For photos from the Meadowlands contact

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Another Voice For Less Racing

In an earlier column I indicated the need for racing authorities to develop racing circuits and the need for less racing. I ran across this article from Cal-Expo Harness. Read the racing news section on the left hand side of each race column for what basically is an editorial. While it addresses t-breds, it applies to harness racing as well. People see the need for this action. When will the horsemen see it is in their long term best interest?

Wait Till Next Year

Well, the American entries were done early today in Sweeden. Both Enough Talk and Buck I St Pat failed to make it to the final heat of the Elitlopp. Buck I St Pat went offstride before the start of the race but got back into the race before faltering.

First Elimination Results

  1. Sahara Dynamite 1:09.8
  2. Triton Sund
  3. Scarlets Aino
  4. Offshore Dream

Second Elimination

  1. Jaded 1:09.7 (New Swedish Record)
  2. Torvald Palema
  3. Nimrod Borealis
  4. Igor Font

For those who are interested in breeding, both elimination winners were sired by Express Ride who competed in the 1986 Hambo and went on to a succesful breeding career in Europe.

While Enough Talk and Buck I St Pat failed to advance, kudos to the connections of both horses to be willing to send their horses overseas.

UPDATE: In the final, Torvald Palema won. Perhaps the most notable thing about the victory of Torvald is that his driver has a one month suspension pending and has been charged with animal cruelty. The media is going to love this over there.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Open Letter to Governor Corzine

The condition sheet for the upcoming week at the Meadowlands show a substitute race for $7,500 claimers. Where is the bottom?

Wake up Governor Corzine. Purse supplements from the casinos obviously is not stemming the decline of racing in New Jersey. Even with the casino money, you are asking the NJ tracks to fight with one hand behind the back.

I know the casino lobby is strong but let me state the obvious for you:

  1. Racing is dying due to the lack of slot machines.
  2. A lot of farm land is going to be lost.
  3. A lot more people are about to lose their jobs.
  4. The money Atlantic City lost to the racinos in DE, PA and NY is never coming back to Atlantic City. Let me repeat that. The money lost to the other states' racinos is never coming back to Atlantic City.
  5. If you allow a racino in The Meadowlands, a lot of the money will at least come back in the state.
  6. Last I heard the state finances are in the tank. How can you look past 'free' money that will come into the state treasury?

Since there seems to be brain freeze along with "pay to play" in Trenton, let me offer the following win-win scenario:

Allow slot/VLT machines in the Meadowlands. Let the NJSEA buy Freehold Raceway and Atlantic City Race Course (don't forget about them). Allow the slots be managed by the casinos in Atlantic City with a percentage of the money going to the casinos and the state, a percentage to the NJSEA and a percentage to the purses at Atlantic City, Monmouth Park, Meadowlands and Freehold as well as the maintaining of the racing facilities. All this conditioned on a certain number of race dates at each facility.

You know this is going to happen eventually, why don't we speed things along?

The jobs of thousands is waiting for you to act.

Improve the Program

The current race program provides a good amount of handicapping informaton if you watch the races every night. Unfortunately, not everyone is able to follow the horses that closely. This puts a lot of people at a disadvantage. What can be done to improve the program?

Show the base purse for each race. In some states, there is additional money added to the purse for state owned or restricted races. At the Meadowlands, they do not indicate in the program what races are restricted or have a preference for NJOS. As a result, you may see the same race in the past performance line for $10,000 or $12,500. Is this due to a hidden condition difference or other reason? A regular fan may know the difference is due to a purse supplement for state restricted races but someone who is not a regular will not. Even worse is when that horse ships out to another track. Seeing a purse of $12,500 may lead the fan to think the horse was in a better class race than he was. To solve this problem the past performance line should show the base purse for the class; in this example $10,000. In the same vein , the top of the program should show the base purse amount and underneath show the additional amount added due to a purse supplement such as "Plus $2,500 added for PA Sired" This would keep the information consistent.

In the past performance program, show the range of claiming prices in a claiming handicap race in addition to the base claiming price for the individal horse. Currently you see something like 25000clmhcp which tells you the horse was in a claiming handicap race and what tag it was in for. Was the race for 20-25000 claimers or 20-30000 claimers? Show the race as 20-25k clm hcp (22k). This way you see the range and the '(22k)' will let the person know what the horse was entered for.

Get rid of names for early closer and late closer series and show the conditions for the series instead. I know this is a step back. Let's say you are a regular at Yonkers Raceway and you see in the past performance a horse coming in from Pocono Downs showing "...ft WilkesBarre ...". Does a regular at Yonkers know this is a late closer for nw25000lt or 3pm races? It can even be a series from Yonkers. If you don't go all the time you may not know the conditions for the Hopeful Pacing Series was nw20000lt or nw2pm. The race line for Early or Late closers should show something like "nw25000lt/nw2pm lc". This way the person reading the program will be able to figure if a horse is moving up or down. If there is additional room to show the series name that is fine, but the conditions of the series should be shown.

For stakes races, ensure the type of stake is shown along with the name. For example, if you are going to show "ADIOS", make sure you show "ADIOS 3yo stk". I have seen a horse ship in from Maywood showing 'ABE LINCOLN" and it did not show that it was for 2yos. Yes, I can assume from looking at the horse it was a 2yo race, but I would not know if it was an early or late closer or a stake race. If a stake race, was it for IL breds or open company?

