By Ernie Palladino
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It’s back to the future for the $1.2 million Hambletonian.
In an effort to throw some added excitement to the world’s greatest trotting event, its organizers have brought back same-day heat racing, which was a Hambletonian staple between 1991 and ‘96. Since then, the final of the 88-year-old classic had been determined by week-long elimination races.
The 23-horse field of three-year-old colts will sort themselves out Saturday at the Meadowlands in three $70,000 heats. The first three finishers in each heat plus the fourth-place finisher with the highest lifetime earnings advance to the 10-horse final.
Moving back to the old way was a logical step, and a function of the evolution of internet immediacy and the wireless devices that carry the information.
Elimination races served their purpose, with their numerous side events and the commensurate hoopla scattered through the week to add interest and exposure. But organizers always felt that nothing beat the thrill of heat racing. The explosion in the late 1980s and early ‘90s of simulcast and off-track betting had made it nearly impossible to distribute the “comeback” sheet after the last heat, since that was done manually, so the Hambletonian was almost required to abandon the heats for the weekly eliminations.
Now that the internet offers immediate updates and information, getting the “comeback” page out has become simple. Bettors — both at the Meadowlands and elsewhere — can have complete, informed choices to wager on in the final immediately after the final heat.
“With the internet and digital options that exist now, wagering possibilities are almost endless — phone, TV, computer, smartphone — you name it,” said Hambletonian Society publicity director Moira Fanning.
Add to that the sheer excitement of heat racing, and it’s no wonder the Meadowlands has reverted to old ways. Heats in one form or another have always been part of the Hambletonian, ever since it became an instant classic in 1926. This year, with top contenders in All Laid Out, Spider Blue Chip, Smilin Eli, E L Rocket, Wheeling N Dealing and Royalty for Life all vying for a major purse, the day should not be in want of thrills.
The horsemen seem just as jacked. Spider Blue Chip trainer Chuck Sylvester, seeking to match the Hambletonian record with his fifth win, won two of his previous trophies in the same-day format and had no qualms about returning to it.
“I like heats,” the Harness Hall of Famer said, adding that the heat format doesn’t truly favor any one kind of horse. “I think what’s most important is how you’ve raced your horse up to the Hambletonian, how many times and how hard. It really depends on the type of horse you have, too — if he’s a good doer and healthy eater. But that applies to whether you’re trying to race them heats or not.”
For the most part, the horses running on Saturday will not have been overtaxed in the prep races. Last Saturday’s times were hardly of a world-record variety, the drivers preferring instead to ask their horses for just enough for a solid finish. With the prospect of running twice within two hours on Hambletonian day, the last thing someone wants is an overworked animal.
Then again, Royalty for Life trainer George Ducharme claimed that the two-race format could work in his horse’s favor. Royalty had a rocky start to the three-year-old season, breaking three times in his first three races before winning the Stanley Dancer Memorial by a head over Spider Blue Chip. Royalty went four-wide through the first turn, but he weathered the extra distance and pulled away from the field. He still had enough to fend off Spider Blue Chip’s charge down the stretch.
Given that, Ducharme maintained, a second (final) heat could prove a calmer experience for Royalty for Life than the opening one.
Still, Sylvester cautioned, don’t put a lot of stock in the Dancer, or the three New Jersey Sire Stakes races Smilin Eli swept en route to a 4-0 record, or any other prep event as predictive tools.
“I don’t think you can use any race we’ve seen because they’ve all been one dash,” Sylvester said. “You may not see the best horse win an elimination heat because they may want to try to conserve some for the final.”
Also expect that no small amount of equipment adjustment can occur between the heats and the final.
“You’ll see some tinkering,” Sylvester said. “They’ll have their blacksmiths there, they won’t be afraid to make changes and it’ll be fun and different.”
Sylvester knows what his goal is. It’s just a matter of managing his horse through the race day.
“I would love to win five,” he said. “I haven’t won since 2002. Some I thought I’d win, and some were surprises. I’ve had a lot of seconds.”
Whoever wins will have to survive two races on the same day. That’s what makes this year’s Hambletonian a wide-open field.
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