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New look for Yonkers qualifiers

June 23, 2017

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Qualifiers at Yonkers Raceway are sporting a new look. Over the past several weeks, the track has expanded the use of the second tier in the morning trials as part of an experiment to improve the quality of racing for both bettors and horsepeople.
Traditionally, qualifiers, like overnights races, feature a maximum of eight starters who each have their nose on the gate. Over the past several weeks, depending on the field size of each qualifier, the trials have sported configurations of four on the gate with two trailers, four on the gate with one trailer, and most recently, three one the gate with three trailers. On Friday, two qualifiers will start with two tiers of four each.
The idea to move the outside starters to the second tier was first floated a few years ago when a group of industry participants from Australia visited Yonkers Raceway. SOA of NY executive director Alex Dadoyan recalled an Australian regulator being surprised that Yonkers holds races in an eight across configuration.
"He said at the small tracks, they do six across and put the rest in the back. They'd go six and four, six and six, or whatever it might be. It sounded weird at first because it wasn't anything that's done in the United States, but the more we thought about it, the more we thought it might be interesting."

Although Yonkers Raceway already utilizes the second tier in French trots that feature 10 and 12 horse fields, successful tests in qualifiers could result in use of the second tier in eight horse fields. The races could sport a six and two configuration or a four and four configuration. The idea could also impact the French trots, which could sport two tiers of five or two tiers of six.

Jordan Stratton, who is second in the driver standings at the Hilltop Oval with 170 victories this year and a member of the SOA of NY Board, offered insight on the experiment, which aims to increase movement early in the mile and mitigate the effects of outside post positions.

"The original idea was to have it with trotters in the 10 or 12 horse fields on French day with the extra distance," he said. "Then, if they had four trailers or six on the gate and six trailers, that there would be more movement early on and there wouldn't be so many lineups. The whole idea is to experiment and maybe it will work, maybe it won't work, but at least we're trying something."

While Stratton is supportive of expanded use of the second tier, he prefers the second tier be used in trotting and longer distance races, citing safety concerns. For example, if a pacer breaks stride at full speed leaving the gate, it is often a much more dangerous situation than if a trotter breaks.

"With a normal eight horse field at the mile marker, when we leave the gate, we're going as fast as we can. But with a mile-and-a-quarter, everyone still has tight lines and you're not really gunning them into the first turn," he explained. "It's a little more conservative and I think with the trotters, it's a little safer. I would say 99 percent of drivers feel safer with the trailers being trotters rather than pacers."

Despite these reservations, Stratton thinks the second tier offers many upsides.

"Four and four would prevent guys taking back off the gate and going nowhere because it's going to be awfully difficult to strangle back to last when you're four high going into the first turn," he said. "If there's a 5/2 or a 1/9 and he's a trailer, it's going to be interesting for him to finally work his way to the front. It would be a lot different than people just taking back and letting the favorite get to the front so easy."

Yonkers Raceway's experiment with expanded use of the second tier comes concurrently with the introduction of the track's new finish line. Dadoyan thinks the initiatives share similar motives to improve racing, but each takes a different approach.

"I think the two things are totally independent," he said. "This finish line move has been something that's been in the works for many years. There was a long process to get it approved, but it's finally approved and in use. I think both ideas work toward the same goal of making more competitive races with more action, more movement or more of a chance for everybody than what was occurring in the past. I think they do that in different ways."

Expanded use of the second tier will stay confined to the morning, at least for now. Regulations from the New York State Gaming Commission currently limit the unique starting configurations to qualifiers. Ultimately, steps down the road could include trials in non-betting races for purse money and finally, in pari-mutuel fields. No timetable has yet been set for implementing these phases.

Although the idea is sure to have its critics, Dadoyan and Stratton are happy the track is willing to try new things to improve the quality of racing for both bettors and horsepeople.

"I think there's going to be downsides to anything that's new," Stratton opined. "But I think the gamblers would appreciate something new, so maybe this will be it." (SOANY)

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