For condition races show all primary conditions. I am not a big fan of condition races but if we are going to have them, let's give people enough information. The Meadowlands will show a race that is non-winners of 2 races lifetime or $10,000 life time as nw2cd. There are times you will see in the same race horses showing nw2cd with different purse amounts. Odds are it is because the 'or' condition is different which means there is a better class of horse in one race versus the other. Show in the past performance "nw2cd/10000lt".

Meaningful comments are a must. These are critical. A lot of people can't come each evening or a horse is coming in from a different track. Was there a problem in the race? Who knows. Some tracks list comments, others don't. If the thoroughbreds and dogs can do this, why can't we?

With changes like this, the program will become more meaningful and more people will have a chance to win. After all, if people keep losing they eventually don't come back.

Are there any other changes you would like to see to the program?

Friday, May 29, 2009

Attract Fans, Forget the Mile Tracks

Despite the popularity of the mile track with horsemen, the mile track is the worst way to attract newcomers to the sport. Below see three different races; one at a half mile track; one at a 5/8 mile track; one at a mile track. These races were randomly selected, they were not selected for how much movement occurs in each race.

Here is a race from Yonkers Raceway (1/2 mile track)

Here is a race from Pocono Downs (5/8 mile track)

Here is a race from the Meadowlands (1 mile track)

Now you are a new or relatively new patron to the sport and you are standing on the apron or sitting in the grandstand not looking at a monitor or at the TV board in the infield; you're watching the horses. Which race are you going to find more exciting?

Odds are you will find racing on the half mile track the most exciting. You can see all the action without binoculars for yourself and see all the moves being made. Nothing is more exciting than a three wide sweep down the backstretch on a half mile track.

At the mile track, what is the person going to see on the backstretch? Not much; if anything at all. Any moves taking place are distant and you will have a hard time figuring out which horse is which. You have to depend on the numbers being posted on the board which unless you are at Woodbine, will likely not be accurate. For a lot of people, the only excitement is in the stretch run; it may seem more like picking a number.

The 5/8 mile track is a compromise. The way most 5/8 tracks are built, the backstretch is still close enough that you can see the action but the stretches tend to be a bit longer so you may loose a little of the action on the turns. Betting wise, it may make the outside posts more competitive than on a half mile track.

So after considering all of this, which type of track do you think will get new people excited to harness racing? Most likely, they will select the 1/2 mile or 5/8 mile tracks over the mile track.

Tracks like Vernon Downs and Mohawk converted to 7/8 mile tracks. A 7/8 mile track for all practical purposes are like a mile track when it comes to viewing. A lot of this has to do with an attempt to emulate tracks like Woodbine and the Meadowlands; a fascination with speed.

I suggest we look less at speed and more at providing a product that is more appealing to the fans/gamblers. Let fans see their selection race rather than guess where they are and they will be more likely to come back. Hopefully future racetrack builders will consider this when designing their facility.

Any thoughts?

Don't Forget, the Elitlopp is Sunday morning (in the Western Hemisphere). Catch the race if you can. If not, the USTA is covering the race.

An Alternative to a Commissioner

There has been a call for a Commissioner of Harness Racing from several respectable sources. As such, harness racing would in effect become a league, similar to MLB or the NFL. This commissioner would become the arbiter of any disputes and bring standardization to harness racing and strengthen the sport by being able to suspend or ban those that would be unworthy.

It is not going to happen.

While admirable, barring federal legislation which most people fear, there is no way you will be able to have a commissioner or formal league in harness racing. First of all, there are anti-trust concerns. Secondly, leagues traditionaly have been formed on the grass roots level. Investors have purchased into leagues as a start up and agreed to form a league. After a league forms, it expands by investors buying in or it decides to contract by buying out a franchise. Racetracks are already established and owned by investors. If it was decided to form a national association (instead of using the term league), racetracks would have to voluntarily join this association. There is no way you can force the racetracks to join as now that you are going interstate, the federal anti-trust regulations would take effect. Hence, you would have tracks in this association abiding by a common set of rules, but others tracks will continue to operate individually using their own rules.

What are you going to do about these tracks? Well, if you can't force a track to join the USTA, (see this case The UNITED STATES TROTTING ASSOCIATION, an Ohio non-profit corporation, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. CHICAGO DOWNS ASSOCIATION, INC., Fox Valley Trotting Club, Inc., and Illinois Harness Horsemen's Association, Defendants-Appellees, how are you going to force a track to join this association? Well, don't allow the trainers and drivers to race at these 'renegade' tracks? Trainers and drivers are independent contractors and banning them from competing at these renegade tracks would be restraint of trade.

The only way you can force a national association to regulate the sport is if the federal government steps in and grants harness racing an exemption to the Sherman Act and legislate a national association into existence. What is the chance of that as each state has a vested interest in racing (taxation)? Would the federal government step in for harness racing and not other forms of parimutuel racing?

That being said, all is not lost. There is away to strengthen harness racing (all racing in fact) and that is through the establishment of Horse Racing Authorities.

