03/10/2014 12:42PM

Jay Bergman: Has the passing lane become passé?

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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Steven Katz More than 1 year ago
I think Jay nailed it with this piece (and a very clever analogy to Bridgegate, too).
Matties More than 1 year ago
Been saying for years. The passing lane is the worst thing ever.
Cyclops More than 1 year ago
the passing lane needs to go. Watching Yonkers is about as exciting as watching paint dry. Are there any judges at Yonkers? Why can't they get involved? How about only giving checks to the top two finishers? Half the drivers there are a joke. Maybe they should let Walter Case back. Another favorite of mine is Jimmy Morrill. He doesn't care he shoots for the front and doesn't care if he gets parked. How about giving days out for giving courtesy holes?
Robert Pandolfo More than 1 year ago
Scott Ehrlich More than 1 year ago
Jay, I agree with many of your points! Here is a reprint of my thoughts on this very topic from a Facebook discussion not too long ago. The open-stretch creates complacency (half-mile racing especially)! Guys sitting 3rd, more so on a half-miler, won't pull because they know they'll get a lane. The pocket-sitter will stay put behind a battle, then duck inside & snap the 1st-over horse (at the wire) who FOUGHT & raced his GUTS out only to be beat by a horse that did nothing (knew he had the open-stretch). Hard work should be rewarded! It also takes strategy out of the picture. Example (again, especially on a half-miler): Before the open-stretch, drivers from the outside would leave for the 4-hole to eventually flush out the 3-hole. Won't happen if the 3-hole, as mentioned above, decides to sit/wait/hope - - which happens a good portion of the time. Thus the 8-hole, especially on a half-miler, mostly becomes a trip around the track for a hopeful low-end check (hurts the handle), or a scratch. Also, the leader won't back into the field midway through the final-turn and keep the inside locked in for as long as he can (helps the outside flow to gain) because he knows they're going to get the open-stretch. On the flip side, I will say that the open-stretch creates early movement, but it also creates less movement from that point on. With no open-stretch, a driver will give his horse a liver drive. This creates more chances for others!! Sitting and waiting for the open-stretch creates LESS movement which equals less of a chance. ALSO, more movement creates value. And for those that sit and get locked in - - their mistake. For us, we have a horse to bet the following week that is better than looks, which creates value. And maybe that next week, that same driver won't be as complacent. If you happen to have followed Chicago harness racing, think back to the difference in racing & bias when Hawthorne raced, compared to Balmoral. Closers ALWAYS did better at Hawthorne (no open-stretch), and as a result, value at Hawthorne was always better. Speed at Balmoral, once they went to the mile-oval (open-stretch the last 1/8th of a mile of the quarter of a mile homestretch) full-time, carried much better than Hawthorne (same horses). Oddly though, closers at Balmoral when it was a 5-8ths mile oval, did better (sometimes on the same card when they raced both at the same time than on the mile. Why? No open-stretch, and less of a stretch length. Hence you had to hustle your horse into position! For us Chicagoans, not having an open-stretch didn't bother the 18,000+ of us at Sportsman's Park every weekend in the 70's-80's! With all due respect to Rich "Doc" Herbert (inventor of the open-stretch), I don't like the open-stretch for the reasons above - - even if I take advantage of it wagering wise. Thank you for the time! Scott Ehrlich
Jeff Biever More than 1 year ago
Scott is absolutely correct. Look at virtually any Yonkers race, and you will see little movement till the 5/8 pole. Racing for outsized purses, enhanced by the slots, there is truly no reason to pull, since the open stretch beckons. Outlaw the open stretch, start the races the way Maywood does (releasing the horses well before the teletimer starts), and you will see more competitive racing and a more balanced odds board, and that will stimulate handle.