Mark Hetherman, blogging over at Standardbred Canada, suggests we make the drivers the star of the sport instead of the horse. Mark feels making the driver the star instead of the horse makes sense, especially since our star horses tend to leave the racing scene after two or three years.
There is certainly a case to be made for this. For example, in NASCAR, is Jimmy Johnson the star or the car he drives? What about Danika Patrick? Can't we do the same thing with a Brian Sears or a Jason Bartlett? Unfortunately, there is a difference. A Jimmy Johnson fan isn't going to lose a $100 when he doesn't win a race where as Brian Sears not winning a race is going to cost some gamblers money. To the bettor, a driver is often as good as your last race. That being said, racing can do a much better job of taking advantage of a driver's celebrity. Tracks should require all drivers racing at their track be available for a certain amount of public relations activities, be it visiting children or veterans in hospitals, attending charity events (even if the track pays the fee) or help with promotional events.
Where Hetherman goes wrong, is with his idea of a track hiring fifteen drivers to become house drivers. His suggestion is to identify fifteen drivers and have the tracks sign them to contracts to drive exclusively at the track(s), only racing elsewhere for stakes races. Instead of the driver driving for their 5% commission, he proposes paying them an annual salary with an incentive tied to the handle increasing. Trainers would have to choose a driver from one of the fifteen drivers; the only time another driver could race at the track would be for a stakes race. As new stars arrive in the sport, the track could hire another driver and send someone who no longer cuts the mustard back to a 'B' track (fire them). The author admits there are issues that would have to be worked out with his proposal but he offers it as a starting point for a discussion.
This sounds a lot like jai-lai to me. If racing ever got to the point where the track hired trainers to train horses the track owned, then having track drivers would make sense. However, under our system of having individual owners of horses, this would be unfair to the owners and trainers. For the most part, trainers and owners should have the right to have any licensed driver drive their horse.
That being said, the proposal Hetherman offers does have some validity. Let's allow racetracks to set certain standards for drivers before they are allowed to drive at their tracks. For example, the Meadowlands could set a standard that a driver must have driven three years with at least 500 career drives and an overall UDR of at least .250 for the past year in order to drive at their track. As long as you meet this standard and are licensed, you are eligible to drive there. Come the following year, if you don't have an overall UDR of .250, you lose your privilege to drive at the Meadowlands, but if you get your UDR up, you can come back the following year. This way, while the track does not have a closed shop for drivers, it guarantees the betting public that they are only wagering on quality drivers.
By having a driving standard, it may open up driving opportunities to up and coming drivers plying their trade at the smaller tracks. As certain drivers are forced to the second division (pardon the soccer term), vacancies will open up allowing the best drivers racing at the second division tracks to move up and get a legitimate chance to drive at the best tracks; not just getting stuck with the horses no one wants to drive. A similar standard, perhaps a minimum of two years experience with a .200 UDR rating could be implemented at the second division tracks allowing similar movement of drivers from those tracks and third division tracks. Drivers will be racing with drivers of similar ability thus the racing will be more competitive. With drivers having a better chance to flourish in their local circuit, the tracks will have more drivers to promote the sport locally.
Driver standards, perhaps it is time. What do you think?