Each state with racing currently deal with the expense of maintaining racing commissions. In the NY/NJ area, there is the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey which is a bi-state agency charged with promoting commerce in a defined area within the two states. Let's use that model and create horse racing authorities to promote all horse racing and breeding in the regions. Using this model:

  1. The states would save money as the horse racing authority would be responsible for regulating all types of racing and would be responsible for performing the functions the racing commissions currently do. Let's say, there was the HRA of NY, NJ and PA. There would be economies of scale as there would be one racing commission where in the past there were three.
  2. These racing authorities would be self funding. The racetracks in the authority's area would have to pay for the expenses of the authority. Racetracks will no longer be forced to close when states have budget issues.
  3. The states in the authority would agree on a common tax rate so each track would be taxed the same.
  4. The states would get out of the regulating of the sport; all they would do is collect revenue.
  5. The racing authorities would have equal representation from standardbred and thoroughbred racing and where appropriate, greyhound and quarterhorse racing. The authorities would also have equal representation between track operators, horsemen and breeders.
  6. Race dates for each breed would be assigned by this racing authority so a circuit can be formed eliminating competition for horses, providing fuller and competetive fields, making the product better for gamblers. Horsemen can race year round with all tracks in a reasonable commuting distance.
  7. With each track having a true season (let's say no more than three months), the product will be fresh and people will support the meets on track (think Saratoga t-breds).
  8. Purses will be better as simulcasting profits from the whole year would be paid out over a short period of time at the individual tracks.
  9. Standardized rules will be in effect in the authority's area.
  10. The HRA will issue licenses. Get suspended? You will be suspended throughout the HRA jurisdiction.
  11. Easier to track fines and suspensions. With fewer regulatory agencies, it will be harder to hide a suspension.
  12. In addition to continuing the individual state's sire stakes programs, you can have the HRA form a regional sire stakes program; horses that are not grand circuit caliber will now have two circuits to race on to attempt to recover their expenses. It will make yearlings moer marketable in these areas.
  13. A little bit of socialism. A percentage of betting and slot handle (if applicable), will be used by the HRA to subsidize racing at tracks where there is no slot money; similar to the millionaire's tax in baseball.
  14. Instead of each track having stable areas (those that still do have them), the HRAs can establish centralized training facilities. These facilities would be under strict control of the HRA. Basically, these facilities would be racetracks without a grandstand. Those that prefer private training centers may still avail themselves of them.
  15. Nothing in this set up would not allow a horse to be shipped to another racing authority circuit.

Using my example of the HRA of NY, NJ and PA, you would have the following parimutuel harness tracks under the control of the HRA; Meadowlands, Freehold, Yonkers, Monticello, Tioga, Vernon, Saratoga, Buffalo, Batavia, and Pocono Downs under the control of one racing commission. Under this one circuit, you can set up two groups of tracks:

  • Vernon, Tioga, Buffalo, Batavia, Saratoga
  • Meadowlands, Freehold, Pocono, Monticello

The Meadows and Chester Downs geographically on the fringe would belong to different racing authority circuits (Meadows with the Ohio and Kentucky circuit and Chester with the Delmarva circuit).

Using this set up, you would have no more than two harness tracks operating in geographically diverse areas. Each of these circuits would divide the 365 racing dates in the year so they would have live racing no more than three months at a time. As for the t-bred side, there would be only one or two t-bred tracks operating in the area as the Aqueduct, Belmont, Saratoga, Meadowlands, Penn National, Monmouth and Atlantic City would be under the HRA's control and have to follow the same rules. With fuller and more competitive fields and betting being less diluted, betting on both breeds will be more concentrated making each track more profitable as well as benefit the horsemen.

Certainly there are other issues to be addressed, such as how does slot/casino games figure into the picture (each track should be allowed to offer whatever gambling is allowed in that state). You may disagree with some of these items, but this proposal provides a framework for discussions to solve many of racings problems.

Do you see any problems with this approach or care to offer an alternative plan? Please share.

Scandal in Sweden

The Harness Edge reports a major scandal on the eve of the Elitlopp where trainer/driver Ake Svanstedt has been charged with animal cruelty, having reportedly asked two of his second trainers to use electrical prods to shock horses in training.

While it is great that Sweden is pursuing criminal charges, I find it distressing that the Swedish Trotting Association has decided to wait and see how the criminal case plays out before they decide on doing anything and then, it would only result in a multi-year suspension. What the STA should do is suspend Svanstedt until the case is completed and if convicted, he should be expelled.

There is no place for animal cruelty in harness racing. People who perpetuate cruelty to our stars need to find new professions.

UPDATE (Late):  My apologies to Mr. Svanstedt for not updating this story earlier, but Ake Svanstedt was  acquitted in a Swedish court back in 2010.  As a result of that decision, there was no need for action by the Swedish Trotting Association.  When he left for the United States, Svanstedt had a valid professional trainer-driver's license in Sweden and were he to return home, he would be relicensed.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Ban The Whip

There has been a lot of talk in harness racing regarding the use of the whip. Many racing jurisdictions have tightened their rules; others have increased their fines; others have done nothing. Some voices in the industry have called for the outlawing of the whip; some called for the changing of the rules; others call for no new changes, just enforce the existing rules.

