The Spa Experience

Harness racing can never have its own Saratoga, but with a true Grand Circuit at Mohawk, it could have something.

by Dean Towers

I, like many race fans and bettors, have been watching and wagering on Saratoga’s annual summer meet.

It’s truly a meet that has everything. The top trainers, riders and horses descend upon upstate New York in July and put on quite a show, right through early September. Even with a meet some call watered down – they increased race days years ago – it still delivers, with stakes racing most days, and big pools bettors salivate over.

The New York Racing Association does it up correctly, too, with races shown on Fox Sports, and a plethora of great information and promotion through their various social media feeds. You can’t run into any bettor or race fan that hasn’t listened to a podcast, read a workout report or trip note; one who is not ready for the early and late Pick 5’s each and every day.

When we switch over in harness racing, there has never been a similar event for any period of time. One might say the fall Red Mile meet is the closest comparison we have to the Spa, and that’s probably correct. It’s a wonderful meet we all enjoy. But the signal lacks the same gravitas with bettors, and pool size is not on par with the sport’s largest.

I’ve always thought there’s an obvious choice for harness racing’s biggest stage, like Saratoga is for the runners, and that’s Woodbine Mohawk Park.

As we all know, once the Meadowlands ends, stakes racing returns to various venues, but Mohawk is August’s (and early September’s) most formidable, with races such as the Metro, Canadian Pacing Derby and Canadian Trotting Classic. But, in all honesty, does it feel special; does it have gravitas?

Despite these great sets of races, I don’t think it ever has.

Much of the stakes racing is spread out, and a Thursday card in August feels like a Thursday card in April. The best drivers and trainers attend the venue for the big events, yes, but they jet in and out like Leonardo DiCaprio at Cannes.

I wonder if it’s at all possible – and people like John Campbell who has dealt with this for years would certainly have much more insight than I – to compact this into a true Grand Circuit meet.

It’d create a meet where top trainers and drivers contest a stakes race almost every night; one where, Thursday through Sunday, the top horses, drivers and trainers are competing at one venue with all eyes on it. A meet where people are betting into $150,000 Pick 5 pools, mandatory payout super high fives, watching on TVG, all with the backing of Woodbine’s powerful promotional and worldwide betting signal machine.

Such a meet would take planning (and schedule shuffling), but Woodbine has been more than game to try new
things, witnessed with how they’ve turned a great jewel like the Queen’s Plate into a huge success when compared
to 20 years ago. The participants would surely enjoy it,
because racing for big money pays the bills, and doing so at a world class venue like Mohawk doesn’t hurt. Similarly, the wonderful Grand Circuit is what harness racing is, and has been for almost a century, and anything to give it a boost is good for the game.

Huge pools to bet into, great horses and top drivers and trainers to watch for three or four straight weeks, all at a beautiful harness racing setting outside one of the world’s great cities?

No, it’s not Saratoga and never will be, but for us harness fans it could be damn close.