by Brett Sturman
Two sets of pilot projects geared towards enhancing value for bettors commenced this past Friday (Nov. 1) at Woodbine Mohawk Park. Both novel concepts with the potential to shake up the ordinary style of racing, one of the changes calls for nine horses scoring across the gate with the 10 horse traditionally on the far outside, now scoring from behind the one in the second tier. The other addition calls for one race a night that will go at an extended one and three-eighths mile distance, contested by 11 horses.
Racing at Woodbine Mohawk is at the top of what harness racing has to offer as its best, but at the same time, many of the races often fall into the same predictable format. The races consist of fast opening fractions aided by a straightaway for much of the opening quarter mile, then a slow middle half has the race is backed down and then a final quarter sprint. Because of it, flows in the race don’t often develop until late and the pattern repeats itself.
The new initiatives put into place that will be tested throughout the remainder of the calendar year seem to have been put in place with the idea to challenge the status quo of how races are conducted and at the same time make races slightly less predictable, equating to potentially larger race payouts.
Corresponding with Woodbine Entertainment Group president Jessica Buckley, the intent behind what it would do to the races by having the 10 horse score behind the one was discussed. Through email, Buckley said, “It’s important for us at Woodbine standardbred to keep innovating and trying new things to improve our product. We have been analyzing the wagering and wanted to add value for the wagering public. The win percentage from the 10-hole is lower and therefore we made the decision to trial the 10-horse scoring from the second tier, thereby creating more opportunities.”
Similarly, Buckley confirmed that including a race nightly at one mile and three-eighths could bring about a different dynamic to the traditional style of racing.
“The added distance races accomplish two things: Firstly, we can race an 11-horse field with two horses scoring from the second tier. The larger field is more attractive to our wagering customer and creates more opportunities for value. Secondly, the added distance adds a new component for handicappers to analyze and may change the racing strategy for drivers,” Buckley said. “These two new variables for handicapping, we hope will increase payouts and create more opportunities for our wagering customers.” Buckley also noted that her group will be evaluating the results through the coming weeks.
In a sport where things are kept fairly “standard,” Woodbine Mohawk Park really ought to be praised for trying a couple different things that are clearly designed for the bettors’ best interests. It’s even more commendable considering that horsepeople have historically pushed back on initiatives that involve things along the lines of increasing field size or racing at new distances.
If one has never seen it before, the concept of having a race with 11 horses (including two trailers) going nearly a mile and a half is a recipe for chaos. But, this type of harness racing is essentially the norm in nearly every other part of the world. In fact, races in France and Sweden are contested at even longer distances than what Woodbine Mohawk is proposing and with even more horses than 11. I’ve seen races at tracks in France with 16 horses taking place on not much more than some dirt in the middle of a field, so I’m sure that the vast Woodbine Mohawk Park oval is more than suitable for the couple extra trailers.
You can take this with a grain of salt since these results thus far are based on a total of two races, but the earliest of preliminary findings show eye-opening results. In the Friday (Nov. 1) race featuring 11 horses at the added distance, it was won by a $24 horse (a Richard Moreau / Louis-Philippe Roy horse no less). A 7-1 horse was second and another double-digit horse was third, keying a $243 exacta and a $1,945 trifecta.
Playing can-you-top-this, Saturday’s race in the same conditions was won by a horse that payed $104. It was bombs away for the second and third spots, and this time the exacta and trifecta came back at $2,765 and $34,510 respectively (the Saturday trifecta payout was listed in the charts as a $0.20 increment, so I adjusted it to the $2 payout to be consistent with how Friday’s $2 trifecta payout was shown in the charts).
Again, it may be pure coincidence between the high prices and larger fields and added distance, but increasing the field to include more horses and throwing in a little uncertainty as to how drivers and horses will adjust is bound to increase the race payouts.
In both races, the winners came from off the pace and also in both races, they appeared completely wide open at the top of the stretch with at least a half-dozen horses in contention both times. Also, as intended by the changes, the flow of the races took form much earlier on than usual. Resembling comparable races contested internationally, outer flows were in place early in the race and it allowed horses time to be pulled into the race that they may not have been able to do otherwise at the normal distance.
One interesting observation was that in the Saturday race, the race leader Thor De Vie went what would have been his final fraction in about :27 (three quarters to one mile) provided the time was accurate, and predictably couldn’t sustain after that for the remaining three-eighths of a mile. There’s no question that both horses and drivers will need to adapt to the changes, and in the case of the horses, it’ll be noteworthy to see if some more than others have a knack at keeping their speed and stamina through the longer races.
With the objective to increase value for bettors, the complimenting pilot projects couldn’t be off to a better start. If similar results continue, there’s a case that these races should become more of the norm.