A famous adage defines insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” In some ways, the landscape of North American harness racing in the 21st century reflects that adage.
A predictably steady dose of one-mile races for horses that have not won a specified amount of money in their last handful of starts. A predictably steady dose of odds-on favorites competing in—and winning—those races. A predictably steady dose of fast miles that would have been unheard of not even a decade ago.
To make matters more difficult, shrinking foal crops and a mass exodus of lower-level horses and stables continue to thin the ranks. (The 2021 season saw 20,357 unique starters in purse races—a far cry from the 31,991 starters in 2011, and an even farther cry from the 46,321 unique starters in 1992.)
Given the challenges harness racing faces, particularly as it pertains to retaining an active horse population, what can be done to better tailor racing opportunities to the horses we have? Innovations in race conditions implemented throughout the past decade—some stuck, some did not—as well as some new approaches could prove the key to breaking the cycle of insanity.
Abandoning the One-Mile Standard
One such innovation stemmed from an arrangement that saw the French Pari Mutuel Urbain (PMU) accept wagers on selected races from Yonkers Raceway from 2014 through 2018. To accommodate their European simulcast audience, Yonkers offered overflow fields of trotters racing at an extended distance of 1¼ miles.
“The French are used to longer distances, and that’s what they wanted to see, so that’s what we gave them,” explained Joe Faraldo, president of the Standardbred Owners Association of New York.
The partnership with PMU yielded an influx of international handle, which enabled Yonkers to offer inflated overnight purses for the long-distance trots—between $16,000 and $26,000 for non-winners of four, all the way up to $68,000 in Open events. Suffice it to say, the extra money at stake made the added quarter mile and double-decked starts—some races drew as many as 12 horses on Yonkers’ half-mile track—more palatable for horsemen.
“We were getting quite a bit of money from their handle for our purse structure,” said trainer Ray Schnittker. “People follow the money. If you have a purse structure like Yonkers did, you’d have no problem filling the card.”
But when the partnership with PMU ended before the start of the 2019 season—and purses reverted to their previous levels—the long-distance races disappeared as well. Still, the 639 overnight trotting events at 1¼ miles held at Yonkers from 2014 to 2018 shone light on two major angles by which the experiment can be considered a success—even if unconventional by North American standards.
First, and most apparent, is parity: Those 639 races yielded 401 unique winners and an average win dividend of $14.53, and favorites won only 31.8 percent of the time. The second—and arguably more pertinent—angle, if pursued more earnestly and universally, could potentially yield myriad opportunities for a particular subset of horses who lack the pure speed to be competitive at a mile but boast the hardiness to excel over longer journeys. And while this seems to be a logical enough conjecture on its own, the data support it.
The median sectional and final times in 1¼-mile overnight trots at Yonkers were :29.1, :59.2, 1:29.2, 1:58.4 and 2:28.4—and the 25th and 75th percentiles deviated by only 12⁄5 and 11⁄5 seconds, respectively. Thus, in a typical race over the distance, the differential between the slowest and fastest quarters was only one second, rewarding stamina over raw speed. In fact, 149 horses had the requisite endurance to win multiple times over the extended route, with 27 of them winning at the distance on at least four occasions.
Schnittker, who trained Madman Hall, a six-time winner over 1¼ miles, believed the added-distance heats served his trotter well.
“It helped that horse a lot because guys weren’t so much to be on the front,” he said. “In a mile, you’ve got to go 27 seconds to get to the front, where at a mile and a quarter, he was an average leaver and could grind his way to the front—he could go a long distance at the same speed, which helped him.”
Since the Yonkers experiment ended 3½ years ago, races at distances other than a mile have been absent from the North American landscape, save for the occasional one-off event. Tony O’Sullivan, a New Zealand expat who trained Standardbreds in Ontario for two decades before becoming the racing secretary at Woodbine Mohawk Park earlier this year, believes a consistently diverse offering of distances could enhance the product for participants and punters alike—but that widespread adherence to the one-mile status quo remains the major obstacle.
“I think it is something that possibly could and maybe should be explored more, but I don’t know how the general population of horsemen and gamblers would feel about it,” he said. “Seeing what they do in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, I don’t see why we can’t do it; people would just have to change their way of thinking and drivers would have to rate the speed a little bit more. I think it could help horses that can’t sprint but can go four or five quarters at the same speed, and also make more competitive and intriguing races.”
A Fresh Take on Classified Racing
When Yonkers and Roosevelt Raceways shared the spotlight in the New York City metropolitan area in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, classified racing—frequently known as the “ABC system”—was the rule rather than the exception, as race secretaries hand-crafted fields in an effort to optimize competitive balance. While the subjectivity of the old ABC system ultimately gave way to more objective and transparent race conditions, the now ubiquitous condition structure of “non-winners of $X in last Y starts”—despite its clarity and transparency—has become fertile ground for mismatched races and short-priced favorites, particularly when horses can drop in class on account of bad racing luck.
