Anatomy of a handle record

Wagering heats up chilly Breeders Crown

by Melissa Keith

The crowds in the grandstand and along the fence told the tale: The 2022 Breeders Crown at Woodbine Mohawk Park would be remembered not only for outstanding on-track performances, but for strong attendance and handle. Friday night (Oct. 28) featured the four divisional finals for 2-year-olds, while the six open and 3-year-old finals were held Saturday night (Oct. 29).

Spectators sported souvenir Breeders Crown toques and kept warm around outdoor fire pits. Meanwhile, horseplayers looked to “get hot, stay hot” on and off track, sending $8,945,779 (Cdn) through the real and virtual windows combined through both nights. Jim Lawson, CEO of Woodbine Entertainment, tweeted that the 2022 championship event was “the most successful @Breeders_Crown in its history,” with the track’s “2 day wagering record smashed.”

It wasn’t the first year that the Campbellville, ON track established a new wagering milestone playing host to the Breeders Crown. In 2019, the first year Mohawk held all 12 Crown finals, it generated a Canadian record handle of $6,678,779 (Cdn). Woodbine Racetrack no longer conducts harness racing, but set a previous national record handle of $5.7 million (Cdn) during the 2015 Breeders Crown.

Jamie Dykstra, communications director for Woodbine Entertainment, confirmed the new record: “It was the biggest Breeders Crown handle in Woodbine Entertainment’s history of hosting the event at Woodbine Racetrack and Woodbine Mohawk Park.”

He added that American dollars wagered on the card were converted into Canadian currency, with the total handle expressed in Canadian dollars.

Moira Fanning provided Breeders Crown wagering statistics which revealed a combined four-night handle of $14,752,248 (Cdn) for this year’s finals ($8,945,779 Cdn) plus eliminations ($5,806,469 Cdn). The Meadowlands handled $11,489,900 (US) for all four Breeders Crown days/nights (elims and finals) in 2021.

The Hambletonian Society director of publicity/COO pointed out that comparing different editions of the Breeders Crown should take into account how previous editions were conducted, with events spread around different venues in the same year. For example, The Meadowlands handled a whopping $7,039,284 (US) in 2001, on a daytime card with Hambletonian eliminations, three Breeders Crown finals (open pace, open mare pace, open trot) and foreign wagering to accommodate the huge following of Italian champion Varenne.

American horseplayers showed strong support for this year’s Breeders Crown. Dykstra told HRU that 77 per cent of handle originated in the United States and 23 per cent from Canada. While attendance was visibly strong, particularly on Saturday night, overall wagering trends stayed consistent: 60 per cent of handle was online, 40 per cent at tracks and OTBs. He confirmed that overseas betting did not factor into the 2022 total: “It did not, but international wagering beyond North America is something our wagering team is actively working on.”

Woodbine Mohawk Park is already Canada’s top harness track by handle; little adjustment was required for Breeders Crown wagering options.

“Our wagering team works very closely with our racing office to create the best card possible,” said Dykstra. “There were no major adjustments to the wagering menu, other than adding a third Pick 5.”

He found that horseplayers gravitated towards the surest thing of the two cards: “Race 9, the open pace final featuring Bulldog Hanover, had the most wagering of any Breeders Crown race.” (1-5 favorite Bulldog Hanover and driver Dexter Dunn won going away in 1:46.4s, matching the all-time Canadian pacing record held by himself and Dr J Hanover).

Fanning agreed that the star power of the 2022 finals made the races attractive to even casual fans: “Bulldog absolutely, as well as horses like Test Of Faith, Ecurie D, Atlanta, and Bythemissal have garnered fan and wagering support all year long, so that helps.”

She observed that field size and guaranteed pools for multi-leg wagers (Pick-4 and -5) have both contributed to increases in Breeders Crown wagering: “Field size is key, but we usually have full fields in the finals if not the elims. If you have special wagers, which we did at Pocono in 2010 or Mohawk in 2015, for example, it can boost the handle.”

Woodbine Mohawk Park’s year-round promotion of harness racing from a wagering perspective helped elevate the 2022 Breeders Crown in horseplayers’ awareness. “Absolutely,” said Fanning. “[Woodbine Entertainment] did a lot of promotions and concentrated very heavily on wagering and their ADW partnerships and promotions. This is key of course, to consistently cater to your bettors all year long, not just for a special event.”

Reaching new bettors is another crucial aspect of marketing the Breeders Crown. Fanning praised the continued “crossover effort” started with FOX Sports/NYRA last year by The Meadowlands with the Breeders Crown and Hambletonian Society. Television and simulcast audiences were (re-)introduced to standardbreds at their finest:

“More thoroughbred people are becoming comfortable betting on harness horses, and the ‘America’s Day At the Races’ FS2 block of two hours on Friday and 7:30-11pm on Saturday with Anthony Stabile and Acacia Clement, as well as Jess Otten live from [Woodbine Mohawk Park] had to really help. The WMP races were interspersed with Charles Town gallopers. I firmly believe we saw a bump from that exposure.”

There was no one variable that made the 2022 Breeders Crown such a success, said Dykstra. “It’s a combination of many factors, including the strength of the racing product; the strength the Woodbine Mohawk Park brand; marketing in the U.S. remotes market; strong HPIbet promotions; great weather; and of course, it always helps to have a star horse like Bulldog Hanover competing in the championship race.”

Perfect fall weather made for a great night out at the track, but also had a clear effect on off-track wagering, according to Fanning. “Some bettors just won’t bet in inclement weather, or bet less, and fewer people come out in bad weather too,” she said.

Neither was an issue last weekend, at the track where the souvenir toque inadvertently symbolized a cozy Canadian Crown.

“Mohawk is obviously the top harness signal in Canada and maybe even North America,” she added. “People are familiar and comfortable betting it.”