) their misfortune.

With evolution, progress is expected. But what happens when progress is not found?

In the case of the passing lane, what has shifted is obviously not public appeal. The sport is no more popular today because of the passing lane. It’s also fair to say that the passing lane has not spurred on added wagering, though it would be impossible to blame the shift for all wagering movement.

What is clear is that the passing lane, and I would suggest increased purses, has effectively done what those players in the Christie camp did last September.

Stymied traffic.

For today, in many racing settings, a horse sitting third upon the rail, even one at low odds, has less and less incentive to pull and challenge the leader before the half-mile marker is reached.

Because the speed of the game has shifted so dramatically, the first-over move on smaller tracks and in some cases bigger tracks, more often puts the challenger in a position not to win, but lose any chance of getting a check.

In a sport that has shifted to predominantly catch-drivers (those who derive all of their income from the results of each race), the promise of 12 percent or a third-place check is much better than risking a sixth place finish with no consolation prize.

Money drives the game and those who drive the horses for five percent of the purse understand better than anyone how important a check can be to the trainer and owner of a horse. While we all would love to win, fewer and fewer will attempt to win at all costs.

Therein lies the problem with the passing lane and the sport we’re covering. Change was made to advance our interests and few have looked at the results and questioned whether the change actually paid off in dollars and cents, or whether the sport’s future has been paralyzed by it.

As we look ahead to the coming George Morton Levy and Blue Chip Matchmaker series races, where the cream of our aged pacing crop will race for six consecutive weekends beginning on March 21 and 22 at Yonkers Raceway, the concern is what kind of racing will we get for an extraordinary amount of money?

As those two series have evolved over the years, there have been so many preliminary legs thwarted by odds-on favorites and longshots unwilling to take chances. It’s understandable from a pure financial stake why drivers handling longshots in $50,000 races don’t make moves. The basic question for all to answer is where does this lead us as a sport?

What is the overall benefit to racing in putting on what we believe to be the best of racing, only to showcase an endless supply of races that don’t meet the smell test of competition?

The presence of a passing lane allows drivers to justify sitting in even when they are piloting what the toteboard suggests is a competitive horse. Take away the passing lane and suddenly the driver must make an earlier decision and avoid the risk of getting locked in and perhaps earning no check.

The sport is certainly at a crossroads now, but those who believe that all change is positive should look to rethink those positions. The passing lane at the time of its imposition improved the chances of one horse in every race, the one sitting directly behind the pacesetter.

Watching enough of today’s racing it appears as if the presence of the passing lane alone has forced the hand of drivers and not in a good way. Those sitting third and fourth on the rail over the half-mile tracks tend to be far too protective of their horses. In turn, this allows the pacesetter the freedom to cut much more comfortable fractions and thus compromise the chances of any horses coming from the back of the pack.

If the sport is serious about a more competitive and prosperous future, perhaps there are some unemployed former members of the Christie team who could lend a hand so that we can forever shut our passing lanes.

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