Unless you live near the I-90 East-West section of the New York State Thruway, there is no easy way to get to harness racing at Vernon Downs. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful place and a great facility to race and train Standardbreds.
But, if you are heading there from New York’s Southern tier toward Oneida County, plan on winding your way through Cow country on twisting, turning single-lane state routes. Route 8 Sidney, 12b Hamilton, 26, 46—it sounds like a Peyton Manning audible.
My journey started on Thursday, en route to Crawford Farms in Durhamville, New York. The farm’s owners, Michelle and Albert Crawford are two people who are zealous about harness racing. They demonstrated that fervor by investing as premier sponsors of the Meadowlands Pace. They treat it like a business and realize that marketing is key. In their everyday lives, they also own and operate a multi-million dollar medical finance firm.
The Crawford family farm is about 15 minutes from Vernon, just outside of Oneida. With video camera in hand, I met with farm manager Heather Reese and her assistant Bobbi Jean Carney. Following a quick tour of all the new foals, 23 and counting, Michelle arrived and we were ready to shoot the farm’s :30 second commercial by 9:15 am.
Mares with foals, foals with mares. Two by two they pranced and strutted like actors in a Hollywood production. W.C. Fields, who famously said, “Never work with animals or children,” could not have known the pleasure of filming young horses. When they are not running away, they are nibbling on the camera or the cameraman. All of which is quite amusing and makes for fun footage.
Following the youngsters we moved on to the yearlings. They were energetic and eager to investigate. A fabulous looking group of babies—I am looking forward to seeing them sale- prepped and polished.
The Crawford gals are farm-savvy and well-versed in all things equine. When these Morrisville alums are not foaling mares, they are breeding mares and halter breaking babies. Heather and Bobbi really know their stuff and were equally as comfortable recounting all the bloodlines on film as they were inseminating a mare with a recently delivered Crazed collection.
On the other side of the farm is a brand new 40-stall barn with an adjacent horse spa and half-mile training track. Michelle Crawford could easily double as a tour guide. No section of the property went unnoticed. She explained in great detail the state-of-the-art Aqua-Spa and Treadmill that was recently installed. Leigh and Tyler Raymer keep a large portion of their racing stable in the new barn, along with training some of the race-age Crawford horses.
Following a full day of shooting farm and training video, it was off to Vernon Downs to capture some footage of the Crawford Farms starting car in action. It is a brand new Toyota Tundra, bright red, with a Brian Sears bobble-head on the dashboard. On the way home I passed the ever-expanding Chobani yogurt plant in New Berlin
Friday morning’s major attraction was the qualifying debut of 2013 Dan Patch Pacer of the Year Captaintreacherous at The Meadowlands. The Tony Alagna-trained 4-year-old son of Somebeachsomewhere did not disappoint as Tim Tetrick steered him to a 1:51.3 mile, throwing in a :26.1 last quarter aided by a 30mph tailwind.
Following qualifiers, the Tattersalls sale had nearly two dozen 2-year-olds in-training. The colts and fillies performed for tele-timed and video-taped work-outs while track announcer/pedigree reader Sam McKee added color. I sat with Jimmy Takter in the VIP simulcast room to watch the babies go and was treated to some insightful observations.
Saturday was Preakness Day. The Big M had an over abundance of events planned for the day. Registration began at 1pm for the Stride for a Cure 5k, which benefits the American Cancer Society. I registered and paid my $25 online, however only had plans to chase the runners with my camera.
At 3 pm the race began, and after capturing the runners’ shotgun start, I jumped into Marketing Manager Rachel Ryan’s car and starting taking more photos of the runners. As they strode down the backstretch in front of the original grandstand, several industry notables were present. Sam McKee must have had the exacta as both his daughters, Lindsey and Melissa were one-two for the women at the half, and finished in that order.
