Earlier this year, I was attending an agricultural fair, when I came upon a unique booth. In front of me were several trays with a wide selection of grasshoppers, roasted, for human consumption.
The person behind the counter began offering samples in a number of flavours. I passed up on the honey glazed, and plain, choosing instead to try a “barbecue” grasshopper. All in all, it was a little different. I tried it, and I continued on.
Truthfully, I haven’t eaten a grasshopper since, and haven’t gone looking for them in stores.
But I do wonder if harness racing is the grasshopper.
Over the years, I’ve seen, heard, and thought of numerous ways of betting on our races. I’ve seen bingo cards with race outcomes on them, head-to-head bets, odds and evens, and horse wagering terminals designed to look like slot machines. We’ve witnessed exchange betting and futures, team bets and multi-track wagers. There are fixed-odds options, and in-race wagering, as well as envelopes with pre-selected tickets and quick pick lotteries.
Some of these concepts have gained traction. Many of them have fizzled out, or disappeared.
The trouble is - all of these bets are like grasshopper flavours.
They are designed to entice players by trying different ways of presenting the product to them. Many of these products have merit, but they are just flavours of the same thing – harness racing.
If you love honey garlic chicken wings, will a honey garlic grasshopper compel you to eat them on a regular basis? How about a cinnamon bun flavoured grasshopper? Banana split grasshoppers?
My suspicion is that those who sell wings, cinnamon buns and ice cream are not worried about losing their market share to an insect eating revolution.
We make a horse bet look like a slot machine or bingo card to convince slot and bingo players to bet horses instead. We say if Fantasy Sports is exploding for NFL football, we should offer a horse version to the same audience and see if they’ll switch allegiances.
Is it possible that we’re missing the simplest point of all?
To sell grasshoppers - you need to sell grasshoppers. And to sell horse racing - you need to sell horse racing.
By explaining to me the environmental and health benefits of eating grasshoppers, and other insects, you might resonate with me as a consumer who wants to feel better about myself and my impact on the planet. By selling them as a tasty source of protein, available for a fair price, you could make an impact on my desire to save money. By accentuating the positives and playing up on the benefits to my life, you might convince me.
The same goes for harness racing. Even to the bettors, we must sell them the appeal of the connection between man and horse, the energy of a paddock on race day, and the exhilaration you get from experiencing the speed of a horse race. This is the wagering sport of kings - the puzzle of all puzzles - the brain-game that will test you at every turn. We have to engage people, in a meaningful way, to convince them of that and present a full and complete experience.
As thousands of new people come to our tracks this summer, how many of them will fall in love with the sport? And how many will come back regularly? They line up on big days to pick up their hat or free bet, but do they come back?
For every one hundred people who taste our grasshopper, we need to take some of them, and immerse them in the experience. We need to bring them to the backstretch, into the starting gate, out to farms, and to our yearling sales. We need to get them to solve the handicapping puzzles that have fascinated generations of bettors, and make heroes out of the ones who solve these puzzles the best.
If we manage to do any of this in a convincing way, we can then interest these people in our many fantastic grasshopper flavours, and they’ll eat it up.