Frank Drucker & harness racing legend Jason Bartlett on the 2018 International Trot & more
As founded in 1899 as the Empire City Race Track, New York's Yonkers Raceway is a one-half-mile standardbred harness racing dirt track. Yonkers Raceway also happens to be part of a popular casino, thus why the overall property is often referred to as "Yonkers Raceway at Empire City Casino."
Yonkers Raceway is the home of the world-renowned International Trot, which features some of the world’s greatest trotters chasing a purse of over $1,000,000. The event made its return in 2015 after a 20-year absence, and its 2018 edition will take place on Saturday, October 13th. Simply put, it is the world’s single largest harness racing event.
I had the pleasure of doing Q&A with legendary harness racer Jason Barlett, who has more than 7,000 career wins and over $100 million USD in purse earnings, and Empire City Publicity Director Frank Drucker. More on the International Trot can be found online at www.internationaltrot.com, while Yonkers Raceway is at www.empirecitycasino.com.
Is there a specific career accomplishment you are proudest of?
Jason Bartlett: I’d say my proudest accomplishment is that I just surpassed over $100 million in career purse earnings a few weeks ago at Night Of Champions, which was part of the finals for the New York Sire Stakes. What made it even more special is that it happened AT Yonkers Raceway, which is my home track.
I’ve been driving for over 20 years, but the majority of those wins have happened in the past 10 years after I moved from Maine to New York. Not all drivers get to reach such a feat, so it’s very exciting to achieve it.
How does the International Trot compare to other American races that you have been a part of this year?
Jason Bartlett: The International Trot is, by far, the biggest American race not only for the size of the purses, but also because Yonkers Raceway gathers some of the best horses from around the world to compete in it. It’s a real honor to be able to drive for such elite athletes.
What sort of training regimen or preparation is needed for you to stay at the top of your game?
Jason Bartlett: Driving day in and day out definitely takes a toll on your body, so in terms of a training regiment, I try to do CrossFit at least five days a week to keep in-shape. To prepare for being on the track, I think the most important thing a driver can do is know your competition, so I pay attention to the horses I’m driving against, what they like and don’t like, and their racing tendencies.
Who was the first harness racer that you were aware of?
Jason Bartlett: I grew up in the business, so that would be my grandfather, Richard Bartlett, who was a premier horseman and trainer.
How did you wind up working at Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway?
Frank Drucker: I predate the gaming end of this operation by many years. I was working at the New York Post, dividing time between writing about the races and copy editing. Yonkers Raceway began a summertime TV show around their marquee races and I was asked to appear, first as trackside reporter and later as co-host. When the former publicity director left to take a job with the NBA’s (then) New Jersey Nets, I was enlisted…drafted…shanghaied.
Do you remember the first sporting event you ever worked on at Empire City?
Frank Drucker: If by "sporting event," if you mean a big stakes race, we have several every season, so that’s sort of a tough question to answer.
How long does it take to put on an event like the International Trot?
Frank Drucker: We never have nearly the time we need. The race was resurrected in 2015 after a 20-season hiatus for one simple reason: Yonkers Raceway president Tim Rooney, has always been a fan of the trotters and he wanted to bring it back.
It’s the last of the major harness events of the calendar year, arriving right after our big race night for New York-bred pacers and trotters -- New York Sires Stakes’ Night Of Champions -- which itself requires much work and research.
The preparation begins months before, scouring the globe to try and get the best trotters in training while at the same time getting a good representation of countries – it is the International, after all. After that’s finalized, usually a few weeks before the race, plans have to be made to ship the foreign horses stateside, make accommodations for them, trainers, owners, etc., and planning New York activities for "their people" while getting the word out about the event. Many overseas media outlets have made the trip here for the race.
We also spare no expense with the post-position draw, inviting the horsemen and owners who are in town and the media to a Manhattan luncheon. We can’t guarantee a good place behind the starting gate for their horse, but at least everyone is well-fed.
In the interest of full disclosure, the International is of much larger interest in Europe than it is here, which is why we race it in the afternoon -- to simulcast overseas. That said, we go out of our way to make it a special event here, featuring other races with standout pacers and trotters and a fun, family atmosphere with giveaways, contests, music, themed food and drink, etc.
Do you have a favorite part of the event?
Frank Drucker: One, the race itself. Two, when the day is over. Three, see numbers one and two.
International Trot aside, what is coming for you?
Frank Drucker: We have nearly 240 programs each season, more than anyone in North America -- of any racing breed -- so there’s no rest for the weary.
Jason Bartlett: I’m driving in a few of the races the day of the International Trot, including the big one. After that, I’ll be heading to the Breeders Crown at the end of October, which is the last of the big races for the year. I’ll still be driving at Yonkers Raceway through 2018 though, since it’s a year-round track, until it breaks for the holidays.
When not busy with work, how do you like to spend your free time?
Frank Drucker: Free time? What is this concept of which you refer? (laughs)
Jason Bartlett: I’m a family man, so my free time is devoted to them. I have two sons -- Kobe, 12, and Karter, 7 -- and help coach their football and basketball teams during the season. When we get to travel, my favorite spot has to be Turks and Caicos.
Are there any sports you are passionate about besides harness racing?
Jason Bartlett: Football and basketball. I grew up in New England, so I’m a Patriots guy, which definitely keeps things interesting when they play the New York teams. I like the [Boston] Celtics, but have always been a big fan of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant – why do you think my son’s name is Kobe?! (laughs)
Frank Drucker: Football, though it’s not the same game I grew up watching. I enjoy basketball and hockey also, but baseball lost me when the two-hour game became the 4 ½-hour game, shortstops began weighing 240 pounds and running from the batter’s box became optional!
Finally, any last words for the kids?
Frank Drucker: Vote early, vote often.
Jason Bartlett: I’ll see you at the International Trot on the 13th!