A plethora of new stakes options at The Big M in 2022

by Debbie Little

Opportunities abound at The Meadowlands in 2022, with new stakes for both 4-year-old mares and New Jersey-sired 2- and 3-year-olds, a “Win and You’re In” bonus and a new draw formula.

For the first time, the Graduate series is tapping into its feminine side and offering races for 4-year-old pacing and trotting mares.

Although the estimated purses for the mares’ finals are half that of their male counterparts, it’s better than nothing.

“It’s definitely a positive,” said trainer Nifty Norman. “It’s definitely a move in the right direction. I think a lot of owners want more 4-year-old racing and I think everybody wants the good horses to come back.

“But it’s very hard to bring a mare back because of the opportunities. A good mare’s first foal is going to bring $300,000 now. It’s hard to say, ‘I’m going to bring her back and race the guts out of her and win [$200,000] when I could breed her and sell the foal for [$300,000]. That’s the argument. It’s a good idea but we need more of it. They don’t go for enough and I don’t know why the mares are so disrespected. It’s a shame.”

Norman trains female trotter Bella Bellini and female pacers Fire Start Hanover and Grace Hill, all of which will be returning for their 4-year-old seasons. He’s been down this road before with other talented ladies and knows the transition is not always easy.

“Because at 4, generally they’re not racing 4-year-olds, they’re racing 5- and 6-year-olds,” said Norman.

He remembers bringing back Bee A Magician as a 4-year-old and she only won 4 of 17 starts.

“She couldn’t win, basically,” said Norman. “It was very hard. But then she came back at 5 and she was a different horse. She was a beast.”

Dave McDuffee, co-owner of the aforementioned Bee A Magician, agrees with Norman that it’s a big jump and that the money could be better.

“I’ve been preaching for a number of years, in fact I even mentioned to John Campbell at the Hambletonian Society, even the Breeders Crown for mares is a lot less money than it is for everybody else,” said McDuffee. “Hopefully, as time goes on, they’ll start to recognize that that’s a class that’s kind of ignored a little bit, from the purse standpoint, at least.”

McDuffee is the owner/breeder of Hambletonian Oaks champ Bella Bellini and initially planned to end her career after the 2021 season.

“I had even bought a share of Walner to breed her to him and my intention was to breed her,” said McDuffee.

But that all changed when Bella performed well against her elders in the TVG Mare Trot.

“Jeff Gural had spoken to me right after that race and said to me we’re going to have a 4-year-old [Graduate] division for fillies next year with more money,” said McDuffee. “I said, ‘You know what Jeff, I’m probably going to change my mind and I think we’ll probably race her.’”

The first leg of the Graduate series will take place in May and the finals will be on Saturday, July 9.

Classic example

The inaugural New Jersey Classic Series, scheduled for September, will offer an ‘A’ and ‘B’ division for 2- and 3-year-old trotters and 2-year-old pacers. The format includes one elimination, if necessary, and a final, and has divisions for both males and females.

“Mike Klau and the breeders committee sat down with Nick [Salvi, Meadowlands’ stakes administrator] and came out with a schedule for what’s the most we could do with the money that we had,” said Mark Ford, president of the Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association of New Jersey. “Across the board, New Jersey has completely revamped its program.”

The estimated final purse for all ‘A’ division trots is $300,000 and $100,000 for all ‘B’ division trots, while the pacers will go for $150,000 and $75,000 for the ‘A’ and ‘B’ divisions, respectively.

Win and You’re In

The Peter Haughton Memorial and Jim Doherty Memorial, although established stakes, are getting a bit of a facelift for 2022.

The races for 2-year-old male and female trotters will have both higher purses – estimated at $400,000 – and a win and you’re in bonus, with a victory securing a place in their respective divisional Breeders Crown finals.

“A couple of different things were discussed and obviously added money and the win and you’re in thing might interest some people,” said Moira Fanning, the chief operating officer/director of publicity of the Hambletonian Society.

Neither the Haughton nor Doherty have had 20 participants for several years, which would have provided full fields for eliminations. In some cases, the number of entrants only required one race to whittle down the field for the final, and in 2018, the Haughton didn’t need an elimination at all.

Part of the blame can fall on lucrative sire stakes that have created competition for Grand Circuit races. It is not unusual to find some sire stakes going for good money with small fields making them a more attractive choice even though the Haughton and Doherty finals are on Hambletonian Day, one of the biggest days of racing in the world.

“We talked about a lot of different scenarios and this one seemed pretty easy to agree on as far as it didn’t have a lot of downside and had some upside,” said Fanning. “We have the ability for the Breeders Crown to change racing conditions before we take the February payment. The Breeders Crown conditions are pretty liberal. [The Hambletonian Society and The Meadowlands] want to keep the trotting races strong on Hambo Day because it’s a big European participation day, big European simulcast day.”

Drawing board

The goal of the new draw system is to make more competitive elimination races by rewarding finishing position. This formula does not apply to New Jersey Sire Stakes or Hambletonian Society administered stakes.

Details can be found on the Meadowlands website.