In 2018, David Siegel, then president of TrackMaster, unveiled TrackMaster Horse Ratings as a tool to aid race secretaries in achieving greater competitive balance. Since the beginning of 2021, 18 tracks have made use of the
ratings—which are produced from a given horse’s TrackMaster speed ratings and calculated similarly to a golf
handicap—in some form or another.
“This is the ABC system, but it’s not subjective,” Siegel explained, adding that Horse Ratings conditions are geared toward “horses who raced either in claiming races or the ‘non-winners of dollars’ type of races” as opposed to younger, developing horses and stakes company.
“Overall, I think it’s going very well,” Siegel said. “In all 12 cases where tracks were using the ratings for more than 100 races in this sample, the percentage of races with odds-on horses was lower.”
Among those 12 tracks, the occurrence of odds-on favorites in events with TrackMaster ratings as at least a component in the conditions ranged from 34 to 53 percent, with a median of 44.5 percent. In conditioned races that did not include TrackMaster ratings in their conditions, the same subset of tracks saw the occurrence of odds-on favorites ranging from 44 to 63 percent, with a median of 54.5 percent. Field sizes were slightly better in TrackMaster races than otherwise, with a median of 7.5 horses per race compared to 7.4; and per-race handle on TrackMaster races was 26.4 percent higher than conventional conditioned races.
TrackMaster Horse Ratings have helped improve competitive balance—both as perceived by the betting public and in actuality—but Siegel feels that there’s still room for progress:
“I think they’ve gone very well, but I think they could be used so much better than they are being used now,” he said. “My belief was that the goal of a racing secretary is to write the most competitive races possible, and that, in theory, you’d have eight horses within a length of each other at the finish line.”
While Siegel believes that what he calls the “accordion method” of splitting fields—all horses enter into one event and are grouped solely according to their ratings—would provide optimal competitive balance, the real-world application of TrackMaster Horse Ratings has largely been in a hybrid capacity, with money and rating conditions frequently coexisting in the same event.
Harrah’s Hoosier Park race secretary Scott Peine has found the TrackMaster system useful in augmenting more traditional offerings, both to keep horses from being forced into impossible races and to provide lower-level horses ample opportunity to compete.
“On some conditioned races, I put on an also-eligible with the TrackMaster number to help prevent horses from having to race over their heads for four, five or six starts,” said the Illinois native who has manned both Standardbred and Thoroughbred race offices in Indiana over the past 15 years. “I think having the TrackMaster numbers put on the appropriate conditions has helped keep horses around.
“I also think it’s very useful for middle-of-the-road and lower-end horses. I cannot fill a filly and mare claimer to save my life; I just can’t do it. It’s hard to fill claiming trots, too. The TrackMaster system gives you an avenue to use those horses in a competitive way. I think it’s a great, creative tool when it’s used the right way.”
Veteran race secretary Scott Warren, who chairs the race offices at both the Meadowlands and Vernon Downs, has likewise made frequent use of TrackMaster ratings, calling them “another tool for a race secretary to use.” And his experiences with them largely parallel Peine’s.
“I think TrackMaster works better for lower-end horses, whether they be at Vernon or even at the Meadowlands; it gives them an opportunity to make more money than they would with regular conditions,” Warren said. “As Laure Blomquist, my assistant, says, ‘It keeps them amongst their friends.’ They can do a little good and, at the same time, they don’t have to be buried up in class for a month until they can drop back down.”
It turns out that Peine and Warren have only one significant difference in their implementation of TrackMaster ratings in their condition sheets. Both have written straight TrackMaster conditions for lower-level horses, as well as opening up more conventionally crafted mid- to upper-level conditions with TrackMaster ratings as also-eligible provisions. A racing commission rule in Indiana prevents Peine from adjusting conditions on the day of a draw. However Warren has, on occasion, lifted TrackMaster ratings by a half point or a point at most to ensure full fields.
“It’s no different than having to adjust classes for any other condition; it just happens to be the TrackMaster number was raised to help fill an event,” Warren said. “I don’t like to have to adjust it too much, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to make the races go.”
Since the beginning of 2021, TrackMaster ratings races at the Meadowlands have averaged 9.0 horses per race, up from 8.7 in straight conditioned races. At Hoosier, TrackMaster field size averages 8.6 compared to 8.2 in straight conditioned events. The prevalence of odds-on favorites reflects better balance, as well, with that figure lower by 10 percentage points at the Meadowlands and 17 at Hoosier in TrackMaster ratings races as compared to conventional conditioned races.
O’Sullivan, while he doesn’t employ TrackMaster ratings on his own condition sheet, believes that they help maintain parity in the bottom levels of competition where they have been implemented.
