The sport’s all-time winningest driver muses about life at his home track should they follow through with purging the passing lane.
by Brett Sturman
On the heels of the elimination of the passing lane at Yonkers Raceway more than a year ago, there have been rumblings that the elimination of passing lanes at the Pennsylvania harness tracks may not be far behind.
Following on cue, it was reported two weeks ago that The Meadows harness track in western Pennsylvania would be proceeding with the elimination of their passing lane, or it’s more famed name, the “Lighting Lane” as has been dubbed by long-time track announcer Roger Huston. The plan was for the passing lane to be removed during this time period in the final week of April where the track would be dark. However, the passing lane is still intact.
Mark Loewe, vice-president of racing for Penn National Gaming at The Meadows provided clarification on the subject. After receiving an initial go-ahead, a subsequent determination was made that the decision to remove the passing lane should be deferred back to the entire racing commission.
“The executive director of the PA Racing Commission felt like it needed to be addressed by the entire commission board, so the decision has been delayed until the matter can be brought before the PA Racing Commission on Tuesday April 30 in a meeting to be held at 1 pm,” Loewe said.
Presumably, the decision to at least temporarily delay the elimination of the passing lane had to do with factors that warranted further discussions. For instance, owners have already paid into stakes races at the track based on the existence of a passing lane.
It’s seems clear that track and other industry executives are becoming aligned in the belief that elimination of passing lanes will help improve the flow of the races. In addition to decisions made at Yonkers and what seems like an eventual outcome at The Meadows, Hambletonian Society president and CEO John Campbell has made suggestions to people in PA within the past two years that racing has become too predictable with passing lanes and that they should be eliminated.
Closing in on 19,000 wins in his career with over $142 million in purses earned, Hall-of-Fame driver Dave Palone is the perennial leading driver at The Meadows. In offering his expertise on the subject, Palone was largely indifferent as to how the potential change at The Meadows could affect him personally. “I have no opinion one way or the other, but I think that the trainers and gamblers would be mixed on this,” said Palone. “I think we put in passing lanes for the benefit of the gamblers, no one wants to see their horse locked in and not get a chance. So, I understand what they’re doing as far as taking the passing lane out to get the racing to be a little livelier, but I also see it from the standpoint of the trainers where it’s going to make us race these horses a lot harder than we’re already racing them.
“We’re asking them to race 40 starts a year now, so it’s stretching a lot to ask a horse to race that much as it is and then have to race them harder and more aggressive than we already drive them now. I don’t know if it’s going to be counterproductive that way or not, but I’m up for whatever they do.”
For someone who has won as many thousands of races at a single track such Palone has done at The Meadows, I wondered how a change in track configuration could alter his successful style of racing,
“It’s not going to really change things too much (as far as strategy). I might have a little change in strategy where you can maybe try to put a guy in a bad spot that you’re trying to beat if there’s no passing lane. But at this point in the game, everyone knows that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that you have to be up close and in the hunt… I think you’ll get some guys that are going to maybe move prematurely or earlier and get out of 2-holes if they don’t trust the horse that they’re following, kind of like at Delaware.”
Part of Palone’s indifference to the passing lane at The Meadows is that it’s not a necessity for him as racing stands today.
“If I can avoid it, I stay out of going left. I’m not a passing lane guy,” said Palone. “Plus, at The Meadows we have a late passing lane where we don’t get started with the passing lane until inside the eighth pole and it’s really hard to get a horse charged up to go left at that point. So, if I’ve got pace, I’m looking to escape a lot earlier than late in the passing lane.
“It might be interesting to see if they opened up the passing lane to the top of the stretch and see how that would change things, but I really don’t care how they do it. I’m not a passing lane guy anyway and I’m never looking to put myself in a spot to think that I need to go left to win this race. If I have to I will, but it’s not my forte, that’s for sure.”