12/26/2016 10:50AM

Zoccali: Predictions and expectations for 2017

USTA Photo
Gabe Prewitt recently took over as Pompano Park's Director of Racing.

As we close the book on 2016, in addition to looking back at the year that was, I like to look forward to what may be in the year ahead as well.  In doing so, there are some things that I am excited for as well as some bold predictions I can make as we head into 2017.

Gabe Prewitt Named Director of Racing at Pompano Park

First, let me say that Brett Revington did a tremendous job at Florida’s five-eighths mile oval.  He did great work in helping put Pompano back on people’s radar when looking for a standardbred signal.

In 2013, Pompano Park was falling short of $25 Million in handle for the entire meet that included 140 days of racing.  Fast forward to the 2016 racing season and Pompano Park saw handle of $60 Million over the same number of race dates.  To call that good work would be an understatement.

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While Revington is heading back north to take on a significant role as the Executive Director of Standardbred Racing at the Commission in Pennsylvania, track announcer and handicapper Gabe Prewitt will be stepping into the role as Director of Racing at Pompano Park.

For those of us who know Gabe well, we are well aware that he has long been much more than a track announcer and public handicapper.  He has had a significant and influential role in Kentucky standardbred racing for many years and has recently brought his talents to south Florida as well.  He is exactly what a racetrack needs, an expert harness player himself who understands how to maximize the efficiency of a wagering format while simultaneously giving the horse player exactly what they want and need.  While Pompano continues to face the uncertainty of what is to come regarding potential decoupling in Florida, there is no one better able to build on Revington’s fine work at Pompano and help secure a bright future for harness racing in the state than Gabe Prewitt.

Breeders Crown at Hoosier Park

In my opinion, Hoosier Park has the product with the most potential in the sport of harness racing.  The racing is extremely competitive, the driving colony is excellent and with the recent renaissance of the Indiana breeding program, the quality of horse-flesh continues to skyrocket.  In addition, their racing programs are choc-full of big fields.

This is the perfect time for Hoosier to play host to Harness Racing’s year-end championship event.  I do think they can put up similar numbers to a Meadowlands or Woodbine Breeders Crown with the right conditions.

I did refer to the potential of Hooiser Park, because I do believe that much of that potential is still unfulfilled.  I think some of the things that can be done to help Hoosier fulfill their potential are very simple, like moving back their post time and making sure to stay off of signals like Indiana Grand (who ironically is under the same ownership as Hoosier) and The Meadowlands as much as possible. Judging by public opinion on social media, it would also help if the track widened its signal distribution and made it more viable for major players.

If Hoosier can make some simple adjustments pertaining to post times and their wagering format, it could see the kind of success Pompano Park has been realizing over the past three years.

A Different ‘Miller Time’ at The Meadowlands

With many of the mainstays at The Meadowlands taking time off this winter, Brett Miller has the potential to have a monster year if he drives at the New Jersey oval on a full-time basis.  He is going to get first call for many of the big stables racing at The Meadowlands and he’ll probably drive twice as many favorites as any other driver at the East Rutherford oval.  This past Friday night, Miller won no less than eight races, tying the record for wins on a single card at The Meadowlands, previously set by Mike Lachance in 1995.

Since The Meadowlands returned in mid-October, Miller has won 31 of 149 races and has been in the money in 44-percent of his drives.  For the bettors, his R.O.I. over this period is $2.44.  In other words, if you bet Brett Miller to win in all 149 races, you would be showing a 22-percent profit on those wagers.

In the month of December, Miller has won 28-percent of his starts (19 for 69) while finishing in the money 57-percent of the time.  His R.O.I. is an absurd $3.54.

So, with Tetrick headed to North Carolina, Dave Miller en-route to Florida, Gingras driving sparingly, Zeron at Yonkers and Callahan saying he will not be at The Meadowlands on Thursdays, the door is wide open for Brett Miller to dominate. 

Here is a bold prediction, Brett Miller will be atop the driver standings at The Meadowlands come Hambletonian Day and at the apex of the winter meet, he will be winning races at a 30-percent clip.

James Witherite Breakout Year

For full disclosure, James is a friend of mine, so I am not exactly impartial here.  But if you didn’t know, there isn’t a thing in harness racing that Witherite can’t do.  He is one of the best race callers in harness racing and if his sole focus were on race calling, I have little doubt that he could launch a career that would find him calling thoroughbred races on a major circuit in the near future.

He is also an accomplished musician.  When I say accomplished, he plays more instruments than some people can name.  Without question, he is the best bugler in horse racing.  He is also an exceptional writer who has mastered the English language and is now taking on the role of oddsmaker and handicapper at The Meadowlands, a role I know is one of the more challenging in all of racing.

Make no mistake, Witherite is a tremendous asset to harness racing because he could be successful in a myriad of other fields, yet he chooses to stay committed to the sport he loves.  I think this year Witherite finds himself with an opportunity that puts him center-stage in racing.

New USTA President

Obviously, I don’t know who is going to become the new President of the United States Trotting Association and aside from reading some things on social media, I am unsure as to who formally will run for the post.  However, as is the case in many businesses and pollical posts, the time for a change has come.

I mean no disrespect to Mr. Langley, a lifelong supporter of harness racing himself.  But, the landscape of the harness racing industry is much different as we move into 2017 and with it should come a new direction.  I can’t be sure who will take the reins of the association going forward, but I can be filled with hope that it will be a person who brings energy, creativity, youth and unwavering passion to the industry.

With that said, I wish you all the best of holiday seasons and a happy and healthy new year as well.