Mohawk Million a tough sell – but should fill

The mathematics don’t seem to make sense, but there’s likely enough interest to get the race off the ground.

by Brett Sturman

First unveiled in September as a new race to debut next year for 2-year-old trotters, an official date of Sept. 26, 2020 was announced this past week as the inauguration date for Mohawk Million. Designed to be the richest race in Canada surpassing the purse of the Pepsi North America Cup, if all goes to plan, the Mohawk Million will only take place if all 10 entry spots fill. That, in itself, is the million-dollar question.

Modeling itself from thoroughbred’s Gulfstream Park Pegasus World Cup format, entries for the Mohawk Million cost a hefty buy-in of $110,000 (U.S.) Payments to ensure a starting slot have been split into two installments, of which the first $55,000 payment is rapidly approaching on Feb. 17. Will there be a total of nine connections willing to ante-up?

For starters, this type of format applies to only the most elite group of owners in the sport. The dollars and cents of it don’t add up for anyone, but there will be an element of prestige for those who consistently have a grip on the premier young trotters in the sport. Having owners offer up six-figure buy-ins to compete for the buy-ins from their select peers might be more appealing if the race applied to proven horses, but the scales have been tipped even more because the race is for 2-year-olds (and trotters no less).

In early February there will be hundreds (if not over a thousand) of 2-year-old trotters in training across the U.S. and Canada that will all be training in the same time range, still many months away from first hitting the tracks to qualify. But, the rules for the race know this uncertainty and that’s why it’s stated that only an “entity” is being purchased, not for a specific horse which doesn’t have to declared until the actual time of entry. This is another factor that plays into the larger owners pooled together who may have 15 or more of the most well-bred yearling trotters right now and they figure that they only need one of them to fill their entry for the race. On the other hand, no smaller stable in their right mind would be able to make the first $55,000 payment come February, nor would they want to knowing they’re up against the likes of $1 million yearlings by Father Patrick and Muscle Hill.

The reason that only nine spots need to be bought instead of 10 is because one spot will be automatically given to the winner of the William Wellwood Memorial, a stakes race for 2-year-old trotters in September that would precede the Mohawk Million. In this sense, the biggest winner in this entire thing becomes the Wellwood.

By comparison of requiring $55,000 by February, last year’s nomination fee in February for the Wellwood was a total $165 by Feb. 15. Sustaining payments in the months following were $165, $245, $410 (all USD) and even the starting fee itself was just $2,000. If you are anyone outside of the sport’s elite, the far more logical route to the Mohawk Million is to do it through the Wellwood.

Woodbine CEO Jim Lawson stated previously to HRU that the Wellwood should see a boost in entries due to how it’s tied to the Mohawk Million (full story here) – and he’s absolutely right. Suddenly, not only can a horse win a couple hundred thousand through the Wellwood, but would then immediately have the opportunity to come right back for another half-million with no added expense. In this sense, assuming anyone who buys an entry to the Mohawk Million also nominates to the Wellwood, the 2020 Wellwood may be the best ever edition of the race while serving as a preview for the million-dollar race to follow shortly thereafter.

Back to the question at hand, will there be enough purchased contracts by Feb. 17 for the event to proceed forward? Despite the poor mathematics behind it, I’m inclined to say that there will be.

This exact idea – a $1 million race for 2-year-old trotters with the same buy-in structure – was first proposed by the Hambletonian Society a year ago in 2018 for a race that was first thought of to place this past fall at the Red Mile. Shortly after its announcement, the race was cancelled due to what was announced as a scheduling conflict. I don’t think another same race would have been planned unless there were assurances from enough of the sport’s power brokers that the race would be able to move forward now and become a reality. Though it’s impossible to know the 10 specific horses who will eventually line up at the starting gate, you could probably safely guess the owners who will be securing the spots.

It’s worth noting that the Pegasus World Cup – the race for which the Red Mile race was first based on — just announced a dramatic change for this year. After a few years of the buy-in format with a race purse as high as $12 million one year, that format has been scrapped and the race will be run this year with no buy-in fees, but with a reduced purse down to $3 million. The same may hold true in the future for the Mohawk Million once those who organize the race are able to see what format is most successful after the race has been run a time or two. We’ll find out in a month and a half if there are enough slots purchased to move forward this year, and I think that there will be.