Back in time

The 2023 Hambletonian will go off at 4:45 p.m., almost two hours earlier than in 2022.

by Debbie Little

The Hambletonian was first raced at The Meadowlands in 1981. In the years since then — just over four decades — the off time for the final, second heat or race off, of America’s trotting classic has been as early as 2:45 p.m., as late as 6:40 p.m., and anywhere in between.

According to the Hambletonian Society’s director of publicity/chief operating officer Moira Fanning, many factors come into play when choosing the proper placement for the Hambletonian and its companion race, the Hambletonian Oaks, including international simulcasting, viewership and wagering.

This year, after a long absence, the Hambletonian will return to one of television’s big four networks — ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC — as part of Fox Sports’ Saratoga Saturday, which airs on Aug. 5 between 3 and 6 p.m. with an estimated off time of 4:45 p.m.

“We have not been on a big-four network since 2011 and that opportunity was just too much to pass up,” Fanning said. “And the timing is not horrible, it’s actually good for Europe [who are six hours ahead] and good for the wagering spot as well to precede the Whitney [from Saratoga Racecourse at 5:43 p.m.]. So, you’re going to get maximum viewership, maximum eyes, hopefully, maximum wagering, you know, as people are waiting for the lead-up to the Whitney.”

The relationship between Jeff Gural, the president/chief executive officer of The Meadowlands and David O’Rourke, the president/chief executive officer of the New York Racing Association (NYRA), made shows like this possible, beginning with their first Meadowlands Pace broadcast two years ago on FS2 as explained here in a 2021 edition of HRU.

The off time for the Oaks was still being discussed at this publication’s press time.

“With that massive type of audience being able to see the Hambletonian on Fox Sports, we felt that it was in our best interest and the sport’s best interest, most importantly, to get out there in front of all those people from a national audience standpoint,” said Jason Settlemoir, chief operating officer/general manager of The Meadowlands.

Fanning said she doesn’t know the exact viewership expected on Hambletonian Day (Aug. 5) for Saratoga Saturday on Fox, however, when the Breeders Crown in October of 2022 was on FS2 on Saturday night, they had over 80,000 viewers.

“Remember, we were spread over maybe a four-or-five-hour timeline and people tuned in at different times, but that was a total viewership,” Fanning said. “So, that’s an impossible number to ignore, and that was FS2. So, it’s a win-win in almost every consideration.”

In the 40-plus years at The Meadowlands, off time for the Hambletonian has fallen into five different hourly timeframes, with the majority occurring between 4 and 5 p.m. Last year’s 6:40 p.m. start was the latest ever at The Meadowlands and only the third time that the Hambletonian started after 6 p.m., including a three-horse race-off in 1981.

In addition to the live broadcast on Fox Sports and FS2, there will also be a replay show on CBS Sports Network from 2-3 p.m. on Sunday (Aug. 6).

“Before we knew the Fox and the NYRA schedule, we have a deal with CBS Sports where we have to commit to them, programming wise,” Fanning said. “And our feeling there was that the Hambletonian should have a half an hour or an hour devoted to it. I love that it’s on Fox as a cut-in for the Whitney in a lead-up to the Whitney, but it deserves its own showcase, in our opinion.

“And that is why we have kept the CBS show, even when it can’t air live. We felt it was important to have a record of the 2022 and 2021 Hambletonian and Oaks as standalone events. So, it’s important and especially in the context of trying to lead up to the 2025 hundredth Hambletonian. We wanted to keep that placeholder and try to get back on network with a standalone hundredth Hambletonian. And, you know, because of the constantly shifting networks, what’s streaming, what’s live, it’s impossible to plan two or three years out.”

The Hambletonian Day card is packed with stakes, but The Meadowlands has a lot to offer on Hambletonian Eve as well, with divisions of the Muscle Hill and Continentalvictory, two New Jersey Sire Stakes finals and the third leg of the Kindergarten in all four divisions.

“It’s not rocket science,” Settlemoir said. “We’re trying to have a huge weekend for the culmination of our Championship Meet, which has been spectacular this year. I’m excited, obviously, about Saturday, Hambletonian Day, but I’m also excited about the night before. Quite frankly, I’m excited about this coming weekend, too. And seeing the numbers that we did on Meadowlands Pace Night on FS1, I think it bodes well for Hambletonian Day.

“We’re trying to have a big weekend to wrap up our Championship Meet, just the way that it should be here at the marquee track in the world. It should be a great weekend of racing. We just need Mother Nature to cooperate with us.”