04/02/2014 5:05PM

Harness Racing: Alive and kicking


I recently read an article about the heyday of bowling and how its popularity has declined over the last two decades. As someone who has participated in both harness racing and bowling over the previous 20 years, I couldn’t help but find eerie comparisons between each recreational activity.

Bowling and harness racing were both wildly popular back in the 1960’s and well into the 1970’s. People flocked to their local bowling alleys or racetracks to spend a day or evening of fun. Both activities were viewed more as social events—places you would want to attend. It was a night out and it many ways the popular things to do.

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Fast forward to 2014 and both bowling alleys and harness tracks are mostly empty. Whether young or old, people rarely speak about hanging out at their local lanes or heading to the track for a night of fun.

In its prime, bowlers like Don Carter and Earl Anthony were widely known around the nation. Similarly, harness horsemen like Herve Filion and Stanley Dancer were almost household names, getting attention not only from those that attended the races regularly, but also in local newspapers and via television coverage. Harness racing was also a fixture on local TV (at least in the New York area) 35 years ago.

Yet somewhere along the way, between the 1980’s (for harness racing) and 90’s (bowling), both sports began to decline in the public eye. What’s most interesting is that each is still alive and kicking but simply nowhere near as nationally popular as they once were. Bowling (according to Wikipedia) is a sport with over 100 million participants worldwide and over 2 million league bowlers in the United States alone. Similarly in terms of showing popularity, over $1.6 billion was wagered on harness races in the United States in 2013. Yes, billion!

For two supposed “dying” sports, each seems to be maintaining a reasonable base of customers. There are people in this country and abroad who enjoy bowling and harness racing. In many ways, the onus lies on those existing diehard fans to create the buzz and drag their friends to bowling alleys and tracks. That is one of the major points I took away from a speech by Rob Key of Converseon, the United States Trotting Association’s social media agency.

As an industry, we all need to work in unison to increase the popularity of standardbred racing. One track here, one driver there and one blogger in cyberspace hardly makes for a winning team that can drive our sport to the future. We need a focused effort from each group of the business model to say, “Racing is great, come try it!” We need to step away from our computers once in a while and head to the track.

There are some people doing a wonderful job promoting harness racing on a daily basis. Heather Vitale stands out for one. She bombards folks on twitter and other venues with harness content. She cares about racing. Another person that stands out for me is Jason Settlemoir. We may not agree on every issue, but here is a man that tries hard and works even harder. I’ve never met a track executive that was more interested and involved with the customer base.

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So, if you love to watch and/or wager on the sport of harness racing, get up and tell someone you know. Invite them to the track. Make a $2 bet for them and show them how exciting the races can be. Spread the word and I’ll do my best to do the same.


Joel Weiner More than 1 year ago
4/24/2014 race 8, probably the most egregious piece of driving I've ever seen since the Herve Filion days. Dube in front with Waylon Hanover with Lulus Boy & Brennan in the pocket. Near the 3/4 pole, Dube decides to come off the rail putting horses outside of him in the 3 and 4 path while Brennan scoots through along the rail and opens up 5 turning for home and wins easily since the entire field was compromised. Judges have a minute inquiry and decide that since Dube finished out of the money, the outcome wasn't affected. Just horrible. No explanation as to what happened since Dube interfered with half the field. When Yves Filion did it in the 70s so he could let his brother through on the rail with an entry mate, they threw him out of NY forever. Today it's business as usual. The bettors are entitled to an explanation on that one and we never got it. The Yonkers club is becoming more and more pitiful as I bet less and less. Too much "cooperation" between the "elite" drivers. For shame.This is a pitiful excuse for a sport.
robkey More than 1 year ago
Thanks for the comment derick. I think another key point is that we now have the opportunity to help repackage the consumer experience of the sport through technology -- mobile, go pro cameras, steaming, social engagement. While some of the track experiences need some work, we can make the digital experience world class and help appeal to a new generation of fans and owners -- we just need to collaborate, work together for the common good, and embrace innovation. Cheers
Marty Brink More than 1 year ago
Dave Brower has been doing a great job with Gary Seibel promoting Cal Expo Harness racing. Together, they have captured the attention of hundreds of new fans from all over the country. Dave does a great job on social networks and encourages fans to post their Pick 4 wagers on Facebook and Twitter and follow the evenings program. A bunch of us "regulars" get together and chat about our selections, the results and other current goings on. I have been following Cal Expo every weekend now for several months and look forward to the end of the week to interact with my new friends. I have had much success,not getting rich,but having a great time with people that I have something in common with. I would like to urge others to tune into Cal expo's Facebook page and join us Friday and Saturday night!
Beenthere Donethat More than 1 year ago
Changes in public laws have made going out for the day "a trek into the land of imposition". No thanks, I'll stay home where it is safe, I am free, and I am not subject to the nanny laws that have been instrumental in clearing the grandstands.
michaelcancilla More than 1 year ago
Harness racing has zero upside, a cesspool on I exciting line-ups except for Meadowlands
Kendra Casselman More than 1 year ago
one reason for bowling's decline is it hard to get today's working people to commit to bowling in a weekly league--compare that to harness racing, where it hard to get to the track every night when people's schedules are so full
Derick More than 1 year ago
The benefit that bowling has is there is likely a bowling alley close to everyone's house. Some tracks can be an hour or two away.