Stop Being So Polite!

If every movie review you ever read was positive, would you watch more films? If every hockey player on the ice was characterized as good or great, would you become a bigger fan? If Don Cherry never said anything controversial, would you remain tuned in during the intermission?

There is nothing more mesmerizing and attention grabbing than a well-crafted critical review. From your favourite urban affairs columnist to your beloved colour commentator, to Simon Cowell, the American Idol judge that convinces you and millions like you to tune in week after week, criticism is appealing – especially when the words uttered are accurate.

If you send me a well written Letter to the Editor criticizing my perspectives or opinions, I will make sure it gets printed. If it’s something that might pique our readers' interest, why wouldn’t I?

Why then, despite watching thousands of hours of simulcast shows and horse racing broadcasts, have I virtually never heard, a commentator say that a driver gave a horse an awful steer. I don’t hear judges criticized for poor decisions, trainers chastised for having a recruit unprepared, or track operators taken to task for the racetrack being in poor shape.

Is there any reason that we in horse racing believe that an infomercial catches more attention than an articulate and brutally honest analysis? Does anyone believe that by filling a broadcast with a vast array of superlatives praising everyone from the hot dog vendor to the sprinkler operator, we attract more bettors or keep the ones we have?

I’m not asking that we put Donald Trump on the air to berate every claiming horse on the track. What I am pleading for is that our broadcasters be allowed to take an honest shot at describing what happens at the races. We’re clearly capable of secretly pointing fingers and, when someone wins too many races whispering “cheater!” We should be able to speak into a microphone about the efforts exerted on track during the course of a race.

In the past, I have heard commentators relate stories of how horsepeople have complained when they are criticized, some refusing to cooperate and claiming the announcers are hurting their abilities to make a living. The last time I checked, every race has a winner and every horse has a driver and a trainer. The same purse money is distributed and the participants are professionals. Like any athlete, they are glorified and celebrated when they achieve greatness. And conversely must absorb the flak when they come up flat.

My primary motivation for writing this column came after I spent 45 minutes watching a rugby game on late night television. I assure you I know nothing about the sport and have absolutely no interest in either of the teams involved. I turned on the game by accident and kept it on for one reason ­– a captivating colour commentator who eloquently and compellingly criticized and dissected every poor decision, giving me a real insight into who was playing well, poorly and deplorably on the field. I don’t know who that commentator was, but he single-handedly did more for the sport of rugby in developing me as a potential fan than anyone ever has. Which brings me back to racing.

When Woodbine Entertainment Group unveiled the concept for Bet Night Live on The Score, I was very hopeful. The focus was on benefiting the gambler and reaching new fans. I was looking for an edgy and controversial show to bring new life to the television product. Instead the focus was on light fun and education. It’s a noble and worthwhile approach, but in my opinion, it’s misguided.

If I’d never seen a hockey game before in my life, I’d still rather watch Don Cherry than someone explaining what an offside is. If I’d never seen American Idol before, I’d still rather listen to Simon Cowell tell a bad singer that he’s bad, than listen to ninety minutes of playful banter between contestants and judges.

Racing must become comfortable with its own skin. If we’re going to broadcast our sport, we must loosen the reins on our commentators, allow them to criticize and ask tough questions and mandate that participants act professionally in interviews, even if challenged. Tracks have used private property rights before and I can’t think of a better use than to excuse a participant who feels his ego should be placed above the demands of the customer.

Horse racing is a gambling activity and a sport aimed at adults. Why wouldn’t our television personalities be the most brutally honest on the air? How many Rush Limbaughs, Judge Judys and Chef Gordon Ramsays do we need to see succeed before understanding what sells?

To racing’s broadcasters: if your off-air chats are more interesting than your on-air ones, you are failing your customers and your business. Now, be honest…

Darryl Kaplan
[email protected]


Mr Kaplan obviously is not the person at standardbred Canada that monitors the comments posted on this web site and determines if they meet the "guidelines". I personally have commented on my view of a drivers performance in a political correct manner in the past and yet it was not posted on this website. Stop being so polite SC, and allow more reader feedback.