Following the leaders, the elder McKee and other not-so-hurried runners moved down the long stretch toward the finish. Bob Boni of Northwood Bloodstock and Callie Davies-Gooch of the Hambletonian Society cruised by at different times. Andrea Caswell, the Meadowlands Stakes Administrator, and Rudy Maag, a 30-year employee of the track were encouraging each other with every stride. Rudy was the stall man for the NJSEA from 1982 through 2011, but his first job in the horse business was as Thoroughbred a jockey!
I jumped back into Rachel Ryan’s car and made my way to the finish line, being careful not to cross it. Unfortunately the signal from my race bib transponder mistakenly picked up my presence. I got an Email a few minutes later that noted I had finished in 7th place overall and 1st in my divison—22:29.
Running immediately back to the finish, I lodged an objection.
“I am number 524 and I did not actually run the race in that time,” I told the judges. “I tripped the timer from 50 feet away!”
This forced a complete re-posting of the leader board. Even with runners still out on the track, the top 20 had already been published. No good deed goes unpunished.
Preakness post time was just after 6pm, with all eyes on California Chrome. The shiny colt from Cali did not disappoint as throngs of fans filled the apron to watch the “Run for the Black Eyed Susans” on the M1 infield teletron. For the D. A. P.-owned colt, it’s off to the Belmont, having successfully navigated through a few nasal-strip-enabled anxious moments.
The Roosevelt Raceway Legacy night drew a hundred honored guests, as well as hundreds of fans seeking autographs. As the crowd gathered on the apron around such legendary reinsman as Herve Filion, Carmine Abbatiello and Benny Webster, the line stretched halfway down the stretch. The West Terrace housed an invitation only event complete with hot buffet and open bar. Hollywood Heyden interviewed many of the icons of the era for the in-house broadcast.
Inside the entrance to the grandstand, the Harness Racing Museum & Hall of Fame had a memorabilia sample of their soon-to-be-unveiled Roosevelt Raceway Legacy Exhibit. Old photos were for sale and a watercolor featuring Lucien Fontaine winning the Messenger with Valiant Bret was raffled-off by artist Jerry Dahl.
An overnight race with modern drivers wearing the colors of their Roosevelt counterparts was won by Yannick Gingras wearing Fontaine’s colors. The “Green Hornet” won 7 of 14 races on the busy night’s card.
Of course, world-class racing was also on tap as the match-up between Sebastian K and Market Share took the stage in the $175,000 Cutler final. Unfortunately, that duel never materialized as the latter made an uncharacteristic break, allowing the former to sprint home in a stakes record 1:50.2. Somewhat fractious in the winner’s circle, the $2.4 million-winning Swedish star does not like to stand still. Perhaps the lovely wife of owner/breeder Mike Knuttson held the key. As she touched Sebastian K on the nose, the big horse stood still, albeit briefly, for the paparazzi.
Sunday, it was back to the Meadowlands for a third straight day. The Tattersalls Spring Mixed Sale was held in the race paddock where 4-year-old pacing mare American In Paris fetched $157,000 from Mark Harder. The 2-year-olds in training also sold reasonably well. Sales Manager David Reid noted that the reception was encouraging and should help garner support for future 2yo in-training offerings.
The crew from the #Harness Racing Fan Zone was on-hand conducting interviews and building content. Not only is the Top 100 moments in full swing, but a new promotional video was launched that captures the excitement of racing using Hi-Def action sequences shot with GoPro cameras affixed to the bikes and helmets of leading drivers. Also, the Harness Racing Ambassadors platform has been buzzing with user-initiated content from tracks across the country.
The always cheerful Jessica Schroeder was stationed at the USTA outreach booth, selling literature and facilitating ownership transfers. We chatted about the upcoming #USTA Driving School, being held in mid-June at the Harness Racing Museum and Goshen Historic Track. Students will learn from trainers such as Ray Schnittker and Mark Ford with the country’s leading conditioner, Ron Burke, giving the keynote address.
Having had so much harness racing-related fun, I can’t wait until my next whirlwind weekend—this one was just over 800 miles!
An exclusive blog for Harnesslink.com by Chris Tully