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The Hambletonian returns to heat racing!

Jeff Gural is still making some big noise down at the Big M. Today it was announced that The Meadowlands lease-holder (Gural) has signed an agreement with The Hambletonian Society to host the race that has been the track’s headline event for the past 3 decades. Bigger still, in 2013 the event will return to heat racing if there are more than 13 entrants. Heat racing has produced some of the more dramatic finishes in the sport’s history, highlighted by the 1989 race-off dead heat of Park Avenue Joe driven by Ron Waples and Probe steered to the shared victory by Bill Fahy.


The Meadowlands will also be carding The Hambletonian Maturity starting in 2014, which will offer a $400,000 purse to eligible 4-year-old trotters. A possible field of 16 horses will race 1 1/8 miles in the Maturity with all entrants earning part of the purse. It’s a novel concept to promote interest in a sport where variety has never been encouraged or embraced. 99% of the races are one-mile dashes for 10 entrants or fewer. Gural continues to push the envelope and a new, fresh agenda in an effort to pull The Meadowlands and the sport of harness racing back into mainstream sports entertainment and provide the betting public with some competitive races to put their money down on. The Hambletonian is the Big M’s beacon - last year with European simulcasting added for the first time, the total handle on Hambo day was $8.4 million, the third-highest handle in harness racing history.

Is this Debutante Winner a Special Filly?

Do you ever get the feeling a racehorse might be “something special” before they even set foot on the racetrack for their pari-mutuel debut? It’s a rare experience for me - being a kind of “show me” guy - most people that know me likely consider me a codgy contrarian; I don't impress easy. Last Thursday night was different, however. While handicapping the late Woodbine pick 4, I came to a horse in race 10-St. Lads Penny Lane- that had a lone qualifying race on her card, but she did something in that heat that you don’t often see from a 3-year-old filly qualifying for her debut in January. In her January 5th qualifying race, the daughter of Million Dollar Cam got away last of 7 and was still last, 13 lengths behind the leader in a first half timed in a tepid 101.3. In the 29.3 third quarter, “Penny” picked up 3 lengths, but was still 9 lengths in arrears with a quick closing quarter almost surely to be fired off by the early leaders following the slow early pace that had been set. That’s when the sophomore pacing filly caught fire! Rallying furiously, “Penny” blew by the early leaders late and not only won by close to 3 lengths, but also smoked home in 26.3 for the final 1/4 mile. Like I said earlier - this kind of rally and especially the sub-27 second kicker isn’t something 3YO fillies normally do in winter qualifiers. I had to single her - especially considering “Penny” wasn’t the morning line favorite and others may get equal play due to the morning line. Alas I missed the pick 4, but not because I singled the wrong horse:


Once again, St Lads Penny Lane showed something rarely seen -this time on the notoriously speed-favouring Woodbine Oval. Sitting 8th and last in a glacial 1:00 half and still looking at them all at the 129.3 3rd ¼, the filly was sent widest by red-hot Doug McNair and she exploded with a 27.1 kicker, getting up late for a 158.0 debut victory. Skeptics will point out that St Lads Penny Lane has yet to produce a mile that would be considered “serious” race horse time. But I have a feeling that will come and she may turn into a tigress on the Mohawk oval this spring with a better flow to the races and live cover to follow. She is definitely a filly that I will be following with keen interest.

The failed first-over trip: profitable handicapping angle?

 Handicapper’s corner: Here’s an angle that quite often produces double-digit (sometimes way higher) mutuels for me. A horse races first-over and gets stung by the leader who is unyielding. Not able to pass, the first-over horse tires in the stretch and finishes unplaced, sometimes several lengths behind the winner. Quite often I will bet a horse like this to win and/or include it in my multi-race exotic wagers and they seem to pop with fair regularity at decent mutuels. Here’s what happens - if the failed first-over journey was an attempted “brush-and-crush” that didn’t pan out, a repeat attempt sometimes works, especially on smaller tracks. If the subject horse has the quickest 3rd quarters in the PPs, there is an even better chance he will blow right by in the 3rd ¼ and coast home. If the failed previous attempt was a gradual first-over grind that failed, the driver is apt to try (and often succeed) to work out a better trip in which the horse is covered up longer either on the rail or behind cover on the outside. The one thing to keep in mind is if a horse was pulled first-over to begin with it is likely fit and the driver had a reasonable level of confidence in the horse’s abiliites. You’d be surprised at how often this works - especially if the subject horse is the only horse in the race that fits this profile.

