01/18/2012 2:10PM

Building a Harness Fan Base

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A while back I read a report that suggested horsemen donate a small percentage of their earnings to put towards drug testing. Well, I’m not going to comment on that matter, but I have a more innovative use for the horsemen’s hard earned dollars.

Over and over we hear about the aging of our fan base. The baby boomers are still attending, and quite a few from the Generation X era (born 1960’s through early 1980’s) can be found roaming the track apron or simulcast rooms. That is generally where the participation comes to a halt. Generation Y (late 1980’s though around 2000), those that are old enough to legally attend, have been a no-show at most racing facilities.

Ideas have been bandied about for years. One that I have heard quite often is the possibility that a sports club or night club at the track would help. Concerts have proven a decent one-night-only approach to drawing a younger audience. Discounted admission and drink specials for those that show a college ID is also a popular marketing tool.

Those are all good ideas that could help to draw a new fan or two for life. But I want more!

I’m going way outside the box to lure a younger crowd to my favorite pastime. I submit for approval the Harness Racing Scholarship fund.

The fund will be supported via a 1 percent donation from all total purses at every track and every enrolling college student in the country will be eligible to receive a piece of the pie. Assuming $400 million in purses is being distributed (a complete guess on my part), $4 million in scholarship money would be available.

Here is how it will work:

• Each year 80 scholarships in the amount of $50,000 will be distributed.

• Applicants must submit an essay detailing how they would improve harness racing. The best essays would be chosen as scholarship winners.

• Students must sign a legal document stipulating that they will attend their local racetrack on at least 50 occasions between the time the scholarship is granted and their 30th birthday. This will be tracked through a special card which must be presented at each track so they can get credit for showing up. They must check in before the 4th race and check out no earlier than race 9.

• Failure to live up to the contract will result in default and the scholarship money must be repaid to the scholarship fund.

You can call me crazy if you want, but this seems like a win-win idea. The worst case scenario has all the kids defaulting and not showing up at the track. Even if that happens, at least hundreds of our nation’s youth will have received a college education. The best case results in the creation of a new young fan base for our sport.

It does not have to end with that basic plan. We could have an annual night at the races for all scholarship winners. How about a rewards program for winners? You get a $20 betting voucher for every friend under 30 that you bring to the track.

I’ll take this one step further. If you are lucky enough to get a scholarship but do not know the first thing about handicapping a race, I’ll donate my services in the New York Metropolitan area to teach these potential budding newbies the ropes.

I admit that this idea is way out there. But new ideas are needed to break racing out of this cycle which will surely lead to a continued decline in handle and attendance over the next decade.

Tossing out another thought, perception is one of the major parasites eating away at harness racing. Like it or not, the general public does not have a positive image of the standardbred game.  They may think the racing is fixed, or they feel too many horses are drugged.

From my point of view, the solution to the perception issue is obvious: transparency.

We need to get the drivers and trainers into the public’s eye. Let’s erase the lines between the grandstand and the backstretch. That means daily autograph sessions and informal chat sessions where fans can visit the paddock before the races.

Fans feel closer to the other sports because information about the participants is much better. From football to hockey, players participate in post-game interviews, and coverage in daily papers, on television and on the web is wide. Harness racing is barely talked about in in any medium. That is why the industry needs to make an effort on-track to meld the horsemen with the crowd. Let the people who attend see that the drivers and trainers are everyday people just like them.

While watching a recent bowling telecast I was intrigued by the fact that the bowlers competing wore microphones. While this is not a new concept in racing (I recall watching a great video of Herve Filion driving while mic’d), wouldn’t it make for an interesting documentary on the sport.

Better yet, how about putting a microphone on all the drivers in a race and during the replay let the public hear the sounds of the race. Wow, that would be cool! Though, maybe I just like the idea because I am a harness junkie.

