Protection for Harness Racing

Some states are working to keep Harness Racing alive. When will the sport do its part?

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

It looks like harness racing is here to stay in the Garden State for the time being. Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill into law that requires any sports book to offer harness racing. Translation: if the Meadowlands and Freehold want to offer sports betting, they have to offer at least 151 live harness racing dates (between the two of them).

This is good news for those that make their living in harness racing, and coupled with subsidies that the state pays to both thoroughbred and harness racing, things are going the right way in New Jersey.

That said, just because harness racing appears guaranteed for the foreseeable doesn’t mean everything is fine and dandy. The sports books at Freehold and the Meadowlands are doing great, but do the patrons notice that each place offers live harness racing every Friday and Saturday?

That’s the problem. Advertising focuses on free parlays and sports apps, but no attention is paid to the live event at each venue. For some reason, advertising monies will tell us about point spreads, NFL playoff action, but the sport that is contested live is ignored.

Marketing is tricky because it costs money. The dentist wants new patients and wants to increase the number of dental implant procedures he or she performs each year. Word of mouth is free, but the message doesn’t travel far. Advertising can get the message out, but it needs to be paid for, and thus, cuts into the bottom line.

That’s the conundrum in harness racing. The horsemen want all the dollars to go to purses; at Freehold, they’ll want to see the Preferred Handicap purse go from $12,000 to $15,000 or somewhere in between. Truth be told, the horsemen really don’t care what track handle is. The secretary writes the races, and when that’s done, the purses are set. If the purse is $11,000, it doesn’t matter if $5,000 or $100,000 was bet on the race; the top five finishers are getting a check and the track either makes a tiny profit or it doesn’t.

Mobile sports betting just became legal in New York State. There are commercials all day and all night. Mobile betting on harness racing has been around for years, yet nary a mention. I feel like I’m beating my head against the wall, but why can’t some money be spent on the promotion of harness racing at places that have sports books?

Other sports have caught on. In the 1970s and early 1980s, minor league baseball (and hockey, too) relied on word of mouth and newspaper coverage to get people to attend games. When I was kid, Buffalo had a Double A team from 1979-1984 and became a Triple A team in 1985 (they still are). They played their games at old War Memorial Stadium where about 3,000 on a given day or night was a “ggod” crowd. 

Then, the light went off.  Teams began marketing their product, luring families with fireworks, $1 dollar hot dogs and sodas and doing crazy  promotions in between innings that got people talking.  People actually predicted who would win the seventh-inning stretch race between Blue Cheese, Celery and Chicken Wing. As corny as that sounds those in attendance liked it.

At the old harness track, there is nothing in between races. One race finishes at 7:07 and it is dead until the next race at 7:33. That’s a great way to introduce your game to young audiences. The tracks just can’t imagine having some fun things in between races to attract young families to the track.

What kid doesn’t like horses? They’re beautiful and the Standardbred is not only that, it is also fit, strong, powerful, and athletic. If you could entertain the kids and then have Mom or Dad read the names from the program and ask the kids to pick a winner, it could be the best $2 ever spent. If the horse wins, the kids are happy, if not, there’s another race coming up and there is some entertainment in between.

When my kids were youngans, we did this.  They picked their favorite and I sauntered up to the betting window to make three $2 bets. The clerk knew what Dad was doing, said some nice things to the youngans and away we went. If we won, back to the same clerk we’d go for the next race.

After six or seven races, some food and drink, we headed home and trust me, they knew the score. My youngest still talks about her 40 to 1 score on a May Sunday at Yonkers and she doesn’t even watch the Super Bowl.

I can’t say my kids are huge harness racing fans, but they’ve been exposed and my feeling is that someday, they’ll expose their kids to it.  The more that are exposed, the better the chance to get long time fans. Offering some entertainment serves as that important take-away.

So, while the news coming from New Jersey is a relief, I wish they would do more. At some point, one of these days, that law won’t be passed and then what happens? What will the horsemen do then? If they have no interest in growing the game that they depend on, why would a corporate giant like MGM or Resorts World do it if they aren’t forced (by law) to have harness racing?  If the day comes where this protection isn’t there, you’ll see harness tracks go the way of the landline. A few will exist, but not enough to sustain the industry.

The New Jersey law is good for the sport. It should also serve as a wake-up call.

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