Will banked turns improve racing at the Meadowlands?

by Brett Sturman

It was announced this week by the Meadowlands that when racing resumes in October for its fall meet, the turns will be elevated. More commonly known as banking, the premise behind it is that horses racing through the elevated paths of the turn will be able to sustain their momentum into the stretch despite racing wide.

Though it will be new to the current Meadowlands, the Meadowlands increased the degrees of its turns near the conclusion of the former surface back in 2011. Steep banking is also seen commonly in harness racing throughout Europe.

The physics behind banked turns is undeniable, but the question is, to what extent will it help contribute to competitive racing? Newly retired trainer Jimmy Takter has been inducted to harness racing halls of fame both here and abroad, and he shared his thoughts as to what impact banking the turns at the Meadowlands could have on the style of racing there.

“I’m definitely for it,” said Takter. “The Meadowlands had turns that were banked a few years ago, and the horses handled the turns a lot better. You’ve got to understand the speed we’re going into the turns. It’s like if you take a car and go fast into a turn on a flat surface, you don’t follow the turn as good as you do when its slightly banked.

“But if you take notice and turn on a replay and see a racetrack every day like Pocono for example, you see a horse sitting second over and when he tries to make a move out, he loses almost two lengths because he doesn’t have the same force coming from the turn. It definitely increases the chances for the horses coming from behind, without a doubt.”

Comparing the banked turns he’s seen at tracks here in North America to what he’s seen elsewhere, Takter sees a stark contrast.

“Some places in Sweden, like at my home track Jagersro, the turns are very, very banked. I actually think it’s banked way too much. Some other tracks there are banked very steep and I’m not really for that, but here they need to get them up a few degrees anyway. Most of our tracks here are way too flat.”

Banking the turns at the Meadowlands is an action that by most objective accounts is necessary, but what actual ability will it have in giving closing horses more of a fighting chance? Speed continues to dominate harness racing and racing at the Meadowlands is no exception. One of the things that stood out most from the racing at the track this past meet was the unusually fast final quarters that horses were consistently putting up. Twenty-five and 26-second final quarters became routine even in some of the lower level races, so what chance do closers have with or without banked turns?

“Unfortunately, today’s racing is that front speed holds up way too much,” said Takter. “Conservative drivers that have a conservative style, they have a hard time getting into the races. The guys that are more aggressive win more of the races than the drivers that are not. And it’s very costly for the horses, too. If you have a horse that cannot get away from the gate halfway decent, then you have a hard time to be competitive. If you end up seventh at the Meadowlands at the first quarter, unless they’re going insane high speed to the half – and even if they do – it’s hard to make up any ground.”

From a wagering standpoint, it’s hard to say what impact banking the turns will have on the track’s handle. The Meadowlands already has the highest handle anywhere by far, and it’s largely in part because bettors feel they get more of a fair shake on the mile track.

That isn’t to say, however, that there isn’t any possible correlation between banked turns, competitive racing, and handle. Coincidentally, a track that Takter cites with increased banking is one that overachieves with handle despite being a half-mile track.

As far as tracks with banked turns in the U.S., “Northfield is one of the better tracks,” said Takter. “They have a little more bank than most tracks around and it’s a great track to race. You see horses actually do a little better there coming off that final turn. They go fast like crazy, but they go fast everywhere.” Conversely, Takter said, “The Meadowlands has a little longer stretch of course, you have more room to catch up. But definitely at a track like Pocono – if they would have a bank, especially that last turn, they would definitely improve their racing and people would take more excitement in watching those races.”

There’s a lot of reasons that can be debated as to why harness racing has evolved into the speed racing that it has. Adding bank to the turns will in no way mitigate against what those factors are, but it will help to give horses coming off cover a little more chance to compete than they would have otherwise. That will be a good thing for the Meadowlands, and for the sport.