07/12/2016 9:04AM

Zoccali: Elimination races continue to do more harm than good


Elimination races and the procedures in place to determine the final fields of stakes events has become one of the most debated topics in harness racing.  The Ben Franklin Final at Pocono Downs effectively portrayed the benefit of elimination races.

The Ben Franklin was split into three eliminations.  The “big three” drew into separate eliminations and each of their performances set the stage for an epic confrontation in the final the following week.  It drove a social media firestorm, seemingly endless debates on not only who would win, but how the race would be contested, who would make the lead, who would be the favorite, etc.  It also gave Pocono Downs a week to market the event, get the races broadcast on TVG and reap the benefits of how the previous week’s elimination races set up this spectacle.

Of course, everything broke right for Pocono Downs.  The three best horses all drew into separate eliminations.  They all performed to a level that not only allowed them to each win their elimination, but to do so in a fashion that created an abundance of anticipation for the matchup in the final, and of course, the final lived up to all the hype.  Therefore, regardless of the fact that the eliminations were “bad betting races” won by overwhelming favorites, the end product far outweighed that negative.

However, what happened at Pocono is not always the way an elimination-final format for a stakes event plays out.  Case in point, this year’s Meadowlands Pace.

Contrary to the Free For All Pacers in 2016, whose combined talent is on a level we haven’t seen since the days of Jenna’s Beach Boy and Riyadh, the 3-year-old pacers can best be described as a lackluster group.  The North America Cup and Max Hempt Memorial have consolidated the contenders of this group down to a precious few.  The end result, 11 horses entered the Meadowlands Pace, which is no fault of The Meadowlands, but it is simply not a great group of 3-year old pacers. Unfortunately, being third in line of the major 3-year old races has left The Big M without any of the fringe horses that entered the North America Cup or the Max Hempt Memorial.

Since the draw came out for the Meadowlands Pace, the internet, social media specifically, has blown up, questioning the format of giving one horse (Racing Hill) a bye and having a 10 horse elimination to eliminate one horse. The Meadowlands has successfully altered its stakes for older horses to a format that excludes eliminations and allows the top 12 highest money earners of the past two racing seasons to contest the final.  The conditions also allow for a consolation if it can be filled with sufficient wagering interests.  The Meadowlands Pace, being a 3-year old event, still maintains its elimination/final format allowing only 10 to contest the Final, so when 11 horses enter, a bye/elimination scenario takes place.

Racetracks do feel pressure from owners, trainers and drivers who exclaim, “If I am paid into a race that goes for $700,000, my horse’s nose should be on the gate.”  That is a perfectly valid opinion, but I have to ask, wouldn’t you rather be guaranteed a spot in the Final for over $700,000 rather than have to contest an elimination where you could be denied that spot?  Interestingly enough, the Hambletonian follows a format where if less than 14 horses enter, the field goes straight to a final, which allows up to three horses that could be lined up in the second tier.  I don’t see anybody boycotting the Hambletonian though.

Now we have to address the elephant in the room.  When you have an elimination race for $50,000 in which you only have to beat one horse to qualify for the $700,000 Final, at what cost to your horse do you try to win the race?  I know we can’t say that and it is taboo, but it’s a perfectly legitimate question.  Racetracks try to incentivize the connections to win the elimination by guaranteeing they pick their post position in the final, but the fact that they have to offer an incentive confirms that the issue exists.  The results of eliminations and how much the incentive really does work are certainly mixed.

In the Meadowlands Pace Elimination, the two likely favorites, Boston Red Rocks and Control The Moment have both raced each of the last four weeks.  Control The Moment specifically has gone three very tough miles in a row and starts from post position number nine.  Given that Control The Moment, Boston Red Rocks or any of the other eight horses in this elimination only have to beat one horse to qualify for the Final, at what cost to their horse’s chances in the final will they try to win this race just for the opportunity to draw a post from slots one to six?  Make no mistake, I am not condoning the notion that it is “okay not to try,” but merely pointing out this a topic that needs to be addressed to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

Some gamblers scream bloody murder when their horse is given a “no chance” trip in an elimination.  I find that to be a bit over the top.  This is gambling after all.  I do understand that when you put your money down you should expect a maximum effort from your horse, driver and trainer.  After all, that sounds good on paper.  But a part of gambling is identifying certain intangibles and weighing the risk involved with betting on a particular horse, especially at a short price.

By the way, this happens in thoroughbred racing all the time.  Not only does it happen, but trainers use million-dollar grade one races as “preps” and have no problem saying that.  In 2001, Monarchos won the Florida Derby and was a strong favorite in the Grade I Wood Memorial, where he was taken far off the pace, allowing Congaree to set his own pace, and despite closing well, never threatened Congaree, finishing second, beaten over three lengths.  After the race, his trainer John Ward called it the “perfect prep coming off a big win in Florida.  We didn’t want him to peak today, we want him to peak in Kentucky,” which is exactly what Monarchos did, when he won The Kentucky Derby at 16-1.  Nobody had a problem with that.  In fact, many bettors used this as a handicapping tool to successfully bet Monarchos in the Kentucky Derby.  Had Monarchos won The Wood Memorial he would have been 5-1 in the Derby, not 16-1.  But if a harness trainer says it, many in the industry are up in arms. If a driver says it, they get suspended.  Talk about a double-standard between the two breeds.

A track operator has a different point of view.  They believe that every horse should be given every opportunity to win every race, regardless of the level of that race, in order to protect its customers, the gambling public.  After all, if every horse is not given every chance to win, you lose the trust of your customers.  The track operator isn’t wrong either.  But this scenario gives every track operator the opportunity to use this example as a reason for change.  Simply put, the racetrack can say, “we understand and respect your opinion that if you are putting up money to race in a major stakes race, your horses’ nose should be on the gate, however we cannot jeopardize the integrity of our product in order to make that happen.  Therefore, since it has become apparent that at times winning is not necessarily the top priority in an elimination race, there will be no more elimination races.  The top 10 money-earners will race for the lion’s share of the purse in the Final, while the next 10 will compete in a consolation format.”

The ironic thing is this problem doesn’t just exist in elimination races.  After winning the New Jersey Sire Stakes Final and stamping himself a leading Hambletonian contender in 2010, Muscle Massive was entered in a condition trotting event two weeks later.  He was sent off at 2-1 and from post position eight, was 16 lengths back at the quarter and 14 lengths back at the half while never in contention to win the race.  He rallied to finish third, beaten five lengths.  Many people were unhappy as the horse was “never given a chance to win.”  But many gamblers knew this horse was being pointed for the Hambletonian and a non-winners of $10,000 condition event at the end of June was not the major goal, they and bet accordingly.  As a gambler, I don’t have a problem with that, if I were the operator of a racetrack, I would have a big problem with that, so I do understand why many people take issue with this mentality, especially track operators. 

Therefore, if everyone cannot get on the same page and work out a solution that can include elimination races, they need to be disbanded all-together.  After all, elimination races were implemented at a time when there would be 10 eliminations for the Woodrow Wilson and you had to win the elimination to make the final, they certainly weren’t meant to eliminate one horse.  In my opinion, the harness racing industry has to minimize the potential for these types of scenarios to exist and being rid of elimination races seems like the most logical conclusion in achieving that goal.