A tiny tweak for yon fair maidens

by Trey Nosrac

It’s a little thing, but I want to toss it out before the best-laid plans of mice and men get laid out for next year’s fair racing season. You may agree, you may disagree or you may have a tweak of your own.

Let me paint a scene from last week. Deep into the harness racing season, after plenty of winnowing of trotting and pacing horses, 18 2-year-old colt trotters dropped into the box racing at Podunk Fair racing, all ready to trot (hopefully).

Since the Podunk Fair track is not very wide, the races split into three divisions of six, with the purse money divided into thirds. Each division had at least one monster horse, including some sires stakes trotters, and each race had a pair of trotters that were struggling mightily.

Nothing wrong with this scenario. Every trotter that dropped into the box and paid is eligible and entitled to race. Should the connections of one of the top trotters in the state decide to race at Podunk Fair for a $4,000 purse, that is entirely legit, and the fans will get to watch these beautiful, fast trotters win by 47 lengths, perhaps even lapping a few struggling trotters.

A tiny tweak could change this picture, which may or may not be permitted; I am not an expert on harness racing commission by-laws or anything else. My suggestion is a concept that would help the slow trotters without unduly fiscally harming the excellent trotters. This modification would undoubtedly make an improved product at a fair level.

Broadly, the idea is that, under certain circumstances, handicap the trotters that have entered to create competitive fields at the fair racing level. I’m not exactly sure how to accomplish this fairness, but with some seeding, a division with the proven stars would be a fun, competitive race.

The example above happened at a race in early August. Each fair racing field has six trotters with a couple of sharks and minnows. The three divisional races contained entrants that had won serious money and recorded wonderfully fast times. The three divisional races had at least two trotters with goose eggs across their results in the program.

With the ability and some mechanism to do a little seeding, a seeded division with proven pedestrian hopefuls would be a fun race with a happy winner. Sure, the third-place finisher of the uber-fast division would forfeit a few bucks. For most harness racing participants, certainly not all, this reformed race would be well worth allowing a group of 2:18 trotters a competitive race, a nice check, and a moment in the sun.

Some caveats make this fair seeding concept a rarity.

If only enough horses drop into the box for a single division, seeding the fields becomes a moot point. Early in the fair season, ability levels are unknown, so this concept comes into play only late into the racing season when the draw has multiple divisions.

The big questions are: Who, how, and when can we separate into competitive fields? Time? Money? One idea, maybe the simplest, would be to seed backward, create the weakest group first, begin with any horse who has not earned a dime in a minimum of four starts, then include the horses that never finished in the top three, and then include non-winners until you create a “weak” field.

Very simply, design a mechanism with the ability for fairs to congregate sharks and minnows in certain circumstances. Give fish, big and small, something to think about. Keep some struggling horses in the game.

Fair racing is about fun. When poor performers see the draw and realize winning is hopeless, and a fifth-place check will take some racing luck, this makes a ship of your horse to the fairgrounds very long. Finding a re-engineered division where you have a chance would seem to fit into the spirit of county fair racing.

Good idea? Bad idea? Slippery slope? Too much blowback? Too much human judgment? Is this concept worth bothering with? This idea poses many questions for a somewhat unusual situation.

Who cares about very marginal young racehorses getting a small taste of success?

The answer is some friendly folks who are hanging on by their fingernails. Everybody should care because everyone in this sport is needed.