International Importance

Despite financial and logistical obstacles — mostly centered around attracting top-flight horses from France — Yonkers president and CEO Tim Rooney said the revival of the International Trot is important in promoting the track worldwide.

by Tom Pedulla

The $1 million Yonkers International Trot is expected to be awash in red ink when the accounting for the race is completed, just as it was last year when it was restored after a 20-year absence. Tim Rooney, president and chief executive officer of Yonkers Raceway, acknowledged that, but he views those losses as the price to be paid to increase the track’s global footprint.

“The big thing we’re hoping for by having a race of this quality and the recognition it has world-wide, is it really gets harness racing, and Yonkers Raceway in particular, attention we wouldn’t have if we didn’t have this,” Rooney said.

Rooney said the days of his youth, when fans poured into the half-mile track for major races, are long gone. He believes a powerful alternative is to tap into the far greater popularity of trotting overseas through simulcasting, and that a race such as the International can be a powerful tool toward accomplishing that.

“It opens up potentially a new market for us with simulcasting, which is working out very well in France and in the future I think is going to be in other places also,” Rooney said.

France has developed into a good simulcasting partner for Yonkers. But the French were conspicuous in their absence when seven nations – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Norway, Sweden and the United States — were represented in the International on Saturday.

Although Timoko thrilled his large following by rallying for second last year, his connections opted to target other races for him after he returned from stallion duty. Steve Starr, the racing secretary at Yonkers, said attempts were made to attract at least half a dozen other trotters from France to no avail. The International would lack some of its luster if that were to continue.

Jamin of France, who created a great deal of publicity with his love of artichokes, won the inaugural running of the International in 1959 at old Roosevelt Raceway. The French have long played a major role in the event by winning 13 of the first 37 editions. That included a stretch of five in a row from 1981-85, with Ideal du Gazeau sweeping the first three before Lutin d’Isigny went back to back.

Rooney recognizes the importance of having France annually be part of the mix.

“France is very, very important and their participation in this has always been big,” he said. “One of the big aspects of us bringing back the International in the first place was conversations and relationships we built with the French.”

Rooney noted that finding a slot that fits well in the United States and European schedules is complex.

“They want to participate in this very much. Sometimes it doesn’t fit into their schedule,” he said. “Somehow, we have to try to work that out better.”

He is wary of scheduling the International beyond mid-October.

“Winter is coming and there is a dramatic difference between early October, mid-October and late October,” he said. “It doesn’t always happen, but we could have snow in November. It’s hard enough promoting things without having to take on bad weather.”

In addition to the absence of France, this year’s field could not be said to comprise the best of the best. Nuncio of Sweden, a brilliant trotter known as the “dark dream,” stayed home. Some of those who came arrived with suspect credentials compared to starters of yesteryear.

“It’s a totally different world than it was back then,” said John Campbell, the Hall of Fame driver. “There weren’t nearly as many opportunities for money in Europe or here, so horses traveled more than they do now, so that is going to be an issue.”

Campbell praised Yonkers Raceway officials for their willingness to do what was necessary to restore the International when it could have easily been forgotten for good.

“I think the fact that we’re bringing horses together from different parts of the world is a positive thing,” he said. “There is always an unknown, and from a betting standpoint, with the unknowns you have, it makes it more attractive for the bettor.”

Starr emphasized that the effort to attract top European talent will be ongoing.

“We’re working very closely with the Europeans. If we have to make adjustments, we definitely will,” Starr said. “We can’t do it without them. They are very important to this race.”

Campbell warned against judging the International too harshly in the early stages of its revival.

“I think everything kind of runs in cycles,” he said. “It didn’t work out as well this year as maybe they would have liked.”

Rooney doubts the International will ever generate a profit, given the considerable expenses associated with it.

“It’s always been a question from a financial standpoint,” he said. “The way we have to look at this, the race can never directly pay for itself.”

When asked if Yonkers is committed to continuing the International, Rooney said, “Unless the costs get insurmountable, we surely are.”