For get the driver/trainer criticism, who determines a bad drive? If the horse I bet on dosen't win then its easy to say it was beacause of the drive. How could anyone take Sandy Hawley's criticism of a drivers performance seriously? Bet night live needs people that know the business in order to give usefull pre race information. Mr Christie, Some tracks do still charge admission, most do sell T shirts and the drivers are selling something on TV, there driving service's to the bettors.

I admit to being a sucker for controversy/drama..but I also like the idea of getting "inside" information..those two things make being a horse racing "fan" that much better.

But...the controversy and drama would work against me in the "betting" department if that was all there was available.

I too have stopped watching betnight..silly and uninformative...i just watch the races from HPI...but i miss the inside info and the personalities.
I watched the special presentation of the NA Cup and LOVED it! A weekly show in that format with those personalities would help maintain and recruit new viewers/bettors imo.

I don't think owners/trainers/drivers need to be publicly criticized more but i do think they should be interviewed MORE..stop the uneducated speculating and criticizing we ALREADY do as fans/bettors..EDUCATE us...10 drivers/trainers in a half hour or an hour show..weekly...tell us whos racing on the wknd..who trained good..who's needing a race or two before they're fit..what 2 yr olds are looking good etc...we used to get some of that on Racenight but no more :(

Just like to give kudos to Standardbred Canada for doing a good job bringing info to us and allowing some "controversy" :)

Publicity, criticism, colourful broadcasts good try but not the ticket - We are trying to compare ourselves to other sports. We dont charge admission, we dont sell racing silks hats or t shirts, none of our drivers/trainers sell anything on TV. We are a different animal - one that needs handle and grassroots involvement to survive. Every community with a pop of 700, a church and a store has a rink. Where are the grassroots harness racing venues for our youth? Port Perry and Riceville the end!

I'm sure most of the people commenting here are members of the industry - I'm just a long time fan/bettor/fancier but my perception of why horse racing is dying is that there is not enough publicity for the sport. I recently read the story of Dan Patch and, as I understand it, people came out in droves just to watch time trials. Apparently the participants were household names. This kind of interest can only be generated by publicity be it promotional or controversial. The sport is not just about gambling or, if it is, God help it because you can't get a gambling fix by waiting 15 - 20 minutes between bets. There has to be something to keep you there between races. That's what is missing on bet night now - the trainer/ driver/horse information. Millions of people watch the Triple Crown and Breeder's Cup on tv just for the stories or celebrity content. They like the feeling of being "instant experts" and the next day they tell all their friends how much they know about horse racing. Somewhere along the way some of them become bettors and fans. The problem is to find a way to reach out to those types of people who will prefer this kind of gambling over the quick fix of slots. I believe the only way to do this is through the media.

Honestly, this commentary has been the most stimulating that have seen on this website.

Let's have more more more!!!!!!

Here's the rub on why this won't happen. I spent 15 years in radio, mostly as a sportscaster. Management doesn't like negatives! Working for a station that broadcast NHL hockey and CFL football, we were reminded by our management, through the team management, that there was a line, and DO NOT cross it. When media is clear from a connection to the sport, then open opinion will flow. We all know that one of the problems facing harness racing in lack of main stream media coverage.
Bet Night Live is controlled by WEG, as a means of promoting their product. Very few companies will provide that "edge" of opinion. They want their product to seem perfect. No track in the land is going to bring in a Don Cherry, or Johnny Miller type to be part of their broadcast team, because it will go against the image they want. Can we disagree when harness racing already is tarnished by drugs and race fixing etc. The only way that Darryl's suggestions will come to fruition is if and when main stream, unconnected media start paying attention. When that happens, everyone will have to take their ego protection pills, because it hurts to get blasted in the media. Just so you know, it's not easy being the media asking the tough questions. I remember standing in an NHL dressing room after the team lost 10-1, having to ask questions for a post game radio show. Can you say, pick you words carefully.

It seems we all back off the freedom of speech. I have made some pretty critical comments here and when I read my post it has a very positive spin as the post looks nothing like the one I posted. I was surprised to see this article. If the commentators made comments about bad drives and trainers having horses that were not in race shape the public wouldnt walk away from the sport , they would run. We know we have to walk on thin ice as the last thing we all need is to not be seen in a positive manner. We can say what we want but the state of harness racing is what it is, too many horses, too many tracks, watered down talent, take out is too high, failure to look after the loyal fans/gamblers. It wont change, there are too many greedy people.

