Grow or Die? The Flamboro Downs Dilemma

Stunted Growth?  Flamboro Downs Wrestles with Ethics and Marketing in Decision to Ban Minors from the Grandstand

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

You’re trying to grow the game.  You’ve heard the critics, the doubters and the naysayers.  They say that harness racing is for old people, that young people don’t pay attention and when the old-timers “permanently retire,” the sport will fade into oblivion.

One way to grow the game and secure its long term future is to find ways to expose young people to it.  Every sport wants to get younger.  Young people are the future and once they reach their 20s, many have what businesses desire—–discretionary income.

Every sport is trying to find ways to lure families and kids to it and harness racing is no different.  The thought is simple; get the youngsters to the track, get them engaged, hope they fall in love with the horses and just like that, you have a fan for life.

On the other hand, harness racing relies and sustains itself on gambling.  Every harness track would love to see 25,000 fans watching races on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday, but if nobody is wagering, how does the sport sustain itself?

With that comes the danger.  Sure, harness racing wants young people to come to the track, just like cigarette companies want kids to try smoking, but how do you market that?  The sport needs kids to become fans, but do we want them exposed to gambling?

The issue gets further complicated by the slots that accompany harness racing tracks.  When you take your kids to a Yonkers, a Saratoga, a Buffalo or a Harrah’s Philadelphia, young people will see gambling, gambling and more gambling.  As they head to the track, they will hear the bells and whistles that are electronic gaming machines.  We all figure that if an 18, 19 or 21-year old chooses to gamble (or smoke for that matter) it’s an adult decision.

Flamboro Downs is located in Southern Ontario, near Hamilton, and like the tracks mentioned above has a casino.  Because of that, the track recently announced that nobody under age 19 can enter the grandstand to watch harness racing. They will be allowed to view races from the tarmac, but in order to be in the grandstand you have to old enough to legally gamble, which in Ontario is age 19.  Great Canadian Gaming, the parent company of Flamboro Downs issued the following statement.

“We have made a significant investment in our gaming and entertainment facilities, and we are eager to share them with our guests,” the track said in a statement. “These enhancements include the addition of new gaming and entertainment amenities and the addition of approximately 100 new jobs.

“In order to accommodate these new enhancements, Flamboro Downs will become a 19+ entertainment destination on Tuesday, September 3, 2019. All ages are still welcome to enjoy live racing on the tarmac and will have access to washroom facilities.”

Naturally, this went over like a lead balloon.  Most harness racing fans went to the comment boards to express their displeasure.  They cited that kids are our future, kids don’t gamble and so on and forth.  Others blame harness racing for selling out to casinos, saying that when you do that, you have to play by their rules.

Some theorized that Great Canadian Gaming had to do this to comply with provincial laws and statutes.  We all know that on-track attendance has suffered for years and many think that tracks should direct their monies to improving their internet product as most feeds still feature grainy, 1980s quality.  I watch enough harness races to know this; only Yonkers Raceway provides HD beauty on their internet stream.

One of Canada’s leading owner partnerships, The Stable.ca announced that they will boycott and not send any of their horses to race at Flamboro Downs.  Anthony McDonald is the President and Co-Founder of The Stable.ca and here is some of what he told Standardbred.ca.

“I must say, I couldn’t have been more disappointed. How are we to reach the next generations if they aren’t welcome at the racetrack? This is straight out of the ’70s and does not meet any reasonable standards in racing in 2019……….Let’s hope Flamboro decides that the original statement was a bit premature and short-sighted, and they are indeed truly committed to racing………We will not support racing in this form and NONE of our horses will race at Flamboro Downs if this decision about age restrictions at their facility is not revisited and rectified.”

The lines have been drawn in the sand. The new regulation will begin on Tuesday, September 3 and it appears that the ball is now in the court of the racetrack and Great Canadian Gaming.

On the surface, the quick, knee-jerk reaction is to agree with McDonald and call the decision short-sighted.  How many kids would actually want to gamble on harness racing?

That said, gambling is the intricate part of the game.  My kids are under the age of 19, yet all of them know how to read the racing form.  I’ve taken them to several harness tracks and once there, I let them read the form, pick the winners and then me, the responsible parent, saunters to the window and makes the bets, usually with my young ones right next to me.

Is that harmless or harmful?  Like a good parent, I preach responsible betting.  I use the old dinner and movie line to justify a night of gambling—if you and your friend went to a nice restaurant, had a great meal and some drinks followed by a movie, it would cost you at least $100.  If you went to a racetrack, you would take the same $100 and spend it at the track.  Once the $100 is gone, you’re done.  Of course, if you get lucky, that $100 could end up $200, $300, $500 or even more, but no matter what happens, you can only lose that original $100 investment.

My guess is that if a family went to Flamboro, it would be to look at the horses, pick some cool names and throw a couple bucks down on a race or three.  I can’t see Mom and Dad going to the ATM and emptying their kids 529s on a trifecta in race four.  The family goes there to expose their kids to the sport; if they really wanted to get down and dirty with betting, the kiddos would be left at home.

My goal was not to make my kids degenerate gamblers, but to make them appreciate the sport, the beauty and to create options and opportunity.  Someday, I’ll be long gone, and they might have kids that are “bored and need something to do.”   Perhaps they’ll remember that dear old Dad took them to a few tracks and might do the same with their offspring.

We take our kids camping, to amusement parks, to lakes, oceans, museums, Niagara Falls and Disneyworld to expose them and create memories.  I’m not sure how much my kids loved the horse and harness racing experience, but I do know one thing—it’s an experience that they know and will be able to share with their kids—should they choose to.

I understand the Flamboro dilemma, but that doesn’t mean I understand it.  They are not forbidding kids under 19 entry, but they are restricting them.  It’s easy to say that they’re being short-sighted, but rules are rules and laws are laws.  I think most agree that it’s a no-win situation all the way around.

Let’s hope time brings clarity.

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