Room for Growth

by John Furgele

I have always followed harness racing, meaning I knew where the tracks were, knew about The Hambletonian and The Little Brown Jug and some of the other events that the sport offers.  I never ignored it, but I didn’t follow it on a regular basis.

Last summer, I really dove in and became enthralled with the sport. Events like Hambletonian Day with its 10 stakes races, the International Trot at Yonkers and the Breeders Crown brought me in.  I am a feature race guy.  Sure, I like the small purse races, but I look for the features and keep my eye on them at the big tracks.  I think harness racing offers plenty, both for bettors and those who love sport for sport.

We all know that every sport has its problems.  Baseball had The Steroid Era, and as we have seen recently with the NFL, The Concussion Era has raised some concerns about “America’s Game.”  But, those sports have always tried to both retain and grow its fan base, something harness racing needs to do more of.

That said, why does harness racing spend so much energy on the negatives? We read about Jeffrey Gural and his struggles at the Meadowlands; the infighting that takes place between those who race and those that breed.  And, of course there are the critics who point out the halcyon days of the sport “back in the day,”, when it and boxing were at the height of popularity.  There are those who also point out that sports like harness racing and boxing will be extinct in the not-too-distant-future.

We know that society can be full of negativity and most recently, hatred.  It seems like you can’t like more than one of anything.  If the Yankee fan doesn’t hate the Mets, something is wrong with them.  If you like thoroughbred racing, you can’t like harness racing.  If you like the New York Jets, then you can’t admire the brilliance of Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, and if you do, here comes the venom.

Harness racing is a sport that to me is well-suited for the future.  Many harness tracks are at casinos and racinos.  At Saratoga, there are far more patrons playing the video gaming machines then there are watching and wagering on the races.  And, we know that a portion of VGM revenues goes to support harness racing; in fact what would happen to harness racing if the casinos weren’t there?  To me, this is where our great sport drops the ball.  These racinos offer a little bit of everything.  At Saratoga there is a casino, a steakhouse, another restaurant, a night club and harness racing.  It’s the perfect venue; something for everyone.  The harness tracks should be doing more to get young people to come on out and enjoy a day/evening at the races AND the other things that a Saratoga Casino Hotel can offer.  Too often racing is the forgotten stepchild of the operation.

The key is not to get one person to a harness track 12 times a year; it’s to get 12 people there three times a year.  Young people like to go out.  They like good food, they like to dance and yes, they like to consume (responsibly, of course) alcohol.  Harness racing needs to plant the seeds to the youngsters so the racino becomes an option for them.  The goal is for a 20-something to say, “Hey, let’s go to the Racino tonight and have some fun.”  We all know if they go, bet on a few races, they will enjoy it.  We also know if they win, they’ll enjoy it more.  We just want a racino to make it into the rotation of what young people like to do.  Why can’t they travel, go to a football game, a movie or a road trip AND go the racino two to four times per year?

I truly believe that there is room for growth for harness racing.  As life becomes busier and busier, the need for “one-offs,” increases in importance.  We need not look any further than Super Bowl.  It’s the most-watched event of the year, because it happens once a year.  The Kentucky Derby gets the most watchers in horse racing.  No matter what happens there, the one certain is that ratings for the Preakness drop.  Even when the Triple Crown is on the line at The Belmont, the Derby ratings are still a bit higher.  Why?  Because Americans like traditions and big events and though the Preakness is a big event, the Kentucky Derby is a bigger one.  The Breeder’s Cup is a big event, but not as big as the Derby, or for that matter—ratings wise—the Preakness.  Why can’t harness racing showcase its big events?  Let’s do more to lure the casual sports fan.

Young people are the future.  They need to be exposed to harness racing.  If they aren’t we know that the numbers will decrease over time.  Young people don’t watch baseball games from beginning to end anymore, but they’ll go to a game or two each year.  If they do that, why can’t they go to the harness track once or twice per year?

The answer is they can and they will if those who own the tracks go out, get them and bring them in.  It’s all about marketing and creating a quality product.  There will always be tracks like Yonkers that race five times each week all year long, but some are cutting back their racing days. This can create demand and a sense of urgency.  One of the reasons the Saratoga Race Course does so well is that you only have 40 chances to get there.  Buffalo Raceway runs Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and when the weather warms, Sunday.  You can’t sit home and say, I’ll go tomorrow, or next week, because before you know it, the horses are off to Batavia, 45 miles to the east.  Less means more but it also means that the time is now.

Harness tracks of course, can’t be like Saratoga Race Course; they need more than 40 days.  But, they could use more special nights, more events, and more one-offs.  Sure they have stakes races and features, but those need to be marketed and packaged better.  Why not incentivize the masses?  If they bet $5 on the feature race, they get $5 to spend anywhere in the racino.  I’m not a marketing genius, but I know there has to be a way to get people more interested in the racing.  This isn’t 1979, when the diehards had to go to the track to for live racing and for simulcasting.  Today, there is more to do at these harness tracks but why not market the live sport, not the electronic machines in the room where there are no windows?

I came back to the sport, but there aren’t enough people like me to make the sport flourish and more importantly, survive long-term.  But, there is a market out there, I can feel it, but it needs be tapped and prodded correctly and it is time for those who run the harness tracks to get that done.  It’s a bet that they can win.

See you at the races!

Reach me at harnessracing@gmx.com

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