Darryl's assessment is right on and if someone has the knowledge or background and experience why can't they state the obivious on occasion or certainly the less than obivious to bring up to speed the viewer or fan. I have no problem with people being either critical or controversial if it leads to generating debate and rekindling interest in the sport. That great showman/promoter Vincent Kennedy McMahon said it and it's true "controversy creates cash" and in our case anything to up the interest is a plus.

Backing the field down leads to dull, non-competitive racing and should always result in a suspension. If you can't win off fractions appropriate to the class of horses you're in with,slot your horse where he belongs. This is especially true on a half-mile track where the only option for someone racing off the pace is first-over suicide. Nobody is saying the driver cutting the mile is required to blaze his way to the half, just set a reasonable pace.

I am surprised to see a piece like Darryl's on this site. While Harness Link relishes controversy and allows those from all segments of the industry to have at each other, would appear to be a public relations organ for Canadian horses, drivers, owners, and trainers: about as controversial as butter on bread.

A great example of the see-no-evil,hear-no-evil,speak-no-evil approach to harness racing coverage is TVG's coverage of racing at the Meadowlands. Lou Pena's propensity for claiming horses from capable trainers and stepping them up two or three seconds the first time he enters them is the talk of the industry, but the announcing crew from the Meadowlands and TVG pretend that none of this is going on. I understand that recognizing the fact that the integrity of the sport is being questioned by so many would be bad for business, but that notwithstanding, it is rather bizarre.

I think Darryl as usual has made a great point. However, I'll go one step further. Why has the industry's print media, for the most part abdicated it's responsibilities? It's easy to criticize the broadcast media, but perhaps hypocritical, when writers are in many cases unpaid rah rah agents, writing promotional poop and pablum for the masses. Perhaps it's time as in other sports to write, broadcast and comment on the real stories not the fables we thrive on. I am cynical enough to think it will never happen, but at the same time believe that it could change Harness Racing for the better.

Let me run some possible DURING THE RACE comments past you horsefok...and you be the judge if this would fly or be shutdown asap....(if tracks could afford it, why not be the first in the world to add a firebrand color analyst in the booth who chimes in DURING THE RACE with quick quips like these)

at Flamboro for example, Gary Guy's sidekick says in the first few seconds...
'for some reason (Driver A) is backing off at the first turn letting the 8 in'

maybe at Grand River, you might hear the caller's partner say:
'but then again, you never know what drive (Driver B) will give you..this time, its a big one'

possibly at Mohawk, Ken's right hand man might up the 'in-race ante' as they headed down the back side into the final turn:
'#6, the co-favorite fading badly...clearly (Trainer A) didnt have his charge ready to go tonight. From this vantage point, the 5-2 supporters deserved a lot more'

or this classic,,,
'Yup, (Trainer B) is up to his old tricks again'

maybe its a tote board observation as the gate begins to roll:
'150,000 to show on 4,,,bridge jumper special!!! Give me $2 to show on all of 'em'..
((though it might be a bit much to hear same color analyst late in race say 'break you bastard'))

OR maybe its a positive hit or two, like at Georgian, 'Once again, (a driver) drives his trotter to victory through the lane tonight just like his old man taught him .....or at Fraser, '(a driver) wins his third in a row, and I think I hear the driver colony saying 'no mas, no mas'!!

OBVIOUSLY, this stuff would never be allowed, right?....BUT, if tracks could afford it, why not be the first circuit in the world to add a firebrand color analyst in the booth who chimes in DURING the race with these quick quips...all sports have them, except for the ponies..NOW YOU'RE TALKING ENTERTAINMENT VALUE, AND MOST LIKELY A PARKING LOT DUST UP OR TWO EVERY NIGHT....Maybe its a touring color analyst, who visits the different tracks to fire up everyone...I'd love to do it...someone ask me,,and yes, have security well, I'd expect the industry to get and pay this person onto mainstream radio and tv and 'net and blog really talk up the game in everyday bettor's parlance (not exactly the Laura Dieken naive to a fault, Score approach is it?)...THIS CALLS FOR SOMETHING LIKE THE WORLD FAMOUS BRITISH BOOKMAKER 'MUTTONCHOPS' APPROACH..larger than life,,yelling with props possibly, people wanting your autograph etc...but you gotta pay me,,,I'm ready to go!

