As the Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred Championships (MATCH) closes in on the conclusion of its sophomore season, the stage is set for a second nail-biting finish.
Last year, in its inaugural season, the rich bonuses for owners and trainers weren't decided until the last race -- after 35 races over six months at nine tracks in five states. This year, when the final race in each division is run Saturday at tracks in Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, no fewer than five horses will vie for top bonuses of $100,000 for leading owner and $40,000 for leading trainer.
"If you were to write the finish on paper, this is the textbook finish you'd come up with," said Alan Foreman, the Baltimore lawyer who founded MATCH. "You couldn't ask for anything better."
MATCH consists of seven races in five divisions at tracks throughout the mid-Atlantic. In addition to $3.6 million in purses, horses compete for $600,000 in owner and trainer bonuses. When MATCH made its debut last year, it marked the first time in racing history that tracks and horsemen had joined together to fund a regional competition.
Foreman pronounced the second year a success. And trainers and owners offered hearty endorsements. MATCH races attracted increased betting and attendance, Foreman said, and, most cases, strong fields.
However, a few problems tarnished the series. Early on, Delaware Park, Monmouth Park and Laurel Park offered races with similar conditions at about the same time as MATCH races at Philadelphia Park and Penn National. That resulted in embarrassingly small MATCH fields and ran counter to a basic goal of the series: coordinating stakes throughout the region.
Also, when Monmouth Park changed the conditions of the Philip H. Iselin Handicap, a MATCH race, to attract Skip Away, it put that division's leader, Testafly, at a stark disadvantage in competition for the overall championship.
Finally, an incident involving one of MATCH's top horses, the 4-year-old filly Bursting Forth, highlighted the hysteria over the drug clenbuterol -- the bronchodilator that is legal for treating horses with respiratory diseases but only when they're not racing.
Sam Huff and H. Graham Motion, the filly's owner and trainer, scratched Bursting Forth from the Violet Handicap at the Meadowlands nine days ago instead of risking a positive drug test.
"It hurt the race and the series," Foreman said. "It's another example of how the clenbuterol controversy has impacted the industry."
Based at Laurel Park, Motion said Bursting Forth was the first horse for whom he'd ever ordered clenbuterol. The filly suffered from mucus in her lungs.
In Maryland, veterinarians and the state chemist advise trainers to end treatments seven days before a race. One week is sufficient for the drug to clear the system, they say. But to be safe, Motion said, he administered the final syrup treatment two weeks before the Violet.
Then, the morning of the race, as he was about to load Bursting Forth onto the van, Motion was told by his veterinarian that New Jersey required 21 days between treatment and race. Neither Motion nor Huff, the Hall of Fame football player who owns the filly, wanted to risk a positive.
"That might have cost us the entire series," Huff said. "If we'd even gotten one point, just for running, we'd be tied for the lead. Now it's a long shot."
It could cost Huff and Motion several thousand dollars. The owner whose horse accumulates the most points wins $100,000, compared with second money of $55,000, third of $35,000 and so forth. The trainer of the leading horse pockets $40,000, compared with $20,000 for second, $13,000 for third, etc.
"Every state has different rules about this drug. It's ridiculous," Huff said. "Why can't they work together on this? They come across looking like nobody knows what they're doing."
Motion said clenbuterol eliminated Bursting Forth's mucus. She'll compete Saturday in the All Along Stakea at Colonial Downs, he said.
Asked about MATCH, Motion said: "I think it's a brilliant idea. The money to be made is phenomenal. I just hope they keep it going."
He joined Foreman in criticizing the scheduling conflicts early in the series.
"It needs everybody's support and cooperation to make it work," Motion said.
Of the six horses in the running for the overall championship, all but Testafly will compete in their division finales. Dale Mills, who trains Testafly at Laurel Park, said he plans on resting the horse until the Maryland Million Classic on Oct. 17 at Laurel.
"That's been our main goal since Day One," Mills said. "The last time I ran him [Polynesian Handicap at Colonial Downs], I ran a tired horse. I don't want to do that again."
That opens the door for Buffalo Dan, the 7-year-old gelding trained by William Perry at Monmouth Park and owned by Steve Belkin's B.E. Stables. Belkin is a Boston businessman. Buffalo Dan raced in four of his division's stakes, winning three and finishing third once.