11/14/2016 5:21PM

Zoccali: Harness Racing can learn something from the Classic

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Barbara D. Livingston
Arrogate winning the Breeders' Cup Classic again sparks the question why top standardbred 3-year-olds don't battle older foes more often.

A couple of weeks ago, I sat in the clubhouse at Santa Anita and watched as Arrogate chased down California Chrome in the final strides to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic.  It was far from a shock from a pari-mutuel standpoint as both horses were under 2-1 at post time.  On Friday, I watched Songbird, a 3-year-old filly, battle head and head through the stretch with one of the best older mares of the last 25 years, Beholder, in the Distaff.  Two races that for the corresponding horses in harness racing, would likely not occur.

Let’s get back to the Classic. California Chrome, now age 5, was making his 25th career start, amassing earnings surpassing $13 Million.  On the other hand, Arrogate is a 3-year-old colt who entered the race with only five career starts.  Arrogate did not compete in a race until a month after California Chrome won the Dubai World Cup in March.  Arrogate didn’t win a race until June and wasn’t a stakes winner until the Travers Stakes in August.  Yet, in the stretch at Santa Anita, just four months after his first lifetime win, the lightly-raced rookie ran by the seasoned veteran, who just happens to be the richest horse in North American racing history.

[DRF HARNESS LIVE: Real-time analysis and LIVE Video from Yonkers Raceway this Sunday afternoon.]

What does this have to do with harness racing?  Well, some people will say absolutely nothing.  Some will say that once a person begins comparing the two sports, they stop listening.  These are people I respect, that are harness racing lifers, who I admit know more about harness racing than I do.  But I couldn’t help watch that race and wonder to myself, how is it possible that a thoroughbred can do this and in standardbred racing, it’s considered by many to be “too difficult.”

A standardbred in the fall of his 3-year old season is likely making somewhere between his 20th and 30th lifetime start.  Standardbreds are proven to be more durable than thoroughbreds.  So why is it that a thoroughbred with only five lifetime races in six months can defeat one of the best horses of the 21st century who is two years his elder, but in harness racing it is viewed as so much more difficult?  Even if it is difficult, it can be viewed as the test of a champion, one that harness racing’s elite will only pass and wouldn’t the Breeders Crown be the perfect setting for such a test?

For full disclosure, this will be the first of two columns (hopefully) on this subject as I am working on a plan which will eliminate the Breeders Crown races restricted to 3-year-olds and subsequently form Breeders Crown Trotting and Pacing “Classics” for both genders, with purses of $1 Million each.  These races will be for 3-year-olds and upward.  I admit now, it is not easy.  The math to be able to make this work is very complex and is based on the assumption that horsemen will support the idea.  What that means is, if there are no races restricted to 3-year-olds any longer in the Breeders Crown, the owners/trainers of these sophomores may not make the payments during their horse’s 3-year old season any longer because they don’t want to face older horses.  I confess, if that proved to be true, this plan would not be possible.

My plea to the horsemen would be based on two notions.  The first is simple, it would be good for the sport.  Sure, the owner/trainer of a 3-year-old has had the option to enter the Open events for years and haven’t.  But why would they with the option to compete in an age restricted race?  Maybe we could have gotten that matchup of Somebeachsomewhere and Mister Big, or Muscle Hill and Lucky Jim.  I promise you, it would be much appreciated by the fans of the sport, rather than watching the same horses square off for the 15th time that year.

In fairness, horsemen have been asked to do a lot of things “for the good of the sport” lately and I understand that can become tiresome.  So, my second appeal is to their business acumen.  First of all, owners of 3-year-olds, pacers and trotters alike, have had an entire season to rack up earnings in races like the North America Cup, Meadowlands Pace, Little Brown Jug, Hambletonian, Kentucky Futurity, Canadian Trotting Classic, etc.  They have had plenty of opportunities to race against their peers.  The idea that a 3-year old’s value as a stallion would decrease were they to lose to an older horse in October of their sophomore season is a flawed idea in my opinion.  People far more knowledgeable than I am, with full understandings of pedigrees, crosses, etc., have determined a horse’s potential value as a stallion long before October of their 3-year-old campaign.  If the horse were to win that race, perhaps his profile grows in strength, but it would not diminish.  From a business perspective, the reward seems to outweigh the risk.  Perhaps if the 3-year-old performs well in that race, the owners would be more willing to bring the horse back at age four to compete on the racetrack, which would also be good for the sport.

Interestingly, in Thoroughbred racing there is a race in late September called the Pennsylvania Derby that is restricted for 3-year olds and is worth $1 Million.  The graded stakes committee is yet to assign that race Grade One status because they believe at that point of an elite 3-year old’s season, they should be facing older horses.  It has become expected in Thoroughbred racing.  It has become the rule, not the exception.

Again, I have heard it a thousand times, don’t compare the two sports.  But speaking as someone who works within both industries, it is one of the many, many things that Thoroughbred racing does better than Harness racing.

The recently completed TVG Championships races at The Meadowlands were created by Jeff Gural to accomplish what the Breeders Crown does not.  Create races that feature unique match-ups of horses that we wouldn’t otherwise see.  It doesn’t always work, but sometimes it does.  Bar Hopping became the third 3-year old to try older horses in the TVG Free For All, the other two having been Captaintreacherous in 2013 and The Bank in 2015.  Jimmy Takter and his owners deserve a great deal of credit for accepting the invitation with Bar Hopping and taking on a very difficult task with their horse.  Even though Bar Hopping failed to win, these are the kind of match-ups that harness racing needs.  The Captaintreacherous – Foiled Again race in 2013 was one of the most anticipated races of the last 25 years in harness racing.  The Breeders Crown is great, but match-ups like that would put it on a higher level.  Hopefully I will be able to put together a viable plan that can be presented to the industry to accomplish this goal.  If anyone has any advice, suggestions or input, I would be very appreciative for those insights.