by Debbie Little
Even before going through the doors at The Meadowlands on Saturday (Aug. 7), it was obvious it was Hambletonian Day because there was heavy traffic driving in.
When you finally made it to the building, you were met by an enthusiastic crowd, and if the Backyard was your entry point, it was rocking, thanks to the band Second Contact.
After a year off due to COVID-19, the county fair atmosphere of Hambletonian Day returned with carnival rides, games, bounce houses, an autograph session at the Fan Zone, the Hambletonian hat contest, members of Harness Racing History taking their winner’s circle photo and All-Star bugler Mark O’Keeffe performing First Call.
“I enjoyed it and am grateful to do it,” said O’Keeffe. “There were several inquiries into the All-Star Buglers and that was nice to hear.”
O’Keeffe performed on Hambletonian Day for the first time in 2000 and has done so continuously, with a couple of exceptions, either as a part of his group the All-Star Buglers or as a solo performer. What many may not know is that the nightly version of First Call used by The Meadowlands is performed by O’Keeffe.
From his spot in the winner’s circle, he observed that the crowd seemed a little smaller than in recent years, but was no less enthusiastic rooting for the horses.
Pandemic cases are trending up in New Jersey and that certainly played some part in lessening the attendance to 14,346, which crushed last year’s COVID-restricted turnout of 1,020 nonetheless. It should be noted that even though they weren’t there in person, people watched and wagered with a total handle of $6,487,839, up 13 per cent from last year.
“I thought it was a medium-type crowd in terms of number of guests,” said Dave Brower, morning-line oddsmaker/handicapper/TV host at The Meadowlands. “I was very happy to see all the people that came by and just gave us a smile, thumbs up, wave, took some pictures.”
One of Brower’s responsibilities for Hambletonian Day is booking and organizing the guests that are interviewed between the races, which were varied and included Meadowlands’ president/chief executive officer Jeff Gural, Hambletonian Society president/CEO John Campbell and senator Paul Sarlo from New Jersey.
“In the last three weeks, we had two of the most important New Jersey legislators interviewed on our programs and that’s extremely important to the state and the industry,” said Brower.
The other being New Jersey governor Phil Murphy, who was interviewed on Meadowlands Pace Night, July 17.
One facet largely missing from Hambletonian Day was the presence of international press and owners, both Canadian and European.
Some that were present were visible since Brower interviewed Bjorn Bernie Noren from Sweden while Canadians Curtis MacDonald and Cameron Chick operated the Hambletonian Day cable cam.
MacDonald’s cable cam has been an exciting and dramatic feature of the Gold Cup & Saucer race at Charlottetown Driving Park on Prince Edward Island for several years and has been used at Woodbine Mohawk Park, among other Canadian tracks.
This was its debut at The Meadowlands, which presented some unexpected challenges. The line ran for 1,005 feet, eight feet longer than Mohawk, so it was at top speed between 32 and 36 miles an hour for a really long time.
“If you ask somebody what the Gold Cup & Saucer is they may or may not know,” said MacDonald. “If you ask somebody what the Hambletonian is, everybody knows. I definitely had a lot of nerves about getting equipment here. The trolley for the cable cam I rented because I didn’t want to bring my own, because I was worried it would get lost.”
MacDonald’s worries were founded since the equipment that he did ship overnight was tracked to Kentucky, but never made it north from the south.
Luckily, he had a plan ‘B’ and was able to rent everything the day before, so as far as the fans were concerned on Hambletonian Day, everything went off without a hitch.
The cable cam was flawlessly integrated into the production by Meadowlands’ director of TV Oz Colon and assistant manager of TV Marjorie Roman – who directed the in-house show – and was used for several races, including The Hambletonian and Oaks.
“Our TV production staff always does an uber amazing job on this day,” said Brower. “So many working parts. Cameras, wires, microphones and it’s hard to get them to work all the time. Everybody is an expert at what they do. We like to think we put on the best production possible and it almost always succeeds.”
Moira Fanning, the chief operating officer and director of publicity for The Hambletonian Society, and her staff worked hand-in-hand with The Meadowlands to put on the best show possible, which included being broadcast live on several outlets.
The Hambletonian was part of a one-hour live show on the CBS Sports Network, directed by Peter Lasser and hosted by Greg Blanchard, with Emily Gaskin co-hosting. It was also live on Fox Sports 2 as part of “Saratoga Live” with commentary by Anthony Stabile and Jessica Otten.
Otten also provided some taped content for the CBSSN show.
Caton Bredar was onsite from TVG Network and the entire day’s action, as always, was shown on Racetrack Television Network (RTN). In addition, The Big M’s YouTube Channel and Facebook Live Page also showed the day’s events.
Brower and Dave Little co-hosted the in-house “Racing from The Meadowlands” show with Gabe Prewitt handling winner’s circle interviews. The voice of The Meadowlands, Ken Warkentin, celebrating his 30th year at the track, called his 22nd Hambletonian.
The two newest additions to The Meadowlands TV family, Andrew “Shades” Demsky and Edison Hatter, were both experiencing their first Hambletonian Day.
Demsky, 33, compiled Twitter-exclusive content for the track’s Twitter feed, got some quotes in the paddock and gave out his best bet Bella Bellini in an interview by Brower.
“I thought it was great,” said Demsky. “The food, the live music, the kid’s rides. I loved seeing it. Rachel [Ryan] and Marianne [Rotella] and team put on a helluva show.”
Hatter, 22, also spent time on both sides of the track and gave out an early and late pick-4 on air with Little.
“My first Hambletonian experience was amazing,” said Hatter. “I know the cliché is that Hambletonian Day is the “Greatest Day in Harness Racing”, but it really and truly is. I’m so glad that my work took me all over the track Saturday, from the back paddock to the winner’s circle to the front apron. I got to see horsemen fully focused getting horses ready for the big races, I got to witness jubilant winner’s circle celebrations and I got to see the carnival, family like atmosphere on the apron and meet lots of fans throughout the day. I can’t wait for Hambletonian 2022!”
If you missed any of the races or just want to watch them again, the entire 16-race card and all the interviews are posted on The Meadowlands YouTube channel.