“At certain levels, it seems that when you put a cheaper race together, the TrackMaster numbers line up really well,” he said. “I don’t think the TrackMaster ratings work for younger horses, but there’s definitely merit for them with the conditioned horses.”
Conditioned Claimers and Regional Appeal
Last winter, Warren offered a conditioned claiming series at the Meadowlands for younger horses. Yet, despite the series itself being a success, conditioned claiming races haven’t gotten the consistent reception on the eastern seaboard that he had hoped.
“I don’t understand, looking at the population of horses, why conditioned claimers don’t work at the Meadowlands because there are horses that, at times, need to get away from the stakes-caliber horses that come to race on the big track in between their stakes schedule,” he said. “In my mind, I always thought that would be an option, but it’s never worked.”
While conditioned claimers may be virtually nonexistent on the I-95 corridor, they have enjoyed a renaissance at many Midwestern raceways. Dave Bianconi, who has served as MGM Northfield Park’s racing secretary for nearly one-third of his 31-year tenure there, has found that conditioned claiming events are a good and popular fit for his backstretch community.
“People are wanting to race more young horses; there are more guys wanting to race 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds than older horses,” Bianconi said, noting that Northfield’s on-track product has made considerable strides from the steady menu of bottom-level conditioned races of yesteryear. “And if they’re not going to be stakes horses, they can at least be competitive in the conditioned claiming ranks. There are so many young horses bred in Ohio, and everybody tries to find a spot for them when they’re young—there’s much opportunity between the fairs, Stallion Series and the Sires Stakes. Eventually, they’ve got to go somewhere.”
Bianconi estimates that conditioned claiming events—either in whole or in part—make up a third of the offerings at Northfield. Unlike in regions where horse populations skew older, the emphasis many Ohio-based stables place on younger stock gives Bianconi ample horse supply to offer multiple tiers of competition for the developing set.
“It’s a way to climb the ladder and not have to race against open older horses for quite some time, if you don’t mind putting a tag on them,” he continued. “And the tags are pretty stout, with the price of horses what they are now.”
Starter allowances—the conditioned claimer’s close cousin—are another seldom seen option, but viable in certain areas. Peine, however, made sure to adjust the time frame of eligibility in his application to account for the frequency with which Standardbreds race.
“I’ve had success with starter allowance races, where you’ve had to start for a certain claiming price,” he explained. “The runners go back a year, and that’s asking for it because you don’t know what you’re going to get. But, if you go your last start or last two starts—maybe it’s a small-time guy with a good $8,000 claimer, and now he can protect him for a couple starts. Done the right way, it can work.”
Putting Innovation into Practice
Knowing that conventional race office practices—despite being familiar and easy to navigate—haven’t provided a reliably level playing field, individuals like O’Sullivan have had to get creative to card races that appeal to horsemen and horseplayers alike, and to give lower-level stock as fair a shake as possible.
“Horses of the same caliber being in together is first and foremost, but unfortunately, trying to get all those horses to come to the same track is very tough,” he said, owing to the fact that anywhere from four to nine tracks race concurrently within Ontario at any point during the season.
“What we’ve done is we’ve started ‘pop-up series,’ which I think have been a success. We change the criteria based on what we think is available in Ontario without necessarily pulling from the existing pool of Mohawk horses. The basis of it was to build the lower level because, as we know, the lower level is falling quickly. Whatever we can do to help the lower-level horses make money, I think there’s a lot of upside to it.
“The first pop-up we did was for non-winners of $30,000 in 2021. If you get 30 of them together, they really should be the same caliber. We’ve tried claiming pop-up series, which work well in the winter. Earlier in the summer, we had a pop-up series for horses that started for a purse of $10,000 or less, and it was good. It’s brought horses here, they’ve been good competitive fields, and the favorites aren’t necessarily winning.”
in addition to short series, o’sullivan has added similar provisions to select conditions in his weekly offerings to ensure competitive placement for horses shipping to Mohawk from Ontario’s “B” tracks and to help maintain full fields.
“There are horses that race at the ‘B’ tracks that you would be surprised by how much money they have made,” he continued, “but it doesn’t correlate to where they belong at Mohawk. If they’ve made, say, $8,200 in their last five starts, they don’t necessarily fit non-winners of $10,000.
“Finding those horses a spot is difficult. The ‘starters for a purse under a certain amount of money’ provision has enabled us to find them a condition where they belong and not necessarily base it upon their earnings in their last five or 10 starts. It helps owners and trainers know their horses are where they belong; it potentially increases their earning potential; and it creates competitive fields, which, handle-wise, is first and foremost.”
Admittedly, not everything O’Sullivan has tried has worked—but not for lack of merit.
