The first day of meetings at the annual United States Trotting Association conclave were held yesterday. It was distressing to learn that Standardbred Investigative Services (SIS) went out of business. SIS, which was run under contract by the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau (TRPB) was funded by the Harness Tracks of America and the USTA to help protect the integrity of the sport. In addition to performing investigations, the TRPB provided training to racetrack and backstretch employees responsible for the day to day security at racetracks. Regardless of the reason for SIS's demise, it is important a mechanism be put in place as soon as possible to take over the responsibilities of the SIS.
USTA Chairman Ivan Axelrod told those in attendance that harness racing has up to now not taken advantage of the breathing room slot machines has provided to make the changes necessary to keep harness racing relevant. He warned the 'haves' (the tracks who have VLTs) that if things don't change, they will be joining the ranks of the 'have nots' within the next ten years. Axelrod indicated it essential for the industry to decide upon a marketing plan this year.
I can't agree more. The industry needs to come up with a marketing plan, not only to entice people to attend and wager on the races, but too make the product more desirable to the existing customers. Despite what some within the industry think, the product needs to change. We need to provide more wagering interests in each race (meaning a second tier) and we need to vary the distances of our races in order to make our races less predictable; you don't attract gambling attention by having a slew of favorites winning each night. We need to coordinate race dates so wagering pools are not diluted. With wagering becoming more global, we need to make sure our product is marketable in foreign markets so we can tap into these markets.
Racing needs to adapt to the account wagering world. Yes, wagers made through ADWs don't contribute as much to purse accounts as on-track wagers does but on-track handle will continue to decline as account wagering becomes more popular. The answer? Compete for your share of the ADW business by forming your own account wagering company.
As for increasing interest in the sport, the USTA needs to look at the initiatives Standardbred Canada has introduced and see if any of these programs would work here and if so, implement them. No sense to reinvent the wheel if there is a program already available. Funding of course will be a big issue. If breeders, horsemen, and tracks are serious in their desire to improve business, it may be essential for them to provide funding for any initiative the USTA comes up with.
We need to get past concepts and come up with specific plans and execute them. It is time for action.