Sometime this morning, the USTA Budget Committee will vote on whether or not to fund the third year of the Harness Racing Fan Zone, the USTA's social media initiative. Make no mistake, at $250,000 this is a large expenditure for the USTA to make. If you look at it purely financially, at a cost of $16 a member (almost 23% of the annual dues a member paid), can the USTA really afford it?
However, if you look at the state of harness racing, can they really afford not to? A lack of any cohesive industry-wide marketing strategy and lack of television presence has made harness racing a micro-niche sport with little knowledge (at least positive) among the general public and little appeal among the American punter although guaranteed pools do seem to attract some crossover. Despite the appeal of guaranteed pools, there is little evidence these bettors are otherwise wagering on harness racing. As for ownership, the USTA's drop in membership and the decreasing foal crop tells the story about attracting new owners.
The social media initiative has been getting harness racing noticed among the general public and those already prone to wager on horses. As for getting new owners for the sport, last year a pilot program was put in place to attract new owners, something which can be built upon. Of course, new or not, any program that is such a large budget item needs to have metrics to meet for one doesn't want to waste money on a program which doesn't work. If the metrics are not met, either the program needs to be modified to hit its target or if the metrics are not met in subsequent years, then the plug can be pulled. Hopefully, it never will come to this.
The sad thing is the USTA shouldn't even need to discuss this issue. If each racino contributed $5,000-$10,000, depending on their profitability towards the effort, the USTA wouldn't even have to debate this issue. Sadly, few racinos would be willing to invest in such an effort.
Speaking of new owners, the USTA should encourage horsemen about supporting racing under saddle (RUS). When RUS began, people who had no connection to harness racing bought horses so they could participate in RUS events. Some individuals introduced to the sport by participating in RUS have expanded into traditional racing and have bought more horses. RUS is a means to attract new participants and should be given every opportunity to thrive.
RUS in America is basically in a holding pattern waiting for the first state to authorize wagering and is approaching the fork in the road; will it thrive or die? A lack of support by many horsemen associations unwilling to approach legislatures or commissions to get RUS approved for wagering or just outright hostile to it is self-defeating.
Horsemen need to know RUS will not replace traditional harness racing; it will supplement it. As for breeders, if RUS takes hold and stakes races are developed, breeders will be able to market their stallions and broodmares for their breeding success of RUS performers possibly increasing demand for yearlings. As for existing breeding stock, some sires and broodmares may produce great RUS performers while producing average regular performers.
RUS must be supported. It is time everyone gets on board.