Well, this blogger calls for the outright banning of the whip. If we want to let drivers carry the whip in the event of an emergency that is fine, but the regular use of the whip needs to stop.

Attitudes towards animals in the United States have evolved over the years. In the past, animals were considered commodities that did not think and deserved little rights when it came to treatment. Nowadays, animals are considered to have the ability to think (not necessarily to the level of humans) and have feelings. Most believe animals are deserving of humane treatment and there is a growing animal rights movement. To survive, racing needs to recognize this changing attitude and adapt.

Will outlawing whipping bring many new people to the track? Let's not kid ourselves. Those who have already found horse racing distasteful will not be flocking to the track with the banning of the whip. However, those who have not yet formed an opinion who do come to the track will not not be turned off by the sight of whipping (don't think telling them the whip is only hitting the sulky shaft or saddle pad will change their opinion) so we will not be shooting ourselves in the foot. More importantly, we will show the general public we are concerned with the horses' welfare (yes, we have an issue with unwanted horses which needs to be addressed as well) which will help combat the anti-horse racing groups. Don't think those groups matter? Well, that is the same attitude the greyhound industry once had; look where they are now.

Will we loose gamblers by adopting this position? Initially, there may be some people who will turn away from the sport. However, once they see racing still is competitive and exciting, most of them will return. Considering many other forms of gambling have a better ROI, there is a reason why these gamblers are playing the horses; it is because they love the game as much as the gambling aspect.

Some people will argue whips are necessary; we have been using them for years. Just because we have been doing something for years is not an excuse to keep doing the same thing. People in the sport were complaining about the use of 'Indiana Pants' (pacing hobbles), trotting hobbles, and other innovations in the sport yet racing survived and flourished. People are afraid of change; the challenge is to overcome this fear. Norway does not allow the use of whips in harness racing, yet racing still goes strong over there.

The bottom line is whipping goes against current societal views and we need to adapt to the new reality. Ban the whip and educate the public as well as the drivers/trainers. Let's have some drivers and trainers from Norway come over and tour the country talking to the horsemen on how they manage to get the most out of their horses without whips. Once harness racing gets rid of the whips, we will be better for it.

What do you think?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Racing in New Jersey - My Predictions

Harness racing in New Jersey is in critical condition. Racing can not compete with the tracks in surrounding states due to the lack of slots and the tracks can not break the stranglehold the casino industry has on the state legislature.

Freehold is in the middle of the last two weeks of the current race meet and business continues to be poor. As many of you know, there was a Purse Enhancement Agreement (PEA) which provided subsidies to racing in New Jersey from the casino industry covering 2008-2010. Freehold, through Pennwood (a partnership between Penn National Gaming and Greenwood Racing) did not accept the subsidy due to a change in terms from the last agreement which would bar Pennwood from attempting to operate slot machines anywhere in New Jersey; past agreements barred Pennwood from seeking slot machines at Freehold only. Being a casino company, Penn National Gaming would not agree to the terms.

The SBOANJ was understandably mad that Freehold declined the purse supplement. However, being Pennwood was barred from the negotiations which gave them a purse supplement, they were under no obligation to accept the terms of the agreement. As a result, purses were slashed significantly. Hence, the exodus of horses once other tracks opened and the quality of racing has fallen dramatically which continues the spiral downward.

The governor, in an effort to address racing's concerns ahead of time has formed another commission to work on how purses can be substained after this PEA expires. The horsemen are represented as are the casinos and the NJSEA (owner of the Meadowlands and Monmouth Park). No representation from Freehold. Conclusion? The casinos, NJSEA and the state has decided Freehold is irrelevant. The horsemen? No protest that Freehold was not being represented in this commission.

Things at the Meadowlands are not much better. Tonight's card features one race for $10,000 claimers and another race for nw4000cd. Previously, the base claiming price was $15,000 and the bottom condition race was nw6000cd. Even with the purse supplement, the Meadowlands can't fill their cards without lowering their standards. These bottom classes at the Meadowlands are racing for $7,500; at Yonkers the same classes are going for $9,000 (as a reference, the bottom classes at Yonkers, $7,500 claimers or nw3000cd are going for $7,000). Hence, don't expect the horse shortage to improve. The Meadowlands is in the process of losing their status as the number one harness track in the United States.

All is not lost. Racing will not disappear in New Jersey. Here is my prediction as to what will happen:

1. The Meadowlands will be purchased or leased by a casino entity (whether one company or a consortium of casino companies). Slots and table games will be offered at the Meadowlands with purses being supplemented by the casino revenue. I say table games will be coming because with table games now being allowed in Delaware, it is a matter of time till table games are allowed in PA and NY. The casino industry will realize the state will need to allow gaming at the Meadowlands because the revenue from Atlantic City will continue to shrink; all of a sudden they will decide they will allow gaming at the Meadowlands provided they control them.

2. The Meadowlands harness meet will be cut to four months; May through August. The thoroughbred meet will be dropped. To compensate the thoroughbred horsemen, they will race at Monmouth from May though September or October. Purses will be higher than they are now so racing at the Meadowlands will be similar to the quality at the Red Mile during the Grand Circuit.

3. Pennwood will decide not to request dates for 2011 or even as soon as 2010 and put the property up for sale. The property will sit idle until the economy improves unless....

