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Palladino: The Hambletonian Helps Keep Harness Racing Alive

(credit: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

(credit: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

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By Ernie Palladino
» More Ernie Palladino Columns

Two years ago, harness racing nearly became extinct in this area.

With Empire Raceway and Casino in Yonkers doing more business on its video slots than live racing, and Gov. Chris Christie moving to ban all racing, harness and otherwise, from New Jersey, there seemed little hope for this little sport to relive its glory days of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.

But the sport, while not necessarily thriving today, is at least hanging on. And its premier event for three-year-olds, The 87th Hambletonian, goes off Saturday with its $1.5 million purse and an uncommonly deep 10-horse field.

Uncle Peter, winner of his last three races including the Hambletonian eliminator, is the favorite at 5-2. But other hopefuls like Market Share (4-1), Knows Nothing (7-2), Archangel (9-2) and Gucci (8-1) could each put up a big challenge to the Ron Pierce-driven favorite’s bid to join Muscle Massive and Malabar Man as trainer Jimmy Takter’s third Hambletonian winner. Muscle Massive won his in 2009, and Malabar Man won his in 1997.

He’s actually rooting for another of his horses, for good reason. He’ll be driving Guccio in hopes of winning his first Hambletonian as a driver.

A crowd of about 25,000 is expected at the Meadowlands, and that brings us to the point of all this. Can harness racing survive in an area in which the sports entertainment dollar is spread among 10 professional teams and a healthy thoroughbred culture?

“I would say it’s held its own very well,” said Hambletonian spokeswoman Moira Fanning.

One might disagree with her on that. The Belmont Stakes, for instance, drew 85,811 despite the dropout of Triple Crown contender I’ll Have Another. That crowd, a Belmont record for a non-Triple Crown day, bet $13,777,920 over the 13-race card, the second-highest Belmont Stakes day handle in history.

Kind of makes the Hambletonian and its expected $8 million handle look puny, right?

But Fanning warned that such comparisons are really apples and oranges. According to her, harness racing is in no danger of death, though a little resuscitation wouldn’t hurt.

“I don’t think harness racing will disappear from the area given the 30-year program at The Meadowlands that has built harness racing into an extremely important economic and agricultural force in New Jersey,” Fanning said. “I think harness racing has struggled to adapt in a changing sports and gambling world.

“The way people bet and view races has changed dramatically, even in the last 10 years. Now you can bet on a computer, phone, while watching races on TV, at off-track facilities and at racetracks. Plus, lotteries and casinos have proliferated while racing has remained static because of the expense of maintaining a racetrack and a stable full of horses to populate it.”

None of that has cut down on the excitement of the only harness race that will be broadcast coast-to-coast, not coincidentally by CBS. Stories like Archangel trainer Peter Arrigenna of Rochester generated a bit of interest, considering he’s waited 20 years for a horse worthy of a Hambletonian spot.

“There are a lot of people that read the story and have come over to the barn to see the horse,” Arrigenna told the media. “These are people that have never been to the races. It’s great to help promote the sport. There’s nothing better than what’s happening here to promote the harness racing industry.”

There is little doubt that standardbreds, their drivers, and their sulkies, will remain a minor sport both in terms of track attendance and betting dollars. But it’s in no danger of going away, either.

Saturday’s Hambletonian, the crown jewel of harness racing, just helps it along.

Are you a fan of harness racing? Be heard in the comments below…