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Friday, October 23, 2009

The Magic Man Speaks

On the latest installment of Trot Radio by Standardbred Canada, the legendary William O'Donnell responds to Jeff Gural's comments from the previous week where Mr. Gural indicated harness racing was in serious threat of disappearing from the North American landscape. Gural indicated a big part of the problem was the fact our breeders were taking our stars away at the end of their three year old campaign and horsemen were content on taking welfare from VLTs instead of attempting to improve the product.

In the interview, Mr. O'Donnell defends the right of breeders taking our three year old stars off the track to the breeding shed, pointing out to change that would be interfering with people's rights to cash in on the breeding income they can earn. O'Donnell also indicates that the top three year old runners seem to retire after five starts and it doesn't seem to be a problem in their sport. There is one big difference between harness racing and the runners, there are plenty of big money races for older horses with the runners when compared to the trotters. Hence, while they may lose their star horse to the breeding station, a lot more of their 'A' list three year olds keep racing to make their aged races more competitive and marketable.

No one is suggesting mandating our horses keep racing until they are four or five before they go to stud. We should be changing the economics to encourage owners to keep racing past three. All those added money races tracks are hosting? Take most of the added money and put it to races for aged horses. Have stake races for two and three year olds, but let them race for less money. Then, if owners want to send their three year olds off to the breeding shed they may still do so, but they do it knowing they are leaving a lot more money on the table when they walk away. We may still lose the top dog to the breeding shed at the end of their three year old campaign but we will end up with a better product of aged pacers and trotters who will become marketable.

Mr. O'Donnell was correct when he lamented the fact we just can't seem to get a V75 type wager going in North America; a lottery type wager which would benefit racing. Unfortunately, there are governmental issues which need to be addressed to allow this to happen; something which is not going to happen quickly.

Perhaps the most upsetting part of the interview was when it was suggested that people are wagering with offshore betting sites to get away from the high takeout rates and maybe reducing the takeout is the answer. The response to this question? Avoidance; that can't be the problem. O'Donnell cited how people spend $35 to attend the races in France and how the sport is big elsewhere in Europe; the inference being pricing can't be the problem.

Like many in the industry, it appears with respect to this point Mr. O'Donnell doesn't get it. Pricing matters. Racing appeals to two different audiences; the fan and the gambler. Both are impacted by high takeouts. The fan has no concern regarding the takeout per se, but a higher takeout will cause the fan to run out of money quicker and more often making him/her eventually come to the conclusion they can't win and leave racing to try some other gambling product. The gambler is sophisticated to know what the takeout means to them and will shop for the best deal possible when they wager.

Offshore wagering is here to stay and we need to recognize it. Want to compete against them? Reduce the incentive to wager with them and compete. Don't wait for the government to protect you. This is a world connected by the Internet and government has more important things to do than hunt down gamblers betting overseas. Even if they pass laws, there will be no one to enforce them meaningfully.

It's a new world out there for racing. The old rules no longer work. We need to deal with it, or it will deal with us.

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