4. The NJSEA or successor owner of the Meadowlands purchases Freehold Raceway. Freehold will have it's purses supplemented from slots at the Meadowlands. There will be two race meets at Freehold, March through April and September through October. While purses may not be at the level of the Meadowlands, the quality of racing at Freehold will be better than ever.

These are my predictions. Anyone else see a different scenario?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Harness Racing Vacation Idea

A brief timeout from the more serious postings....

If you have not already made plans for a summer vacation, let me suggest a trip back to harness racing's roots. From July 1 through July 5 Goshen Historic Track is hosting the Grand Circuit. The five day meet provides the opportunity to step back in time and experience harness racing up close. From county fair racing, sire stakes or the Landmark Series, there is something for everyone. Granted, there is no wagering at Historic, but everyone has a fun time. Where else do fans get to walk around the track or in the stable area and fans cheer for horses that finish last? Post time is 1:00PM.

There is more than racing in Goshen that week. The Great American Weekend is held on July 4 and 5 right next to the track so there is a craft fair and rides if you wish to take a break. Also, visit the Harness Museum and Hall of Fame which is next door as well. With Hall of Fame Day on July 5, who knows who you will see at the track?

Racing finishes early these days so if you are looking for parimutuel action, there is racing at Monticello Raceway, Yonkers Raceway, and the Meadowlands. Monticello normally races during the day but on July 4th Monticello's card starts at 7:30pm to provide for their annual fireworks display.

Hate crowds (even though there is no betting, they still draw well)? If you are in the vicinity, there is matinee racing on June 6, 13 and 20 starting at 1:00PM. The racing is not as competitive and the crowds are substantially smaller, but you can still get the feel for old time harness racing and see the museum on these days.

Try it, you like it. It's an annual tradition in my family. It may become a tradition for yours as well.

Opportunity Lost

Well, the Memorial Day weekend is over. Yesterday at the Meadowlands there was the opening round of the NJSS for 3yo colt and filly trotters. While the glamour trotters of the 3yo division did not race this week, there were some interesting 3yo fillies who were impressive. Seaside and Maragarita Momma were impressives in their 3yo debuts as was Gabbys Dream who showed her win in a division of the Lady Suffolk was not a fluke. All three are eligible to the Hambletonian Oaks and merit watching.

With this holiday weekend, one has to wonder how much the racinos are trying to market harness racing to their slot players. For example, wouldn't it make sense for a track like Yonkers Raceway to card an afternoon racing program sometime over the weekend? By racing during the day, you would have the opportunity to expose slot players (many who probably never saw racing) to harness racing. Seems like an opportunity lost.

The Meadowlands announced they (and NJAW) will be accepting wagering on the final of the Elitlopp and a few other races but not the entire Elitlopp card from Solvalla. On Saturday, NJAW is covering Sweedish racing starting at 7:00AM, carrying the whole card yet on Sunday, the day of the Elitlopp they start at 10:00AM, skipping the first half of the card including the Elitlopp eliminations? It makes no sense; not only is it like simulcasting half of the Hambletonian day card, but with no other tracks racing that early in the morning, you are giving up a period of exclusitivity. If it is economically feasible to carry the card on Saturday, why not on Sunday?

Also, wouldn't if be something if TVG would one day cover the Elitlopp like they cover the big races in Japan instead of showing informercials? Who knows, with Betfair taking over TVG that may become a reality one day. It wouldn't hurt if we send an email to TVG. Email them here.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Profile in Courage

Sometimes you read a story that stays with you; one you need to share. Well, I came across such a story yesterday. In the Middletown Times Herald-Record there is a story regarding Billy Parker Jr., who plies his trade at Monticello Raceway. This is a story which transcends harness racing, it is a triumph of the human spirit.

Those of us who love harness racing or any other sport worship heroes. We remember the Somebeachsomewheres and the hot drivers of the day but after reading a story like this you realize who the true heroes; those with great courage are. You don't need to be on the top of the game to be a hero, the people who battle all life throws at them are heroes. Mr. Parker fits this description.

Next time you are upset about a lost wager or a bad drive, keep this story in mind. It puts things in perspective.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sleepless in New Jersey

Well, another sleepless night. Woke up around 1AM realizing 'that's all she wrote'. So I turned on TVG to watch thoroughbred racing from Australia and Japan; not that I was betting it, but it was better than watching the latest infomercials.

Five things struck me while watching the programming.

1. Attendance at the Tokyo racetrack was disappointing - They were expecting anywhere between 90-100K people at the track that day but earlier rain kept the crowds down. Well, the crowds might have been down but the pan shots showed a full racetrack (what, only 80 thousand or so?). Wouldn't it be great to see attendance like that here? What are they doing right that all types of racing are not doing here in the Western Hemisphere?

2. Large fields in each race - Each race, before late scratches, had between 16 to 18 starters. That certainly makes for more interesting wagering and exciting races (see #3 below). Why can't we have more starters in each race? I know horsemen don't want to have trailers in our races (though they seem fine with it abroad), but can't we widen the racetrack so we can put 10 (1/2 mile) to 14 starters on the starting gate?

