by Brett Sturman
From the perspective of nothing else other than a fan of the sport, the winter months in harness racing aren’t exactly kind. With nearly all stakes horses on the shelf until the spring, week to week racing in the winter months becomes a tireless grind of watching the same overnight horses race each other week in and week out. And the quality of racing is less than what we see in months later in the year.
This wasn’t always the case, however.
For many years, up until just recently, the premier winter tracks in the U.S. and Canada — the Meadowlands and Woodbine — had established a long series of late-closing events that always managed to keep the emerging and current stars of the sport on the racetrack through the winter months. And in the process, it kept fans of these tracks engaged through an otherwise slow time of the year.
Though now a distant memory, Meadowlands winter stakes such as the Presidential, Complex, Cape & Cutter, Clyde Hirt and Exit 16W, just to name a few, were always fan favorites. Similarly, on the Woodbine front, winter stakes that included the Glory’s Comet, Lifetime Dream and the General Brock produced top trotting stars that often would go onto bigger things. At one point, the Meadowlands had 10 different winter series alone between January and February, and this year they had none. Woodbine only had two small series in January this year and then has nothing on its stakes calendar until May.
As a fan, these winter series races created a real sense of excitement with ongoing compelling storylines. It allowed us to see marquee matchups, watch developing rivalries and gave us a reason to root for horses in addition to also betting on them.
My earliest memory of winter racing at the Meadowlands was Red Bow Tie winning the Presidential back to back in 1998 and 1999. From there, I recall Gallo Blue Chip racing in the dead of winter as an older horse along with other Presidential winners such as the enigmatic Nuclear Breeze and back to back 1:49-type wins by Golden Receiver. Other winter series races that first come to mind through the years at the Meadowlands were storylines such as St. Elmo Hero winning 23 in a row in the 2011 Complex and the unbeaten Iowa-bred Panaramic Art coming to the Meadowlands in the 2008 Exit 16W series. Today, it’s impossible for these story lines to be replicated because the racing doesn’t allow for it.
While the quality of racing at the Meadowlands has been decimated by higher purses at surrounding racetracks, Woodbine still boasts an impressive overnight program and because of that, the winter series of days past aren’t as noticeably missed. That said, we’re still not witnessing the likes of trotters such as Mister Herbie and San Pail racing in the Glory’s Comet that we had seen previously.
Meadowlands owner Jeff Gural previewed back in 2015 that the remaining late closers would likely be dropped and the reason he gave at that time was that the races were producing a disproportionate number of heavy betting favorites, thus making the races unappealing. It’s a fair point that if certain series aren’t attracting enough horses where full fields can be compiled or if those series tend to produce one or two superior horses that the viability of those series should be examined, but this wasn’t typical across the board.
I recall many of the Non-Winners of 2 series such as the Super Bowl or Junior Trendsetter boasting the occasional overwhelming favorite (see Wiggle it Jiggleit in 2015), but many of the other series were found to be highly competitive and full of drama; certainly nothing less than anything of what we see today.
In addition to how a fan or enthusiast views the winter races today, the implications of dropping the late closing events are felt by owners.
The way that the Meadowlands winter series was structured directly encouraged ownership in the sport, especially in the case of smaller owners. I remember 10 years ago for example, an owner could buy a lightly raced or unproven 2-year-old at the annual Harrisburg sale in November and then quickly have a chance for an immediate return on their investment by nominating their new purchase to a number of the upcoming winter series.
This enabled owners not only a chance to recover some of their initial purchase, but provided a chance for an owner to compete for decent purse money without having to spend thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in staking fees or having to spend $50,000 on a yearling.
For these reasons, winter series racing always seemed like a win for everyone; the track, the owners and the fans. The track gets to fill cards with enticing matchups during the slow months until the better horses come back, owners get a chance to race their horses for good money and fans get to watch and bet on a far higher quality product.
We always say that harness racing need stars, but it needs them all year round. Especially in the winter where they are few and far between.
Last Week’s Bankroll: $882
Total Wagers: $27
Total Return: $0
This Week’s Bankroll: $855
Woodbine – Saturday, Feb. 18
Race 3: LIFE STRIKES is a hunch play for the night and I’d expect him to offer somewhere at or most likely even higher than his 5-1 programmed line. This one faltered last week and he’s simply a better horse than that; his race from here three back would be more than good enough and I’m encouraged that trainer Budd has him right back in to go. GROUPIE DOLL folded last out without any real excuse; was the step up in class really that substantial? MANWITHAMISSION won first off the bench since September last out as the 2-1 favorite; seems logical to go forward off that. SWEET ROYALTY is puzzling; seems due for something more. ONE TOO MANY is likely to be going forward early and but I’d be surprised if she reached, even with the top barn.
$15 Win/Place 2
$2 Exacta Box 2-4-5-8
Race 6: MAJOR HILL scored at 11-1 last week in his second start with Moreau after going off at 2-1 in his race prior; go figure. That was a sharp looking 1:51 last Saturday and he was game in hanging on; may only be getting better. AWESOMENESS makes his first start since overwhelming rivals in the Snowshoe series (see above column on winter series) and those recent winning margins he racked up were impressive; eight out of 14 lifetime. THE ROCKINATOR invades from Miami Valley and lands in the Allard barn; owns a fast clocking from Hoosier last year and early speed might be coming. SIR GALAHAD was super three back but has lacked the same punch in his last pair when he had tough trips; HIGHLANDBEACHYCOVE was great upon debut here two back and then had no shot last out against Domethatagain.
$10 Win/Place 4
$2 Exacta Box 2-4-6-8
Race 8: In the race of the night, JINS SHARK goes for two out of three in the preferred and proved that his win two back at 27-1 odds was no fluke. Menary trainee makes his third start back following the November layoff and had to endure a very long first over march last week; deserves respect. AMERICAN VIRGIN was able to win last week after getting off fairly cheap on the front end; the likely favorite once again. NICKLE BAG hasn’t been able to deliver the goods of late although he’s been close on occasion and the move inside will help. ALEXAS JACKPOT will be firing early as usual; FINE DIAMOND lands the rail but rode cover of the top choice last week and couldn’t quicken off it.
$20 Win 4
$4 Exacta Box 4/2-3