07/12/2017 10:18AM

Yonkers: New finish line producing good early results

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Three weeks after its unveiling, the new finish line at Yonkers Raceway is producing favorable results. Following a long regulatory approval process, the New York State Gaming Commission granted Yonkers Raceway permission to begin contesting races using a new finish line June 16, 2017. The change altered the track configuration, shortening the stretch by 105 feet and lengthening the distance from the start to the first turn by the same distance.

The shift set out to increase the competiveness of the races by giving horses starting from posts seven and eight a better chance to put themselves into the race. Additionally, the shorter stretch is designed to encourage drivers to mount an outside charge sooner. Overall, the new finish line sought to increase racing action in the early and middle stages of the races in order to produce more compelling races from a wagering standpoint.

“It’s just 100% better in all aspects. The starts, the finish, mid-race. Everything is just 100% better,” said George Brennan, who with 38 wins, has visited the winner’s circle more than any other driver since the new wire debuted.

The statistics back up Brennan’s claim. From Jan. 1 to June 15, horses starting from post seven won at just 5.6% and finished in the top three at a 19.9% clip from 1,133 starts. From June 16 to July 10, horses starting from post seven won at a 9.1% clip and hit the board 22.2% of the time from 176 starts. This marks a 62.3% improvement in win percentage and an 11.4% improvement in the frequency of hitting the board.

Despite post seven’s dramatic increase in win percentage, winning from post eight is still a difficult assignment even with the new finish line. The outside’s win percentage held steady in each period, at 2.9%. However, the place percentage nearly doubled after the new finish line was introduced as it jumped from 5.6% to 10.1% and the show percentage showed a similar increase from 10.7% to 14.5% (from 900 and 138 starts, respectively).

In addition to the positive post position trends, Yonkers’ percentage of winning favorites decreased after the introduction of the new finish line. Favorites connected at a 42% clip before June 15 and a 38% from June 16 on, a decrease of 8%.

While the numbers are trending in the right direction, they don’t tell the whole story. There are many intangible effects the new wire has had on the races. For Brennan, safety tops them all.

“Before, we were never able to drive out our horses through the wire because as soon as you hit the wire, the horses would bunch up like accordions on the turn. I’ve actually been knocked down twice after the wire just getting hooked up,” said Brennan. “Now, we can actually drive our horses through the finish and it’s not even an issue anymore.”

Brennan also feels the starts are much fairer for all under the new wire. In addition to the obvious benefit of more straight track before the first turn, he says horses are more settled as they enter the turn, particularly trotters.

“There’s more of a straightaway to leave now. Before, a lot of horses weren’t able to get set with their gaits, especially the trotters,” Brennan recalled. “Now they’re all set with their gait when they hit the first turn and they stand a better chance of getting through the first turn.”

Longer distance into the first turn can be a double-edged sword for outside starters though, as driver Jordan Stratton explains. While the additional distance encourages the seven and eight horses to leave, it has the same affect on the four, five, and six.

“With the previous wire, maybe the five and six wouldn’t be taking a shot because the one and two would be leaving,” he reasoned. “Where with the new wire, the one, two, four, five, six, and me were all trying to leave and I ended up having to retreat all the way back to last. It has goods and bads.”

While skeptical about the start of the races, Stratton feels the shortened stretch is forcing horses to pull sooner in the mile, as advertised.

“As soon as you’re coming out of the second turn, you have to pull, whereas before, you were trying to wait past the third turn,” he said. “You had a little extra time. I’ve seen horses first-over last a lot longer than they have before.”

Brennan doesn’t find himself pulling sooner, he said, but does agree with the sentiment that horses are lasting longer on the rim.

“I’ve had horses last. They may not win, but they’re right there on the wire first-over. Coming first-over with them they really grind up,” he explained. “Even with the shorter stretch, I’ve seen closers win, so it’s certainly not a totally speed-biased track. It helps to be up close, but you can work from second-over, third-over.”

With the relocation of the finish line also came the relocation of the pan camera. Previously stationed off the finish line, the poor viewing angle proved frustrating to all who enjoyed the races on TV or online. Now, the camera is mounted directly on the finish line.

“It was so deceptive before, it looked like the inside horse won by a neck and it was the outside horse by a head. I can only imagine how frustrating that would be for a bettor,” Brennan empathized. “But now, some of the races I haven’t been in, I watched it. For the most part you can call a photo now.”

Although it will take more time to draw final conclusions about the new finish line, it is clear after three weeks that the results are trending the right direction. 

-edited release (SOA of NY)