3. Exciting finishes - Each race had the horses tightly bunched turning for home and you had horses five or six wide down the stretch. Most races had tight photos or were competitive enough that the adrenaline of most bettors was flowing deep into the stretch. This is a problem we have both in t-bred and standardbred racing. Certainly our American and Canadian racing secretaries can put on races that are more competitive so we don't see a constant parade of open length winners? If not, maybe we need to change the way we put races together.

4. Exciting camera angles - This is something you will see in races in Europe as well. I noticed an inner track where a vehicle drives along with the field taking great camera shots. Not only that, during the race you see head on shots and all different angles, far different and superior to our traditional views. Why can't we do that and make the product more exciting to watch?

5. They still race standardbreds in Australia, don't they? - Since there was minimal racing action being shown during these late hours, why was there no harness racing being shown? There certainly is harness racing in New Zealand and Australia and if they are already bringing the signal for the thoroughbred racing from there, why not any harness racing? It is not like they will have to drop a U.S. signal to carry harness racing; there was plenty of free time available to bring in a signal from a harness track down under. Maybe we need to start a campaign with TVG to at least try an experiment with a major harness racing down under.

Am I missing something?

Maltese Artist

Maltese Artist was put down after suffering a catastrophic injury in his elimination of the Molson Pace on Friday night. Maltese was a star of racing, a veteran of seven years that the fans could identify with. His loss is tragic not only for his connections but harness racing on the whole.

While catastrophic breakdowns are much rarer in harness racing than other breeds, we need to remember the threat does exist. As the industry profits from the efforts of these atheletes, we have an obligation to fund research for these types of injuries so the day may come where euthanization may not be neccessary.

RIP Maltese. May you never be forgotten.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Weekend Stakes Action

This weekend, there are three stake races of note on the card. At Georgian Downs is the Upper Canada Cup for 3yos. Pocono Downs features the Max Hempt stakes for 3yos. Lastly for the 3yo fillies is the Courageous Lady stakes at Northfield Park. Do you think there are other races this weekend of note?

Lastly, can someone tell me why tracks like Windsor, Georgian Downs, and Fraser Downs make their programs available free on the web why other tracks make you buy them? Seems like these tracks can teach the big boys something.

Fantasy Time

It is once again time to play fantasy harness racing. If you have not yet signed up, it is time to sign up for the Jugbarn contest sponsored by The Horseman & Fair World and the Delware County Fair. It is great fun and who knows? You may win a prize. You have until May 30th to sign up.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Less Racing More Filling

There is too much racing going on for the amount of betting taking place. In the old days, the racing commissions in PA and DE used to make sure Liberty Bell and Brandywine did not compete against each one. This logic seems to have gone out the window. Using my area as an example you have the following harness tracks racing at present:

The Meadowlands
Yonkers Raceway
Freehold Raceway
Monticello Raceway
Pocono Downs

Chester Downs could be included in this group but I prefer to include them in the Delmarva region. Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs are considered upstate NY.

Looking at my area, you suffer from horse shortages and limited gambling dollars available. Money which should be bet at one track is now being spread between five tracks. Short or poor quality cards are being presented which further turns off the gambler. Handles are pitiful and horsemen are more dependent on slot revenue which may eventually disappear.

What I propose is setting up regional racing authorities which will set up circuits to ensure each track is not poaching each other. This authority will ensure that only one track will be racing at the same time. Using the NYC metropolitan area as an example, each track would have an exclusive in the region; each racing only 70 days a year.

What are the advantages?

Purses Increases - Purse accounts will grow all year and be paid out during the limited race meets. When the track races, horses will race for much better purses.

Increased Handles - Less tracks to compete with at any given time. Think, you can be one of seven harness tracks running nationally at a given time instead of one of twenty. Better chance people will be betting on your improved product.

New Racing Opportunities for Young Horses - Have a horse that is MDSS eligible? Nominate the stallions not only to your state sire stakes program but to a regional stakes program and double your earning potential. If you are a breeder, that yearling you are marketing could be MDSS and Delmrava SS eligible. If you have a PA bred horse he would be eligible not only to the PASS but to any regional circuit stake that crosses into your state.

Better Racing - More horses available for each track.

Horse Welfare - More horses racing mean horses will get more time off. Yes, less racing opportunities but you will be racing for much larger purses; you will be able to afford giving your horse time off if it is necessary.

Staying Local - Yes, horsemen may have to ship out to race but by setting up circuits, horsemen will be able to set up a home base and ship reasonable distances to race year round for better purses.

People Will Actually Care - Going to the races will become an event; think Saratoga Race Track (t-breds) with their limited meet and stake races versus the ho hum of Monticello Raceway that races overnights all year. People enjoy football because they play four months during the year; if football was year round there would be less interest in it.

Here are some of the regional circuits which can be set up:

Big East Racing Circuit - Pocono Downs, Monticello, Yonkers, Meadowlands, Freehold.

Delmarva Racing Circuit - Chester Downs, Dover Downs, Harrington Raceway, Rosecroft, Ocean Downs, Colonial Downs.

