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Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Case Against Forced Contraction

Joe Nevills recently wrote an article on The Michigan Bred Claimer making a case against the presentation made by Churchill Downs CEO Robert Evans where he called for the contraction in the number of thoroughbred tracks operating in North America (rest assured no Churchill Downs tracks would be included) in order for thoroughbred racing to survive and thrive.  Evans claims racing will become stronger with fewer tracks, in particular by eliminating smaller tracks, such as bull ring tracks like Mount Pleasant Meadows.  It is no secret some involved with standardbred racing feel the same way; there are too many harness tracks in operation, spreading the simulcasting dollar to thin to allow the bigger tracks to remain profitable.

You can read Joe's Top Ten Arguments against Evan's plan and which pretty much states my opinion regarding consolidation.  Make no mistake, there will be consolidation, but any consolidation should be done naturally, not through forcing tracks to close.

We have people saying it is necessary to get rid of what would be best known as the 'C' tracks (The Thunder Ridges, Blue Ridge Downs, and other tracks with inferior product.  Some would say get rid of the half mile tracks; they are obsolete.  Nonsense.

One day I looked at the simulcast calendar at the Red Mile and found twenty one harness tracks on the simulcast calendar and there was the answer. It is not the number of tracks around; it is the fact they can’t schedule correctly by running seasonal meets. Run a seasonal meet and you will see attendance grow as people will attend those meets because they are virtually here today, gone tomorrow.

A problem harness racing has is there is little wagering interest through ADWs and simulcasting. Is this a surprise?  People in Montana will wager on thoroughbred racing because they get to see racing at Yellowstone Downs and the other bull rings.  They had a chance to experience racing in person and get to learn the game albeit with cheap racing stock.  This is why we don't get people from states that don't have or don't neighbor harness racing states wagering on the standardbreds.  Why would we expect these people to wager on our sport if they never see it in person?    People need to experience racing live before they will embrace it.  The purses may be cheap, the horses less than stellar, the handle minuscule, but they get to sample the sport and get caught up on the excitement, something which doesn't necessarily occur on a computer screen until you have experienced it live.  And those hated half mile ovals by the big gamblers?  What better way to get a novice excited by being able to stand outside and hear the hoof beats, watch the whole race without binoculars and see sweeping moves down the back stretch?

Now, we can't have twenty-one harness tracks racing at the same time as there is no demand for all that racing, but there would be nothing wrong with a one or two month meet at these smaller tracks to get people emotionally involved with the sport.  Racing fewer days at tracks will allow for bigger purses so maybe the racing stock won't be as inferior as it is now. 

Contraction will happen, that is a certainty.  But the problem is the number of racing days, not tracks.  Unless we get the number of racing days under control, we will loose many more tracks than necessary and they may not be the ones we want to see closed.

I am a member of Dignity After Racing and today I took a look at the list of members already signed up and I was pleasantly pleased to see some of the names of people who joined thus far.  People in the industry do care, but just need an avenue to express themselves and someone to take the lead.  The website is not yet completed, but if you are on Facebook, you can join the group and see that you are in good company.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the linkage!

Exposure is critical to the long-term survival of the sport, harness or flat. You hit it right on the head with the way small tracks are particularly engaging to novices. They are less intimidating (I've been in racing most of my life and I still felt overwhelmed on my first visit to Churchill Downs in '07) and a person on the apron does not need the assistance of a jumbo-tron to see all of the action. I can tell you from experience that it is a fine way to learn the game.

I am admittedly, not a big harness player (Twice, both live at The Red Mile), but I have no problem with half-mile courses. If it's anything like Thoroughbreds, some horses excel at them in ways that wider-course horses never grasp and vice versa. I love handicapping angles like that. Granted, it throws in another factor to have to worry about, but if only a small percentage of us are making serious money anyway, we might as well enjoy the challenge.

I am going to try to tread lightly with the following statement because of my previously mentioned lack of prior knowledge. I'm basing it on my perception, so I apologize in advance if this comes out really bad.

On the Thoroughbred side, there are often two schools of thought when it comes to setting up meets. If a track is popular, like a Keeneland or Saratoga, it can run a 20-day meet, everybody crams their money through the windows, and the track makes money hard and fast. If a track is less popular, like a Beulah or a Charles Town, they are not going to draw the 30k fans per day like the big tracks. To make the same amount of money, they have to run meets that go on for months, if not year-round. They make up for their lack in popularity by always being there when you want to bet a race.

This is purely speculation from an ignorant observer, but I think it is safe to say that even the biggest harness tracks would compare in attendance and general recognition to Thoroughbred racing's low first-tier/high second-tier tracks. That leaves a lot of Charles Town and Beulah-level tracks in harness' B and C levels who have to run the long meets to make it because the public interest isn't there to say "Here we are. Come see us before we pack up for the year."

If 500 people show up whether a track runs 50 days or 100, they might as well get the handle from those extra 50 days.

Perhaps this is a self-defeating theory because there are not as many boutique harness meets (that I am aware of), so there is not a control group to see if this is really the case.

Anyway, that's my theory as to why there are so many harness tracks running at once. Scaling back on dates would probably be the easiest way to improve the product, but I can see why many tracks would be reluctant to do so.

Pacingguy said...


Sadly, most of the harness tracks that have slot machines hate to race long meets because they lose money on the race meets; there is not enough handle to cover the expenses. At tracks like Chester Downs, the wagering handle accounts for about 5% of the purse money. The horsemen insist on racing more days for less money.

I know you are not a big harness racing fan, but you really need to go to the Delaware County Fair. Go for a Wednesday and Thursday. There will be less people on Wednesday for the Jugette but still a nice size crowd. On the Thursday, be prepared to experience sheer madness on Jug Day,