“I wrote a condition for non-winners of a race in their last five starts—it was capped so a good horse couldn’t drop down—and I got it to fill once,” he related. “Trainers didn’t enter in it, and it was disappointing. The way I saw it is if you got a field of 10 horses that haven’t won a race, one of them is going to win, and the next week it should be somebody else.”
In a similar vein, Peine has called his fair share of audibles to fill fields at Hoosier. Borne of the Indiana rule that prevents him from adjusting conditions on draw day, Peine called upon his Thoroughbred experience to help fill out his racing programs.
“I use ‘extra races’ on the overnight,” he said. “For instance, if I have a non-winners of one trot and there are 24 entries, maybe I can only use it once. You know what? I’m writing it as an extra for the next day’s draw. Staying on top of the extra races is a huge thing for me because I’ve had 14-race cards that would have been 10 if not for staying on top of the extra races.
“Staying on top of the electronic entry system, putting those races into eTrack where the horsemen can see them in their Online Entry account, is huge. They can see the changes; they can see the extra races. If their horse didn’t get in and that race is back up as an extra, it’s advantageous for both of us.”
Regardless of what may or may not work, either in theory or in practice, participant support is a must for any innovation to take hold—but it’s admittedly hard to come by.
“You could ask five trainers and get five different answers,” said Warren.
“It’s tough to get new ideas going,” concurred O’Sullivan. “At the end of the day, the horsemen have to support the idea and be able to ride it out and not say, ‘We didn’t do well, so we’re going to go somewhere else.’ I know that’s hard, because everybody’s trying to grind out a living.”
A Path Forward?
Based upon the experiences the above experiments—and others—yielded, one can start to explore other possible criteria by which to classify races and further ensure a spot for every horse to have the potential to be competitive. A couple potential criteria for consideration follow:
- Lifetime marks. Of the 48,755 Standardbreds foaled from 2013 to 2018 inclusive, 21,093—or 43.3 percent—have established lifetime records of 2:00 or faster. Furthermore, only 3,144 pacers in that span have won in 1:52 or faster, and 2,665 trotters have won in 1:56 or faster—only a combined 11.9 percent.
By comparison, in the first half of 2022 at the Meadowlands, 63.2 percent of pacing events and 90.8 percent of trots (excluding stakes) have produced winning times at or faster than the above benchmarks (after accounting for time allowances). At Freehold Raceway, which caters to a lower level of horses compared to its northern counterpart in New Jersey, 358 of 468 races conducted in the same period—76.5 percent—met or exceeded the 2:00 standard.
What it takes to win a typical race at those two very different tracks is, frankly, beyond reach to the thousands of harness horses who simply lack that ability to sprint. With that in mind, could races restricted to horses who have not achieved a given lifetime (or seasonal) mark provide other avenues for competition?
“I think there’s some logic to it, but I, myself, in Indiana, can’t do that because of commission rules,” admitted Peine. “Maybe an alternative way of doing that is finding what your purse levels are in the area and writing a race for non-winners of a race for a purse of, say, $6,000.”
“I was never really much for using time as a factor in classification,” said Karen Fagliarone, director of racing at Freehold Raceway. “I feel that there are so many different factors that can produce or decrease speed—track surface, weather elements, race fractions, etc. I will say, though, that with the babies, time is crucial; that’s all we really have to go by for their first couple starts.”
- Yearling sale prices. While the amount paid for a given racehorse at public auction is solely a reflection of speculation as to their ability, could dividing entries based upon yearling sale prices serve to create better competitive balance for developing horses?
For instance, if a track offered maiden, non-winners of two, and non-winners of three events further restricted to horses that did not sell for a given price, could it yield more evenly matched races and afford connections more credible avenues to realize return on their initial investments? As it turns out, both Peine and Warren have attempted to offer conditions along these lines at their respective tracks, but horsemen proved less than receptive of the idea.
“It didn’t work, but I wrote 2-year-old races where you either had to be a homebred or your auction price had to be below $10,000,” Peine said. “Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”
“I put on the sheet the other week a race for 2-year-olds with a sale price of $50,000 or less,” said Warren. “No entries.”
Still, the fact that Peine and Warren, independently of each other, offered these similar events on their respective condition sheets speaks for the merit of the idea—and their northern counterpart concurs.
“I think it’s something worth exploring,” O’Sullivan said. “Obviously, a $400,000 yearling could turn out no good but it has a better chance of being good. But, once the 2-year-olds start racing, if you have enough for two classes, try to make them as even as possible, be it by lifetime earnings, yearling price or finishing order.”
Are any of these innovations in and of themselves a surefire antidote for prevailing racehorse shortages in the industry? Admittedly, likely not. However, open minds and constant retooling of the race condition and classification system can work to better serve—and preserve—the Standardbred population.
“Some things work; some things don’t work,” Warren said, succinctly. “At the end of the day, it’s an extra line or two on the condition sheet, and it doesn’t cost anything to try stuff.” HB
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