Friday, January 5, 2024

When you’re the No. 1 track in the entire sport, you figure to have your share of good things happen during the course of 12 months, but 2023 was exceptional on all fronts, even when one considers the high expectations that exist at The Meadowlands.

Handle numbers at the mile oval set records.

First of all, there were 60 race cards where betting exceeded the $3-million plateau, meaning that two-thirds of the time, action went past that lofty level.

Also, after $3,435,939 was bet on the 14-race program during Saturday’s (Dec. 30) 2023 finale, it pushed the grand total for the year to $274,765,520 wagered on Meadowlands’ races over the 89 programs that were contested at the mile oval during the year, establishing a “Jeff Gural-Jason Settlemoir”-era record average nightly handle of $3,087,253, eclipsing the previous best of $3.00 million, which was established in 2021.

Gural took over The Big M in December of 2011.

“Our fans are the greatest,” said Settlemoir, the track’s chief operating officer and general manager. “The average handle of over $3-million was the highest it’s been here in decades. Our sincere thanks go out to Gov. [Phil] Murphy and the State Legislature of New Jersey for always going to bat for the racing industry.

“The horse people that support New Jersey racing, the Grand Circuit and Hambletonian Society, our employees and state employees. We appreciate everyone who played a role in our success during 2023.”

Then Settlemoir paid tribute to a pair of late Meadowlands’ favorites. “And I’d like to give a special shoutout to the heavens to Sam McKee and Dave Brower. Two super-talented guys who we lost way too soon. None of this happens without you.”

THE STARS CAME OUT: There were three can’t-miss nights of racing at The Big M during 2023, and the horses – as well as the fans – delivered.

First was July 15, Meadowlands Pace Night, when Confederate powered clear of his foes in 1:47 in the $668,000 Meadowlands Pace, giving trainer Brett Pelling his record fifth Pace win. Driver Tim Tetrick ran his Pace win total to six, just one behind all-time leader John Campbell.

Handle on the card was $5.6 million, the most wagered on Pace Night since 2006.

Hambletonian Day, Aug. 5, saw Tactical Approach take the $1-million Hambletonian by navigating the short route up the pylons in 1:50.3 for driver Scott Zeron and trainer Nancy Takter. For Zeron, his partnership with Tactical Approach had much to do with his winning the Dan Patch Driver of the Year Award. He has now driven the winners of three Hambletonians.

Betting on the program totaled $7.8 million, up by $150,000 over the year prior, and was by far the single-card best in the sport during 2023.

Finally, Fall Final Four/FanDuel Championships Night (Nov. 25) saw a dazzling performance by Dan Patch 2-year-old male trotter of the year Karl in the $423,000 Valley Victory for Gingras and Takter in 1:52.1.

The total action of $3.6 million established a new high for FF4/FDC Night.

GINGRAS TOP DRIVER, BURKE TOP TRAINER: It will come as a surprise to no Meadowlands follower that Yannick Gingras and Ron Burke topped the driver and trainer standings, respectively, at the mile oval during 2023.

Gingras led the pilots with 123 victories and was tops in earnings as well, with $3.2 million. His win percentage of 20.6 was the highest in the colony of those who won at least seven races, a list that is 33 names long.

Dave Miller was second with 111 wins and $3.1 million in earnings.

A 44-year-old native of Quebec, Gingras also led all North American drivers in the overall earnings race with $15.1 million.

Burke led the way in the trainer standings with 112 wins and $2.9 million in earnings.

Tony Alagna was second in wins with 43, while Ake Svanstedt was the runner-up in money with $2.15 million.

Overall, during 2023, Burke, a 44-year-old Pennsylvanian, once again stood at the top of heap from a national trainer perspective with 1,158 wins, 5,053 starts and $27.5 million in earnings, all career highs for the man with the all-time marks of more than 14,500 victories and $320 million in earnings.

A LITTLE MORE: There were five drivers that won five races on a single Meadowlands card during the year. They were Jordan Stratton (on Jan. 28), Gingras (Feb. 24), Dexter Dunn (Apr. 28), Tetrick (July 15) and Zeron (Nov. 17).

On the training side, two conditioners managed to win four times on a single program. Burke did it twice (on Feb. 18 and Mar. 18) and Takter once (July 4).