Ryan Clements wasn’t born when his grandfather’s horse, Cam Fella, filled grandstands. But that isn’t stopping the young entrepreneur from developing a technology product that he believes could help once again make harness racing relevant to a new generation of fans. By Melissa Keith
Many people who love harness racing discuss ways to promote and grow the game. Few develop an actual game to promote and grow racing.
Meet Ryan Clements. Corresponding with Trot from Hong Kong, the 30-year-old founder of the harness racing game designed for phones and tablets says developing “Off and Pacing” has been a long-range project. “I actually first had the idea for this game about ten years ago while I was in university. At the time I couldn’t really see a way to turn it into a reality, so I wrote down some notes and moved on. Now with technology coming to the point it is now, we can build a whole virtual world of racing that people can access right from their mobile phones.”
Off and Pacing was at the beta testing stage of development in mid-February, which means that people interested in trying the game could request an invitation via Twitter (@AndPacing) or Facebook (@offandpacing), download an app onto their phone/tablet and begin managing their virtual stable as part of a game-testing group. The game allows players to buy and name their racehorses; enter them in races at two virtual racetracks (PL Raceway and The Big Show); select drivers from a roster provided; and view the races. Statistics are tabulated, so users can compare their stable’s progress with that of rivals. At press time, Off and Pacing was available for mobile devices operating on Apple’s iOS system (i.e. iPhones and iPads), and a beta version for devices with the Android operating system was recently released.
“Currently my role in Off and Pacing pretty much covers every area,” says Clements via e-mail. “As the founder, I am responsible for guiding the direction the project is taking, and making sure we have a great team that can make it happen. Prior to this I was working as a software developer, so naturally I do spend a lot of time writing code, and working on new features for the game.” The team behind the game consists of Clements and a second programmer, Sean Snider, as well as marketing and social media specialists Jeff Vandenburg and Landon Mulhall, plus some part-time outside help for artwork.
The game and its creator have deep roots in Ontario racing. “We have a beautiful studio office on Prince Lee Acres in Uxbridge that we work from,” notes Clements, who is not directly employed in work with harness horses. “I grew up very involved in the Standardbred industry, but my parents didn’t want me to drive or train horses. I have always been a huge fan of the sport, and it pains me to see it struggle to connect with the current generation. My grandfather (Norm Clements) had the great fortune of being an owner of Cam Fella, so I would watch replays of his since he retired a few years before I was born.” Norm Clements also established Prince Lee Acres as a Standardbred breeding farm in the 1980s. Ryan’s father is Daniel Clements, a well-known trainer/driver. “Probably the most fun times I’ve had with harness racing is when he has had horses racing in major stakes events and there were actually crowds gathered to watch the races,” recalls the Off and Pacing entrepreneur.
Ryan’s passion for the sport may not have put him in the sulky professionally, but it influenced his academic choices. A decade before Off and Pacing, he introduced “Online Harness Owner”, a website offering fractional ownership opportunities and an online forum for owners to interact. “When I started Online Harness Owner, we needed a pretty complicated web application to keep track of all the ownership details, purse money and training fees,” explained Clements. “This led me to change my major in university from Economics to Computer Science, so that I wouldn’t always have to rely on hiring other companies to build our software for us. Ever since then, I’ve been working building different kinds of software.”
For readers unfamiliar with gaming today, this is not mere child’s play. In 2013, the Entertainment Software Association of Canada released survey results which showed that 50 percent of Canadians played computer or video games; 45 percent of them played “a few days a week”; and gamers’ average age was 31. A full 90 percent of Canadian children and teenagers played these games. While most gamers were male (54 percent), girls and women were definitely playing as well (46 percent).
Mobile devices were the platform for 25 percent of the games played in Canada in 2012. That proportion has undoubtedly grown with the popularity of more-sophisticated phones and tablets, but Clements says “Off and Pacing is very different than what most people would think of when they talk about mobile games.”
There is a certain degree of commitment involved in mastering Clements’ game. “A lot of mobile games are designed to help pass five minutes while you are on a bus,” explains the developer. “While you can certainly enjoy playing Off and Pacing for that amount of time, but the real challenge is trying to build a championship stable over the course of a year or two. Building a successful breeding operation in Off and Pacing could be a challenge that takes even longer to accomplish. A season in the game lasts 26 days, so there is an overload of excitement as you watch your star horse’s three-year-old campaign pan out in under a month.”
People who follow harness racing on social media noticed when Clements and his team began seeking participants for the beta test stage of the game in early 2017. “I have been absolutely amazed at the level of support we have received since announcing this game,” observes the lifelong racing fan and gamer. “We decided to have a ‘soft launch’ for the game since we knew it would take some time before we arrive at a final version that is ready to release to the public. I had imagined we would be able to get a handful of people to sign up to test the game, but in the first two weeks we ended up getting almost 200 people signed up.” Demand for invitations to download the game app literally outpaced the game developers’ expectations. “This created a great problem - our little test server [computer] couldn’t handle the level of traffic it was getting and we had to get a bigger one already!”
So far, Off and Pacing has succeeded in drawing a sizable pool of players from within the existing harness racing community, many of whom already enjoy other mobile games. “I don’t think we will necessarily need to draw users away from other games in order for us to find [additional] users,” notes Clements. “I believe people will be open to adding ‘another type of game’ to their phones. I also see this game attracting people who have never played a game on their phone before now.”