Upstate Racing Circuit - Tioga Downs, Vernon Downs, Saratoga Raceway, Buffalo Raceway, Batavia Downs

Atlantic Racing Circuit - Scaraborough Downs, Bangor Raceway, Rockingham Park, Plainridge Racecourse

Midwest Racing circuit - The Meadows, Running Aces, Michigan and Ohio Racetracks

Southern Racing Circuit - Kentucky and Indiana Racetracks and Pompano Park

Pacific Racing Circuit - California racetrack(s)

Yes, it is a change to the way things are done now but in the long run it would be best for all involved in the industry. I realize there may be less employment opportunities at the individual racetracks due to shorter meets, but that is better than no one being employed.

Any comments? Would you create different circuits?

Reality Check

The events of recent days tells us how racing stands in the food chain of state governments. With the state of Michigan cutting their budget, they are threatening to force Hazel Park and other tracks in the state to cut the number of racing days dramatically; putting racing of all breeds in jeopardy. In the state of Pennsylvania, the legislature is considering allowing additional casinos in the state; this will hurt the income of the racinos.

For those that can't read the tea leafs, let me spell it out for you.

Slot machines are a band-aid not a solution. Whether in this or the next economic crisis, states will do anything to get more revenue. If your local track has slot machines, the time will come where down the street or a couple of counties over there will be a new slot parlor/casino opening up. Your purse supplements are going to be cut. Racing needs to change the game so there is more wagering on racing to make up the future losses in slot revenue.

Horsemen, Breeders and Track Operators need to get together to form PACs and other lobbying groups. State governments are not listening to you now. Money talks. If you want to be working in harness racing five years from now you better give up part of your purse account for lobbying purposes.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Let's Play Mutuel Manager

You are the Mutuel Manager at Harness Downs, the local racetrack in your community. Your general manager has come to you and told you that the current wagering menu does not attract new horseplayers. Yes, your Pick-6 is well played as is your $.10 Superfecta (shame on any track that doesn't offer the dime option) but the marketing department is noticing the track is not enticing new horseplayers. Your GM wants you to come up with a wager that is easy to understand, easy to play yet has the potential for a good payout that will get people to notice. Takeout is not an issue as you work for progressive management that realizes a 10% takeout is all that is needed.

What wager(s) would you come up with and why would you select it?

Eliminate the Eliminations

With the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, the Meadowlands begins it's Championship meet. Stakes season is upon us as the big boys (and girls) begin their campaigns in earnest and the 2yos begin baby racing on June 6 at the Big M. Enjoy the racing and who knows? The next super star may be coming upon the scene.

With stake season now in full force, here comes the dreaded elimination races. Why do we insist on continuing with elimination races? Elimination races are an anarchism which needs to be eliminated. Here you have stake races going for $500,000 or more and the elimination races are going for $25,000 or $50,000. What do we get? Races that are often not competitive with trainers and drivers more concerned with qualifying for the final the next week than winning the race yet we ask the public to bet on these races. It makes no sense.

Now Harrah's Chester Downs has the right idea with some of their big races. For the Battle of Brandywine, The Colonial and The Valley Forge early closers, Harrah's has dropped elimination races. Instead, of having eliminations and finals what Harrah's does in each of these races is seed the horses according to money earned as of a certain date. The top eight horses race in the main race; the next eight horses race in the first consolation and the next eight horse race in the second consolation with the starting fees tiered depending on which race the horse gets into. Using the Battle of Brandywine as an example, the main race goes for $500,000; the first consolation goes for $200,000 and the the second consolation goes for $100,000. The horsemen get to race for very good money and the public gets exciting 'take no prisoner' competitive racing. Last year on Super Sunday, the racing was excellent and the bettors got great payoffs.

I understand Harrah's approach for their major 3yo races would not work for 2yos. For 2yos, I would suggest dividing the race into divisions instead of eliminations and a final.

Other tracks would be wise to adopt this policy. If you think otherwise, how do you think tracks should handle races which currently use eliminations?

In other news, Enough Talk has departed for Sweden looking for his first Elitlopp victory after last year's third place finish. The Elitlopp is Sweden's most important International race. Part-owner and trainer Peter Kleinhan should be applauded for taking advantage of the opportunity to participate in this race; others offered the opportunity to take part in the race have decided for various reasons not to make the trip. The Elitlopp will be run on Sunday morning (EDT) May 31st. Unfortunately, very few people will be able to watch the race live in the United States. The Meadowlands will be opening early that day to allow for the simulcast and one assumes they will make it available through their NJAW system.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

An Easy Marketing Opportunity

Back in 1988, the March of Dimes Trot was held at Garden State Park. In this race, some of the greatest trotters in the world converged on Cherry Hill, NJ to compete in what turned out be one of the greatest races of all time.

Almost as important as the race was the marketing opportunity afforded the sport; a tie-in with a national charity, the March of Dimes. The March of Dimes was able to sell raffle tickets where the winners were determined by the outcome of race. It was a win-win situation. Harness racing received positive publicity; the attention of people who never saw a harness race before paid attention for one night; a charity was able to raise needed funds.

Why is harness racing not doing this again?

Yes, there were problems with raising funds for the purse which put the race in jeopardy but there is no need to create a special race for this type of fundraiser; we already have a race which would fit the bill. The Hambletonian.

