by Brett Sturman
With still two weekends remaining in the month, it’s already been a September to remember at Woodbine Mohawk. A relentless barrage of top-level races and other factors has led to handle figures that have outpaced any reasonable set of expectations.
The final Saturday in August served as foreshadowing for what was to come in the next weeks. Moved from its originally scheduled date in June because of COVID-19 to the end of August, the North America Cup card handled $5,619,396 – the highest handle in the 57-year-old history of the track. Headlining that night was Tall Dark Stranger in the NA Cup, but a strong undercard consisted of the Fan Hanover, Armbro Flight and Roses Are Red finals.
Quoting handle figures thus far in September only (excluding the NA Cup numbers), Woodbine CEO Jim Lawson said, “In September, we wagered $26,511,350. The best measurement we can do – given COVID – is year over year, and during the same period last year we were $17,454,200. So, doing the rough math it’s over $9 million better than the first 15 calendar days last year. $9 million is a pretty good uptick and it’s safe to say that we’re exceeding expectations. We’ve had a few great nights.”
Of all the factors boosting the Woodbine Mohawk numbers, Lawson points first to the fact that the Woodbine brand is growing. “A good percentage of that growth is in the United States for sure,” said Lawson. “And so, I think there’s been a greater acceptance and following of our brand and we’ve been working on that for a couple of years. I think that’s been a factor first and foremost, and then second, Yonkers being down this week has helped. We’ve certainly been put in an enviable position with full race cards with our average field size being up almost a full horse this year. And if you combine that average field size with the fact that other tracks aren’t running and competing with us, it’s given us more prominence.”
With the exception of the NA Cup that had been moved and that took place in August, all other stakes races that we’re seeing in September had already been scheduled as is. In the process, Woodbine Mohawk may be onto something by having so many stakes races closely following behind each other, which has enabled it to build and sustain momentum for a number of consecutive weeks.
Regarding the heavily loaded stakes schedule, Lawson said “We always had a bang-up September coming. The one obvious addition is the Mohawk Million that I’m really excited about. But other races that night (Sept. 26) are the She’s A Great Lady, the Metro, the Milton Stakes, and those were already on the schedule, as were all the other major races that we’ve run. We had a bang-up schedule and I think we’ve also benefitted from the scheduling of other tracks.”
That driver Yannick Gingras picked up and went to race at Woodbine Mohawk, put himself through a quarantine and all else that came with the move speaks in itself to the quality of races throughout the month. He’s since been joined up North by driver Andrew McCarthy and those two will continue to square off in races this weekend.
Though it isn’t all publicly facing, Lawson senses a buzz amongst horsemen in anticipation of next week’s inaugural Mohawk Million. “There’s nine slots to start with plus the Wellwood winner, and a lot of them are jockeying for position for the race,” said Lawson. “There’s some people looking for horses and I don’t know exactly all that’s going on in the background, but it’s a pretty small harness racing community within the major players, and those that don’t have a live horse are juggling to get one. I think there are four or five or six spots out of the nine that are cemented down, and then are there are still people moving around with the others and trying to partner on their best opportunities. I know that night itself is going to be fantastic in terms of the entire card and I think we’re going to have a very big night in wagering.”
While next Saturday’s card figures to be a fitting way to close out the month, it’s first things first with another tremendous night of racing action this Saturday. In addition to eliminations for the Metro, Milton and She’s A Great Lady, there are two big money races on the line in the $560,000 Canadian Trotting Classic and a showdown in the $350,000 Elegantimage.
Beginning with the Elegantimage for 3-year-old trotting fillies, SORELLA gets another crack at Hambletonian heroine RAMONA HILL. It seems like ages ago in mid-July when SORELLA was the higher regarded of the two, but she’s still the clear second-best filly in the division. A winner in 1:51.3 two back over this track and then again here last out in a race that included males, she could give the champ a lot to think about. RAMONA HILL hasn’t missed in recent months and driver McCarthy made the trip to Canada last week to retain the drive on the champion. Imposing from the rail, though a classic race could be coming. Burke though enough to give SISTER SLEDGE a shot in the Hambletonian and she gets reunited with Gingras; the last time they teamed together she trotted to a dominant 1:51.2 win at the Meadowlands. TRINA wasn’t bad at all last week at big price last week; proved she can go with these.
In the Canadian Trotting Classic, another heavy favorite looms in READY FOR MONI. His only blemish on the entire year was a runner-up finish to Ramona Hill in the Hambletonian and he showed determination last out in overcoming a tough trip to win the Goodtimes. I tried to beat him that night but won’t do the same now. THREEFIFTYTWO showed trot on both ends of his mile last out and he’s come close at times to beating some of the top ones. Trainer Blais is dangerous in spots like this; rates an upset chance. HP ROYAL THEO came with a move in the Goodtimes final last out but was outkicked by the big chalk; his speed will put him into it early. CHESTNUT HILL ships up for Nifty Norman; has been an improving colt of late.