05/16/2016 2:26PM

Pandolfo: Iovino is helping Saratoga Harness carve a niche

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Saratoga Harness Racing Secretary Peter Iovino.

Peter Iovino has been the racing secretary at Saratoga Casino and Raceway since 2014. The former Harness Eye chart caller and editor got his first racetrack job working as the assistant racing secretary at Freehold in 2008.

Like most half mile tracks, Saratoga is speed favoring. Iovino carded some 1-1/16 mile races last year, but the experiment was not met with open arms by the horsemen.

"The trainers up here are a tough group," Iovino said. "I know that the industry as a whole is resistant to change, but these guys are really set in their ways."

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Despite the pushback, Iovino brought back the added-distance events this year for the higher class races, particularly the handicap races.

"Using the Open Handicap Trot as an example, the purse is $15,000. That's better than many tracks, so it's not like we're in a bad spot,” said Iovino. “But, with the half-mile track and post position bias, you're not going to get quality horses if you put the best horses in posts 7 and 8 going a mile. It's too much of a disadvantage. I went with the mile and a sixteenth distance for these handicaps because it gives the outside posts a much better chance, they can leave the gate."

For those of you who may not be familiar with handicap races, the idea of the handicap is to create a more competitive and exciting race. In thoroughbred racing, the better horses have to carry more weight. Legendary horses like Kelso and Forego established themselves as racing icons with their heroic victories carrying more than 130 pounds.

In harness racing, the better horses are given the disadvantage of the outside posts. Years ago, it was fine to run these races at a mile. Now outside posts win at a much lower percentage, so the handicap is too severe at the one mile distance. At a mile and a sixteenth, the outside horses have a longer run to the first turn. Racing the handicap races at the longer distance is a smart move by Iovino and something that all half mile tracks should implement.

So far in 2016, the handle at Saratoga Harness is up over the prior two years.

"I think we've found a niche," Iovino said. "When you race is very important. For instance, on Thursday, we moved the first post from early afternoon to 4 p.m. We were doing less than $200,000. Now Thursday's handle is usually over $300,000 and that's with 12 races. And Sunday afternoon has been good for us, with handle often over $500,000. It's a good spot for us because not that many harness tracks were racing on Sunday."

Another factor that helps fill the fields is the races for all New York bred horses.

"We card about six of these all state-bred races a week," Iovino said. "There are generally three classes. Maidens race for $7,500, non-winners of two race for $8,000, and winners over two but not four races has a purse of $9,300. This gives a lot of horses a chance to race that might otherwise be prematurely retired. It's great for owners of New York bred horses that didn't turn out to be superstars."

Last year Saratoga hired a new track maintenance manager, Adam Barger. He's kept the surface consistent and safe.

"The track layout is a lot like the Little Brown Jug, wide, sweeping turns and short straightaways. And like the Delaware, Ohio oval, this is a very fast half mile track."

Unlike some tracks, at Saratoga Harness, the drivers are aggressive.

"I think our driver’s colony is underrated," Iovino said. "At some tracks, the drivers aren't racing their horses aggressively. You don't want to see them sitting single file until the five-eighths with a slow pace. At Saratoga, the drivers are here to race, the pace is usually quick.  We have several drivers who are experts on half-mile ovals and a strong overall group of drivers. Stephane Bouchard, who was the top driver at Yonkers many times, is the leading driver right now.  Billy Dobson and Frank Coppola, Jr. are second and third in the standings, but both have won the dash-winning title here."

This summer Saratoga Casino and Raceway will unveil a brand new 117 room hotel. Scheduled to open on July 11, the new facility will have modern amenities like an indoor pool and spa, but old-time architecture that fits into the history of Saratoga Springs. Book a room now if you want to get a room this summer. Iovino told me that they expect to be at full capacity during the Saratoga thoroughbred meet.

While things are looking good right now at Saratoga, Iovino didn’t mince any words when asked about the overall future of harness racing.

"With fewer horses being bred, I think all harness tracks have to wake up to the fact that there will come a time where there won't be enough horses,” said Iovino. “There will be consolidation and some of the bottom level tracks won't be around. The industry needs to get together and do a much better job of scheduling racing dates and post times."

To find out more about Pandy’s handicapping theories check out his www.trotpicks.com or www.handicappingwinners.com websites, his free picks at handicapping.ustrotting.com/pandycapping.cfm or write to Bob Pandolfo, 112 Michael Ct., Northampton, PA 18067.