Four questions from Pace Night 2017

by Dean Towers

Saturday’s Meadowlands Pace night answered quite a few questions — yes, Huntsville is good and Walner can trot a storm. But, strangely enough, after processing the card I discovered I probably had more questions than I had before the evening started.

I’ll share a few here…

Have major stakes cards jumped the shark?

Last night’s attendance was a solid 10,111 and the handle totaled $3,823,629.

On the surface, those numbers are both okay, but they’re a far cry from previous Pace editions, circa 2000-2008. And, when we add up the bridge-jumping place and show pools (which cost the track and ADWs money, no less) the handle was not appreciably more than a good Big M Saturday card.

The major difference, as I see it, is the proliferation of stakes races on Pace cards in this day and age. Saturday, only two races were of the overnight variety, while 11 were stakes, some of which were extremely poor betting affairs. In the ‘old days’ the card was much more balanced with races for fans and bettors alike, and bettors tended to respond, with $5 million to $6 million handles a normal occurrence.

The evidence that this may not be optimal was probably best illustrated with the $100,000 guaranteed late pick 4. This sequence included the Meadowlands Pace itself, the Haughton and Golden Girls, and logically should’ve delivered a very big pool; especially when we consider the late pick 4 on non-stakes evenings can regularly approach $100,000. The pool size was a paltry $89,000.

Bettors were probably right not to invest in the sequence, as even with a bomb $35 winner in Mach It So and a prohibitive favorite in Lady Shadow losing, it came back an anaemic $75 for 50 cents.

In thoroughbred racing, major stakes cards deliver huge handles and have been growing world-wide. Major harness stakes cards have not followed. Breeders Crowns and Hambletonians are branded as stakes cards, which is fine, but in my view, Meadowlands Pace cards were always branded as great betting cards. They simply aren’t anymore.

I wonder if the Meadowlands might want to return to their roots. Instead of running Dancers with 1-9 shots, perhaps adding $10,000 to each overnight race and attracting deep full contentious fields in five or six of the evening’s races is the proper way forward.

How good is Walner? I’d submit nobody knows

I remember writing a column before the Hambletonian in 2008 where I shared that I had no idea where Muscle Hill’s bottom was. He trotted so perfectly – like an equine metronome – and had not even broken a sweat in any of his races I could not muster a prediction.

Nine years later I feel exactly the same way with Walner. He, like Muscle Hill, trots almost perfectly, but there’s even more mystery in relation to his bottom because (to my eyes anyway) he has a longer gait and chews up more ground than Muscle Hill.

As with any trotter, they can go off in a hurry; they can have one nick and it can turn a 1:50 mile into a 1:52 mile. But right now, after Saturday night, I don’t think I’ve been more excited to see a horse race than I am with Walner.

What about the bettors?

Huntsville was amazing last night. What was most amazing to many, however, is why the Meadowlands judges did not call an inquiry to have a look at the last quarter mile.

Huntsville was clearly inside one pylon (which can be fine in Jersey), looked close to another, and he raced erratically in the lane (as he has before). Mark Macdonald’s colt broke while trying to go inside Huntsville, and it was at least remotely possible Huntsville’s drifting had some effect on Brian Sears and Downbytheseaside’s straight line charge.

I, like everyone else, expected the inquiry sign (even though few of us expected there was enough for a change in order). When I heard political speeches out of the corner of my ear I was still sure there was an inquiry coming. None came.

Huntsville’s owners received $332,000 for winning the Meadowlands Pace. They, and their horse, deserve our respect. Bettors bet over $550,000 into the Meadowlands Pace. They deserve a little respect, too.

Is it time to drop the bias?

For as long as I’ve lived – and you, too, probably – we’ve been taught that fillies can’t compete with the boys. When we look at the pacers this has been a pretty accurate statement, but as the trotting breed (and training technique) evolves, I’m not sure I believe it anymore.

Is Ariana G the fastest three-year-old trotter outside Walner, who by all accounts looks like a freak? A case can certainly be made, and it’s yet another year of such debates. We all remember Mission Brief — who at about 80 per cent almost won the Hambletonian. This is nothing new.

Is Hannelore Hanover the fastest trotter this side of the pond, regardless of sex? I can’t think of too many faster, if any. Can you?

Trotters are an interesting, frustrating, mind-bending feature of this sport. For many trainers the rules don’t apply when the gait goes square. I think the ‘she can’t beat a he’ rule might have to go the way of the wooden sulky, because, to me, it’s an old-school axiom in a new trotting world.