Day At The Track

Industry is bleak: Stake racing just in time

06:39 AM 24 Jun 2010 NZST
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Andrew Cohen
Andrew Cohen

In Pennsylvania, lawmakers already have raided a whopping $41 million from the state's "Race Horse Development Fund" to balance the overall budget. There is talk that more will be taken this year-and there sure doesn't look like the horsemen can do anything about it.

In New York, meanwhile, legislators are worried that MasterCard is blocking gaming transactions and denying credit-card transactions for legal pari-mutuel racing out of fear, they say, of violating a 2006 federal law on internet gambling.

In New Jersey, despite a poll which favors a racino at the Meadowlands, the fate of the state's entire horse industry remains in limbo pending a choice by a governor who hasn't exactly fallen out of his chair in public support of the sport. In Illinois, the trial of impeached former Governor Rod Blagojevich has renewed old talk of corruption in horse racing there. In Indiana, justified or not, a state senator has called for an investigation into "illegal activity" in horse racing there. In Kentucky, still no slots and a messed-up Grand Circuit and Lexington Select Sale schedule thanks for the Equestrian Games.

If the off-track news in our industry is dark and stormy, at least we've reached the beginning of the core of the stakes season in North America. Hallelujah! This allows many of us to stop having to watch dubious (and inexplicable) overnight races and to be able to start watching entertaining and quite unpredictable stakes races. The Pepsi North America Cup eliminations last Saturday night at Mohawk, for example, remind us why all the rest of the crap that surrounds the business is almost worth it at times. Drama. Competition. Excitement. Beaten favorites. Worthy longshots. And it only gets better with a final this coming Saturday night that ought to be the most competitive in years.

Same goes for the ladies. Based upon their performances so far, Put On A Show and Fancy Filly look to be lapping the 3-year-old pacing filly division. The first- and second-place Horse-Of-The-Year division titlists go head-to-head this Saturday in the Fan Hanover. They aren't Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta quite yet but if both stay sound and fast they ought to write some good history with one another between now and the Breeder's Crown. You can say that same thing about Holiday Road, Lucky Chucky and Muscle Massive-the three sharp trotting colts who will likely compete for the first Hambletonian of the post-Muscle Hill era.

It's hard to reconcile the brilliance we often see from these horses in these races with the dullness we see around us during the normal course of racing business. There are fans in the stands for these young horses. There is genuine tension in the air. There is sometimes even a wait to wager. It's not quite exactly like seeing a replay of the sport's heyday-there aren't that many fans. But it's reassuring. It tells us as a sport that when we put on our best show people care about what they are seeing; that some folks beyond our small circle of industry insiders still yearn for quality harness racing.

Watching the stakes races this year is sort of like watching a sunset through a smoke-filled sky. It's beautiful to see but it portends ill; it's wonderful to behold but you get the feeling it isn't going to last. The 2010 Meadowlands Pace next month promises to be wonderful. But veteran industry watchers wonder whether there will be a Meadowlands Pace in 2015-or even 2012? Is that why the difference between stakes races and overnights seems so particularly vast to me this year? Is it pre-nostalgia nostalgia for something that doesn't figure to be around when I'm older and grayer? I have no idea. I just know I'm going to enjoy it all as much as I can, if not for future reference than at least for glorious memory.

News and notes:

The advent of summer here in the Northern Hemisphere also signals the start of baby racing for last year's yearlings. A few days after Father's Day, I am proud to report that the Hanover Shoe Farms horse named after my late father, Eddy, has indeed made it to the baby races! Eddie C. Hanover raced last week at Northfield Park and is scheduled to race again at the Meadows. We do not own him but root for him just the same. He is faster than my father was, fortunately, and also now a gelding, a development, I am quite sure, with which my dad would have been disappointed.

Andrew Cohen is a Standardbred owner, breeder and writer

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