Jug or no Jug — Huntsville’s connection are in the ‘no’ camp

by Brett Sturman

Following another gritty Huntsville win – this time in the Cane Pace – last Saturday at the Meadowlands, trainer Ray Schnittker indicated he wasn’t a fan of the Little Brown Jug and had not kept Huntsville eligible.

The reaction, by many, was as predictable. The Jug has a huge following due to its format, but certainly it’s not a race for everyone.

Winning the Jug requires just as much – if not more – luck as it requires skill. Many times, the race is decided at the post-position draw on the half-mile track and through the years some very good horses have been beaten by inferior horses simply because those horses drew an inside post. That, combined with the fact that two — and in the past three heats — have been needed to win the Jug on an often-hot day, and one can see the drawbacks to the race.

Relative to its place in harness racing history, the Jug doesn’t race for that much money either. Last year’s Jug final was raced for only $276,970, with the heats going for around $90,000 apiece. By comparison, the Carl Milstein at Northfield Park tonight for 3-year-olds goes for $300,000.

The fact that the Jug is the third leg of harness racing’s pacing Triple Crown is largely meaningless and those like Schnittker aren’t going to put a horse through what the Jug entails just because of its prestige. It’s obvious one of the main issues is that he doesn’t care for heat racing.

Schnittker said at the USTA Speaker Series prior to the 2010 Jug in regards to his Meadowlands Pace winner One More Laugh, “If he doesn’t win the first heat we’re not coming back for the second.” One More Laugh finished a close third in his elimination, but true to his word, Schnittker scratched him from Jug final after being stung hard from post 7 in his elimination.

Just last weekend, the Hambletonian at the Meadowlands was raced with multiple heats on the same day, but you don’t typically hear the same reservations by trainers to race in the Hambletonian that you do when it comes to the Jug. There’s likely a few reasons for this.

First, winning the Hambletonian stands to do much more for enhancing the breeding value of a winner of that race far more than the winner of the Jug. I realize this is comparing trotters against pacers, but the list of Hambletonian winners through the years shows far more influential sires than does what the Jug shows. And in addition to being raced on the Meadowlands mile track as opposed to the souped-up Delaware half-mile, the Hambletonian final goes for $1 million, dwarfing what the Jug races for.

Huntsville won’t be the first big-name horse to bypass the Jug, either. The all-time great Somebeachsomewhere skipped the Jug in 2008 and his trainer Brent MacGrath received scorn from many in the industry for that decision.

I don’t believe the Jug should change any part of its format to be more accommodating to some, but something should be considered to ensure that the very best 3-year-olds in the sport come to the Jug every year without hesitation. Those that descend to the Delaware County Fairgrounds once a year are the most passionate harness racing people around and deserve to see the absolute best horses present. Imagine if SBSW had raced at the Delaware oval back in 2008; the crowd would have been insane.

Whether or not you view the luck of the draw and heat style racing of the Jug as faults or as something unique, the connections of horses such as Huntsville and SBSW would probably reconsider their decision if they were incentivized to do so.

With its place in racing history, the Jug should race for money than it goes for.

In Ohio, with the recent advent of slots, both overnight races and sire stake races now race for more money than could have ever dreamed possible a short time ago. I know few want to entertain the idea of taking anything from the slot-enhanced purses and using them to supplement anything else, but it would be in the best interest of the sport – and especially in Ohio where the U.S. Trotting Association is headquartered – to find ways to direct money to the purse of the Jug as to bring it more on par with other prestigious races.

Another option would be to follow the thoroughbred Breeder’s Cup model of “win and you’re in.” In this scenario, let’s say the winner of the Meadowlands Pace or North America Cup would automatically have their entry fee paid for the Jug. Or instead of winning the Cane Pace and being allowed to supplement as you can today, you are automatically entered for the race. These ideas probably sound revolutionary for harness racing, but they’re successful and commonplace elsewhere.

But as it stands for this year, Huntsville won’t be in the Jug. Schnittker probably couldn’t care less, but passing on the race won’t help the colt’s chances in repeating for top divisional honors. His chief rival Fear The Dragon already sports a 3-0 record against him in the times they’ve raced head to head this year, and at this time chances are more likely than not that Fear The Dragon will win the Jug in a few weeks in front of the hometown faithful.

The Jug may not be for everyone and there are certainly legitimate reasons to not enter a competitive horse in the race. However, it also continues to symbolize all the very best that harness racing has to offer.