Harness racing’s Hambletonian focuses a spotlight on the sport

Aug 7, 2007 8:27 AM

Harness racing, which has taken some hard hits in the past, had its day in the sun last Saturday.

Its premier race, the Hambletonian, the Kentucky Derby of the sport, was raced for a purse of $1.5 million at the sport’s greatest track, the Meadowlands. A companion race for fillies, the Hambletonian Oaks, was raced for a purse of $750,000. And there were three other races on the card that carried purses of more than $300,000, and another two worth $100,000 or more.

Money alone does not buy respectability, as Las Vegas has learned, but harness racing has been receiving some heartening news lately.

Its emphasis on security has won recognition from its thoroughbred cousins, and media has begun to respond to the solid feature stories flowing from the sport.

The New York Times, which has treated harness racing with contempt and outrageous lack of coverage, carried two pre-Hambletonian features, both by the talented Bill Finley. One was on a trotter born in Ohio, sold by an Amish owner to German interests, then resold to Sweden, then returned to the U.S. for the big race. The colt, Adrian Chip, finished second.

The second story was a natural, the exceptional filly Pampered Princess challenging nine colts, hoping to become the first filly in 11 years to win the Hambletonian. She failed, but her effort generated copious ink.

NBC televised the Hambletonian and the Oaks, and threw its first team into the effort. Personable Tom Hammond, its lead announcer on the Kentucky Derby and Preakness telecasts, hosted the show, working with Gary Seibel of TVG and NBC regulars Donna Brothers, a former jockey, and John Battaglia.

Sirius Satellite radio did a two-hour special available nationwide, and the Meadowlands produced its own seven-hour production viewed at 600 wagering outlets across North America and Europe. TVG’s telecast of the entire day’s racing card was seen on Dish, DirectTV and Cablevision, which together reach 55 million homes.

The upsurge in recognition, however, is only part of the story. The missing part is that the two major horseracing sports, harness and thoroughbred racing, hardly speak, despite the fact that their problems are identical and could be approached far more effectively jointly rather than separately.

There have been a few encouraging signs. The two trade associations of the sports, Harness Tracks of America and the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, have met jointly in recent years, including a Racing Congress last year at Bellagio.

Breed prejudices, however, still exist far more than reason dictates.

The thoroughbreds still like to invoke "the sport of kings" line, while harness racing still is, as Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote, "the sport of the common man."

Before the automobile took over in the early 1900s, a good trotter was the mode of transportation in this country, and very good ones were admired and revered. The first great sports hero of the 20th century, as a matter of fact, was not a man but a harness horse, the legendary pacer Dan Patch, which drew crowds of tens of thousands as he traveled the nation in his own private railroad car. More than that, he had a railroad named for him, along with washing machines, chewing tobacco and sundry other items of daily use, including countless babies named Dan.

Doctors and grocers and icemen and the commerce and trade of small town America in the 1800s used trotters for transportation. In 1940 a Long Island lawyer named George Morton Levy introduced the sport under lights at Roosevelt Racway. It grew slowly during World War II, then burst into prominence afterwards with huge success in New York and other major metropolitan cities.

While ontrack attendance fell sharply with the introduction of offtrack betting, simulcasting, and rebate shops, the amount bet held firm and grew. Today 87% of all horse race betting in America is done through simulcasting, and rebate shops have hurt racing — harness and thoroughbred — badly.

Last week Churchill Downs and Magna Entertainment, through their TrackNet Media Group, announced that shops receiving their many major track signals could grant rebates only to bettors wagering $1 million or more a year.

Interesting that while there are movements worldwide to save whales, whales of the Vegas breed now help horses that race for a living.