The Indiana track put on a heck of a show despite having to limit fan attendance to just 600 due to the pandemic.
by James Platz
Three years ago, Harrah’s Hoosier Park played host to the Breeders Crown, rolling out the red carpet to harness racing’s best over the course of two spectacular nights. After a weekend deemed an incredible success, Hoosier Park and Indiana’s racing stakeholders showed that they could step up and meet the challenge of hosting an event of this magnitude. The track offered pageantry and polish befitting the year-end championships, and in doing so, made an argument for inclusion in a rotation of Breeders Crown host sites.
Last weekend offered Hoosier Park the chance to show that it was more than a one-trick pony. Again, the track, Caesars Entertainment, and so many involved in Hoosier harness racing answered the call. By all accounts, it was a tremendous two nights of racing. The total two-night handle of $4,297,864 was up 12 per cent from the 2017 Crown weekend at Hoosier that saw total wagering of $3,837,869.
Each race offered great storylines leading up to the championships, and the action on the track provided equally stirring moments and emotions that will make up Breeders Crown lore long after this season comes to a close. Improbable winners. Disappointing defeats. Never before seen outcomes and payouts. Breeders Crown and Hoosier Park records set each night. The Hambletonian Society, led by president and CEO John Campbell, could not have asked for any more.
“Their planning, preparation and implementation is just exceptional. I feel very fortunate we have them as partners. I just can’t stress enough, they’ve made the best of a situation that nobody could have ever imagined,” said Campbell.
Hoosier Park was tasked with facilitating an event that showcased harness racing in the best light possible. The management and staff did just that, all while being handcuffed by the COVID-19 pandemic. For their part, Caesars Entertainment and Hoosier Park management did not focus on what could have been. The sad reality is that Anderson, IN played host to a world championship event… and yet, it could not advertise the assemblage of the sport’s top trotting and pacing talent. In 2017, an estimated crowd of 5,000 turned out on Saturday night to endure snow flurries and witness history. Last Saturday, the Hoosier Park apron was mostly vacant throughout the evening for the ticket-only event. According to Rick Moore, vice president and general manager of racing at Hoosier Park, the track executed a plan that called for a maximum capacity of just under 600, and they did so by focusing on taking care of owners and sponsors, those that invest heavily in the industry, first and foremost.
“At the end of the day, I truly believe we came up with the right decision. The right decision may not be the one that some people wanted us to come up with, because we’re not reaching out to the masses,” he explained. “We decided this go-around was going to be for our owners, our sponsors, some VIPS, and if we had some tables left over, we would sell those. We really wanted to take care of the owners and sponsors. We thought that was really, really important.”
This year’s Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup will be contested without fans. Moore feels fortunate that some were able to witness the Breeders Crown in person, even if the number was small. The focus was doing so with safety in mind. Moreover, for the masses that could not attend in person, Hoosier Park offered the racing live on its YouTube channel. According to the track’s audiovisual department, the Friday night feed attracted 7,800 guests throughout the program, while Saturday’s card saw 13,000 guests, with a peak viewing audience of 1,300 users at one time. Fans could not attend the races at Hoosier Park; instead, the track brought the product to them — and, remember, the YouTube numbers do not account for audiences watching via other platforms such as RTN, TwinSpires and HorsePlayer Interactive in Canada.
“We abided by the plan that was agreed to and worked on by Harrah’s Hoosier Park, the Indiana Standardbred Association, the Indiana Horse Racing Commission, and ultimately signed off on by the governor’s office. We made sure that we stayed in the boundaries of that plan,” Moore said. “That means a maximum, and I know this number better than I know my name, 597 people. Everything was built around that plan. We had to do this event in a very safe and healthy manner. I’m really proud that we were able to do everything within the boundaries of that plan.”
Moore and Campbell said that a great amount of discussion and planning went into this year’s Breeders Crown, more so than in a “normal” year, due to the uncertainty presented by the pandemic. The state shut down Hoosier Park for three months early in the year, and the two groups established some deadlines to serve as guideposts to determine if the track would be prepared to host the event. What was never discussed, however, was moving the event away from Hoosier Park.
“Actually, I think we should be very fortunate as an industry that we have a partner like Hoosier that was willing to put on the Breeders Crown under these trying circumstances. Yes, we only have 600 people. That’s disappointing compared to what we had here in 2017 and what we expected pre-COVID. However, there have been a lot of sporting events with no fans, a lot of horse racing events with no fans. The Indy 500, they didn’t have fans. So, we do have some fans,” Campbell said. “The show on the track, I’m very happy with that. You’re disappointed that we’re in this situation, but I think Hoosier, in cooperation with the Breeders Crown staff, has made the best of a situation where we weren’t even sure we would have a Breeders Crown back in May.”
Like so many events in 2020, the Breeders Crown had a different look and feel, even if the product on the track proved the constant. Hoosier Park set handle records each night with very little actually bet on track. That’s a positive. I have spent many years attending races at Hoosier Park. I can remember when fire marshals turned customers away when the facility reached capacity, as well as the large turnouts for the festivities surrounding the Dan Patch each year. It was eerie not hearing a throng of fans cheering as the horses thundered down the stretch. Even a half-filled clubhouse seemed odd. I would have loved to see the crowd’s reaction to Friday’s thrilling dead heat followed by longshot Sandbetweenmytoes upsetting Tall Dark Stranger Saturday night. It would have been electric. Nevertheless, I’ll settle for the fact that the Breeders Crown was held in my back yard for a second time, and look forward to Hoosier Park hosting for a third.
“They’ve indicated they would like to come back in three years. We certainly do,” said Campbell. “I see this partnership going on and thriving.”
Three years from now cannot get here soon enough.