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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

High Hopes for Yonkers Races for French Audience

The Head Chef and I were at Yonkers Raceway on Saturday night, and many, many thanks to the Standardbred Owners Association of New York for graciously hosting us.  Had a great time, a nice meal (yes, the Head Chef approved), and met a lot of really nice folks, including SOA of NY President Joe Faraldo, who, I learned, is actually NOT the Joe Faraldo who I used to see drive at Roosevelt and Yonkers!  That was his cousin.  I never knew that, and apparently, neither does/did a lot of other people.  I'll put that in the "you learn something new every day" category.

I have been to the Yonk a few times since its transformation to the Empire City Casino, but this was easily the biggest racing crowd I've seen there.  It was a "big night," with several stakes for 3YOs, including the prestigious Yonkers Trot and Messenger Stakes.  The card was highlighted by the $250,000 International Trot Preview, a precursor for the return of the International Trot next year.  As you may know, the International was run for many years at Roosevelt (1959-88), and routinely drew crowds of 40-50,000 plus before the OTB era began.  It was moved to Yonkers for a few years when the Big Wheel closed, but hasn't been conducted since 1995.

But the Trot Preview had a more immediate purpose, as a lead-in for a series of six Sunday morning/afternoon cards (1st post 11AM) to be run at Yonkers, starting on Nov 9, with the express purpose of having five races simulcast to France, where bettors will wager on the races through PMU, the French wagering authority.  The series is a result of an initiative by SOA of NY to drive handle....and not their first foray overseas; they have been successfully exporting signals to Australia and New Zealand, creating some $150-$250K in additional handle per card for the track.  The horsemen and track management do not always see eye-to-eye, but this is a cooperative effort between them, along with the Gaming Commission.  In fact, Yonkers President Tim Rooney Sr. accompanied Faraldo and SOA-NY Executive Director Alex Dadoyan to Paris to sign the agreement

Though the pools will not be commingled, Yonkers will get a percentage of the overseas action.  And that action is expected to be rather substantial.  “They have the second largest pari-mutuel pool in the world behind Japan,” Dadoyan told DRF Harness' Jay Bergman over the summer.  Indeed, Dadoyan, who worked with PMU on Hambletonian simulcasts when he worked at the Meadowlands, was informed by his French counterparts that they are expecting total handle for the five races to be around one million Euros.  That comes to some 250,000 US dollars a race on average with today's exchange rate.  That's a pretty staggering sum, considering that on Saturday night, the horsemen were thrilled to see the total handle on the card exceed $1 million ($1,105,936,  for an average of around $85,000 per race).

So man, they sure do like their harness racing in France!  (And in the countries to which PMU transmits the signal as well, which includes Germany and Austria.)  I'd think that U.S. harness racing is a better fit for European customers than our thoroughbred racing given the different surfaces and culture of the latter sport here.  And it helps that, unlike here, PMU only takes two racecards at a time. 

In order to make the races better appeal to the French audience, the Yonkers races will all be trots, have overflow fields of 12 (four starting from the second tier, though a 6 and 6 arrangement was considered), and be contested at a mile and a quarter; that as opposed to the usual one mile distance which is the standard.  Races at half mile tracks such as Yonkers can tend to be formulaic, but the mile and a quarter distance can make things a lot more interesting, as it did for the Trot Preview on Saturday night.

As Jay Bergman noted in his fine piece on the race, had the race been run at a mile (and conveniently ignoring the fact that the strategies employed by the drivers would have been different), chances are good that the two frontrunners would have duked it out to the end.  The extra distance allowed Natural Herbie to come on and win despite being parked without cover from the half-mile mark, and after being counted out by track announcer John Hernan, who noted at around the 3/4's mark that the 4YO Ohio-bred was "starting to unravel."  It was quite an impressive performance.  Harness Racing Update reports that Natural Herbie, not staked to the Breeders Crown, is done for the year and will rest up for 2015, when he presumably and hopefully will appear in the International Trot.

Runner-up Commander Crowe is an 11 yo Swedish trotter, with 60 wins from 107 career starts and lifetime earnings of some $4.75 million, whose owner shipped him here, I was told, simply to try and avenge past defeats to Sebastian K (who unfortunately broke trying to get to the top in his first try on a half-mile track).  He looked absolutely spectacular on the track in his first U.S. appearance; an amazing equine specimen.

So, with full fields and that extra distance, there certainly should be some interesting Sunday morning racing going on.  If the program proves successful, the next step would be to try and commingle the pools. While Yonkers will benefit from its percentage of the overseas handle, they're not expecting too much from the domestic betting on NFL Sunday mornings (though what else are you doing at 11 AM?).  But if the pools were combined and the French handle numbers live up to expectations, then it would give harness players here a rare chance to bet into pools that are not only far bigger than what they normally encounter, but swelled with money from French punters who are sitting in PMU shops early on a Sunday evening drinking red wine and betting vast sums of money on foreign horses, drivers and trainers whom they know little about.  Ooo la la!  Now that could be worth skipping tailgating for!


Figless said...

Well with the Jets season being what it is I certainly plan to attend at least one of these.

Figless said...

I've noticed French Harness racing at times on NYRA mornings, seems like a decent crowd when they show the stands.

El Angelo said...

Yes to harness racing, no to the Breeders Cup. You're really trying to make this a niche blog.