Twice around on a 5/8-mile track?

Why I hate the 5/8-mile track.

by Dean A. Hoffman

Sometime in the 1950s, a man was designing a harness track to be located in suburban Detroit. He must have sat there and thought, “How can I design a track to make sure that one of the most exciting parts of a race is as far from the public as possible?”

Thus the first 5/8-mile track was born at Hazel Park in Michigan.

I realize that many people hate racing on half-mile tracks. A friend I respect highly told me recently that his least favorite track is a 7/8-mile track. I, however, have always disliked the 5/8-mile track most of all.

Yet it exploded in popularity after Hazel Park opened because it had longer stretches than the twice-arounds and yet didn’t require as much land as a mile track. The 5/8-mile track was seen as the perfect compromise. But not for me.

To me, the start of a race is always exciting. All the horses have those noses on the gate. Drivers are poised. Who’s leaving? Who’s taking back? Who’s on a break? Who seems indecisive?

Hall of Fame driver Dave Magee once emphasized to me that the first few seconds of a race greatly determines the outcome at the finish line.

The finish can be exciting if you have an exciting stretch duel, but often the finish order is preordained well before the wire. If one horse has a couple lengths on its closest pursuers with 100 yards to go, the race is virtually over.

I see advantages and disadvantages in each of the conventional size tracks and I always welcome unconventional thinking on new track designs. Years ago, we published in Hoof Beats a proposal for a one-mile straight track. I’ve heard proposals for a Figure 8 track and other new designs. But horse racing is bound by tradition all too often.

In a traditional mile race on a 5/8-mile, the excitement of the start and the initial scramble for position is done as far away from the public as possible. It takes place in the middle of the backstretch. The public’s perspective as it watches from the grandstand is flat and doesn’t capture the drama of the start. It’s the same on the TV monitors.

The first quarter is a mad dash for position and invariably a couple horses get parked.

Then the field swings into the stretch for the second quarter, when it’s directly in front of the public. That’s when spectators can often take a nap because most drivers are sitting chilly in that second quarter. Sure, some horses will make moves, but there is often little action as the horses pass the public.

As the field heads down the backstretch in the third quarter, the action heats up. Drivers pull on the right line. The field bunches.

The fourth and final quarter can be exciting — or it can be ho-hum if a horse has, and keeps, a commanding lead.

A typical race with nine starters on a 5/8-mile track might find seven on the inside and two on the outside at the first quarter. Maybe six on the inside and three on the outside at the half-mile mark. Then it could be five in and four out at the 3/4-pole.

I’ve often wanted to tabulate those positions over a thousand races or more on a 5/8-mile track. I suspect predictable patterns would emerge.

Patterns would emerge in a one-mile race on a 5/8-mile track because you often have the same number of horses and many of the same drivers and they’re racing the same distance. Those patterns would be predictable.

I realize that many bettors rely on predictability in a race. It helps their handicapping. But I find it boring. All too often, harness racing is one-mile monotony to me. Same distance, same number of horses, many of the same drivers. It’s like watching the same movie over and mover again. Or like watching a football game consisting of all running plays off tackle. Few surprises, little drama.

Biblical scholars have documented that when Moses came down from the mountain, he actually had 11 — not just 10 — Commandments. The 11th Commandment was: “All harness races in North America must be at one mile.”

I once chatted with a veteran race secretary at a 5/8-mile track and suggested that he might want to card some 1-1/4 mile events for variety.

“But where would the horses start?” he asked me. He seemed as puzzled as an old cow looking at a new fence.

I told him that they would start right in front of the public at the finish line. That concept seemed difficult for him to grasp, and then I complicated things by saying that with longer races, the fields could be larger. I said that short races equal short fields, and long races equal longer fields. The 100-meter dash in the last Olympics had eight runners while the marathon had 155 runners.

I suggested that he could card fields of 12 horses in the 1-1/4 mile events.

He threw up his hands, saying, “And only five horses get money? That would never go.”

I told him that Biblical scholars had never conclusively proven that only five starters are due money in a harness race. In fact, during my years as editor of Hoof Beats, I was regularly visited by a nice and sincere man who fervently believed that all starters should get money.

I often countered his logic by saying that maybe we should pay the first three horses — win, place, and show — just as we pay the bettors.

Anyway, I told the race secretary that he could pay seven starters in a 12-horse field, but the whole concept of change was a bit beyond his comprehension.

Most of the tracks in Europe are 5/8-mile (one kilometer) but often the races area 2,100 meters and thus start in front of the public. There is no reason — other than the hidebound resistance to change — that American tracks can’t do the same. Larger fields=longer races. What have we got to lose since pari-mutuel handle is dropping like the value of a Zimbabwe dollar?