01/05/2014 10:38PM

Jay Bergman: More winter dates needed at the Meadowlands

Derick Giwner
Despite frigid temperatures, the Meadowlands handled over $6.5 million on the weekend of January 4.

Handicapping the races at the Meadowlands is always a challenge. With the track now offering competitive events with full fields featuring the nation’s premier drivers, picking winners is something that takes time and effort. Adding to the degree of difficulty, of course, is the weather that can vary from cold to colder and windy conditions that even changes at times during the middle of the night.

This year the challenge has taken on a new wrinkle that would seem in the power of the race office to change if there was a willingness to do so. With the Meadowlands until January carding but two 13-race programs a week, the classes racing have been restricted to the highest caliber of horse. Along the way a few “C” class races have been sprinkled in.

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This last weekend, despite the Meadowlands adding an additional night of racing, there were races on Friday and Saturday where a large majority of the 10-horse fields in lower class races hadn’t raced in four weeks. The problem was first called to my attention by a few trainers, who claimed they had tried to enter the lower level classes and were unable to get in.

Yet, looking upon these particular races on Friday and Saturday as a handicapper, a question kept popping into my head. Were these horses that had been idle for nearly a month physically fit to race? Had they actually been entered over the last three weeks and never got in? Analyzing the program pages, the answers to these key questions were unattainable.

Confidence is a key factor in placing wagers and quite frankly a field of horses with limited competitive lines in the last four weeks is more likely to force me to turn the page rather than put my hand in my pocket.

The Meadowlands has taken a strong stand in choosing not to race four nights a week even during the prime season for harness wagering--the winter. Later this month the track will be closed prior to the Super Bowl and that will again create another gap between horses’ past performances.

“I more than anyone else . . . would love to be racing four nights per week,” said Meadowlands Director of Racing Darin Zoccali. “I too, do not want to see gaps in races and I agree, it does make handicapping more difficult.”

However, changing the dynamic to allow for more races has not been put on the agenda for the Meadowlands anytime soon. Even the two programs lost to winter weather in the last month will not be rescheduled this winter and instead Zoccali indicated the track would look for a Saturday after the Hambletonian to replace one of the lost days should the NFL preseason allow for it.

Therein lies the rub.

The Meadowlands has been flush with horsemen looking to race, albeit some at a lower level than others this winter. Many of these horsemen have been shut out, with owners losing valuable opportunities to make money. How does adding one day in August make up for missed opportunities in December and January?

The Meadowlands will race one Wednesday (January 22) before taking a break and coming back after the Super Bowl on Thursday February 6.

With Yonkers Raceway opening in 2014 sporting a purse structure that’s 20 percent below what they had been racing for in December, it appears as if the Meadowlands has an extraordinary opportunity to be able to attract horses while not breaking the purse account to do so. We suggested to Zoccali that perhaps the Meadowlands could add races (or one additional racing date per week) to assure that more horses are racing regularly this winter.

“Technically, you are right. I could lower the C-2 to $6,000 and the C-1 to $8,000, card a $10K claimer for $7,500 or so and put together a Wednesday card where the total purses are around $70,000,” Zoccali said. “But how do I lower these purses showing the gains we showed in 2013?”

Therein lies the second rub.

The horsemen that are getting shutout of the box at the Meadowlands would obviously rather race twice a month for something a little less as opposed to once a month for 20 percent more. Gamblers would also benefit greatly from this dynamic because they would be less confused by the gaps in starts. Perhaps that could help increase the handle somewhat.

If Yonkers can reduce its purses by 20 percent with slot machines backing the account in a major way, how is it possible horsemen in New Jersey would balk at a purse reduction when they can obviously understand the Meadowlands doesn’t have slot money to draw on?

Zoccali suggests that Wednesday doesn’t work, primarily because racing that day would draw from the purse account without producing the handle the Meadowlands does on Fridays and Saturdays. It’s certainly logical, however, according to Zoccali’s example of a $70,000 Wednesday program, it doesn’t at all seem that taxing when you consider the Meadowlands shelled out $200,000 in purses each night this past Friday and Saturday.

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The Meadowlands had a bang up first two nights of 2014, handling nearly $3 million on Friday and $3.6 million on Saturday. It seems possible a Wednesday card facing limited competition from other harness signals could handle one-third as much as a Friday or Saturday.

In defending the Meadowlands position to maintain its current schedule, Zoccali touched on a point that deserves airing. “Most people don’t know, the majority of our purses are driven by import, which is money bet that we have very little control over. Going into a new building, not having any idea what our import was going to do, was not the time to take a chance and start adding days. I think this is reasonable to say. If things go well, more days in 2015 is something we can look into,” Zoccali said.

For those harness fans that would like to see more racing at the Meadowlands this winter I suggest you follow me to the windows on Wednesday, January 22.