Hoosier Park’s Thanksgiving night card no turkey

Though handle wasn’t astronomical – and it was a big ask of everyone to race on a holiday — Harrah’s Hoosier Park deserves kudos for being bold enough to try racing on Thanksgiving.

by Brett Sturman

For the first time in the history of Harrah’s Hoosier Park — and at the same time bucking general harness racing tradition — an evening Thanksgiving Day card of live racing was held on Thursday (Nov. 25).

Live racing on Thanksgiving night was an area that drew much attention when the 2021 Hoosier Park racing dates were approved last December. The signature events adding power to the card were four stakes races across the 3-year-old divisions known as the Thanksgiving Classic.

The decision to race on Thanksgiving was likely to replicate a formula that’s worked so well the past couple of years for some of the smaller-handling tracks. Race when the others aren’t. Being the sole track in the U.S. to race on Thursday with competition coming predominantly from only Woodbine Mohawk Park in Canada, how did the Thanksgiving Classic night go?

Strictly by the numbers, handle over the 14-race card was $682,345. While not an overly enthusiastic number on the surface, it’s more than Hoosier Park does typically. For instance, the Friday card from a week ago on Nov. 20 handled just $479,878 and the Saturday card that next night handled $393,184. Interestingly enough, the Thanksgiving Eve card from Wednesday where there was widespread competition handled $635,454 and that came over just 13 races.

Aside for a moment as to how handle is viewed, there were Grand Circuit horses throughout the Thanksgiving Classic stakes races that helped to add power to the card. The biggest star of all was Bulldog Hanover in the Thanksgiving Classic for 3-year-old pacers, who delivered as the heavy favorite in the full 10-horse field for a purse of $60,000. The Thanksgiving Classic was the fourth straight stakes win at Hoosier Park for Bulldog Hanover, though he’s better known for his success this year in Canada when he won a North America Cup elimination and was made the favorite next out in the North America Cup final.

Another notable winner on the card was Kobe’s Gigi who won the $40,000 Thanksgiving Classic for 3-year-old filly pacers. After winning two straight Indiana sire stake races in September and October, she went a huge mile to be second in the $270,000 Indiana Sires Stakes final as well as the Pegasus to the Grand Circuit winning Hot Mess Express. In the $47,000 Thanksgiving Classic for 3-year-old filly trotters, Dewtiful’s Grace delivered in a 15-1 upset for the hometown as the daughter of Indiana sire Pine Credit beat big favorite and Grand Circuit winning Pub Crawl. Swingforthefences, another Indiana-bred and multiple Grand Circuit winner, dominated in the $54,000 Thanksgiving Classic for 3-year-old trotters, and the $500,000-plus earner this season came to Hoosier on Thursday on the heels of winning the Matron at Dover two races prior.

Clearly, there was effort made to produce a card that went beyond a standard night of racing. In addition to the stakes races, most races throughout the card had full nine and ten horse fields too, making for competitive racing and wagering opportunities.

The most wagered race of the night – by far – was the Thanksgiving Classic won by Bulldog Hanover. Win, Place and Show pools totaled $47,532, with the Exacta pool contributing $13,869 and the Trifecta pool adding another $13,869. Total race pool including additional wagers came to $95,113. What makes those numbers interesting though is that they came in the second to last race of the night, after 11 p.m. local time.

Ultimately, how the Thanksgiving night card is viewed in terms of a success depends on what the expectation was going into it. Handle between Thanksgiving eve and Thanksgiving night was far stronger than normal, though far less than Woodbine Mohawk Park, for example, which handled $1.4 million on the same night. Was Hoosier’s handle enough when weighed against the ask of race participants to race on a holiday when no one else in U.S. racing is?

It was a bold decision to conduct a Thanksgiving card as it is, and management should be applauded for the decision to give it a shot and try something new. The quality of horses compiled for the Thanksgiving Classic races was impressive too and the purses for those races weren’t bad for an inaugural go of it.

Those are all things that can be built on to drive handle further for future editions of the card, should the track elect to continue to move forward with Thanksgiving racing. I think there’s enough potential that I hope they do.