01/13/2012 12:29AM

Weighing Yonkers’ switch back to one mile racing


As anyone who follows Yonkers Raceway regularly knows by now, track management has decided to return to the standard 1 mile distance for all of their overnight races. Early in 2011, the decision was made to extend all overnight events to 1 1/16 miles, going back to a concept that was originally implemented some fifteen years ago, with the hopes of making the racing product more competitive. The format that they used, up until their closing in 2005 for VLT renovations, was to alternate back and forth between a mile and the added distance events approximately bi-weekly, which often led to much confusion among handicappers and horsemen alike. On February 3rd of last year, they switched all overnight events to the added distance, leaving only stakes and series events at the traditional 1 mile.

So why now the sudden change back?

Yonkers Raceway General Manager Bob Galterio told harnessracingupdate.com that handle was down slightly last year, perhaps due to the closure of NYC OTB. Galterio said the decision was made to revert to one mile racing to see how handle holds up.

Arguments can be made on both sides of the fence. Which is better, 1 mile racing or 1 1/16 miles?

The one mile distance argument:

One mile races have been the standard in Harness Racing seemingly since the beginning of time. The breed of horses that include the pacers and trotters are known as Standardbreds, originally because of their ability to complete a one mile distance in a given matter of time. Lifelong horsemen and handicappers are used to the one mile standard, and a deviation of that distance can cause confusion when it comes to comparing the added-distance races to mile races. In 2011, Yonkers Raceway was the only North American track to not race at the standard mile distance

The added-distance argument:

The most obvious benefit to the added-distance races is the longer run the field has into the first turn when the starter says “go”. Many years ago, Yonkers Raceway moved the finish line further down the stretch, with the intention of making a more exciting stretch run, thus allowing horses closing from the back more chances to get into the action. At 660 feet Yonkers offered the longest stretch of any half-mile racetrack. The drawback is that there is less early run at the start before the field banks into the turn. Before Yonkers reopened in the VLT era, the track was slightly reconfigured, making that initial run even shorter. This presented not only a disadvantage to the outside horses, but also a potential safety issue with the field of horses and the mobile starting gate speeding into the clubhouse turn. Management’s solution was to release the horses slightly before the actual start, but not start the timing of the race until the field hit the wire. Basically, the switch to the added sixteenth of a mile extended this idea.

With the longer run into the first turn, the perception is that outside horses can leave the gate and have more of a chance to gain good position before getting hung up on a turn. When looking at the post position statistics over the past couple of seasons, that theory holds up pretty well. For the 2010 season, where virtually all races were contested at a flat mile, outside starters were practically dead in the water. Starters from post six finished in the money less than 29 percent of the time, post seven barely 19 percent, and post eight a meager 14 percent. Looking at a sampling from 2011’s added-distance events, post six clicked at 32 percent, post seven at over 24 percent, and even the dreaded post eight was up significantly at 20.2 percent. Those statistics alone prove that there was more competitive racing. It seems that drivers were more willing to take a shot firing off the gate, with the hopes of getting a live trip.

So what can be done to make the 1 mile racing as competitive as the added distance events?

Currently the field is released slightly before the actual “start”, meaning that the horses are actually travelling a touch over a mile anyway, but the race is not timed as such. Conceivably, the races could start at the mile and a sixteenth point but be timed as one mile races. Maywood Park, a half-mile track outside of Chicago, for example, cuts their fields loose well before the official timer is tripped, allowing for more early run into the first turn. If Yonkers were to do this, it could be a win-win situation. The races could remain more balanced and competitive, and the mile time, which is the industry standard, could remain intact.