03/16/2016 8:49AM

Zoccali: Congestion in the 3-year-old schedule

Lisa Photo
A Rocknroll Dance had a strong 3-year-old season but got worn down late by the hectic schedule.

While maximizing options for one’s best horses is advantageous for owners and trainers alike, too many options for one class of stakes horses is detrimental to the racetracks.  Yet, with each passing year, it seems as though the 3-year-old pacing colts are given an increasing number of stakes races to choose from.  The caveat to that is the fact that these races are grouped together over a short period of time.  Worse than that, many of these races include elimination races which restrict the schedule even further.

Over the past several years, the eight-week period between the second Saturday of June and the last week of July have featured nearly $3 Million in stakes events. These glamour division races for the sophomore colt pacers included the North America Cup, Max Hempt Memorial, Meadowlands Pace and Adios. 

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In 2012, A Rocknroll Dance, following a troubled trip in the North America Cup, won the Max Hempt Memorial and the Meadowlands Pace, before finishing a game second in The Adios, a race in which he set torrid fractions and helped produce a world record mile for Bolt The Duer.  Although A Rocknroll Dance would win the Battle of the Brandywine in August, he would go winless from that point on in his 3-year-old season as that stretch of races seemed to negatively impact the second half of his campaign.

Horsemen have certainly taken notice of this.  In fact, over the last three years, not a single horse has attempted to compete in all four of these races.  In 2013, Captaintreacherous skipped the Adios after winning the North America Cup, Max Hempt Memorial and Meadowlands Pace.  In 2014, North America Cup winner JK Endofanera skipped both the Hempt and the Adios.  He’s Watching, the Meadowlands Pace winner the same year, skipped the same pair of races.  In 2015, neither Wiggle It Jiggleit (Hempt/Pace winner) nor Wakizashi Hanover (N.A. Cup winner) competed in the Adios.  Yet despite this trend, nothing has been done to alter the schedule.  In fact, the opposite has occurred in that more races have been added.

In addition to being the two richest races for 3-year-old pacers , the Meadowlands Pace and North America Cup also carry the most weight in both name recognition and prospects for a future stallion career.  They will always attract the cream of the crop from the division.  The only exception to this is owner/trainer Casie Coleman, who has implemented an embargo on the Meadowlands Pace, seemingly due to a run of bad luck in the race (i.e. Sportswriter, who never raced again after the Meadowlands Pace).

The Max Hempt Memorial is second in line chronologically and thus still captures several, if not most of the top-flight 3-year-old pacers.  The race that really gets hurt is the Adios.  In 2013, they missed out on Captaintreacherous.  That year, the race favorite was the highly-talented Vegas Vacation, who was trained by Casie Coleman (he skipped the Meadowlands Pace).  In 2014, McWicked won as the overwhelming favorite, also trained by Coleman (also skipped The Pace).  The next four under the wire that year, Somewhere In LA, Cammikey, Beat The Drum and At Press Time, while nice horses, were not exactly a “who’s who” of the sophomore pacing division.  Last year, Dude’s The Man took the orchids over Yankee Bounty and Lost For Words.  Again, all nice horses, but notably absent were Wiggle It Jiggleit and Wakizashi Hanover.  Essentially, unless Casie Coleman has a marquee 3- year-old pacer, the Adios field will be comprised of many horses that didn’t compete in one, two or any of the three elite races that immediately precede it, and thus the field will not be as strong as it could be.

But it is virtually impossible for the Adios to look for a new home on the schedule because things will only be more cramped in 2016.  In addition to these four races holding their typical place on the stakes schedule, once again the Cane Pace will be contested on Hambletonian Day.  The Carl Millstein Memorial is one week later at Northfield Park and the Battle of Brandywine one week after that.  That marks 11 consecutive weeks of eliminations or $300,000-plus Finals of races for the same division.  The Empire Breeders Classic Final for New York-sired 3-year-olds falls between the Battle of the Brandywine at Pocono and the Messenger at Yonkers.  Earlier in the season, Pocono Downs will offer 3-year-old Pennsylvania-sired horses a $500,000 prize in the Pennsylvania Classic on May 7th, and the Art Rooney elims are two weeks after that.  Simply put, there are just too many races in too short a period of time.

If racetracks are not willing to alter the schedule of these races, then elimination races should be removed from the equation entirely.  The money that would have been used for eliminations should be placed into a consolation format, like in the Battle of the Brandywine, and the races should be tiered and seeded by lifetime earnings.  For the record, I would have no problem with stretching the fields of these finals to 12 or 14 horses on a mile track or 10 to 12 horses on racetracks less than a mile to maximize the opportunity of those looking to race in the Final of each event.  Amazingly, over a five-month period, there are 11 stakes Finals for 3-year-old pacers that offer a purse of at least $300,000.  That is 11 stakes Finals in 21 weeks.  Add in elimination races and literally every week is filled in.  If that isn’t enough, after the 21 weeks we get to see the same horses square off again in the Breeders Crown for the umpteenth time in the same season.  So while we are at it, let’s combine all the payments and make the Breeders Crown 3-year-olds and up, eliminate the races just for 3-year-olds, because we certainly have more than enough of those.

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