I have seen the future of harness racing, and it is bleak. It is also largely self-inflicted. As a friend of mine once said about her consistently bad choices in men, "Stupid and unlucky is not a felicitous combination."
Consider the Cane Pace, the first leg of pacing's Triple Crown, in August at Yonkers (N.Y.) Raceway, the Shelley Winters of harness racing ovals. Once the queen of its sport, the track has fallen on hard times. Purses are down, handle is down, attendance is way down, and nobody seems to care or even notice. The New York media barely acknowledge the existence of harness racing, except in an occasional column comparing it, often unfavorably, to the wrestling twins, pro and arm.
The Cane Pace itself was down. Though not so long ago it was considered the third most important harness race, after the Hambletonian and the Little Brown Jug, by this year the Cane Pace had slipped so far in status that only one quality 3-year-old pacer was entered. Western Dreamer was so clearly the class of the field that he figured to go off at odds of 1-10, rendering the race unbettable and void of drama. Moreover, Yonkers management, resorting to the kind of graceless maneuver for which it is justly celebrated, had picked precisely this moment to announce that, thanks to the failure of New York State to grant some sort of legislative relief in the form of slot machines or a tax break or a larger share of simulcasting revenues or something, this would be the last Cane Pace the track would host. A rather shabby state of affairs, since the Cane is named after William Cane, who in 1950 spearheaded the modern Yonkers Raceway.
Still, if history has taught us anything, it is that while few bother to attend harness races, those few cannot be kept away with a stick. So despite the inhospitable conditions, 1,565 improvers of the breed showed up in search of harness racing's Holy Grail: the life-changing bet. Just as well, for had the track been shuttered and these rapscallions forced to roam the streets this balmy Friday evening, looking for other forms of entertainment, they might well have frightened the children and womenfolk. I have my own theory about Yonkers: It was the linchpin of the state's plan to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill. To prove to the voters its commitment to fiscal responsibility, about 20 years ago the state decided to close down its mental institutions, and it dropped off the inhabitants at the entrance to Yonkers, handed each a brand new $20 bill and said, "This is all the help we will ever provide you. If you need further assistance, we suggest you hit the double." And here many remain to this day.
User-friendly Yonkers Raceway is not, even under the best of circumstances. As attendance steadily declined, beginning in the late 1970s, various sections of the track were closed: first the upper betting level, then the indoor betting area on the second floor, then most of the grandstand seats, then about half of the lower level and finally a tiny indoor area well-loved for seats and benches that were almost functional. Then, last fall, the entire grandstand was razed to make way for a large patch of concrete, and the third and fourth levels of the clubhouse were virtually shuttered, though the track does open those sections occasionally for a big simulcasting day, like the Breeders' Cup or the Kentucky Derby. The thinking seems to be that no matter how few bettors attend the races, they must never have enough room to be comfortable. Or to sit down.
On the occasion of the soon-to-be-lamented Cane Pace, Yonkers offered a special treat: the simulcasting of two stakes races as part of the American Championship Harness Series, the latest benighted attempt to gain harness racing some much-needed national television coverage. The ACHS is scheduled for weekends throughout the late spring into the fall, but not all of them; is usually telecast on Friday night, but not always; is shown at 10 or 10:30 p.m., but not always; is live, but not.... Well, you get the idea.
On this particular evening, in addition to the Cane, the ACHS was featuring the Des Smith Classic from Rideau Carleton in Gloucester, Ont., and the Hoosier Cup from Hoosier Park in Anderson, Ind. It is indicative of the sorry state of the sport that the Hoosier Cup, which was being held at a track most fans at Yonkers had never heard of, had attracted six or seven top-level 3-year-olds, as opposed to the Cane's one, and was offering a larger purse than the Cane. Predictably there were a few snafus with the simulcast. First, the Des Smith was broadcast to Yonkers with a fuzzy picture, no sound and no indication of what any horse was doing at any moment of the race. The Hoosier Cup, though it appeared on the Yonkers program, was almost impossible to bet on at Yonkers. Of course, I didn't realize this when I invested $35—or so I thought—on exactas involving Perfect Art, who looked like a lively 7-1 shot. As I watched Perfect Art sweep to victory on the TV monitors, a guy standing next to me said, "Hey, was it possible to bet on this race?"
"Sure," I said.
He shrugged. "Gee," he said, "when I tried to bet the race, none of the tellers could figure out how to do it."
As soon as he walked away, I looked at my tickets, and sure enough, the teller had placed my bet on the 11th race at Yonkers, which hadn't been run yet. When I got my money back, it was as close as I would get all night to cashing a winning ticket.