The heats are back in the $1.2 million Hambletonian.
With a nod to history and tradition, the Hambletonian Society and the Meadowlands Racetrack have revised the format for the world-renowned trotting classic for three-year-olds on Aug. 3.
For the first time since 1996, the elimination heats and the final will be contested on the same afternoon. In recent years, the eliminations were held one week before the final.
Returning to its roots, the Hambletonian will again be a one-day spectacular—with a major difference. Unlike other harness races contested in heats, the winner does not have to win twice on the same day. The winner of the final is the Hambletonian champion.
"One of the traits that separate the Standardbred from the Thoroughbred is the durability of the Standardbred,” said Jeff Gural, chairman of The Meadowlands Racetrack. “That these horses are able to compete against the best competition in the world, twice on the same day, speaks volumes as to how special these equine athletes are. The Hambletonian has an unparalleled history and part of that history is racing this American trotting classic in a heat format. It makes the race more exciting and more dramatic, especially for those watching live, on-track. We are very pleased to help bring The Hambletonian back to its roots in 2013."
Elimination heats, if necessary, will reduce the field for the $1 million final to 10.
"It is truly a spectacle like no other in sports,” emphasized Tom Charters, president and CEO of the Hambletonian Society which owns and administers the race. “The return to the heat format for the Hambletonian was motivated by the desire of both the Hambletonian Society and Meadowlands to provide the most exciting fan experience in horse racing. Regardless of how many trotters are entered -- in a single afternoon -- we can pare down to the championship field that determines the winner of harness racing's most coveted trophy. And now with the 21st century evolution in communication and technology, we can maximize the wagering opportunity for our customers on-track, across North America and internationally, which wasn't possible a decade or two ago."
The drama starts Tuesday when the Hambletonian entries close and the fields for the elimination heats are drawn.
If 13 or fewer horses enter, there will be a single dash for the Hambletonian with no eliminations with a maximum of three horses in the second tier as trailers behind the 10 lined up directly behind the mobile starting gate.
If the entrant count is 14 to 20, the field will be split into two elimination heats with the top five finishers in each returning later that afternoon for the final.
If 21 to 30 are entered, there will be three eliminations. In that instance, the top three finishers in each elimination advance to the final, along with the fourth-place finisher with the highest lifetime earnings.
And they must race drug free. The rules stipulate that Hambletonian contenders not receive “any medication and/or substance foreign to the natural horse on the day of the race.” That includes Lasix, widely used to treat respiratory bleeding in racehorses.
The Hambletonian will be carried live on the CBS Sports Network in a 90-minute telecast starting at 3:30 p.m. Eastern. Post time for the live card at The Meadowlands will be noon.
The Hambletonian Society and The Meadowlands have also reached an agreement to keep the race here for three additional years, extending the contract through 2018. The Meadowlands has been home to the Hambletonian since 1981.
"The extension of the current contact with the Meadowlands to keep the $1.2 million Hambletonian through 2018 is a tremendous benefit to all parties in the Standardbred industry, providing a needed continuity and signaling long-term optimism for future of the sport in New Jersey and across North America,” said Charters.
“The Hambletonian Society is pleased to continue our partnership with the New Meadowlands Racetrack, much like the one we had with the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority since 1981, and will strive to maintain and enhance the profile of the Hambletonian as trotting's greatest event. We appreciate the support of Jeff Gural and his management team and look to a long and prosperous relationship that includes the $600,000 Hambletonian Oaks and the new $400,000 Hambletonian Maturity for 2014.”
This will be the final Hambletonian raced before the original grandstand. The New Meadowlands Racetrack, currently under construction, opens on Nov. 23 along what is now the backstretch.
"The Hambletonian is the greatest harness race in the world and The Meadowlands is the home of the world's greatest harness racing,” Gural said. “The relationship between the two is perfect. We are so proud to be able to extend The Hambletonian through the year 2018 as it has found its home in East Rutherford, New Jersey. We have made many necessary changes to provide our customers with a better product at The Meadowlands, but one thing will not change: The Meadowlands is home to The Hambletonian for many years to come."
Fans can follow all the action at meadowlandsracetrack.com and on Twitter at #Hambo13.