Time for owners’ colors, and the Hambletonian is the place to start

by Bill Finley

When the field lines up behind the gate for this year’s Hambletonian, it’s quite possible that nine horses will be carrying the colors of their driver and one, International Moni, will be racing under the colors of its owner, the Antonacci family’s Lindy Farms. Let’s hope this turns out to be more than a one-and-done gimmick and that the Antonacci family has spearheaded a new tradition for the sport and its most prestigious trotting event. May this be the last Hambletonian where any driver wears his colors and not those of the horses’ owners.

The sport needs to do everything it can to attract new owners and keep the ones it has in the game. Letting them see their own colors in the winner’s circle is no small thing. It’s an ego rush that can be just as important as the victory and the purse check. I’m for the sport converting entirely to the thoroughbred model, where jockeys always wear the silks of the owners, but realize that’s not going to happen overnight. The Antonaccis’ idea needs a push to keep up the momentum and new Hambletonian Society President and CEO John Campbell needs to pick up the ball. As one of his first official acts in his new job, he should announce that starting in 2018 all drivers in the Hambletonian and Hambletonian Oaks will be required to wear the colors of the owner. That’s just the sort of thing that could open the door for the sport to change a tradition that needs to go.

According to the Hambletonian Society’s jill-of-all-trades Moira Fanning there is nothing in the Hambletonian’s rules or New Jersey racing regulations that prevent horses from racing in the colors of the owner and not the driver.

“It’s something we’re going to give a shot and I encourage other owners to do the same,” trainer Frank M. Antonacci told HRU when the colors story broke last month. “To me, it just makes sense. Do I think every overnight is going to have guys with owner colors? No. But the places where we showcase our sport and showcase our breed, why wouldn’t owners and farms demand that these guys wear these colors? It’s their horses, their product and it’s the greatest billboard you can have for your brand — your winning horse.”

The Antonaccis are part of the thoroughbred ownership group Ice Wine Stable, so they have experienced firsthand the thrill of seeing their team’s silks cross the wire first and then enter the winner’s circle at such prestigious tracks like Gulfstream Park and the Saratoga thoroughbred track. Thoroughbred owners tend to be very proud of their silks and what they represent, so much so that they can become a major issue. Simon Callaghan was fired as the trainer of the top 3-year-old filly Abel Tasman, the winner of the Kentucky Oaks, over a mixup about what colors the horse wore in the Santa Ysabel Stakes earlier this year at Santa Anita. Co-owned by the China Horse Club and Clearsky Farms, she showed up in the Clearsky silks in the Santa Anita race when the co-owners had agreed that she would wear the China Horse Club colors. The China Horse Club syndicate was so miffed it demanded that Callaghan be fired. He was replaced by trainer Bob Baffert.

You might think that the China Horse Club overreacted, but that’s not the point. The Abel Tasman foul-up goes to show just how important something as simple as a pair of silks can be to people. That particular ownership group has invested millions into the business and they were not pleased when one of their best horses showed up in a big race with the jockey wearing someone else’s silks.

When owners get into either game, thoroughbred or standardbred racing, they know they’re probably not going to make any money. They stay involved for the thrills, the excitement, and the pride that comes with accomplishing a victory. When it happens in thoroughbred racing, people want to see their banner, which is their silks, flying high. Why wouldn’t they?

“Obviously, I would love to see our colors and all harness owners be represented with their own colors,” said Richard Munk, whose Funky Munky stable races both breeds. “I think it would make the sport more fun. You get a bigger thrill in thoroughbreds because of the silks. Doing something like that in harness racing could help attract more owners and anything you can do for owners is beneficial to the sport.”

Fanning pointed out that, in addition to International Moni, there are precedents for drivers to wear the owners’ colors. When driving, Jacqueline Ingrassia wears the colors of owner Arden Homestead and in Sweden top owners like Courant AB will sometimes have the drivers wear the stable colors.

Drivers are an important part of the sport but they are not as important as owners. There’s no reason whatsoever that they, and not the owner, should get the glory that comes from winning a race in one’s own uniform. Making the change isn’t going to make thousands of new owners flock to the sport, but it would do a little something to make it more fun to own a harness horse. That’s important.

International Moni, who raced last night at the Meadowlands in the Lindy colors, is being pointed for the Hambletonian. Should he make it, regular driver Scott Zeron will put aside his own red, white and blue colors and wear the black, blue and white that represent Lindy. Zeron is one of the best young drivers in the sport, but I hope to never see his colors, or those of any driver, in the Hambletonian again.