When the Breeders Crown for 2-year-old pacing colts comes to Rosecroft Friday, Maryland harness-racing fans will get another taste of the unique, and sometimes puzzling, format of elimination racing.
Elimination racing, or racing in heats, requires a horse to run twice on the same night, sometimes within an hour. For Friday's Breeders Crown, there will be two six-horse elimination races, with the top four finishers returning for the final.
The winner of the final will earn the lion's share of the total purse. Each elimination will offer a purse of $77,989 and the final will be worth $467,934.
Although fans are often confused by heat racing, Stanley Dancer, a member of harness racing's hall of fame, said, "There's nothing we could do to eliminate it."
Dancer, trainer of Pied Piper, who will race in the second elimination Friday, has a lifetime of experience with heat racing. In 1975, he had to race in four heats before winning the Hambletonian behind Bonefish. Since starting his driving career in 1946, Dancer has won more than 3,700 races.
Two of the arguments against elimination racing are that multiple heats are too taxing on young horses and that many bettors are not accustomed to wagering on the same horse twice in one night.
Dancer discounts the first objection. "It never hurt any of mine," he said. He added that Pied Piper will not train any differently for Friday's race. Pied Piper has competed in multiple races twice in the past five weeks.
Tracks also have helped bettors feel at ease with heat racing by providing updated programs for the final. Those programs include information on the horses' performances in the earlier eliminations.
Nevertheless, there have been suggestions that the heats be run one week in advance or -- to eliminate heat racing altogether -- that finals be limited to the top money-winning horses.
But, said Dancer, "If you race eliminations one week before, you tie a horse up for two weeks." That would be a problem for many owners, who already must race every weekend at a different track in order to catch harness racing's major events.
As for limiting the race to the top money-winners, Dancer quickly recalled Newport Dream, who won the 1954 Hambletonian. "He was lame and had only two starts going into the Hambletonian," he recalled.
Given the alternatives, Dancer sees little reason to change heat-racing format, since it has helped harness racing offer rich races every weekend during the season.
"Leave it the way it is," he said.