Some of this audience will undoubtedly include people who don’t participate in online handicapping competitions, yet find the strategy behind building a personal racing stable intriguing. Clements suggests the appeal of handicapping-based games, even those which clearly do not involve actual money being wagered, is limited. “Somewhere along the line we seem to have forgotten that this sport is not just about gambling,” he tells Trot. “The excitement of great racing will do far more to draw a crowd than new bet types or lowered take-out percentages ever will. That is why we’ve chosen not to have any gambling, even virtual, in this game. I want to demonstrate that this amazing sport can draw attention without it.”
Ambitious? You bet. But Clements has a knowledge base strong in both harness racing and the non-gambling side of gaming. He remembers seeing largely-vacant racetrack grandstands during his childhood and wondering why interest had declined from the not-that-distant heyday enjoyed by Cam Fella. In high school, Ryan and classmates wrote code for virtual tanks, pitting them against each other in a battlefield-based survival game.
Honing coding skills started as an academic activity but grew into a real interest and career path for Clements, who says Off and Pacing has the potential to incorporate the expertise of others interested in game development, thus attracting that youthful audience many racing pundits proclaim near-extinct. “We are considering running a coding competition where participants will program a driver’s strategy, and then face off in a ‘virtual driving championship’ for a prize,” he adds. “I think this is one of the great things about games—they can spark interest in the younger generation to want to learn how to code for themselves.”
“Innovation” and “disruptive technologies” are buzzwords in business today. Even the tradition-focused horse racing industry is not immune to these trends, which show no signs of slowing down. In January 2017, for instance, Woodbine Entertainment Group named the inaugural winner of its “Horse Racing 3.0: Changing the Game” (HR3) competition for start-ups and entrepreneurs. Co-sponsored by Ryerson University’s Office of the Vice President, Research and Innovation, and iBoost, a team of Toronto developers took top prize for “BetShare.” This interactive online handicapping/wagering platform is intended to connect newcomers to experienced, successful horseplayers who, in turn, earn commission and a cut of advertising dollars for assisting with winning bets.
Clements says he’s never entered Off and Pacing in any competitions for racing innovation, although it would qualify as an innovative way to promote the sport on several levels. “Up to this point, Off and Pacing has been funded by myself, family, and Prince Lee Acres. We will be meeting with potential investors as we work towards the public release of the game,” tentatively scheduled for April 5th.
For those who might argue that a mobile game has little to do with real-life harness racing, Clements has powerful evidence to the contrary. “The team has been so encouraged by the response we have gotten from early beta users,” he says. “We’ve heard from numerous players that they absolutely love the game and can’t put their phone down. We know we are on the right track when users are feeling emotions similar to those involved in real-world racing: the anticipation waiting for post time; the suspense as your horse turns for home with the lead and you don’t know if he can hang on; or even the frustration with a driver who seemingly forgot how to drive just in time for your race. We want users to get a taste of those genuine emotions that come with owning a real horse.”
It’s about breaking down barriers to involvement, just as it was when he devised Online Harness Owner. As beta testing continues, identifying “bugs” or areas needing to be fixed before the game’s final version becomes commercially available, Ryan is quick to share credit with not only his team but the expanded “team” of industry participants who signed up for the trial version. “This truly is a testament to the amazing people in the harness racing industry. People from all across the globe, mostly those who work in the industry as trainers, drivers, grooms, or in other capacities have done anything they can to show support and help us succeed with this game.”
A number of professional harness drivers have already allowed themselves to be depicted as the Bobblehead-inspired virtual reinsmen in Off and Pacing. Among them are Tyler Smith, Nicholas Boyd, Brandon Bates, Brady Galliers, Roy Wilson, Adam Hanley, Petter Engblom, Derek Watiker and, naturally, Daniel Clements. “We are yet to approach a single person to ask if they are willing to have a character featured on them -- these drivers have all requested to be in the game,” notes Ryan. “Our plan is to increase the number of drivers in this way as we move through beta testing, and then begin recruiting drivers in the next month or two as we approach the public launch.” He and his team are currently willing to build a character for any driver who has held a license, provided they send a picture of themselves in their driving colours to firstname.lastname@example.org. Plans are in the works to approach several of the very top drivers in the sport about future inclusion as catch drivers at PL Raceway and The Big Show.
“Perhaps I am just a bit of a dreamer, but the potential I see for this game’s impact on the industry is almost limitless,” remarks Clements. “I want to explore partnerships with real-world tracks to show virtual championship races, between their races, on their in-field screens. This would give fans a chance to watch their own horse at the track even if they can’t (yet) afford to own a real horse, and create a great cross-over from virtual, to real world racing fans.”
The overlap between racing and gaming, as opposed to gambling, was made loud and clear in December 2016, when Elements at Fraser Downs opened Canada’s first casino-based eSports lounge. Gamers can now play their favourites in a 190-seat former poker room next to the B.C. harness racino’s racebook area. It’s not hard to imagine a game like Off and Pacing making its eventual way into the offerings at a venue like this, which currently includes popular genres ranging from first-person shooter games to sports simulation.
In the meantime, Clements’ challenge is to formally launch Off and Pacing and influence popular awareness of #harnessracing.