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January 28, 2022

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Drivers wishing to race in stakes races at The Meadowlands must compete regularly at the track starting in March.

by Debbie Little

Drivers wishing to compete in stakes races during the 2022 Championship Meet at The Meadowlands will now be required to apply for approval.

In addition, all drivers must compete on every Meadowlands card starting at the beginning of March, with the exception of stakes races at other tracks, or a legitimate personal reason.

A clause will be included in the stakes conditions that will be posted under the “Horseman” section of the United States Trotting Association’s website next week.

“Obviously, Yonkers has some stakes on Fridays in the beginning or middle of March, so if they’re going to be at Yonkers, that’s okay,” said Meadowlands’ president/chief executive officer Jeff Gural. “I’m not looking to take money out of their pockets, but I don’t think asking someone to drive two days a week at The Meadowlands is so terrible.”

During The Meadowlands’ winter meet, several drivers take time off and don’t usually return on a regular basis until April, or sometimes, May. Currently, five of the top six drivers from the 2021 championship meet are not competing at The Big M.

“I think that the drivers have to have some down time,” said Gural. “I can understand it’s a stressful business and I don’t want to tell people they can’t spend time with their families or go home to Australia, but I thought [being back to race in March] was reasonable. If they’re not back by March, I guess they won’t be driving at The Meadowlands in stakes races.

“We had a banner year last year because Mohawk was closed a lot and that helped, but this year it’s just the opposite, our handle is down. People who used to come [to the track] learned how to bet online and got used to it, so we’ve had a lot of obstacles put in our path. Our handle goes up if people think that there are 10 horses in the race that have a reasonable chance of doing well, not five or six.”

Even though payments have already been taken for some stakes, The Meadowlands is totally within its rights, per the current conditions, to make changes prior to payments being taken for this year. The only exceptions would be The Hambletonian, Hambletonian Oaks and Hambletonian Maturity.

Trainer Ron Burke has the most starts and wins in the early stages of The Big M’s winter meet and thinks the racing has been competitive, even without all of the regulars.

“I feel like the racing has been actually pretty good with the guys they’ve had there,” said Burke. “He wanted more aggressive racing and I think you’ve seen it. I think Jeff gets a little bit caught up once in a while overestimating how important the drivers are to the game. Like I said before, the horses are important.”

Burke also thinks that the down time for some of the drivers can freshen them up to be at their absolute best for the championship meet.

“What would Jeff think if Chester told Yannick if he wants to drive, he has to drive every race he can there, too?” said Burke. “Now you have a worn-out Yannick driving at The Meadowlands.”

Burke understands what Gural is trying to do, but also knows that asking drivers to compete on Fridays in March could be difficult when they may get only a drive or two. However, he does agree that nights when all the top guys are there are special.

“Saturdays when all the guys are there, it’s the best. Scotty [Zeron], George [Brennan], Joe [Bongiorno], Jason [Bartlett] plus all The Meadowlands regulars. You can’t get a bad driver,” said Burke. “You’d have to want a bad driver.”

Gural has always believed in putting out the best product possible, which is even more important now with the hope of securing some national airtime for The Meadowlands on a regular basis in 2022.

“Our goal would be to get on TV for the championship meet, from May through the Hambletonian, when we know that there’s less sports products available,” said Gural. “If you watch some of these sporting channels, they show all kinds of nonsense.

“Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2 handle a lot of thoroughbred racing product and, to me, we have just as good or a better product because our horses race every week or every other week. Their horses race once a month, if you’re lucky.”

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