Hard to handle: Yonkers stakes vs. Big M amateur races

The result might not be what you think.

by Brett Sturman

It’s been established by now that the purse offered in a harness race has little to do with the amount bet for that race. But what happened over last weekend in races from total opposite ends of the spectrum at the Meadowlands and at Yonkers is striking just the same.

To its credit, Yonkers handle has been up considerably this year and the reasons for it have been well documented. Last Saturday, on one of Yonkers’ biggest nights of the year, the track once again made it to $1,000,000 in handle which was good for over a 50 per cent increase in handle from the same night last year.

The signature race of the harness racing season anywhere thus far – the George Morton Levy final – handled a race total of $137,184. This includes an exacta pool of $38,483 and a trifecta pool of $29,246; not bad numbers at all for Yonkers or for most any other harness track for that matter.

But looking across the river at the Meadowlands just the night before, that track handled $172,787 on an amateur race known as the GSY Club Spring Fling Series final. Exacta and trifecta pools for the race were large at $53,986 and $40,419, respectively.

What’s even more remarkable is that the prior Friday at the Meadowlands featured another one of the GSY Club amateur races and in this race, the exacta and trifecta pools totaled $125,335 for these two pools alone. And this occurred in the very first race of the night no less, where pools are typically smallest in the early and late stages of a card.

To put it into further perspective, the exacta and trifecta pools from the April 13 amateur race at the Meadowlands nearly outhandled the same pools from both the Blue Chip Matchmaker and the Levy series finals at Yonkers – combined! It almost seems impossible.

So, what gives? How can races featuring mediocre horses with amateur drivers outhandle by so much the best horses in the sport, driven by the best drivers? This isn’t a knock either against the amateur drivers, but it would be silly to compare non-professional drivers to the likes of the world-class drivers that have been at Yonkers for the better part of the past two months.

Everyone knows that the Meadowlands will outhandle every other track, especially half-mile tracks that are at an inherent disadvantage because of its size. But what does it say about bettors’ preference for betting on things when the most prestigious of races is disregarded for amateur races that sometimes can resemble a demolition derby.

For that matter, there are many people that say these amateur races shouldn’t be carded as pari-mutuel races to begin with. And if the Meadowlands wasn’t in such dire need to add races, maybe they wouldn’t be carded that way. But people still bet it in droves. At this point, the track might as well allow wagering on the ostriches in a few weeks.

Whereas Yonkers is seeing a renaissance this year due to positive changes, it looks like there is a ceiling to just how high handle can possibly go regardless of all the changes in the world. Conversely, the Meadowlands has a floor that its handle never seems to go below.

If there was anyone still out there who felt that purses had an impact on handle, one way to look at it would be to measure the amount of handle generated by purse. By this metric, the Meadowlands would produce a ratio that would be 100 times better than any other track. It’s because they’re the track with some of the lowest purses but with by far the highest handle.

The only point in even mentioning the purse to handle ratio is that it’s a good thing harness racing isn’t relying on it to survive. I often wonder why tracks whose purses are derived from slots care about handle in the first place? It’s not like handle at any of these tracks come close to supporting the purse levels that the races go for anyway.

Back to the Meadowlands, it’s true that they’re aided by being one of the few big tracks still around. That alone however isn’t the reason why the public is betting over $200,000 in total action on an amateur race. If it were that simple, I would expect tracks such as Hoosier Park to be handling well also. But that isn’t the case.

Coming of a successful hosting of the Breeders Crown last fall, handle at the Indiana track couldn’t be any lower right now. Despite being a 7/8thmile track, it handled an inexplicably low $310,993 this past Saturday over 12 races; one night after an amateur race at the Meadowlands handled half that amount in one race alone.

Beginning with one of the longest post drags in the sport, the Meadowlands is far from perfect. But it does understand – because it must – the importance of deriving purses from handle and not the other way around as most tracks look at it. It’s the fundamental reason why amateur races at the track can outhandle the biggest races held at other tracks.