A Bigger And Better Championship Meet

Published: May 1, 2013 03:34 pm EDT

The $1.2 million Hambletonian, the richest prize in harness racing, headlines the 28-day Championship Meet at the Meadowlands Racetrack that begins Friday night.

Now through August 3, the Meadowlands will feature many of the richest and most prestigious stakes in the sport. The Big M serves up the action on Friday and Saturday nights starting at 7:15 p.m. with the exception of an afternoon card on Hambletonian Day, the final program of the meet.

The Meadowlands Pace, the track’s signature race for three-year-olds, tops the biggest night of the Championship Meet on July 13.

While the younger stars of the sport shine during the Championship Meet, the well-established veteran pacers and trotters will share the spotlight as well. They have new targets this year: the TVG Free For All Championship series throughout the meet. The lucrative races will award qualifying points toward the inaugural finals, each worth a guaranteed $500,000, for trotters and pacers on November 30.

The series will also encompass races at other tracks, the Allerage Farms Trot and Pace at the Red Mile on October 6 and the Breeders Crown Open Trot and Pace at Pocono Downs on October 19.

There are nine races for each gait and contenders for the November finals must compete at least five times in the series to qualify. The first of those nine races will take place on Saturday May 11, for both trotters and pacers. The Meadowlands will also extend an invitation to the finals to a leading three-year-old trotter and pacer, giving them an opportunity to step up and face older rivals with a lucrative pot on the line.

The emphasis on older horses advances the goal of Meadowlands Chairman Jeff Gural to keep the sport’s stars racing beyond their three-year-old campaigns.

“It is vital to keep our stars on the racetrack,” said Meadowlands Racetrack Chairman Jeff Gural. “Given that offspring of stallions retired before their four-year-old season are not eligible to race in stakes events at the Meadowlands, we felt it was necessary to formulate a new free for all series, recognizing that our stars will be competing longer. This free for all series will provide the best racing this industry has seen in decades and will go a long way to deciding year-end honours, including Horse of the Year.”

The new series has already sparked positive reaction from horsemen and owners.

“We have seen, especially on the pacing side, massive increases in nominations to the W.R. Haughton and the U.S. Pacing Championship,” said director of racing operations Darin Zoccali. “They have virtually doubled. Those races will be going for more money than they have in some time. All told, the series will be worth about $4 million.”

The Hambletonian, the world-renowned classic for three-year-old trotters, tops the biggest afternoon in harness racing. The stellar card includes the $500,000 Hambletonian Oaks, the companion event for three-year-old trotting fillies; the Peter Haughton Memorial and the Merrie Annabelle for two-year-old trotters; the John Cashman for older trotters, the race formerly known as the Nat Ray; the Lady Liberty for pacing mares; the U.S. Pacing Championship for older pacers and the two top events for New Jersey breds: the New Jersey Classic and Miss New Jersey.

The Meadowlands Pace will also be supported by a standout card that includes the Stanley Dancer Memorial, the last major prep at the Meadowlands for Hambletonian contenders. The enhanced stakes lineup on 'Pace' night also features the W. R. Haughton Memorial for Free-For-All pacers, four New Jersey Sires Stakes championships for two-year-olds and a pair of stakes for three-year-old fillies: the Mistletoe Shalee for pacers and the Del Miller Memorial for trotters.

“We must have a Championship Meet that lives up to its name,” said general manager Jason Settlemoir. “While the summer months at the Meadowlands always offers some of the best racing of the year, 2013 provides much more than that. A revamped Meadowlands Pace Night, choc-full of stakes races, a loaded Hambletonian Day program, the brand new Free For All Series and Meadowlands Maturity all will contribute to a lightning fast-paced stakes season this year at the Meadowlands.”

On a nostalgic note, this will be the final meet in the current Meadowlands grandstand. The track, which raised harness racing to unprecedented heights when it opened in 1976, will be replaced by a gleaming new facility currently under construction along the backstretch.

Opening night for the new era at the New Meadowlands will be November 23.

(Meadowlands Racetrack)

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