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Tuesday, July 30, 2013
Only tough horses need apply

By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com

Thoroughbred fans who have grown tired of pampered horses that start once every two months and five times a year might want to turn their attention to Saturday's Hambletonian at the Meadowlands. In order to win the most prestigious event in American trotting a horse will have to race twice on the same day, and several of the competitors raced a week prior in prep events. On top of that, no one gets to go around the racetrack with the most popular crutch in the business. Lasix is not allowed.

Harness racing has one thing the thoroughbred sport could definitely use -- horses that aren't as soft as cotton candy.

Thoroughbred fans tend to look down on harness racing and its horses, derided as jugheads. It's true that harness racing has even less mass appeal than the thoroughbred game and will never, ever be called the Sport of Kings. It's a blue-collar sport, with slower, less majestic animals. Aside from the Meadowlands, the betting pools are anemic.

But harness racing has one thing the thoroughbred sport could definitely use -- horses that aren't as soft as cotton candy.

The Meadowlands and the Hambletonian Society took a risk this year and restored the race to the heat format, which was shelved after the 1997 edition. From 1998 to 2012 there were elimination races the week earlier, with the top finishers advancing to the final. This year, the field will be pared down a few hours before the final. After the heats, 10 horses will be left standing and the winner of the final will be the Hambletonian winner. It wasn't necessarily a popular move because a lot of harness trainers are starting to think like their thoroughbred brethren, adopting a less-is-more, kid gloves approach. But race officials wanted to go back to the race's roots.

The Hambletonian is strong enough to survive a little grumbling from owners and trainers. That includes any beefs about Lasix. It is allowed in the sport and widely used, but it is banned in the Hambletonian. (Wouldn't it be nice if the thoroughbred Triple Crown races did the same thing?)

The Hambletonian is by far the most prestigious trotting event in the sport and it's more or less harness racing's version of the Kentucky Derby. Everyone wants to win it. So the return to heats scared off no one, with the lone exception of the connections of the filly Bee A Magician. The number 1 three-year-old trotting filly in the sport will go in the Hambletonian Oaks, which does not use the heat format.

At the start of the year it appeared that Wheeling N Dealin would go into the Hambletonian as a clear favorite. He was 9 for 9 last year and won the Breeders Crown. But he lost his first two starts of the year, which blew the Hambo picture wide open. Just about anyone could win the race and racing luck might play a big role in the outcome.

In thoroughbreds, the top horses almost never come together, unless it's the Kentucky Derby or the Breeders' Cup.

For a struggling sport, Hambletonian Day is one of the few days during the year where everyone can smile. The race attracts the second biggest crowd of any harness race during the year, trailing only the Little Brown Jug in Delaware, Ohio. The betting handle will be in the neighborhood of $8 million, a terrible day for a Saratoga Saturday but a great day for harness racing. And a nice chunk of that total will come in from Europe. It's the only harness race on national TV. CBS Sports Network will cover it this year.

In thoroughbreds, the top horses almost never come together, unless it's the Kentucky Derby or the Breeders' Cup. They race infrequently and there are so many big races out there that they all scatter. The idea isn't to challenge the horse or prove their greatness, but to find the easiest, richest spot possible. Everyone wants to be 1-5 in a four-horse race, which isn't hard to find. That doesn't happen in harness racing.

The standardbreds are a traveling road show. The top horses race against each other week after week, with hardly anyone ducking anyone else. That's another attractive aspect of the sport.

There'll be a lot to like Saturday in thoroughbred racing as the sport's two brightest jewels, Del Mar and Saratoga, will offer rich, noteworthy races. But you don't have to miss them to watch the Hambletonian, which goes off earlier in the day. It should be a good show. It always is.