Six Things on Racing Fans’ To-Do List in December

Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fl., begins its elite Championship Meet on Dec. 3. (Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing)

One of the best things about horse racing is that there is really no downtime on the calendar. If any month qualifies as a breather, even in part, though, it’s December ... but, like I said, that’s only in part.

There’s much racing action to be found as the winter solstice nears, even as the major jurisdictions take a moment to reset in advance of the Triple Crown season early next year. The options for gift giving to fellow fans and for charitable giving to the Thoroughbred industry are plentiful. And for those dedicated to the sport and its stars, the holiday season is prime time for engaging in rhetorical combat when lobbying for your favorite horse to receive an Eclipse Award.

So without further adieu, here are six ways to satisfy your horse racing jones while juggling all of your other holiday duties:

1. Who Deserves the Hardware? As per usual, the Breeders’ Cup World Championships largely settled some categories for year-end Eclipse Awards, but left other ones wide open. This year, it all comes down to a very intriguing debate over the Horse of the Year, to be bestowed Jan. 21 – who deserves it more, California Chrome or Arrogate? Both have substantial credentials, and making the case for one over the other basically comes down to what criteria a supporter values most. Speed figures? Quality of opponents? Consistency throughout the year? Or head-to-head competition?

Arrogate (left) and California Chrome. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Other categories are competitive as well (Tepin vs. Lady Eli, anyone?), but the choice between ‘Chrome’ and Arrogate for Horse of the Year will consume much of the fan chatter before the Eclipse finalists are announced in early January, and deservedly so. Getting off the fence and picking a side is mandatory, even if both of these superior athletes deserve every last scintilla of respect for their amazing 2016 campaigns.

2. Become an Inner-track “Poly”-math. Cold weather dictates a different sort of mindset for anyone living above the Mason-Dixon line, in all aspects of daily activity, but certainly with regard to attending live Thoroughbred racing. In New York and Kentucky, the winter months bring a serious downshift in prestige races, with the exception of a couple of Kentucky Derby preps at Aqueduct.

But that doesn’t mean those enamored with the sights, sounds, thrills and (in this case literal) chills of the live racing experience have to go cold turkey. Getting a fix just requires a bit of attitude and handicapping adjustment and an extra layer or two of clothing.

In Queens, the “Big A” transitions from its fall meet to winter meet in December, and racing moves to its winterized inner dirt track designed to mitigate the effects of harsh New York weather. The track has also upgraded some facilities in recent years following the opening of the Resorts World Casino on the premises in 2011.

Turfway Park in northern Kentucky. (Eclipse Sportswire)

In Kentucky, the action heads north to Turfway Park in Florence, near Cincinnati. Turfway was one of the first racetracks in North America to adopt the artificial Polytrack racing surface in the mid-2000s. No longer en vogue as a potential surface for horse racing’s major tracks, Polytrack is still a good option for winter venues, and it has enabled Turfway to curb weather-related cancelations. The track has also helped itself in recent years by scheduling more evening racecards, and patrons attending on Friday evenings may be surprised by the robust crowds, especially during December.

3. Or, Go West! (and South!) On the other hand, maybe the best cure for horse racing’s winter blues is to simply seek out warmer climes, even if only viewed longingly on a screen. To that end, two of the sport’s iconic racetracks pick back up in December, one early, the other right after Christmas. Gulfstream Park starts first in south Florida, beginning its signature Championship meet this weekend with the Claiming Crown. That popular mini-festival brings together horses who are the backbone of the industry for a momentary stance in the spotlight. Then, in the following weeks, Gulfstream segues into top-class competition when many of the leading owners, trainers, and jockeys from the New York circuit come down to Hallandale Beach for a long stay.

After a memorable Breeders’ Cup and a roughly two-month respite, Santa Anita Park re-opens on Dec. 26 with its traditional stakes card highlighted by the Grade 1 La Brea and Malibu Stakes. These two meets will, along with Oaklawn Park, Fair Grounds, Tampa Bay Downs and Aqueduct, garner the bulk of racing fans’ excited attention as the Road to the Triple Crown unwinds and spring beckons. 

The Pegasus statue at Gulfstream. (Eclipse Sportswire)

One significant change in 2017, however, has added a substantial amount of buzz to the early winter calendar: the inaugural Jan. 28 Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream. Anticipation for this $12 million race is sure to percolate all throughout the holiday season, especially if reports continue to point to a possible California Chrome and Arrogate rematch.

4. Analyze the Futures Market. Churchill Downs just closed their first Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool, featuring 22 individual horses and an “all others” pool, but why stop there? Las Vegas offers horseplayers the chance to dig deep for a Derby diamond in the rough via future bets offered by bookmakers such as The Wynn Las Vegas and William Hill. 

As of late November, Wynn offers far more wagering choices, and William Hill has generally better odds on the more accomplished 2-year-olds to date (recent Kentucky Jockey Club winner McCraken, for example, is booked at 10-1 by Wynn and 14-1 by William Hill, and closed at 12-1 in the first Churchill future pool). The real challenge, and fun, though, lies in selecting and backing a horse who has done relatively little other than show some small glimpse of classic potential that only you can detect. The only Road to the Kentucky Derby points prep race in December is the Dec. 10 Los Alamitos CashCall Futurity, but quality maiden races and allowance races will commence in earnest at the tracks mentioned above, providing many opportunities to spot a rising star.  

December is the perfect time to channel Nostradamus and lock down 150-1 or better on a pedigree play or visually impressive maiden winner that you just know is bound for a drapery of May roses, but rest assured that the Vegas futures will still offer value to the judicious bettors well into spring, until the Derby points accumulate and eliminate all but 25 or so horses.

5. All Eyes East to the Fragrant Harbor. The Breeders’ Cup World Championships may have tied the bow on big events here in the U.S., but there is another major racing festival remaining on the calendar this year, half a world away, and it’s one not to miss. TVG will provide coverage of the Longines Hong Kong International Racing Festival at Sha Tin Racecourse on Dec. 11, which features four international Group 1 turf events.

Sha Tin Racecourse in Hong Kong. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Hong Kong racing fans are fervent in their passion for the sport and for gambling, and these races annually attract many of the best grass horses in the Eastern Hemisphere along with a few from the U.S. and Europe. As of Nov. 29, two Breeders’ Cup horses are scheduled to participate: Longines Turf winner Highland Reel and Turf Sprint third-place finisher Pure Sensation. Highland Reel will attempt to land a repeat win in the Longines Hong Kong Vase for trainer Aidan O’Brien.

6. Harness It. If all else fails, there’s something to be said for spending a little time, attention, and money on one of the Northeast or Midwest Standardbred tracks running during December. Perhaps it’s just my own personal experience leading to bias, but the spectacle of trotters/pacers and their drivers barreling their way through one of those tight-turn tracks like Northfield Park in Ohio or Flamboro Downs in Ontario in the midst of a steady evening blizzard evokes wintertime racing at its most comfortable and familiar.

The Standardbred winter circuit took a blow when Chicago tracks Balmoral Park and Maywood Park closed a couple of years ago, but Northfield, Flamboro, Woodbine, Yonkers, Dover Downs, the Meadows, and arguably harness racing’s best track, the Meadowlands, are all running through the end of December.

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