Hoosier Park begins the journey toward the Breeders Crown

Saturday’s opening night card is one of 163 live racing programs at the Anderson, IN plant that will build toward Oct. 27-28’s Breeders Crown.

by James Platz

Spring in Indiana traditionally signals the return of harness racing to Hoosier Park Racing & Casino. While it’s always an exciting time of year, this season takes on special meaning with the Breeders Crown coming to central Indiana. Hoosier Park will kick off its 2017 meet Saturday (April 1) with the first of 163 programs, and management is embracing a new season of racing and the challenges of hosting harness racing’s premier event later this fall.

“Every year is exciting. It’s kind of like baseball. Every season brings a new sense of excitement, a feeling of renewal; spring is here. This year, with the Breeders Crown looming, it just makes it that much more special because you know that everything you do is building up to a crescendo,” noted Rick Moore, vice-president and general manager of racing at Hoosier Park. “Now, I just want to get going. I think everybody’s ready. The place looks great. I just want to get this thing off and running.”

Horsemen that regularly compete at the Anderson oval will see that this winter was full of activity at Hoosier Park. Several changes were made while the track was dark. One of the more noticeable transformations was the removal of the small guard shack that was the first point of contact for horsemen shipping into the backside. Now a much larger guard house welcomes those arriving.

“It’s quite impressive,” said Moore. “It’s probably three or four times bigger than the old guard shack.”

Other improvements for the track’s 24th season include a new perimeter fence surrounding the racing surface, an eye-catching wrap inside the paddock displaying racing imagery, and restrooms and locker rooms added to Barn 9, the second barn that makes up the paddock. Previously, horsemen racing out of Barn 9 had to go to the track kitchen or the other paddock barn for these facilities.

“It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it was a huge project. Again, we’re trying to make life on the backside for the horsemen just as nice as it can be,” Moore said of the changes to Barn 9. “The fact that they don’t have to leave that barn to go to the track kitchen or Barn 17, I think they’ll very much appreciate that.”

Still more improvements include a renovated tote board, new tractors and trucks used for track and facility maintenance, and a walkway that allows horsemen to walk from the barn area to Hoosier Park’s apron. In the past, moving between the two locations required you to drive back and forth. Finally, one of the biggest undertakings is the construction of a new racing administration building. This new facility, which will host the race office, judges, and Indiana Horse Racing Commission offices, will be completed in August, and comes with a price tag of over $4 million.

“A lot of things have happened, even during the cold winter months,” said Moore. “I’ve said it many, many times, we’re fortunate our leaders, in particular Rod Ratcliff (Centaur chairman and CEO) and Jim Brown (Centaur president and COO), have a love for horse racing and harness racing, and continue to devote quite a bit of money to make harness racing the very best it can be. It just doesn’t happen anywhere else.”

Hoosier Park management is tasked with the challenge of handling the preparation and execution of a typical race meet, while also planning for the Breeders Crown. It is a challenge they are meeting head-on. According to Moore, a total of 23 committees have been formed and planning is ongoing for this fall. With the Breeders Crown returning to the Midwest for the first time in decades, and Hoosier Park playing host for the first time in the track’s history, management and staff want to make a big splash.

“While we’re focused on getting the meet open and putting on the best show that we can, we’ve got to prepare for a really big event at the end of October. It’s the biggest event we’ve ever held here,” Moore said. “I think Jim Brown has put it best, he calls this a journey that we’re on. As Jim said, it’s going to be a lot of work, but we want it to be a lot of fun at the same time. While we’re concentrating on the day-to-day, we’re also concentrating on the journey.”

That journey will unfold beginning Saturday night, and judging by the number of entries in the box for the first program, horsepeople are just as excited as management. A total of 192 horses dropped in the box, with the 14-race card offering fields of nine or 10 behind the gate in all but one contest. Moore was pleased with the early response, considering there are racing opportunities at Pompano Park, Miami Valley and in Pennsylvania.

“We had a great response from the horsemen for opening night. I couldn’t be more excited,” he said. “It’s so gratifying, and I hope it speaks to some level to the way horsemen are treated here; our respect for harness racing. We are so thankful to the horseman who have chosen to race with us.”

Over the course of the meet, horsemen can expect a purse structure on par with 2016 levels. Racing fans will see a highly-competitive Indiana Sires Stakes program that has produced some of the top national talent in recent years. And with an open stakes program – led by the Dan Patch Stakes and Centaur Trotting Classic – that will offer over $4 million in purses, Hoosier will bring the sport’s best to the Midwest.

Hoosier Park and its parent, Centaur Racing, is banking on the capital improvements, strong racing program, and interest in the Crown to help further propel business levels. Since 2012, handle on Hoosier Park harness racing has grown 55 per cent, no small feat. Last season, total handle at the Anderson facility topped $97 million, a 12.5 per cent jump from the year before. Management has pushed hard to elevate Hoosier Park’s status in the simulcast market and as a quality racing facility, and the formula is working.

“It’s going to be a great year of racing,” Moore said. “It’s so much fun when everything is pointing upwards and everyone is pulling in the same direction.”