07/18/2017 3:34PM

Zoccali: Revising the early season 3-year-old stakes schedule

The major 3-year-old races during the late spring and early summer could use some changing according to Darin Zoccali.

This time last year I wrote a column regarding the stakes schedule as it pertains to the 3-year-old pacers.  The column focused on the period from the middle of June through the end of July and the fact that if a trainer wanted his horse to race in the North America Cup, Max Hempt Memorial, Meadowlands Pace and The Adios, he would have to race his horse eight consecutive weeks.

The point was the vast majority of horses would not race in each event and thus every year, at least one race would suffer.  This year that race was The Meadowlands Pace, receiving only 13 declarations.

The irony in that is The Meadowlands Pace is still the richest race for 3-year-old pacers on this continent (The North America Cup carried a purse of $730,000 U.S. dollars, The Meadowlands Pace is $738,550).  In addition, during my time at The Meadowlands, in an attempt to keep The Meadowlands Pace at that level, we changed the race from an early closer to a stake, ensuring more horses would pay in, while simultaneously lowering the total payments.  If you put your nose on the gate in The Meadowlands Pace Final, you pay 20 percent less than you did five years ago.

The obvious horse that skipped the race, Fear The Dragon, caused a bit of a whirlwind as his owner, Bruce Trogdon, cited The Meadowlands’ “150-mile radius” rule as the deciding factor in that decision.  Apparently we are to believe the leader of the 3-year-old pacing division is skipping the richest race on the calendar out of spite.  However I believe had Fear The Dragon not had to race eight straight weeks, radius-rule or not, he would be competing in The Meadowlands Pace.

The question is, what can be done to change this situation? If I were The Meadowlands, I would be increasingly frustrated by the consistent push-back from many corners of the industry whenever I tried to do something in the best interest of the sport.  There is no question that when Jeff Gural initially took over the operations of The Meadowlands, he had far more support from the rest of the industry than he does now, which is sad, considering the negative outcome of the casino referendum last year and the fact that The Meadowlands team continues to push forward despite that. 

Therefore, I would take a stand.  I would say that this is The Meadowlands Pace.  It is the richest race in U.S. Dollars in North America for 3-year-old pacers.  It is the race that makes the winner a stallion.  It needs to be on the pedestal it deserves.  I would tell Pocono Downs that The Meadowlands Pace eliminations will be contested two weeks after the North America Cup Final, allowing those who competed in The Cup a week off before having to race in The Meadowlands Pace. 

Yes, I am aware that means The Meadowlands Pace eliminations would be the night of the Hempt Final.  But in fairness, The Meadowlands closes at the beginning of August while Pocono races through November.  Thus, they have more options for the placement of that race.  Therefore, Pocono Downs can leave the Hempt where it is on the calendar and go head to head with The Meadowlands Pace or they can move the race.  Perhaps they can move it to the middle of August where The Battle of Brandywine used to be.  Or they can move it to Memorial Day weekend, this way there is a week off between each of the four major races.  Wouldn’t this be an ideal schedule for every owner and trainer of a stakes-caliber sophomore pacer next year?

May 19 – Max Hempt Eliminations

May 26 – Max Hempt Final

June 9 – North America Cup Eliminations

June 16 – North America Cup Final

June 30 – Meadowlands Pace Eliminations

July 7 – Meadowlands Pace Final

July 21 – Adios Eliminations

July 28 – Adios Final

If there is a conflict with a Sire Stake somewhere in that schedule, move the Sire Stake division between the race dates, providing a trainer the option of racing between one of the major stakes. 

By doing this it ensures the following:

1)    More nominations to each of the races, because it is far more practical to race in all four.

2)    More declarations to each of the races, for the same reason.

3)    Helps ensure the health of the horses competing by providing them with some time off between the races.

4)    Racetracks will have worked together to do something that is in the best interest of each other, horsemen and the industry as a whole, which is desperately needed within harness racing.

What I listed above doesn’t even involve much sacrifice by any party.  Pocono can still have their Sun Stakes program, just race it on Memorial Day weekend instead.  There is no reason why The Hempt, Beal, Lynch or Franklin can’t be placed there.  The Meadowlands Pace card gets moved up a week.  Mohawk and The Meadows see no impact whatsoever.

This is a prime example of something that is far easier to “fix” than people lead you to believe.  It just requires a level-headed conversation amongst the interested parties.  Maybe if that can happen here, it could lead to more synergy moving forward as well.