News and Notes:

The mild winter weather had ‘em sizzling around The Big M oval last weekend. 7-year-old Village Jove gelding Golden Receiver ripped off the fastest mile in January ever when he wired the first leg of The Presidential series in 148.0, coming home with a wicked 26.2 last ¼ for the white-hot Brian Sears. The White Knight clicked with 5 winners and two seconds on the night including a Grand Slam in races 9 through 12. The second division of the first Presidential leg was won by River Shark. The 6-year-old Four Starzzz Shark gelding easily disposed of seven foes in 148.4, including 2009 Cane Pace winner Vintage Master who checked in 2nd for driver Yannick Gingras and trainer Jimmy Takter.

Breeders Crown Mare Trot Champion Frenchfrysnvinegar is getting better with age, it seems. The 7-year-old Angus Hall mare made two moves for pilot Keith Oliver to knock off the boys in Monday's $38,000 Preferred Trot at Woodbine. In the process, she came within 1/5 of a second of Mystical Sunshine's 152.2 track record for Aged Trotting Mares.


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Update: The 3YO filly mentioned in this blog, "St Lad's Penny Lane" came back with a dazzling win last night in her 2nd start - erasing a 9-length deficit in the 2nd half and drawing off by a rapidly-expanding 5 lengths at the wire. Her time off 155.0 on a wet track was the 2nd fastest mile of the night and her 27.2 last 1/4 was by far the fastest of the evening recorded by a race winner (28.4 was the next fastest). Video to follow in this weekend's "Drive On" blog post.
Thanks - a "failed first-over trip" almost always looks something like this: 347 3°21/2 2°3/4 531/4 631/2 - the horse was racing 4th, 7 lengths back at the 1/4, was the first horse to pull to the outside (i.e. the "first-over" terminology) grinded his way up to second by the 3/4 mile mark, then faded. If this horse were to get cover in it's next start by following the "first-over" horse or racing inside for most of the mile, there's a decent chance it could win at a price.
Thanks for the article, Garnet. Are failed first over trips something that would be listed in the results charts of a harness program, or is it found only by watching replays? Just wondering because I'm going out to Vegas in mid-March & I'm sure I'll be sitting in the sportsbook in the evenings want to play something other than college basketball.
The 8-hole is an impossible spot at Delaware - worse than the 20-hole at Churchill for sure.
The eight post on the gate is a tough draw, only one winner from that spot in 66 years. Kind of like the 19/20 post on Derby day, no offense Big Brown-you had a little help, huh?
I'm glad you enjoyed the blog entry and appreciate your readership. From what I've seen post position is (almost) everything in The Little Brown Jug. That being said, I've never been to one live and really need to get there-soon!
Thanks for this excellent post on harness racing. I cut my handicapping teeth on the sulkies and have been to the last 26 Lil Brown Jugs. They feature three heats -usually which places more skill with the drivers -on a half-mile track. The best horse doesn't always win.
I did like his idea about a mile and half race with 14 horses in it. Reminds me of the Prix d'amerique where there are 30 horses starting out. Anyone who has seen that race, never forgets it.
I really think Gural is trying to improve the fan experience with harness racing and get more people to the track. He always said he started out as a fan and then became an owner. It is too bad he did not get the casino contract at Aqueduct instead of Genting. He cares about horse racing. Genting does not and just wanted the location

Meet Garnet Barnsdale


I am an Honours Graduate from Humber College School of Journalism and a lifelong race fan and handicapper who has been watching and wagering on harness racing for more than 30 years. I was a staff writer for The Standardbred magazine in the late '80s. I will attempt to provide both beginners and veterans with valuable information and handicapping tips and advice on the top events from all major harness circuits.

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