The Monday Night Monster

May 15, 2016

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On Monday nights, Northfield Park is the biggest little track in the land.

by Dave Little

When a harness track routinely has handle that reaches the $1 million mark, it’s difficult to call it an industry “best kept secret”, but given the fact that Northfield Park (about a half-hour from Cleveland) doesn’t even race on Fridays and gets lost in the shuffle on every-track-races Saturdays, that might just be the best way to describe it.

Except at the start of the work week, that is, when plenty of players get involved as the half-mile oval becomes the “Monday Night Monster”.

Knowing full well getting noticed on the weekends will always be tough, Northfield races its strongest of four weekly race cards on Monday. And while they might not bet as much as whichever Woodbine Entertainment Group track is racing, they do bet more than every other North American track.

“It’s on purpose,” said Dave Bianconi, Northfield’s executive vice-president of racing and simulcasting of racing his best card on Mondays. “We’ve been doing it for several years now. I figured I’d leave the best card on Monday because it gets the most eyes on it.”

Northfield goes up against Yonkers Raceway (among others) on Mondays. Yonkers has better purses. Considerably better. Yonkers has the sport’s best driver colony. George Brennan, Brian Sears, Jason Bartlett, David Miller, Daniel Dube, Scott Zeron and others all drove on Monday, May 9. So why do they come up short to Northfield in terms of wagering?

One explanation might be the best card on Monday protocol suggested by Bianconi, rather than the conventional-wisdom Saturdays. The track played host to an Open II, an Open Handicap Trot, an Open Handicap Pace and pair of non-winners of $8,000 in their last five starts, which is the top conditioned class. These races would be invisible next to what would be offered at the Meadowlands, Yonkers and WEG on a Saturday. But on Mondays, they stand out.

By contrast, Yonkers offered a pair of non-winners of six pari-mutuel races lifetime as its co-features. The purses were bigger at Yonkers even though the conditions may have sounded inferior to the races at Northfield. Yonkers’ two lowest purses of the night were $12,500, Northfield’s two highest were $13,500. Obviously, the size of the purse is not what interests the Northfield fan.

“We have a very popular signal during the week,” said Bianconi as to why his track does as well as it does taking on Yonkers and Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs on Monday evenings. “We have competitive racing on a half-mile track. We have a trailer in almost every race. We have a lot of movement in our races. I guess it’s a combination of those factors.”

On the May 9 program, total handle at the “Home of the Flying Turns” reached $1,070,120 on the 15-race program. At Yonkers, $636,243 was pushed through the windows over 12 races. Total purses at Northfield were $115,400 ($7,693 per race), while $189,000 ($15,750 per) was doled out at Yonkers. On harness racing’s handle curve, Yonkers did well on Monday, yet Northfield still wagered 68 per cent more than what was bet at the Hilltop Oval.

Yes, Northfield Monday has its following. What that following gets is good racing with three marquee names that drive much of the power. Most harness fans know who Aaron Merriman and Ron Wrenn Jr. are. The duo finished 1-2 last year in the national dash-win chase, even though Wrenn was the leading driver at Northfield.

This year, a big name was added to the driver colony, as Meadowlands regular Joe Bongiorno now drives at Northfield on Mondays and Tuesdays. What’s remarkable is, even though they have to go up each other in many of the same races, how each of the trio has giant stats.

Using the numbers published in Monday’s program, Wrenn was leading the way with 224 wins from 781 starts, good for a win percentage of 29. Merriman was next with 178 wins in 748 starts (24 per cent) while Bongiorno’s 87 wins were good for fifth place in the standings, but his win percentage of 21 trailed only the aforementioned dynamic duo.

Many tracks equate good handle to favorites not doing well. Management at the Meadowlands has long insisted that for them, it’s a formula for success. But at Northfield, the numbers say the opposite is true, as over the past two Monday programs, precisely 50 per cent of the post-time chalks have won. Overall, favorites click at Northfield at a 45 per cent rate. Like many smaller tracks, winning favorites create churn, and the way to create churn is to have people cashing tickets. The way to have people cashing tickets is to have formful racing where favorites win.

“I would like to have less than 50 per cent winning favorites,” said Bianconi. “But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with favorites, either. (Winning favorites) probably hurt our win pools a bit. But the gimmick pools? I think they actually help. I don’t try to outdo other tracks. We go out and handle the most we can and let everybody else worry about themselves.”

And that’s clearly no secret.

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