by Brett Sturman
This year’s American Harness Racing Secretaries, Inc. (AHRS) reunion ended a week ago in Florida. Held annually, its main convening goal is to coordinate the scheduling of high-stakes races over the coming year, which has become increasingly complex in recent years as the breeding programs of the State continue to develop.
There were a handful of jurisdictions that did not submit their proposed race dates to the USTA before the AHRS meeting, although one of those jurisdictions that did was Delaware. John Hensley is Race and Sports Director at Dover Downs, and one of his many responsibilities that fall under this umbrella is the Race Secretary at the Harness Track based in Dover, DE. Her needs, with respect to stake dates at AHRS, are being met by proxy through the Hambletonian Society and Judy Davis-Wilson, Executive Director of the Delaware Standardbred Breeders Fund (DSBF).
As Hensley said, there are contractual considerations as to why Dover runs when it does, which at the same time lock in their stakes in November and December of each year.
“November can be a tough time because we’re right past the Breeders Crown,” Hensley said. “And the reason we race when we do it in Dover is simply because of the seasonality of the Harrington and Dover facilities with motorsport. It’s an interesting arrangement. Even after the amalgamation of the games company d Money with Twin River, which is now Bally’s, there is a lifetime deal that powers sports owners have control of their facilities from mid-May to mid-October. And of course, the drawbar. is right in the middle of the Monster Mile (Dover International Speedway) motorsport track. Now who knows how things might change in the future. Bruton Smith and Speedway Motorsports just bought Dover Motorsports a few weeks ago, this will therefore be an interesting arrangement in the future.
Having to run the Matron Stakes and Progress Pace in November turned out to be very good for Dover. The stakes continue to attract the highest levels of quality, including last month’s Matron winners such as Bella Bellini, Venerable, Charlie May and Horse of Year nominee, Test Of Faith. Cane Pace winner Rockyroad Hanover took home this year’s Progress Pace the day before Thanksgiving.
“We have been lucky and I hope this will continue,” Hensley said. “We have always received a lot of support from the grown-ups, from those with whom they are not yet ready to quit or from those who do not immediately go into breeding. It’s not a bad time of year and November is not a bad month for us from a weather point of view. We had great weather this year except for our pace of progress, which turned out to be the coldest and windiest night of the year.
Hensley is currently in his fifth season as race secretary, and one of the biggest challenges he sees for any race secretary is a declining horse population.
“The number one topic that everyone is concerned about is the horse population and the number of races we can participate in per day, as well as the size of the field,” Hensley said. I believe Chester announced it, for example, where they’re going with 130 days next year instead of 150. And I have to believe that’s in response to wanting to complete 13 or 14 races a day instead of 10 or 11.
“Now again we’re a bit lucky at Dover because of our season. We are not yet fighting for full lots and we are not fighting to fill 13 or 14 races. We are fortunate to have these issues in November and December. The guys who stay overnight, some of them stay in Rosecroft, some in Chester, but when Chester closes, we’ll take these guys back. And I think we’re all still bouncing off COVID a little bit, so there’s a little bit of that as well. “
The reduction in the number of horses made it more difficult to run competitive races, which Hensley has seen in recent years.
“Five years ago it was a lot easier. Well, what’s the difference? Hensley asked. “I have fewer horses, so I have a smaller sample. The variation is harder. I try to have two or three divisions of the Winners Over and I can’t do it anymore, I barely have two. But you still have the range. And what I mean by that is I have a Jack’s Legend (open handicap winner this week) but I have a Penzance Hanover which did very well on Thursday night, but in a Winners Over it was is probably the 16th or 17th best. So I have some range from top to bottom, but I have a smaller sample to work with, so the variation is greater. And I think that’s what a lot of race secretaries are up against.
Hensley is extremely well versed in sports betting issues, and the subject of fixed odds betting discussed last week in Arizona at the Racing Symposium is very relevant. This is something Hensley will be speaking on at a panel in February and overall he sees it as a clear positive for the racing industry.
“Anything that can spark interest in our sport is a good thing and something we need to do. Something to cross a different demographic in our game, we absolutely have to figure out how to do it, ”Hensley said. “My more pragmatic side will tell you that from an operational and operator point of view the learning curve will be a bit longer than some would say, and I think that was the experience most recently in the New Jersey with Betfair where the swap bets didn’t catch. There are cultural differences when you look at the Ladbrokes and William Hill experiences in the UK. The UK gambling experience has been culturally different from ours, where you have the bookies on the apron, but you also have the tote inside and you shop your prize.
Thanks to his book in Dover, Hensley sees an opportunity. “Our sports betting crowd in Dover is what you think it’s 21-35 year olds and men it’s demographics,” Hensley said. “And they bet on horses, they want action. So if they are standing around the book, we have run into them in horse racing. They understand it, they learn it, and so there is no reason that it cannot happen. This way of betting can be adopted here, there is no reason that it cannot be. It’s just going to be about educating the fan and educating the player.