The harness racing business in Ontario right now reminds me of the stock market right at the end of a raging bull market
. Stock prices are high and everyone is making money and people are feeling good and then all of a sudden without warning it crashes. I fear that this could happen to us in the blink of an eye. The advantage we have is that we can be proactive, act now, and possibly save harness racing.
I urge everyone to read Darryl Kaplan's article in the latest Trot Magazine with regard to harness racing's failure to address the shrinking fan base and alarming decline in wagering over the past 15 years - read it again and then think about his closing statement: "So now, it's just a waiting game. Waiting for courageous leadership to stand up and invest in the future. Or waiting for the next press release to take everything away."
Why do we find ourselves at this crisis point?
When harness racing began it was a very popular sport that people started betting on. When Dan Patch raced in the early 1900's he would attract crowds of 100,000 harness racing fans.
For the next few decades horse racing was pretty well the only game in town. If people wanted to gamble they had to bet on horse racing. It became more of an avenue for gambling and less of a sport.
Today it has become a sport that very few people outside of our industry are interested in and gamblers have many other options for their gambling dollars including lotteries, casinos, slots, all-sports betting, and online poker, etc.
All this is a recipe for disaster for harness racing. Putting on a bunch of races and expecting people to come out and bet on them is a thing of the past and just doesn't work anymore.
We need to find a way to attract people to the sport of harness racing and to promote the entertainment value of handicapping the horse races and to make it advantageous for the big gamblers to bet on horse races.
I have read some great ideas on this site and others. One is with regard to reducing the percentage of the take substantially from each bet to return more of the winnings back to the gamblers. I think this would be worth a try. Most of our purse money comes from the slots so I don't think it would cost us that much out of the purse account. If this was widely advertised to the gamblers and the betting public and they did respond by betting substantially more on the races we might even be dollars ahead as we attract new customers.
Alan Kirshenbaum has put forward another good idea that would create a multi-track pick eight.
This pick eight would create a large jackpot that would help us compete with the lotteries. It would create interest with the gamblers, handicappers and the public and maybe with the large jackpots would create some interest in the sport of horse racing as people would follow their horses at the various tracks.
We, the participants in horse racing are going to have to make some tough choices very soon if harness racing is going to survive into the future, let alone flourish. Racing in Quebec is dead, Alberta is questionable and could very well be finished if something positive doesn't happen soon. South of the border, Ohio racing looks like it is pretty well finished at this point, Michigan is almost assured of their demise, things don't look good in Illinois, and even the Big M is on rocky ground and without slots relies on handouts from the casino industry which could stop at any time.
Virtually all of harness racing today relies on cooperation from our governments. The scary part is that once racing is done in a province or state it is done forever. There is no economic impetus for them to come back.
After watching the Breeder's Cup this past weekend with the great racing, huge crowds, and superb TV coverage, it shows that we still have a chance to survive, and possibly thrive. We need to be events-driven. We have shown that the we can still attract crowds for races like The Jug, The Hambletonian, Breeders Crowns, OSS Superfinals, The North America Cup, Battle of Waterloo, etc.
Dr. Ted Clarke, Kelly Spencer, and Grand River Raceway are a good model for us to follow. The Battle of Waterloo has become a popular event and creates the same type of atmosphere as the Little Brown Jug. We need more of these types of events. Grand River Raceway is continuously advertising and coming up with new promotions to attract new customers. If all tracks put in the same effort we would be in much better shape.
My next comment is not going to be popular with a lot of my fellow horsemen. Just putting on a bunch of races where a handful of people come out and bet almost nothing is not sustainable. We simply have too much racing. Believe me, I am as concerned as anyone about losing race dates but what we are doing is going to destroy us. Sudbury, Woodstock and Hiawatha are in worse shape than this but I will use Rideau Carleton as an example. On a Friday night they will have 15 races with an approximate handle of $60,000. This amounts to $4000.00 per race. This small pool makes it almost impossible for gamblers to bet any amount of money without affecting the odds dramatically, and the contribution from the handle to the purses is pretty close to nothing.
If the politicians look at this we could be in big trouble. We have to show the government that horse racing is improving, not regressing. Why I use Rideau as an example is because it should and I think could be a very good market for harness racing. Ottawa is a robust, prosperous city with the advantage of being a border track that should be able to attract customers and fans from Quebec where there is no horse racing now. Rideau should be able to attract better crowds and generate substantially larger wagering pools.
The question now is who is going to lead the charge. Ultimately I think the racetracks themselves have to get it started, led primarily by WEG. Possibly a very small group led by one enthusiastic person could be formed. Right now there is a lot of money available within the industry. We could fully fund this initiative with a small percentage from the purse accounts and barely notice it. A joint effort between tracks and horsemen would be even better. Possibly, Standardbred Canada could be a leader in putting this together. The Adrenaline experiment shows the young, enthusiastic talent that they have. I notice that they have approximately 35 employees at this time and I know their finances have been cut because of the loss of Quebec and Alberta. Possibly this extra funding that I am talking about could go to this new committee that could work within Standardbred Canada. The mandate for this committee would be to save and promote harness racing.
These are just a few thoughts that I have and I hope others will join in with ideas of their own. We cannot afford to wait and read the press release that takes everything away.