06/16/2016 4:13PM

Marks: Creating a Classic event for Harness Racing


I’ve been reading how nice it would be if Harness Racing had some form of Kentucky Derby Day in which the attention would be focused on a harness race as it is at Churchill, the first Saturday in May.

It’s a wonderful thought, though I’m not sure how practical it would be given the unique way the buildup starts to that fateful Saturday in May.

Unlike our sophomores, who are either turned out or just starting back from a long hiatus, thoroughbred 3-year-olds are busy little beavers during the months of February, March and April at a series of lucrative and often nationally televised stepping stones across the country.

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At Gulfstream Park in Florida, there’s the gradual buildup to the Florida Derby.  Ditto at California’s great race place Santa Anita, where all roads point to the Santa Anita Derby. In Arkansas, Oaklawn Park offers the Arkansas Derby with races like the Rebel. The same holds true at Louisiana’s Fair Grounds via the Louisiana Derby. Then of course those braving the winter chill at Aqueduct will point to the Wood Memorial. And lest we forget, the Blue Grass Stake at Keeneland, which is their banner day.

Sometimes the major contenders will meet each other along the way and sometimes not. The point here is that by the time the first Saturday in May rolls around, anybody who can read a sports page is at least somewhat aware of just who the major Kentucky Derby contenders happen to be.

Thus it becomes an iconic event like the Super Bowl, The Masters, Wimbledon, or any other finale in which the buildup has been ongoing and heavily promoted.

We in harness racing don’t have such an event, at least on our side of the Atlantic.

Yes, some have said The Hambletonian should be, but the problem is there aren’t enough “stepping stones” to acquaint outsiders with just who the major contenders happen to be.

Years back, when the Hambo was held at DuQuoin in September, it was generally preceded by major events like the Dexter Cup, Yonkers Trot, Colonial, and Vernon’s Gold Cup. The contenders got to mix it up along the way and the Hambletonian could function as a coronation, with the Kentucky Futurity often taking on a rematch role.

Nowadays, The Hambletonian is generally the first time the major contenders see each other and other than us, the industry related, few in the outside world have any idea just who they are.

Another idea often bandied about is readjusting the Breeders Crown so that it simulates the Breeders’ Cup in terms of Classic presentation.

It is undeniable that American Pharoah cemented his claim as one of the great thoroughbreds of all time last year simply by avenging his Travers setback with a decisive win over all comers in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The Classic and other Breeders’ Cup races are for 3-year-olds and up. Only the 2-year-old divisions are segregated amongst themselves. Thus American Pharoah defeated the best the world had to offer on dirt at the classic 1-1/4 mile distance.

If memory serves, Secretariat avenged his “Onion” episode at Saratoga defeating a star-studded field including Riva Ridge, Cougar II and Kennedy Road in the inaugural Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park. Secretariat was a 3-year-old at that time.

Many a thoroughbred trainer has been quoted as saying the two must-win days on the calendar for 3-year-olds are the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Historically championship harness 3-year-olds have more than held their own against their elders in the fall of the year, as the annals are filled with the exploits of Shadow Wave. Scott Frost, Bullet Hanover, True Duane, Most Happy Fella, Oil Burner and others who distinguished in those old American Classics that were traditions at Hollywood Park.

Moreover, it might have been really interesting if Always B Miki, Freaky Feet Pete and Wiggle it Jiggleit got together in a classic encounter last year, just as it would have been for Muscle Hill and Lucky Jim to compete in their year.

The key word here is classic. If you want a classic crowd, you’d best have a classic event to lure them in. That said, there’s no question the second biggest day in the thoroughbred world is Breeders’ Cup Day, the day America goes to the races.

Under the prevailing circumstances, replicating a Kentucky Derby-like day for Harness Racing seems unlikely, as the vehicle for such a thing does not exist at this time.

However, we do have the Breeders Crown and if the industry would finally get together for the good of the whole, it could emerge as the night North America goes to the harness races. Or perhaps the day, were we to stage it at The Red Mile.

The format would be as follows: 

►        Four races for the juvenile set segregated by gait and sex.

►        Four Classic races for 3-year-olds and up also segregated by gait and sex.

In the Cup, 3-year-olds get a slight weight edge over their aged rivals. Conversely, 3-year-olds could draw for inside posts in the Crown Classics.

Make it sufficiently lucrative and it would indeed all come down to the Breeders Crown.   

[MOHAWK: Watch the entire North America Cup card--Live on DRF Saturday!]