While racing under saddle (RUS) is doing relatively well in Ontario as they gear up for another season, racing under saddle continues to struggle in the United States. There may be an occasional exhibition (New York) or non-wagering event (elsewhere) which will put under saddle racing on display, but due to the lack of racing opportunities, the racing often looks sloppy. Two or three years ago when last there was a Hambletonian RUS Series, what spectators got was a competitive exciting race, a race which changed some doubters opinions regarding the viability of pari-mutuel wagering on it.
So while there will be good racing in Ontario, until something gets moving in state legislatures or racing commissions, here in the lower 48 we need to depend on series such as the NY Fair Series where a series of nine RUS events will be conducted at county fairs with a final to be raced this year at Batavia Downs. With some luck, this group of dedicated individuals will manage to get some additional races at the pari-mutuel plants in the state. While any races at the regular tracks will have higher purses, on the fair circuit purses will be minimal, around $750, so only the most dedicated rider, owner, and trainers will likely be willing to participate. If they wish to race for bigger money, they will be forced to go to Ontario.
My apologies to those who will participate in the occasional RUS events elsewhere this year, but the rest of the industry appears to have abandoned this form of racing. After getting rules promulgated at the USTA, which at district meetings were poo-pooed by traditionalists who quite honestly, can't see beyond their (fill in the blank) when it comes to innovation. People who refuse to even approach their legislatures or racing commissions because they are unwilling to go against thoroughbred interests who may claim RUS should be raced by thoroughbred permit holders (as if they ever will) or quite honestly, can't bother to do anything.
Perhaps they feel threatened with the idea we will have nine RUS tilts and one traditional race on programs (more likely it will be the opposite). Maybe they are overly protective of their purse account which in most cases hasn't been earned but in fact is a welfare payment. Maybe they have just given up and are just hoping the industry doesn't implode until they are ready to hit the rocking chair. Who knows what their motives may be.
What a shame, for given the opportunity, RUS could be another arrow in the quiver for standardbred racing; another variable in reading a racing program, something which may attract new people to the sport as gamblers or participants (there have been riders who have bought horses to race in these series and in some cases, participate at some levels with traditional racing). The thoroughbreds have turf races, dirt races, routes, and sprints to present the horseplayer. 99% of standardbred racing, mile races which blur one into another. This is a quality product?
I'll be the first to say RUS is not ready for prime time in the States. How can it be when the opportunities to race are so minimal and money earning opportunities are so limited? However, if we can get horsemen and tracks to develop a series of races with decent purses, even though they are not wagering events and make a three year commitment to have these races, some trainers and owners will take another look and better horses will race. With experience, the riders will get better and the coupling of horses and experienced riders will be able to put on a good show, a race good enough to wager on.
People say no one will wager on RUS. How do they know? Well, they wager on it in Ontario, maybe not the highest per race handles but enough to show acceptance and more familiarity increases handle. Will people in the States accept RUS? No one can say for sure, but given the opportunity to see some races with better horses and riders, I believe so. Besides, monté races are conducted in Europe and are well received by punters. I can't believe horseplayers in Europe are willing to wager on RUS while those in the States are not. All they need is the opportunity to experience RUS and gain familiarity. After all, familiarity brings acceptance.
Perhaps I would be more forgiving if horsemen were more willing to adopt other changes to the racing product, namely distance racing and trailers. Earlier this year the Meadowlands had races at 1 1/8 miles with two trailers and despite the reception received by gamblers, these races were ended due to drivers not feeling comfortable with the extra horses in the race. This despite the fact Yonkers Raceway is typically conducting 7 races a week at 1 1/4 miles with four trailers to accommodate the taste of European bettors. Say what you may about some individuals, at least the horsemen are willing to try something to increase wagering at Yonkers and it will hopefully payoff with co-mingling of pools on those 'French themed' races.
While I have no doubt some drivers may feel uncomfortable about the extra horses but if I may suggest familiarity breeds comfort. Of course a driver who never raced with trailers may be uncomfortable but after some races with extra horses, they will be more comfortable with it.
The problem may be the fear horsemen going home empty handed after racing. At a mile track, horsemen currently have to beat 5 horses to get a check. Add two trailers and now you have to beat 7 horses to get a check (a 50% chance becomes 41%). It is understandable owners, trainers, and drivers want to earn money and nothing is more disheartening than going home after a night of racing without a check.
I realize this is a business and purse money is what pays the bills, maybe there is a need to add more money the the purses of these races with distribution past fifth place. We know horseplayers like additional horses to wager on in each race; it typically increases payoffs. Distance racing adds another factor to the gambling puzzle which also aids payoffs. It is a lot easier to attract gamblers with decent payoffs instead of a parade of horses going off less than 3-1.
Exchange wagering, soon to debut in New Jersey is languishing elsewhere. Did you know California has already approved rules for exchange wagering yet no track has been able or willing to give it a go? Some complain about the amount of money which will go to purses from exchange wagering as the model is predicated on volume. When you consider how little money is being wagered on track resulting in handles being comprised primarily of off-track wagers, wagers which earn the purse account roughly 1.5% of each dollar wagered, can exchange wagering really hurt the bottom line? Ideally horsemen should get more money for their purse accounts but we are where we are, the time to try bold initiatives has arrived. Yet for many, inaction is the path chosen, only to arise when an attempt to re-direct slot funds or decouple is launched.
Slot money has always been a good support to allow the industry to reinvent itself. Other than the strategic wagering initiative, little has been done. Unfortunately, the opportunity is being squandered by inertia. There is still time to right this ship, the question is are there enough participants willing to step up? The leaders can do all they want but unless the rank and file are willing to change, their efforts are all for naught.