Think about it. The race is the most prestigous race harness racing has in North America and we already have it on television. Constructing the drawing correctly, we can have an untold number of people who never saw a harness race turn on their television that August afternoon to see if their ticket is assigned to a horse in the Hambletonian; the ratings for the broadcast go up. Put a couple of commericals for the charity in the broadcast (similar to the NFL's United Way commercials) indicating how the industry supports the work of this charity and build some good will. Harness racing wins, a charity wins.

Seems to be a no-brainer to me. Why it can't be done this year, is there any reason it can't be done in 2010?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Fair Start (Not)

Could you imagine going to a casino to play a game of blackjack and after you put your initial wager down the dealer drops the cards and you are told you lost your bet even though you didn't even get a chance to start playing the game? No.

Could you imagine going to a racetrack and playing a horse that refuses the mobile starting gate and have the field sent on their way why your selection is still 300 feet behind and being told you lost your bet? Yes, if in the United States.

What is wrong here?

One of the biggest travesties that the American harness racing fan has to face is the failure of the tracks to adopt the fair start rule in effect at Canadian tracks. For those not familiar with the rules in Canada, here is an excerpt of the rules from the Ontario Racing Commission (ORC):

(k) The Fair Start Pole is a pole erected at the point approximately 200 feet before the
start. The Fair Start Pole shall be yellow in colour and shall protrude at least two feet
above the inner rail.

(l) If a horse has not reached the Fair Start Pole when the horses are released at the
starting point by the starter, the Judges shall cause the inquiry sign to be displayed
immediately and shall request the horse be scratched from the mutuels.

To put it in simple words, in Canada, if a field is sent off and a horse is hopelessly outdistanced at the start the bettor gets their money back. Yet, the horseplayer in the United States can rip their ticket up before the race even starts.

Is it really going to cost the tracks that much money to refund wagers in these types of situations? Nope. Common sense would dictate these bets be cancelled and refunded to the horseplayer; it would make a customer feel their business is appreciated and build good will. Yet the tracks (with the help of their racing commissions) decided they rather keep the money in these situations and are willing to alienate their customers by ripping them off. Why the contempt for their customers?

Look, horses breaking before the start of the race is part of the game. But there is a big difference between a horse breaking just before the start and a 1/8th of a mile before the race starts.

Implementing the fair start rule in the United States would be a good first step in retaining and growing the fan (customer) base at a minimal cost. Each state should implement this rule immediately.

Monday, May 18, 2009

It's a Sport (First)

Recently there has been a lot of debate regarding what harness racing is. Is harness racing a sport or is it a gambling product? At the recent Standardbred Wagering Conference, Moira Fanning, a Director of the Hambletonian Society reportedly indicated that harness racing was not a sport. "It's a gaming product, so let's call it what it is."


Let's not delude ourselves. Without gambling, harness racing would be at best a fringe sport, racing at some small county fairs for minuscule purses. However to market harness racing as purely a gaming product is destined to fail as we can not compete against other gambling products financially; it costs too much to produce the harness racing product versus other forms of gambling and these costs must be paid for. This is done via the takeout.

Let me state this now. The takeout in harness racing (and other forms of racing) is much too high and needs to be reduced. How much the takeout should be is a topic for another time but for our discussion, we need to acknowledge the takeout will never be close to other gambling games as the expense involved in putting on horse races is far higher than pushing a button on a slot machine or having a game of 21. If you try to lump us in with slot machines, 21 or poker we are destined to fail; those people looking for a straight gambling experience will play the games with the lower costs and that leaves out harness racing.

Harness racing needs to recognize it's success is tied to being identified as a sport first with a gambling component similar to the NFL (yes, gambling is a big part of the NFL's success). Once we strengthen/develop our brand name, then people will be willing to gamble on racing and pay a takeout which will support the production of the harness racing product. It's called product differentiation.

Later columns will discuss things we can do to improve this sport but I want to leave you with one item we can take from the NFL to improve the sport; it is called a season. People bet on the NFL because they play a relatively short season, their fans (and gamblers) do not get fatigued. How racing can adopt a seasonal approach will be discussed in a future column.


I would like to welcome you to View From the Grandstand; a fan's view on harness racing and the issues the sport faces today.

Why this blog when there are others related to harness racing?

Harness racing, as other forms of pari-mutuel racing, faces many problems. While many people in the industry are offering suggestions to deal with issues the sport is facing, they are approaching the issues from their own perspective. Breeders, owners, trainers, drivers, racetrack owners, and gamblers are representing their segement of the industry as they should, but without concern for other stakeholders. This is a problem; to work through the problems harness racing has requires cooperation. As a former standardbred owner and current fan, it is my hope to offer my opinions on the issues of today. As a person who currently looks at the sport as a fan, I have no agenda other than the love of the sport. Hopefully, those who read my comments will be able to accept my comments in this context; hoping to better the sport we love. As such, the conversation at View from the Grandstand will be civil as hopefully will be your comments.

Will some of my suggestions be stinkers? Some too simplistic? Perhaps. However, even if you don't agree with everything I post, hopefully there will be value in reading my thoughts.

I refuse to believe harness racing is on it's death bed. Yes, there are problems but there are great horses and stories to be told. Hopefully we will be able to discuss those as well.

Welcome to View from the Grandstand. I hope you will enjoy reading this blog as I hope to have writing it.