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Luck of the draw

The View

You choose the left lane on the highway only to watch 15 cars pass you on the right. The slice of pie you’re given isn’t nearly as large as the one doled out to the customer just moments earlier… Life isn’t fair. And when around horse racing, you’re reminded of that daily.

But as tough as it may be to get caught behind stalled cover or stuck in the pocket, there is nothing more inherently ‘unfair’ than drawing the outside over a half-mile track. While some go to great lengths to question the draw or the ethics of the race secretary or computerized system, most accept the fairness of the process and the unfairness of the resulting post.

Most also recognize that over their life as a horseperson or horse owner, things will even out and good luck will come with the bad.

But why are participants, racetracks, and customers so accepting of a system that only causes negative consequences?

In track and field, no discernible advantage is given to the ‘rail’ over the ‘eight-hole’ since all races that stretch beyond the 100-metre straightaway have staggered starts. In thoroughbred racing and greyhound racing, the close proximity of horses/dogs and a long straightaway into the first turn gives little or no advantage to inside posts.

In auto racing, the one sport that does favour the front starting positions, every car that enters each race has an equal opportunity to qualify for the front row through days of qualifying events.

So what about harness racing?

Look at the numbers. Over the first 11 months of 2009, there were over 10,000 races held in Canada on half-mile tracks. The win percentage of the rail horse was 19.5%. The outside post averaged 5.3%. If you add in the 7,000 races from the five-eighths mile configuration, the rail post won 18.1% of the time while the outside only scored in 5.0% of races. In Ontario, the gap was even greater, at 20.0% for the inside and 4.2% from the exterior post. That means that in the jurisdiction with the most purse money and wagering on the line, one in five won from the ‘pole’ and 1 in 24 from the outside.

So why care? Well, a case can certainly be made that the post position disparity is a contributor to more horses taking back at the start and thus more single-file and predictable dashes. For horsepeople and horse owners, there’s nothing more frustrating than getting a bad draw when your starter is at the top of his game. For customers, when three or four horses take virtually all of the betting money, the likelihood of a big mutuel payout reduces dramatically.

When you have a solvable problem that would make a sport better for both participants and customers, something should be done about it.

And as for what to do about it, there are several options. You could use a modified starting gate placed on an angle to give outside horses a greater edge off the gate. You could handicap races and give the inside post positions to the lowest rated horses in the class. You could eliminate the outside horse and add an extra trailer since currently the trailing position well outperforms the outside post at virtually every track in the country. Or lengthen the race slightly by starting half-mile and five-eighths mile races at the top of the stretch to add a longer run into the first turn.

Or how about considering some more radical ideas? Could racing copy track and field and have a standing start from staggered positions? Or alter the racebikes to the more narrow Australian style? How about adding five horses to every field and travelling much further distances, knowing that larger fields create greater flow? How about racing under saddle like in Europe? Or akin to how better thoroughbred horses carry extra weight, how about allowing exterior horses to use more aerodynamic racebikes?

Whatever the solution, a system where the greatest factor in who wins a race is determined by random draw days prior to the dash just doesn’t seem right – and that’s the harsh reality of short track harness racing. Every structure in the sport was designed to create parity – from the classification system to the claiming game to qualifying standards and the application of common rules for all. At the most crucial part of the process – the draw – the same principles should hold.

I like half-mile and five-eighths mile racing but I don’t think, in this case, you have to accept the good with the bad.

Let’s face it – that slice of pie doesn’t have to be equal every time, but if it’s often a quarter the size it should be – we’re going to ask somebody else to cut it.

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