Despite the emphasis on final times by breeders and racehorse owners, speed is hurting harness racing. How can that be? It is because there is a big disconnect as to what the industry participants want and what the wagering public wants. It goes without saying why breeders want the fastest horses; it is what the owner wants as generally the fastest horses are the ones that win races most of the time. Gamblers see it differently.
If racing was a sport like baseball, then all would be wonderful. Speed would be valued by the public as batting averages and ERA are. Unfortunately, few of racing's fans are there just to admire the horses and their speed. Racing is a gambling sport and as such, if people are going to wager they want the potential of getting not only a decent reward for the risk and they want excitement. To be perfectly honest, the way racing is so speed favoring these days, excitement is not exactly the first thing that comes to mind. As for payoffs, we know from the parade of favorites that are winning consistently the payoffs, in particular with straight wagers, is lacking.
The problem with half mile track racing is not as much the size of the track, but the fact speed dominates racing these days; that is what makes the outside post positions more daunting than in the past. If speed was not so dominating, we would be seeing horses making three wide moves in the backstretch and the race actively contested during the entire mile on a consistent basis. Races are much more predictable, not just on the half, but on larger size ovals as well.
What can be done with regards to making the sport less speed favoring? It would be nice to say let's go back to the old conventional sulky but it will never happen. First of all, good luck trying to find enough of those old wooden race bikes; you won't. Also, horsemen have spent so much money purchasing these sulkys that no one is going to want to just throw them in the scrap heap. That being said, perhaps the USTA could pass a rule saying no further designs of sulkys will be approved, but it would still depend on the individual racing commissions to go along with it, plus the USTA must be willing to risk litigation by manufacturers.
So if little, if anything, can be done with the sulky design, what options are left? Throwing in different distances to slow the races up would help, keeping races between a 1 to 1 7/8 mile range. If nothing else, it would make races a little less predictable. I would avoid sprint races because if racing is so speed favoring, what is racing shorter distances going to accomplish?
But perhaps the biggest problem contributing to harness racing's speed bias is too many tracks operating at the same time; basically we have diluted the horse population that it is very hard to put together competitive fields. As a result, you have occurrences where you get one, two, or three horses that stand out in a race and the rest of the field can't keep up with them. If you can't keep up with a horse, how are you going to beat it? Fewer tracks operating at a given track will give a racing secretary a deeper horse population and allow them to card the most competitive races possible. Unfortunately, horsemen prefer the diluted horse population as it means they can get their horses raced more frequently, which is real nice when you are at a track with slot-infused purses.
Are horsemen willing to make a sacrifice to give the gambler the more exciting and competitve races they crave? I'll let you answer that.