by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228
It’s been a tough start to the 2022 harness racing year. Funky weather—where it freezes, thaws, freezes and thaws—has resulted in many cancelled race cards. Mother Nature, especially in winter, has and will continue to call the shots.
We also saw the conviction of Dr. Seth Fishman for supplying PEDS to tracks across the country and, when sentenced, faces up to 20 years in prison. Fishman’s list includes trainers in both thoroughbred and standardbred racing.
They say bad things come in threes; the third blow being that handle is down at most harness tracks. The latest USTA statistics show a 17.74 decrease compared to the same time last year despite 16 more days of racing.
The sport’s signature track, The Meadowlands is down 22 percent. In fact, The Big M, which tried to eliminate post drag scrapped the idea in an effort to counter for the decrease. As much as we the fan dislike post drag, it’s there for a reason and for now, this column will have to back off from complaining.
The obvious reason for the decrease would be mobile sports betting. More than 20 states now allow us to bet through apps and that includes mighty New York as well as Pennsylvania. New Yorkers are betting like their lives depend on it. There was more betting in New York in February than there was in Las Vegas.
Betting has come a long way and no longer requires watching entire games to see if you can cash a winning ticket. In football, you can bet if Odell Beckham scores a touchdown; in baseball, you can bet if a batter will swing at the first pitch. The instant gratification society is drawn to this, much like those who prefer scratch-off lottery tickets instead of waiting for the PowerBall drawing.
That was always horse racing’s appeal. You could bet a race and in 30 minutes (or less), bet another. In four hours, you had “ten” chances to cash in. The mobile app and the “prop” bet has neutralized this advantage.
I saw it first hand at The Meadowlands a few years ago. Bryce Harper was batting for the Washington Nationals and the guy next to me bet $50 that he would strike out. After fouling off several pitches, Harper flew out to right. The guy was not happy, but that’s today’s wagering.
The positive: Horse racing can join the fray. If they’re creative, they can make their betting menu more attractive. As much as people complain about takeouts and low pools, the sport has several built in advantages. Few sports reward a bettor for finishing third, but horse racing does.
The sport has options it could utilize. In harness racing, bettors loathe it when a good horse draws post position eight on a half-mile track. If the horse sprints to the front, it’s tough to hold on; if it sits back, it’s tough to make a big move. But what if you bet the eight horse to finish eighth, or sixth based on your “natural betting instincts?”
Split times could also be factored in. What if a track set the opening quarter mile split at Yonkers at 28.1. The bettor could bet over or under and make a score, or the bettor could bet that the opening quarter will be 29.1.
Imagine the possibilities. The bettor could have several little side bets going on for just one race and it wouldn’t matter which horse wins the race. It would be like the guy who bet on Harper to go down swinging. I’m sure he didn’t watch the rest of the game.
Chris Bevilacqua, a respected sports media consultant is working on Simplebet, a platform that allows bettors to bet whether the next pitch is a ball or strike; the next football play a run or pass. These “microbets” are simple and more importantly, allow younger generations to make bets and then move on. Why not take that and apply it to horse racing? Let people bet the opening quarter, and then move on to another track and do the same thing. Keeping bettors involved with instant gratification is going to be important moving forward. The sports that do it best will flourish. Attendance at sporting events is down; so too, are TV ratings and while the live sporting event will always have a place, times are changing.
“The generation of fans that aren’t really watching TV, they’re on mobile devices,
Bevilacqua said. “You’ve got to market a whole new fan base that isn’t watching their televisions.
Horse racing was ahead of the curve with ADWs (Advanced Deposit Wagering), so this would be the perfect time to enhance that product. Microbets would be a step in that direction. If a fan could bet 28.2 for the opening quarter, the six to win the race and the eight horse to finish sixth, the chance for new bettors increases.
In the past, this would be too challenging for racetracks to do, but with the professionals involved—Caesars, DraftKings, FanDuel—the labor is there to make it to happen. In fact, the concern would be integrity, but as long as the owners, drivers and trainers are shielded from this action, it shouldn’t be a huge issue.
Traditionalists will always prefer the old fashioned way, but the traditionalists are aging and as they say won’t be around forever. If horse racing wants a younger fan base, the best way to draw them in is with quick hits. Let them bet more money on one race in a variety of ways and see if they can get that quick score. Traditionalists might know who the leading driver at Hoosier Park is, but the younger bettor doesn’t. They want to be able to make a quick bet and move on to the next one.
I’m sure harness racing is already thinking of ways to drive people to the sport to increase handle. Many lament that at many tracks, there is a division; the casino and the track. How many times have I seen on social media that “This casino could care less about racing”, or “The only reason that Yonkers has racing is because New York State requires it.”
Innovation and being able to change with the times is the answer and the sport of harness racing is in position to get it done. And the stars of the sport—the horses—will never know what’s going on which is the best part of it all.
Handle may be down right now, but it doesn’t have to stay down.