What does reduced Borgata entrants mean for the older pacing division?

The number of entries for one of Yonkers’ premier free-for-all stakes events is down 36 per cent since 2021.

by Brett Sturman

When the list of eligibles was announced for the upcoming 2024 MGM Borgata Pacing series at Yonkers, the number of nominees compared to years past was glaring. In total, 30 horses were nominated to the annual start of the free-for-all stakes season, which begins on Monday.

At 30 eligibles, the number of nominees reflects a sizable drop from the 37 horses that were made eligible to the race last year. Going back further and including the 40 eligible horses from 2022 and 47 from 2021, the number of horses eligible for the Borgata series is down 36 per cent and has dropped four consecutive years. The number was 46 in 2020 and had reached the 50s over the years.

When the entries were drawn for the first of the five preliminary legs, there were 24 horses entered which led to four divisions of six horses each. From a wagering standpoint, it’s not exactly for the faint of heart.

What is the cause for the accelerating trend of reduction in the number of horses in the series, and what does it mean, if anything, towards the larger view of quality in the upcoming older pacing division? Are the two questions related to each other?

The 2024 Borgata series could foreshadow what the older pacing ranks will be like this year. In the group, you have presumably the defending champion Bythemissal along with Allywag Hanover beginning clear at the top, and then a host of others who make for a more compact but competent group. Same with the Borgata, where I’d singularly peg new series shooter Linedrive Hanover as the one to beat and posing the question if anyone else from the smaller-ish group can break from the pack and rise to his level.

Beginning with the horses that have been entered for Monday’s first preliminary leg, there’s only eight of those who raced in the series last year. That group is led by Hellabalou, who shocked at 47-1 in last year’s final and whose total series earnings paved the way for him to finish fifth in earnings for all older pacers in 2023. Borgata repeaters for this year also includes two other prior series winners, Funatthebeach N (2022) and This Is The Plan (2021). Covered Bridge, Semi Tough, Idealsomemagic A, Hemsworth N and Leonidas A, all horses who were prominent in the series last year are back too. Backstreet Shadow, who is no stranger to the free-for-all wars and had raced in the series last year, was nominated to 2024, but is yet to qualify back.

What’s interesting will be to see how the 16 new horses fare against the Borgata veterans. There’s a few in there that will pose a real threat to overthrow them and compete for the series title, and it begins with Linedrive Hanover.

Linedrive Hanover is the one in here with the most experience consistently racing at the highest levels of the division, and his mark of 1:47 last year was second to only Ruthless Hanover. He rounded out last year with a third-place finish in a Breeders Crown elimination won by Tattoo Artist and was third in the Potomac Pace, behind only Bythemissal and Tattoo Artist. He has half-mile success too, setting the all-time Canadian record on a half-mile track when he won the 2022 Juravinski Memorial Cup at Flamboro in 1:49 (2023 Juravinski winner Fourever Boy also makes his Borgata debut this year). Linedrive Hanover qualified last week when he ripped from the pocket at The Meadowlands to win going away in a time of 1:50.4. Fellow Borgata starter This Is The Plan, making his return to the track since November, was second in that qualifier.

Another newcomer to keep an eye on is Canada’s 2021 Horse of the Year, Desperate Man. He’s looked like his old self since coming to Yonkers in the latter part of last year, shot right up the ladder and had his win streak derailed when he just missed by a nose to Covered Bridge in a December open. Since then, he sports three return qualifiers for trainer Travis Alexander, the most recent of which came two days ago and there’s no reason he can’t be a major player in this year’s series.

I Did It Myway, another new one for this year, has been stakes tested throughout much of his career and he took his 1:47.3 mark last year in a Graduate split. He enters the Borgata off racing in the open ranks at Dover this winter. There are three different 4-year-olds who will give the Borgata a try this year that include New York-specialist Thunder Hunter Joe and the Per Engblom trained Coaches Corner. The latter has been a machine since coming east to Yonkers last year and most recently won here at the NW30000L5 level. In February he was second to Covered Bridge by a nose in a Yonkers invitational.

Which of these horses will be able to step up and compete on the free-for-all stage as the year goes on? Last year Tattoo Artist who actually had been snake bitten of sorts in this series the past couple years went on to knock heads with Bythemissal for much of the year. Jimmy Freight was another big name from last year. Idealsomemagic went on to surprise later in the year in the Gerrity, while Borgata winner Hellabalou went on to compete in major races such as the Canadian Pacing Derby final and the Hoosier Park Pacing Derby.

Four of the top 10 and five out of the top twelve richest older pacers from last year raced in the Borgata series. So, while the Borgata group traditionally may not produce horse after horse that will necessarily be the fastest of the older pacing group, the series does produce an all-around group that is capable of grinding it out against most of what the best of the group can offer.