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Joe More than 1 year ago
This is the most beautiful pipe dream ever. Getting $50K just for going to the racetrack and writing an essay. Mr. Giwner I would support you wholeheartedly for racing czar. But realistically, I was born in '83 and spent most of my free time in college at thoroughbred racetracks (Belmont and Aqueduct). Racing is generally a good spectator sport for college aged people with little money. I can't think of another professional sport where the admission fees are so low and you can get so close to the athletes. Why aren't there more college aged people at racetracks on weekends and nights? Two main reasons: 1) It's an old-school sport. In our age of instant gratification, racing has too much of a learning curve. Also, what youth wants to stand around 25 minutes between races? Who has time for the pleasures of reviewing the horses in the paddock and discussing the relative merits with your friends? Combine this with the decaying, dreary state of most racetracks and their lack of young ladies and you have a situation that is repellant to the majority of 20-somethings. The internet generation just does not have the patience for this stuff. 2) 15 to 25 % takeout. Anyone with basic math skills (such as a college student) can realize that making a buck at the racetrack is nearly impossible. Why put up with this ruinous takeout when you have an infinitely better chance at stocks or poker (the preferred gambling outlets for the people I went to college with). Lower the takeout to 5% and people might approach racing as something that can possibly be beat. I spent most of my college years at the track and all I got was a few promotional items and then they decided to turn my home racetrack (Aqueduct) into a casino and ship a bunch of Belmont's best stakes to Saratoga. I would have happily taken the $50,000.
John Davidick More than 1 year ago
nice page but a bit biased towards Meadowlands ... what about Yonkers ??? everything's about the meadowlands ... your old page at the eye was and is better [Yonkers analysis was available for both Friday and Saturday last week and will be available for each day of the week going forward. Horses to Watch for Yonkers is also available. What else would you like to see with a focus on Yonkers? - DG]
Tim More than 1 year ago
Any word on the licensing status of Walter Case, Jr? [His application is under review by the USTA. - DG]
West Coast More than 1 year ago
Great idea and we need more like this for both harness and thoros. Big problem on west coast is you really dont see or hear of the sport ! Grew up in new jersey and the meadowlands was a fun place to go now living on west coast harness is considered less attractive the neven the dogs. If you live in phoenix az you cant even play harness. More ladies nights or days , cheap drinks, concerts will lure the crowd in. then you need to have a facility that can handle it be glitzy like vegas and nice weather. Del mar they get the ladies now we need the other tracks to do the same and the rest will come. If you have women and gambling the men will come if you have 60+ grays betting 10 cent supers its doomed.
peterjborrelli More than 1 year ago
This is very interesting to me because of my background as a harness fan through my childhood and then transition into a hardcore thoroughbred fan in adulthood. Like I'm sure most folks' stories go, my parents brought me to the track as a kid, and I was hooked for life. We grew up going to the local harness track - Batavia Downs - and still do each year on my parents' anniversary. Once I saw thoroughbreds at Finger Lakes though, I made the transition. Regardless though, as fans and handicappers of both sports, we exalt and suffer through almost identical circumstances, and I believe when we play any parimutuel equine game, we're playing the best game there is. So of course thoroughbred racing faces the same struggles, and though these ideas may be a bit far-fetched, it's going to take die-hard fans with far-fetched ideas and a tireless work ethic if we want to see our games prosper in the future. We can't forget that this includes drawing in those with a propensity toward *gambling* especially. For me, it's in my blood - others are drawn to sports gambling later in life. Whatever the case, I don't know the numbers on sports betting, but I'm sure it's in the many, many billions. Our games deserve a bigger piece of that pie - if only we can educate folks better on how to play our games, and teach them more about respecting the equine athletes and pushing for more measures to ensure their well-being (retirement efforts especially). Those are my two big things: educating people on how to handicap so they can enjoy the game more deeply, and treating the horses with more respect - the latter I think will help especially with perception issues related to the sport. So bring your fantasy football buddies to the track, teach your poker-playing friend how to read the form, and throw some coin at a racehorse retirement foundation. And bring your kids to the track so that someday, they might want to do the same thing.
bob More than 1 year ago
I think a great way to get more attention in harness racing would be by getting fans involved with a creative way of owning part of a horse. Either the track creating a fan ownership program where parts of a horse are raffled off for a season or shares are offered for a minimal fee. This way fans are paying attention weekly, even if they are not at the track but the have an interest in their horses race. It may not be a wagering interest but they are following the races weekly. [Some tracks have tried this in the past. At the very least in makes for a crowded winner's circle and gets some people to the track. - DG]
orsch More than 1 year ago
I think you will have to wait til generation Y will participate in this sport. It is way to much effort for these kids to actually learn how to read a program, or care to read a program, and to wait 15 minutes in between races is just crazy. A lot easier to sit at a poker table for ten hours and try to catch a flush on the river. I watch and wager the races at my local bar, and they look at my racing form like it is written in chinese. They just play there lucky numbers and hope for the best. The sport would not interest me either with that strategy. Even the young 20 somethings I see at saratoga are not putting any real money through the windows. Get behind them on line and you will see a lot of 2 dollar to show bets on three horses, and 1 dollar exacta boxes. I tell them "why even wager". These kids really seem to lack the guts to put there money where there mouth is.
dean More than 1 year ago
I like your posts but this has to be the most ridiculous idea ever. To get younger guys involved you need to have a online poker approach. Less take out, more information and guaranteed pools are a good start. I started playing standards at 18 and it seems like the crowds esp at the OTB's are getting older and older. You have to get more information out and make sure the end product is not corrupt. Thing I loved about online poker was all the ways I could easily get info and programs that helped my ROI. Wagering on the horses info is very expensive. All the major tracks should get into a strategic alinement so posts times do not overlap and pools are good for multi race gimmicks. I would like to see more guys under 30 at the tracks but have a feeling it will never happen. [Couldn't agree more that tracks need to work together. -DG]
dean More than 1 year ago
Hey DG, One quick question for you. I have been following Cal Expo as I feel that it is easier to handicap due to same horses run week after week. How do the horsemen survive on those tiny purses. Most race purses are under 2K with maybe 1-2 races a program with 3K+ purses. Seems unsastnable to me and could add to coruptness. [If you notice, many of the participants own, train and drive, or train and drive. At least when they win they get a bigger piece of the pie by wearing multiple hats. Hopefully for you, Cal-Expo will stay in business past the summer. - DG]
greg sellgren More than 1 year ago
Dean, if you REALLY want to know the answer to your question, email me at underweargreg@yahoo.com ...
Steve Viuker More than 1 year ago
The flats are popular 3 days a year with the general public. Harness is popular zero days. (Maybe the Hambo) That is not changing. Not even Walter Case can help.
hialeah More than 1 year ago
Hi Derick, I have been reading your columns, for awhile now, and find most of your ideas to be pretty good. I really like your line about removing the line "between the grandstand and the backstretch". I am a bit older than the fan you are trying to reach. OK - a lot older. I remember the old Foxboro Raceway on Rt 1 that is now part of the New England Patriots new place. Back in the day, it was easy to swing off I-95 and hit the last three races at Foxboro after attending a Red Sox game - when games took 3 hrs. I always found it to be an interesting handicapping exercise. It really sharpened the "Speed Handicapping" angle as most often the horse that led at the Top O the Stretch led at the wire. Anyway, good luck with your ideas. I really do think they are good ones. And I'll take a gander at that Friday Night Card. Thanks!