I follow harness racing in New Zealand quite a bit and appreciate the love they have for their Standardbreds down there.
They do some things differently and one of them is staking for older horses grouped by age. With a lot of focus here being put on ways to keep our racing stars on the track past their 3-year-old seasons, it might be a good idea to look at a format they use in their year-end championships.
New Zealand has a series similar to the Breeders Crown called “The Harness Jewels”. It’s a $1.2 million total stakes and since its inception it has become a highlight of their harness racing season, held in early June. The Jewels represent the following; diamonds are for fillies and mares, emeralds are for colts and geldings and rubies are for trotters, regardless of sex. These races bring together the best 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds to determine their champions for the year.
Did you notice I said 4-year-olds?
The series that was started in 2007 does not have an Older or Open division; it has a 4-year-old division. And that became so popular that for 2013, they have added a 5-year-old division.
The Harness Racing New Zealand Board explained the objective for doing this is to create additional racing opportunities and incentives for 4- and 5-year-old horses, to allow horses additional years to compete in feature age group races, to provide more competitive and higher quality group racing and to provide increased opportunities for slower maturing horses to compete in age group features, particularly trotters. They also said the change will encourage increased participation and racing of 5-year-old horses, which will benefit field sizes, turnover and overall industry income.
These races carry substantial purses and they pay out to all starters, regardless of where they finish. In a 12-horse race, they pay all the way to 12th. So there is incentive for even fringe horses to qualify and enter. All the paces go for $150,000 and all the trots $100,000. That might not sound like a lot in North America, but in New Zealand it’s pretty good cash. The New Zealand Trotting Cup goes for $750,000 and the Northern Derby and Auckland Cup both offer $250,000.
I just looked at the 2012 Breeders Crown program and in the older divisions found that the 4- and 5-year-olds dominated entry in them. The Open mares trot had six 4-year-olds and one 5-year-old (in a 12-horse field), the Open mares pace had three 4-year-olds and two 5-year-olds (in an 11-horse field), the colt and gelding Open pace had two 4-year-olds and four 5-year-olds (in a 10-horse field) and the colt and gelding Open trot had three 4-year-olds (in a six-horse field).
I wonder how much interest there would be to expand staking in North America to age 4 and 5? I wonder if it would have any substantial impact on keeping our stars on the track longer if they knew they would be facing the same group of horses they had previously for good money? And finally it would be interesting to see how the betting public would respond to seeing certain rivalries continue for a couple extra years.
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