There may not be a bigger sporting event in the tristate area this weekend then what takes place on Saturday afternoon at the Meadowlands. And no, this isn't the Green & White Scrimmage featuring the Jets at MetLife Stadium. It is the Hambletonian horse race at the racetrack.
Since the first ever Hambletonian was run in 1926, the race has been the premier event on the harness racing calendar. Since it moved to the Meadowlands in 1981, the race has only gotten more prestigious, more firmly established as the top event in harness racing.
In the shadows of the world's largest media market, the Hambo continues to be a red letter day for the sport.
“The race has had a few different venues but for the last 33 years has been at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. They lured it away from the corn fields of the DuQuoin State Fair in Illinois in 1981 and did a tremendous job of raising the profile of the race,” said Moira Fanning, the Director of Operations; Publicity Director at Hambletonian Society. “The purse has been as high as $1.7 million and Hambletonian Day remains the biggest day in harness racing.”
Consistently, the race draws the largest crowd on the Meadowlands racing schedule and is the only harness race to garner mainstream media attention, with past races airing on NBC and the past three years on CBS Sports Network. The attention (and wagering) globally will be huge as well.
Underscoring the magnitude of the day, CBS Sports Network will also air the$500,000 Hambletonian Oaks and for the first time, the $300,000 Cane Pace, the first leg of pacing’s Triple Crown. Not bad for an event that most New Yorkers probably didn't even know was happening (or existed).
Northward of 20,000 fans are expected for the race, essentially packing out the still new grandstand at the racetrack. There's plenty of enthusiasm for the race, including a baseball cap giveaway and live music. There's face painting and pony rides for the kids, who are free to enter with paid admission.
It is the biggest day of the year for the track in a sport that most experts say has fallen on hard times. Fanning disagrees.
“I don't know that horse racing has fallen on hard times as much as contracted. All of horse racing is shrinking because racing used to own a legal gambling monopoly, and now there’s a million and one ways to make a bet on practically anything,” Fanning said. “Politicians have realized that horse racing and breeding is a very important agribusiness in states like NY, Ohio and Pennsylvania and permitted 'Racinos' that partnered with horse racing to offer racing and [video lottery] slots. These facilities benefit racing with higher purses and provide enormous revenue to state coffers.”