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The On-Track Experience's Unique Value

Published: September 30, 2020 7:42 pm ET

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Racinos provide slots gaming for adult customers, an offering which can be difficult to balance with the family and youth-oriented sport of harness racing when both take place at the same venue.

In recent years, some tracks with on-site gaming have restricted people under the legal gambling age from entering grandstands, a decision Brian Tropea says stems from the presence of the machines:

"It really doesn't have anything to do with banning them from a racetrack — it's banning them from a casino."

This year, in which COVID-19 has seriously impacted the number of people that can be safely allowed to attend live racing at certain tracks, the question of how to provide young families and fans with a chance to watch fall and winter races is on hold. But Tropea, the general manager of the Ontario Harness Horse Association (OHHA), considers the issue essential for racino operators and those who oversee the sport to address. He doesn't view an outdoor observation "hut" as an acceptable way to shelter kids and families when racino tracks reopen to the public.

"How do you replace the grandstand, where you can sit in the clubhouse and overlook the finish line, and build a facility somewhere down in the first turn for people to watch races?" he asks.

Tropea says that smaller tracks around Ontario did an impressive job of safely hosting summer races with on-track audiences. He mentions Dredsen Raceway, Hanover Raceway, Leamington Raceway and Kawartha Downs as examples of how all age groups stayed connected to the sport, even during the pandemic.

"They did it on a reservation basis, first-come, first-served," he explains. "If you had a husband and a wife and two kids, that was four spots. Those tracks didn't say you have to be of legal betting age to be here," even with a limited number of spots for spectators available on race days.

Why the emphasis on keeping young people and families engaged in harness racing?

"Unless you can expose people to the live product, they're never going to become a customer of betting horse races. One hundred per cent, that's the value," he says. "You can put horse races on in a bar, and people might decide to play a couple of races on a betting terminal at the bar while they have a few beers or something. But they certainly aren't going to become loyal fans of the sport based on that experience."

While no longer active, OHHA's Hands On Horses program helped promote Standardbreds and racing to a nearly limitless audience.

"It all starts with the live experience, and that was where the Hands On Horses program was so valuable, I believe, because we gave people an experience they won't forget," shares Tropea. "I carried one-year-old kids around the racetrack, and I had 95-year-old men and women on the cart. What we did is we created a lifetime memory, similar to someone who's a hockey fan being allowed to go and skate on the ice with the Maple Leafs. I always said to people, 'It's one thing to get a casual fan to the racetrack, and they may enjoy the races while they're there and make a few bets while having a hot dog and a drink. But if you can get them to actually touch a horse, interact with the horse...'"

Brian Tropea, pictured on a two-seat jog cart with a young racing fan in 2016 at Kawartha Downs, spearheaded the OHHA's Hands On Horses program to cultivate interest in harness racing at a grassroots level.

The lifelong horseman names another Ontario track where lasting impressions were made with Hands On Horses:

"Western Fair was a great situation for us. The grandstand was right beside where we would keep the horses in between the races, so we would get the next group of people that were going out for a [jog cart] ride and bring them back over. We'd have 15 minutes in between races to get those people suited up with their helmet and stuff, pet the horses, take selfies, and really spend 15 intimate minutes with somebody who understands the industry in a very comfortable setting."

Up to 70 participants would commonly sign up for what has become an increasingly rare opportunity, says Tropea.

"I felt so privileged to share with people that feeling of how I felt when I first sat in a jog cart with the thousands of people I've had a chance to share that with over the years."

He grew up in racing, and would ride along with his dad until he was old enough to jog a horse on his own, "at six or seven years old."

Harness racing's future depends on the sport's lesser-known venues, where young people can build interest and skills with horses, and in racing media roles like publicity and race calling.

"With the smaller racetracks, to me, they're an integral part of any racing jurisdiction," notes Tropea. "The fair circuit in Ohio is a great example. Where is the next generation of trainers and drivers and potential owners going to come from if we lose them? ... The vast majority of our participants are second-, third-, fourth-, fifth-generation horsepeople. It's not an industry that's easily infiltrated. If I'm a young kid and I decide that I want to be a driver, but when I start out, I have no connections to the industry, how do I go about doing that?"

Programs like those offered by Hands On Horses and the Harness Horse Youth Foundation serve an essential role, and so do the small tracks where handle doesn't necessarily reflect the racing product's true value.

Tropea says that "most of the smaller racetracks in Ontario go out of their way" to accommodate youth and special events like Childcan's "Horsin' Around for Cancer" fundraising barbecue for families affected by childhood cancer, held in the recent past at Clinton Raceway. He also shares a particularly moving message he received about one former Hands On Horses participant, showing the lasting impact that a small but welcoming track can have on the lives of at-risk youth:

Hi Brian, I just wanted to send along a little conversation I had with one of the young grooms at Hanover Raceway a few weeks ago. He was only about 16 years old and was volunteering his services paddocking a couple of horses in Hanover. I don't remember his name, but he was a great kid. I asked how he liked being around the horses and how he got into it. What he said, I was not prepared for and really took me back.

He began to tell me he was in Clinton about three years ago, and he and a few of the friends he hung with were getting into some trouble and decided to go to the track and cause a stir over there. He said at [age] 13, his parents were alcoholics and didn't care what he was doing. He was at the track and decided to go for a ride on the jogger with some guy named Brian.

As he trotted around, he thought he was going to be a bit of hot dog and show off a bit with his friends watching. He said this Brian guy explained to him the racehorse is a powerful animal and needs to be respected. He was instantly drawn to the power this horse was able to exude and was sort of intimidated. As he jogged around, this Brian guy explained to him how many kids get involved in racing and how he could. As he got off the jogger and returned to his friends, he said it was those words Brian said that sort of changed him that day. He told his friends to leave the track and they did, and they went on to cause problems somewhere else. He went home.

The next day, he went to Clinton [Raceway] and immediately started volunteering with a few of the trainers there. A month or two later, his parents moved to outside Hanover. He still, to this day, hitchhikes into town on race nights and helps paddock. He has had a few part-time jobs with local trainers, and beams when he says he doesn't get into trouble like he used to. His grades have improved and he always has a bit of pocket cash. He said he owes a lot to that guy named Brian.


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