by Brett Sturman
There’s a growing mindset of late among industry executives that the real trick in attracting new interest to the sport is to sell harness racing as a form of entertainment more-so than a product that can be bet on. That entertainment-first group will get its wish this weekend on Sun Stakes Saturday at Pocono Downs, as the evening will be long on star power but short on remotely anything that would appeal to someone wagering on the card.
There are three main factors converging together on Saturday that may make the races watchable, but not bet-able. Those factors being: elimination races, short fields, and that continuously pesky high takeout rate throughout Pennsylvania tracks.
Beginning with eliminations, these types of races are always a risky proposition just by their very nature. One could make the argument that there is at least some incentive for connections to win elimination races where the elimination winners get to pick their post position for the final. But in all other elimination events, the overarching goal is to qualify for the final in good order with something in reserve for when the big money is on the line. All else after that in an elimination is secondary, including winning.
With not having to necessarily win an elimination in order to advance on to better things, the style of the racing is compromised when compared to how a typical race could play out. You almost never see drivers playing hardball with one another because there is no point in taking any risk when the main goal is to only finish in the top half of the field, which is the case in two of three Lynch eliminations. Similarly, drivers are even more willing than usual to create holes for other drivers and the races often lack any type of flow because who wants to take the unnecessary chance of pulling first over when riding the rail would be just as well.
As if elimination races don’t present enough difficulty on their own for anyone trying to wager on them, the issue is compounded Saturday by the fact that no elimination race has more than eight horses in it, with six of the races having seven horses and then three races being contested by just six horses. At least in cases of elimination races with full fields of nine or 10 horses there is still an actual race that develops and drivers must drive with some sort of purpose if they are to compete for a spot in the final, but a much more laid back approach can be taken when half of the field will qualify for a final.
From a betting perspective, everyone knows that larger fields generate more handle than smaller fields. In general, smaller fields are less appealing to wager on because there is a little chance of a high-priced horse winning. It becomes a matter of choosing between two horses whose odds are 6-5 and 7-5 respectively, and for many people trying to decide between those two isn’t worth the effort and payout.
In two of the stakes that contain at least one six-horse elimination – the Lynch and Hempt – it should be considered as to why these three eliminations couldn’t have been combined into two. Instead of having three elims where the number of horses are seven, seven and six in the Lynch, why not have two eliminations where one race would have nine horses and the other would have 10?
Ten horses may seem like a lot at Pocono, but Scioto Downs in Ohio is also a five-eighths mile track and they put 10 horses to a race daily. Pocono currently caps their overnight fields at nine horses, so all they would need to do in order to accommodate one more horse would be to assign the 10th horse as a trailer that would start behind the number one horse. The same scenario would hold true in the Hempt eliminations, where a total of 20 entrants could have been split into two divisions of ten each, instead of three divisions of seven, six and seven.
For owners that feel their horses nose must be on the starting gate in a stakes race and not in a trailing position, it must be noted that in other parts of the world such as Sweden and France, where harness racing’s popularity dwarfs North America, it’s not uncommon to see close to 20 horses in races on track sizes comparable to the five-eighths variety that we see here.
Last but not least, the notoriously high takeout rates at Pocono continue to deter any serious bettors from paying any mind to the track from a wagering perspective. With takeout rates at 30 per cent for trifecta and superfecta exotic wagers, a bettor is always going to be at a disadvantage from the start. A Jackpot Pick-5 was recently added to the Pocono wagering menu, but with short fields throughout the Saturday sequence it’s virtually impossible that the $0.20 bet would be hit by only a single person, thus making the effective takeout rate for the wager an astronomical percentage, as discussed here previously.
Despite the drawbacks from a wagering standpoint there are still many compelling storylines to follow as the races unfold. And I intend to watch it all, but strictly as a form of entertainment.
Sun stakes horses to watch
Trainer Jimmy Takter has decided to give standout filly Ariana G a shot against in the boys in the Earl Beal and if all goes well, the Hambletonian would look like an increasing probability. She exits a 1:51:1 last time out in the NJSS final at the Meadowlands, and only five sophomore trotting fillies have ever gone faster in the history of the sport. She leaves from post six as the 2-1 favorite in the final of three Beal eliminations. Absent from the Earl Beal is 2-year-old champion Walner who qualified last week in 1:51:2 in a monsoon. Beal-eligible, he will be qualifying on Saturday instead at the Meadowlands.
Just one week following his thrilling NA Cup win, Fear The Dragon is back in action in the second of three Hempt eliminations. That was a hard-fought win in a race where him and others were all-out towards the end; will be interesting to see how he comes right back.
Brian Sears has retained the drive on Downbytheseaside, at least for the time being. Sears was quoted prior to last week’s NA Cup final as stating he would “wake up” Downbytheseaside if necessary, and Sears did just that as he had the horse buzzing through a three-quarter fraction of 1:19:3. Looks to shine against seemingly overmatched rivals in the third of three Hempt eliminations.
Freaky Feet Pete makes his seasonal debut in race 7, an elimination for the Ben Franklin. He catches a couple of sharp foes and we’ll see how good he is at first asking this year. Rock N’ Roll World goes in an other Franklin elimination in race 11 and he recently dusted off Freaky Feet Pete in a qualifier at Hoosier; picks up Sears and is likely to attract much more attention than his 5-1 programmed line would suggest.