..moving on,
**as well, pre and post race opinion should clearly be juiced up,

BUT no such thick skin exists in this industry. so lets not even pretend to break hearts nor interfere with the horsemen and their extended families everywhere. It is after all, what makes this game great.

from the heart,

I think in a perfect world, on air criticism or criticism by the press would completely acceptable. Leo Rautins has no problem criticizing the Raptors whenever they are losing as he points out why they are losing and why they shouldn't have taken the shot when they did, etc. Actually, he overdoes it, but the point is that he does it.

Horse racing is a different animal. Trainers and jockeys are often replaced, and have no guaranteed salaries like those in the major sports. Criticizing a jockey/driver or trainer could cost them a good chunk of their livelihood. Owners tend to make emotional decisions at times, and an owner who hears or reads that the jockey/driver or his trainer sucks, will definitely cause damage many times.

Because their livelihoods aren't dependent on advertising dollars, trainers and jockeys/drivers can afford to band together and give the media or a member of the media a cold shoulder....and then it is the media member who might have to look for another way to make a living or another sport to cover.

Even the tracks themselves have been know to tell journalists not to be controversial in the way of criticizing the sport and the major players in the sport. There are enough reasons not to bet on horses, tracks don't need to be reminded of any of them.

At this time, if you want to see criticism you need to visit the racing blogs and forums.

In Mr. Kaplan's perfect world,commentators would have the right to pick apart and criticize any and all drivers, trainers, owners, track officials they saw fit to attack. This regardless of what aforesaid commentator possessed in the way of knowledge pertaining to the condititions leading up to the event criticized. Commentators, like editors would obviously have a free hand to spew their venom wether justified or not.

Regardless of what feeble minded opinions expressed by these commentators those bearing the brunt of their ranting and raving should have no recourse but to stand by, accept their scolding or criticism and not express their opinion on the matter, nor should they be allowed to walk away and ignore the commentator not giving him the satisfaction of building a reputation for himself on the basis of ignorance and bad manners.An old sports adage says those that can't do, coach. I'd like to add, those that can't do or coach, commentate.

As for the gentleman that wrote in about slow quarters, if you had a horse that could leave would you sooner have a driver rate him early in the race or whip him to a quarter in :25 , and come home in :30?

Mr. Kaplan's perfect world is nothing like mine, but his writings will get top billing in here and mine will probably be deleted by some SBC censor. Mr. Kaplan, being a self appointed expert on everything deserves such lordly treatment of course.

Well said. Long overdue. I'll watch the races to-nite and see
if we get any "slow quarters" or "backing off the pack" instead
of "sensible speed". While they go sensible fractions, they
sometimes go slow quarters and should be called out for it.
By the way do drivers ever get fined/suspended for slow quarters
any more?

I love this article - it's bang on. When Race Night was airing I remember a few times when Mike Hamilton was critical of a driver. The sulking and winging from those criticized was pathetic. I believe one driver refused to be interviewed afterwards (at least I didn't see him on an after race interview again). If you want to be a star in any sport you need to develop a thick skin. Some controversial comments and questions might possibly bring some life to Bet Night which I no longer watch because of its silliness and boredom.

Couldn't be said any better. Coaches, players and referees in so many other sports have always been called out for mistakes or bad judgement. Why are drivers and trainers of Harness racing or any horse racing for that matter any different? They should all be accountable for a bad steer or even choice of horse over another to drive in a certain race. The honesty of this may bring more fans out and make the broadcasts more interesting than the cookie cutter one's we see currently. The race calls are phenomenal don't get me wrong(Ken Middleton is a great call), but to tell the betting public the reason a driver went to the top or didn't in a certain race, why a certain driver decided to park out a first over bid instead of letting the horse go, why a driver took a horse to a opening 1/4 in 25.4 and burning out his horse...these are the types of things that the average better doesn't understand.

Controversy or difference of opinions sell, always has.

Great article Darryl!!!