Highest Hambletonian handle in 18 years spurred by on-track betting

by Debbie Little

The Hambletonian Day 2023 international betting numbers are finally in and the wait was worth it.

The international and domestic numbers added up to being the top Hambletonian Day handle in 18 years and were certainly the best since The Meadowlands president/chief executive officer Jeff Gural took over the track in 2011.

John Campbell, president/chief executive officer of the Hambletonian Society, anticipated positive numbers from overseas.

“Well, I was sure we were going to be up a little bit over last year based on what we handled domestically,” Campbell said. “When I left on Hambletonian Day, I was extremely happy with the crowd. I thought it was a really good crowd and I was extremely happy with the racing. It was an exciting day and it was reflected in the handle that I was pretty sure was going to be up a little bit over 2022, which was a very good year.

“Definitely, we had a great vibe in 2022, but the crowd was even bigger this year. So, I think we’re back to pre-COVID electricity and I think it was a bigger crowd than we’ve had in a number of years, and maybe ever since we switched sides [from The Meadowlands old building to the new building].”

When combined, the foreign and domestic all-source wagering on the 16-race program totaled $8,759,100. The European handle totaled nearly a million dollars — $631,091 bet through France’s PMU (Pari Mutuel Urbain) and $322,220 from Scandinavia’s ATG. But, the domestic numbers, particularly those on-track of $921,938 — up 18 per cent over last year’s $781,310— were perhaps the most impressive.

“At the end of the day, the on-track number was fantastic,” said Meadowlands chief operating officer/general manager Jason Settlemoir. “You know, we were just shy of a million dollars. So that was nice to see. It was a great day and it established a new record in the 10-year history of our new grandstand. And the only time betting busted the $9-million area was in 2005, and that was prior to [Gural].”

In 2005, $9.01 million was bet on Hambletonian Day, breaking the record of $8.81 million set just three years prior. This year’s total ranks third on the all-time list.

“It was a great day,” Settlemoir said. “And I’d like to thank the Hambletonian Society and Mr. Gural for having the faith in this team here at The Meadowlands to continue to host the most prestigious trotting race in the world. I’d also like to thank the customers, owners, trainers, drivers, and grooms for all their support during that day.”

For the first time since 2011, The Hambletonian was broadcast live on one of television’s big four networks. As a result of being on Fox, the race went off at 4:45 p.m., two hours earlier than in 2022, placing it in a better timeframe for the European market that is six hours ahead of New Jersey.

“Well, the shift [to an earlier post time] was made to be on network TV for the Hambletonian,” Campbell said. “Now, that definitely helped the European handle. They were up a substantial amount from the year before. So, it was a win-win. We were on network TV with our biggest race and we increased the European handle a substantial amount with that earlier post time.

“I was just very proud of the fact that we were able to get on network TV. It absolutely matters. I think it’s exposure that we have to take advantage of every time the opportunity presents itself.”

It was the seamless cooperation of several entities — The Meadowlands, the Hambletonian Society, NYRA and Fox — that combined to create this Hambletonian Day success story.

“I also want to thank the folks at NYRA [New York Racing Association] for being such big supporters of us here at The Meadowlands and their class-A team that they have with Tony Allevato and Eric Donovan,” Settlemoir said. “They’re great to work with and we look forward to continuing our relationship with them into the future.”

Don’t think for a minute that this year’s success has everyone resting on their laurels.

As Campbell pointed out, preparing for Hambletonian Day is a 365-day pursuit. There will also be some extra planning going on since the Hambletonian will be celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2025.

“We had our post-race meeting with The Meadowlands and already just started discussing plans for next year, so they’ll start in earnest later in the fall, but we’ve already discussed 99 and 100 with The Meadowlands about 10 days ago,” Campbell said. “It’s a year-round thing, Hambletonian planning, there’s just no other way to put it.

“And, you know, we’re very fortunate with The Meadowlands management and staff that they’re very receptive to making changes and making adjustments, which even though we had a great Hambletonian we’ll be making adjustments and changes for next year, just to try and make it better.”

Settlemoir is also excited about the 100th edition of “America’s Classic Trotting Race”, however, he also wants to take it one year at a time.

“Obviously, the 99th year is just as important as the 98 years leading up to it,” Settlemoir said. “And the hundredth year will be just as important. 2023 has been a great year so far. So, we’re going to put our thinking caps on and start looking forward to, obviously, wrapping up 2023 in the last quarter here coming at us, and then looking at 2024 with a bunch of optimism.

“And continue to tweak some of our plans and not only for on-track marketing ideas and things like that, but also tweaking some of our plans off track as well to try to exceed 2023. It’s going to be tough to do because 2023 has been such a great year from an export standpoint. We just need to work in 2024, on maintaining our off-track numbers and trying to get more people here to the track. We’ll work with NYRA and the Hambletonian Society and Fox and see what we can come up with for 2024.”

Settlemoir said he’s open to good marketing ideas, especially ones that involve bringing people out to the track, so should anyone have a suggestion they should email him at jsettlemoir@playmeadowlands.com.

Campbell believes the numbers look promising moving forward.

“The one thing I will point out is people say, ‘Well, we don’t get people to track the way we used to,’ which is true,” Campbell said. “However, when you figure the number of people who are watching our big events nowadays, when they’re simulcast all over the world, there’s more people than ever watching our big events, whether it be Hambletonian Day, Little Brown Jug, or North America Cup. So, it isn’t like people aren’t watching at all, it’s just that they’re spread out all over the world. And when you spread out, that betting gets hacked up so the track and horsemen don’t get what they used to out of it.

“What people have to realize is that the only barometer we have for our popularity of what we’re putting out to the betting public, is handle now. That tells you how your product is being received. And, you know, the fact that we’ve been up the last two years shows an upward trend and we’re going to do everything we can to get over that $9-million mark next year.”