Hambletonian Day at The Meadowlands, showcasing the finest in Grand Circuit harness racing, was a resounding success by any standard. More than $3.5 million in purses was distributed over 16 races filled with the best our sport has to offer, and some fantastic back stories made for a very memorable day.
The crowd, reported at more than 15,000, grew as the day wore on and by post time for the Hambletonian at 6:40 p.m., had become quite large. It was a welcome sight, as post COVID normal evolves, and it felt like an event.
The handle on the day was through the roof. After a steady diet over the past decade of $5 million to $6.5 million days, Saturday’s return was $7,656,076 before the European handle is added. That figure is up substantially from last year’s total of $6,487,839, and up almost $2 million from the 2020 (COVID compromised) handle of $5,730,615. There is an excellent chance the grand total will reach more than $9 million once the European figures are included, a barrier broken only once in Hambo history, when wagering in 2005 (North American and foreign) totalled $9,015,019.
Handle on the Hambletonian itself was just shy of $1 million, the Oaks handle was $855,337, up 56 per cent from $486,589 a year ago.
The social media coverage was well beyond any previous efforts. The writers painted pictures with their words that were supported with countless actual photos of the action and distributed immediately post-race. There was a myriad of interviews made available in real time and race repays were posted moments after the finish. The beauty of the social media platforms is that those moments are shared immediately and remain available to anyone who might wish to see what they missed.
The television coverage of the day’s races, particularly the feature, was well beyond anything seen previously for The Meadowlands. The Meadowlands' live feed with its professional and popular hosts was broadcast full card on YouTube and Facebook along with the normal simulcast signal. That was supported by four hours of live Facebook streaming by the Central Standardbred Owners Association. TVG had a presence with analyst Dave Weaver on site all day and an hour-long CBS Sports retrospective was recorded that will be broadcast on Sunday, Aug. 21 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.
Most notably was the coverage available on Fox Sports channels, the culmination of a continuing effort by Meadowlands management -- Jeff Gural and Jason Settlemoir -- to get harness racing on TV. That vision has come to fruition with the timely launch of NYRA’s “America’s Day At The Races,” which is carried on the Fox Sports Network each day that there is live Thoroughbred racing at a NYRA track.
The show has cultivated a loyal Thoroughbred audience over the past few seasons and through the relationships enjoyed by Gural with those on the NYRA Board, the idea to have the top Meadowlands stakes televised became reality in 2022.
"The combination of great racing and being in front of a national television audience on FS2 and FS1 with our partners at NYRA created exactly what Mr. Gural and I have been firm believers of for a long time," said Settlemoir. "TV is a must and creates fans of the sport. It’s unbelievable to me that the industry gets all this purse subsidy money but none or very little is used for marketing.
"When I saw the Oaks and Hambletonian total handle for each individual race, it made me smile. Jeff and I gave each other a high five, as we knew our efforts with TV were paying dividends for not only the Meadowlands and the Hambletonian, but the entire sport."
Fortune smiled when Hambletonian Day landed it on the same day as the Whitney Stakes, a highlight of the Saratoga meet. Fox Sports 1 scheduled a stand-alone Whitney Stakes hour from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. and the Hambletonian was scheduled at a later post time to take advantage of that opportunity. That resulted in millions of eyes that were tuned in to watch a major Thoroughbred stakes at the major summer venue being exposed to harness racing’s biggest event and all its pageantry.
The Meadowlands along with the SBOA of NJ, and for Saturday, the Hambletonian Society, have borne the cost of having the races carried on Fox Sports on six occasions in 2022. The five earlier broadcasts, including Meadowlands Pace night, proved to be an effective lead-in, building familiarity with The Meadowlands and harness racing to those fans tuned in to watch the runners.
NYRA host Anthony Stabile had something of a harness background and his knowledge and enthusiasm provided the important link of a face that the Saratoga audience is familiar with to segue into the Meadowlands coverage by media personalities Jessica Otten and Gabe Prewitt, who presented the races in an informed and modern fashion.
Jeff Gural has long extolled the virtues of targeted marketing, suggested a national effort to direct a small percentage of the ancillary revenue used for purses for this purpose. It has fallen on deaf ears.
“Today’s racing proved that we have a great product, but without the TV exposure no one knows we exist. Let’s hope that this gets the ball rolling before it’s too late," was Gural's observation on the day.
(With files from Meadowlands)