Vernon Downs Filly Showdown: Hambo Oaks winner versus Hambo winner

By John Furgele

On Hambletonian Day two weeks ago, the filly Ramona Hill beat the boys in the Hambo and Sorella captured the Hambo Oaks for fillies. On Friday, these two 3-year-old fillies will square off in the $160,140 Harry M. Zweig Memorial Trot at Vernon Downs in upstate New York.

The race honors Dr. Harry Zweig, an equine veterinarian for nearly 40 years and a great friend to the harness industry. He helped renew interest in the sport when he brought racing to the New York State Fair in the 1960s.

Harness Racing – Photo courtesy of Mike Lizzi from

His lasting achievement was helping get the Laverne Law passed in 1965. This legislation tapped into the state’s lucrative gambling tax revenues to return money to the standardbred industry. The law created the Agriculture and New York State Horse Breeding Development Fund, which provided the foundation for the first state-bred racing program, the New York Sire Stakes.

The race drew a field of five, but three of the fillies are exceptional. Ramona Hill is 3-0-1 in four starts and has earned over $650,000. Sorella is 4-for-5 in 2020 with over $368,000 in earnings. There’s also Hypnotic Am, who is 3-1-1 in five starts with one of the wins coming in the Empire State Breeders Classic on the 7/8th-mile Vernon Downs oval.

These three should slug it out for the victory, while the other two starters, Fortune Starlet and Tricky Sister, appear to be overmatched.

The $330,000 Harry W. Zweig Memorial Open Trot drew a field of nine topped by Ready For Moni and Back Of The Neck. Those two finished second and third, respectively, behind Ramona Hill in the Hambo and will not miss having to face the filly in the colt trot.

Ready For Moni, trained by Nancy Takter and driven by Matt Kakaley, is the tepid 9-5 favorite with Back Of The Neck (Ake Svanstedt/Scott Zeron) the second choice at 5-2.

If you’re looking for a play, pay attention to Chaptiama from post 2 at 8-1. Trond Smedshammer trains and drives and has had plenty of success at Vernon Downs in these type of races over the years. The other, also at 8-1 is the five, Third Shift. He is driven and trained by Ake Svanstedt, which means we should expect Third Shift to go for the lead right away.

Big Oil and Rome Pays Off, both of whom trotted in the Hambo, are in the field but are listed at 12-1 and 15-1 in the early odds. Post time for the 16-race card is 3 p.m. ET with the two trots slated to go at 5:42 and 6 p.m. ET, respectively.

Troubles in New York

Harness racing relies on casino revenues. On the positive, those revenues have increased purses at the tracks, and, in some cases, prevented tracks from closing. On the negative, some say that harness tracks rely too much on them.

That second situation is playing out in New York. Earlier this week, Yonkers Raceway announced that Sept. 12 will be the final day of racing for 2020. Casinos in the Empire State are still waiting for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to give them the green light to reopen. Last Friday, Cuomo announced that bowling alleys and gyms could reopen soon, but so far, no word on when casinos can do the same.

Yonkers also announced that the Yonkers Trot and Messenger Stakes, the second legs of the trotting and pacing Triple Crowns, respectively, will not be contested at the track this year.

This puts New York horsemen in a tough spot. States like Ohio, Massachusetts, Indiana and Pennsylvania have reopened their casinos with strict protocols in place and so far, things have gone well.

Cuomo has been at the forefront of the pandemic and considers himself a champion at crushing the virus. The statistics back him up; the current infection rate in New York is right around one percent.

That said, Cuomo has never been a big fan of gambling and casinos; to him they’ve been the proverbial necessary evil. They produce much needed revenue but Cuomo does not want to risk a COVID-19 death that can be traced back to a casino. At this point, he is not even willing to talk to those in the casino industry about the situation.

Saratoga Casino Hotel has been racing since June, but because its casino sits empty, the purse account is dwindling quickly. Those on the racing side are fearful that their season will end early, perhaps as early as next month.

Turning Stone is an Indian casino near Vernon Downs — because it’s sovereign land, it’s not subject to New York State laws — has been open since early June.

Monticello is owned by Resorts World and because the casino is closed, they never started back up with racing in June and it looks like their 2020 season is fading away. Vernon and Tioga have casinos and are struggling, too, but both of their tracks are owned by Jeff Gural, who is willing to take on the losses.

The waiting game is being played. It’s OK to go to a restaurant and eat inside. It’s also OK to visit a tattoo parlor and soon, rolling a few frames and visiting the gym will be allowed. For now, sitting down at a slot machine at a place like Saratoga Casino Hotel or Batavia Downs is not allowed. While we really don’t know what is and isn’t safe, most can agree that the inconsistency has been maddening.

The bottom line: If the casinos don’t reopen soon, it could mean harness racing could grind to a halt in New York. That would be a shame.