News Item: Yonkers Raceway changes the standard distance for racing at their plant to 1 1/16 except for stakes and late closing events. You would think the end of the world has arrived based on the comments pro and against this 'radical' change. Yet, the industry praises the quick start at Maywood, which if anyone has noticed has changed the distance of their races; they just decide to time the last mile of the race. The purists are up in arms about the change at the Old Hilltop. I for one don't think Yonkers went far enough. If there was a need to change the distances of overenight events, why not change the distance on all your late closing events as well (I can understand your early closers and stakes took entries before the decision was made to change the distance, so until those races cycle off you're stuck)?
The purists are screaming how dare they change the distance of the race, isn't that why they are called standardbreds? So I guess quarter horses should always run 440 yards (they don't). This is the distance we always raced (with a few exceptions). In other words, this is the way we always have done it.
News Flash: What we are doing is not working. The problem is not just high takeout rates which has caused the public to largely rejected the game. Everyone seems to think it is because horse racing has lost its monopoly on gambling and the public has found other games more interesting. Sure, these things haven't helped but I would like to suggest it goes far past this. Other than Canada and the United States, harness racing looks a lot different. Some countries like Germany and Holland harness racing has their problems too, but in other countries like France and Sweeden, harness racing thrives. Yet, the North American industry concentrates only on how to get more people gambling; yet ignores the premise that the game itself is broken.
I understand the American psyche and while I am not expert on the Canadian psyche, I think it is safe to assume I can anticipate at least the Canadian horsemen's psyche. The world revolves around us so what we are doing must be right. Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news but the world does not revolve around North America; especially when it comes to harness racing. After all, can you name me one other country where the closing of one track is being feared as if the four horsemen of the apocalypse have arrived? How many other country's harness racing industry is on welfare like North America's? What does that tell us?
What we are doing is not working and as far as I am concerned we can blow up the standardbred industry's preconceived notions of what harness racing should look like and a good place to start blowing things up is the idea of the standard mile. Want to make the mile the 'classic distance for our big races? Fine, but there is no reason why we can't have races of longer and shorter distances. No reason why we can't be looking at mile rates instead of only mile times. No reason why we can only have one tier of horses in a race or even horses being raced under saddle and even consider the vault start. And maybe we need to look at tracks hiring a bunch of trainers to train horses at their tracks and drivers to drive at their tracks, paying salaries in addition to the 5% they get for winning a race. As for owners, if you want to race at these tracks with the exception of early closing or stakes races, you need to use one of the approved trainers.
Won't this anger the purists? Well, I used to be one of the biggest purists around, but even I realize things are not going well and when they are not going well, you better be looking at everything to see what can be done to improve the product. Yes, North American sires are considered amongst the best in the world, but if there is no place for their offspring to race, are they still the best?
This is not to say the sport needs to change 180 degrees overnight, nor does North American standardbred racing have to look like an exact clone of French racing, but we better damn be looking at what France, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, and what every other country is doing and adopt the best practices from those nations if there is any hope for harness racing to survive.
Make no mistake, the way we treat gamblers is a big problem, but if the game is broken does it matter? If harness racing is a game few people want to play does it really matter what it is priced at?
Yonkers has a problem with the configuration of their track and they are trying to fix a problem. Rather than scorning them, the industry should be trying to accommodate their experiment. After all, if what is being done at Yonkers is successful, you can be sure other tracks will be doing the same.
North American harness racing needs to realize they are not an island in the world of harness racing, but just one part of a global sport. With the need for as much handle as possible, we need to make the sport as attractive to people in Europe and Down Under as much as we need to make it attractive to those in North America.
So take those preconceived notions of what racing should look like and throw them out the window.