By Ernie Palladino
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Football training camps are in full swing. Baseball has officially hit the dog days of August. The word “first” doesn’t even figure into the minds of those fans because, well, it’s just too early or the seasons are just too far gone.
That ordinal, though, will loom huge come Saturday as the New Meadowlands Racetrack starter leads an 11-horse Hambletonian field into action. In all the editions of harness racing’s Kentucky Derby, few have involved as many firsts as this 89th running of three-year-old trotters. For instance:
— This is the first time the race will be run in front of the track’s new, $88 million, slimmed-down, glitzed-up grandstand.
— With just 11 horses in the field, this is the first time the $1 million final will be contested without elimination or heat races.
— The 4-5 favorite, Father Patrick, is the first-rated among trainer Jimmy Takter’s three strong entrants, which also include Nuncio and Trixton, the latter of whom will be driven by Takter himself.
Take the last point first. Father Patrick, driven by Yannick Gingras, is 6-for-6 this year, but must face down his stablemate Nuncio, who handed him his first (there’s that ordinal again) and only career loss among 17 outings in a Peter Haughton Memorial stakes elimination race at the Meadowlands last summer. Nuncio will be driven by Hall of Famer John Campbell, whose six Hambletonian victories ranks — wait for it — first all-time.
Father Patrick will have the longest trip, as he drew the 10th and widest post position on a mobile, 10-horse starting gate. But Takter is confident that he’ll be up to the challenge.
“Father Patrick is my strongest horse,” Takter said. “It’s not an ideal post, but this horse is extremely good.”
Not that Takter’s other two entries are chicken salad. His triumvirate of Father Patrick, Trixton (Post 7 at 7-2), and Nuncio (Post 5 at 9-2) stands as a huge reason for scrapping the same-day heats the Hambletonian brought back last year to replace the elimination-race format.
Quite simply, they scared off a lot of other potential entrants. They are clearly the strongest horses in the field, with only Datsyuk and Harper Blue Chip approaching them at 12-1.
Automatic advancement to the final certainly gave the field an energy-saving pass, but it should also spur more betting. In an era where harness racing has struggled with relevance, having just one race could result in more concentrated betting on and off-site. At least that’s what the Hambletonian honchos hope. The 2013 Hambletonian took in nearly $8 million from all sources. That number could go up this year.
“We make more money when it’s only one heat,” track owner and operator Jeff Gural said.
It will help if the attendance figure also rises. The new grandstand, opened in November to rave reviews, will help. Though its 2,200-seat capacity is only one-third the size of the old one, everything has been updated to draw a younger, hipper crowd.
Race day activities include live music by The Nerds, and Kevin Jonas of The Jonas Brothers fame will be signing autographs in The Back Yard between 3:30 and 4:45 p.m. A sports bar, an owner’s club, and luxury boxes have been added to the refurbished three-story structure.
The $5 admission gets fans into the grandstand free, and there is now plenty of room outside the seating area for those who like to remain as mobile as the horses.
“We anticipate a large crowd for the day as always for this race and we have been planning for over a year for this event in our new building,” said Tom Charters, the president and CEO of the Hambletonian Society. “Actually, the outside part of our venue is larger than the old grandstand so hopefully with decent weather we will be able to accommodate more people outside as well.
“We are using every inch of our new facility to make people comfortable in our new grandstand.”
Charters said the decreased seating capacity should still accommodate a crowd expected to be significantly increased from the typical weeknight gathering.
“Our philosophy has always been to build the church for every Sunday not just Easter Sunday, and fortunately in racing we have a few Easter Sundays,” Charters said.
Fortunately for him, this Hambletonian has a number of firsts. That, alone, should make showing up worth the while.
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