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Sunday, February 12, 2012

In Defense of Wendy Ross

If you read Harness Racing Update and no doubt various message boards, people are ripping the New Meadowlands for the 'retirement' or 'firing' of Bob 'Hollywood' Heyden and replacing him with Wendy Ross.

Make no mistake, Hollywood Heyden will be missed from the nightly handicapping and replay shows as he is very knowledgeable in harness racing and the history of the Meadowlands.  In a perfect world, Heyden would have continued on with his job as he was a welcomed voice for the track veteran customers. 

There lies the reason for Hollywood's 'retirement'.  Doing things as they always were doing was no longer going to work for the Meadowlands.  With all do respect to those who love Hollywood (and count me as a big fan of his), he unfortunately doesn't fit the demographics the Meadowlands is aiming for, new gamblers; more important, the younger gambler.  With all do respect to all those involved, getting a female involved with the show is going to appeal to the new and younger gambler, hence the arrival of Wendy Ross to the Meadowlands team and the departure of Hollywood Hayden.

Does Wendy Ross have the credentials of Hollywood Heyden?  Of course not.  Would retaining Hollywood help attract new, and the younger gamblers to harness racing and the Meadowlands in particular?  Sadly not.  Will Wendy Ross improve as time goes on?  Most certainly.  Will the presence of Ross help attract the demographics which the Meadowlands is hoping to attract?  Most definitely.

Let's face it, those who have been complaining about Wendy Ross are long established horseplayers.  Are you going to stop playing the Meadowlands because one of their television personalities have changed?  Probably not. 

I understand the anger of Heyden's reduced role at the Meadowlands; it is as if someone has taken your favorite pair of sneakers and tossed them out.  The comfort level is gone.  Unfortunately, for racing to survive at the Meadowlands and elsewhere, comfort has to be sacrificed for new things to make the product more relevant to a new generation.

Just a clarification:  I would love to see Heyden and Ross paired together; this way they could appeal to both established and new horseplayers.  However, if that was done, it may have resulted in one of the track announcers having been released; remember right now, one calls the races; the other one does the handicapping show.  Assuming they only have a duo doing the handicapping show, which person goes?  Another option would have been to have one person doing post race interviews in the paddock.

It's the same thing with The Red Mile.  The Grand Circuit was always raced during the day when the horsemen could have their little get together in a relative empty grandstand before the sales in the evening.  Last year, horsemen were thrown into disarray when the races were carded at night and they were calling for the return of their beloved day time racing.  So in The Red Mile's case, they have gotten their old shoes back but at what cost?  Losing the gains in attendance and handle they made last year?  Is The Red Mile going to be better off for remaining a comfortable place so a trip to Lexington is an affternoon of racing, dinner and drinks with friends before the sales at night?  Hardly.

To develop the racing product further at The Red Mile, changes need to be made to accomdate the market you attempt to attract.  You don't tell your potential audeince to change their thinking in the name of tradition, tradition sometimes needs to change to grow the product.

The same thing applies to the Meadowlands.  You don't attract new people by serving them the same old failed model in the name of tradition.  Things need to change to attract the younger gambler.  It is unfortunate that Heyden was replaced but someone who the younger generation could relate to needed to be brought in despite the tradition of knowing Heyden was going to be on your television set each racing evening.

No one said change was easy.  There won't be another Bob Heyden so don't be looking for Wendy Ross to step into his shoes.  Wendy will establish her own style as time goes on and if you keep an open mind it will seem like Ross has been there forever.

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