Although driver Jordan Stratton had a career-best season in 2017, pulling in just over $9 million in purses, making 394 trips to the winner’s circle, and finishing second in the Yonkers driver’s standings for the first time in his career, you probably didn’t read about it in the headlines. The 30-year-old reinsman prefers it that way. He’d rather see the recognition go to the equine athletes who do the hard work. "Drivers get too much credit as it is," said Stratton.
Although Stratton quickly points out his luck could change tomorrow or that he could make a mistake in his very next drive that will leave bettors cursing his name, for now, he remains the one to beat. He’s sat behind 32 winners in his first 125 drives of the 2018 racing season at Yonkers, putting him atop the driver’s standings. His quick start to the year comes amidst the removal of the passing lane at Yonkers and double-digit handle increases.
Stratton took the time to discuss driving with the new track configuration, his personal milestones, and his goals for the future.
BV: The 2017 racing season closed with the passing lane in mid-December. This year, you opened without the passing lane. Were you expecting this to happen so quickly?
JS: It’s been thrown around a lot for about six or seven months. It’s been in the back of their minds that if racing didn’t improve or if handle didn’t improve, then that was the go-to move that they always threatened and that coincided with the time (Yonkers director of racing) Cammie (Haughton) came along. I’ll be the first to admit, I was always against it. From day one, I was against it. I was completely wrong. I really like it now, I think it’s really improved the product.
BV: Why were you against it initially?
JS: I just thought it would be stale racing, it would be all front-end. Just what I think in my mind of the old days: somebody makes the front and they go really, really slow and the horse first-over comes and they go really, really slow and they lag around the racetrack and the horse on the front and the horse first-over finish one-two. It was just boring racing. It seems like now, guys are being ultra-aggressive. I pulled the two-hole the last week-and-a-half more than I have in the last five years. It’s definitely improved.
BV: You even pulled the pocket at the half last week.
JS: Yeah, a few nights ago, I pulled in front of the grandstand. I ended up winning the race, but before, you would have never even thought about that. You would have just sat in the two-hole. The horse on the front, I could see he was kind of pulling up and not wanting to go on the front, but with the passing lane, I probably would have just rode it out and probably would have gotten beat, I don’t know if that horse would have gotten me to the front. But with no passing lane, it wasn’t an option to just sit in there.
BV: Had you spent much time on tracks without passing lanes before this?
JS: No. I’ve driven at Tioga, which doesn’t have a passing lane, but other than that, no.
BV: What was the learning curve like for you? It seems like you adjusted to it very quickly.
JS: It really didn’t take much because I seem to be first-over a lot more often than not and it works out great for me being first-over because the horses two and three back on the fence don’t have that passing lane where before, if I beat the horse on the lead, I’d get beat by the horse in the passing lane and finish second or third. I like being first-over now, I can kind of control things.
BV: It sounds like the new track configuration is giving a better, or at least a fairer chance, to drivers who are being more aggressive with their horses.
JS: Definitely. That guy sitting third on the fence who thinks he has a shot, he better be pulling or else he’ll be in no man’s land being third or fourth on the fence turning for home.
BV: How do you see this playing out as the year goes on?
JS: We’ve only seen one weekend of the better horses and even some of the better horses are still turned out. The really good Saturday night horses, you can use them two or three times in a mile. I think the no passing lane is great with the cheaper horses because if they get stung to the quarter pole, they’re cooked and that allows horses to come from behind. I’m kind of nervous to see what it does to the better horses who you can string out to a quarter in :27 seconds and they can still sprint home.
BV: The drivers and trainers racing at Yonkers have dealt with a lot of changes over the past few years. French racing, the new finish line, removal of the passing lane. Why do the horsemen here embrace these big changes so willingly?
JS: I think we have some of the best drivers in the country, the best horses in the country, the best purses in the country, and yet, every year we see the handle dwindle and dwindle. You have to just try whatever you’ve got to try. We have a great product and it should be something that the gamblers want to gamble on, but something wasn’t right, something needed to change.
BV: Is the handle something you pay close attention to?
JS: It wasn’t like every night I was checking the handle, but the first thing you would hear from people, the first thing people talked about is how we were giving out all this purse money with no handle. But at the same time, there was no one steering the ship. It was just here’s post time, there’s the product, nobody pulls, nobody wants to change anything, and harness racing is dead, look at the handle, this is the way it is. It was all negative, negative, negative. Not that Cammie was the save all, but luckily, someone is now in that position to steer the ship and make sure we’re not going head to head with other tracks and try to better the product for the gamblers, and I think that’s what we need.
I think making sure we’re not going head to head with other tracks, that’s huge. It’s common sense almost that guys aren’t going to bet on two different tracks going at the same time. I wish in a utopian world, all tracks would work together and go at different times so gamblers would always have a product to bet on and not overflood the market, but that’s easier said than done.
BV: Is there anything else you’d like to see at Yonkers in the future to continue to improve the racing?
JS: I think in the future, a slanted gate might really just be the cherry on top. But right now, I think it’s just a leaps and bounds better product than last year. I think maybe with a slanted gate where you can give the seven and eight the option to leave out of there, that might solve our problem.
BV: The 2017 season was a career year for you in terms of purses. Reflect on that and talk about what last year was like for you.
JS: Pete Tritton, I really have to give a lot of thanks to his whole barn and Bit Of A Legend and all the good horses he put me on. The confidence you get sitting behind those horses, I mean, the rest of the horses are easy. The other trainers and owners see me winning those big races. It’s all perception I think with drivers. If you’re on a bunch of favorites and you’re winning three, four, five a night, all the sudden you’re a good driver. It’s all perception.
BV: Last year we talked early in the season and you said you’d set a goal for yourself to be in the top three in the driver’s standings at Yonkers. You accomplished that. Have you set another goal for yourself this year?
JS: I think it’s kind of the same goal. Ideally, it would be number one, but you’ve got to be happy with progress and not always beating yourself up over a bad night. But I think top three would be an attainable goal and obviously shoot for being number one and be happy with whatever comes.--By Brandon Valvo/SOA New York