A “Pegasus” for Harness Racing?

by John Furgele

Last Saturday, we saw the inaugural Pegasus Word Cup Invitational, a pay-your-way-in $12 million horse race. There were 12 slots available, with each slot costing $1 million. In the end, we saw a pretty good event, with a good crowd and most impressively, a dominant performance by the best thoroughbred in the world, Arrogate.

As a harness racing fan, I watched and wondered, “Could harness racing put together an invitational like this?” Is there interest? Who would be willing to put up the money? Where would a race like this be held? The Red Mile? The Meadowlands? How much would be required to “buy in?”

Harness racing doesn’t have the deep pockets of its thoroughbred counterparts, so perhaps 10 horses with a $10 million purse might be too steep, but what would an appropriate figure be? If they want a 10-horse field, the Meadowlands would probably work best. The one-mile track would not have to be required, but it certainly would be the preference.

What would be an appropriate purse? If the slots were sold for $300,000 the purse would be $3 million; $400,000, $4 million. We can do the math, but harness racing has $1 million races, so in order for an invitational to occur, the stakes would have to create an incentive. My thinking would be a 10 horse, $500,000 buy in, which creates a $5 million race.

The problem with harness racing is the fiefdoms that exist. Now, to say that thoroughbred racing is a well oiled and organized machine is a stretch, but they have their act together a little better than harness racing does. For one, their Triple Crown is set up to encourage participation. Harness racing doesn’t always promote and put its best foot forward. The best example was last year, when Marion Marauder won the trotting Triple Crown. Unless you followed harness racing, did anybody know what was at stake at The Red Mile in Lexington in late summer? Ditto for the Breeders Crown at the end of the season. Its races were every bit as compelling as its Breeders Cup counterparts, but where was the coverage? We know that the media will not cover a Breeders Crown, but shouldn’t the United States Trotting Association be flooding outlets with stories, features and publicity for weeks before hand? Today the PR machines do all the work. All the media outlets have to do is print, publish and broadcast the information and the event.

The Stronach Group came up with the idea of Pegasus and they did a solid job of promoting it and even though they paid NBC to broadcast live, they got them there and secured them, not the NBC Sports Network, which for many, is an unknown channel to cover it.   Even today, “free TV” is better than cable only.

Another problem is the willingness of the harness racing industry to actually want to showcase its sport.   A racino or some type of gambling operation accompanies most harness tracks. Most states made it law that in order to have a racino/casino, you had to have it at a harness track. In New York, there are racinos at Yonkers, Monticello, Buffalo, Batavia, Saratoga and Vernon with a full-fledged casino at Tioga. If not for these “casinos,” would harness racing even exist?   If you asked the operators of Monticello if they could do away with racing and just have a casino, what would they say?   I don’t even want to think of it, but my guess would be that there might be a lot of grass growing over the dirt on the racing surface.

On the positive, the casinos have infused much needed money into the harness racing game and in reality, tracks need the casino revenues to make money. Look at the Meadowlands. It is still a top-notch facility, but they continue to lament the fact that they don’t have a casino or some other type of gambling source to supplement and sustain itself.

Meadowlands owner Jeffrey Gural said he lost $4 million last year. Thankfully, he is a fan of harness racing and he does own both Vernon and Tioga Downs, which are both equipped with some form of casino gambling.   If not for that, would the Meadowlands be up for sale, and if it were, would people be lining up to bid on it?   Without that other source of gambling monies; no way.

The main issue would be this: can all the harness tracks get together and make this happen? The quick answer is no, and that’s a shame. I really believe that there is growth potential for the sport.   I think there are new fans to be had.   I think there are young fans to be had.   These are hard-working and fascinating animals. They race much more often than thoroughbreds and because the cost to get into harness racing is lower, it can bring that common person angle to the fans. There are some that will never take the sport seriously, the concept of pulling a cart, or sulky and there are thoroughbred followers who will never cross over, but too often, the harness racing track spends money promoting its casino and little—if any—money promoting its racing.

Today, sports and entertainment is all about events, or the one-off. In the old days, harness racing was a grind-it-out 12-month a year sport. Tracks like Buffalo and Batavia had live racing five days per week, 12 months of the year. Now, Buffalo races three times per week (90 days total)—Wednesday, Friday and Saturday—and when the weather warms, they’ll add Sunday. That’s a good thing as less is often more. You don’t need to get one person to come 12 times; you need to get 12 people to come 2 or 3 times. That’s how you grow your sport. You get them in and plant the seeds and if they have a good enough time, it becomes a permanent option for the 20-somethings. They won’t come every week, but maybe a few times per year, one of them will say to their friends, “Let’s go to Buffalo Raceway for a few hours and have some fun.”  A Buffalo Raceway offers everything that young people like:  gambling, alcohol and entertainment, the classic all-in-one package.

A “Pegasus” style invitational for pacers and trotters would be a good way to market and expose the sport to new eyes. Yes, you need a TV partner and yes, it needs to be heavily promoted and that costs millions.  It will probably lose money the first couple of years. But, if enough people watch it and become interested in harness racing than all is not lost.

Not by a long shot.

See you at the races!

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