Now that we have discussed some of the reasons standardbred racing is in the mess it is in, where does racing go from here? Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet which will resuscitate racing; it will take a number of changes to improve harness racing’s fortune. Owners, trainers, drivers, breeders, track management will have to “take one for the team”. The Zielinski report identifies nine steps racing must be willing to take to secure its future.
Foster Industry Cooperation - “To reiterate, the pursuit of individual fragmented goals, individual profits to breeders versus horsemen versus tracks, horsemen threatening to strike, unlimited race days, increasing governmental subsidies, lack of market segmentation, blaming the completion, and “private” hiring of lobbyists must end.”
So writes Dr. Zielinski. The various stakeholders must realize they don’t live on an island. The success of any one group of stakeholders depends on the success of the others. Breeders have no market if there is no racing, horsemen can’t earn a living with racetracks being closed, and tracks (especially, non-racino tracks), can’t make a profit if there is no one willing to own racehorses. Industry leaders in one state which hires lobbyists to successfully obtain VLTs may improve their lot, but it comes at the expense of those who depend on racing for their living in other states. Horsemen who strike only embitter loyal horseplayers who may never return. Racing too many days at one track not only results in the dilution of the product but it freezes other tracks out of satellite time needed for simulcasting. The industry will succeed together or fail together so it is time for everyone to play together.
Hire A Boss – While a commissioner is not practical due to individual states regulating racing, it is time for the harness racing industry to hire a leader from outside of racing to run the ‘reorganization’ of harness racing. This person would be hired for a specific period of time and has carte blanche to do what he/she wants. This individual would be responsible for running a Best Practices Summit; establishing a Legislative Liaison Office to ensure racing has a national policy instead of the current local approach; conduct a marketing study of race track patrons; develop short, mid and long term strategic plans. The industry stakeholders will agree upon this outsider who will have no allegiance to any segment of the industry. By being an outsider, this person will be able to make decisions without having the emotional baggage a breeder, owner, horseman, or track operator may bring to this job. This person will be able to accomplish what racing has not been able to do as a result of its disjointed structure.
Conduct a Best Practices Summit – An opportunity for people considered as innovators to get together and discuss best practices and plan the implementation of these practices with the focus on long term growth instead of short term gains.
Legislative Liaison Office (LLO) - Harness racing cannot continue fighting local battles to the detriment of stakeholders elsewhere. The fight must be fought with a unified national focus campaign. A LLO will be able to deal with individual states to help develop national standards, keep track of what the competition and opposition is doing politically, and lobby individual states for the benefit of stakeholders throughout the nation rather than for the benefit of those in one state to the detriment of others.
Market Research Segmentation Study – It is time for racing to perform a true market research study to define what the various segments of their market are and what products (racing, wagers, etc.) are needed to appeal to the various segments. Racing has attempted to be a ‘one size fits all’ product which clearly it isn’t. What appeals to a ‘whale’ may not apply to a moderate gambler, and certainly will not appeal to a casual race fan. I know many people say worry about the professional gambler; others say worry about the fans. However, you need to develop your customers regardless of which segment they fall into. If you have people willing to spend money, racing should be doing its best to make sure these people spend it on racing.
Interview 20 Heavy Bettors – As we discussed in the last column, racing thinks it knows what the heavy hitters want but it appears there is a serious disconnect. Heavy hitters don’t want the best horses to race on, they would prefer to wager on second tier horses if they can get lower takeouts and rebates. They want larger field sizes. Some don’t like claiming races. Maybe it is time to really get to know what they want. Hard to believe this has not already been done.
Stop Whipping Horses - Whipping attracts animal rights groups. Whipping will eventually be used by casinos as a reason to end subsidies. Potential customers don’t want whipping and apparently many of our core bettors don’t think whipping matters. No good can come from whipping in the long run. It is time to get rid of it.
Develop a Strategy – Sounds simple but it hasn’t been done. The industry collectively needs to decide where and what it wants to accomplish in order to come up with a unified strategy.
Promote Efforts to get National Attention – What has Dancing with the Stars done for ballroom dancing? Why not try to get similar exposure for harness racing?
For sure, there will be people who will discount this report, unwilling to make the necessary changes or to make the sacrifices needed. There are those who have abandoned all hope and are content to squeeze what they can out of racing before it disappears. These people must step aside and let those willing to work for the future of harness racing to step up and lead the fight. In the meanwhile, it may be in the industry’s interest to provide incentives to encourage participation by their stakeholders.
Let’s have the Super Star Breeders Series; a series of stake races for horses sired and bred by those breeders who are members of the Breeder’s Alliance, a group which actively funds and participates in the Zielinski Report’s recommendations. Establish the National Harness Racing Association which will comprise of tracks willing to join the initiative. Tracks that join the NHRA have the option of becoming part of the American One Simulcast Network which will schedule race meets and times in conjunction with each other to ensure each track gets simulcast attention in an effort to bolster wagering handle. Members of participating horsemen groups will have preference in certain races at participating tracks.
The industry saw what happened when it ignored the first Zielinski report. Hopefully this is one mistake which will not be repeated. Next time there may not be a second chance.