A change in Yonkers’ schedule to race only on weekdays means its top reinsmen will be free to augment the already talented Meadowlands driver colony on Saturday nights.
by Debbie Little
If you ask them, they will drive.
Since Yonkers Raceway has submitted a Monday-through-Friday schedule for 2021 to the New York State Gaming Commission, their top drivers don’t want to be home alone on a Saturday night and may race at The Meadowlands.
“For the winter, I’d rather be driving than sitting at home,” said driver Jason Bartlett. “As kids, you always dreamed of winning races and racing [at The Meadowlands]. It’s something different for me, too, because I’ve always been a half-mile track driver, so it’s something new for me to get better at.”
“I’d imagine it’s going to be pretty full of drivers,” he added with a laugh.
Bartlett, George Brennan, Jordan Stratton and Jim Marohn, Jr. are the top four drivers in the standings at Yonkers and have all won races at the Meadowlands this year.
Brennan remembers what the driver colony was like when he first went there in the mid-1990s.
“Looking at [John] Campbell in front of me, [Bill] O’Donnell, Jackie Mo [Moiseyev], Mike Lachance, Cat Manzi, Ronnie Pierce,” said Brennan. “I was like, ‘Oh My God, I’m never going to get a drive at this place.’”
Brennan looks forward to racing Saturday nights at The Big M if his connections want him there.
“It’ll be like, ‘Oh wow, George Brennan still is alive?’,” he said with a laugh.
“If Scotty DiDomenico’s got something in and he asks me to go or Nik Drennan, Nifty Norman or Ronnie Burke, of course, I’ll be there, but I’m not just going there to be penciled in.”
Just like many other trainers, DiDomenico has a go-to driver at different tracks.
At Yonkers his first call is Brennan, while at the Meadowlands it’s Tim Tetrick, but since Tetrick isn’t planning to race at The Big M during the winter, Brennan will get the call.
“He’s the most constant professional I know,” said DiDomenico of Brennan. “He’s the most level-headed guy you come into contact with night in and night out. He’s such an advantage.
“When you win a race at The Meadowlands, it’s hard to do. It’s very tough racing. It’s competitive racing and the horses have to be on their toes to win there.”
Brennan and DiDomenico agree that it’s not just the quality of the horses and drivers that make the mile oval so outstanding, it’s also the track itself.
“The Meadowlands has a racing surface that’s second to none and it’s a pleasure racing over a great surface like the Meadowlands has,” said Brennan. “You can’t even hear the horses’ footsteps on that track. You can win from any post position, if you have the right horse and it’s a great place to race.”
Trainer Andrew Harris, who races regularly at both Yonkers and The Meadowlands, thinks the presence of the Yonkers drivers on Saturday nights will be huge and should help the betting at The Big M.
“They’re established names, so they’re going to pick up drives,” said Harris. “You’re going to have a lot more options, which is huge for racing. Period.
“Because we all know that this is a drivers’ game at the end of the day, so the more competition in the drivers’ room is actually where we’re going to get better racing.”
Harris regularly uses George Napolitano, Jr. in Pennsylvania, Bartlett at Yonkers and mostly Andy McCarthy at The Meadowlands.
With all three of those drivers available this winter at the East Rutherford oval, it makes Harris’ job a little tougher.
“It’s a very complicated situation, because you don’t want to offend these guys and when they’re all meeting up in the same place it does make it very difficult to maintain all these relationships and still be able to coordinate what’s best for the owner,” said Harris. “There’s always the risk of another COVID shutdown. Nobody wants to stay inactive, because they never know when that next shutdown will come.”
In a normal year, Stratton would be going away on vacation, but with everything going on is choosing a staycation instead.
Since his daughter Chelsea is only 2, spending more time at home is always good.
“Especially in this business, you hear too often, ‘I wish I was around more when they were growing up,’” said Stratton. “If I have anything to do with it, I’m not going to be saying that.”
Stratton does, however, know the value of driving at The Meadowlands whenever possible.
“I happened to pick up Crystal Fashion and Manticore this year when Yonkers was shut down, so it worked out really good,” he said.
Marohn, Jr. has won titles at several different tracks including the 2017-2018 meet at The Meadowlands and like his fellow Yonkers drivers, is just a phone call away.
He also thinks showing up early on Saturday nights could be an advantage.
“The Meadowlands is probably the best place to go to for qualifiers because there are always quality horses qualifying there,” said Marohn.
All the drivers appreciate that The Big M raised purses in November and will have an earlier post time of 6 p.m. starting on Saturday, Dec. 26.
“We had cut purses after we came back from COVID to make sure that we would be okay through the rest of the year and we raised the purses back up because we were in a finance meeting and they said we could raise the purses again, so that’s what we did,” said Jason Settlemoir, Meadowlands’ chief operating officer and general manager.
Settlemoir acknowledges that COVID-19 has changed people’s normal schedules and even though they are staying home they are also going to bed earlier and not wagering as much on the final few Meadowlands races, the last of which typically goes off at 11:58 p.m.
“We’re hoping to be all wrapped up and done between 11 and 11:15 p.m., depending on what happens,” he said.
“We’ve already got the best drivers in the world, as far as I’m concerned, at The Meadowlands, but with [Yonkers] not racing on Saturday night I look forward to seeing the increase in handle that hopefully we’ll be able to realize.”