Hambletonian, a slice of Americana

They call thoroughbred racing the "Sport of Kings." Then what is harness racing? The "Sport of Joe Sixpack?" And I mean that as a compliment.

About the same time that the rich and beautiful will be assembling in classy Saratoga for a rich thoroughbred race named after a Whitney, people who prefer beer to champagne and corndogs to caviar will gather at the gritty Meadowlands for an even richer race.

Saratoga and the Hambletonian, there's something to be said for both.

Even when the race moved to the Meadowlands and the big city it didn't try to be something that it's not.

Only a fool or the worst kind of cynic could dislike Saratoga, but sometimes we need to shed the Brooks Brothers outfit for jeans and a t-shirt, forget about dining at Siro's and make a post-races reservation at Applebee's and enjoy some down-home fun. That's the $1.5 million Hambletonian, named for a horse whose sire once sold to a fish peddler for $5.

Harness racing's roots go back to rural America and county fairs and the sport has never lost that spirit. Today, one of it's greatest races, the Little Brown Jug, is still conducted at a county fair in Ohio and the Hambletonian itself was still being held at the DuQoin Fair in Illinois as late as 1980.

Even when the race moved to the Meadowlands and the big city it didn't try to be something that it's not. Hambletonian Week kicked off with a corn-eating contest and the festivities at the Meadowlands Saturday will include carnival rides and an appearance by a band called the Amish Outlaws. The drivers will take time out from their day to sign autographs for fans.

But the real show is the race itself. Like the Kentucky Derby, it's the one event in harness racing that everyone wants to win.

"It's just a feeling you just can't explain," said driver Mike Lachance. "I was fortunate enough to win the Hambletonian four times and I won the Little Brown Jug five times. For some reason, the Hambletonian stays with you for a long, long time. The Jug is a great race but after a week or two it's gone and you're looking forward to something else. The Hambletonian stays with you the entire year. It's a very, very special thrill."

Lachance, 61, will drive My MVP. One of the owners is John Fodera, who is a high school principal in Staten Island. Like most harness owners, he looks like he belongs on a bowling team. Peter Arrigenna, the co-owner and trainer of Hambletonian starter Archangel, is from little Piffard, New York and, even though he's been in the business for some 30 years, he had never so much as been to the Meadowlands until he came there last week to race in the Hambletonian eliminations.

That's not to say that there aren't plenty of wealthy owners in harness racing, but you don't have to be among the 1 percent to have a shot in this game. Though purses at the highest levels of harness racing are fairly comparable to those in thoroughbred racing, horses usually go for a comparable pittance at the yearling sales. On the Saturday card at Saratoga alone, there are five horses that sold for $450,000 or more. In entire history of harness racing, only 10 have sold for that much or more. The most expensive horse in the Hambletonian sold for $120,000, the price paid for Archangel and Prestidigitator. Harness people are proud of the fact that theirs is a game where the owner actually has a fighting chance of making money.

The most expensive horse in the Hambletonian sold for $120,000, the price paid for Archangel and Prestidigitator.

Even the horses are tougher. Next year, Hambletonian starters will have to race in the elimination and the final, all on the same day. This year's winner will likely be back in action two weeks later for the Colonial at Chester. The Whitney winner might run back before the Breeders' Cup on November 3. Then again, he might not.

Harness racing has plenty of problems, none bigger than the fact that the betting handles at most tracks are pitiful, meaning the sport is being kept alive by slot machine revenues, slot machine revenues that could be pulled at any time. Even the Meadowlands, the premier track in the sport, came back from what seemed like certain death when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie tried to close the place.

For one day, though, the gloom and doom will disappear and everyone who is a part of the sport as an owner, trainer, driver, fan or bettor will bask in an afternoon of racing at its best. There is nothing quite like the Hambletonian.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at wnfinley@aol.com.