Handle Up At 2 Western New York Harness Tracks

On Monday July 1, Yonkers Raceway hosted a 12-race card.  That is not news, but what did catch my eye was race number eight which was run for a purse of $18,500. It wasn’t because of the conditions; this was for non-winners of $10,000 in their last five races.  In addition, any horse that earned $70k or more in 2019 were not eligible.  That wasn’t what I noticed.

It was the distance.

yonkers raceway

Photo Courtesy of Katy Gazzini (twitter.com/YonkersRaceway)

The race was contested at 1 1/16 miles on the half-mile oval at Old Hilltop, meaning the horses would cross the finish line three times.  Some of you might think that’s too much, but in truth, I wonder why there aren’t more races at that distance at harness tracks across America.

Yonkers has always been an enigma and for some, it has always frustrated.  Like many tracks, drivers try to get out and establish position.  The opening quarter might be a quick 27.  After that, the goal is to walk the dog; slow things down and get some rest.  At Yonkers, that can mean a second quarter of 30 or 31 seconds.  This gives the leader plenty of time to speed things up in the third quarter and then hold on for victory.  The lack of movement can be frustrating and if you take to Twitter on a race night, you will hear about it.

The easy solution for the bettor would be to back off Yonkers, but with the highest overnight purses, along with top quality horses and drivers, that’s often tough to do. Scott Zeron, Brian Sears, Jason Bartlett, George Brennan, Joe Bongiorno and Austin Siegelman are just a few of the all-star lot of drivers that call Yonkers home.

In that July 1 race, there were 10 starters which are two more than you usually have with standard one mile paces.  That means the 9 horse lines up behind the 1 while the 10 is behind the 2.  With the extra distance, that isn’t too much of a hindrance and with 10, there are more options and potentially better value for the bettor.

And unlike many races at Yonkers, there wasn’t that second quarter lull.  After a sizzling opening fraction of 26.2, the second quarter was a respectable 28.3.  And, instead of running single file, they were two wide as the last lap began.  Warminster A was able to make a gradual ascent.  He was sixth at the quarter and half, then fourth at three-quarters.  The leaders clipped that mile in 1:51.3 and then Warminster A was able to survive a three across blanket finish to win in 1:58.3

I’m not saying that all 1 1/16 mile races will be this good but when I do watch them, there seems to be more action.  We all know “getting the distance” is rarely a problem for Standardbreds, who routinely jog four to six miles per day in addition to a weekly timed workout; it seems like the horses enjoy going longer, too.

So why aren’t there more races at this distance and even longer?  For starters, the racing secretary has to write the race and the corresponding class.  If the race draws eight or less horses, it will likely be written at one mile.  But if the class draws an overflow field of 10 or even more, they can extend the distance to give all the horses a fairer shot to compete and make some money.

Frank Drucker, the longtime Manager of Publicity at Yonkers said just that.  And because of that, couldn’t commit to longer distance races being permanent fixtures.

“I can’t swear to how often these races go,” he said, “it depends if a certain class can fill with overflow fields.”

Western Fair Raceway

Western Fair Raceway -Photo Courtesy of www.westernfairdistrict.com

Western Fair Raceway in London, Ontario writes 1 1/16 mile races for their High Five bets.  The High Five or Pentafacta requires bettors to pick the exact order of finishers from one to five and tracks prefer to send out nine or ten rather than eight to make the bet a bit harder and conversely, increase the potential payout.  The extra distance allows them to do that.

Like Yonkers, Western Fair is a half-mile track and if you’re going to run more than eight in a race, the mile often will not suffice.  Tracks that are 5/8 mile can get away with it, but the turns are simply too tight for a half-mile oval to fairly conduct a mile race with more than eight runners.

Yonkers has many big stakes races, the richest being the $1 million International Trot which is held in October and contested at 1 ¼ miles.  The unique distance certainly adds some spice to the card and I wish there were more of these longer distance races at all tracks. Yonkers does have two more (at 1 1/16 miles) scheduled for later this week.

I understand that there can be too much of a good thing, but adding some longer distance races would not be a bad thing for the sport of Harness Racing.